Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Fifty-Six

Credit: Titus Lunter


           Vivek Mohinder opened his eyes to the ceiling.  This surprised him; he’d been facing the door.  He sat up and this was strange too because at his last recollection he’d been kneeling.  Schmetterling’s incessant warning klaxon filtered in through his ears along with chaotic bellows and only then did he realize they’d been ringing too badly to hear anything.

            He rolled to his right hip and found the Gustaf shock rifle there.  Taking it up, he struggled to one knee against a dizziness expanding linearly with his head’s distance from the deck.  Smoke drifted through the door lazy and white, billowing from the charred and cored-out remnants of a canister the size of his gloved fist.  He looked from the stun grenade to the rifle in his hands, checked it and found it functioning though its power cell was nearly drained.  He remembered, then, crouching by the open door with the rifle held out at an awkward angle, its barrel pointing vaguely down the hall.  Blindly he had fired at a low power setting to give himself as many shots as possible, keeping the spread narrow to deter any Marines sneaking up too close.

            But of course one had, or several perhaps—it was hard to tell without poking his head out, without exposing his thin visor to the ceramic flechettes screaming down the hallway and splintering on the bulkheads.  Fragments of the little darts bounced off the door frame to tinkle at his feet.  Vivek had hit the firing stud again, loosing another conjured blast of force to keep his antagonists at bay.  The combat drone—a blocky grey thing the size and shape of a suitcase—floated waist-high down the corridor, unable to make comfortable headway.  Then there had come a hollow sound, a low poot, and he had seen the stun grenade skip perfectly through the portal to rest cheekily just a meter away.  It occurred to him he might snatch the thing and throw it back, but as his brain mulled over his action it detonated with a mighty flash and a sound beyond sound.

            Which brought Vivek back in line with the present.  His eyes were focusing better now, and he became suddenly aware of his exposed position.  The grenade had knocked him back from the door and he expected the Marines would be through shortly, so he took that free moment to lunge behind the desk on the room’s left side.  Flimsy though it was, the large computer console suck into its surface lent him some substantial cover.  He suspected the flechettes to punch right through the rest.  He had never been shot; how much would it hurt?  Quite a bit, he imagined.  He hoped they would get him in the leg, right in the meat of his quadriceps.  Somehow that didn’t seem so bad.  The shock rifle huddled tight against his right shoulder.

            Movement at the doorframe.  Vivek hesitated just a moment, trying to be sure of his target so as not to waste a precious shot, and in that hesitation two Marines swept around the corners.  How the other had circled to the aft side he had no clue, but all the same he cut loose with a blast from the Gustaf.  It missed for the most part, consuming the air between the two men and booming uselessly out the open door.  The wide spread was the only saving grace, catching the leftmost trooper on his hip and lurching him into an awkward stumble.  His compatriot raised his weapon; Vivek ducked.  There came a sound like the chirping of a large mechanical cricket and he felt the desk rattle with impact.  Holes appeared on the back side and he fell to the floor, trying frantically to escape the fire.

            “I surrender!” he found himself shrieking as he lobbed the Gustaf back over his shoulder to clang on the deck.  Then, because he’d only cried out to the inside of his own helmet, he cranked the speaker as loud as it went and repeated: “I surrender!”

            He stayed huddled on the floor for a long moment before he realized they’d already stopped shooting.  The suit registered no damage and a brief mental inventory verified he was unharmed.  Slowly, clumsily due to the hands held over his head, Vivek Mohinder got to his knees.  The Marines moved in, weapons still drawn and shouting futilely over each other.  The Emissary, Yana St. Julien, stepped into view.  A coat of active-camo armor slithered grey across her body as she crossed through the smoke, wrapping her ever so briefly in cloud.

            “Where are they?” she demanded, head swiveling about as she took in the scene, rage swelling in her features as she grasped the bleeding obvious.  “What the hell have you done with Mizrahi?”

            Vivek said nothing, only bowed his head and watched the stopwatch flashing in his HUD.  One hundred thirty-eight seconds and counting.  He hoped he’d bought them enough.

*          *          *         

            “I wish I’d had a chance to change,” Beatrice grumbled.

            “You’ve got an outfit for this?” Lorena asked wryly.  Shuffling her along in a combat crawl, she caught the sharp head of a screw with the underside of her elbow and suppressed a curse.

            “What’s that?”  Less than two meters ahead, Maxi Leaf turned briefly back over her shoulder.  Her helmet’s audio pickup was miserable in the ricocheting aluminum confines of the vent tube.

            “Nothing,” Lorena called back.

            “It’s not nothing, I’m having to hike up this ridiculous thing every two seconds.”

