Karl Genz brought coffee for all, which for Karl was unusually considerate and for which Lorena made sure to praise him. Vivek was the only one to refuse, sipping instead from a foil sleeve of milk that warmed itself, like many other products, with the touch of a button. He sat quietly in the swiveling seat opposite Karl’s station while the rest of the crew worked through the news.
“I’m sorry, there’s just no way,” Ashley was insisting. “No way it’s just here when we fly in. Can you even imagine the numbers involved? Ship-to-ship collision just doesn’t happen outside the Core, like literally never. I’ve never heard of it. Vee?”
The X.O. didn’t answer. Zachariah Obo, reclining against the bulkhead by the door, uncrossed his ropy arms every so often to sip from his steaming paper mug. “Nothing ever happens until it happens. On in a million is one in a million, and the numbers go up for a ship so big.”
“The size doesn’t matter. In so much space, it might as well be Konoko’s size. It’s like the difference between an atom and a molecule to us. If you’d ever actually flown, you’d get that,” Ashley snapped, exasperated.
Lorena had held her tongue, immersed in thought, but interrupted to keep Ash from doing any more damage. It took a great deal to anger Obo, but she could tell he already seethed at the Junior Pilot’s provocation. “Duggins, they had no way to know we’d come this way and no way to see us incoming even if they did. It doesn’t matter, anyway. What matters is our next step. I’m going to hail them.”
“Didn’t know you spoke Ouro,” croaked Vivek. It was a poor joke—no human spoke Ouro, and even the aliens themselves didn’t properly speak it. Nobody laughed.
Ashley raised a hand. “I’m good to fly right now if the gen’s working. I say we scoot and call it in with the nearest Navy boat. Let Contact deal with it.”
Obo nodded. “She’s right about that. If they’re angry at the near emergence, we won’t make anything better now. If not, we leave and that's the end of it.”
“I would like to stay,” Karl said softly. “We should hail them. I have never seen an Ouro.”
Lorena, having expected each reaction, made a mental note to make a physical note of her predictive success. She was proud of herself; every Corps leadership course emphasized the value of anticipation. Taking a long drink from her coffee—hastily made and slightly sour—she assembled the explanation in her head. Orders washed down easier with a tall glass of reason.
“Having just emerged in immediate proximity to an Ouro vessel, in what might be described as a rude shock, we’ve remained in that proximity for several minutes without acknowledging said rudeness. We may not be a Contact ship, but Explorer Corps protocol makes our priorities clear. When encountering Ouro in the Open Territory, we are to make every effort at peaceful diplomacy. Now, if we’d emerged normally and picked them up across the system, I’d send the standard greeting chirp and dive away. But that’s not what happened. And my ship will emphatically not be the cause of a diplomatic incident with the only spacefaring race we know. Not on my watch, gentlemen and lady. So hail we will.”
* * *
The Ouro ship was much too distant to be visible, but aligning Konoko’s tightbeam antenna was a simple procedure. The flight computer matched the giant ship’s heading and speed, so as not to broadcast at a moving target. Lorena set the Communications console to broadcast Ouro signals, then sat back and pondered the menu before her. Roughly two dozen messages were listed, each a pre-recorded package with up to five sub-variants denoted with arcane symbols.
“That’s it?” Ashley wondered aloud.
“That’s all we’ve got,” confirmed Lorena.
Obo chortled. “How many things could you even say to a squid?”
Karl bit his tongue, trying to contain his excitement. Genuine dialogue with the Ouro was an incredible privilege, one you couldn’t count on even with a plum Contact posting. And how many people got those jobs?
Lorena had narrowed her choices down to three basic transmissions: an apology, a standard greeting or an offer of assistance. The last she discarded as potentially giving greater offense. The first was the most polite, but it was also an explicit admission of wrongdoing and she’d no idea how her superiors would react. For that matter, she’d no idea what precisely would go out to the aliens. Ouro “speech” couldn’t be translated directly, so she had no choice but to trust the prepared material.
“I’m going with the apology,” she announced to her crew.
Ashley leaned in over her shoulder. “Is there a ‘sorry our pilot almost pulverized us both into our component atoms’ button?” A wolfish grin at Vivek elicited no response.
Kael spoke up. “I would recommend personally the variant for trespassing. This is the Open Territory, but it would seem to fit.”
“Don’t say anything about territory,” Vivek mumbled.
