When the letter arrived at their apartment, Ashley’s mother and father reacted with gentle, warm sympathy. She had never forgiven them for that. What was the use of sympathy here? All she felt was rage at the injustice, and she wanted them to share that rage. If they had all burst out screaming and torn the house to pieces and set it aflame, that might would have made her feel better. As things stood, all she had was the lukewarm gruel of sympathy and the sickening knowledge that years of work were ruined. Ashley Duggins had been rejected from the Naval Piloting Academy—not even wait-listed—and her future seemed an endlessly desolate waste.
There was nothing to be done about it, no matter how angry anyone got. There was no appealing the decision, ironclad in its facelessness. If one rejectee got the privilege, they’d all demand it. Her father’s Navy’s background was no use either. Back channels might have opened for a line officer. A lowly Marine E5 knew better than to ask. Ashley was left two choices: re-apply the next year or make other plans for the rest of her life. The first option might have appealed were her case for admission not already airtight. She had the school marks, the recommendations, the resume of community service and aptitude test scores so high her friends had cringed to hear them. She hadn’t even flinched in the interviews. But here was the letter, plain as day: Ms. Duggins, we regret to inform you…
So there was nothing to be gained from Option A. Her application would never look nicer; if something hidden in the iron grey bowels of the NPA’s Admissions office had ruled against her of all people, Ashley wasn’t going to bang her head against a wall. In this her parents were correct: if she really wanted to be a starship Pilot, there were other ways to go about it. Each of the “Big Three” shipping companies ran its own school, and there was always the Explorer Corps Academy out on distant Bifrost Station. Ash’s first thoughts ran towards the former, but after some research decided the higher pay rates weren’t worth the rampant sexual harassment reported on commercial freighters. Not even with the income from legal settlements figured in. With her obvious talent and the Corps’ penchant for female leadership, she figured to be among their top Pilots inside five years. Seven at the outside.
Three years in the Academy flew by at a terrifying pace, and while Ashley hovered near the top of her class she was embroiled in constant conflict. Put simply, it was an issue of recklessness. Rare was the testing run where she didn’t grow impatient and try to push her imaginary craft to its limits. That was the point, yes? To refine her skills, to be the best. And if “marginal performance,” as her instructors snidely put it, wasn’t important then why were the all-time runs on a shiny brass board in the Visitors’ Lobby? Her reputation was quickly fixed among the faculty and they would praise her only for the most diligent of path-taking. By the third year it was excruciating, and while Ash dearly loved her classmates she couldn’t have been happier to leave Europa’s dark and icy orbit.
The trial flights with Konoko were a dream, a wild roaring adventure around the Oort clouds, plunging through the gaps as comets whipped around her like white gulls on a beach. Weeks later, when she was accustomed to the clipper’s inevitable eccentricities, the rest of the crew arrived to join her. And then to work—the daily grind of diving, sleeping and diving again with the occasional sightseeing break to keep everyone from getting loopy. She was glad for Karl’s presence, relived she wasn’t the only deep-space virgin aboard. She liked them all well enough, and Vivek had been a kinder Senior than she’d expected. And now, so soon into that first tour, they’d already done something noteworthy. What’s more, she’d saved her C.O. in a moment of crisis! At least, she hoped those in charge would take notice. The fact that Konoko was currently en route to an urgent meeting with a Navy Cruiser—the kind of leviathan she’d dreamt of helming—was not lost on her.
* * *
Ashley Duggins cleared the Spiral of Estrel, dipping Konoko’s blunted head beneath a warbling quasar before kicking her port around the Spiral’s superheated hydrogen plume. New stars were assembled in its guts, accreting by the hand of Providence from the simplest elemental forms into monstrous fusion engines that might one day birth their own star-crossers. Forward into an open gulf, down and starboard to avoid a building cloud of radiation—an electromagnetic structure raising itself from the void.
Empty space was less vacant than intuition might suggest. Vast volumes of dark matter existed where nothing appeared to be. Known and studied for centuries, it was no better understood. Had it been, physicists would have long since devised a better and more descriptive name for the stuff. It seemed to shy away from “conventional” matter, attracted to the vacuums the visible world inevitably left. It sloshed around in space’s open reaches: photinos rushing hither and yon in the absence of light, piling atop one another to devise ephemeral structures in the nothing. The radiation Ashley now avoided was the only trace of these settlements—footprints left like crop circles in wide-open fields, pools of treacherous quicksand capable of cooking flesh or circuits. Or they could be harmless, threading their exotic particles between and through corporeal matter. Karl’s scanners could easily distinguish the two, but not past the speed of light. So Ashley flew around.
