Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Five



            
            Lorena Mizrahi’s first personal crisis came at the tender age of six, when the guilt from murdering cats became too much to bear.  It had built inside her for months, mounting with each new crime.  She didn’t want it to happen, didn’t want them to die, but neither could she help the thoughts that crept into her head and, well, that was that.  Another sweet kitty gone to meet its kitty maker, and all because of her.  It hadn’t been the neighborhood cats, at least so far—though Lorena was certain one day it would be.  She’d been lucky so far.  So before any of her friends’ pets fell victim to her damnably wandering mind, Lorena took matters into her own hands and did the right thing: she went to church.  It was, after all, chiefly a matter between God and herself.

            She sobbed through the confession, so badly the priest couldn’t understand her.  Using every bit of willpower in her tiny body, Lorena detailed her crimes.  One at the supermarket, on the front porch, on the tram into town…the list went on.  When she finished, the priest was still confused.

            You said four at the dinner table.  Is that right, Lorena?  Four cats?

            Yes!

            Did your papi know?

            Of course he did!  He’s the one that tells me!

            Tells you…what?  I’m sorry, Lorena, I don’t understand.

            He tells me the cats are dead.

            He’s found you with the cats?

            No, I don’t know where they are!  He just says when I’ve killed one.

            What does he say exactly?

            ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’

            The laughter was the worst, she’d tell Annika later while they lay six inches apart on sweaty sheets, too hot to sleep and trying not to stick to one another.  How hard he’d laughed given how hard she’d cried.  It seemed cruel to subject a confused child to that sort of thing.

            I’m sorry, Annika said, wiping tears of laughter from her own face.  I can’t help it.  It’s so funny.  I can’t believe you really thought that.  But she had thought that, and at the time hadn’t seen the humor at all.  Why would anyone say that?  It didn’t make any sense.

            Lorena Mizrahi’s second personal crisis came some twenty years later, when in her last year of medical school she realized she had no desire to be a doctor.  It wasn’t bad work—mentally stimulating, and she was good at it—but she was always acutely aware of the futility.  People lived longer than they used to, but the human body always broke down eventually.  For all the worthy work of medicine, to Lorena’s unusual mind it seemed like bailing water against the ocean.  She didn’t want to spend her promising career trying to keep people alive who’d die all the same, yet found herself deeply in debt and just months away from being Doctor Mizrahi.  A bit of unsolicited recruiting mail from the Explorer Corps wouldn’t have turned her head before that revelation.  A chance to see the universe, discover something wild and live in the history books…or at the very least, a relatively quick path to a command post.  You never know how someone will react to the prospect of her very own starship.

            The Corps preferred doctors for its C.O.s.  They tended to be focused, sharp-minded and oriented towards long-term goals.  Ships on long deployments needed medical personnel, but as a practical matter the small E.C. crews didn’t warrant a dedicated doctor aboard.  Recruits like Lorena Mizrahi, given the right training, were extremely valuable assets on ships where each crewmember expected to serve several functions.

            To the Corps she went and in the Corps she’d stayed, through nearly twenty years of deployments, six ships and twice that many failed relationships.  Failure wasn’t the right term, she knew, but something either survived or it didn’t.  She tried men and women both, found the latter more agreeable to the separations.  Women, Lorena had found, could stay in love with an idea.  Men needed immediacy, needed to see and smell and touch you or a part of their brains would refuse to believe it was real.  Penelope waited for Odysseus, staying chaste all the while; he emphatically did not.  Women could handle the distance.  Maybe they were just more used to disappointment.

*          *          *

            Lorena glided through the door, turning her body to take in her surroundings.  She saw the interior of a large conical structure with the airlock set into the floor of its base.  Relative to Konoko’s position on the Ouro ship’s spine, she saw on her HUD’s map, the cone was pointing straight down.  Since the aliens were swimmers, their huge ships had open interior spaces divided into specialized sub-structures.  Inside this cone stood a great column supporting a number of disc-like platforms, whose diameters shrank as they climbed to fit the sloping black walls, leaving enough space to swim around their rims.  The support column was itself hollow, to allow easy transit.  Machinery studded many surfaces, along with enormous electronic screens playing kaleidoscopic patterns.  The same solemn blue lighting was everywhere, though her visor was slowly polarizing to normalize her vision.  She saw no Ouro.

            “I’m seeing the place as your suits map it out,” Vivek called in her ear.  “It must be impressive.”

            “That’s one word for it,” Ashley intoned, stunned like the rest of them.  “I think it’s fucking creepy.”

