She stands amidst grass tall enough to tickle the backs of her knees, Sun on her face, hair wrangled into a sloppy frizzy bun. She smells manure's cloying damp, sees a squat red house and the tiny white flowers dotting the green field like dust motes frozen in sunlight. She knows she is with her father at her grandparents’ cabin far upstate. She does not know where they are.
Both trucks are still there, the fresh burgundy and battered white, so they can’t have gone far. A dog barks in the near distance, but she can’t see it and knows Bo has been dead for years though she can’t say exactly when it happened. She thinks her elders might be inside the house, so she pushes her way through the back screen door. Yellow wallpaper with ribbony vertical stripes of meringue white, soft brown carpeting so thick she’d lose crumbs in it, the sharp odor of furniture polish and the great fireplace of ruddy bricks in which no real fire had burned for two centuries, since the last wave of Carbon Codes. She expects to see these things because they’ve always been there. What surprises her is the child sitting on the worn, expansive couch.
Lorena has no siblings and certainly no sisters. The other girl has long dark hair falling straight down her back and chest. She is Lorena’s age, or near enough—neither has sprouted breasts or hips to lord over the other. Her face is plain but slightly pretty for being so perfectly smooth and even, her eyes tawny gold with halos of hazel. Lorena asks the girl where her grandparents were and gets no response. She asks about her father and gets the same, though at this question the stranger smiles. Lorena asks if anyone was home. I’m home, of course, she replies. Lorena says she is going to look for the grown-ups. Would you like company? the girl asks, and Lorena says she would.
* * *
“Lorena! Doctor! Doctor! Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, god fucking dammit!” Ashley screamed into the radio, releasing the dead Ouro and slamming on her thrusters.
“What’s she doing?” from Konoko’s bridge, Vivek could only watch the monitors and nothing seemed wrong with Lorena’s. She’d stopped moving forward and faced the spire, unmoving and unresponsive. The camera just sat, unchanging.
“She’s doing nothing is what. Started off into the bowl when we weren’t watching, next thing we know Genz is calling a power spike and she’s not answering. Lorena!” Ash was almost to her C.O.
Karl Genz spoke with a tremulo of fear in his voice. “Pilot Mohinder, look at my bridge console. Is it the whole ship powering up?”
“Negative. Looks to be local. Is that better or worse?”
“I don’t know. Oh, scheisse, ich sehe. The computer’s coming online.” The spire was suddenly lit. From it shone a color that was all colors, a blinding white turning through the visual spectrum like a bicycle wheel.
“Ashley, be careful!” She barely heard it over the noise in her head. It wasn’t quite sound, was too intense for sound, so loud and close her mind’s only defense was tuning it out. The junior Pilot cut her thrusters short, reached out her arms and impacted Lorena with a bear hug, a rapid expulsion of breath. She twisted around with all of her core strength, thankful for the two inches and five kilos she had on her C.O., hitting her thrusters again only once the turn was complete.
She tried to look under Lorena’s armpit, guiding them both to the bowl’s rim where Karl waited. It wasn’t until she cleared the amphitheater that she could once again hear his speech, rushing back and forth along with Vivek’s and Obo’s.
“They’re coming in all the gates,” the Systems Tech was saying. “That computer’s sending six million requests per second. Firewalls are holding, but I expect that’s just confusion at our system. It won’t last. Can’t fool a squid A.I. long.”
“What’s the C.O.’s status?”
“Ashley has her,” Karl answered. “We’re both safe.”
“You and Genz get her back. You come back right now.”
“Don’t gotta tell me, Vee,” Ash replied, shifting around to grip Lorena’s right shoulder while Karl took the left. She looked into the faceplate. “Her eyes are closed.”
“Vitals stable,” Karl suggested as a silver lining, which Ash had to agree it was.
“How long do we have until the firewalls fail? Any guesses?” asked Ashley as the trio accelerated up the way they’d come down.
Obo answered. “They last ten minutes, I’ll be impressed. But don’t worry about the time. We’re not leaving without you.” Ashley bit her lip and tried to push away the grim thoughts. Just get to the exit.
“I should have gone to get Lorena,” said Karl as they motored through the deep. He was too sheepish to look her way.
“Yeah, well, you didn’t.”
* * *
The girl is Beatrice. Lorena walks with her up the stairs, opens each of the bedroom doors and finds nobody home. The bathroom doors are closed, because her grandparents insist on it for reasons she has never understood. It is one more indignity of this place, along with sharing the second bedroom with her father. They sleep in bunk beds, for Christ’s sake! She shouldn’t say Christ. But she hasn’t, she’s just thought it. She shouldn’t think it either. Still, with the bathroom door closed, how is anyone to know if it’s occupied? She has to knock every time, at least during the day when nobody needs the lights. And when she knocks, either she interrupts somebody or lets the whole house know she’s about to use the bathroom. Lorena hates knocking. Here she makes Beatrice do it, just to see if she will, and she does but no answer comes. Lorena confesses she’s stumped, has no idea where anyone is, but assures the new girl they’ll return shortly. She doesn’t want Beatrice to panic, does want her to know Lorena Mizrahi fears nothing and can take care of herself.
