Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Nineteen



            From a great distance, “the Maze of Masses” seemed an appropriate name.  Gravity surveys showed a tremendous amount of matter distributed in a mystifying manner: the weight of many planets hanging over light-years of space.  But these weren’t planets, were too dispersed to comprise a traditional solar system.  The collision of several such systems, perhaps—dozens of planets and several stars, smashing and warping each other into ruin.  Yet when high-sensitivity telescopes scoured the region, no such debris appeared.  No stars shone in that space; it appeared as a featureless void.  Singularities, the astronomers thought at first; but no, the mass wasn’t concentrated enough.  The gravity wells weren’t sufficiently steep.  Dark matter became the obvious explanation, consistent with all the observed evidence.

            The Explorer Corps laid that story to rest.  In one of the agency’s all-time marquee moments, ECV Doris Lessing’s C.O. Aruna Bareheni detoured for a brief confirmation.  If this famous artifact were truly just another veiled twilight landscape, they’d easily confirm it.  So the Corps frigate dived towards the Maze, pulling up short for a cursory scan, emerging to a sight they could hardly believe.  Where Earth-mounted telescopes had showed only emptiness, the astonished crew now beheld expanses of floating debris at unthinkable scale: made from metal, not stone.  They viewed an ancient battleground.

            Slabs of hull hundreds of kilometers long drifted through open space turning end over end too slowly for the human eye to perceive.  Particulate matter cruised by in belts, orbiting the largest masses.  Smaller husks intact enough to still resemble starships rode along in the battle formations where ghastly energy weapons had melted them practically to solid ingots.  Titanic mountains towered over these lowly citizens, followed themselves by further mountains and untold millions of smaller wrecks.  Off the Lessing’s port side, a spherical craft larger than the Terran moon was missing a ragged hunk of itself.  The same went on as far as the sensors could pick it up.

The combatants were unknown, along with their provenance and the ultimate reasons for their apocalyptic struggle.  Bareheni’s crew sorted the wrecks they catalogued into two opposed groups, though later analyses would identify no fewer than six distinct design trees.  Thus it could never be determined whether two races had fought, or six, or any number between.  Whatever the number, no trace of those aliens could presently be said to exist.  Certainly the scale of the craft involved bespoke vast empires—how else to marshal the necessary resources?—and yet no survey had ever uncovered a trace.  Science provided only one answer: the approximate date of the struggle, some forty-five thousand years past.  The debris hadn’t appeared from Earth because it hadn’t existed when that light was transmitted.  Sometimes the best explanations are the simplest.

Re-named the Bareheni Graveyard, it remained a source of myth and fantasy.  With all the aliens’ technology aged beyond operation or melted to slag, there was little incentive for anyone to finance scientific missions so far outside established human space.  The Federal permits alone ran into the high seven figures.  So the Graveyard was left relatively untouched.  Depending on one’s perspective, it was either a somber Ozymandian warning or a mess of floating space trash nobody cared to clean up.  Had the Ouro ever shown much interest in the wreckage, interspecies competition might have spurred a dedicated effort.  As things stood, the presence of an Ouro ship near the Graveyard would have been a statistically remarkable occurrence.  Which was precisely why Contact had flagged the outgoing flight path of an Ouro civilian vessel designated Subject 02.

*          *          *     
    
            “Drives are offline,” Zachariah Obo announced to the ship.  “Sixty minute cooldown, two hour re-cyc’.”  With no notable masses for a million miles in every direction, Konoko needed no immediate power.

            On the bridge, Ashley sat at the Navigation console as Vivek stood over her.  “I’ll walk you through the first stretch,” he said, “and then I’ll shut up while you do the second, correct anything afterward.”

            “Okay,” Ashley’s voice was level though already a small part of her chafed.  Vivek’s instruction always ran two steps slower than she preferred.

            “Remember your Belt training?  Same kind of dynamic space problem.  Determine the background gravity derivative, extrapolate your window from there…”

            “Yeah, I got it,” she hammered the keyboard.  “Most of these obstructions way outmass anything I did in training; this is actually easier.”

            “Don’t rush your numbers,” Vivek advised.

            “They’re fine.  See, I just checked them.  So that’s the first part of the run, right?  First Contact emergence point.  Now for perspective,” she tapped a few controls and then used her fingertips to drag the plot up onto the big screen.  Another finger tap switched the view from mass to visible light.  Konoko’s intended course zigged and zagged in a gold line between titanic hunks of ruin.

            “And there we go.  Criticize away,” she leaned back smugly in her seat.

            Vivek leaned in, waved his hands near the screen to pull the view three-dimensionally through each gap.  “Turn two and turn seven,” he said at last, with confidence.

            Ashley wanted to snap back immediately but instead bent to her console examining the spots in question.  “What, you think they’re too close?”

            “Seven’s too close.”

            “What about two?”

            He smirked, enjoying the moment.  “You really don’t see it?  Want me to tell you?”

            “No, fuck off, I’ll get it,” Ash gnawed at her lip, scratched the nape of her neck where the shiny metal contact plate lay.  “Christ,” she groaned at last, “lost track of the fuckin’ negative.  The outside approach should be inside.”