            “Noted for posterity, Duggins.”  Lorena swam frog-kicking to an aperture in the central column and looked up the ten-meter-wide tube.  Looking up, she saw smooth walls and guide lighting all the way to the top.  Along with a dark shape at the ceiling, moving slowly but too distant to identify.

            “Contact.  Maybe.”

            Genz caught up with her and looked at the thing.  “Maybe?  Oh, my.  I would say yes.”  He checked his equipment.  “Power signature consistent with an Ouro mobility harness.”

            Ashley stayed floating behind them.  “How do we get its attention in this muck?  Can’t exactly shout.  Plus it’d probably, like, squirt ink and run.  Swim.”

            “Give this a try,” Lorena responded, setting the XenoComm for a standard greeting.  Slipping through the portal into the tube, she pointed her device and touched TRANSMIT.  She saw the reflected lights shift and glimmer off the bare walls, not knowing how far it would really travel in the fluid.  The dark shape hung in position, slowly rotating, oblivious.

            “Do we get closer?” asked Ashley.  “And do we have to swim or can we use the thrusters?”

            “Thrusters are fine out of the airlock,” replied Lorena, moving her eyes about to activate them through the HUD.  Ashley and Karl did the same, flaps on their shoulders and hips snapping outward like miniature wings.

            “Keep it slow and slow,” said the C.O., taking off on her own.  White light and torrents of heat emerged from the thrusters, spawning bubbling eddies in their wake.  Keeping the XenoComm trained on its distant target, she kept broadcasting but got no response.  At about twenty meters’ distance, she got her first good look at the thing.

            The skin was green-grey, encasing six tentacles thick as her thigh and two meters long.  They drifted loose in the fluid, spreading in a fleshy corona, triggering some primal prey-animal terror in the back of Lorena’s brain that seized her heart with terror.  She swallowed hard to push it down, knowing it was irrational.  Swimming through darkened caves with giant cephalopods just wasn’t part of the human evolutionary experience.  She did her best to admire the appendages, the palm-sized pads lining their undersides a-swarm with thousands of frondy brown tube feet.  Lorena couldn’t see the mouth at the nexus of tentacles.  Mechanical straps encircled their fleshy web, anchoring in place a large black device like a collar around the creature’s bulbous head.  The mobility harness Karl mentioned, studded with thrusters to ease movement about the vast ship’s interior.  Ouro could swim with their own tubular siphons, but who was up for all that effort day after day?  Navy dreadnought had their own tram systems, after all.

            Lorena pulled up and raised a hand to halt Karl and Ashley.  The Ouro kept up its glacially slow rotation; she raised the XenoComm and waited for a good look at its eyes.  Finally one set came around, a small spot of milky white above a fist-sized golden orb.  A diamond-shaped black pupil stood out amidst the finery and contracted as Lorena hit it with a bright burst of interspecies goodwill, but the creature itself continued its lazy spin.

            “What the fuck is going on?” Ashley demanded.  Genz was dumbfounded.

            “What happened exactly?” asked Vivek from the ship.  “My feed isn’t clear enough to catch everything.”

            “It’s unresponsive, but definitely alive,” Lorena replied.  She fluttered her thrusters, moving towards the alien at a steady slow rate and tucking the XenoComm back into its pouch on her hip.  “Going in to engage manually.”

            “Be careful,” called the X.O., as if she’d be anything but.  Genz followed close behind her with his scanner while Ashley lingered.  Lorena pulled up alongside the Ouro and gingerly reached out her right hand to touch one drifting tentacle.

            It moved at her first contact, curling and turning over, bringing tube feet to bear.  Her blue Marina glove left a blue streak, delicate nerve endings throughout the skin sampling and mimicking the material.  Lorena did her best to stay still while the tentacle wound about her wrist, brushing every square inch with thousands of pneumatic kisses from tube feet that could just as easily have torn the suit to ribbons.  Blue ran through the tentacle like a blush before it faded back to the original green-grey.  The Ouro kept its gentle hold on her arm, which more or less arrested its rotation, but still it did not respond.

            “Both its heart rates are unchanged since being touched,” Genz remarked.  “It still does not appear to be aware of our presence.”

            “Are you not watching this?” Ashley asked, incredulous.

            “Likely a reflex.  With the Ouro’s de-centralized nervous system—“

            “He’s right,” Lorena interrupted, examining her engulfed arm.  “After that first feel-out, it’s not doing anything.”  Very gingerly, she used her free hand to loosen the tentacle.  It came away without much resistance.

            “Is it sick?” Ashley wondered aloud, joining Karl and Lorena now that the creature seemed less threatening.

            The German shone his lights in the animal’s eye, got no reaction and looked down to flash through his scanner’s functions.  “It is possible.  But unlikely, I think.  The suspension fluid carries antibiotics along with nutrients.”