Lorena was relieved to hear the X.O. shared her earlier line of thought. “Pilot Mohinder’s absolutely right,” she said to help boost his spirits. He might need it, she decided, between the stress and Ash’s needling. “Legally speaking, we shouldn’t get near the territory issue. What if they took it the wrong way? Even if they didn’t, Contact would pitch a fit.”
“’Occluded messaging,’ they call it,” nodded Obo.
“Then it’s settled,” Lorena declared. After priming the system to broadcast, she paused to take a breath and look out the bridge’s big screen where the open starfield was displayed. A broken lump of planetoid with wisps of white vapor in deep canyons on its shadowed side. FR-5594’s wan candle amidst a night of mind-rending emptiness. She looked out at the spot where the Ouro ship waited, so trivially tiny it couldn’t really be seen. Just let this be easy, she prayed to something she’d never admit to believing in, knowing all the while that life was rarely easy.
She pressed the button and with that muscle twitch sent a simple bundle of electrons rushing towards the Ouro. To the recipient, it would appear as a screen of finely textured blue-green that with undulating waves gradually darkened itself to indigo. A flood of bright orange swept over that darkened sea accompanied by burbling noises like underwater belches. The die was cast, though it took heart-pounding seconds to cross the gulf and land. Lorena waited, watching the screen, refusing to make contact with her crew’s questioning eyes and ticking off seconds in her head. At thirty-three, a green light indicated the Ouro had received the message. It was an automated acknowledgement from the other ship’s computers, so Lorena waited patiently for the aliens’ substantive response.
It did not come. Two minutes passed and still it had not come. “Send it again?” asked Karl, which made Lorena want to slap him. Protocol dictated a two-minute wait before repeating tightbeam transmissions. Obviously she’d send it again, and did so with an annoyed finger peck. Again the blue and the indigo and the orange, the guttural mutters that traveled so well in fluid but in that lifeless vacuum were absurd as human speech. Thirty-three seconds before the acknowledgement flashed green. Two minutes of dead silence. Lorena rapped the TRANSMIT key before anyone could speak, but speak they eventually did.
“If they don’t answer we’re bugging out, yes?” asked Obo with an arched eyebrow.
Ashley agreed. “If they don’t want to talk it’s none of our business.”
Lorena looked to Vivek, who held his tongue but shot her a pregnant look. He’d agree with whatever she said. If three hails went unanswered, they could depart without departing from protocol. At the same time, Konoko’s emergence had been so odd that she’d expected a response. A meaningless twerp from the Ouro antennae left her more than unsatisfied—she was suspicious. Two minutes passed with no response.
“Call it in, Doctor,” was Obo’s sage advice. Some C.O.s would have followed it. But Lorena Mizrahi wasn’t one of them, wasn’t about to spend her whole career running a damn clipper and was going to satisfy her curiosity.
“We’re going to try one more thing,” she said as her Systems Tech rolled his eyes. “I’m worried they might be in trouble. Karl, you said the power levels were low?”
“Yes, Doctor. Their engines are quiet and it would appear only basic systems are active.”
“Without knowing anything about the vessel, I can’t say. At this distance it’s not much above the background radiation.”
“All right, we’ll swing in and take a closer look. If they react or answer a hail, if everything seems normal, that’s it and we’re out. Is that acceptable?” Lorena tried to coax out their grudging agreement though she didn’t need it.
“Aye, Cap’n,” said Vivek with some renewed strength, swiveling his chair to the Sublight Navigation console. “I’ll take us in. What do you need, Genz?”
“A thousand kilometers to be safe. Again, I am not sure what to look for in civilian vessels. All my Ouro training was naval.”
“A thousand it is.”
Lorena reached to squeeze his shoulder. “Hand it off to Ash when you’ve set it up, then go lay down. Obo, check the C-H generator and ensure we’re ready to dive when the time comes.”
“Yes’m,” he said, ducking off the bridge. The task would keep him happy, tracking his own wishes to leave.
She addressed the remaining three crew. “I’m getting the first aid kit from the galley to patch up my knee. Keep those broadcasts going and call immediately if something changes. If the Ouro change course by one degree, I want to know about it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they replied in sloppy unison. Lorena left and shut the door behind her.
Silence reigned until the Communications console beeped; two minutes elapsed after the acknowledgement, another identical broadcast automatically sent. “They’re not going to answer,” Ashley predicted.