            They heard a toom sound, conducted through and muffled by the decking over their heads.  “Vivek’s shooting,” said Lorena, noting the obvious with some lingering incredulity.  She tried to picture her Senior Pilot in a combat pose, firing gallantly away, and couldn’t manage it.

            Down the tube they hurried as best they could, though the going was slower than a weak mosey.  Bootfalls rang out over the alert siren’s background, nearer than the shock rifle’s reports.  Maxi kept one eye constantly on her visor HUD, at the rudimentary map Karl Genz had transmitted before triggering the mobile scanner’s jamming field.  It seemed this duct proceeded all the way to a fan complex in Schmetterling’s nose, fore and below their destination; they would need to take a side passage to get up to the airlock.  She continued, pushing her own safetied rifle ahead of her along with Chekwa’s gauntlet while the standoff raged above.  From the sound of it, Vivek was really letting them have it.  She hoped he’d know when to quit; the Emissary would use some restraint, out of concern for Lorena, but that would evaporate quickly the moment she noticed her prize missing.  In the meantime, the two women made their deliberate way toward the bow.

            It had been a simple trick, and just audacious enough to work.  Lorena had climbed easily in the vent, and Maxi’s tiny frame could squeeze through even swaddled in her purple pressure suit.  The hardware inside became a crucial factor in their escape—leaving aside the eminently helpful HUD map, Genz needed its onboard processors to maintain his jamming field.  So they moved in their quiet little bubble, like Konoko in her Chen-Hau field, hoping Yana St. Julien and her minions were too occupied with Vivek to question why an eight-meter jamming field might be moving independent of him.  Whether it worked or not, they’d only learn on the far side.

            Maxi turned right at the junction, as Karl’s map suggested she should, and forced her way through a smaller passage as the metal seams shrieked against her suit.  The passage ended just a few meters later, forcing a left turn into a cozy little access alcove.  Oriented vertically, it was marked by indented rungs walking their way for three meters up one wall to terminate at a vent like the one Lorena and Maxi had entered.  There was floor space for only one person to stand.

            She wanted to tell the other woman to wait, but decided not to risk the noise.  Instead she leaned the rifle against the wall, climbed up the rungs and peered through the grating.  A corridor, she could see—one near the airlock if the map was any indication, though she couldn’t be sure with the angle.  Maxi hated the idea of crawling out vulnerable into god-knew-what, but they didn’t have time to backtrack.  She was reaching up and removing the catches on the maintenance grating when the explosion went off: a tremendous bang sending a vibration through the whole ship’s hull.

            “What’s going on?” Lorena demanded from her feet.

            “Shhhh,” Maxi hissed, ducking down as a set of armored boots tromped with some urgency by the grate.  When there’d been quite a moment she stood up again and snapped off the last latches.  Her stomach churned, her nerves frayed and mind racing to think of what might have happened to Vivek, but wordlessly she set aside the grating, took the rifle proffered by Lorena and slid it out into the hall.

            She waited a moment; this was a test.  Any onlooking Marines might wait for her to climb out completely before pouncing, but the gun challenged them to act quickly for their own safety.  Nothing happened and so it was with haste that Maxi gripped pulled herself up and through the vent grating.

            From her stomach she rolled to take up the rifle again and took cover against the far wall, scanning in all directions.  She stood, she realized at last, in a bend of corridor just starboard of the airlock.  It lay just around the corner, past the head of the steps they’d descended on their way in.  Just a few meters away, any mad dash would still require they expose themselves.  Maxi crossed back to the vent, in which Lorena’s face had appeared.  She turned on her speakers at a low volume.

            “The instant you’re out of there,” she said huskily, “we’re running right around that corner, right again at the next corner and straight through the airlock.  Follow me, don’t stop unless I stop.  You’ve got the glove, right?”  Lorena nodded.  “Okay, you’ll use it to open the airlock.  I need both hands to shoot.”

            “Shouldn’t be shooting anything,” Lorena grumbled in the fashion of someone expecting to be ignored.  She pushed herself half-out the vent and accepted Maxi’s hand for the rest of the way.

            “We go, now,” the smaller woman said, and she was off.  At a fast low scuttle, she rounded the first corner.  To the left the stairs ran the meter or so down to the lower deck, and the previously austere central corridor now buzzed with activity.  Five Marines stood in a loose cluster speaking with another handful of uniformed crew, before a drifting backdrop of white smoke.  Good, she thought.  At least they used a stunner.  Vivek might still be relatively unharmed.  Abruptly the warning klaxon cut off.  The skirmish, such as it had been, appeared to be over.