            “Bingo.  You’d have plowed us right into…whatever that hulk used to be.  A wreck on a wreck.”

            “Would’ve been obvious before then,” she grumbled.

            “Well, Pilot, you’re in luck!  Because while Lorena would have made you squirm a while over this, I’m just going to watch you re-plot from turn one.”

            “I can just fix two—“

            “And then you’ll have to tweak your attack angle on three.  And four.  Just do it the right way, Ash.  The first time.”

            With a last ornery snort she wiped the Navigation console clean.  The image on the big screen exploded into colored particles and went dark.  She began her re-plot, meticulously checking each step. feeling holes burn into her from Vivek’s eyes.  “Hey, speaking of Lorena…you know her better than I do, so maybe you’ll tell me I’m full of shit.  But does she seem different to you?”

            “How so?”

            “The bird expedition, for one.  I couldn’t believe she agreed to it.”

            “It’s hard to say no to Obo when he’s set on something,” he shrugged.

            “But she seemed to enjoy it.  If she’d really disapproved she’d have let us all know, washed her hands of the thing.  She told us to come stat, Vee.  She was having fun.  And that was never her before, not even when she dragged us aboard that squid boat.”

            “That was duty,” Vivek agreed.  “And maybe some ambition.  I suppose she’s a little more…gung-ho?  Probably not the right word.”

            “But I’m not totally off here.”

            “No, you’re not.  If I had to guess, I’d say the shit storm that’s descended on us has her flying a little hot.  Running and gunning, if you know what I mean.”

            “I do.  Does that worry you?  I mean, she’s the C.O.”

             “So she can’t change things up?  Can’t make mistakes?” he inclined his chin defensively.

            “It’s not that.  More like, if there’s room for error, that’s us.  Me and Karl and you and Obo.  We’re the built-in error.  Lorena’s…she’s the Doc, you know?  She’s supposed to be cleaning up our messes!” Ashley grinned.  “I’m using up all my fuckup allotment over here, and I’m not sure we can spare any for Lorena.  Here, check those turns.  I did ‘em all pretty now.”

*          *          *          

            ECV Konoko dived into the Graveyard with Ashley Duggins at the helm, proceeding at a pace she found obnoxious but would spare her any grief from Vivek.  Her low throttle shrunk the computer-mandated buffers required for passing, enabling some close passes of truly spectacular artifacts.  Though Ashley had no vis-light display, her Pilot’s gravitic sense rendered the ruins like broken castles from a dreamscape.

            She flew through the broken ring of a residential craft, a city-ship.  Once shaped like a toroid some twenty-five hundred kilometers across, a solid third of its ring was missing—the exterior hull in similar shape, shredded by explosive decompression.  Above Ashley and below her waited two great cities, occupying opposite poles of the ring and looking across the gulf into each others’ skies.  They were dead and empty, both of them: arcology spires reaching fifty miles above the supporting hull, intricate hives of structures and streets at their feet where once millions went about their lives until beam weapons swelled and popped their dwellings like blisters.

What form those souls had taken, only a few xenoarcheologists could speculate.  Apocalyptic weapons and millennia of hard vacuum had left few biological traces.  Where flesh failed architecture persisted, laid out with all the planned precision of its extinct engineers.  It was almost a cruel joke.  When Ashley thought about that, how such a grand civilization could after millions of verdant years go cold and dead with only the galaxy’s biggest scrap heap to show for it.  She thought of the Duggins homestead on Mars, abandoned and seen from high orbit as lumps and scratches in a sea of choking red dust, so inconsequential to the viewer they couldn’t even be bothered to catalogue its existence.  Generations of parents and children, triumphs and troubles and loves and loves lost, would just be somewhere some dead aliens lived once.  This hurt far worse than she’d expected, felt bigger and sadder.

She carved a trail around a fast-moving cloud of debris that might once have been a wing of fighter-bombers; hit the proverbial jets for one last stretch through a gap between two halves of an eight-hundred-kilometer dreadnought; emerged on the far side, steeling herself through the rising panic in her chest that finally let go as the Nav computer chimed.

“Chen-Hau field dispersed,” Obo declared on the intercom.  “In normal space.  Drive’s looking dandy.  Nice handling, Ash.”

Ashley felt her heart leap like a girl seeing a gold star pressed to an assignment.  “Ta-daaa!” she sang into the pod’s microphone before sliding back to grin at Lorena.

“How’re you feeling?” the Doctor inquired.  “I upped the downer dose over a smaller time frame to maybe get you through the anxiety quicker.  Did it work?”

“Not sure.  It went fine.  I’ll have to think about it next time.”

“Okay, we’ll try it again.  Pilot Mohinder’s taking the next shift, I believe?”

“Yeah.  Needs to make sure I don’t put him out of a job.”

“Attention,” Karl Genz’s voice came from the overhead speakers.  “EM bands indicate live contact in our immediate vicinity.  Will attempt to confirm.”

Ashley and Lorena exchanged a wide-eyed look before the latter snatched the handy off her hip.  In a moment Karl’s face appeared, backgrounded by the dull metal and hardware cabinets of Konoko’s Computer Suite.  “I’m on my way, Genz,” Lorena told him.  “Are you always this lucky?”