Vivek was finishing his instructions to the Nav computer. “I expect not,” he said as Konoko smoothly accelerated on an intercept course. None of them could feel it—the only indicators were festive green bars climbing on the screen.
“So what’s she going to do then?”
“You’ll have to ask her.”
“You must have some idea.”
He sighed and stood. “I’ve got a headache is what I have. Can you watch this while I go lay down?”
“Yeah. Wait a sec, Vee.” He paused and looked back to her. “What happened, exactly? During the dive.”
Vivek raised his long slender arms before letting them fall in a resigned gesture. “It was a normal run. I even turned down some shortcuts to set you a good example. On the final approach, the charts said to expect six orbiting bodies and I counted six, so there was no reason to change course. But we came in fast, so it wasn’t until the very end that I felt the obstruction. It was in a mass shadow before that, and it’s so small it could hide for a long time. Just bad luck to miss it.”
Ashley crossed her arms. “You believe in luck that bad? I don’t,”
Karl chipped in. “Like Mister Obo said, rare occurrences are rare. In an infinite universe—“
“Fine,” the Second Pilot put up her hands to indicate surrender. “I don’t have a solid case. It just feels strange.”
“It is strange,” Vivek assured her. “But you have to understand that’s bigger than anything you need to think about. It’s for Lorena to think about, and for me. You need to fly the ship, especially now. I’ve got to pass the auto testing, you remember?”
“Even for this?”
“Any sudden emergence. No matter how unlucky. So if the computer won’t clear me, you’re the only Pilot. Think about piloting. Not about conspiracies in your head.”
“You’ll do great,” he said with a warm smile.
“Hey, Vee?” Ash asked as he was halfway out the door. “I’m sorry for making fun of you earlier. I probably would’ve slammed right into it.”
“No you wouldn’t.” He left before she could reply. She was alone with Karl Genz, immediately reminded of her shower musings. With a hot face and a trickle of sweat down behind her ear, she focused on the console. She was convinced if she took one glance towards him, he’d notice and know. Karl, for his part, was utterly consumed by his readouts and would have noticed no such thing even if he’d looked.
* * *
Konoko closed the gap to a thousand kilometers, pulled parallel to the titanic Ouro craft and cut speed to match it. Lorena was back on the bridge, gauze bandage secured on her kneecap under a set of fresh coveralls. Once the tone sounded, Karl got to work with his most sensitive instruments. Ten minutes, he estimated. Still the aliens had answered no hails.
“Ashley, could you throw the Navy patrol routes for the O.T. up on the big screen?” Within seconds the empty starfield was replaced by a three-dimensional plotting of the surrounding space for a hundred light years. Blue parabolas carved their way through a dense cloud of stars and nebulae.
“We could meet the nearest one in…fourteen hours, probably less. Hell, I’ll promise you less. It’s a cruiser, too: the Nimbus.”
“Okay, plot that out. As soon as we ensure they don’t need help, we’re going.”
“Lorena, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but what help could we possibly offer?”
Karl spoke up. “If they’re stranded, we are likely to convey that message sooner than any other Ouro ships are likely to pick up a distress signal. Nimbus is a cruiser; she will have a T.P. unit for immediate contact with…well, with Contact.” He made a good point. A courier mission would be faster, electronic transmissions being limited by that mothafuckah C.
“If they were sending a distress signal, we’d have heard it by now.” Ashley also made a good point, one he wasn’t prepared to answer. “Maybe it’s disabled,” was his feeble response.
“Right. So let’s all admit the obvious: we have no clue what’s going on here or what the Ouro are doing. And we’re not likely to, because they’re aliens. They do alien things.”
“What is the point,” Karl wondered aloud, never taking lapis eyes off the screen, “of being an Explorer if you look away when things get interesting? You should want to find out.”
She waved away his rhetorical question. “I’m here to fly. Out in empty space, that’s my exploration. You’ve got your scanners and I’ve got my pod. We don’t have to want the same things.” Karl seemed to accept that. Lorena was proud of Ashley for not ending an argument with her typically abrasive brand of sarcasm. They sat quietly, biding their time in the endless loop of transmission, acknowledgement and silence.
