Wednesday, November 27, 2013

State of the Story, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Since I haven't used my real-person voice for a while in this venue and one of the few holidays I actually observe approacheth, I thought this would be a good time to thank everyone who's been reading Fields without Fences. It's hard to tell exactly how many of you there are, since a decent chunk of the traffic will always be backclick-trolling from porn sites. Apparently that's a more viable model for online commerce than this bullshit I waste my time on. Still, there are several (several!) dozen loyal readers, which is more than I ever expected to enjoy an exercise for my own development. In that immediate sense it's been an unqualified success. I've learned a great deal, expanded my perspective and pushed myself (in large part because of you wonderful people, your readership and encouragement) to write a tremendous amount in the last few months.

The larger reality is complicated: both exciting and scary. A casual exercise in serial short fiction metastasized into the framework of what is going to be my second novel. Like the first, a short exploratory project grew and grew until this became the obvious option, the only option. Fields without Fences is probably about halfway done, given the story I've plotted in my head. But it's also loaded with mistakes. Not errors so much as deficiencies - shortcuts I took for the sake of continuity, for the sake of serial pacing, sometimes just for the sake of meeting my production quota for that day. These things can't be fixed at this point, not the way the story's currently presented.

So here's what I'm going to do: keep writing the way I have been, posting on the same schedule, working through this strange beautiful empty setting, trying to expand the characters and the story's scope while also banging out tense endings and fun beginnings at 500+ words per day (my bare minimum quota for Fields). I don't know if this enhances or degrades my readership's interest in the story, but what you're essentially doing is watching me write the first draft of a sci-fi novel in (sorta) public, in (nearly) real time. You are witnessing ideas as they emerge half-molten from my head. Maybe you think that's really cool, or maybe you're someone who stopped reading around Part Six when things started getting extra weird. Whatever the case, to everyone that's given this strange experiment even a few moments of your time, allow me to sincerely thank you.

And to my family, friends and anyone else who cared enough about my work to drop me a line or, more impressively, to stick their necks out and recommend it to others ("You read this?! She's masturbating! In the first chapter!"), thank you extra SUPER much. Some of you care so much about me and my work that I get tremendously embarrassed. Blessedly, that feeling is usually followed by determination - to keep writing, to hopefully keep entertaining you and to make you feel your time is a maturing investment.

All the best,
-Tony

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Fourteen

Credit: Jim S. Vanberg

           Human beings were relentlessly committed to killing one another.  No honest observer of civilization’s progress could meet any other conclusion.  Technology made tremendous strides in just the few thousand years since the end of the last Ice Age opened the floodgates to human development—in no field more so than that of weaponry.  Savage melees yielded to regimented combat with projectile weapons, which persisted as the killing implements of choice even once splitting atoms and harnessed hydrogen fusion appeared.  Whether by providence or miracle, those weapons were never deployed at any large scale on the Earth’s surface.  It remained the human race’s only observed taboo.

            But if the stars expanded frontiers, so too they exploded the scale of conflict.  Battles once fought hand-to-hand now took place over thousands if not millions of miles.  Even infantry often did their bloody work in hard vacuum, without gravity to anchor against recoil nor atmospheric oxygen to fuel combustion.  New solutions were needed, and mankind’s greatest minds got to work with an efficacy one only wished they’d applied to more humanitarian ends.  Lasers, comically unwieldy and once thought unworkable, took huge strides.  More exotic particle-based hardware quickly became de rigeur, offering variants for every purpose, situation and niche market.  Need to cut through a battle tank’s armor?  Easily done.  Prefer to boil its crew alive inside that armor like kebabs in foil?  We’ve got a product for that.  Would you prefer a mounted or portable model?

            When Sergeant Joe Duggins left the service, he took his service weapon among a handful of mementos.  The Marina suit was one, a vial of soil another—surreptitiously gouged from the soil of mother Terra on an R&R visit and smuggled back to the family’s dusty Mars homestead.  A bottle of dirt held predictably little interest for young Ashley, who fixated instead on the Coventry Arms D114e Plasma Rifle.  She groaned at its heft, later remembering her first day to lift it as a major childhood milestone.  She admired its subtle lines, solid casing, the cruel efficiency of its construction.  She fingered the open slot where its control chip once had been, the gaping mouth where magazines had gone, the rough charred scoring about its barrel mouth holding stories she longed to hear but didn’t dare ask her father about.  Some things are so terrible, her mother haltingly explained, that nobody should ever have to talk about them.

            What if you ask and they want to?

            Your dad doesn’t want to.

            This didn’t make much sense—her father was hardly the “depressive battle-scarred veteran” archetype from the vids.  But her mother seemed very serious and so she didn’t ask, just played with the neutered weapon and built her own labyrinth of fantasy into its weathering.

