Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Ten

Credit: Dmitry Popov


            It was not the first time Zachariah Obo had found himself in a cell.  Where he’d come up, the local authorities’ preferred discipline for rowdy youths was to throw them in jail for a few hours, or overnight, or however long it took for their parents to claim them.  This might be quite a while, depending on how busy or drunk they might happen to be.  During the highest tides, when brackish water flooded the fields and low-lying industrial sectors, nobody could work and so the whole island ground more or less to a halt until the sea receded.  The warming and rising of the seas had been arrested, but some damage was irreversible.  The U.N. established a trust fund to compensate those regions most affected.

            Stashing youthful truants in the jails turned out to be a poor strategy.  It was merely an opportunity to meet other truants.  Incarceration inconvenienced Obo, but it offered countless new friendships.  He learned more in a jailbird night than a classroom week.  The youth gangs became professional outfits in record time, which ironically offered more chance at self-improvement than any honest work in the neighborhood.  Bilging floodwater out of cellars?  Not an easy sell to young Zachariah.

            Had his parents done a poorer job of raising him, he might have continued down that road.  They were content to spring him from the clink, more than a few times, but knew something was wrong when Zachariah spent all his time away yet didn’t end up in jail.  He’d grown too criminally talented, and they’d be damned if their son would end up a common gangster.  So they rolled him up with his clothes and duffel onto a rickety old plane and sent him far away.  I kept you safe from the guns and the bombs, his mother had lamented, but I can’t protect you from yourself.

            There was no spaceport on the island, so the plane took him to Havana.  From there he took another to Mexico City and it was from the titanic dome-shamed facility overlooking the City’s sunken pit that Zachariah Obo went roaring to meet the stars.  A crammed, rattling, windowless shuttle lifted him to Luna Dock, where just minutes from disembarking the disoriented teen caught his first glimpse of the planet Earth.  Having always suspected his surroundings were limited, the sight of his home from nearly four hundred thousand miles away—reduced to a speck on a blue marble so tiny a single wisp of cloud casually obscured it—this moment more or less proved it.  Suddenly the vast scaffold of Luna Dock seemed less terrifying than tantalizing.  He had come so far, Zachariah told himself.  No matter what the universe held, it couldn’t be meaningfully farther.

            He spent the next two weeks on a groaning, stinking passenger freighter, wandering laps around the steerage decks, evading robbery and stabbings until at last he arrived at Brixton Station.  Uncle Max picked him up off the gangway, took him to a dingy apartment in the worker tenements and explained the house rules.  Work started at 1630 finished at 0700, unless they were lucky enough to score overtime hours.  Uncle Max—not his proper uncle but a friend of the family—would fill the day’s remaining hours with a rigorous course of study, applied from ancient textbooks with a disintegrating cover and yellow pages.  There’d be no carousing, no drinking and certainly no girls.

            The three years following seemed to take a long time but left nearly no memories in Zachariah’s dead aside from the figures Max made him memorize.  The older man got his paychecks and so if Obo wanted to leave, he would have been penniless and alone.  Young people did not do well on Brixton Station without support, though the famous riots were still years away.  So Zachariah did his schoolwork without complaining much.  Daily he and Max packed their lunches, boarded the shuttle down to Kantor VI’s massive terraforming installations, donned pressure suits and sowed microbe-fertilizing chemicals over tracts of land before shuttling back up to Brixton.  For the first few months, he was constantly disoriented and struggling to sleep—the station had no proper day or night, but the planet did and it cared nothing for twenty-four-hour timekeeping.  With time, he settled into the routine.  Some young men might have reacted very badly, but Zachariah Obo looked out the viewports from those shuttle rides and couldn’t even see his home star.  He had come so far, had just begun to learn what far really meant, and knew he was meant to go farther.

            He didn’t tell Uncle Max when he applied to Brixton’s university—a real, accredited institution whose issuance of a paper slip would fantastically enhance his prospects.  He didn’t tell Max when he got accepted, nor when he filled out the financial aid forms and explored what part-time employment might lie open to the Station’s students.  He told Max only when his bags were packed and ready to go.  He expected the older man to be angry: angry at him for leaving, for being an ungrateful bastard and all that.  Instead Max was angry that he’d never been told, at Zachariah for having filled out those financial aid forms.  Because why, after all, had he been socking away part of his charge’s pay if not to provide for the lad’s education?  Idiocy, he declared.  You’ll just have to get those forms back.  Your mama told me, keep you outta the slam.  Learning’s how you stay out.

            Zachariah Obo laughed out loud thinking about this, letting it ring off the blank walls and steel bars, drawing irritable looks from the Marines on duty.  He’d come far, just as he’d always promised himself.  From a mildewing cinderblock cell in the Antilles to a spotless brig on an illustrious Navy cruiser.  It would be hard to propel himself farther.

*          *          *   
      
            “Boring,” pronounced Beatrice with an executioner’s certainty.  “Same.  Same.  Oh, I like him.”

            Lorena giggled, sitting back on the enormous bed, running her fingers over the buttons of her entertainment suite’s remote.  She’d been the last to leave the Med Bay, since her recent “episode” had mandated a great battery of tests, and since her crew had dispersed she retired with Beatrice to their assigned lodging.  Luxury abounded with as little ostentation as possible, suffering it to crop up in such absurd accoutrements as the zero-gravity bathtub.  Lorena swore not to spoil herself, but compromised with the climate-controlled bed and seemingly limitless entertainment options.  Thousands of films waited in the catalogue, at least a dozen of which she’d intended to see during her last leave and another dozen of which she’d missed the leave before.

            “I want to like him.  But it seems like all he does is take his clothes off and squint.”

            “What a squint.  Shooting blue lasers everywhere.  And that stomach, I want to hammer in pitons and scale him like El Capitan.”

