Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Forty-Eight



            “Need a read on him.”

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

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

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

            “Which they very well might,” Vivek sighed.

            “As you say.”

            “What about Genz’s hand unit?”

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

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

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

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

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

            “No vessels, no organs?”

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

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

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

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

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

            “Guess not.”

            “So we watch and wait.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Precision!” Abei clapped his hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *          

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Color me surprised too,” smirked Beatrice.

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

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

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

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

            “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

            “I’ll stay, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Yes,” Maxi avoided any honorific.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “What’s that, exactly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “So you’ll just vanish?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Back to what?”

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

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

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

*          *          *          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Meaning what?” the Systems Tech frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

            “Yes, ma’am.”

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

            “Yes, ma’am!”

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Forty-Seven

Credit: antifan_real


           “Let’s start with the basics: what do we have, and what do we want?”

            Lorena Mizrahi leaned forward in her chair and stared at the Comm console like it could answer such a question.  Vivek let her think, hoping the Ouro would send some prompt to simplify their choices, but none came; comms had been quiet ever since Lorena called for the alien handshake.  Whether the Ouro were confused or simply waiting, it seemed Konoko would have to make the first move.

            “Think there’s some cultural reason they’re quiet?” Vivek mused aloud.  “Maybe it’s protocol for guests to announce themselves.”

            “They seemed happy enough to chat earlier.”

            “Yeah, well.  Maybe docking changes things.”

            “It shouldn’t,” said Beatrice, who’d insisted on being present.  “Frankly I expected them to be more curious, but it doesn’t take much to spook the Kin.”

            Lorena wanted to reply but couldn’t in front of her Executive Officer.  Bea had, in her fashion, chosen a particularly devious way to avoid an argument.  Lorena focused on Vivek’s opening question.  “What we have is a pile of data, Ouro in origin.  Contents unknown, presumably valuable.”

            “What about the wreck’s location?  If a ship went missing, that’s something our government would want to know.  For salvage and recovery if nothing else.”

            “Good point.  So we’ve got that too.  Any other assets of note?  What might interest the Ouro?” She gave a glance to Beatrice, inviting her to jump in.  If she stayed she might as well be useful.

            Vivek shrugged.  “Can’t think of anything.  Certainly no tech—they’re probably laughing at Konoko right now, the way I struggled with the docking…thing.”

            “You did well.  I think Ashley would’ve passed out.”

            “Okay, so that’s what we’ve got.  Though ostensibly we’re doing them a favor just bringing the data here.”

            “Everything’s ostensible ‘til it’s done.  Which brings us to what we want.  First, I’d like that data out of my computer.  Second, we need safe harbor for a few days while Obo rests the C-H drive and works her over.  We might even need repairs, if it comes to that.”

            “Think they could help with that?  I know their drives aren’t the same as ours.  Different substrate, right?”

            “I don’t know, but given the tech gap it’s a decent bet.”

            Vivek shrugged in a kind of half-agreement.  “Anything else on our ‘ask’ list?  We should be able to ask for something zazzy.”

            “’Zazzy?’” she flashed a grin.

            “Containing nontrivial amounts of zazz.”

            “Well, there’s one more thing.  I’d like to ask them about the device we found in the first ship—Subject Zero Zero, I guess, to be specific.  The one that knocked me out.”

            “What about it?”

            “Any lingering effects—physiologically, neurologically.  I had the most obvious reaction in the moment, but Karl and Ashley were also exposed.  To what, exactly, is what I need to know.  Ship’s doctor, after all.”

            “You’re right,” he nodded vigorously.  “Absolutely right.  Though when I think about it, I wonder how they’d even know themselves.  They almost certainly never tested the thing on humans.  But you’re right, it won’t hurt to ask the question.  They’re supposed to be curious, right?”

            “How curious, exactly, when the questions get uncomfortable?” Beatrice wondered aloud.

            “We’ll start with the most basic terms,” said Lorena, sifting through the console’s menus, the labyrinthine connections between ideas expressible as color and texture.  The end result being a kind of addled, flapping semaphore: We possess records known to the Kin.  Those in the distance who are dead are met.

            “Are?” Vivek frowned.

            “I don’t know; I can’t see how to shift tenses.  It doesn’t even seem like an option.”  We bear records to you with hope of aid, she entered.  We swim as hunters, not speakers.  We carry no diplomats.