She huddles in her foxhole behind the couch, rifle clutched to her chest and a colander tied under her chin with white craft string, imagining the painstakingly geo-engineered raindrops pattering on the windowpanes are the rattles of incoming fire.

She dives, the weapon’s weight banging her elbows into the floor, rolling under the table still bearing breakfast’s dishes, bellowing orders to her squadmates.  Murphy’s down!  Keep your heads low, dammit!  Her father’s voice from the kitchen, chiding her for the curse.

She leaps backwards and tumbles to the carpet, letting the weapon fall from rigid fingers, theatrically defeated.  Joe Duggins, wearing just his Marina suit’s helmet above a shirt and jeans, stands to his full height and roars: Too slow, Sky Marshal!  You’re finished now!  Triumphant and flushed with hubris, he casts down the handheld vacuum cleaner standing in for his shock blaster.  Ashley rolls on the floor to grab her weapon once again, summoning all her prodigious personal strength for one last salvo against her hated enemy.  The Sky Marshal, even once felled, always gets another chance.  After all, Joe insists his weapons are never lethal.

*          *          *          

They found four in total: all the same make and model, tucked innocently into the ready room’s pull-out drawers.  Stuffed haphazardly into a locker they found boxes of charge packs.  Lorena called down Vivek and Karl; together they hauled the weapons upstairs to stuff them in a storage closet swiftly sealed by Lorena’s personal key.  She locked away the pistols too.

“We keep them separated from the ammo at all times,” Lorena declared once the four were gathered around a galley table.  She and Obo nursed coffee while Karl munched sesame crackers and Vivek sipped water.  “Is there anything useful to be done with the charge packs?”

“Not really,” said Obo.  “Blow ‘em out the airlock if you like.”

She frowned.  “Seems wasteful.  Just leave them where they are.  I suppose it’s possible we’ll want them one day.”

“Doctor, if this isn’t a dumb question,” Karl interjected, “what is the harm of leaving them in the ready room?  If we ever had to use them—“

“We won’t.”  Lorena tried to project hostility at Karl.

He didn’t pick it up.  “Doctor, how can you logically say that?  It’s impossible to know what we’ll encounter at any moment, and it seems to me that we should remain prepared for all eventualities.”

Lorena, restraining the urge to snap at him, allowed Karl to finish before replying.  “Because I don’t trust them.  I don’t trust anyone on this ship with them, not even myself.  We aren’t soldiers, Mister Genz.  Our new mission doesn’t make us soldiers, even if Contact prefers otherwise.”

Vivek broke his silence.  “While I agree with you, Lorena, it’s worth noting shock rifles can be used for other things.”

“If we need to clear heavy debris in a hurry, I’ll consider it.”

Obo held the cup before his face, the steam wafting up his nostrils.  “Gryphons would be better for that.”  He took a long sip.

Lorena concurred.  “Any application of force, really.  And we’re certainly not using them for any boarding action.  Handling dead Ouro is ethically dicey enough; killing them is out of the question.”

“You know,” Karl mused, popping two crackers in his mouth at once and speaking despite their obstruction, “it’s doubtful a shock charge would kill an Ouro, even at close range.  It would damage a mobility harness, obviously, but the harm to human anatomy comes from the interaction of flesh and bone.  Soft parts and hard.  The Ouro don’t have bones.  Some light tissue trauma, perhaps.”

Lorena pondered that point; it was genuinely interesting in light of Contact’s actions.  What exactly had they intended with the illicit cargo?  Who were the Gustafs’ intended targets?  Given the leverage they held, why even hide them from her?  Would that knowledge have pushed her over the edge to refusal?  She knew in her heart it would not.  “Whatever they may do to Ouro anatomy, we’re not going to find out.  They stay locked up and authority to open that closet stays with me and Mister Mohinder.”

“Yes’m,” said Obo, and the rest agreed.  Even Karl understood the argument was over.

Lorena stood from the table, picked up her mug and clasped it between her palms to enjoy its warmth.  In an age of near-perfect insulating materials, consumers still preferred their mugs conduct cozy wattage.  She turned an elbow to observe her watch.  “In fifty-five minutes I’ll put the first downers in Ashley.  It’s possible she’ll come out rough, so be prepared for anything.  Honestly I can’t imagine it’ll be any rougher than what we’ve already handled.”

Obo gave a nod.  “I’ll be ready to pull the plug.”

“You want me to hop in right after?” asked Vivek.

“Not on four hours’ rest.  I’ll take Ash to the Med Bay, work her up while we cycle the gen’.  Plan on an eight-hour turnaround.  We’ll keep you on a normal schedule as Ash gets back up to speed.”