            One of the armored men looked up; the pretty young woman near him turned her head to follow his gaze.  They saw her.  Aww, hell.  She broke into a scramble, boots nearly sliding out on the deck as she made the frantic right turn toward the airlock.  Lorena followed just steps behind.  Shouts came from below as the inner door came into Maxi’s view.  Almost home.

            Her heart dropped to see it guarded.  The same Marine they’d met before, the one whom along with the unfortunate Sergeant Chekwa had brought them aboard, stood leaning against the nearest wall with his arms crossed and a look of resentful boredom across his face.  That changed, as one might expect when he saw Maxi Leaf hurtling around the corner.  His eyes widened, his mouth did the same and his right hand snapped lightning-quick to the holster at his left hip as Maxi brought up the Gustaf’s broad, snub-nosed barrel.

            But his holster was empty and his fingers grasped only rigid leather.  Unarmed aboard the Ouro habitat, he’d held his position guarding the airlock through all the alarm and commotion.  He’d followed procedure to the letter, and here he stood at the mercy of an erstwhile scav.

            “Back!” she ordered and jabbed the weapon forward like a spear while the helpless man squirmed, already against the bulkward and unsure where else to go.

            “Lorena?” Maxi called, unwilling to take her eyes off the man.  

            Footsteps rang behind her as the other woman dashed in.  “They’re coming,” was all she said as she brandished the glove and pressed it to the door’s control panel.  And then, nothing.

            Nothing.  Not a beep, not a chirp, not even denial’s angry buzz.  The panel sat infuriatingly blank, as though she didn’t exist.  “It’s not working!” she cried.

            “What?”  Maxi took two steps to get a look while keeping her weapon up.  Lorena frantically waved Chekwa’s glove to no response.  Fuck.  Of course it didn’t work.  Something would go wrong at this tantalizingly late juncture.  But what to do?  She thought of calling Karl, remembered his transmissions were jammed, and then had epiphany strike like a ton of bricks.  Of course the glove doesn’t work.  The scanner’s actively jamming!  What’s more, the Sergeant had surely stripped off his electrodes by now.  They’d need to engineer a new solution.

            Yet only moments remained.  The Marines were coming, audible now as they took position on the stairs.  Knowing she had a weapon and possible hostage would render them cautious, but her reward would only be measured in seconds.  She needed something good to happen in a hurry.  If the inner door demanded a live I.D. chip, a live chip it would have.

            Lowering the rifle in one hand she suddenly shot out the other, grabbing the man’s right elbow presently raised in surrender.  She yanked and he stumbled forward, unsure what she intended and afraid to resist.  Lorena understood and joined in.  Dropping one glove she swiftly seized another, joining with Maxi’s augmented strength to guide the Marine’s hand to the reader.

            Beep!

            The machine sounded as pleased as they felt.  The inner door hissed open and the Marine, seeing to what he’d just unwittingly been party, wrenched his arm free.  His violent motion sent Maxi stumbling back, away from the airlock.  “Go!” she screamed, fumbling with the rifle stock.

            “Come on!” Lorena screamed back.  She stood in the doorway with one hand confidently braced against its pressure sensor.  “Not leaving you!”

            Maxi’s fingertips found their purchase, prised and pulled.  The Marine stood stupefied a moment before opening his throat to call “HELP!”

            In response Maxi shoved hard, launching the Gustaf airborne from her chest at the Marine.  “Help yourself!” she quipped.  Her opponent threw up his hands against the fast-moving object; it bounced hard but harmlessly off his plated forearms as Maxi bent into a run.

            In a moment she was through the door.  Just a moment—it seemed so easy in retrospect, those last few meters through the inner door and down the narrow hallway.  She pumped her legs so hard she lost her footing, her boots confused as to what precisely their owner wanted, and she would have fallen had there been any gravity to fall.  Instead she tumbled helpless for a full rotation though at last her boots’ electromagnets found purchase on the Ouro floor of tiles that were not quite tiles.

            “Civilian Maxine Leaf,” she heard Abei say, and turned to see Lorena hovering beside him.  Stripped of her own pressure suit and wearing only thermal socks on her feet, she’d drifted right off the floor to be arrested mid-air by the Ouro interpreter.  “Much grateful are the Kin, their minds and my own self indeed, at efforts thus far undertaken.  True a friend to the Kin you be, and to Doctor the Mizrahi in so keeping.”

            “Stop!” came a shout from behind him.  Abei turned, beatific and still as if mounted on a swivel, to face the swarm of Marines piling through the airlock.  All carried slim, vicious-looking flechette carbines; most seemed disoriented and unnerved by the room, its appearance as innocuous yet utterly alien.

