Fields without Fences, Part One
by Tony Palumbi, August 2013
It began, as most cosmos-shifting events do, with a simple routine.
ECV Konoko hurtled through leagues of emptiness at a leisurely three hundred times the speed of light. Her horseshoe-crab form trailed a billion miles of vapor, winding here and there like a loosened string without an imaginable end.
In the Navigation Suite, two decks below the bridge at Konoko’s center mass, Lorena Mizrahi reclined in a swiveling chair and re-checked her watch. Dark eyes ringed by nascent age lines flicked to the monitor, taking in all it displayed: pulse, breathing, brain patterns, blood chemistry. Everything humming along nicely, though an experienced observer could detect the wavering chord of fatigue in the readouts. When her watch beeped, the Commanding Officer leaned into the console and traced a half-dozen precise moves on the screen with one finger. The system chirped amiably; a large cigar-shaped pod whined behind Lorena and flashed an orange light. A twinned counterpart sat silent and dead beside. A tone sounded throughout the ship, simultaneously warning and summons. Five minutes to emergence.
Down a thin hose affixed to the pod’s top surface ran a delicate cocktail of drugs. Into that pod and through a needle it dripped, finally reaching its destination in the bloodstream of Pilot Ashley Duggins. Her heart slowed and her brain took made a wobbling attempt to calm the last six hours’ frantic activity. Lorena watched the numbers shift and lines rise on the monitor. She re-checked her watch.
Two minutes to emergence, a second tone wordlessly communicated. Lorena reached out her finger to the screen, starting the last sequence. As she did so, a whining sound in the background ceased—so subtle you noticed its absence more than presence.
A speaker overhead crackled. “C-H field dispersed. We’re in normal space,” declared a man’s deep baritone. “Rebooting. I’ll give a shout when she’s ready. The gen’, I mean.”
Lorena rose from her chair and turned to the pod, marking seconds with clucks of her tongue. At ten remaining, she gripped a handle on its aft end. It lit up blue just a half second past zero; she bent and hauled backwards on the handle. The pod’s back half slid back from its front, withdrawing and opening to reveal a young woman on her elbows and knees, settled snugly in that tiny space. Her eyes were open already, and when the pod was fully opened she withdrew her hands from the control pockets. Sitting upright, Ashley raised her arms and stretched her back.
“Hey, Ash. How’re you feeling?” said the C.O., stepping in to withdraw the leads from the back of Ashley’s elastic black contact suit. The pilot undid her own tight bun to let dyed red hair fall down over the thin metal panel implanted at the base of her neck.
“You catch the turn at that cluster?” was Ashley’s chirping reply, cracking her knuckles after hours of delicate work. “What was it…Exo Globular? No, Rimicaris!”
“Rimicaris,” Lorena confirmed, raising an eyebrow in a schoolmarmish gesture. “It is emphatically your business to know these things.”
“What’s she need to know the names for? Long as she doesn’t hit anything,” a man’s voice declared from the doorway. Not much taller than the ladies with thin froglike limbs, Vivek Mohinder had dark skin and a shaved head that showed off his implants. Three silver contacts the size of small coins adorned each rear quadrant of his skull, along his occipital nerves. A strong nose anchored a smiling face.
Lorena turned to him. “Pilot Mohinder! You rested well?”
“Out like a light. Morning, merry sunshine!” he told Ashley with a wave of his contact-suited fingers.
“Afternoon, Vee. I learned from the last time to checked the clock first thing getting out. Check the nav replays, you’ve got to see this turn.”
The C.O. strode over to the console, issued commands with her finger and nodded to the Pilots. “I’m going up. Debrief her?”
“Captain!” Vivek cried, clapping a hand to his mouth and feigning scandal. Ashley did the same in perfect time.
“Every fuckin’ time, you two. It’s what it’s called.” Lorena stalked from the room, flicking at her X.O.’s ear as he dodged away. She didn’t bother to contain her smirk.
* * *
Lorena climbed two sets of stairs and walked down a short hall to access the bridge. The door had been left open, so she strode through without having to press the button and walked right up behind her Scanner Tech without him noticing.
“Genz.” She tried to say it gently but still he jumped.
“Goodness! Captain on the bridge.” Karl Genz mimed a two-fingered salute without looking back at her.
“What’re we looking at?”
“Not much of anything,” he mumbled in a German accent turning the last word to anysing, spreading fingers on his screen to explode the relevant display. “Sixteen Lears from the nearest mass. The kind of chems and EMs you’d expect, which is to say nothing.” Nahsing.
“How close did Ash bring us? Over the whole dive.”
He blew air through the gap in his front teeth, pulling up the information. “Pilot Duggins hit her strongest well at…four hours ten minutes elapsed. Three hundred fifty thousand kilometers off red line. One hundred off yellow.”