“I could take a nap,” he acknowledged.

“Please do.  We’re not in a hurry.  Especially not after this latest slurry of bullshit.  Gentlemen, I’ll be in my cabin,” she said with a slight raise of her mug.

*          *          *          

“You can say it now,” she smirked to Beatrice once they’d left the galley.

“I was right!  Right all along!  God, you must get tired of it,” the taller woman exulted.  “But it’s what I’m here for.”

“Lord knows, you never accomplished anything on your own.”  Lorena felt a pang of guilt saying that.  It was why she always lost these sparring matches.

“You manage to create problems enough for the both of us,” Bea replied, draping over her uniformed shoulders a sleeve of white gossamer with fine gold chevrons from elbow down.

They arrived at the cabin, Lorena setting her three-quarter-empty mug on an end table, folding herself into the corner of the nearby (and badly misnamed) love seat.  A thick blanket lay in a heap beside her, patterned with marine fossils from ancient Terran sea beds.  As a teenager she’d dug with a chisel through the loose ruddy shale near her grandparents’ cabin looking for their imprints: fronds of seaweed, tiny crustaceans with bizarre fanlike antennae, ovoid clams with the ridges of their shells perfectly preserved like a coin’s machined edge.

A lean modern lamp crouched on the end table and flicked to life at the touch of Lorena’s fingertips on its base.  She picked up the adjacent tablet, turned it on and called up Ashley’s vital signs.  Steadily they pulsed across the screen, thrown in real time from her pod in the Nav Suite.  Seeing nothing to concern her, she dispelled the information and opened the book she’d been reading.  We Watched The Silver Rain: a proletarian realist novel set on Venus in the early terraforming days.  It was considered the most important work of its kind since Emile Zola.  Lorena was struggling to get through it, since every one of its fifty-seven chapters stabbed viciously at her brain’s depressive regions.

“Who’re you trying to impress with that gloom and doom?” Beatrice inquired, laying herself down on the love seat with her head on its far arm and her body stretched over the rest.  Lorena lifted the tablet for Bea’s legs as they descended across her lap.

“It’s something I know I should read.  To learn about circumstances not my own.  We had a pretty privileged upbringing.”

“Don’t punt your guilt to me.”

“Well, it’s worth acknowledging.  Something like forty percent of the human race has never set foot on planet Earth.  Just confined habitats, poor nutrition, poverty.  No sight of air or sea.  Doesn’t seem like our species was meant to live that way.”

“We’re meant to eat fruit and bugs, Lorena.  On some Rift Valley savanna.  Very little about the human race as you and I know it was meant to be this way.  God could build the whole universe and still be surprised at how His designs turned out.  So who’re you or anyone to say things should be different?  They could be a whole lot worse.  Think of the sorriest, poorest, least fortunate human being alive.  Is his life better or worse than that same person’s life a hundred years ago?  A thousand?  No way.  Things move in the direction they do and it’s my personal opinion we should get embrace that history.”

            “I suppose so.  It just gets so ugly sometimes.”

            “Someone’s always hurting, somewhere.  Community makes it better, spreads out the pain, adds perspective to everything gained or lost.  If the community’s moving forward, that should be celebrated.  It doesn’t mean you’ve paved over the hurt along the way.  So if you must indulge your latent Catholic guilt, Lor, why don’t you think about solutions for your crew?  The people who actually have problems, instead of characters from century-old misery porn.”

            “’Misery porn.’  I’ll have to remember that.”

            “Won’t even charge you.”

            “And I’m reading because for the next forty-five minutes I don’t want to be thinking about my crew’s stupid.  I mean, I love them, but shit.”

            Beatrice tilted back her head to loose a booming laugh.  When smiling she was frustratingly beautiful.  “Some honesty, at last.  You want a distraction.  You want to flip on that monitor and watch The Rifle.

            Lorena sighed, dispelled the book display and set down her tablet.  “That is what I want.”  A touch at the remote ignited her wall screen and the listing was just a short hop by way of the Recently Viewed menu.  The Rifle: Western, 36 episodes.  A team of hard-luck bounty hunters stalks their dangerous cyborg quarry through an Old West wilderness.

            Bea snorted.  “Ludicrous.  Who looks at that story and says, ‘yeah, I’m running with this?’”

            “Shut your mouth,” Lorena commanded.  “Everyone’s really good in it.”

            “And you would do the guy who plays the Cowboy.”

            “Lord, yes.  Those eyes.