“I’m not sure how to quantify luck, Doctor, but you will be disappointed here, I think.  No mass readings yet, but I have at the moment eight contacts using broadwave wadio communication.”

“With us or each other?”  Lorena said jogging down the corridor.

“The latter, Doctor, and in a Federally approved band for civilian commercial enterprises.  These contacts are human.”

*          *          *          

She dashed the rest of the way to the Computer Suite—thankfully not far enough to put her out of breath.  “What’re their auth codes?” she demanded without preamble.

“I’m—not, not entirely sure,” Karl stumbled, quickly immersing himself in the console as red bloomed over his Nordic cheeks.  “Do you mean the base encryptions on the comms?”

Obviously not,” she groaned.  “Why would that matter?  I want their permits.  Can’t operate commercially in the O.T. without a permit and by law they’ve got to pulse the authorization codes every fifteen seconds.”

“So, how—where are those?  I don’t believe any training scenarios covered this precise situation.”

She spoke deliberately to mask her frustration.  “Microwaves.  Check the commercial microwave band, whichever corresponds to the radio band they’re using.”

“It’s band Two Bee,” Karl declared.  “But I see nothing.”

“Then run the other commercial microwave bands.  Come on, Karl, I need you to be quicker.”

“Do you get something for stumping him?” Beatrice asked.  “A prize, maybe?”

“It was not in my training!” Genz protested.  “I cannot see how I may reasonably be expected—“

“I know, Karl,” Lorena patted his shoulder.  “That’s why we’re learning it now.  I know you’ll remember for next time.  Now just sweep the microwaves.”

He peered at the screen, checked his readings twice knowing another slip would make him want to curl up and die.  For fifteen seconds and five more the sensors fruitlessly swept.  “I’m sorry, Doctor, I see nothing.  Perhaps there is something else I have missed?”

“Nope,” she frowned, looking over his shoulder at the same display.  “This is exactly where you’d expect to see the auth codes.  Where Fed law requires them to be, in fact.”

“Pirates!” cheered Beatrice from behind.

“Pirates take live ships,” Lorena corrected.  “These are just scavengers.”  She backed up a few steps to the intercom.  “Attention all hands: we have multiple active contacts, human and civilian in nature.  Possible illicit activity.  I’m instituting a state of alert.  Pilot Mohinder, please meet me on the bridge.  Pilot Mohinder to the bridge, out,” she repeated.

“Would you like me to accompany you?” Karl asked, already halfway out of his seat.

Lorena shook her head.  “I need you to keep watching the bands for those codes.  Let’s go, Bea,” she said on her way out.

Beatrice followed, swinging her slim hips around at the doorway to look back at Karl.  I get to come along!” she leered.

He looked so bewildered, her expression relaxed in sympathy.  “It’s a joke, Karl.  Just laugh at it,” and then she was gone.

Vivek got to the bridge first.  She walked in to find him already hunched over his console, immersed in the debris field ahead.  “How many are we looking at?”

“Genz said eight, but who knows?  Definitely human, but they’re not transmitting any auth codes.”

“So, illegal scavs.”

“Likely.”

“What do you want to do about it?” he asked an open-ended question despite knowing what she’d say.

“Gonna take a look.”

Vivek have a half-shrug while he pulled up the new data Karl pulled down from the Computer Suite.  Of course we will.  “About forty light-minutes out.  I assume you’d rather get there sooner than later?”

“If we come in slow, they’ll just scoot.  We’ll dip in.”

“Do they know we’re here?” Vivek asked before answering the question himself: “Wait, of course they don’t.  They won’t see our EM for forty minutes and our mass is nothing in this debris.  Okay, we can do a dip…” he trailed off, massaging the plot on his screen.

Lorena nodded.  “If they’re working an active site, it’ll take more than an hour to pick up stakes.”

Ashley Duggins abruptly poked her head through the door.  “Smugglers or scavs?  What’re we doing?”

“Not now, Pilot.  You’re dismissed,” Lorena shot her a testy look.

Vivek worked for another minute.  “Got it.  Pretty simple approach; we’ll be able to burn hot at the end and emerge with plenty of speed.  Set the E point a ways out to be sure we keep them all in front of us.”

“Great.  You ready to fly?”

            He winced.  “Yeah.  But you know, while I’m a fan of law and order, I’d also suggest we have a lot on our plates already.  Without trying to play Johnny Law with a pack of podunk scavs.”

            “It’s the O.T., Vivek.  We’ve got the same imperatives as Navy out here.”

            “I know.  I’m just saying, discretion’s in the toolbox.  It’s one of the only things in the toolbox; if the scavs do something stupid—“

            “Making arrests is not my plan.  But we’ve got to take a look.  It’s the job, Vivek.”

            “Yeah, well.  Just lending some perspective.  I’ll get my flight suit on.”