            “Comatose, then.”  The Pilot touched fingertips to the skin below the harness, saw it blossom blue and pulled back.  Lorena had freed herself from the tentacle to moved up towards the mantle.  Her boot nudged another tentacle, which made a feeble attempt to grasp her.  She peered into the golden eyes, deathly still.

            “Vivek, I need your help with this.  Anything you can get on Ouro resting states, known diseases, anything that might explain this one’s condition.”

            “I’ve been looking all along.  It’s just the basic ExoBio material.  They’ve got a resting state but come awake at stimulus like you’d expect.

            “Shit.”  Lorena ran her hands along the alien, over its harness to feel the pulses of water that emerged in time with nervous processes in the skin.  It was one of their great gifts, those neurons clustered in autonomous cul-de-sacs, letting the body fend for itself while the mind splashed freely through pools of abstract thought.  A human being was her body, from their hairs on her head to the tips of her fingers.  An Ouro piloted its, consuming information and setting priorities.

            Karl broke her reflection.  “Doctor, I suggest we continue on and locate other specimens.  Perhaps not all of them are so afflicted.”

            “Agreed,” she nodded.  “At the very least, it would appear something’s gone wrong on this ship.  Mister Obo, I believe we’ve got six hours in these suits?”

            “Call it four,” the Systems Tech replied after a moment.  “Not sure what the goop will do to your equipment.”

            “Fair enough.  Duggins, Genz, we’ll continue together.  Nobody gets separated, not even for a moment.  Turn-back point in two hours,” Lorena declared, and the crew acknowledged her.  Swimming to a respectful distance from the Ouro, she hit her thrusters and jetted through the nearest portal back out into the pyramidal atrium.

*          *          *

            Vivek Mohinder sucked at his teeth, watching the boarding party’s data feed into his monitors.  They had access to all the same information, but Vivek had vastly more screen space on the bridge than Lorena did in her “Marina.”  Sonar pulses from the three suits scried the multi-platformed structure inside the immediate cone and tidbits of information outside it.  Those tidbits built into a picture of the giant ship’s interior, slowly but surely like worlds accreting from dust.

            Inside the hull was an empty space, filled with suspension fluid, its shell lined with conical structures like the one Lorena explored.  They lined up roughly with the ship’s exterior blisters, hollowing out the most possible space for each.  The cones’ points extended towards the open center space, leaving ample space between them easy transit in any direction.  One needed merely to know one’s destination and travel in a nearly straight line to get there.  Much more efficient than a labyrinth of corridors, lifts and stairs.  Vivek stood up to better swivel his vision between the interior plot and Karl’s tentative mapping of ship systems.  He saw the boarding party’s two nearest nodes were modest employers of low-density power, and had dense internal structures suggesting many compartments and few crucial facilities.

            “Contact, forty meters,” Lorena stated on the radio, and Vivek pricked up his ears.  “Ouro.”
            Through her helmet camera, he spied a grainy tentacled shape, drifting aimlessly as the first had been.  When she got closer he admired its striking orange skin, purples blossoming and fading across it like pattering raindrops.  Its eyes were dead as the first Ouro’s, its harness toodling along directionless.

            “Something is officially wrong,” said Zachariah Obo over Vivek’s shoulder, making him jump.

            “With the drive?” he asked, hoping the Tech hadn’t noticed his nerves.  As luck would have it, Obo was fixated on Lorena’s video feed.

            “No, she’s fine and good to cook.  Something’s wrong in there.”

            “I’m guessing the other specimens will be the same,” Vivek nodded.

            “Almost makes me feel bad, saying we shouldn’t have come and seeing this.  Almost.”

            “You worry too much.  We’re headed right to Nimbus after this, and they’ll want to debrief the hell out of us.  Contact too.  We’ll get a month at home, easy.  Recuperation from the stress,” he grinned at Obo.

            “I hope so.  Never know what can happen with aliens.”

            “Like what?  Their pathogens aren’t built for our cell chemistry.  They’re clearly not aggressive.  Hell, they don’t even know Lorena’s prodding them.”

            “I’d rather keep moving on, is all.  Nobody would have blamed her for calling it in.  But she wanted something big.”

            “That’s not fair.”

            “She’s wanted it for a while.  I don’t even blame her.  Just wish she’d have picked something else.”

            An edge came into Vivek’s voice.  “Lorena didn’t pick this.  It just happened.  She’s doing her job, just like you.  And all of us,” he turned away to indicate he was done talking about it.  His eyes ran over the bridge consoles, doing his own duty to ensure nothing had substantially changed.  He almost missed the blinking screen light on the Comm panel.