It may have been, she would decide in the days following, the best run of her life. She attacked the route like a wolverine on whatever it was wolverines ate. They still existed, didn’t they? She could even spare cognition for such idle thoughts, so supreme was her focus. The plotted course slid smoothly around star systems and nebular clouds, every move making perfect sense in her mind. Space crawled past her varied and infinite like swells under albatross wings.
* * *
Lorena, Karl and Zachariah sat around a small four-legged table in Konoko’s modest galley, sipping hot drinks and coordinating their accounts of the last day. There would be a report to file, after all, and Lorena needed to know the whole story inside and out.
“I noticed the memory stream first,” Obo explained. “Data throughput from the docking port more than doubled in both directions.”
“How long did it take to grow?”
“Not sure, I was focused on something else. Don’t recall what, but it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds before I looked back and saw the display.”
“So…say within the thirty seconds before you called it out on intercom.” She flicked a finger across her tablet, skipping ahead to that moment in the mission recording. “And Karl, when did you see the power levels jump inside the ship?”
Karl looked down at his own tablet uncomfortably, like he was under interrogation. “Nineteen seconds earlier. There was an audio alarm. I relayed the information immediately.”
“All right. Given the timing, I think it’s fair to conclude one followed from the other. Their computer came on and immediately engaged ours. Can we agree?” The men nodded. “Next order of business is determining why it came on exactly when it did.”
“Perhaps it was simply our proximity,” Karl suggested.
Obo raised an eyebrow. “Proximity to what, exactly? You three had been aboard some time.”
“To the spire, I meant. We hadn’t seen one of those. If it is meant for communication, it may have activated itself at our approach. If you look here—“ he spun his tablet around so they could all see the moment he highlighted, his sensor readings shown at the screen’s base, “once we enter the depression with the dead Ouro, the power spikes within a minute.”
“That’s a long time to draw a conclusion,” Lorena frowned.
“But it does fit the facts as we know them.”
“Navy won’t care. They’ve got no use for speculation. They just want to know what we saw and when. Let’s skip ahead—once Ashley and Karl were returning with me, what happened on Konoko?”
Obo closed his eyes a second, pulling memories together. “Pilot Mohinder was on the bridge, running comms. Directing Genz and Duggins toward the exit. I did my best to shore up the firewalls and pull any systems I could offline. When they got close, I went down to the docking collar.”
“Once we got you out of the Pre Chamber and into the Med Bay, yes.”
“And what was your impression of the attack? What did it target?”
“Everything, really. Every system I couldn’t lock down. They didn’t do much, just rifled through the processes. Left the RAM alone though, like I’ve said. Ouro machines use unified architecture, so it probably didn’t even think to look.”
“Well, then. That’s all I need for now.”
“You aren’t going to thank them for saving your tail?” Beatrice inquired over her shoulder.
“And thank you both—everyone aboard, really—for pulling me out of there,” she said with as little stiffness as possible. “I’m sorry I let you all down.”
“Ain’t nothing, Cap’n,” Obo smiled, relaxing his precise shipboard diction to inject some warmth.
“Much obliged, Doctor,” said Karl. “But you should know, it was Ashley who went to get you. I did not think clearly under the circumstances and for that I apologize.”
“He’s helpless,” Beatrice remarked, “but sweet.”
“You did nothing wrong, Karl. Now get to bed, the both of you. I’ll wake everyone for the end of the dive.”
* * *
On rode Konoko through the night, Ashley at her helm. Lorena took a stim and sat alone in the Nav Suite, keeping the other woman a strange kind of company. The junior Pilot’s vitals were elevated past in-flight baselines, which made Lorena persistently anxious though there was nothing to be done about it. Given Ash’s sensitivity, the sedatives had to be saved for emergence. So Lorena watched and waited.
“You think they’ll end the tour?” asked her old friend, pacing slowly around the pods.
“Who can say? There’s no real reason to send us home, but maybe they want to scour the whole ship.”
“Yeah, who knows what those scary aliens left behind?” Beatrice grinned.
“Contact is just so eager for anything they can get. Ouro don’t much care for inter-species understanding. Though who can blame them, really? People don’t have a great record with new things.”
“Remember our first homework assignment?”
“Huh…it was math, yes?”
“Yes. But we never got credit for it.”
“But we did it. That was all your fault! You convinced me!”
“It should have been obvious.”