            Lorena smiled approvingly and picked up the intercom handset.  “Mister Obo, here’s the plan…”

*          *          *          

            Konoko slipped through a little-populated corner of the graveyard, where tasteful landscapers might have placed a copse of somber willow trees.  From there she sliced around another dead city-ship the size of a continent, pulling ever closer to the human craft while using the hulk to disguise her mass from them.  At least she broke its horizon and into the clear, Vivek throwing his throttles forward to quickly close the gap and steeling himself for the sudden computer-imposed lockout.

            “C-H field is dispersed.”

            It came like a punch in the gut, though less visceral than mental—like hearing a pun so bad it doubled him over.  There followed a moment of severe disorientation, his control having been so rapidly severed.  But then it was over; Vivek perceived his body and knew he lay inside a tubular pod.  The Bareheni Graveyard that just moments before had whipped by like a roadside now appeared nearly frozen.  A vast lance of wreckage that could have impaled Luna like a cocktail olive provided a static backdrop for smaller, closer objects to move against.  Konoko’s engines burned hard, accelerating once again after her precipitous drop from Chen-Hau travel.

            Ashley extracted him from the pod, pulled his leads and used the medical scanner to perform a cursory vitals check as Lorena had instructed.  “Uhh, this looks good, I guess.  Do you feel good?”

            “Fine.”

            “Then she wants you upstairs.”

            Her instincts were to run but Vivek walked and so she matched his deliberate pace.  They reached the bridge to see Lorena and Karl already at their stations.  Vivek sat at the Nav console and Ashley took one of two spare seats in the back.  Obo waited below, monitoring his roaring engines for the slightest hiccup.

            “Our signal just reached them,” Lorena filled in her Pilots.  “But so far, nothing.  I thought they’d have split by now.”

            “Eight contacts holding steady,” Karl declared.  “They are affixed to that wreck.”  He threw the vis-light image to the big screen: a fairly intact missile cruiser, small by Bareheni standards but still so massive Konoko could have flown comfortably down each of its twenty-four open warhead tubes.  Zooming and rotating the image, he showed off the highlighted human craft affixed to various points on the hull.  Lumpy round things burrowed like ticks into alien alloy and marked themselves with flashing hazard lights.  It was a work site, after all—safety first!

            “Way too small and cheap,” Vivek shook his head.  “Those things can’t dive.  There’s got to be a mother.”

            “None that is obvious, Pilot Mohinder; I’ve been looking,” Karl promised him.  “But then, all we have is EM.  With the debris, mass scans cannot be dispositive.”

“They could be tightbeaming,” Ashley suggested.  “Look at that distribution—all on the same side of the hull.  You could get a laser from each of them to the same spot and we’d never know.”

“Or the mother already ran,” said Vivek.

“Without her pods or their cargo?  Doubt it.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lorena cut them off.  “If it shows, it shows.  We got the jump on the pods and it looks like they’re now going to make us chase them.”

“What’s the alternative to flight?” Vivek asked rhetorically.

“It won’t come to that,” Lorena assured him, working her Comm console to hail their fast-approaching quarry.  They didn’t acknowledge; not so much as a blip came back from any of the eight.  Konoko slowed, swooped low and thoroughly needled the alien wreck with her sensors.

“Roughly two dozen power sources inside the structure,” Karl read from his screen.  “Human emission patterns.  They’re maintaining several small pockets of atmosphere,” he sounded impressed.

Lorena nodded.  “If it’s worth their while to set up atmosphere for suit-free work, then this is a long-term operation.  Which means any reputable outfit would be broadcasting their damn codes.”

Vivek worked his Nav console like playing a gentle sonata, pulling Konoko  in a wide loop for another close pass.  “If they’re not going to answer, then sooner or later we—“

“EM pulse!” Karl called excitedly before frowning.  “And now it’s gone.  We had a momentary data-bearing contact.  Infrared band.”

Ashley clapped her hands.  “Tightbeams!”

Lorena snapped her vision from Ash to Vivek.  “Bring us back around.  Genz, check for it.”

“Looking…” he pursed his lips.  “Pilot Mohinder, could you lean a bit to port…ja, gern!”  Genz’ eyes flew over his screen and then he looked straight up as though the ceiling didn’t exist.

“Karl?”

His mouth worked like a landed fish’s.  “They’re above us.”  His hands flew over the keyboard and on the big screen appeared contact number nine.  With a long slender spine and two pairs of docking structures reaching out at its fore and aft extremes, the ship was a splay-toed salamander hanging in space some ten kilometers overhead.  Lights flashed in the spots where its excavation pods might rejoin their mother.

“Who’s the best?” asked Ashley rhetorically, raising both hands over her head in triumph.  “Who called tightbeam comms?  This gal!”

“We might make something of this one,” Beatrice remarked to her old friend, who’d occupied herself searching the ship’s image for obvious threats.  Nothing on its external hull so much as resembled a weapon system, for which Lorena found herself immediately grateful.

The positive feeling wasn’t long to last.  Her console lit up suddenly, practically squealing with incoming data: a high-resolution video link.  Giving away her crew’s paltry numbers seemed poor tradecraft, so she swiftly rejected the request and replied with her own audio feed.  “They’re hailing,” she informed her crew.  “And I need everyone to shut up while I take this.”