            “They did ask about that earlier and seemed happy when we said no.  Good thought reminding them,” Vivek approved.

            “Do you see anything obviously stupid in that transmission?”

            “As opposed to the standard baseline of stupid we maintain around here?  No, ma’am.”

            “Always with the jokes.  How you can keep that up right now is beyond me,” she slowly shook her head, reviewing everything onscreen.  With a dramatically extended index finger she pressed SEND.  “Though I have to say, I do admire it.”

            “Admire all you like, Lor.  Feels like it’s the only thing keeping puke off my shoes.”

*          *          *          

            Genz and Obo hauled the massive storage case over the deck with the sound of a cat dying an awful mechanical death.  Ashley Duggins stood by gritting her teeth until they’d finished.  Electronic seals chirped open at a touch, exposing the Marina suits folded inside and against each other like circus contortionists leotarded in Explorer Corps blue.  One by one they pried them out, creakily unfolded their half-rigid material, sorted out which fitted whom.

            “I’d love another spin in that Gryphon,” Ashley lamented.  “But at least we all got to try ‘em out.”

            Karl pursed his lips.  “Mister Mohinder did not.  He stayed on board for both deployments.”

            “Really?  Well, his life is a tragedy.”

            “He’s doing all right for himself,” deadpanned Zach Obo.

            Ashley gave a quizzical look.  “Huh?”

            “What?”

            “What’s that mean?  ‘Doing all right.’”

            “Doesn’t mean anything,” he directed his eyes back down to the collar seals he was checking.

            “You don’t talk about Vivek in general, and never like that.  You meant something by that.”

            “Gentleman finds way to enjoy himself, is all I meant.”

            She rolled her eyes.  “All you meant.  Come on, you already opened your mouth.”

            “There’s a kind of…partnered enjoyment.”  Obo shot her a significant look.  He’d speak no more of it.

            It took her a moment.  “You mean sex?”  Another moment.  “Oh shit, you do!  But he’s—it can’t be Lorena.  She’d never.”

            “The possibilities are limited,” said Karl, grateful Ashley had figured it out and clued him in.  He’d been mystified.

            “Maxi?  He likes girls and he’s certainly not prodding me.  It’s got to be Maxi.”  She looked to Obo, silently pleading for confirmation but getting none.

            Karl frowned.  “That would be highly unprofessional and frankly I cannot imagine Mister Mohinder engaging in such behavior.  I have always found him to be very conscientious in his personal habits.”

            “It’s hard to swallow,” Ashley agreed.  “Seems unlike him.  He’s not exactly smooth.  And he’d have to be, bagging someone we practically arrested…whenever it was.  I honestly can’t remember how long she’s been aboard.  Anyway, I don’t buy it.  I’m sure you’ve got some kind of evidence, and I’m sure you’re not going to tell me what it is.”

            “Little things,” Obo smiled.  “The sorts of things you only see once you’re old and your eyes go bad.”

            She laughed.  “Sorry, you’ll have to do better than that if you want me to believe my Senior’s banging a criminal.”  They fell silent then for some minutes, running through the suits’ maintenance checklists until a spit of static from the intercom relieved them.

            “Attention all hands,” Lorena began.  “After a brief exchange with what we understand to be the Ouro docking authority, our presence aboard their station is requested.  Pilot Duggins and Tech Genz will don pressure suits and accompany me through the Equipment Bay airlock, to greet our hosts and give them our best shot at amateur diplomacy.  Senior Pilot Mohinder will command Konoko in my absence while Tech Obo continues his work on the Chen-Hau core.  Now, assuming those instructions came through loud and clear, would anyone like to voice a considered objection?”

            Obo took the handset from its loop, looking back and forth between his younger colleagues.  When he’d satisfied himself no cavils were coming, he thumbed the key: “Acknowledged, ma’am.  We’ll have your suit ready soon.”

            “I’m sure you will.  On a personal note, everyone, we’ve come a long way and you’ve all done amazing work.  What’s left should be easy, but I trust you’ll all continue performing at the same exemplary level.  Let’s get to work, make this data delivery and get headed home.”

