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!

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