“Of course,” his handsome, broad-jawed face crinkled to a frown like the question was stupid.
“That was Rimicaris.”
“The coreward side of the cluster, yes. From up here you could see the Remi Twins on the approach!” A boy’s glee sounded in his usually clinical tone. “You know it’s a binary pulsar system?”
Lorena did. But rather than cut him off, she widened her eyes and nodded. He continued: “Of course you see pulsars in binary systems all the time, but not two in the same one! And with essentially the same period. Can you imagine being in the middle? Those EMs would fry your brain like eggs!” Genz giggled in a very un-German way; his C.O. chuckled to indulge him. She let him continue his detailed description for so long that it took Obo’s call on the intercom to interrupt.
“Doctor Mizrahi,” intoned her fourth and final charge from the drive suite.
Lorena practically lunged for the handset. “Good to go?”
“Generator’s rebooted and the computer likes what it sees.”
Systems Tech Zachariah Obo let out a static-y chortle. “I look at my baby, I always like what I see.”
“All right,” she closed the channel and returning her attention to Karl Genz. “I’m going back below.”
“Oh! I nearly forgot. Give my regards to Pilot Duggins. I was impressed by her maneuver.”
“She got close and didn’t need to.”
He shrugged. “It was a good turn.”
“It was a good turn,” Lorena sighed.
* * *
“It’s a great turn,” Vivek agreed, watching the replay for the sixth time. “But as your S.P., I have to officially instruct you never to do that shit again.”
“Bah,” Ashley snorted as she jogged in place and punched at the air to loosen up.
“You’re still zipping?”
“Yeah. I’ll work it out on the bike before I crash.”
“I’ll have Cap’n raise your emergence dose. Have you changed your baselines since we launched?”
“That’s…less than good.”
“I feel fine. Hale and hearty! You want me to get drilled up instead?” she put a finger pistol-like to her skull and emitted a buzzing noise.
“Okay, we’ll push the chems up just a tick then. You want to stay level.”
“’Kay. Is Lorena going to grouse at me for cutting it close?”
“I’d expect so.”
“Fawwwk,” she dragged it out. “It wasn’t even the yellow line.”
“When you’re C.O., priority one is what they call ‘risk containment.’ That means nobody sniffs a gravity well without a good reason and junior Pilots don’t do it period. If you’d so much as tagged yellow—“
“She’d have a conniption. I know. But you’d get a gold star on some report somewhere.”
“Maybe. But I wouldn’t do it.”
“Because you’re a bitch!” Ash grinned wolfishly.
“Because Lorena will take a shit if I do.”
“I might just do that anyway,” Lorena entered from the hallway as if on cue. “Right on your bunk, Vivek.”
“Cap’n,” he winked and nodded.
“Obo says we’re good for the next hop. You’re awfully peppy,” she remarked to Ashley.
“She’s riding a little high through the emergence chems.”
“I’ll work it out on the bike!”
Lorena put hands on hips. “You’ve been on a six-hour F.T.L. dive. Human beings need to sleep.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” soothed Vivek. “Chronic exhaustion might take her down a peg. She’s a handful in the best of circumstances.”
“And on that note! I’m off. Vee, don’t kill us while I’m out,” Ashley announced, twirling a finger in the air and walking exaggeratedly from the Navigation Suite. Down the hall, up one flight and to the right waited the gym: bigger than any of the five occupied quarters, the galley or any other crew space. In Konoko’s austere confines, it was by far the best-appointed room. It had to be, to accommodate nearly any healthful way a human being might blow off steam on a year-long cruise with just a small, involuntarily adopted family. It’s got no idea, Ashley thought, how badly I’m about to crush it.
* * *
Back in the Nav Suite, First Pilot Mohinder was on his knees in the pod adjacent Ashley’s, waiting for Doctor Mizrahi to attach his contact suit’s spinal leads. The suit’s ample processing power could have interpreted and transmitted the necessary signals—information transmitted from his brain to lower body, more easily differentiated lower on the absurdly powerful conduit that was the human spine—but not in necessary time, which was to say the absolute quickest. Silver cabling got every last impulse from the Pilot’s nervous system to Konoko’s propulsion computer just a few nanoseconds faster than a wireless transmission across just inches of air. Given the speeds involved, this turned out to matter a great deal.
“Ash knows she came too close on that well,” Vivek volunteered to the bulkhead in front of him. “I talked to her about it. Kind of a ‘cause I could thing.”
“Eager to impress.”
“Yeah. Told her that’s not how it works and she gets it. She doesn’t need the treatment from you.”
“Glad not to give it. She’d just angry if I did. It’s not the approach for her.”
