Karl Genz’s greatest gift, as he saw it, was a kind of separation. He was certainly aware of other people, what they did and said and thought and felt. He was sure they each had rich inner lives, as full-featured and complete as his. Karl just didn’t care much for them, what they did or said or any of the rest. Those things might impact him in some material way, and he’d deal with that.
His parents cultivated this trait. They taught him to behave like the other children, but frankly encouraged the idea that their son was exceptional. His test scores backed them up on this score. Academics at the apexes of their careers, Doctors Jeorg and Hilde Genz had understandably high expectations for their firstborn son and were accustomed to the idea that superior minds needed more latitude. They would later agree, between themselves, that this had been a sub-optimal parenting strategy.
Their support was necessary but insufficient. Life itself cemented Karl’s worldview, the slings and arrows of a typical upper-middle-class childhood mounting into what he perceived as an assault on decency everywhere. These people, he came to appreciate down to the marrow of his bones, had no clue what was going on. Most of them, anyway. When he focused relentlessly on his studies, his peers mocked his atypical interest. Sports seemed to impress them and in Karl’s naïve youth he still itched for esteem. So he threw himself quite literally into football, putting his monstrous frame to work as a keeper. He decided to become the best and quickly was, developing an uncanny eye for scoring lanes.
In a sensible world, this might have been enough. Karl might have spent his school days in peaceful bliss. Instead it changed not a thing—goal-scoring forwards were adored, not keepers—and he remained a hopeless Streber forevermore. Far from disheartening, it positively proved the thesis he’d been nursing like a grudge his whole life. The more he learned and the older he grew, the more certain he became, so ironclad that it bothered him not in the least when his mother burst into tears. Well, it did bother him. He found it profoundly irritating.
Warum denn, so weit zu reisen?
Karl explained his reasoning, which he decided should have preceded the big announcement. He wanted to study deep-space phenomena; he wanted to observe them personally, not in particle labs; he hadn’t the patience for doctorate studies; and finally, he thought but didn’t say, he wanted some distance from home. He wasn’t sure why—he got along with his family and his few friends—but his reading confirmed he was hardly the first young man to feel the urge. This combination of desires left two obvious paths, both of which he’d easily test into: Navy, or Explorer Corps. There was no denying the former’s popular prestige particularly relative to the latter. But Karl had little interest in anyone else’s opinions, and less in taking barked orders. The Corps was the clearest and most logical choice. His mother disagreed and his father even more so, regarding federal service as a moral calling somewhere between shoe sales and petty larceny. Which was disappointing; he’d thought Jeorg at least would approve this unusual path. Karl was always disappointed to be wrong about things.
* * *
ECV Konoko hung in space just meters above the Ouro ship, her blunt sweeping nose angled ever so slightly up, conserving the barest scrap of momentum like the last nut in a squirrel’s burrow. Vivek was nervous. The slightest maneuver from the giant vessel would pulverize them against its hull, but he couldn’t trust the computer in its addled state to get them clear. So now he sat at the bridge’s Navigation console, hands clasped before his lips, reading the onscreen instructions for the sixth consecutive time. Ashley’s footsteps in the corridor broke his concentration and he swiveled around.
“How’d Lorena look?”
“She was up and moving, believe it or not. Said she felt fine. Seemed like normal Lorena, if a little agitated. Which, I mean…” she trailed off with a shrug. “She said to come up and help you.
“Not sure what with,” said Vivek, turning back to his console. “I’ve got the Nav comp running tests on itself. Right now I’m brushing up on my manuals.”
Ashley peered over his shoulder. “We’re really back to the Patheolithic, huh? Practically using sticks and throttles. When’s the last time you did manuals?”
“On Konoko? Once, out of drydock, just to get the feel. Two tours back.”
“Wow, I’ve done it more recently than you!”
“On an Academy clipper.”
“Still. You want me to take a shot? Bet I’ll do it better.”