NEXT TUESDAY: FURTHER INTRIGUE IN THE GRAVEYARD AS LORENA PLAYS LAWMEN! "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES APACE.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Eighteen

Credit: Brent O'Gara


           She told him to meet her in a bar.  That seemed strange, though it was Vivek Mohinder’s first posting as Executive Officer and proper protocol eluded him.  Assigned to ECV Konoko for her first post-refit cruise under the command of one Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, he’d mailed the C.O. and in reply she’d told him to meet her for drinks.

            He strolled into a tastefully squalid Mars Dock establishment named Kavinsky’s, occupying a narrow lot adjacent a kebab eatery, the interior lined with ruddy red brick and screens playing footage from decades-old video games.  Flecks of nutshell crunched under his shoes and adhered to the soles through some mysterious stickiness.  Wandering towards the back of the bar without ordering a drink, he quickly recognized her from her picture in the Corps directory.  Sitting at a table made from a giant overturned cable spool with a pretty blonde woman whom he also thought he recognized from somewhere.

            “Doctor Mizrahi?” he asked to get her attention.  “I’m Pilot Vivek Mohinder.”

            “Vivek!  Of course you are,” she slid sideways out of her seat to stand and offer her hand.  They shook.  “Lorena.  We’ll be spending way too much time together, so it might as well be Lorena.”

            “Vivek, I guess,” her warmth took him aback.  He’d admired Captain Longley—a civilian freighter gone Federal for the benefits—but never in Vivek’s four tours as junior Pilot on ECV Lehua had the man spoken a non-business word to him.  But Lehua was a frigate: larger crew, more cliques, less mingling.  A five-man clipper crew seemed mind-bendingly small.

            Lorena gestured to the table where seats waited open.  “Sit down.  Wait, you don’t have a drink.  Shouldn’t sit down without a drink.”

            “I don’t drink,” he smiled awkwardly.

            “You should get something.  We’ll get you something,” Lorena’s hand on his shoulder gently turned him back around.  Towards the bar they fought, through dense knots of patrons crammed into small dark spaces.  They weren’t spacers, Vivek saw—this was more of what he’d call a townie bar.  He’d considered wearing his uniform and was now happy he hadn’t.  He told Lorena this.

            She snorted with laughter.  “Only uniform in the place?  Yeah, good call.  One of the nice things about this place.”

            He ordered some kind of fruit juice in soda, which drew a scornful look from the striking young lady behind the bar.  Lorena got “another” of a luminous drink Vivek couldn’t identify, but which obviously contained a great deal of tequila.

            “Is your friend having anything?” he asked.

            “Annika’s nursing her one for the evening.” She seemed uncomfortable and he wasn’t sure why.  

            “Is she in the Corps?  Feel like I’ve seen her somewhere.”

            “Yeah, she’s Corps.  Dockside these days.  So we like to stay away from Fed bars in the off hours; keep things separate, you know?”

            “Oh.  You’re an item?”

            She winced, cocked her head, made a noncommittal sound.  “Used to be.  One of those things.”

            Vivek quickly nodded, eager to defuse the sudden emotional charge.  “I get it.  We’ve all been there,” which wasn’t true, but seemed appropriate to say.

            They returned to the table, where Vivek and Annika were introduced without their professional titles.  “So what’s your story, Vivek?”

            He took a long sip from his drink, assembling his thoughts in an orderly row the way he’d trained himself when speaking to strangers.  “Grew up in the Greyson Arcology, on Luna.  Dad’s a tech for the Water Admin, mom’s a schoolteacher.  Primary.  We lived in Fed housing, but it was Luna Fed housing.  So, pretty nice.  From secondary school I did three years at University and transferred from there to the E.C. Academy.”

            “What’d you study in college?” asked Annika.

            “Physics, biology.  Sort of a science muddle.  Didn’t know what I wanted to do, obviously, but I guess I wanted to see space.  The best thing was just to go there.”

            “The adventuring type,” Lorena suggested.

            He laughed.  “No!  Not really.  More curious than anything, just a little more hands-on than school offered.  What about you?”

            “Single dad, old family in the American northwest.  Started out to be a doctor but hated the patients.  Much easier keeping Corps sailors alive,” she winked.

            “I’d heard about the initiative to get more C.O.s with medical backgrounds.  That’s very cool,” he nodded.  “How many tours have you got?”

            “Seven as Med Chief on frigates, Five as X.O. on clippers, one as C.O.”

            At this, Annika coughed.  Lorena shot her a look.  “What?”

            “Four months,” the blonde woman raised her eyebrows, then shrugged and wouldn’t meet Lorena’s gaze.

            “The C.O. stint was stand-in.  Captain Park had a medical emergency,” Lorena explained to Vivek, who wasn’t about to ask.  The situation had him feeling awkward.

            “Oh, I don’t know anything about it,” he protested.  “It’s my first X.O. tour, so you can tell me up is down and I’ll believe you.”

            “He nearly died, had to evac him to Navy and then finish off the tour.  It was a myocardial infarction.”

            “Funny word,” Vivek took another long sip through his straw.

            “Heh, I suppose it is.”