“You’re the doc, Doc,” he quipped leaning down into the blue-padded pod. Gloved hands slipped into their control pockets, fingers finding their spots on the fine surfaces. His hips rested on a soft incline that dipped for his chest, everything fitted perfectly to his froggy frame. The Explorer Corps couldn’t afford much of the best equipment, but they sprung for their Pilots.
“Head down…” Lorena said as a precaution. His forehead was already against its designated padding, everything below hidden in the screened faceplate assembly.
“Don’t crash the boat, huh?” were her last words before throwing her weight behind the pod’s back half, sliding it up into the front until the motors took over. She went back to the console, now showing Vivek’s vitals, and set the pod’s computer for immersion. The First Pilot’s presets were radically different from Pilot Duggins’, just as his pod’s ceiling was uniquely studded with pickups for his occipital implants. Every Pilot got her cervical implant set before her first Academy day, but the occipitals were an immediate change. They made for an utterly different dive.
The dive’s like hitting a pool, right? Your heart jumps. Your whole body’s in a state of alert, ready to perform, he had said.
Right, Ashley had replied.
With the occipitals it’s more like falling asleep. You end up in a heightened state, physically, on the monitors. But it feels at the time like you’re falling asleep. You even shut your eyes, at first.
They’ve got to open pretty quick.
They do, but I’m not even aware when it happens. You just see the stars and feel the space…cleaner, I guess is the best word. Like it’s really the water on your skin after the dive. Like the hull was yours. It’s even cold.
Bullshit. I was with you until that. Bullshit, it’s cold.
Vivek was indeed cold. He was also weightless, suspended by an infinite ocean, nothing around him but the quiet chill of space’s eternal night. But he was powerful too—when he willed it there came a thrust from his legs, somewhere below his knees.
He noticed for the first time the lights: ten thousand to a square inch, more if you cared to core through photon-ages of the universe back to the beginning and the edge that was also the end. He saw them but could not yet feel them, most of them. A few touched him like a mosquito’s toes, hoping he wouldn’t notice. Vivek pushed himself towards them, towards the coruscating blue reticle where something told him he wanted to fly. So fly he did, fast as he could though geologically slow if someone was up to the math, which at the moment he emphatically wasn’t.
Just as he thought her favorite word, Lorena’s voice warbled in his ears like through a fathom of water. “Chen-Hau field is active,” was all she said before anything ceased to matter.
Or rather, it mattered more than ever before. He had no sensation of the pod, nor the Nav Suite, nor anything between his own skin and Konoko’s outer hull which were now the selfsame thing. But everything outside that skin was felt immediately, every last atom tugging at his flesh so intensely it almost hurt. They were undifferentiated in kind, those stones and belts and comets and planets and stars now whipping by impossibly faster than they had before, though Vivek’s thrust was no stronger. But all were finely distinguished in degree, for all had mass. The stars he’d seen before were now felt from every direction, size and distance inferred through mass signatures. He flew through the void feeling it course over and around him, the gravity wells like breaths on his skin, shrugging ever so slightly to avoid them as the ship responded by fluttering dozens of delicate thrusters. Space shifted from tableau to structure, latticed and cored through with open spaces. Vivek sought those spaces, wormed his way through them and swooped in grand arcs around purple nebulae. He was a seabird on the wing.
Lorena felt none of his awe and could only appreciate it through the merry humming of his brain patterns on her screen. After a quick glance to ensure the failsafes were properly set, she pushed back from the console, grabbed the wall handset and touched the key marked G.A.
“Pilot Mohinder is immersed. We’re in F.T.L. transit and will emerge within eight hours. Consider the dive procedure finished and go about your business.” Her voice sounded in every compartment, rang off every bulkhead.
“She’s happy, Doctor,” rejoined the System Tech’s bouncy Caribbean cadence.
Lorena toggled off General Address and pressed the ENG key. “Any reason for me to come down there?”
“Not unless you wanted to give me a hug. She likes Mohinder, never peeps with him in there. You rest your head. I’ll be up through this dive anyway.”
“Sure you wouldn’t rather crash for this one? If Pilot Duggins puts more strain on the system—“
“It’s not her, just some ghost haunting the drive. I’m gonna set auto-alerts and then sleep to lure it out.” There was a smile in his voice. “We got no problems, you bunk down. Best ship?”
“Best Tech,” Lorena said warmly before killing the line. With a last look around, checking off a list in her head, she departed the Navigation Suite and shut the door behind.
* * *
Ashley Duggins put both palms against the warm ceramic wall to dip her head under the shower stream. Scalding water beat on the back of her skull and neck in measured pulses, deluging her implant and coursing down the groove of her spine. Long locks of auburn hung down the right side of her neck and body to fill much of her vision and darken gradually with moisture. Sweat’s residue ran into stinging eyes. She took deep breaths and thought of the sea but still her heart raced.