            “You’ve never even been there.”

            “Yes, I have.  With you and your father.  We were fourteen.”

            “I don’t remember.”

            “We ran out of water on a long hike, drank from a stream when your dad told us not to and had the shits for a week.”

            “Oh.  Yeah.”

            “Yeah.  It takes that to remind you?”  Beatrice stuck out her tongue.

            “Fine, you win.  We’ll watch this one.”  Lorena laid down the remote.

            “You know this won’t be simple, right?” Bea remarked during a slow scene, in which the male lead retained every stitch of his clothes and seemed to read his lines for the very first time from some off-camera cue card.  “They’re going to fuck with us.”

            “We didn’t do anything wrong.”

            “That’s not the point and it never has been.  This is about wanting.  They want something and they think you can get it for them.”

            “Who’s ‘they’ in this formulation?” asked Lorena with a kind of verbal eye roll.

            “Boguns.  Navy.  Contact.  Whomever put that directive in Konoko’s computer.  They want an Ouro, Lorena.  It’s obvious.”

            “I’m not sure it is.  There are layers to these things even before the intra-service politics come in.”

            “And these ‘layers’ explain everything?”

            “Maybe.  Maybe not.  My point is, we don’t know anything.”

            “We know the A.I. sat on its hands ‘til the instant you found a dead one.  Suddenly an aid mission becomes a grab-and-go.”

            “That’s fair.”

            “Finally, we agree.  They want Ouro.  And Boguns vanished for half an hour because, somehow, he thinks you can deliver one.”

            “He might think it, but that’s ridiculous.  If they really want, they can pull up our Nav data and go see themselves.  Plenty of corpses left on that ship.”

            “I suppose,” Beatrice conceded.

            At some point during the film—frustratingly, during one of the less-clothed scenes—Lorena’s Navy pager squawked from the bedside table, a particularly obnoxious tone made worse by the timing.  “Wait two minutes,” she groaned, rolling over and extending her arm over immaculate white sheets to snatch the device.  A touch of her finger projected a small holographic faux-screen across which text began to scrawl.

            “Right, there’s no way he’s lasting longer,” Bea wolfishly grinned.

            “What the fuck,” Lorena complained at the page.  “Obo’s in the brig.”

            “How’d he pull that off?”

            “Doesn’t say.  Just says, ‘detained Hangar Four.’”  She stood up from the bed, arched her back and felt a cathartic pop.

            “Are we going?”

            “You can stay if you want,”

            “If I want,” Bea snarked, standing up herself, smoothing down the small wrinkles in her dark purple crushed-velvet slacks, sweeping reflected light down her legs like shimmering oil as Lorena snatched her Explorer Corps coveralls off the floor.

*          *          *          

            Vivek met them at the nearest tram station.  Lorena waited there for him, chewing her lip, plotting out scenarios as even Beatrice stayed silent.  She insisted on meeting here, on the near side of the tram ride, lest Navy reps waiting at the Shipboard Security stop separate her from her X.O.

            She saw him from a distance, his blue Corps jumpsuit standing out amidst the grey and yellow Navy uniforms.  “What the hell did he do?” Vivek asked once they were close enough to speak quietly.

            “They detained him in Hangar Four, near Konoko.  Didn’t say what for.”

            “I can’t imagine,” sighed the Pilot.  “Maybe he tried to get back on board and they thought he was trespassing?”

            The tram arrived, cracking seams in its garish orange skin to disgorge passengers.  Lorena, Vivek and Beatrice stepped in once they’d finished filing out, joining with the flood of humanity that rushed in and left them pressed against the tram wall.  Eyes were on them—assaulting them, innocently, by the hundreds.  Lorena imagined a mathematical plot of Nimbus’ crew and their awareness of Konoko’s presence.  Every passing hour brought the proportion nearer to 1.  She hated their attention in this moment, like men staring from a street corner imagining themselves more virtuous than the catcallers.  In such a setting, Obo’s detention was the absolute last thing in the galaxy she wanted to discuss.  But she looked to Bea, saw her friend’s contemptuous smirk and the tiniest shrug of her shoulders.  Nothing to be done.  If they weren’t perfectly unified by the time they reached the Brig, they wouldn’t get another chance to conference.  So she reached up to take a handhold, squeezed so hard her forearm hurt and forced herself to engage.

            “Mohinder.”

            “Yeah?”  He’d stared resolutely at the ground but now looked at her.

            “I think you should be angry.  When we talk to them, you should be angry.”

            Vivek blinked rapidly.  “About Obo?  What’s that going to accomplish?”

            “If we go in asking ‘what’d he do,’ then they get to air the first grievance.  It becomes about what he did and how we owe them.  It should be, ‘what have you done with our people?’”

            He was unconvinced.  “I don’t know how well they’ll respond to that.”

            “It doesn’t matter.  All that matters is, we lay down that baseline.  Make them respond on our terms.  And I could do it, but I’m the C.O.”

            “And a woman besides.”

            She let out a bitter chortle, noticing how uncomfortable Vivek’s last words had made the eavesdropping tram crowd.  “Thanks for not leaving me to say it.  Show them some teeth—they’ll respect you and maybe even listen to me.”

            Vivek sighed, shut his eyes, twitched his neck backwards to tap his smooth skull on the wall in irritation.  “You know this isn’t my gig.  I’m no good at playing the heavy.”

            She pulled at the handhold, twisted her body against the tram’s momentum and bumped his shoulder affectionately.  “Don’t need to be.  Just act the fool for now.  For me.”

            They disembarked at the appropriate station, discovering most of the teeming workers were elsewhere-bound and having to push through them to reach the door.  On the platform beyond waited a Marine Sergeant, feet planted at shoulder width, hands clasped at the base of his spine.  He drew their eyes without saying a word, moving his right hand to salute.  His nameplate read BOLLER in primly embossed black letters on polished brass.