“How would we test that?”
“However you want,” she grinned.
“I’ve got it, thanks. Just hitting the ventrals. I wanted to be sure I didn’t pump the dorsals by accident. Those kinds of things happen when Pilots aren’t careful.”
“When you’re not careful. I’m the best! Tell him, Genz,” Ashley chirped, slumping into the free seat. Karl didn’t answer. “Genz,” she persisted.
“I’m sorry, did you really want a response?” He didn’t look at her, uneager to encourage.
“Gonna bug you ‘til I get one.”
“If it will quiet you up, you’re the best.”
“That’s all I wanted. I pull sick turns and save the Cap’n. Ashley Duggins, Pilot Extraordinaire. Sure you don’t need me, Vee?”
“Sure,” intoned the X.O.
“Then it’s shower time for me. I swear, I can still smell that gack. Obo’s a saint for dealing with those suits.” She stood, half-saluted and left the bridge.
“Didn’t she just sit down?” Karl asked the suddenly silent room.
“She’s wired. Adrenaline,” Vivek posited.
“Still? It’s been over an hour. I took a stim pill for the crash.”
“Did Ash take one?”
“Hmm,” Vivek didn’t show his concern. She wasn’t Karl’s business, no matter how many warning signs she showed. The junior crew didn’t need reasons to doubt each other. With a slow and deliberate application of fingertip pressure on the console face, Vivek put Konoko into motion. White plasma bloomed from the studs on her belly, flashing the frost on the Ouro hull into a veil of steam. Vivek burned for three seconds and released his fingers, leaving the ship to coast as the distance indicator wound higher. He stood, crossed to the intercom and picked it up.
“We’re clear of the Ouro vessel, free of obstruction and good to dive on your say-so, Mister Obo.” He released the TRANSMIT button. “How long have you been standing there?”
Lorena smiled from the doorway. “You were just laying on hands. I didn’t want to break up the magic.”
“Ash said you’re no worse for wear.”
“I don’t feel it. Trying to see if I should.” She sat in the free chair Ashley hadn’t even warmed and dug into the nearest console. Konoko’s higher functions hibernated, but the boarding party’s logs were stored on the suits themselves and retrieving them was a simple matter. In seconds she had her own video feed, finding the perspective jarring outside the helmet and without the HUD. Her vitals twitched in pixilated lines on the right. Lorena shot forward in time, from the Pre Chamber through the airlock and so on until she reached the end of her memory. From there she watched in real time: heard Vivek deliver the directive, watched herself turn from Karl and Ashley to motor across the gulf towards the spire of darkened glass. She thought of purple suddenly, and of green, though she didn’t know why and the video showed nothing of the sort. Ashley called her name; she didn’t respond, just motored ahead until the spire came to luminous life.
Lorena’s heart rate, heretofore elevated due to her state of alert, suddenly dropped some four seconds later. After a quick skip, her pulse rolled on solid and slow. The camera began to drift—she must have already been unconscious. She wished for a camera inside the helmet to see her own face, but such a feature would have struck the Marina’s designers as utterly useless. She could only imagine, and watch helpless as the camera jolted, swung around and showed the slowly growing form of Karl Genz. Ashley was carrying her. She turned off the video, feeling a singularity in the pit of her stomach.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” said Beatrice with a warm, strong hand on her shoulder. “It could’ve happened to anyone.” Lorena just shook her head. It hadn’t happened to anyone; it happened to her.
Zachariah Obo’s voice sounded over the intercom. “Get ready to love me.” On cue, the bridge monitors went dark. They flashed back to life a moment later, declaring themselves open for business with every function enabled.
“They wrecked it pretty good but didn’t touch the RAM banks. I just pulled the ghosted processes back onto the main drive to patch the holes,” Obo helpfully explained. “We’ll want a full reinstall in dock, but I’m calling her seaworthy.”
“Gott sei dank,” Karl said to the ceiling.