            “Honored,” Abei began with a solemn tone, “Welcome as are representation of the Kin Terran, agreements as existing stipulate offensive capability in absence.  Withdrawal commencing inside sixty seconds Terran standard, else active countermeasures unfolding.  Breach places all within violation, Interstellar Sovereignty Treaty, as signed and amended.”

            The men looked confused—disarmed if only in the most figurative of senses—but only until the voice of Yana St. Julien rang out to guide them: “Stand down.”

            They complied, instantly lowering their muzzles and starting a slow backpedal toward the door.  The Emissary brushed by them and stomped her way up in her clingy, rippling body armor to jab furiously at Abei’s chest.  “I demand the immediate return of both these women to my custody!”

            “Treaty conditions satisfying in full, believe you me?  In cases being, decisions independently forged, the Kin lie without obligation.”

            “Without obligation!” Lorena echoed, donning her very smuggest look.  When else was she likely to get the chance?

            “She was in Contact custody, under medical hold, when this other woman took her at gunpoint!”

            “I’m here quite consensually, thank you very much.”

            “Issues judicial may by any means adjudicate,” Abei raised his arms in a scarecrowy shrug.  “Relevant increasingly, agreements made with parties other and autonomous—Civilian the Leaf and Pilot the Mohinder.  An ethical determination, this removal so requested.”

            Yana seethed.  “You won’t get away with this.  Conspiring to board and attack a Federal vessel—“

            “With respect, he did nothing of the kind, ma’am,” Maxi chipped in.  She chafed at the honorific but used it all the same, knowing the proverbial music she’d yet to face.  “The medical transfer, the boarding, the guns…it was all me and Vivek.  We asked them to take Lorena, that’s all.”

            “Speaking of which,” Lorena announced, “Mister Abei, I believe I’m ready to go.  If you’ll have me.”

            “Kindly honored,” he smiled warmly, or at least tepidly, “Much earnestly to attempt, the manipulation you ask.  For which none can say more deserved.”

            He slid backward then, pulling Lorena with him using gravity’s easy tether.  She fell, slow and controlled, through a moving divot in local space-time until she and Abei reached the open door to the transit tube.  Yana watched, one arm across her midriff supporting the other reaching stalklike to obscure her mouth.  “You’re making a mistake,” she said at last.

            Lorena looked to Beatrice, standing worn and gaunt beside her with a resigned expression.  Guilt lanced through her and with effort she pushed it back down.  In the end she said nothing to the Emissary—only gave a thin-lipped smile and leaned back into the gravity well.  She ducked her head so as not to clip it on the door frame, but looked up just in time to catch Maxi Leaf’s eye one last time.

            Maxi looked back.  Lorena nodded, once and shallow, and if the other woman responded she didn’t see it before the door slid shut.  She found herself back in the transit pod, nearly alone with Abei.

            “Oh, wow,” her eyes widened.  “How’d this happen?”  Imprisoned in his cylindrical fragment of a cage, Coleridge beat his wings at a dolorous march.

            “Technician the Obo and Pilot the Duggins, of whom no doubt acquainting, furnish for purposes scientific this organism.  Advancing as it came the Kin objectives in manner and enterprise most harmonious.”

            She wasn’t quite sure what this meant, but she knew how Obo felt about the little fellow.  It was only now, in this moment, that the last quarter-hour’s enormity struck her: the shouting, the shooting, the flight.  The planning that must necessarily have been behind it, the risks taken and the inevitable consequences to follow.  She thought of Vivek, left behind in the cell.  Maxi, left behind by the airlock.  Obo and Ashley and Genz besides, all now in dire jeopardy on her account.  On her account.  For the chance—just the barest chance—at freeing her from the Emissary.  Delivering her to Abei, to the Ouro who’d work to grant her a fresh start.  All of them had helped her, some at great cost and none for any great reward.  They didn’t have to, and they did.  She looked to Beatrice and for the first time in her beautiful friend she saw the grace.  She saw it now in all of them and she loathed herself for never having seen it before. 

            “Honored, forgiving,” Abei asked her, “yet for what motive in this triumphing instance ought one weep?”

NEXT TUESDAY: THE DEED IS DONE. DELIVERED BY PROVIDENCE TO THE OURO, LORENA MUST CONFRONT THE FINAL TASK LOOMING AT HER OWN MENTAL HORIZONS. ONLY FOUR CHAPTERS REMAIN IN "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES!"

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Fifty-Five

Credit: rawwad


            “You people are outside your damn minds,” Terran Federal Marine Master Sergeant Nnamar Chekwa blinked in disbelief as Vivek slipped the helmet off his head.  The HUD functions had shut off automatically when the catches at the back of his neck released; in his shock seeing Maxi’s rifle, he hadn’t pulled off the intricate sequence of orbital muscle cues needed to sound an alarm.