What do you want to do until then? I have some board games. There’s a creek out back. We’re not allowed to cross it, but I find cool rocks in there.
Are there fish?
Yeah, a lot of fish! Sometimes we catch enough for a whole dinner.
I want to catch a fish!
Do you want to use the bathroom first?
Out the back screen door they scamper, first to the shed for two poles and her grandfather’s tackle box, from there across the field and down a gravel patch to the creek. Brushy unkempt pines lean over it from the far side, where a steep incline starts the climb up the valley wall. Only miles of forest beyond, its tarry smell filling her nostrils.
Beatrice has never fished before. Lorena has, many times, but always with help. Now, for all the expertise she’d like to project, she finds herself struggling with the pole, the lines, the seemingly infinite variety of weights and floats on offer. She settles on small split-shot weights, fitted on the lines a few inches above the hooks, and gingerly slides a cultured bait nug onto the barb. She explains to Beatrice that she doesn’t need to cast the line, just drop it into the water, and this turns out to be useless advice because Beatrice doesn’t know what casting a line is. Lorena feels wise and experienced.
They stalk upstream, hunched low and pole tips bobbing, speaking in whispers so as not to alert the fish. Lorena had thought this absurd when her father explained it, but Beatrice takes it as both perfectly obvious and a delightful challenge. Lorena takes them to a hole she remembers from before, where the narrow creek swells to eight feet wide and at least half that deep. At her direction, Beatrice plunks her line in the water just above the hole, watches it zip downstream before slowing at the hole’s boundary. Beatrice is very amused by this behavior.
It doesn’t take ten seconds to get a bite. From under the opaquely muddy surface the morsel is snatched, hauled down as the pole bends and leaps like a rearing warhorse and Lorena’s new friend squeals with delight.
Reel it in! The other way, the other way!
It’s so strong!
You’ve got it, keep going.
The pole’s going to break!
No it’s not. Keep reeling.
And then it comes from the water, bursting into the air along with a thousand glass slivers, wildly thrashing its tail as Beatrice swings it onto dry land. Dropped to the grass, it jumps and flops about the strange girl’s ankles. She drops the pole, screaming and laughing at once. Lorena grabs a stone off the ground, falls to her knees and waits for the animal to pause before striking it once, hard, behind the eye. It goes slack and she puts her hand over it, pinning it down, feeling the last twitches in its cold wet muscles and the slick of its skin on her palm.
It’s beautiful, Beatrice coos over her shoulder, and Lorena agrees. The Sun illuminates its brilliant chromatic stripes and olive-black speckles. She’s tried to count them before, on earlier expeditions, but always gives up. She might as well try to count the stars.
* * *
It came through their defenses like someone going broke: slowly, and then all at once. Zachariah Obo played virtuosic at his keyboard but soon he was hammering at it and eventually sitting back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head, capitulating to a superior foe. There was nothing to be done. Ouro machines asked questions their human counterparts weren’t meant to answer, built as they were in pedantic sets of instructions. Obo could do nothing but watch the aliens’ investigation and hope there’d be enough of Konoko left to fly her. In the early going, at least, they got lucky: the Ouro A.I. snaked its way through peripheral systems, flickering the lights, sending bursts of shrieking multicolored static through monitors.
“It’s not really attacking,” observed Vivek over the intercom, seeing the same.
“Feeling us out,” Obo agreed. “They just gotta touch everything. Don’t much care how it ends up looking.”
“We’re out of safeguards?”
“Only thing to do is pull the plug.” Which meant disengaging the airlock, not yet possible.
“Ashley, where are you?”
“Not far out, Vee. I dunno what to call it—that long tube in the first pyramid. Almost to the outer airlock. Good thing the Doc is small.”
“Roger that. You’re doing great, and Karl too. When you get back to the Pre Chamber, be sure to stick Lorena in first. It’ll be easier to wedge yourselves in with her than the other way around.”
“Heading down there now to meet them” said Obo, standing up from his station. Taking a left down a short hallway lined by meter-wide storage lockers, he crouched to descend a ladder into the ready room where the boarding party had left their sidearms. He stepped through the safety hatch into Konoko’s outer airlock, taking position at the control panel. The docking collar needed high-level permissions to engage, but disengaging was a blessedly mechanical affair. Obo punched a sequence of operations into the collar’s simple computer, little more than a galvanized nail next to the probing A.I. and far below its interest. His custom sequence was built for speed, leaving out several of the standardized steps, stripping the disengagement down to its essential parts. The initial work done, he leaned back and crossed his arms to take in the boarding part’s progress over intercom. Calloused fingers worked the ropey muscles in his arms.