*          *          *          

            Lorena Mizrahi stepped into her suit and hiked it up her legs.  There was a pinch at her hips and a bit more room thereafter.  Obo had her hold her arms straight out while he adjusted the Marina.  She held fingers rigid while he slid the gloves over her hands and closed the wrist seals.  Karl and Ashley stood by quietly, already zipped into their own suits.  He held his helmet in the crook of his elbow while she turned hers over and over in her hands.  Her airways tightened just thinking of the orange bath awaiting her, and so she pulled atmosphere deliberately into her lungs and pushed it out again.  She’d done this before and emerged whole, but clearly her lower brain functions weren’t having it.

            “Thanks very much,” said the doctor once her Tech handed her a helmet.  Immediately she pulled it over her head, taking care to maneuver the curved back lip over the soft bun of her hair.  A double-touch at the throat seal’s catch snicked it shut.  Everything went quiet for a moment until the suit’s merry start-up chime.  With a twitch of sinus muscle she popped her ears.

            Lorena flicked her eyes over the HUD’s start up menu, activating the external speakers.  “Testing comms.”

            Obo gave a thumbs-up.  She opened a local channel.  “Testing internals.”

            “I’ve got you,” Ashley replied.

            “Auch so.”

            “Hear you loud and clear,” said Vivek from the Bridge.

            “All right.  Unless anyone’s suit throws a warning, we’re ready for the Pre chamber.  Mister Obo?”

            “Open SES-AME!” he barked in dramatic baritone from the Bay’s all-purpose console.  The chamber’s small circular hatch cycled open; one by one the three pressure-suited officers climbed through and down the inset steps.  They folded themselves uncomfortably in the cramped cylinder, Karl’s lankily irregular polygon at the bottom, and on Lorena’s call Obo shut the hatch again.

            Lights flicked on after a dark instant.  There came a mechanical grinding, more felt than heard, accompanied by a warning klaxon as the apertures under Karl slid open.  They knew what to expect—the onrushing tide of sickly warm Ouro suspension fluid—but nothing came.  The holes snapped shut with a last indignant honk from the klaxon.

            “What’s the hold-up?” Lorena demanded over the Corps channel, floating free and gently colliding with a padded wall.  The chamber pod having already penetrated the Ouro hull and so sat outside Konoko’s gravity field.

            “Looks like the computer’s expecting a fluid transfer.”

            Ashley suppressed the urge to make a joke.  “Obviously we all are,” Lorena replied.  “Why isn’t it happening?”

            “It’s not happening because there’s no fluid coming.  Not even a pressure delta.  Computer didn’t get what it expected and now it’s pitching a fuss.”

            “Why would that be?  I thought we had a docking seal.”

            “We do.  It’s just…there’s no fluid on the far side.  From what I can tell, it’s atmo.”

            “The fuck?” Vivek couldn’t help interjecting.

            “Terran-standard composition.  The gas mix, anyway—real Terran air would be a hell of a lot dirtier.  But yeah, it’s sea-level atmo.”

            “What else is on the far side?” Lorena hated being stuck in the tin can of the Pre chamber.

            “Can’t tell.”

            “The collar sensors are only meant to test conditions,” said Karl.

            Lorena sighed.  “Well then, we’ve got these suits on.  No reason we can’t take the conditions.  Override the computer and open the outer doors.”

            “Yes, ma’am.  I’ll need a second—she’s never happy being told she’s wrong.”  They waited.  The klaxon resumed shriller and more urgent until, with a suddenness invoking a sullen teen’s concession, the outer hatch slashed open.  Beyond was light, warm and white with a touch of yellow.

            Karl pushed down through the hatch first to find himself in a strange rectangular room.  Ten meters across, roughly twice as long and half as high, empty of furniture or adornment save for an anodyne pattern of black and white tiles on the floor.  The walls were similarly lifeless: flat and grey, metallic in appearance, marked only by glaring light panels.  A single wide door stood at the room’s far end, white with a panel of black glass set in its face.  Perhaps it was the austerity or just the unexpected nature of the place, but it gave one the impression of a place outside of time—unmoored from conventional space, dismembered from nature.  Just abreast of the door, hovering with such effortless stillness Karl hadn’t immediately noticed him, was a man.