*          *          *          

            Ashley Duggins felt the sedatives enter her system like a slug of pure alcohol, carving like a cold knife through her stomach lining.  She felt the impulse to shiver but restrained it, focusing all her attention on the hard marble of an approaching star.  The drugs pulled at her eyes now, seeking to draw them back inside her head, and so by instinct she pushed against the force.  Onrushing, the star swelled as those around faded.  Ashley realized she could no longer feel most of the surrounding space—cinching in from the edges of her perception, blotting out progressively more of the universe, was a flat undifferentiated blackness.  The tunnel closed in.  She tried to breathe but found her body wouldn’t respond.  Fear boiled up from inside her; desperation clawed at her mind.  Something was wrong.

            She surged forward, pushing with all her will at the tunnel walls.  Still they closed in and the only way out seemed to be through.  At the mouth, which couldn’t be too far yet seemed so distant, was the star.  Ashley screamed toward it, breath bursting in her chest, determined to reach the end before time ran out.  She wondered if she was going to die.

            And suddenly there was the blank screen before her eyes.  Unsure of her ongoing existence, she took a breath and was tremendously relieved as her lungs filled with air.  Though her heart raced and anxiety still clutched it, Ashley noted she didn’t feel short of breath.  That was odd—odder still that Lorena hadn’t opened the pod.  Ash took her hand from the control pocket and was reaching for the manual control when from behind came the familiar hiss and shaft of bright light.

            “Are you alright?” Lorena asked urgently.

            “Yeah, I think so.  What happened?”

            “The drugs went in and your signals dropped, but you didn’t slow down.  You had us at high speed on course for obstruction.  I had Obo kill the gen’.”

            Color drained from Ashley’s already pallid complexion.  “No.  I slowed it!”  As the words left her mouth, it dawned on her that this might not be true.  She didn’t’ know.  In desperation it hadn’t even occurred to her.

            Lorena shook her head sadly.  “You didn’t, Ash.  Power levels to the thrusters went up.

            “Fuck.”

            The C.O. went back to the console, pulled up the sedatives’ dosing guidelines, skimmed down the stocky paragraphs.  Her practiced eyes rifled through the jargon snatching out any germane words.  “If you could describe what you felt…”

            “I felt like drowning.  Like I was underwater and drowning.  I couldn’t breathe.”

            “Hmm,” Lorena frowned, “I don’t see that.”

            “Well, I felt it.”  Ashley had her feet on the floor and leaned back against the pod, trying to clear her head of the fuzziness she felt descending.  She wasn’t amped and horny, that was for damn sure.  “Lorena, can you get my back leads?”

            “Oh, yes.  I’m sorry,” she hopped up from the seat to assist.

            Once fully unplugged, Ashley stepped to the screen and leaned forward.  With a finger she pulled the record of her own vitals backwards until she saw the green marker where the sedatives had gone in.  “This says I never stopped breathing.”

            “Right.  I was right here; I’d have noticed if you did.”

            “Is it just a mental thing?  Psychosomatic?”

            Lorena shrugged.  “I don’t’ know.  The literature mentions acute anxiety.  That could be it.  Doesn’t look to me like you were ever in any physical stress.”

            “Okay,” Ashley frowned.  “I’m sorry about the speed thing.  Sorry you and Obo had to cover my ass again.”  She grew visibly smaller saying it.

            “Ash,” Lorena said simply, pulling her into a hug.  It was brief; she patted the Pilot’s back and released her.

            Ashley couldn’t meet her gaze.  “I just keep fucking up.”

            All Lorena could offer was a sad smile, leading her charge out the door and up to the Med Bay.  “Kid, you’re here.  You’re gonna be here tomorrow.  You’ll get as many shots as you need.”  That last part wasn’t quite true.

*          *          *          

            Ashley’s blood work was normal notwithstanding some elevated hormones associated with stress.  This was good news, though Lorena had hoped for some anomaly that might explain this latest incident.  As emergence failures went, she much preferred Ash’s “safety kill” to Vivek’s crashout, but ultimately they all were rolls of the dice.  Konoko had been lucky so far; Lorena knew it couldn’t last much longer.

            “Think you can keep your focus next time on the decel’?”

            “I’ll try,” Ash shrugged miserably, swaying a little on her exam table perch.  The sedatives dragged her towards sleep.

            “I need more than that.  I need to know you understand the challenge.”

            “Slow down on approach.”

            “Not that.  Well, obviously that.  I meant you need to realize this is just anxiety.  Maybe it’s brought on by the new drugs but fundamentally that’s all it is.”

            “It felt like drowning.”

            “It felt that way, but we’ve established you never stopped breathing.  Apnea isn’t in the literature either.  Anxiety is.”

            “Got it.”

            “Good.  Eat something and get to bed.  Another four hours tomorrow.”

            Ashley left.  “Sometimes I want to box that girl’s ears,” said Beatrice, leaning over the sink to wash her face, scooping water in her long china-pale hands, raising them to let it flow down her face like a benediction.  She did this many times methodically, breathing long and slow through her nose between scoops.