The Rimicaris Globular Cluster squatted in her mind, a grotesque blend of constellation and sneeze leavings. She felt every star and world and metal-heavy cloud that might one day become a world. She pictured the approach, flaring out wide right at first to get a little space and then a hard haul left. Threading the needle between two suns, down under a proto-nebula and then—the really hard part, the part you needed to study the charts to really appreciate—running on beyond the obvious path for a solid quarter-Lear. The micro-singularity in Rimicaris was mapped and its mass should have been obvious, but with all the big bodies around it would have been easy to overlook. ECV Bronwyn once tasted its edge, the textbooks said, and might have actually survived to tell about it had the involuntary course change not plowed them right into Remi 2 four real-time seconds and a few hundred million miles later. Ashley, to her credit, had waited to blow by the singularity before a second hard turn to clear the cluster. She hadn’t properly seen the twinned pulsars, but rather perceived them as a single shimmering bolus of gravity and radiation. Beautiful in its own way.
Genz had told her about them. As she now recalled, he’d asked for her impressions in advance of the dive. They were clearly among his many fixations. She thought of him—how he was likely alone on the bridge, doing his inscrutable business on one console or another. She should tell him about the pulsars, she thought. It would be collegial. Hell, he was a big strapping fellow. Odd duck, but probably straight. With an excuse to go up and an empty bridge…well, she’d need something to get to sleep, right? It was better than a pill. Better than the shameful alternative. Two people had two interlocking sets of organs with a very specific purpose. This was it, right? This is what people did when they had needs. It couldn’t be Vivek. She liked Zachariah well enough, and might have been willing to swallow the age gap had he not started their introduction by showing her pictures of his daughter. Just six years younger than you! Nope, nope, nope. If she broke such a serious rule it would be with Karl Genz, or nobody. Ash turned off the shower.
In the end, it was nobody. You wouldn’t say a word to him, she told herself, if it weren’t for this ship. So, shame it was. And there hadn’t always been shame! No, for that the Explorer Corps could heartily congratulate themselves. Ash had prided herself, for a long time, on a healthy relationship with her body and appetites. She was a grown woman in a civilized age. But then came the EC Counselor, who’d started that session off by handing her an appalling book. There were techniques, for Christ’s sake. She could have taken it, through the lecture and simple questions, had the Counselor not asked and then proceeded to comment on her standard procedure. Even critique it.
You know, Ms. Duggins, you should really consider something more…comprehensive.
What you’ve just described to me is...a pretty basic operation. Surely that’s not what you’d want from a partner, yes?
Well, it’s not the same.
That being as it may, I want you to take these supplementary materials. There are wands, chem suites, even pelvic neurostim belts if—
I’m not sure you appreciate the strains Corps crewmembers may undergo over a long deployment.
I’m fine, Ash had said, trying to shrink into a singularity herself right there on the chair. She had taken the catalogues offered, carried them all the way out of the building and dumped them in the first trash bin she found. Wrapped in a lobby magazine so nobody could see the covers.
Gnawing on the inside of her cheek until she tasted metal but not blood, Ashley toweled off and stepped from her head to cabin. The walls were matte blue—had been for the last two weeks—and she wasn’t yet sure she liked it. Millions of options lay at her fingertips, if only she cared to pick from the room’s environmental console. For a full year on a small ship, the crew needed options. Their own space as well, and so each had a private soundproofed cabin. Eat it, Navy brats! Ash had stuck two posters of her favorite bands over the double-sized bunk (as if that wasn’t a suggestion), picked out a vaguely matched selection of furniture at the gargantuan Explorer Corps warehouse and brought it onboard herself with a squeaking hand cart. Two chairs, a love seat (another suggestion), a low table, a high bedside table and a pair of homey yellow lamps. The bunk and dresser were built in and it was into the latter’s upper right drawer that she delved.
What she sought was tucked against the left-hand wall, beneath a stack of four carefully folded white meshy workout shirts. It wasn’t hidden, she rationalized, just tucked away. What if someone came looking? She lifted it out and the small bottle beside it, touching the button on the bottle’s cap and setting it atop the dresser. Ash got into bed, nowhere near tired though any rational observer would expect otherwise, and sighed. She tried to think of someone, thought of Genz, clucked her tongue and shook her head to dispel it. Just a month in, babe. It’ll get easier. Jonen, then, from her second year at the academy. So many men with great arms neglected their sticklike legs but Jonen believed in balance. He was amazing, the way the lines moved around his hips down to the thigh. How when his hair hung loose down his back it reminded her of black angel wings. Amazing.
The bottle chirped discreetly and Ashley took it up, now warm as breakfast syrup in her hand. She looked to the ceiling and thought of an amazing man with long dark hair, billions of miles distant. It would do for now.
PART TWO, NEXT TUESDAY! IN WHICH THE PLOT NECESSARILY THICKENS.