            Ashley and Lorena made their way from the Pre chamber and spun agape, disoriented with awe.  “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” Lorena intoned.  “What is this place?” She looked to Karl, saw his outstretched tree limb of an arm, traced his pointing finger to its target where she stopped dead.

            “Vivek,” she said into the Corps channel with what she hoped was calm, “unless I’m completely insane, there appears to be a person here.”  This was a more complicated statement than she meant Vivek to infer.

            “I’ve got your camera feed up here, and if you’re crazy we’re all crazy.”  The man was dressed in a one-piece jumpsuit, the slightest shade of grey lighter than the wall backdropping him, cut in Navy fashion but with a slovenly looseness about the legs.  His skin was very pale and his hair very dark, falling forward over his downcast face to obscure his eyes.

            “One of ours?” Lorena wondered aloud.  “Does Contact have any presence in Ouro space?”

            “No offices, no permanent personnel.”

            “Well, I guess we’d better say hello.”  She oriented her feet to the floor and engaged the magnetic grips on her boots.  Karl and Ashley did the same as she stepped steadily, confidently, toward the floating man.  A look at his feet showed he wore no boots, just black socks.  Was he supposed to paddle his way through the air?  Lorena noticed too his calm, dry presentation—if he’d recently been in contact with Ouro suspension fluid, she saw no evidence of it.

            She keyed her suit’s speakers.  “Hello, I’m Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, Commanding Officer of the Explorer Corps Vessel Konoko.  Who are you?  We weren’t expecting to meet a human.”

As she said it, the man raised his head—smoothly, moving not a single unnecessary muscle, somehow managing not to shift his body’s position so much as a millimeter.  Absent gravity this should have been impossible, but any reaction to that jarring fact was swiftly overwhelmed by the man’s face.  The eyes were oversized, open unnervingly wide and marked by irises of glittering silver.  His aquiline nose was thin and sharp, shaped so finely it seemed chiseled from white marble.  Wine-purple lips so thin they may as well not have existed.  The man’s features were perfectly symmetrical and might even have been beautiful were it not for the queer proportions between them, the way each stated a kind of artistic intent without the least concern for its fellows—a gallery curated by Philistines.

The man’s lips moved and sound emerged from his mouth but the two were not in perfect synchrony.  “Good day to you.  Or night, clocks say?”  He grinned, showing a row of even teeth in a way that meant to disarm but only managed vaguely to horrify.  Lorena felt her arm hairs standing on end.

“It’s day,” she managed, barely.  In a little Terran town at that moment, it happened to be 1:23 P.M.

“Then good day and fine welcome, all.  And you.  And you.  Greetings you are bid to our home.”

“Are you…an Emissary?  From Contact.  Your eyes—they look like Emissary eyes.  Diplomat eyes.“

“Tunnels to the soul, as it says!  They model themselves as you do.  For comfort and ease in the meeting.”

 “The hell is he talking about?” Ashley hissed in the radio channel.

“So you are not a Contact Emissary.”

“Abei, as known am I, chosen for comfort and ease.”

“I don’t think he understands exactly, ma’am.  Try asking some other way,” suggested Vivek.

“Scanning him is a simple matter,” Karl declared, reaching for the hand scanner at his hip.

“Stop!” Lorena hissed just as quickly as she could turn off the speakers.  “Don’t touch anything.  Don’t pull anything out.  Just shut up and wait, Genz.”  Sullenly, Karl dropped his hands to his sides.

She chose the plainest possible wording.  “Are you human?”

“Artificial organism, honored.”

“Oh shit,” Ash whistled.

“Terran form the model, as observed,” Abei continued.  “This unit built for verbal talk.  For comfort and ease.”

“Yes, you’ve said that.  Am I to infer you’re being…controlled by a third party?  By our Ouro hosts?”

            “Indeed my interests align.  Kin minds in congress.”

            “So there’s an A.I. behind him.  Or several A.I.s,” said Vivek.  “More or less what you’d expect; no reason to do that processing locally.  Lord, he’s convincing.  And yet something’s off, looking at him.”

            Ashley snorted.  “Trust me, it’s even more off in person.”

            “Honored, may we introduce?” Abei reached out his arms and spread his fingers, pointing past each of Lorena’s shoulders at Karl and Ashley.  His hands were pale like the rest of him, long and thin and clean with cuticles no hangnail ever marked.  They were absolutely perfect—soothing to look at, a welcome respite from the rest.