            “She’s in a rough patch.  She’s usually tougher, you know that.”

            “I can’t take the sniveling.”

            “It’ll get better.  Give her time.”

            “I’d rather give her a ‘keep your mouth shut and chin up’ speech.”  Beatrice had stopped washing and now stood over the sink, staring down at her reflection in its chromed basin.  Water dripped from her perfectly angular nose, from the dangling quills of damp dark hair.

            Lorena rolled her eyes.  “Well, it’s a good thing you’re not in charge.”

*          *          *          

            Vivek went into his dive on schedule.  Konoko dashed off again from the lonely blue marble of a neutron star that had nearly ensnared Ashley.  She flew for a spell through empty space, skirting an orphaned planet.  Nearly two Earth masses, separated from its parent star by some long-past cataclysm, the cold dead rock was named Fatima after some astronomer’s “bitch of an ex-wife.”  Regular patterns of geology on Fatima’s surface strongly suggested past habitation—a civilization long since extinguished, though no one could say with any certainty.  The planet, marked by the Explorer Corps for scientific excavation decades before, had slowly made its way up the Federal Xenoarcheology Institute’s waiting list until it nearly reached the top.  The chronically underfunded bureau’s researchers were by all accounts eager to get working on Fatima, just the moment they cleared the one thousand two hundred and nineteen sites higher on the list.

He passed the Ashpool Event: a seemingly empty hollow in an otherwise dense cloud of gas, a bubble carved in the hydrogen and helium by the singularity at its center.  A jet of heated particles erupted from its heart—light gases but heavy metals as well, isotopes of nickel and iron ejected at the unthinkable velocity of 0.995C—flashing like a lighthouse as the only hint the unseen singularity would give to its own nature.  Those jets started fast but slowed down quickly in viscous collision with the surrounding cloud.  So they petered out just a few hundred light years later, swirling in white-hot eddies as gravity bound mass to mass.  The currents at Ashpool’s edges drove together star-sized lumps of charged particles with a factory’s brutal efficiency before kicking them outward to the universe at large.  Diving starships could in theory cut cords across the Event’s ovoid space—it had been done twice, once to prove the point and once again in the infamous TNV Pelican incident—provided they took a breather at its edge to check the vent’s position and timing.  Vivek was taking no such risks, though he dipped close enough to get a feel for it.  The wash of particulate debris was a veil over the empty bubble, its many molten masses occluding his gravitic vision.

            Konoko arrived at her emergence point without incident, for which Lorena was very grateful.  Ashley slept ten hours straight, awakening near the end of Vivek’s dive with a profound sense of well-being and a vicious case of cotton mouth.  Dehydrated from sleeping so long, she was still slurping water in her bathroom when she heard her handy chirp from the bedside table.

            She’d missed a message from Lorena while she slept, which at first set her heart hammering with panic until she recalled the device’s low-priority sound.  High priority would have set the thing yammering loud enough to wake her.  Hope you enjoyed the snooze.  It’s time for work.  Attached was the two weeks’ dive schedule, by the end of which she was slated to return to eight-hour dives.  She was a Pilot, after all, with many miles to go until she slept again.  Ashley changed her underwear, pulled on her coveralls and brushed her hair vigorously enough to deposit red-gold tangles between the bristles.  She took a long look at the bathroom mirror and was relieved to really, truly like who stared back.  It was a new day in a great big galaxy.

NEXT TUESDAY:  KONOKO LEAVES HUMAN SPACE BEHIND, DIVING INTO THE OPEN TERRITORY WHERE THEIR REAL WORK WILL BEGIN. ENJOY YOUR THANKSGIVINGS; "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" RETURNS ON SCHEDULE!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Thirteen



            He’d died on a Tuesday.  She always remembered that.  The number seventeen, too: seventeen days between his last breath and the message arriving like a whisper in her inbox.  That would make it Friday when she emerged into the outer reaches of the Sol system, into what everyone who’d been outside it called the Core, and ECV Hecate’s intranet reconnected with humanity.  Seventeen days, Tuesday and Friday—at the time these things seemed important symbols, turned by her mind into nearly religious totems, and even years later that passion left them branded on her memory.

            Once she knew, it was another six hours into dock and she had work to do.  This was her first command, her first tour for Christ’s sake, and it was emphatically the wrong time for this news to enter her life.  Was she supposed to muster her crew in the midst of packing their cabins to announce her own personal tragedy?  Unprofessional, Annika would have said, and the thought made Lorena grit her teeth and rapidly shake her head in self-rebuke.  Thinking about that was the one way she could possibly make this harder.  But the departed blond beauty was right, after all: she couldn’t put her suffering on those other people.  C.O.s didn’t spill tragedies onboard; they cleaned them up.  So Lorena kept quiet, went through the docking checks, dismissed them all and watched them exit Hecate’s gangway.  She never told them a word about it.