Lorena grabbed the intercom. “The C-H drive?”
“Konoko locked herself out of the drive systems once the firewalls fell. We’re good.”
“Excellent,” Vivek grinned to the Nav console. “It’s all here, just like new. When do you want to dive?”
Lorena replaced the handset on its cradle and addressed her X.O. with similar care. “Vivek, I don’t suppose you’ve done your crash-out testing yet.”
He grimaced, slapping fingertips against his shining forehead. “I’d completely forgotten. Well, there wasn’t time to do it anyway, with everything that happened.”
“Let’s do it now. Ash can do the charting.”
* * *
The pair walked down to the Navigation Suite side by side, silent until they cleared the bridge deck and Lorena felt alone enough to speak.
“Have you ever seen a priority directive like that?”
Vivek dipped into his memory. “When I flew Ratatask, we had a few odd ones. But that was a Core assignment, where you might get tightbeamed directives from any of a dozen stations. The automated ones I’ve seen on a few dives, where the computer throws them out to keep you off red-marked routes.” Space was a fluid place, and even the most reliable pathways could suddenly become occluded. “But nothing so exotic—the Ouro notwithstanding—at such range from base.”
Lorena chewed her lip. “It makes sense when you think about it. Ouro biology is famously second-hand, of course they’d pick up specimens where they could. Stick the directive on every outgoing ship to cast a wide net.”
“If anyone ever brought home Ouro bodies, you’d think it would be news.”
“You’d think,” she agreed.
“But I’ve never heard of it. Never even seen an Ouro in a museum.”
“I don’t think our carcasses are hanging up in their museums either. Can you imagine the politics? No one would ever agree to it.”
“No, I suppose not.”
Lorena configured the pod while Vivek stripped and donned a spare flight suit from a locker in the corner. She slid it open; he climbed inside, orienting himself stomach-down with his hands in the control pockets. He placed his forehead on the pad and closed his eyes as Lorena closed the pod over him.
When, half a minute later, Lorena started the test procedure he experienced it as a shock of cold water. He was in space, or seemed to be, cruising sedately through emptiness at one lightspeed, but the sensation was incomplete. A ship was projected around him and he felt its heft—calibrated to an E.C. clipper’s standard tonnage—but it wasn’t Konoko. There was no way to fake any vessel to her Pilot, who knew better than any engineer all the lovely flaws of her flesh and blood down to the last screw’s threading. Vivek felt the wrongness immediacy, the singing current of anxiety in his stomach. He told himself it was no different than any crash-out test, which Academy lore had long held an intentional exercise in panic. The discomfort was the test, went the theory. Vivek only knew that to think during the test was to fail. Reflex and reaction, stimulus and response were its only metrics.
A gate appeared in the void: a ring, a shining white toroid of mass projected into Vivek’s sensorium, millions of miles out and closing fast. It was real in the test—he perceived and understood it to be so—but still the object seemed projected, like a mass of cloud. The pod could pump all the data it liked through his occipital implants, but something in the brain could always distinguish between masses real and those projected. Vivek angled himself through the ring, passing through it easily with kilometers to spare on every side.
A second gate appeared. He accelerated, through no effort of his own. The test gave him no ability to control his speed and would only increase it with successive gates. Vivek passed through this second gate, and the third, and the fourth all set in a line. The fifth was the first turn, a yellow thread indicating the preferred path. He dipped and turned right to clear it. The sixth appeared and the seventh, with more filling in behind as he continued to built speed. When he saw the tenth, he cleared his mind of everything but the space before him. The real test started after ten. After ten, only idiots kept counting.