            “Toss it over here,” she told Vivek, who did so into the now-denser pile of trash.

            “Thought we might need it later,” he said.

            “Won’t be much of a later.  Sergeant Chekwa, sorry for the goonery, but we’re here for Doctor Mizrahi.  Strip his right glove off; we’ll need the I.D. chip.”

            “This won’t work.  You won’t get out of here.”

            She suppressed the urge to smash the rifle stock across his broad jaw, into the nose that had clearly been broken before.  “Shush, you.  Back up into the corner.  Back.  Don’t suppose there’s anything to tie him up with, huh?  Ehh, waste of time anyway.”

            “You should stay here,” Vivek told her on the private channel, turning the disembodied gauntlet before his face.  The LEDs on its manual control panel had gone out.  “I’ll go get Lorena.  Compartment seven, right?  It’ll be easier to do it solo and they won’t challenge me as aggressively.”
            “Just gonna mosey out there with the other gun?”

            “I’m not taking the gun.  Genz, are you still tracking those biosigns?”

            “Yes, sir.  One more added on the other side of the nearby wall, in compartment ten.”

            “How many in the corridor now?”

            There was a pause.  “None properly in the corridor, but the second Marine who met you is still at the airlock and he may have clear line of sight all the way down.”

            “Shit.”

            “There is another problem.  Assuming the door is locked, the glove you have taken will not open it.”

            “Chip’s in the glove, right?”

            “Yes, but the glove itself is keying off its wearer’s proximity.  It will not respond positively to query otherwise.”

            “Shit.”  It was Maxi’s turn to curse.

            Vivek’s mind raced.  “What about the mobile scanner?  We’ve got the Sergeant right here, and there’ll definitely be some R.T.S.’s.  It’s the Med Bay, after all.”

            “Using your Marina’s onboard processors…yes, I suppose it would be possible.”

            “Then get working on the back end.”  Throwing open drawers and cabinets, Vivek sought out the distinctive green-packaged Remote Topical Sensors distributed throughout the Federal services.  He found them, picked out three and walked back to Chekwa.  He applied them to the man’s exposed right wrist, and to each temple of his shorn head before pulling out his handy and claiming their outputs with a few taps at the contextual interface.

            “Take the scanner off my hip,” Maxi said with a demonstrative waggle, having taken a step closer while Vivek did his work.  At this range and with this power, a discharge from the rifle would crater his chest armor and throw him into the wall.  With the heavy soundproofed bulkheads, she wasn’t sure anyone aboard Schmetterling would notice.  Vivek took up the scanner and the glove in his hands and approached the doorway, where the access panel flashed green.  He punched a button to turn it red.

            “Okay, Genz.  Proof of concept,” he called back to Konoko.  “If you can get us out of this room, we’ll be good.”

            “I need a minute.  The gauntlet’s processor is not accustomed to independent access.”

            “You don’t have a minute.  How long ‘till your buddy checks on us?” he switched to external speakers to address the captive Marine.

            “Any second now,” Chekwa sneered.  Vivek realized he’d been stupid to expect a helpful response.  He hoped the man was lying.

            “Very well, Mister Mohinder.  Try it now.”  Hearing this, Vivek extended the glove’s limp palm to the door scanner.

            It chirped.  The light went green.  The door hissed open, which he should have expected but instead found himself propelled backward in terror.  By a stroke of luck that immediate segment of the corridor was empty.  “Jesus.  Genz, is anyone in the hall?”

            “Just the single Marine in plausible sight, sir.  The same as before.”

            “Can you do anything to distract him?”

            “Since he is by the door, I will send a docking request by the normal channels.”

            “That might lock up the whole system,” Maxi worried.  “And then how do we get out?”

            “It is only a tertiary system, Miss Leaf.  Likely to be read as an error.”

            “It’s our best shot.  Be ready to do it, Genz,” Vivek told him.

            “Take the other gun, Vivek.”

            “No, I said—“

            “Fuck that.  No way to know if the distraction’s working or even if he’ll look in the first place.  If he’s not, no worries.  If he is, you’ll want the gun.”

            He sighed.  “Two down on the right?”

            “All we got.”

            “Fine.  Genz, on three.  Maxi, be safe.”

            “Just hurry.”

            “Genz—one,” he checked the safety, upped the weapon’s power and kept a wide spread.  “Two,” he pressed himself against the wall at the rear edge of the door so he could spring out without having to turn.