            “Doctor Mizrahi, Pilot Mohinder,” he nodded curtly at their approach.  “Follow me, please.”  Without waiting for acknowledgement, the Marine turned on a booted toe and took them Brigwards.

            “Why are you holding our Tech?” Vivek demanded sharply when they’d taken a few steps.

            The Marine didn’t look back at him.  “I’m not authorized to speak regarding any of your crew.  Admiral’s classified your presence on board.”

            This seemed absurd, given the attention they’d already received—of which Obo’s detention was sure to draw more.  “So you won’t tell us the charges?”

            “Again, you’ll have to talk to the Admiral.  But between you and me, he won’t be charged.  Not worth the paperwork, ‘specially once you consider there’s two sets.”  He meant for the two Federal services involved.  Lorena had never encountered a prisoner hand-off situation like that the Marine described and could only imagine the bureaucratic demons it would unleash.

            They walked in silence through double doors whispering apart like reflective curtains, through the scanners at the checkpoint.  Boller announced himself, lasers flicked over each of their right eyes and a second pair of doors yielded.  They passed through an office filled with busy sailors at their monitors, capable of surveying nearly any spot on the ship.  From there, into a small undecorated room with soundproofed walls and a two-way mirror.  It was an interrogation room, which might have made Lorena nervous if not for the nice chairs they’d clustered around the single small table—to say nothing of the pastries tastefully arrayed on a black marble-patterned serving tray.  Commander Boguns, reclining, stretched out a hand to proffer the treats.

            “Doctor!  I’m sorry we have to speak again under these circumstances.  Your man Mister Obo found himself detained through simple misunderstanding.”

            They sat and Boller departed.  Vivek was steely-eyed, sticking to their plan.  “Explain.”

            “We…” he searched for a good word, “neglected to explain that sweep teams were being sent aboard your craft.  Mister Obo wasn’t aware the gangway was closed.”

            “With respect, Commander, I don’t believe your people have the right to exclude us from our ship.  We are not a Navy vessel, not under the Navy’s purview.”

            Boguns chortled “You’re correct, Mister Mohinder, and none of you were barred from the ship proper.  But the gangway is our purview, and Mister Obo took exception to being delayed.”

            “Took exception?”

            “He got a little heated.  The Marines weren’t sure what to do, and so they did what Marines do when they’re unsure.  They overreacted.”  He shrugged with a tired smile.

            Lorena doubted they’d get a better apology.  “So he’ll be released?”

            “Yes, once we’re done talking I’ll bring him in.  While we’re at it, would you page the rest of your crew?  There are some…new developments they’ll need to catch up with.”

            “All right.”  Lorena pulled out her tablet, sent out quick pages with flicks of her index finger.

            “Command got back to us over the T.P.  They’ve taken an interest in your recent adventures.”

            “Navy Command?”

            He paused, sighed, rubbed his brow and cleared phlegm from his throat.  “Look, Admiral Xiyu wants everything on need-to-know, but I frankly I think you do.  It’s unfair not to tell you.  It’s a bit of Navy, bit of Contact.  Maybe your folks are involved too.  Either way, they’re taking your discovery very seriously.”

            “It’s no real discovery.  We’ve got no idea what happened in that ship, before we arrived or after.”

            “Do you know, Doctor Mizrahi, how many intact Ouro specimens the Contact labs have been able to get their hands on?  Historically?”  Lorena sat back silent.  Why would she know that?  “The number is zero, Doctor.  Squid won’t allow it, have no interest in a cadaver exchange.  I don’t know if it’s religious, or what.  Nobody really understands ‘em.  That’s where your directive came from.  It’s been standing, apparently, for years.  Longer than I’ve been in the service.  Hell, I bet they forgot it until you showed up here to remind ‘em.  Just your luck,” he grinned, taking a sweet cheese pastry from the tray and sinking his teeth into it.

            “So it’s an R.T.B?” Return-to-base, in the acronym-laden parlance the militarized services preferred.

            “If only, Doctor.  Just the opposite.  They want you to go out again.  Further and farther.  They want you to find another one.”

            “An Ouro corpse?”

            “A whole ship full of ‘em.”

            Vivek’s jaw dropped, utterly breaking his character.  Lorena could hardly begrudge him, finding herself in a similar state.  “You can’t be serious.  That’s…impossible.”

            “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.  Did it once, after all.”

            “That’s was dumb luck.  A billion-to-one accident.  We crashed out—

            “I know!  I know!” Boguns raised his palms innocently.  “Contact thinks they can help you.”

            “How?”

            “Well, I’m not sure how to put it, so I roped someone else in to do this.  I’ve brought Nimbus’ Contact rep down here to explain the, uh…technical details of your new assignment.”  He reached under the tabletop to press a hidden button.  “Corporal, will you send in the Emissary?”

            Into the interrogation room strode a compact woman, tautly muscular, poured into a tight black jumpsuit with winglike blue markings on its shoulders.  She wore no insignia of rank, no nameplate—distinguished only by her uniform’s severity and the lattice of implants under her skin.  Like exaggerated blue veins around her eyes, down her cheekbones and across to her temples, a masquerade adornment of linked processors offered her a host of enhanced abilities.  Most were classified, and Lorena could only imagine the other implants hidden under the Contact jumpsuit.  The Emissary nodded curtly and sat, taking in the Explorer Corps officers with reflecting silver irises.  She radiated a quiet suffocating frost, knew it, was content to let others bask in it.

            “Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, Commanding Officer, ECV Konoko,” Lorena introduced herself to break the ice.

            “Pilot Vivek Mohinder, Executive Officer,” Vivek joined in.