            “All’s well that ends well,” Annika remarked to the tabletop.

Vivek fought the urge to run screaming.  “Well, it’s good to know you’ve seen the worst already.  I’ve always believed crises are learning experiences.”

“Here’s hoping,” Lorena slugging from her drink and making a face.

“I’m serious.  I bet in another crisis situation, you’d have a clearer picture of what to do.  You’d make the right choices.”  His skin felt very warm.  It dawned on him that he hadn’t specifically ordered the juice virgin.

“The thing about life or death choices is,” Lorena said with a grimace, “they rarely come with an obvious label.”

*          *          *          

The door opened before them without a sound, just a breath of ice crystals flying out to the void.  Zachariah Obo gave his looped invention a push, the Gryphon suit’s thrusters a-flutter on his back.  Ashley and Karl flanked him to either side, lending their grips to ensure the contraption stayed level and didn’t clip a bulkhead.  Heavy-duty cable spooled out behind them, carabinered to the environmental unit, as the three human beings slowly descended towards their exotic prey.  Strapped and leashed to each right thigh waited meter-wide static nets, inactive and still telescoped down into their black cylindrical handles.

If the birds took a swerve at this point, the game would be up.  Konoko’s flight computer had locked onto sthem but now simply cruised, holding course so as not to whiplash the apparatus about by its cable.  The Gryphon thrusters, while powerful, weren’t built for speed.  So they descended slowly, careful always to stay in the creatures’ dorsal blind spots.  Photino birds picked up EM signals at great distance and interpreted them with the richness of poetry, but their gravity sense illuminated only those obstacles directly ahead.  Having evolved in deep space, they needed only the barest of geographic data to survive.

“Hold up,” Obo called.  “Let it go.”  At his command, Karl and Ashley released their holds.  Immediately a slight spin was noticeable, propelling Obo along with the cage he’d built.  At last Obo released it too, checking his visor display to lock the cable spool.  The last fifteen meters they crossed without the cage, unwilling to risk it swinging into a bird.  “Then they’ll all lose their shit,” as Obo helpfully explained.

From a distance one could imagine them angels or some lesser fable brought to life.  Up close, the photino birds seemed somehow less impressive.  Imagination gave way to messy biological reality: those outstretched wings revealed as odd fleshy elephant-ear protrusions, those proud heads unnervingly featureless but for sensory organs like little pockmarks.  The same dark, rough, leathery skin stretched over every inch of bodies that in their searchlights looked flabby and feeble.

But then came a wink from their photophores—an arc of blue from the wingtips that ran back and blushed into purple by the back remiges.  This pulse in the lead bird spawned a cascade of replies in its flock that rippled over their flesh like water in a whimsical fountain.  Obo thought of the Hilton on Typhon Minor, his sense of wonder instantly restored.  The colorful display petered out eventually, but the electromagnetic chatter burbled on for a long time.  They dropped below the closest bird, spotting at last the young with their stubby wings and gawky overlong bodies undulating fishlike through cold vacuum.

“Go for these?” Ashley asked over the radio.  “Three here.  That one’s got five.”

“Doesn’t matter to me,” Obo replied.  “Can’t tell them apart anyway.”

Though their wings flapped, in relative terms the creature barely moved.  They seemed to hang suspended as in a dream.  Ashley slipped her static net from its strap and touched the stud on the handle’s heel to extend the instrument.  In a moment it extended three feet, opening a meter-wide circle that crackled with silent sparks at her every motion.  “You want a boy or a girl, Obo?”

“I believe they are hermaphroditic,” Karl informed her.

“It’s a joke, Karl.”  Space was so vast and chance encounters between birds so rare, they couldn’t afford to specialize.

“Let’s go for that one,” Obo marked it on their HUDs, extending his own static net.  “Genz, hang back.  The cage is prepped but you’ll need to open it.  Ashley, we come in at two angles from the back.  Use the net’s projection mode.  You know it, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.  Now for the love of Christ go slow.  Not a fingertip gets in front of the wing vane.  Or it’ll—“

“Lose its shit, yeah.  We’re steady,” she affirmed.  “We’re good.”

Together they closed on the little birds, their thrusters already dead, propelled by their last dregs of momentum.  With static nets outreached, they readied to strike.  “Give me first scoop.  I’ll go on three, you follow a beat later.  We get one shot.”

“Okay.”  Ashley was intently focused, gnawing on a lip and practically twitching to swing her net.

Obo drained his voice of all the tension he felt—painfully aware this might literally be his only chance.  Retirement loomed.  It had to be now.  “Three; two; one.”

He swung his static net in a tight arc at high speed enhanced by the Gryphon’s intricate servo network.  Faster than he expected; he nearly struck the little bird with the net but managed to get its lip around its stubby nose, projecting behind it a shimmering sleeve of static electricity.  The young bird, sensing the lip as it flashed by, dove abruptly down and to the left to track the still-open mouth of that sleeve.  Then Ashley’s net came in, swooped by through the space Obo’s net had just vacated and wove its own sleeve running the opposite direction.  Where the sleeves met they formed vertices and projected walls, the two nets adroitly combining their efforts until they held hovering between them a seamless static sphere.  In its center the photino bird thrashed, buffeted between energy barriers and utterly confused by this new circumstance.