            “Three!  Go!”  Vivek crouched, planted his back foot and gave the Scanner Tech a second to work.  A moment later—a totally arbitrary expanse of time—all his weight was slamming into the floor beneath the power of his Marina’s combined motors.  The rifle he held at his right hip just fore of Karl’s scanner, bobbing it as he ran at what he hoped was a stealthy stoop, bringing his head up to look down Schmetterling’s corridor.  He could see the top half of the inner airlock door above the steps they’d taken down, but didn’t see the Marine they’d left there.  Crouching, he needed only a few meters before the angle obscured him entirely from the airlock, and he crossed that distance with soft footfalls.  In the artificial gravity, his boots saw no need to clamp themselves down.

            At the door marked 07, he dropped to a knee and raised Chekwa’s glove like an offering to a primal god.  He looked to and fro, pulse pounding, fully expecting to be caught at any moment.  He’d have to drop the gauntlet to use his weapon and so in that moment it was useless.  It dawned on him he had to piss.

            “Fertig!” Karl announced in his ear.  The door opened so suddenly he actually fell through, realizing only then that he’d been leaning against it.  Skittering forward quickly on hands and knees, he felt the deck’s vibration as the portal snapped shut behind him.

            He was in a small room; a half-room really, split down the middle by a screen stretching from floor to ceiling.  Vivek had seen the like before.  Made from a rectangular panels of substance he couldn’t name with properties somewhere between glass and plastic, it was quite strong and could be made transparent, opaque or anything in the wide spectrum between.  Currently they were all tuned to the same setting, allowing perhaps 80% of the light through and showing a blurred human form behind.

            “Lorena?” he called through his speakers.  He rapped his knuckles on the screen and repeated it.

            “Vivek?  They let you in?”

            “We’re here to rescue you.”

            “What?  What do you mean?  And who’s ‘we?’”

            “We tricked them.  Not much time, gotta go.  How’d they get you in there?”

            “The panels shift and slide on a track.  Controls are on that side,” she pointed.

            “Genz?  Can we get through them?”

            “You may try the glove again, but I am skeptical.  It is likely the Emissary—“

            Vivek was already trying it.  “Nah, didn’t work.”

            “—keyed it to a higher security code.  I am at a loss, Mister Mohinder.  If I touch the system directly, an alarm will almost certainly sound.”

            “Probably wouldn’t work anyway.”

            “You didn’t have a plan?” Lorena called from behind the screen.

            “Not for this exact part,” Vivek confessed, looking around the room for an answer.  A console on the wall behind him displayed Lorena’s biosignals and it seemed her cell contained some basic furniture.

            “How much longer?” Maxi suddenly demanded from the other room.  “This guy’s helmet just started squawking.  They’re asking something and I’ve got a feeling it’s for our man.”

            “Lorena’s behind a locked screen and the glove’s not working.”

            “Just a screen?  Or brig door?”

            “It’s a screen.  The kind they use in conference rooms, corporate offices…”

            “If it’s not a brig door, bust it down.”

            “With what?”

            “You’ve got a fucking gun!”

            “Oh.  Right.”  He looked down, considered his options, decided the time for discretion was past.  Eighty percent power, narrow spread.  Setting the glove on the floor, he leveled his rifle at the rightmost panel.  “Lorena, get back!”

            TOOM.  He felt the servos clench to absorb the bruising recoil.  The panel ahead went suddenly black and where it had been marble smooth it now bore a fist-sized hole surrounded by rippled concentric fractures.  Hairline cracks leapt with alarming speed from the blast point to the far corners.

            “Jesus.  Are you crazy?” she was yelling from somewhere he couldn’t see.  He heard the wailing of an alarm and similarly struggled to place it.

            “One more!” he yelled back.  Keeping the Gustaf’s power setting high, he set it to medium spread, re-shouldered it and hit the firing stud.  TOOM—another leap back.  The screen burst with a great crunching sound, chunks of it flying back to clatter off the cell wall and crash to the deck.  He’d blown out the whole middle section, though broken roots remained at the ceiling and floor.

            Lorena waited a second; when she was confident he wouldn’t fire again she craned out her head.  They looked at each other, the man in his blue pressure suit and the woman in her jacket, across the breach between them.  Fine particulate matter hung in the air, kicked up and circulated by otherwise imperceptible currents from the vents.  The ringing faded from her ears only to be replaced by the alarm.

            “You shouldn’t have come,” she told him.

            He approached and offered a hand.  “Well, I’m here.  Maxi’s here too, and we need to go.”

            “Why would she—“ but then she gave up on the question, grunting out her breath instead as Vivek’s augmented grip helped her over the barrier and through the hole.  “What now?” she asked, but Vivek seemed not to be listening.

            In his helmet, Karl was displaying what for him was a great deal of concern.  “Mister Mohinder, your weapon discharge has tripped Schmetterling’s internal alarms.  They may not yet realize what precisely has happened but they will know where it has happened.”