“But it wasn’t.”
“It’s true,” Lorena groaned. “there’s nothing about the word homework to suggest you have to bring it back to school the next day.”
At thirty minutes to emergence, she woke her crew. Ashley had spent six hours and twenty minutes immersed, beating the projections by nearly half an hour and adding to Lorena’s worries. Going faster was the last thing she needed. The crew checked in, one at a time via intercom: “Reporting.” “Awake, get my test ready.” “Ja, gern.”
She went to the galley, where Karl Genz was eating an enormous bowl of scrambled eggs. Access to one’s favorite foods was among the few perks the Explorer Corps offered. Lorena had noticed Karl’s affinity for the simple dish as his post-sleep-cycle meal, and she imagined his bathroom smelled appalling. Still, the sight awakened in her a craving for breakfast food. Crossing to the appropriate cabinet, she rifled through it for a sealed package of oatmeal with peaches and real cane sugar, earthy and brown like the soil hydroponics meant to simulate.
“Morning, Karl,” she said brightly, digging her thumbnail into the self-warming tab.
“Guten Morgen, Frau Doktor.”
She wrinkled her nose in distaste. “I don’t like that, Frau. It’s just an unpleasant-sounding word. Herr is so much better.”
Karl laughed. “The language, she is what she is. Like everything else, the sum of its atomic components. I use atomic there in the Latin sense.”
“I got you, Karl. You shouldn’t explain those things, it comes across as patronizing.”
“Oh. I see. I’m sorry to have given offense.” He didn’t want to meet her eyes.
“I’m not offended, Karl,” she smiled to sooth him. “Just keep it in mind. Spending so long together in such tight quarters, we should all take every step to get along. I put up with Vivek and Ashley’s childish ‘debriefing’ joke. Don’t I?” she asked her X.O., who’d just come into the galley.
“I’m a gifted humorist,” Vivek remarked absently, shouldering past her more forcefully than he needed to. Lorena chortled. “Oatmeal, eh?” he continued. “why’re you taking my oatmeal?”
“Your oatmeal? I req’d this.”
“With the apricots?”
“Peaches.” She opened the package, releasing a fragrant steamy plume and holding it up for inspection. “Get fucked.”
“Gah!” Vivek grimaced, his imperiously righteous stand ruined. “I wanted to lord it over you. Would’ve been good for something down the line.”
Lorena opened a drawer, selected a grey plastic spoon and slipped the drawer shut again. Walking to the galley door, she stirred her oatmeal and turned to Vivek. “I’ll start bringing Ashley down, and as soon as she’s out you’ll ace that test. And I’ll forget your insubordinate breach of oatmeal honor. Deal?”
She left the galley, gulped a spoonful of oatmeal with a cubed chunk of peach, relished the fine granules of sugar and the fruit’s juicy fibrousness. She worried how Ashley would react to the sedatives, but didn’t want to discuss it with Karl in the room. He didn’t need reasons to feel superior, did need help to see his crewmates as peers.
Lorena sat at the Nav Suite’s console, opened the menu for Vivek’s pod and performed the initial set-up for his test. Flipping back to Ashley’s, she sat back to watch the younger woman’s readouts. Regular enough, but still fast for Lorena’s taste. With a trio of keystrokes, she put the first threads of sedative into her junior Pilot’s veins. “Five minutes to emergence,” she called into the intercom.
Ashley heard her words even through the trance of drugs and neuro-stimulators. She’d expected the call later, knew her destination point was near but had hoped she might get to dive for another hour. If she had somehow been able to extend it indefinitely, putting her bodily functions in stasis to wander the universe as a space-borne Flying Dutchman, she would have jumped at the chance.
And then she felt the drag. It came in from behind her eyes, applying intangible pressure throughout her skull, filling it with somnolent sand. It was awful—a lead weight on Konoko’s back. Those joyously responsive controls felt suddenly sluggish. Time to leave. Ash hooked the ship into a void between two stars—one so much larger that it appeared bigger at twice the distance. She was intensely uncomfortable, unready to end the dive, still wedded to her craft even as the chemicals laid icy hands upon her.
She emerged gasping into full consciousness with such a feeling of claustrophobia she thought she would scream. And suddenly there was Lorena, opening the pod above her to let fresh air in. Ashley shot up to her knees, hands reaching out to steady herself on the pod’s rim.
“Slow down,” her C.O. advised.
“Just a rough emergence.”
“You did well. Everything went perfectly. We’re one five-hour dive away from the meet point, so it’s a good time for Vivek to take over?”