He passed the gates, faster and faster, until they matched his elevated heart rate, until they blurred together into a corrugated tunnel of light. He twisted and turned, still accelerating, reacting to what he felt and holding on by the seat of his pants down the ever more tortuous path. A slightly wide turn threw him off course for the next, triggering a cascade of overcompensation he tried mightily to quell. His heart raced; sweat beaded from his forehead to soak into the padding. He couldn’t keep up, was operating through a patchwork of reflex and guesswork, juggling more balls than anyone could possibly maintain, panicking at the inevitable crash. Vivek felt like he was underwater, tenaciously holding his breath through each desperate second until his lungs clawed at his ribs and a pure terror swelled in him. In his core it started, expanding up his throat and spreading to consume his shoulders. He felt like he would die, and then his brave little clipper clipped a gate.
The illusion dissolved so suddenly it offended him, like a lover who’d wronged him and skipped town without so much as a sheepish farewell. His eyes hadn’t been closed but now they seemed to open on a dead black screen. With a low tone, the pod hissed open and he levered himself out and up to a kneeling position on the pads. Vivek sweated profusely, breathed raggedly and smiled gamely at Lorena.
She didn’t smile back. “No dice, Vee,” she said sympathetically.
Vivek couldn’t remember the last time she’d called him that. “That bad?”
“Could’ve been worse. Much worse, really. But it gave you a 749.” 900 was the score to pass.
He grimaced. “Shit, that’s embarrassing.”
“You had a bad crash-out. It takes time for the brain to adjust.” To convince its lowest reaches, she meant, that high-speed neurosensory mass input was safe and ordinary. A panicked, disoriented mind might keep its quick reflexes but conveyed them messily to the pod. The best Pilot in the galaxy was useless without his pod’s perfect comprehension of every twitch.
Vivek levered himself out from the pod. “Four hours until I can test again, yes?”
“I’m not waiting that long. Duggins can take the first dive and we’ll test you every four. Play it by ear from there.”
“About Ashley—I worry about her. She was wired long after you came back and that’s without a stim. She’s still got the dive chems circling around.”
Lorena bit her lip, thinking. “Okay. There’s not much we can do about that now? I’ll adjust her dosage, but this is really a long-term problem, right?”
“I suppose. A health issue, not performance. Not yet, anyway.”
“So we deal with the short term. Get ourselves to Nimbus, report and start the bureaucratic death march this is sure to be. We can deal with everything else at base.”
The C.O. triggered the intercom. “Pilot Duggins to the Navigation Suite. Duggins to the Nav Suite, suited up and ready to fly. We’re hauling. Out.” She adjusted the unaccustomed medical uniform, cracked her neck. “It’ll feel good to get moving. We could all use some routine.”
Vivek nodded. “I’ll go upstairs, lay in the charts if Ash hasn’t, check them if she has.”
“Then get some sleep. No need to hit that four-hour mark on the dot.”
“Got it.” With a two-fingered salute, he was gone.
“He’s a worrier,” Beatrice observed.
“I like it. Good trait in an X.O.”
“Is it?” she wondered aloud, leaning down to scour the open pod’s interior with her golden eyes. Straight dark hair brushed the padding; Lorena had always been jealous of Beatrice’s hair, so beautifully simple and sheer where her own was a thorny mess of waves and curls. With time she’d learned to assemble it, to make it look good without protein-denaturing scrubs—but with time too came age, which had begun to line both their faces but never seemed to pull at Beatrice’s effortless and innocent symmetry. Lorena hated these thoughts, felt like an awful friend whenever they sprouted like weeds splitting concrete.
“If worry leads to preparation, then yes, absolutely it is.”
Beatrice waved away her argument and smirked at Lorena. “Do you remember that geometry test? We were fifteen. You studied all weekend—fourteen hours, you said—because you thought you were doing badly in the class.”
“I was doing badly. Barely a C.”
“So you killed yourself over that weekend, come in on Monday and I tell you…what?”
“You’ve done jack nothing and want me to help you.”
“Right. So, twenty minutes in the hallway with your tablet and your flash cards.” With their dog-eared corners and ink smeared by sweaty fingertips. “Twenty minutes as you walk me through the basics. Just the utter basics. And then we go into the exam. We finish and get the scores back.”