            “I’m headed to you now,” Maxi broke in.  “Open the door for me.  Five seconds.”

            Vivek snatched up the glove from the floor and lunged for the door panel.  The door jumped open just in time for Maxi to dash through, her weapon across her chest.  “Shit,” she declared.  “There’s at least three guys at the top of the hall.  Blocking our exit.  In unis; no armor yet, at least not that I saw.  They probably saw me.”

            “Armed?” Vivek asked.

            “Didn’t stick around to check.”  She turned her head slightly to see Lorena, arms, akimbo, staring at her with a perplexed look.  Maxi had to concede the situation was odd.  “We’ve got what we came for.  I smashed that guy’s helmet comm and locked the door behind me, but it’s time to run.”
            “Run where, if they’re blocking the way?”

            “Oh, I bet we can make ‘em scurry.  Wind your Gustaf to narrow, open the door again and follow my lead.”

            “We can’t get into a firefight with them.”

            “Pop off a few shots; even on narrow they won’t go that far.  Just need to scare them.”

            “No.”

            “God dammit, Vivek, we can’t be pussyfooting around!”

            “Genz, are there any other ways out of this room?  Answer fast.”

            “Ehhh…” the German whined, paging through his options.  “The ventilation system runs beneath the central corridor.  You might access it from here, and I could use the mobile scanner to conceal the Doctor from internal sensors, but I cannot imagine you will fit.”

            He highlighted the grating on Vivek’s visor.  Schmetterling’s highly modular design had left her with easily accessible interior spaces, but even so the grating was barely two feet wide.  He’d never make it.  “Not in the suit, no,” he grimaced.  No time to take it off.

            “Mister Mohinder!” Karl called.  “Armed units are approaching your position.  At least two Marines with an anti-personnel drone.  And a moving power source I believe to be Miss St. Julien.”

            “Might be the end of the line,” Vivek told Maxi, who was still fixated on the grating.

            “Might be,” she concurred.  “But there’s one play left on the board.”

*          *          *          

            Slowly, agonizingly, clumsily and with many back-and-forth recriminations, Ashley Duggins and Zachariah Obo prepared Coleridge for transport.  Having already suffered capture at human hands, the otherwise oblivious photino bird larvae seemed bent on thwarting them.  Each attempt to slide a field seal between the cage’s segments induced a flurry of flapping that sent the creature careening through the loop at high speed, triggering auto-safes in the machine Obo was trying to hold perfectly still.  Whether they were reactions to the  or ornery self-expression, Cole’s antics left Obo sweaty and cursing.

            Finally Ashley stepped in, deploying a portable UV light easily found in the Bay to attract the bird toward one side of the loop.  Obo slid one field in place and then another adjacent.  Cole circled the cage, encountered the sudden barrier and stopped before pulling an awkward U-turn.  Together Ashley and Obo took the two field projectors and worked the bulky things slowly around the loop.  They closed off progressively more and more space, one or the other pausing whenever Cole got close so as not to accidentally bump him.  When they’d cordoned an appropriate straightaway of tubing, they released the seals at crucial points around the loop. 

            A large segment drifted off slowly, still suspended by the anti-gravity field for a few moments until momentum carried it past the edge and it rattled loudly to the floor.  Obo had no more use for it.  They took a pair of elastic vacuum seals and slipped them over the ends of the remaining segment before stepping back to inspect them.  Cole wobbled nervously in the limited space; he endeavored to keep himself lined up with the anti-gravity projector while the two humans lifted up what remained of his cage.

            The act became unnecessary once in the airlock, once transferred to the constant zero-G of the Ouro habitat.  Obo turned off the human device and unclamped it from the cage, tucking it in his back pocket.  “Bought it myself,” he explained with a wistful smile.  “Though I doubt it’ll ever get used again.”

            “It’ll remind you of Cole,” suggested Ashley.  “Always good to have a memento.  Better than pics or vids, I always thought.”

            “Yeah,” he sighed.

            “Sorry you have to give him up.”

            “Could be worse.”

            “Hard to think of a better reason.”

            “Yeah.”

            They came through Konoko’s airlock and into the Ouro reception chamber lugging the stunted cage between them, mouthing frantic apologies each time the slim little animal bumped a phosphorescent wing on the wall.  “Pleased be, you to see!” Abei’s merry voice rang out.

            “Hi, Abei,” answered Ashley, still laser-focused on the task.

            “Kindly release to permit,” the android said with a lilt in his tone suggesting a request.  Ashley and Obo let the cage go, seeing it turn free a moment before the motion was suddenly arrested.  It stood in the air still as Abei himself.