            The Emissary curled her lips into the tiniest smile.  “Emissary Yana Saint Julien, Contact Second Division.  You’ve been given a great opportunity, Doctor Mizrahi.  A real chance to advance human knowledge, and trust me when I say that I am not prone to exaggeration.”  The last words she hammered out with a relentless and precise velocity in her smoky voice.

“I will assume,” she continued at the same high speed, “for the purposes of this conversation that yourself and Pilot Mohinder have no exobiology experience beyond the standard training instruction.  I will also assume you understand everything said from this point onward is classified to the limit of your authorizations.”  Paused a moment, allowing them to nod.  “Very well.  The life history of the Ouro is poorly understood.  We’ve seen adult individuals through various Contact channels and exchange programs, but never their larvae and never their infirm.  We don’t know how long they live, we don’t know for certain if they experience senescence in any way.  We’ve also been unable to retrieve any intact anatomical samples outside of simple tissue cultures.  With a whole specimen we might begin to draw conclusions but thus far have had no luck.  Until your serendipitous crash-out, Pilot Mohinder.”

“One way to put it,” Vivek grumbled.

“Among our chief suspensions regarding Ouro senescence was something akin to what Terran octopi experience.  Given their similarly distributed superficial nervous systems, they seem to share a certain intellectual detachment from the physical body.  An individual who lives for sufficiently long and reproduces will develop advancing dementia.  The mind drifts and the neglected body eventually dies.”

“If it walks like an octopus and talks like one…” Bea whispered over Lorena’s shoulder.

“We—by which I mean Contact alongside our Naval colleagues—believe the Ouro you encountered succumbed to precisely this sort of phenomenon.”

“All at the same time?” Vivek asked, incredulous.

“Not quite.  You yourselves saw specimens in varying states of dementia and decay.  But you are correct in your larger assumption.  We believe they were all of similarly advanced age and had gathered on the vessel for precisely that reason.”

“To go demented together?”

“In so many words, yes.  The Ouro are highly social-communal organisms and our projections count this firmly within the realm of possibility.  And it matches up with our long-range traffic telemetry.”  The Emissary extended her fingers, from whose tips leapt a cloud of light.  A holographic projection hovered over the table: the Open Territory and charted Ouro space arrayed in blue and orange.

“We’ve tracked what Ouro craft we can over the years through gravity and emission signatures,” she continued as red threads crawled outward from Ouro systems.  “Eventually Contact search algorithms isolated consistent anomalies: relatively small civilian craft outbound towards the Open Territory that we never picked up again.”

“Where’s this data come from?” Lorena interrupted.

The Emissary took a long, slow blink.  “From you, Doctor.  Explorer Corps ships are constantly collecting data for us to aggregate.  It’s half the reason your service is funded.”

Lorena felt angry, but wasn’t sure why and in any case couldn’t afford to bite back.  “Given the distances involved, your plotting must lose ships all the time.”

“Indeed, but the vast majority re-appear elsewhere.  These never did, which is why they were flagged as anomalous.  Your task will quite simply be to find them.”

“Impossible.”

“Hardly.  Even one may hold hundreds of specimens.”

“Why don’t you run back to the one we found?  You know where it is and Konoko made the run in fourteen hours.”

St. Julien grinned condescendingly, showing her teeth that seemed too white and straight.  “That’s off the table, Doctor, for reasons that should be perfectly obvious.  Diplomacy.  That vessel’s computer was perfectly aware of your presence and so it may very well have broadcast to its fellows.  One Terran ship docking could be written off as an accident—as indeed it seems to have been.  If we arrive and take specimens, it will seem to them an unmistakable violation and all the more so for our Navy identification.  We look to avoid such needless conflict.  Your ship and crew are perhaps not the ideal tools for this occasion, but they’re the best to hand.  With the data we’ve collected, your chances of encountering a second craft substantially exceed zero.”

Lorena crossed her arms.  “I will say right now and for the record, I am emphatically opposed to this.  Not only is it a departure from our ongoing mission—“

“You’re on a tour, Doctor.  We’re simply altering your itinerary.”

“I can’t even begin to describe the problems here.  My crew is already traumatized from the last encounter.  One of our pilots is having chem reactions after her dives.  You’ve got to find someone else.”

“There is no one else, Doctor.  That is quite deliberate.”

“I don’t understand.”

“At present only one five-man Explorer Corps crew are the only people outside the Federal command structure to know about this assignment.  So it will stay.  A work crew is making accommodations to your ship, and we have temporary solutions available for your pilot.”

“What if I refuse the mission?  Explorer Corps guidelines state—“

Silver eyes stared Lorena down like the heart of a dead star.  “They state nothing relevant, Doctor.  We’ve already cleared your temporary hand-off to Navy Command.  The Corps has left you in our hands.  So you may refuse, at which point you and your crew will spend the rest of the Nimbus’ current cruise in this very Brig, awaiting your courts-martial.  I don’t mean to bully, Doctor, but you’re an intelligent woman and it should be perfectly clear that in this matter you don’t have a choice."

NEXT TUESDAY: HUMANITY STRIDES FORWARD, ASHLEY DUGGINS STUMBLES DRUNKENLY BACK. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES WITH PART ELEVEN!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Nine



            The Terran Federal Navy cruiser TNV Nimbus was first laid down on the morning of June 29th, at the Daesun-Kuwat Drive Yards orbiting Titan.  A flotilla of tugs with sputtering blue thrusters hauled the great alloy transom under Jupiter’s baleful stare and Saturn’s cool regard, anchoring in place a spine for the leviathan to grow around.