            “Hello,” the Pilot said to nobody in particular, sliding into the nearest seat.  “Message, plaintext, attributed to…a very long number.  It’s from their computer.  Lorena,” he called, activating the bridge microphone, “we’ve got a message from their computer.  Just text, I’ll read it aloud.”  Judging by her helmet camera, the C.O. was slowly progressing towards the cone’s apex, checking around the technology-studded platforms for more Ouro.

            “’Greet.  Welcome to home,’” Vivek read.  “That’s it.”

            “Will it take a reply?” Lorena wanted to know.

            “I don’t know, it might be another automated message.  I can try, just in plaintext.  I remember reading the Ouro computers were decent at this.”

            “Ask it about its function.  The ship’s function.”

            “Okay,” he muttered, typing EXPLAIN VEHICLE PURPOSE?  Upon reflection, he changed PURPOSE to TASK.  Best to keep things specific.

            HOME, it popped back almost immediately—a single word he relayed to Lorena.

            “Perhaps this is a passenger vessel,” suggested Karl Genz.  “One meant for long-term habitation.”

            “Hasn’t gone so well if it is,” Ashley opined.

            Lorena swept her lights over yet another comatose Ouro, not even bothering to examine it closely.  The same condition was apparent enough.  “Ask if they need help?”

            DESIRE AID? he queried through the keyboard.

            SOME IN NEED, IF AID TO GIVE.

            WHERE ARE THOSE IN NEED?

            STORED.  AWAITING AID.  Lorena frowned.  “Ask where we find the storage.”

            LOCATE STORAGE?

            OBSERVE.  On cue, the 3D model Konoko had painstakingly built was obliterated on the screen, replaced with a fuller facsimile.  Indicators pulsed in the hearts of the cones nearest the boarding party.

            “How did it do that?” Vivek asked with a look to Obo.

            “They’re better at this.  Anything with AIs, we’re just kids playing around.  That’s open channel, though, not firewalled.”

            “Are you seeing this, Lorena?”

            “I see the new map, yes.  It’s convenient they’re so close.”

            The X.O. tried not to sound nervous.  “What if they go for the firewalls?  We can’t just disengage with you three away.”

            “Call it out, we’ll hurry back.  I’m not too worried.  If it’s talking to us, it could’ve done all that already.”

            Vivek sat back and rubbed the throbbing knot of pain at the back of his skull.  “Will do.  I should note, Doctor, that we don’t have the equipment to take Ouro aboard.  Whatever’s wrong with them, we’d probably help more running to the Navy.”  After a second of awkward dead silence, he followed up: “that’s just my opinion, ma’am.”

*          *          *

            They reached the top of the cone having seen six Ouro in total, none more active than the first.  Ashley had finally settled down and now it was Karl Genz who was off kilter, unable to find answers and perturbed by his helplessness.  This close to the structure’s open top, they looked up through a vast liquid gulf, dark but soothing, thoroughly steeped with quiet.  Their headlights didn’t cut far, but even at such distance they could see the other structures looming like mountains in fog, twinkling with lights and monitors like cities across a darkened bay.  Black spots that may have been Ouro or tricks of the light hung in stasis.  They looked up, which was down, into a world not their own.

            “Jesus,” Ashley breathed.  “It seems impossible.  It’s so big.”

            “Looked smaller on the outside,” Lorena agreed.

            Karl turned in a circle, surveying his instruments and checking them against Konoko’s map.  “The points indicated are…there, there, and there,” he pointed.  “Wherever you’d like to go first, Doctor.”

            “You won’t have time for more than one or two,” Vivek cautioned over the radio.

            “Got it.  That one,” said Lorena, painting the destination bright gold on their HUDs.  “Second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning.”

            She fired her thrusters at full throttle, pulling away from the others for a few seconds before they matched speed.  Still they moved slowly through the cavity.  “Marina” suits pulled good acceleration in vacuum, but Ouro suspension fluid was a different matter.  For one thing, the thrusters were aligned to propel the wearer chest-first in a standing position.  This was great in zero G, keeping workers from having to turn constantly, but in their present predicament it meant a great deal of obnoxious drag.  Lorena found she could lean forward and tilt the thrusters down to mitigate it, laboring onward.

            When they reached the next cone they saw portals ringing its flanks, rather than a large opening at the top.  The structure grew until it filled their vision, making it possible to ignore the dizzying negative space all around.  Down its side they plunged, through a portal, down a short tunnel, emerging into the great atrium inside.