“Doctor Mizrahi, I believe I am finished,” announced Karl. With a flick of the long fingers on his pale spiderlike hands, the Scanner Tech sent his console ghosting to the main screen. Where once thick glowing turmeric bands had marked the Ouro craft’s largest arteries, they were now refined into fine capillary systems. Cerulean blue organs spaced throughout the structure sucked up what power there was, but the color scale on the display’s lower right corner proved the Scanner Tech’s earlier supposition. One would expect red or purple tracings on a starship of such size, particularly with Ouro technology, and Karl said as much.
“But with that said,” he continued, “there is very little shielding anywhere on the vessel. We’re able to pick out which systems are which. See—well, the drive is obvious—but look down here along the ventral base. See this system, with the pylons radiating? And its counterpart on the dorsal side? That’s the convection system! To warm and process the environmental fluid!”
He was wobbling off into his own world. Genzland, Lorena called it, a land of wide open fields where arcane details romped and danced and gleefully mated in the tall grass. She reeled him back in with the lure of a concrete question. “Karl, is the life support running?”
He stopped mid-ramble to nod. “Yes. The hull’s too insulated to know if the fluid’s warm or circulating, but life support is powered.”
“What’s not, that you’d expect?”
“Engines, scanners, C-H generator, communications.”
Ashley spoke up. “So, everything you’d need to fly. To do anything but coast like they are.”
“Correct.” Karl had half-stood to point at the screen but now sat back down.
Lorena leaned forward in her chair. “I don’t see anything that looks like weapons.”
“The reactor is too small to power anything of the kind,” Karl agreed. “This is almost certainly a civilian ship.”
“Not that I can see, no gas or fluid trails either to indicate a leak. But it’s hard to tell without a visual inspection. The computer isn’t sure what to look for.”
“All right. Pilot Duggins, take us in.”
“What?” Ashley’s voice rose as she swiveled around. “What’s ‘in?’”
“A hundred kilometers should be enough for the scope, and we can circle at that range to see their whole hull.”
The Pilot punched in her instructions before noting, “What if they take offense?”
“They won’t. And even if they did, we’ve already sent so many apologies. We’re way ahead of the game.” Lorena showed her teeth; Ash just shook her head at the console. Lack of engagement was not typically a problem for the Ouro. The first face-to-nozzle summit had nearly gone awry when the human ambassadors suffered serious injuries from excessive handling. The Ouro reached out to the universe both literally and otherwise, grasping it firmly with all their tentacles and little thought for such Terrestrial contrivances as calcified bones. If putting Konoko in spitting distance of the ovoid behemoth didn’t trigger a curious reaction, Lorena, decided, she would consider things officially Amiss. Damn Ashley if she didn’t like it. The girl still didn’t realize quite where she was, and could use some practice following orders she’d rather not.
* * *
Zachariah Obo had just rebooted the Chen-Hau generator and found, to his surprise, everything in top condition throughout the drive system. No worse for wear after the sudden emergence, Konoko was ready to dive whenever her C.O. gave the order. Obo called up to the bridge. “We’re ready to get out of here on your word, Doc. She’s not smarting from a little spill.”
“Thank you, Mister Obo. Would you return to the bridge, please? I’d like your eyes on this.”
“On my way.” He hung up with a grimace. She wasn’t going to leave it alone, he told himself as he packed his diagnostic tools into their green canvas bag. After decades on starships without a scrap of sunlight, the dye remained verdant and unfaded. He’d made his pension and was only tacking on prorated bonuses, but when he thought about Lorena he couldn’t blame her. At her age, with so many years in the Corps, without a family and only a clipper post to show for it? He’d take risks too.
The hall from this compartment to the stairs and bridge ran by the Navigation Suite, and as Obo stepped out into that pale-lit expanse his stomach turned. Lorena’s coffee spill and the shattered remnants of her mug lay near the bulkhead along with a small streak of blood. He’d passed by the mess on his way in, but now found a drone tending to it.
It was built like a spider, a bulbous body atop eight slender legs with two manipulating claws at both head and tail ends. Another appendage stretched out a tube with a bulb at the end, using a laser to vaporize the spilled fluids and sterilize the deck beneath. The claws snapped up bits of broken ceramic and fed them into an open bin beneath the drone’s belly.