            Once positioned on the immense drydock, it sat untouched for six months.  The Yards hadn’t planned to start work until the next year, but elections were held in October.  Moving the transom in June allowed a number of politicians to say the Nimbus project had started, and so Daesun-Kuwat gamely went along.  If the Navy wanted to pay six months of docking fees, who were they to tell the boys in blue their business?  Elections came and went, and in January work began in earnest.

            The spine measured 1500 meters, to accommodate a final hull length of 1680 meters.  Nimbus was the largest free-flying spacecraft ever drafted, though later decades would see a slew of progressively impressive dreadnoughts.  The planners picked that size to sell the project: “She’s a mile long!” was a fantastic line to sell taxpayers on such an undertaking without inviting them to ask uncomfortable questions, such as whom exactly this warship was meant to fight.  The Ouro were too inscrutable to really gin up conflict, and nobody in any case believed the Navy was a match for their technology.  But the project was approved, designed and ultimately awarded to the only company submitting a bid.  The fact that Daesun-Kuwat had the only facilities even capable of such an undertaking was a lamentable reality to which the politicians threw up their hands.  If only, they tutted, the failing school systems produced enough talented youth to start shipwrighting mega-corporations of their own…

            The reactor they installed first, brought in from D-K’s Martian assembly plant by an armada of the same unglamorous tugs.  They were the only firm, after all, with the facilities to build the kind of power plant this ship would need.  It was an obvious choice.  Once the custom-built core was mounted near the spine’s aft, squads of plasma-torch-wielding workers assembled Nimbus’ skeleton.  She was shaped like a T: a kilometer-long fuselage extending from a broad winglike base.  Engines were attached onto her core, spreading out into six enormous thrusters.  They fleshed out her abdomen, leaving ample spaces for crew housing and agricultural facilities.  Twelve hundred men and women would rely on her, and among her many selling points was her theoretically indefinite cruise duration.  This would save the taxpayers millions, they asserted, though this was never truly researched.  Once funding for Nimbus cleared the Senate, the question became academic.

            Into her hull was set a dizzying arsenal—weapons from a dozen manufacturers and twice as many sources.  Legislators had to vote on the project, after all, and manufacturers in their districts were constituents like anyone else.  So in went the lasers, the particle projectors, the large missiles and the small missiles to intercept incoming missiles, should anyone be so nefarious as to deploy them.  Turreted ballistics around the wingtips, protecting the hangars ensconced within, because someone would need to be contracted to build those smaller ships and Northrop Grumman was furious about Daesun-Kuwat’s windfall.  Two full fighter wings, a bomber wing and a squadron of Marine transports later, everyone was satisfied and the turrets had something worth protecting.  Last of all went in Nimbus’ primary weapon: a railgun ostentatiously codenamed Jotun.

            He (for the engineers couldn’t help so dubbing such a stridently phallic device) ran from the rear ventral hull all the way down the belly and fuselage to the cruiser’s nose.  It had never been fired in anger—only tested—but propelled a metric ton of magnet-cased antimatter to roughly one-third lightspeed by the time it erupted from Jotun’s maw.  “You could blow a hole in the fuckin’ Moon,” its Chief Engineer has denied saying.  The weapon’s very existence was problematic: a chorus of protest had arisen at the possibilities inherent in such a device, yet fourteen conservative legislators made it their top priority.  Four Marine bases had closed the year before for fiscal reasons and this crucial bloc was eager to “stick it” to their opposition.  Canny maneuvering inserted the Jotun provision before Nimbus reached the main floor, at which point only minimal opposition remained.  A win for the hawks—too rare, they told themselves, in such troubled times.

            Two years, ten months and eleven days after the real work began, Nimbus was commissioned above Titan’s roiling orange clouds.  She traveled under thruster power to Lunar orbit, where Navy specialists installed the delicate and exotic materials for her most advanced systems.  Larger Chen-Hau drives had been constructed: one-offs used to move space stations, far cries from the machinery the cruiser would need for a lifetime of service, and so the Navy commissioned a custom drive.  A fully mobile craft had never mounted a tachyon pulse transmitter, so everyone involved with the project could point to yet another “first.”  She was crewed at Luna and eventually launched to spectacular fanfare.  No fewer than thirty-three Navy personnel were arrested and over a hundred hospitalized following the festivities, most for behavior related to chemical consumption.  Given the number of line officers involved, the Navy determined these infractions were best overlooked.  TNV Nimbus made her first dive commanded by Admiral Trindon Galloway and helmed by Commander Kumiko Tsutsuki.  She remained the Navy’s pride and joy, through three C.O.s and no wars, until the launch of TNV Damascus some fourteen years later.

*          *          *

            “That is quite a thing,” marveled Karl Genz, watching the cruiser grow on the big screen.  Konoko motored towards her at sublight speed—it was only a ninety-minute trek from their emergence point, and Lorena wasn’t willing to risk a short-range “dip” in the Chen-Hau field to save so little time.  Nimbus was in easy communications range anyway; had they emerged with a separation of light-hours, she’d have faced a real dilemma.

            Konoko, we have you booked on approach to Hangar Four.  Over.”

            Lorena pressed TRANSMIT.  “Copy, Nimbus.  Thanks for your patience.”

            “No worries, Konoko.  We’ve been on station two days and you’re our first action.  Welcome back to civilization.”

            “You’re a candle in the dark, Nimbus.  Konoko out.”

            The little horseshoe-crab clipper hummed alongside the cruiser’s lengthy fuselage, instantly grabbing the attention of anyone looking out through the starboard viewports and stoking the rumors already filtering aft from the Comm Center.  Explorer Corps vessels did not, as a general rule, pay visits to Navy cruisers except in case of emergency.  So deep in space, everyone wanted an excuse to occupy himself.  Into the outer hangar on the cruiser’s starboard wing they rode under computer guidance, the two ships chattering back and forth as one worked to align itself with the guidance lasers mounted in another.