“We’ve got her in there and I think she’ll stay. Genz, you’re up.” Ashley’s breathing was labored.
“You should go first.”
“What? You’re twice my size. Big things go in first. Never packed your own rucksack?” She used the German pronunciation, starting the R at the back of her mouth and blasting it out with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
“There you go. See how well things work when you listen?”
Obo hit his TRANSMIT button. “Ready on your call, Ash.”
“Rodge. Give me a second…Genz, turn your fuckin’ hips. Right. Your right, why would I tell you my right?”
“I’m right up against the Doctor already.”
“Then just squish her. It’s only for a minute. There you go. Okay, feet up…we’re good! Go for it!”
Obo tapped his fingers twice on the console, heard the corresponding klaxon and pulled heavy gloves over his hands. Doors snicked shut in the Pre Chamber’s floor, and the computer skipped its first step. Where typically the suspension fluid would be returned to the Ouro—drained through the same portals that had delivered it—here the outer doors closed too. Without so much as a “by your leave,” Konoko disengaged her docking collar, severing her link to the Ouro A.I. and retracting the assembly back into her belly.
That sudden retraction was the second and most important skipped step. From the outer airlock’s floor reared the Pre Chamber, a broad cylinder that reached to the ceiling. Hydraulics squealed; decontamination hoses sprayed gas. The boarding party entered the chamber one way, but they’d leave it another. Obo threw an override, heard a banging sound and curled his lip as the chamber’s side hatch opened. A flood of orange jetted from it, delivered under non-equalized pressure (another step he’d skipped), dousing the floor with suspension fluid. Pungent and salty, it greased the deck under Obo’s boots. He sloshed to the hatch, which was in the process of birthing a strange and bedraggled blue pullet in Karl Genz. First his legs, then the whole German unfolded out into the bright new world.
He immediately turned to help Obo, four gloved hands working to extract Lorena Mizrahi as Ashley pushed from inside. The junior Pilot came last, unassisted because the others were hauling their C.O. to the ready room. They pulled at her neck clasps, reached beneath the panel at the base of her spine to trigger the emergency releases. The helmet came off with a hiss, revealing a mask of sweaty hair smeared over her face.
“She’s breathing fine,” Obo observed as Ashley caught up with them, pulling off her own helmet. Genz removed his while the Systems Tech read through the available stims in the Med Kit.
“What’s going on down there?” called Vivek, his face appearing in the hatch at the top of the ladder.
“Trying to stabilize the Doc.”
“Belay that,” he stated, climbing down. “If we don’t know what put her to sleep, we’re not waking her up.”
“But what if—“
“What if nothing,” he cut her off. “You’re a doctor. Lorena’s the only doctor, and she’s out so that makes me vice-doctor. And vice-doctor says we’re not shooting up someone with stable vitals.”
“Vee, I know you’ve got your drug thing and that’s fine, but this is life and death.”
He glared at Ashley. “It’s not life and death, Pilot Duggins, if you’ll take one moment to look at the monitors. This has nothing to do with me. It’s just the smart decision, and I’ve made it.”
“I agree,” Karl volunteered. “We have no evidence suggesting she won’t come to on her own.”
Obo shrugged. Ashley bit her tongue and settled for throwing her helmet against the far wall. “I knew this was going badly! Shit! What’re we gonna do?”
Vivek regarded her coolly. “We’re going to move Lorena into the Med Bay, set up the auto functions and wait. Meanwhile, we’ve got a ship freshly ransacked by an Ouro A.I. Everyone does full diagnostics on his systems. Find out what works and doesn’t. If we’re lucky, we can dive in a few hours. We’re due some good luck today, so get to it. Check in twice per hour, tops and bottoms, and we’ll see where we are. Okay?”
Nobody replied, just stared at their stricken C.O. Vivek opened a locker, pulled out an expanse of white linen on a skeletal frame and unfolded it to full length. “Okay, the stretcher’s here. We’ll all move her at once. On three.”
* * *
Lorena woke up like washing ashore on a beach, cast onto warm soft sand by churning surf. She blinked at hard fluorescent lighting, knew she was in Konoko’s Med Bay but was nonetheless surprised to be alone. Beatrice had gone, lost in the white wash, though Lorena couldn’t remember being separated.