“Perfect!” Ashley cried.

Obo felt an irrepressible grin stretch his face as they pushed back and lit thrusters for Konoko.  “Hold her steady,” he called, trying to contain his glee until the task was done.  If the nets got too far apart or badly mis-aligned, they’d drop their fields and the bird would snap free.  Below them, the other birds kept their formation.  If they noticed the larva’s sudden absence, they gave no hint of it.  In an environment lacking predators, why would they worry?  If one among them decided to run off and deprive itself of mating opportunities, it was no concern of theirs.

“I’ve opened the cage,” said Karl.  He’d lifted up a hinged section of tubing and now held it open for the others as they approached.

“Here’s the hard part,” Obo warned.  He and Ashley cut their thrusters but for tiny course corrections, slowly maneuvering the bewildered animal towards the cage door.  “Just drop it in.  Pretend the nets aren’t there.”  Sensing the environmental obstacle, their static-powered tools warped their fields around the plastic cage walls.

“Close it!” Ash demanded, but Karl had already snapped shut the door.  With gold-alloyed fingertips he pressed down its edges, verifying the catches held.  Obo and Ashley flicked off their static nets, collapsed them back into their handles and replaced them in their slots.  In these seconds the photino bird re-oriented itself, freed of the nets’ bewildering electromagnetism that must have sounded in its head like a prison of screams.  Perceiving the physical walls that now bound it, the bird did its best to circumvent them—plunging at a frantic pace down the tube in a perpetual left turn, pumping its wings to go nowhere.  Novae of bioluminescent distress burst along its flanks.

Obo slid down, powered up the environmental unit, watched its feedback in his Gryphon’s visor.  Once he confirmed its proper function, Obo moved his hands to a pair of valves on either side of that bulky grey box.  He gave them each a hard turn to the right and felt the servo-screws finish the motion, sealing themselves shut.  Hard vacuum reigned inside the cage and without, but carrying that vacuum seamlessly to the clipper’s docking bay loomed as his real trial.  If something went wrong, he wouldn’t know until the bird died.  Like a canary in a mine—except in this case it was oxygen that killed, or human-friendly temperatures denaturing proteins like fondue.  Hold for me, baby, Obo willed his old invention.  There hadn’t been time to run every check.  It would have to hold.

*          *          *          

            The cage seals held while warm air once again filled the airlock.  Obo knelt by the environmental unit, monitoring everything that transpired through his visor though he couldn’t do a thing about any of it.  He’d chosen his materials well: the tubing didn’t even frost despite the gap of over three hundred degrees Kelvin from within to without.  At last the airlock lights turned green and the crew could unseal their Gryphon helmets to the popping of ears and the sour smell of grease in the docking bay.

            Lorena waited patiently while the equipment hatch hissed open, arms crossed and stomach churning.  This gambit was just too strange to be a good idea.  But there they were, safe and sound once the door stood wide open—three human forms and the waist-high machine they’d left with.  She liked photino birds as much as the next woman, thought they were pretty but never gave much thought to them.  Her one sighting she’d enjoyed the way one might enjoy a visit to some minor historical monument: it was nice.  I’m glad I went, but if you’re ever in town what you should REALLY see is…

            “All crew safely back aboard,” she called through her handy to Vivek, who monitored the action from the bridge.  She approached, trying not to look at the specimen so as to maintain an air of mild disapproval.  It did not work.  Having helpfully taken Karl and Ashley’s helmets so they could set about their other seals, she turned and found her eye suddenly captured by the form flapping inside Obo’s cage.  It was so small, appeared so fragile, seemed anything but majestic in its current condition.  Isolated from its family and displaced from the void it called home, the photino bird looked to Lorena like a little lost creature.  Somehow she felt the need to protect this odd thing, evolved in such radically different circumstances they may as well have inhabited separate universes.  Yet there it was, flapping slower in the cage as it adjusted to its new surroundings, lights down its wings settling into happy blue pulses.  It swung around the cage again and again as dark matter coursed cleanly through Konoko’s hull.

            “Where are you going to keep it?” she asked as they offloaded gear in the ready room.
            Obo, unsuited to the waist, held that wide grin plastered over his face.  His strong arms didn’t look quite the way they had ten years before, and his grimy sleeveless blue undershirt was a little fuller.  “Down here for now.  If I need to work on the cage, I can.  If he starts ailing, I can push the whole mess right back out the airlock before he fades too far.”

            “It’s a ‘he,’ huh?”

            “Yup.”

            “Hey, that’s bullshit!” Ashley declared, long red hair sweatily plastered to her skull.  “We all went out to get the thing.  If we’re making up a gender I say we vote.”

            “I veto your vote!”  Obo shot a finger in the air.  “That’s democracy where I come from.  Island style!” he broke into booming laughter.

            Karl frowned quizzically; male or female?  They were neither!  “What does it matter?  I don’t want a vote.”