            Konoko slid through the hangar’s confined space at three meters per second, deftly maneuvering herself around cranes, stanchions and craft already moored to rest alongside a Shrike-class interceptor.  Perhaps one-eighth the clipper’s size, the Navy fighter had cost more to construct—provided one ignored the former’s Chen-Hau drive.  An array of high-performance engines allowed twelve G’s of acceleration, and affixed to the tip of each swooping wing was a weapon mount on a fully articulated swivel.  A Shrike could deliver volleys of superheated plasma to two simultaneous targets regardless of their positioning.  If the Navy ever encountered a foe more fearsome than petty pirates, they would certainly be prepared.

            Konoko’s nose thrusters gave a last pulse.  Docking arms accordioned towards her, arresting the last of her momentum short of the hangar bulkhead and adhering to her lateral docking ports.  A tone sounded throughout her corridors, awfully grating for what should have been a happy occasion.  Zachariah Obo unhooked himself from his chair’s safety straps, moseyed from the bridge to the nearest docking port and released the airlock safeties.  With an ear-popping hiss, the door sprang open to reveal the gangway’s luminous white corridor.  Two pressure-suited Navy Techs appeared at the far side, waving greetings.  Obo returned the gesture and turned back to call the others.

            The petty officers escorted them all from one ship to the other, toting worn green duffels of personal effects.  Nimbus smelled different, which was odd since both craft employed the same cleaning drones.  Navy brass had ardently resisted their introduction for years, invested in the sacred swabbing of decks, but time wears all mountains down.  A medical team met them at the gangway’s end, likewise pressure-suited.  Lorena noted the Techs hadn’t removed their helmets.

            “Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, Commanding Officer,” she declared.

The medics read their scanners intently.  The Techs saluted.  “Potter, ma’am.  Petty Officer Second.  Since you mentioned the Ouro earlier, Commander Bogun’s instructed us to perform a medical sweep.  It’s a precaution.”  Ashley rolled her eyes.  After a moment, one of the medics gave a thumbs-up signal and everyone released their helmet seals.  She noted the one on the right.  ALVAREZ, read his nameplate.  She caught his eye and smiled.  He smiled back.

They passed from the gangway through a ready room lined with lockers and into a wide-well-lit corridor.  Sky-blue walls soothed the brutal grey decking.  Sailors were everywhere with the odd Marine mixed in, going about their business with practiced efficiency.  The visitors drew more than a few stares, which discomfited each of them to varying degrees.  The acrid smell of machine lubricant wafted through the air; the place had the feel of a very busy garage.  Lights glared off an over-polished floor, the sailors casting multiple shadows under banks of white LED lights.  An elevator took them all downwards for what seemed like many decks, down to the tram situated in the cruiser’s belly and running the length of the ship just above the mighty Jotun railgun.  A lieutenant—Micic, she gave her name—received them at the tram, dismissing the Techs and medics.  Ashley was disappointed but warned herself to be patient.  She’d been handed an incredible opportunity and could wait to exploit it.

“Doctor Mizrahi, I’m taking you to see Commander Boguns.  He’ll be debriefing you personally.”

“Well, that sounds exciting,” said Vivek innocently from his tram seat.  Lorena shut her eyes, wanting to die and unwilling to see their escort’s reaction.

Micic was unfazed.  “I’d also ask you not to discuss any particulars of your mission with anyone on board unless specifically authorized by a line officer.  News travels too fast on ships this size.”

Three stations down they rode, stopping at each to disgorge and swallow teams of workers.  At the end of the line, at Nimbus’ nose, they debarked with Micic and walked to another elevator.  She had its console scan her I.D. badge, at which point she keyed in a restricted deck.  Upward they were launched at high speed, bending their knees ever so slightly to compensate.  The car stopped, the doors opened and Micic ushered them out into a remarkably pleasant space.

Red maple adorned the walls, though the smoothly uniform grain of the panels showed they’d been cultured.  The Navy might be flush with dollars, but actual dead trees were an absurd luxury beyond any government budget.  Tastefully austere couches with blue and yellow upholstering squatted against the left and right walls; the lighting was pleasantly soft.  In the back of the room, across an enormous dark blue carpet sporting the Navy seal, waited a desk with a prim young ensign behind it.  Seeing the party enter, she stood and saluted.

“Afternoon, ma’am.  The Commander’s waiting in Room Three.”  Micic bid farewell and departed while the young lady in dazzling white pants led them down the hallway to a door marked 3, left ajar.  Inside was a meeting room, where in one of many high-backed black chairs at a large oak table sat the Commander.  He might have been forty, his crew cut just graying at the temples, and his chest sported a kaleidoscopic assortment of ribbons.

He rose, extended a hand.  “Commander Wesley Boguns, Executive Officer here aboard.”

Lorena took it.  “I’m Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, Commanding Officer of ECV Konoko.  This is my Executive Officer, Vivek Mohinder.”

“Pleased to meet you, Commander,” Vivek shook his hand as well.

“And the rest of my crew: Systems Tech Zachariah Obo, Scanner Tech Karl Genz, Pilot Ashley Duggins.”  The Commander did not shake their hands, merely gave a half-salute and sat again motioning everyone to do the same.  Sit they did, the five of them in a row on one side of the table, staring across its lacquered surface at this man they’d never met.

Boguns spoke first.  “Doctor, I’ve reviewed your conversation with our comm operator, so I know your ship’s got practical needs.  Those can wait.  First I want to hear what happened with the Ouro.  Walk me through from step one, if you would.”  He steepled his hands on the oak, cocked his head and waited.