“He pass his test yet?” Ash growled, levering herself out of the pod once Lorena detached her leads.
“He’s about to. And you should get some rest either way, ‘cause if he can’t fly you’ve got to do another shift.
“My head’s buzzing.”
“Lie down and count some sheep. No more chems.”
“Shit. Roger.” She pulled the tie out to let her long red hair fall.
“It’s even nicer than yours,” Lorena remarked to Beatrice, who smirked.
Ashley didn’t hear, couldn’t hear. “See you in forty winks,” she said on her way out of the room.
* * *
Vivek Mohinder slipped from the pod’s fictitious reality into his own, levered himself up on his bony elbows to see Lorena smiling.
“Yes!” Vivek raised his arms in triumph.
“Didn’t even squeak it.”
“Would you say I passed with…flying colors?”
“Jesus, Vivek.” Her face screwed up like she’d just swallowed vinegar. “That’s brutal, even for you.”
He giggled: a high tee-hee-hee that embarrassed him whenever girlfriends brought it up. “Would you believe I didn’t even plan it?”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
He leaned back on his haunches. “Well, it’s the truth. When do you want to dive?”
“Give Obo a few; say twenty minutes? Thirty? I figure we’re five hours out from Nimbus’ scheduled stop.”
“Any idea whether they’re on schedule?”
“None. Nor where exactly they’ll drop in; you might have to do a dip to catch up with them.”
“So much excitement these days. I’ll run up and lay in the course. Probably hit the bathroom too.”
“As ship’s doctor, I can emphatically assure you I don’t need to know about that. If it’s full of blood, slip me a note. Anything else…” she waved away the idea.
Vivek rolled out of the pod in his awkward fashion, all reaching and dangling limbs, to set flight-suited feet on the floor. “You know, you’re not responding to all this the way I thought you would.”
This intrigued her, as someone who spent her time gauging and predicting others’ behavior. “How’s that?”
“Passing out on the boarding op, the directive that popped up—you know that’s real Contact business. Trafficking in dead aliens? And since waking up, you’ve barely said a peep about it. Just business as usual.”
She wasn’t sure how to respond. “Do you…want to talk about something? The crew needs support and direction. I’m providing it as best I can.”
“And you’re doing great! You’ve been a rock. Hell, you usually are. There’s just a different tone. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up without specifics. It’s not helpful. I’ll think about it some more.”
“All right. If you want to talk, I’m here—and I don’t claim to know everything that happened in there. But let’s get through this dive. We get through it, there’s someone to tell us the next move and it’s out of our hands from there. We’re all doing the right thing. Okay?”
“Mister Obo,” she called into the intercom, “when the drive’s ready, give us a shout.”
The shout came soon enough, Konoko’s course was set on the bridge and Vivek Mohinder climbed once more into his pod as Lorena checked his leads.
“Best ship?” Obo called.
“Best Tech,” she rejoined. Vivek slipped into his gravitic dream world, and they were off.
* * *
Through the great gulf, past the Alliender Cloud where the remnants of an ancient exploded star hung blasted and coronal like an awful wound. They tore through space at such high speed that, were it not for a nubbin of residual gravity, they could not be said to exist. Past untold worlds and wonders they cruised, surveying from distance so much space and matter it put the very idea of an “Explorer Corps” to shame. It couldn’t be explored—not all of it, and mathematically so little it was statistically indistinguishable from zero.
But onward Konoko pushed, winding towards her destination oblivious to all that futility. She slashed through the budding accretion disc around a baby-yellow star, her energy wake swirling the clouds of dust that might one day become its own archipelago of worlds. She burst at last into a space more clearly defined, a ferocious blue sun playing parent to gas giant triplets so large they toyed with becoming stars themselves. The dream died for a lack of mass, which any impartial observer would have agreed was unfair. Into this family of frustrated aspirants dropped the snub-nosed clipper, bearing its own family with their own peculiar shortcomings. Contact indicators lit up immediately—much the way they had with the Ouro ship two dives prior—but here Karl Genz’s reaction at his scanner console was one of joy, not shock and awe. They’d been due a spot of luck. Nimbus was already in-system.
COMING NEXT TUESDAY: A BIG SHIP, A PIT STOP AND A GENERAL RAISING OF STAKES. PART NINE OF "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES!"
COMING NEXT TUESDAY: A BIG SHIP, A PIT STOP AND A GENERAL RAISING OF STAKES. PART NINE OF "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES!"