            She was spared a cursory debriefing.  The Corps Administrator overseeing the Mars Dock base was out sick for the day; Lorena filled out a dozen electronic forms, watched the Admin’s secretary stamp them and picked up her old duffel as she stood.  Some part of it caught under the leg of her chair and with a ringing noise the brass ring securing its strap broke.  The secretary suddenly focused on her monitor so intently it might have held the secret to eternal life.  Lorena gathered up the duffel in both arms since one no longer sufficed, and without another word she left the Explorer Corps office.

            The last Federal Service shuttle had left for the day.  She was welcome to wait another ten hours for the next.  “Is there any other way for me to get out sooner?  Civilian transit?” she asked the clerk in the prim Navy uniform.

            “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m not authorized to hand out vouchers.”

            She checked her handy.  “Ninety minutes, a civ shuttle boosts for Luna Dock.”

            “Ma’am, if you’d like to buy a ticket out of pocket you’re welcome to.  I can’t speak to E.C. policy on reimbursements.”

            There weren’t any—that was the policy.  Lorena sighed and leaned into the window.  “Please, it’s an emergency.  A family emergency.  I need to get home.”

            His face softened.  “I understand, ma’am.  But a lot of people around here have family to get home to, wherever they’re going.”

            “My father’s dead.”  She hated saying it.  “He’s been dead seventeen days.  He’s dead in a freezer and there’s been no funeral and there’s not even anyone to pick up the body.”  Tears ran hot down her face; apparently she’d started crying.

            “I’m so sorry.”

            Lorena swallowed mucus in a salty wad.  “It’s only me, and I need to get home.  Please.”

            The clerk was the first person she told.  He gave her a voucher.  She hated herself for it.

*          *          *    
     
            “So I was the second.”

            Lorena took in her fine-featured friend, frowned as she tried to recall.  “Where were you?”

            “Waiting tables back home.  Remember that breakfast place, corner of Cypress and McKinley?”

            “Only old people ate there.”

            “Don’t I know it.  The tips were awful.  Sometimes they’d order nothing but coffee.”

            “Well, in that case it was probably you.  Nobody else would’ve been in town.  Nobody I wanted to see.”

            “It was a shitty time, Lor.”

            “They all are, in their own ways.  Can you think of a good one, really?  Where we were happy with everything, where there wasn’t some incipient crisis in someone’s life?  I can’t.  I don’t think most people could, if they thought about it.”

            “Such a martyr,” Beatrice chortled.  “We always got by.  That’s all any living thing in the universe can ask for.  Your dad died, it’s terrible and you deserved some sympathy.  I was glad to provide it, though I should note: you called me and spent the next three days trying isolate yourself emotionally.  I wouldn’t let you and I always get what I want.”

            “Just until the funeral.  I don’t know which Catholic superstition spawned the idea of open-casket viewings, but even for a moment they’re awful.  Three days was torture.”  Lorena shuddered at the memory: the funeral facility’s chemical smell, the faux wood paneling with its maddeningly regular grain, the ostentatious five-foot floral plumes of green and orange and red replaced every day in a winking parody of the proceedings.

            “You couldn’t do anything about that?  There was nobody else planning things.”

            “Bastard left it in the will.  I mean, I loved the man and he was a fine parent and all of that.  But three days?  What a thing to inflict on everyone.”

            “Well, most folks were in and out.  It was just us there every day.  I had to give away that black dress.  The smell just never came out.”

            They reached the Navigation Suite, whose door stood open though Lorena recalled closing it on her way out.  Nerves knotted in the pit of her stomach, pulsed with dread and then abashedly dispersed as Ashley came into view around the door frame.  She sat at the console with her back to the door, red hair falling loose to obscure her flight suit’s spinal ports.

            A pang of guilt lanced through Lorena.  She hadn’t expected her junior Pilot so soon, hadn’t composed her response to Vivek’s bad news.  “Up early, eh?” she asked rhetorically.  “Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed?”

            Ashley spun in the chair with a quizzical look.  Lorena could see the monitor now, tracking Konoko’s ongoing flight with Vivek’s vitals blown up in fine detail on the right side.  “What’s that mean, ‘bushy-tailed?’”

            “It comes from squirrels.  Ever see a squirrel?”  Ashley hadn’t.  “Well, they’re in some old Terran forests.  You see a few in the temperate urban zones.  Small rodents, great climbers, big bushy tails.”

            “And bright eyes.”

            “Right.  It’s just an expression.  How’re you feeling?”