            “Tell him your names,” Lorena ordered.  It seemed a fair interpretation.

            Ashley was so nervous she blurted out instantly, “Junior Pilot Ashley Duggins.”

            “Scanner Technician Karl Genz.”  Beatrice, for her part, paced a slow circle around Abei, taking him in as her expensive shoes clacked on the floor tiles.

            “It fascinates!” beamed the strange man, steepling his fingers before him.  Though the motions should have imparted some momentum, still he did not move from his spot in the air.  “Question please: the home of your language?  To be German, yes?”

            Karl blinked twice behind his visor.  “I am a native speaker of the German language.  Yes.”

            “Terrifically this pleases!  Such work done to the common tongue.  A challenge, you understand.  Demography.  We thank for the opportunity.”

            “Adaptive learning,” said Zach Obo in their ears.  “It’s probably based its language structure on intercepts alone, so any face-to-face fills in the practical gaps.”

            “Honored, all welcome in the Kin home! Shelter and sustenance are granted from the many assembled,” Abei bubbled and once again spread those soothing white hands.  “The minds my masters ask: your visages.”

            “What?” Vivek sounded confused.

            Lorena spoke slowly, doing her best to avoid glib contractions or imprecise phrasing.  “I am grateful, but I do not understand what you ask.”

            “Visages.  The front portion of the face comprising angular features,” he rotely explained as though reading from a dictionary page.

            “You want to see our faces.” She chided herself a moment later; should have lilted her voice at the end, pronounced it as a query.

            But the built man seemed to understand.  “Yes, ‘twould greatly please.  Designed for highest comfort and welcome, this place!”

            She glanced about the stark, rootless room and smirked behind her visor.  “Doesn’t seem like a good idea,” advised Vivek from the Bridge.  Obo concurred with a low wordless murmur.

            Beatrice rolled her eyes.  “Please.  Are they going to gas you?”

            Lorena flipped off her external speakers and addressed the channel: “Why would they ask?”

            “Adaptive learning, like I said,” her Systems Tech replied.  “Reading facial expressions, biosigns, sampling microbes.”

            “Any real danger?”

            “Honestly, doubt it.  Environment’s fine.  But you never know, and pressure suits are built for ‘never know.’”

            She bit her lip and made a quick choice, grateful the Ouro seemed a patience bunch.  Without bothering to re-activate her speakers, she reached up to the neck of her Marina suit and released the seals.  There was a pressure in her ears, easily relieved, and a slightly sour odor she couldn’t place.  Otherwise the alien simulacrum felt and tasted exactly like shipboard air.  She blinked at the light in the room; liberated from visor filters, it was remarkably warm and pleasant.  She thought of the day she met Beatrice: summer Sun on the flowers and the opal-fire in the trout’s scales.  Not even color could be extricated from the lie.

            Abei bowed his head to her.  “Such pleasure, this visage speaks.  Beautiful!”

            “He’s done it now,” Bea snickered.

            Lorena started to frown, a stranger’s declaration of her beauty being highly off-putting in the best of circumstances, but then she forced her face into a rigid half-smile.  “Thank you.  Genz, Duggins: do the same.  We’ll talk face to face, like people.”

            At this Abei curled up his arms, wrapping himself momentarily in the briefest of fluid embraces—an unconscious gesture of pleasure?  A mechanical error, a loose bit of code?  He watched smiling as the other two humans removed their own helmets.

            “Remarkable,” he said once they all faced each other, the evolved apes and their machine make to mimic them.  “Commencing business, Doctor Lorena, of dead Kin we speak?”

            “I am Doctor Lorena Mizrahi—Doctor Mizrahi.  And yes, we encountered an Ouro shipwreck—a very recent Ouro shipwreck—in the region we know as the Baraheni Graveyard.”

            “This place known.  Speak with duration, Doctor Mizrahi.  We seek your story.  Describe to us everything.”

NEXT WEEK: CONTACT ESTABLISHED (ALBEIT STRANGE CONTACT), KONOKO'S CREW GET DOWN TO BUSINESS. WHAT WILL THEY MANAGE TO SALVAGE FROM THIS HARROWING ADVENTURE, AND WHAT WILL THEY LEAVE BEHIND? "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!