She lifted the light blanket from her abdomen, saw the streaks of damp orange on its underside matching darker stains from her coveralls. She remembered the Ouro vessel, the interior like its own nutshelled universe, and then she remembered the fishing expedition with no clear seam between the two. Feeling tenderly around her scalp, she felt no pain. Looking about the room, she saw every detail in perfect quality: crinkles in the white sheet, fish-eye reflections in the skins of gleaming steel instruments. The light was bright but not painfully so, and without any nausea she ruled out concussion. She realized this was the first time she’d ever seen the Bay from the exam table. It had always been someone else here. She was hit with a palpable stab of guilt. What had happened to her?
Lorena swung her legs off the table to set thermal-socked feet on the floor. She shifted her weight down and slowly let go of the table to stand on her own. Glad as she was to feel healthy and normal, clearly something had gone sufficiently wrong to land her in the Med Bay. She opened a drawer to grab a fistful of adhesive leads, intending to use her privileges as Ship Doctor to fully examine herself, then stopped short and laid them on the counter. Her crew was more important, and so she circled the exam table to reach the intercom.
“I’m awake,” she said simply. “Anyone else?”
The reply was several seconds coming. Vivek’s relief was audible. “Thank God, Lorena. We’re all fine, still checking Konoko. Don’t move, Ash should be back soon.”
Since she was already moving, Lorena stripped off her coveralls and set them in a heap on the exam table. To her wrists, underarms, throat, thighs, temples and the backs of her knees she stuck the leads. Each self-activated at the taste of her skin, broadcasting to the ship’s computer. Lorena padded in her underwear to the desk in the corner, bent down and worked on her diagnostic console.
“Not sure how well that’ll work.” Ashley cautioned from the doorway. “Obo’s got the computer hibernating while he runs through the damage. Should you be up right now?”
“I feel fine.”
Ash arched an eyebrow. “If I’d conked out cold on an Ouro ship and needed emergency extraction, would you let me walk around? Even if I felt fine?”
“No,” Lorena replied flatly with a look that defied her junior Pilot to continue that line of conversation.
“Sorry there was no one here when you woke up. It was supposed to be me, but I was stowing my suit.”
“I suppose you want to know—“
“Exactly. You should have just opened with that. You’re right, this thing’s useless.” Lorena straightened up over the desk and put her hands on her pale hips. She was getting cold but didn’t want Ashley to know. “The last thing I remember is going down between those light-up glass struts. At the bottom was…a sunken circle with a spire in the middle. Like an obelisk, but with more sides.”
“Right, that’s as far as we got. You went down first. We found a pile of dead Ouro in the pit, and then Vivek came on the radio.”
“I can remember his voice. Not what he said.”
“It was a priority request, already sitting in the computer. It said if we found dead squid, to bag ‘em and find the nearest Navy boat.”
Lorena was puzzled. “Why would—never mind, I’ll read it myself. Later. Continue.”
“Okay, so Genz and I grabbed the nearest one, since it didn’t matter which. We grabbed it and I guess that’s when you wandered off. Next thing we knew, you were fifty meters away.”
“Why? What was I supposed to be doing?”
“No idea. You didn’t say anything. I guess we can check the logs. Anyway, you’re down in the pit when the spire lights up and this noise comes on. I don’t even know—it was almost too low for real sound. Again, there’s the logs. But basically, the Ouro computer comes awake all of a sudden. The lights, the sound and an A.I. attack on Konoko. We call to you and get no answer. I jet over and you’re out like a light. So I haul you back to Genz, he drops the dead Ouro and we get you back to the airlock. The rest was boring,” she said wryly, smiling in spite of herself.
Lorena shifted her weight, crossed her arms and looked down at the deck. “All right. Mohinder’s working on the nav computer, yes? I’m sure there’s something you can do to help him.”
“He said to watch you.”
“I’m watched. Too watched, actually. Scoot while I get dressed. Go help Vivek.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Then, after a pause, “glad you’re not hurt, ma’am.” She vanished through the door.
With the leads removed and her clean white-and-yellow medical jumpsuit zipped, Lorena straightened her collar in the mirror above the sink. Ashley’s account had been a lot to take in. Yet disaster, it seemed, had been averted. Her crew was safe, her ship at least structurally intact. There would likely be further setbacks depending on the electronic damage, and she might have some minor heart condition to diagnose, but it wouldn’t be outrageous for a woman of her age and with her family history. The tools to fix all her problems lay easily within grasp. She, Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, was firmly in control of the situation.
“Start by doing what’s necessary,” she said out loud, still facing the mirror.
“Then do what’s possible,” came Beatrice’s rejoinder from behind.
She turned to smile at her friend. The tall, statuesque woman with raven locks leaned casually against the exam table, studiously avoiding the stained jumpsuit. Lorena provided the last line of their favorite saying, shared back and forth countless times over the years: “and suddenly, you’re doing the impossible.”
COMING NEXT TUESDAY: PART SEVEN, IN WHICH THINGS ARE, LIKE, TOTALLY BACK TO NORMAL.