So Lorena told the whole story, from Vivek’s crash-out to the docking procedure to the Ouro drifting inert.  She described the journey from one pyramid to the next, the shafts of glowing glass leading down to the amphitheater, the decomposing audience.  And here she paused, unsure of how precisely to tell the story of her unconsciousness.  Ultimately she decided to stick with only what she’d seen on her suit’s recording.  But first, the burning question.  “The moment we’d confirmed the nearby Ouro were dead, Konoko’s computer sent a priority directive.  It must have been baked in already, but it ordered us to retrieve any dead specimens, such as we were able, and return them immediately to Navy.  To you.”

The Commander’s expression stayed impassive, serene.  “That’s quite a directive.”

“Yes, sir.  I thought so too.  Having received it, Miss Duggins and Mister Genz made preparations to transport the nearest Ouro corpse back to Konoko.  We couldn’t realistically take any more than one.  So while they did this, I moved down into the depression.  To examine the other Ouro.”  The last bit was a fib—in truth she had no idea why she’d done what she had—but it kept the story clean.  “And while I was separated from them, there was a power spike in their systems.  Their computer came online.  Karl, would you like to explain?”

Karl explained, at length and with exacting detail, what his scanners recorded.  He would have kept going had Boguns not stopped him.  “That’s fine, son.  All I need.”

“Once it was active,” Lorena continued, “I was nearest to the spire-like structure, which as I’ve mentioned we suspect to be a social device linked to A.I.  It seems to have attempted to engage me, at which point I lost consciousness.”

The older man sat up straight.  “Lost consciousness.”

“I’m afraid so.  On the recording from my suit, I just drop off like a light once the spire gets going,” she grimaced.  She waited for Boguns to comment, but he just waited for her.  “Ashley, you take it from here.  I’ve only seen the tape.”

Ash walked them back to the airlock, back into Konoko’s Pre Chamber and into the Med Bay where they had deposited the sodden, unresponsive Doctor Mizrahi.

“I woke up maybe twenty minutes later, feeling good,” Lorena testified.  “Out for forty-two minutes.  Tests I’ve run since then show no irregularity.  As far as the med computer can tell, nothing happened.  We got Konoko up and running, since the electronic attack was really more an exploration.”

“Would you happen to know,” Boguns inquired, “whether any high-classified data was compromised?”

“We don’t carry any.  That priority directive was the only secret here.”

“And you said you did not retrieve any Ouro specimens, correct?  There’s no biohazards on your ship?”

Zachariah Obo shook his head.  “No way.  Everything that went over there got scrubbed, all standard procedure.”

The Commander pursed his lips, took his hands off the table.  “I see.  Well, give me a moment, would you?  I’d like to step outside and confer with my C.O.  Tell him what’s going on, explain your predicament.  Please excuse me.”  He stood, circled the table, working his considerable midsection through the gap between their chairs and the wall.

Lorena protested, “We haven’t been over what maintenance we need.  There’s an OS reinstall—“ but he was already gone, closing the door behind him.

Vivek snorted.  “Could’ve offered us a drink at least.”  They settled in to wait.

Commander Boguns was absent for twenty-six minutes, during which time the crew sat in dead silence.  Extracting tablets from their duffels, they took advantage of Nimbus’ vast internal network to catch up on that strange remote universe they’d left behind, where human beings worked producing goods and services for one another, lounged in public parks and purchased things from catalogues.  Ships from the Core stopped by Nimbus often enough to deliver meaningful news and respectably current popular culture.  The tachyon pulse transmitter allowed constant contact with Earth, but with such limited bandwidth it couldn’t be used casually.  Tachyons were terrifically difficult to isolate, but once captured and split into pairs they skipped over the laws of physics so easily, Dr. Kwan-Sian Chen would have applauded.  The condition of one half mirrored the other no matter their separation, at which point communication was simply a question of energy.  High- and low-energy states became ones and zeroes, communicated at high speed through a window of one measly bit.  When one finds a way to circumvent the speed of light, one doesn’t fuss over the provisos.

Boguns returned eventually, opening the door, exchanging inscrutable last words over his shoulder with some interlocutor in the hallway and sitting once again in his seat at the conference table.  “All right, Doctor Mizrahi, I’ve explained your predicament to Admiral Xiyu and pinged the folks back at Command.  We haven’t heard back yet, but I’m sure this will all be cleared up soon.”

Lorena narrowed her eyes.  “What’ll be cleared up, exactly?  I haven’t even explained our ‘predicament.’  Or what Konoko needs to get back on tour.”

The Commander smiled in a way he meant to be disarming.  “Our teams will run full diagnostics.  You’ve got the best in the business working on her.”

“With respect, sir,” Obo broke in, “I’d like to oversee any work done on my ship.”

            “I appreciate that, Mister…Obo?  Yes?  Well, I appreciate that.  Came up as a Tech myself, I know she’s your baby.  But right now the Admiral wants some things done.  Full medical sweeps for all of you, per updated Contact procedure.”

            “I wasn’t aware—“

            “I don’t make the rules, Doctor.  It’s just a precaution, and it’ll give us some time to review your tapes.  Get a response over the T.P.”

            “Keep it level,” hissed Beatrice as Lorena fought to contain her scowl.  Finally she succeeded well enough to nod agreeably.

            “We’re also setting you up with some first-class accommodations, once you’re done with the sweeps.  They built this beast with full diplomatic facilities and we never get to use them—“ he gestured at the conference room’s sterile finery—“so please accept the best of Navy hospitality.”  Boguns smiled, revealing coffee-stained teeth he’d never bothered to get fixed.  The door opened then, revealing Lieutenant Micic and a green-suited medic.

            The former smiled at Konoko’s crew.  “I’ll take to back to Medical.  Follow me, please.”

            Boguns held out a coin-sized audio pager.  “Doctor Mizrahi, we’ll be in touch from the flight deck as soon as we hear anything.  Welcome aboard the Nimbus.”  She thanked him woodenly, took the pager and slipped it into her jumpsuit’s right breast pocket.