            “Beautiful!” he exclaimed.  “Serene in characteristics surpassing.”

            “Yes.  Well, we’re glad you like him.  We’re fond of him ourselves,” Ashley said with a tight-lipped smile.  She genuinely meant the pleasantry; the knowledge she’d never see Coleridge again was a cold and sudden knife.

            “Shit.  Hold a minute,” Obo pulled out his handy as Abei donned a curious expression.  In a moment the device beeped.  The Systems tech turned it sideways and stepped closer for a better angle.

            “Marietta, I did it!” he grinned though the recording wouldn’t pick it up.  “Photino bird.  The real deal.  Was gonna save him for a surprise—you would’ve screamed your head off, babe—but he’s found another home.  This is Coleridge.  Nora, ‘Pita, sorry I couldn’t bring him home.  Oh, and the man in the air’s Abei.  Tell you later.  I said lataaah, girls!” he ended in a kind of sing-song before a last decisive tap on the handy screen.

            “Can you believe that?” he asked Ashley, shaking his head.  “Almost let him go without the proof.”

            Konoko’s got her vid logs.”

            “Trust me; Contact’s impounding every drive they can.  Won’t see the light of day again, trust me.”

            “I believe it.  Is that all you need, Abei?  We had him in a sealed vacuum environment with an AG field.  I’m sure you…people…can figure out something to make him happy.”

            “Acknowledge and appreciating.  Fully equipped in capability, in hardware on-hand for the creature’s sustenance accommodated.”

            “That’s good to hear,” she nodded, willing the lump back down her gullet.  She might have cried if not for Abei, whose demeanor—cool and warm at once, a fish crossed with a dog—lent the room an odd emotional gravity.

            “You haven’t seen Lorena yet, have you?” Obo wanted to know.

            “No.  Pilot the Mohinder and civilian the Leaf have with cargo to the Terran Naval Vessel Schmetterling absconded.  Re-acquisition yet, sadly, to establish.”

            “All right.  You take good care of her when she does show.”

            “Honored, most assuring.”

            “Then we’d best get back to our ship.  Thank you again, Abei.  And to the minds you speak for,” he inclined his head.  With a look at Ashley he turned to go.

            “Sorry,” she told him again.

            “You got nothing to be sorry about, sweet girl.”

            “It just makes me sad to think about.  And then I think how you must feel and I get even sadder.”

            They stood beneath Konoko’s open airlock, cargo and duty discharged.  Obo lifted Ashley up by her ankles to grasp the ladder rungs.  “What makes you think I’m torn up?”

            “I know it’s something you always wanted.”

            “It was.”

            She was puzzled.  “So?  Don’t people feel angry when that happens?  I mean, I’m probably gonna need holes drilled in my head to keep piloting, and even that gets me so mad—“ she choked up, swallowed and kept climbing.  Obo followed close behind and she hoped he hadn’t noticed.

            “It’s not the same,” he said gently, after a pause.  “You’re young.  Young people give their lives to what they want.  When you’re old…well, the time’s spent.  You’ve got what you got, whether it’s what you said you wanted or just what you learned to live with.  I guess you come to know you’ll never see and do everything.  The horizon’s limited.  And with time that doesn’t scare quite the same way.”

            She passed into Konoko’s gravity field, sagged with new weight, hauled herself the rest of the way and waited for him.  “Know what I think it is?  My problem with Cole?”

            “What?” he panted atop the ladder, sweat beaded on his brow from the climb.

            “Giving him away like that…it just hit me it’s all going to end.  This mission, this tour.  Your career!  I mean, there’s no way I ever see you again.  I just got here and it’s already over.”  Now she was crying.

            “Honey,” he wrapped his big arm around her, then another.   She could smell the acrid silicate grease covalently bonded to his jacket fibers.  “Everything ends.  It’s whether you did good; if you stayed true.  No tears then.  Can’t be tears, even if you want ‘em.  You’ll be fine.  So fine you won’t even miss me this time next year.”

            “’snot true,” Ashley sniveled into his chest, trying to pull herself together.

            But if anyone ever excelled at emotional disruption, his name was Karl Genz.  “Mister Obo!  Miss Duggins!  Come upstairs immediately,” he cried shrilly through the intercom speakers.  “There has been an explosion aboard Schmetterling!”

NEXT TUESDAY: BACKED INTO A CORNER, VIVEK TAKES THE CONTACT FORCES HEAD-ON AS MAXI TRIES TO SMUGGLE LORENA OUT. THE ROLLING ANTI-GRAVITY TREAD TRULY MEETS THE ROAD AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CRESCENDOS INTO ITS CLIMAX!