Obo paused and shook his head. It didn’t work. That gnawing stayed inside him, anxiety birthed nowhere rational but so thick it ran from the walls. He looked at the drone, working merrily away and aware of his presence but utterly uninterested. Claws and legs clicked like surgical instruments on the deck. Obo couldn’t move. Every inch of the floor was pregnant with danger. In his mind flashed a coherent image, a colored moving picture: a spiderlike robot, like this but bigger and slower and painted army beige, scouring Ma Ruben’s backyard with its claws and sharp legs. Every so often it would trill in warning before digging into the earth to extract metal cans the size of potatoes. You nevah run dayuh, Zachariah. You nevah play dayuh, not evah. No matter how many steel potatoes it harvested for the white army men who’d come to “clean everything up.” Everything got better but never totally clean and one day Ma Ruben’s dog Jimmer blew himself to scraps in her backyard. Prahblee da lass one, she predicted while crossing herself.
He tried to clear his mind, think of anything else, and eventually he settled on Marietta. It’s not real, she’d say stroking his close-trimmed scalp running with sweat even on a cool night. This is real. This is real, he told himself now, the bulkhead and the deck and the lifeless fluorescent panels set in the ceiling. This is real, he said as he ran in a sprint down the hall past the drone up the stairs to the bridge door. His hand pressed against it; the metal was cool and a rivet dug into the flesh of his thumb. This is real. Taking a step back and a deep breath, Obo pressed the stud to open the door.
The others might have noticed his sweat sheen or hard breathing were they not all fixated on the big screen. Channeling the perspective of an EM telescope on Konoko’s outer hull, it showed the Ouro ship in fine detail.
“When I saw the engine reads kick up, I thought we'd be coming closer,” Zachariah breathed. “But god damn.”
“She’s beautiful,” Karl breathed as Ashley rolled her eyes.
“We’re doing a pass around it,” Lorena filled in her Systems Tech. “I want you to point out any damage you can see. The computer doesn’t know what it’s looking at.”
“Do my best, ma’am. She looks intact from here. I assume they’ve still not answered?”
She shook her head curtly. “Ash, take us for a lap. Everyone else keep an eye out.”
“I don’t really need to watch the screen,” Ashley pointed out as she ignited the thrusters. The two ships had been drifting in tandem, neither appearing to move while they both cruised at two thousand kilometers per second past the background. Konoko’s round prow nosed to the right as blue light flared from under her belly. Her horseshoe crab shape swept down and under the immense ovoid, keeping a hundred-kilometer distance and rolling to hold the ventral telescope in place. Though upside down relative to the Ouro vessel and facing away, Konoko’s crew perceived themselves to be looking straight up at its belly.
Though micro-impacts had left light scars, its hull was otherwise smooth as an eggshell. “Those are the scanners,” Karl explained of the large blisters adorning its flanks.
“With those powered down, can they even see us?” Ashley wanted to know.
“This close, yes. Their own internals should already have taken our readings.”
“If anyone’s home, they’ll see us,” Obo agreed. “I’ve got no damage anywhere, but a bunch of random scoring from debris. Don’t get those in a C-H field. Could be an old ship, or they could have been out here a long time.”
As Konoko looped around and flipped once more to look at the dorsal side, they emerged from shadow into sunlight. Obo whistled and pointed to the rear, where FR-5594 illuminated streaks of white near the thrusters. “Look at that ice. Nobody’s touched those engines in a long time.”
Lorena peered in and nodded, impressed. “They’re marooned.”
“Maybe the ship’s abandoned,” Ashley volunteered.
“Genz, can you scan for life?”
He grimaced. “Not in an Ouro ship. The fluid masks their signatures.”
The C.O. stood and clapped her hands decisively. “Well, then. There’s one thing left to do. Obo, have you checked the suits since we left base?”
“No ma’am, it’s only a month. I’m not worried about the suits, I’m worried what you want to do with them.”
She ignored him. “Duggins, go below and wake Pilot Mohinder. We’re going to need all hands for this.”
Ashley’s face wore a blank stare. “For what, ma’am?”
She truly had no idea, Lorena realized, and for that reason relished watching that look fall as she explained. “We’re going to suit up and pay the Ouro a visit.”
NEXT TUESDAY: PART FOUR, IN WHICH (nasal 1930s radio serial voice) OUR INTREPID HEROES BATTLE AGAINST A NEFARIOUS ALIEN MENACE FOR THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY! EXPERIENCE THE SIGHTS, SOUNDS AND THRILLS OF...FIELDS! WITHOUT! FENCES!