“You’ll be responsible for maintaining contact with your crew.”

“Understood.  I can dial up their tablets or handies.  Keep them on and with you, folks.”  Konoko’s crew took up their baggage, saluted the Commander and followed Micic from the room.

*          *          *

            Ashley Duggins answered the doctor’s questions like a surly teenager, in a terse monotone.  Had she experienced elevated heart rates after dives?  Yes.  Periods of high energy she might describe as manic?  Yes.  Intensified feelings of sexual desire or frustration?  She only shrugged at that one.  A cold spray of topical anesthetic on her arm that felt suddenly fuzzily warm and stayed that way while blood was drawn.

            “Ashley, I’ve got some bad news,” he said moments after feeding her sample to a whirring machine with a small screen on a swiveling boomlike arm of white plastic.  The results cast baleful green sprites off his glasses.

            “Yeah,” she grunted in response, knowing more or less what he’d say.

            “Between your blood work and the data I’ve downloaded from the Okonkwo—”

            “Konoko.”

            “Yes, I’m sorry.  Looking at your escalating reactions to cormerazine and albedoline, it’s hard not to conclude you’re OKLM positive.  I ordered a full gene sequence but as it turns out, yours is already on the Navy’s database.  And yes, taking a quick glance, you are.”

            “Okay.”

            “Do you know what that means?”

            “I can’t fly anymore.”

            “Well, it’s not a question of can’t.  You’ll have to make some changes.  Assuming, of course, you’re committed to this career?  Because you’d qualify for a full medical discharge.  I’m required to tell you that,” the doctor defended himself from her glare.

            “I’m committed.”

            “In that case, this is a manageable condition.  Time was, one bad gene ended careers.  Now we have more solutions.”

            “The implants.”

            “That is always my recommendation in these cases.  I know there are…cosmetic concerns, particularly with young women.  All I can say is, you set your own priorities.  And you’ll be far from the only one.”

            “My Senior’s got them.”

            “Well, there you go!”

            “I give him shit almost every day.”

            The doctor chortled.  “Well, that’ll have to stop.  The implants are your best option for the long term.  In the short term, your ship’s doctor can manage your drug loads.  You’re too young for the cardiac stress to be a big issue.  We’ve got some different chems to circumvent your resistance, but it’s not authed outside Navy patients and it’s just a temporary fix besides.”

            Ashley emerged into the hallway shuffling her feet, in a haze.  She’d known it was coming, knew it wasn’t in any logical way her fault but nonetheless felt rejected from Piloting all over again.  Yours is already on the Navy’s database.  Of course it was.  They’d known all along, having owned her blood since the Navy docs examined her teenaged self.  They’d just never seen fit to tell her.  The wound was rubbed raw.  With a vigorous shake of her head, physically willing away doubt’s scrabbling spiders, she pulled her handy from its pocket.

            “Can’t believe these people,” complained Obo, stepping out from an adjacent door into the Med Bay’s almost painfully over-lit waiting room.  “Since I got that suspension gack on me handling Lorena, they scrubbed every inch of my arms.”

            “I’m OKLM positive,” chirped Ashley with all the sarcastic cheer she could muster.

            Obo walked up and patted her left shoulder.  “Oof, sorry to hear that.  But you’ve seen Mohinder.  Don't think he's OK-plus, but he got the implants and he's fine.  If you're a Pilot, you'll still be a Pilot.  Remember that, child.  There’s nothing really wrong.  It can be fixed.  Erray little t’ing,” he sang softly with a heart-melting grin, “gonna be all right.”

            Ash blushed and her face screwed up.  “Thanks, Zach,” she managed, squeezing his wrist and blinking quickly to wick away building moisture.

            “Since they’re giving us a hall pass ‘til Lorena calls, I’m gonna check on my baby.  Bet they fuckin’ with her.”  Obo separated from her, adjusted the duffel on his shoulder and walked towards the exit.  Ashley looked back to her handy’s warmly lit screen, calling up the giant cruiser’s equally ponderous directory.  Alvarez

*          *          *          

Zachariah Obo made his way back to Hangar Four, projecting a map on his tablet, constantly holding the device before him so as not to get lost in Nimbus’ miles of corridor.  Her compartments were organized around the hublike tram stations—the first lick of sensible design he’d seen on this monstrosity.

Through loading areas and past screeching machine shops he wandered, conquering the hangar’s interior labyrinth until at last he could see Konoko through the busy jungle of warships.  At the prep area just this side of the gangway, Obo stopped short.  In his way were two Marines, strapped up in their duty armor, toting vicious snub-nosed flechette guns but mercifully pointing them deckward.

“What’s the business, soldiers?” he asked collegially, one salt-of-the-earth man to another.

“Sweeps and inspection, sir.  Nobody but Echo Team goes in or out till they’re done,” said one Marine behind his matte black facemask.

“I’m her Systems Tech.”

“I’m sure you are, sir.  This comes straight from the Admiral.  You guys must’ve put your feet in some real shit, if you don’t mind me saying, sir.”

“I see,” he sighed, deflated for a moment before spotting the pile of heavy equipment boxes against the wall.  “What the hell are those?  They weren’t there before.”

“Couldn’t tell you, sir.  Echo brought them in with their install team.”

“They’re installing something?  What are you doing with my ship?” Zachariah demanded, both animated and agitated. He took a step forward.

A Marine took a hand off his weapon and extended it to arrest his approach.  “That’s enough, sir.”

“What the hell is going on here, son?  Answer me!”

Stand down, sir!”

“What are you doing with my ship?”
COMING NEXT TUESDAY: PART TEN, IN WHICH CONSEQUENCES YIELD NEW OPPORTUNITIES.