“God, it was such bullshit,” Lorena growled.
“It was! But why did I beat you, Lorena?” she smiled widely and raised her arms in a kind of shrug. “Was it because I knew the material better? Of course not! But you were tied in knots. You worked so neurotically long and hard that by test day, the exam and your self-worth were welded together. Every wrong answer became a personal blow. Nobody can perform under that illusion. Of course you were going to fuck it up!”
Lorena slumped back in her chair. “That’s fair. I still beat you for the term, though. And the year.”
“Can’t win ‘em all,” Beatrice shrugged. “And you did great today. Winner in my book.”
Lorena snorted. “There was a crisis and I fainted.”
“Not that. Who knows what that was? I meant before that, the choices you made leading up to there. That was real Space Hero stuff. You showed some balls.”
“You know I hate that expression.”
“Suck on it.” Bea stuck out her tongue, having used one of the few lines Lorena hated even more.
* * *
When Ashley Duggins arrived in the Nav Suite, her C.O. was just finishing her work on the console. “Hey, Doc. Duggins reporting, ready and eager to skip out of here.”
Lorena swiveled to favor her with a smile. “Excellent. The pod’s set up for you, though I’ve made some changes to your dosages.”
“Why’s that?” Ashley frowned.
“You’ve been agitated after dives. Even after the boarding operation. It’s like you’re running a mile a minute, and we’re worried about your reaction to the drugs.”
“Obviously I’ve discussed everything with Pilot Mohinder. We’re in agreement.”
“Naturally. I’m shocked Vivek would have something negative to say about chems. You know he wouldn’t let us try and revive you?”
“He was right not to. This is about your health.”
“Seeing as my job is protecting all of our health, shouldn’t you ask me first?”
Lorena narrowed her eyes to steely slits. “No. As C.O. and ship’s doctor, your stim intake is entirely under my purview.”
“What about the lube? Are you dropping that too?” Lube was the crude name Pilots gave to neuro-primer compounds.
“Not now, not without more testing.”
“Well, Vivek’s not totally dumb.”
“This was my decision,” Lorena insisted.
“Fine. It doesn’t matter, I’m still here to fly,” Ashley stood up straight and set her jaw. “As long as I’m still allowed.”
Ignoring the sarcasm, Lorena helped the red-headed woman into her own pod. She took the nerve leads from their compartment and affixed them, one by one, along the flight suit’s spine. Ashley leaned forward into the pod, put her hands in the control pockets and winced as the intravenous leads pierced her skin below each armpit.
Lorena hit the intercom. “Mister Obo, are we read to dive?”
“Ready, Miss Captain Doctor.”
“Very well, let’s go see Nimbus. Hit it.”
Ashley saw the starfield arrayed before her on the great, colored and sized by proximity and mass rather than the elements fusing away in their hearts. She felt the sensation of momentum, like watching a distant panorama from a moving walkway. And then the chems hit her system: brewed up in distant labs and granted names with more numbers than letters, they represented the height of chemical engineering for a species that had spent its whole evolution feeding exotic chemicals to its collective brains. They washed over Ashley like a wave, stims igniting every gland of her physiology while primer slathered her neuroreceptors with perception-altering jelly.
She dove into Konoko, wrapped abruptly in cold steel and colder space. It was dazzling and bewildering to behold so many stars in the infinite sea, the ruined planetoids of FR-5594, the bowel-twisting monstrosity of the Ouro ship still so close. She pushed away from that place, leaving it behind to rapidly dwindle and join the ambient dust. Chen-Hau field is active, she heard from somewhere inside her own head as mass leapt away and more approached, as stars flashed to sputtering planktonic motes.
COMING NEXT TUESDAY: THE SIGHTS, SOUNDS AND SMELLS OF DEEP SPACE! STAY TUNED FOR FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES, PART EIGHT!