            “Fine.”  Perhaps the idea of a squirrel had interested Ashley a moment, but now she was sullen again.

            Lorena snuck a glance at her watch, saw she had a few minutes before Vivek’s emergence.  “Ash, I owe you a partial apology.  When we spoke yesterday, I hadn’t yet read all the reports from Nimbus.  The medical reports in particular.”

At this, Ashley slowly turned back towards the screen.  She refused eye contact.  Lorena persisted, “I didn’t know about your test results, and I should have.  It goes a way towards explaining…” she searched for some non-judgmental phrasing, “why you turned off your devices.  Why you cut loose harder than usual.  It’s not an excuse—the rules are what they are, and everything I said yesterday is still true—but it’s a reason.”

“Thanks,” Ashley whispered huskily.

“You’re a good pilot, a fine young woman, and I’m glad you’re on my crew.”

“Thanks.”  There was a long silence.  “Vivek’s vitals are funny to watch.  I’m so used to seeing mine on the tape.  His are so smooth.  It’s like he’s barely down there and could just emerge at any moment.  I keep waiting for it to happen and…nope.”

“He says it made him a better Pilot, getting the implants.”

“We’ve talked about it.  Not recently, but we’ve talked.  I’d never have considered it without the mutation.  Maybe I’m just not committed to the job.”

“Don’t say that,” Lorena patted her shoulder.  “People make their own choices for their own reasons.”

“Right, except I don’t have much of a choice.  Get my dome drilled, or retire to…I don’t know, build terraforming hardware or some shit.  He had a choice,” she concluded, meaning Vivek.

“It’s a shock now.  In a few years you’ll wonder what you worried about.”

“Like losing my virginity.  Were you wrapped up in that?  You once said you came up religious.”

“Yes, but I think it was the same for most people.  Most women, anyway.  You have an ideal.”

“I was a little mad.  Like, ‘that’s it?  That’s all it was?  I’m exactly the same!’”

“That’s a valuable insight, right?”

“Yeah.  Maybe you’re right; no matter how you get drilled, it’s not that memorable!” she cackled with a gleam in her eye.

Lorena tried not to smile and failed.  “That’s awful, Ash.  How long were you setting that up?”

“I swear it just came to me,” she insisted between snickers.

“Great.  Now get your giggling ass up from that console!  I need it to review your new regimen.  Gonna try and knock out your brain’s punning center.”

*          *          *          

Vivek emerged from his warm humming bubble; Lorena and Ashley welcomed him back to the waking world.  He rose on his knees and cupped hands over his mouth to mimic a loudspeaker.  “Announcing arrival at the Corinth String, Proximity Corinth Charlie, next stop Twenty-Fourth and Market.”  He dropped his hands, revealing a tired grin.  “Or whatever.  I don’t remember what’s plotted for yours.”

“Lesser Basilisk Nebula.  Lumpy green thing, long accretion tail dropping into a singularity.”

“Right.  Right.”  He looked back and forth between the two women, saw the improved rapport between them and felt relieved he wouldn’t have to address the situation himself.  Ignoring Lorena’s proffered hand, he hopped to the floor on his own.

“How’s it going, kid?” he asked Ashley as Lorena sat back down at the console.

“All right.  I’ve been worse.  A little nervous about the new drugs.”

“That’s to be expected.  But think of it this way: this is an important mission, right?  Really big for Contact, top priority stuff.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think they’d trust something like that to a Pilot they didn’t trust?  To drugs they didn’t trust?  I don’t think they would.”

“I guess so.”

“Just remember, Ash, when you start to question what’s happening: people much smarter than us have already thought these things out.  It’s a big galaxy and we’ll never be more than blips in it.  Seen the right way, that can be comforting,” he finished.  Ashley gave a half shrug.  “I’m going to eat something and pass out.  Tell me if I’m getting fat?”

“Will do,” Lorena called over her shoulder.  Vivek departed the Navigation Suite.  Ashley bundled up her hair to expose her neck’s thin receptor plate, crouched with her knees out like butterfly wings, bobbed to stretch herself out.  Springing up, she did a quick jog in place and bent as if curtsying, grabbing her toes in a quick stretch of hamstrings that sent crackles of nervous electricity up her legs.

“The action here seems pretty simple,” the Doctor observed, looking at the screen.  “Two agents to dive, two to emerge.”

“No lube?”  Ash held back a dirty joke.

“Primer’s assumed,” Lorena said drily, quietly impressed the younger woman had kept it vanilla.

With an electronic pop, Zachariah Obo’s voice issued from the intercom speaker.  “Ma’am, I’m seeing four hours plotted on the next dive.  If that’s the case, I’d rather not reset the C-H drive.  She’s been shut up and down so many times lately; I think she’d like to stay up past her bedtime tonight.”