            Ashley cast an exasperated look over her shoulder.  “It matters for naming the thing, obviously.  You have a name picked out, Obo?  It better be really good if you do.”

            “Haven’t decided,” he shrugged.  “Any bright ideas, I’ll listen.  But it’s a he.  I’ve got two girls already and you couldn’t pay me to raise a third.”

*          *          *          

            The away team gathered in the galley for hot drinks.  A walk in space, even in the best pressure suits, always left one cold.  Obo, wrapped in a heavy woolen coat with a cap perched on his head, watched a video feed of the docking bay on a tablet while sipping his imitation coffee.  He’d first tasted the real stuff at age twenty-seven and found it revolting.  Ashley and Karl wore lighter jackets; Lorena and Vivek tagged along.

The X.O. was in better spirits, now rested.  “Obo, while I’ll admit I thought this was a silly idea, if you can keep that thing alive I’ll be impressed.”

“What’s the record?” asked Ashley.  “For survival in captivity, or however they measure it.”

“Nine months or thereabouts, with no handling at the Federal Zoo of San Diego.  I built the climate box to the specs from that case.”

“What happened after nine months?”

“Lost weight, seemed listless.  Didn’t recover, so they let it go.  That’ll probably happen with this one, sooner or later.”

“That’d be so sad,” Ashley pouted.

“Probably for the best,” Vivek chipped in.  “That thing’s going to outgrow its cage eventually.”

Karl raised a schoolteacher’s correcting finger.  “It is a very long-lived species, with extremely slow growth due to its flat mortality curve.  Meaningful growth will take years—perhaps decades, though of course I cannot be sure,” he muttered into his mug of real coffee, realizing everyone else had stopped listening.

“Just make sure, if things go south, that you get that thing off the ship before it croaks,” Vivek smirked.  “Anyone ever read that old poem, where a sailor kills an albatross and the whole crew’s cursed by it?  I think they turned into zombies or something.  Anyway, can you imagine the cosmic fallout from killing a space albatross?”

“It is a bit like an albatross,” Obo conceded.

“See!  You’ll curse us all!” Vivek waggled his eyebrows, joking.

“You know how I feel about superstitions,” tutted Lorena.

Vivek waved her off.  “Now it’s bad luck to talk about bad luck.”

Ashley pulled out her handy, tapped at it, read something.  “I knew I’d read it in school!  And there aren’t zombies; they’re like happy ghosts.  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Wait, doesn’t ‘rime’ mean frost?”

“Written before standardized spelling,” said Lorena, recalling now she’d read it too.  She couldn’t remember when.

“Well, why didn’t they fix it?” Ashley asked, clearly vexed.

“Coleridge,” Obo said out loud to nobody in particular, releasing the name to hang above the table like fragrant smoke.

They pondered for a minute, focused on warming themselves.  “That’s a nice name,” Ashley conceded at last.  “It’s grim as hell, but honestly that seems appropriate given recent events.”

Vivek nodded slowly.  “Could even shorten it to Cole, if it needs a cute nickname.  Does it do cute things?  I haven’t seen it.”

“It’s amazing,” Ashley quickly attested.  “And if it’s got to be a ‘he,’ that’s a good name.”

“Then we agree,” said Obo, raising his mug clasped between both hands in a kind of toast.  “His name’s Coleridge.”

*          *          *          

Days to come saw Vivek and Ashley riding their metal horseshoe crab over shoals of stars.  From the flight of photino birds she turned counter-spinward, deeper still into the Open Territory.  Konoko skipped like a cast stone across the flat accretion disk of a supermassive black hole, slingshotted around a nearly conjoined set of binary twins, surged past screaming comets to leave them bewildered in her dust.  She paused for a pilot swap in sight of a rocky, terrestrial world recently sundered by planetoid impact.  So massive had been the foreign body that at the moment of impact it ceased to exist—liquefying the larger planet and itself, rendering an unthinkable volume of rock almost instantly molten and spewing the chimeric remains over hundreds of thousands of miles.  The droplets quickly re-hardened in cold space, becoming a massive archipelago of small meteors the largest of which still held wisps of frozen atmosphere in thrall.

Zachariah Obo’s new pet adjusted to “his” surroundings and the rhythm of life aboard.  Chen-Hau travel confounded young Coleridge—he grew visibly agitated whenever the exotic field appeared or disappeared—but otherwise he seemed to happily abide.  Obo fancied the creature felt his presence on the walls’ far side, could recognize him from the others, even bore some affection towards its new patron.

Konoko wound her tortuous way through barely charted space, coming at last to a stopping point where Obo intended to recalibrate her flight systems.  This work would be sorely needed, as Konoko’s pursuit path called for a hard and hazardous road.  She sat poised at the edge of the O.T.’s most famous geographic artifact—first known on early Terran star maps as the Maze of Masses, since re-named the Baraheni Graveyard.

NEXT TUESDAY: IN PART NINETEEN, KONOKO PLUNGES INTO THE LEGENDARY BAREHENI GRAVEYARD, TOMB OF WHOLE CIVILIZATIONS! MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE--THANKS FOR READING--AND I'LL SEE YOU ONCE MORE BEFORE THE NEW YEAR.