            Where the first had been sparely functional—platforms on a spire, ample equipment—this was brilliantly decorated with spars of light.  Meter-thick shafts of what appeared to be glass stretched from wall to wall, regularly changing colors to forming lattices of undulating light.  When Lorena relaxed her eyes she thought she could perceive the faintest outlines of patterns in the light, suggestions that evaporated when examined too closely.  Rising from the atrium’s floor was a bowl-like structure, like an amphitheater with steep and ridged walls, centered around a tall obeliskian spire made from glass but presently darkened.  Teeming in those ridges about the spire were Ouro—packed closely together by the hundreds, utterly inert.

            Lorena came to rest against one of the glowing spars, watching the colors run like a brook under her gloved hand.  She struggled to slow her breathing.  Ashley and Karl just drifted, turning to take it all in, too rapt for fear.

            “Pilot Mohinder, I don’t suppose you’ve got any insight here.”

            “I actually do!” he squawked.  “That tower in the middle—or something like it—is a kind of communal computer.  That would explain the congregation down there.  Their mental bandwidth is so high, hundreds or even thousands can talk at once.  Or something like that.  It says ‘communing’ but I don’t know what that means for squid.”

            “Don’t call them squid,” Lorena clucked.

            “Not like they can hear me.”

            “We’ve got no idea what they can hear.”  She pushed off the light-up spar, drifting down to the next, climbing in that way down towards the bowl and the clustered Ouro.  Ashley and Karl followed as before, the junior Pilot warning the Tech of incoming obstacles when he got too immersed in his scanner.  The boarding party paused at the top of the bowl, their boots dangling just meters above the alien swarm.

            “They look different from the first ones,” Ashley observed.  “Those were drifting around, spaced out.  These are…piled.  They look dead.”

            “They are dead,” said Karl so simply it took the others an extra second to whip their heads around.

            “What?  You’re sure.”

            “Electric signals from the machinery around us, but nothing from them.  Look, they’re not even wearing harnesses.”  He was right.  Ashley dipped down below the rim, pulled up close to the nearest alien and reached to grip a tentacle.  She squeezed the rubbery flesh in her rubbery glove, but got no reaction.  Not even the unconscious groping of the first specimens.  If the superficial nerves weren’t firing, it was well and truly dead.

            “All of them?” Lorena could scarcely believe it.

            “It would appear so.”

            The C.O. hit her thrusters, surging past Ashley and down into the bowl.  She stretched out a hand to brush the Ouro she passed, seeing them flop loosely at her touch.  Why would the Ouro computer ask their aid?  Was it demented like the others?  Did it not realize its passengers were dead?  The spire in the center had no answers, though on approach she thought she saw life in its heart.

            Vivek interrupted her rumination, his voice tense enough to cut right through it.  “Doctor, I just got a priority request.  You’ll want to hear this.”

            “Is the Ouro computer talking again?  Ask it—“

            “It’s one of ours, Lorena.  Pre-loaded directives, the computer just brought them up.  Auth codes for both Navy and Contact.”

            “What the fuck could they want?”  Her agitation overrode decorum.

            When he sighed, she knew it was bad.  “Here’s the whole thing.  ’Directive: in the event of exobiology contact,’ emphasized, ‘with demonstrably deceased specimens,’ end emphasis, ‘deployed Terran Federal personnel are to make,’ emphasized, ‘all due effort to secure said specimens for immediate delivery to Terran Federal authorities,’ end emphasis, ‘and will execute such delivery with immediate haste.’”

            Ashley interpreted the circuitous phrasing.  “They want us to grab these things.  How could they know?”

            “My scanner would have fed the pertinent information to Konoko,” Karl replied.  “From there, it is an automated priority directive like any other.”  Such systems had been in place for decades, providing far-flung crews with plans for the rarest contingencies.  This certainly qualified.

            “So we’re not helping them,” Ashley stated flatly.  “We’re just grabbing some dead squid and boosting?  That’s what I got from ‘immediate haste.’”

            “That’s correct, Ash,” confirmed Vivek.  “Looks like the rescue mission’s over.  We can’t do anything to help them in any case.”

            “Well,” she grunted, gripping a pair of tentacles with her hands and hauling an Ouro off the wall, “this one’s as good as any, right?  Do we care which?  Cap’n?”

             Lorena Mizrahi didn’t hear her.  She was at the basin’s floor, just a dozen meters from the central communing spire, motoring slowly closer with eyes wide and mouth half-open.  Purple and green bloomed like blown embers in the creature’s heart.  Whispers snaked towards her, reached through the suspension fluid and the helmet and hair and scalp and bone.  They crossed the universe, arriving at long provident last in Lorena’s mind like an old friend walking in the door on a black snowblown night.

            You’re the same.

            You’re the same as me.

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