“You’re the boss, Mister Obo,” Lorena replied.  “And yes, it’s four hours for now.”  She almost mentioned Ashley’s new drugs but decided it didn’t need saying.

“Standing by on your call, then.  Obo out.”

“Ready when you are,” Lorena told her junior Pilot.  Ashley nodded, pulled open her own pod and clambered inside.  Her hands sought the control pockets.

It’s no different, she told herself as her C.O. slipped the spinal leads into her suit’s ports.  Just a different means to the same end.  She heard Lorena’s labored exhalation as the apparatus slid shut.  There came the needle’s prick in her thigh, the sting of fluid pressure following.

And it was different.  With her old regimen, the buzz was a happy sun blooming from her lungs to the tips of fingers and toes so gradually she didn’t feel it until the full effect.  Yet whatever the Navy saw fit to prescribe, she could only describe it as cold.  Frosty steel crawled out from somewhere in her chest to run through arteries, infuse flesh and run back veinward.  Flesh thrilled as it moved, like skin brushed with melting ice, leaving in its wake a cold excitement that propelled her shuddering heart rather than inspiring.  Yet as promised—as hoped—into her vision winked distant stars to tickle her skin like fine pins.  Ashley Duggins found herself in deep space ogling the pearl necklace of stars men called the String of Corinth: neutron giants, young and so screamingly desperately joyously hot they’d never live to grow old.

“Chen-Hau field is active,” she heard, willing herself forward, feeling freshly tuned thrusters hum in response.  Konoko had never felt better.  You and me, baby, she told the beautiful little clipper, and hit the jets.

*          *          *          

Karl Genz was, as he preferred to be, alone on the bridge.  He stood before the big screen, hands clasped behind his back, stooped slightly forward to peer at an image of the Open Territory.  An identical map waited at his console, but Karl had always found he did his best thinking while standing upright.  His best thinking was absolutely called for under the circumstances, as he attempted to decode Contact’s itinerary.  Fortunately, they’d included the most obvious data—though Karl assumed the conclusions were warped by processes he couldn’t directly see.  The trick was divining them.  Data themselves were less interesting than what one did with them.

From their origins in Ouro space, ships embarked on courses clearly frontier-bound.  How exactly Contact tracked them, Karl preferred not to know.  The tracking must have been done from inside alien territory, because the ships’ position grew less certain the closer they came to the Open Territory.  Green arrows of surety sprouted slender limbs of yellow and orange doubt, sprawled in ever widening deltas over hundreds of light years.  Each simulated dive brought more possibilities, which Contact’s data analysts had parsed and sorted into probabilities based on known Ouro dive patterns.  Predictive computers took the place of living pilots but had their limitations; short dives in straight lines were general practice, the craft emerging regularly to re-acquire their bearings below light speed and make any course corrections.  Though seemingly a brute-force approach, there wasn’t much downside when insanely efficient Ouro reactor technology was considered.  Konoko’s Chen-Hau drive drank up so much juice that transitioning in and out of the field stressed her power plant—the Ouro operated free of such concerns, manipulating the universe’s most fundamental constant like children playing with a light switch.

Karl allowed the massive plot with all its many-branching arrows to soak through his eyeballs.  Through sheer force of intuitive genius, he tried cohering them into a logical picture.  It did not work.  He kept staring, undaunted and patient, until Lorena’s rap at the metal door frame spun him around.

“Doctor Mizrahi.  Good day to you.”

“Thought I'd catch you before me nap, make sure you’re up to speed on the new mission.”

“Thank you, Doctor.  But my role isn’t much changed day to day.  I would even say it is easier.  Until this point I was largely forced to work at my own discretion and to set my own priorities.  Now I know specifically what I’m meant to look for.”

“Is that what you’re up to here?” she gestured to the big screen.

“Just a preliminary analysis.  I don’t really know what I’m seeing yet,” Karl blushed, slightly ashamed at himself.  “In truth it looks like undifferentiated data.  I see nahsing to stand out much from the ambient traffic.”

Lorena pondered, careful not to shoot from the hip.  She’d noticed in Karl a tendency to label people ignorant from the sort of trivial comments lubricating so much human interaction.  So she stayed away from direct comment, instead asking a question that would allow him to control the conversation: “What do you think about the priorities?  Where they want us to go and when?”

Karl’s brow furrowed irritably, the way it did whenever he didn’t immediately understand a question.  But then his face softened and opened, a sudden thought grabbing his attention and dashing off like a cat with yarn.  So ein Trottel war ich.  That is exactly the overlay!”  With jarring speed and lanky marionettic grace he slipped back into his console seat, hands spinning like white spiders over the keyboard.  Konoko’s path appeared in a kinky gold ribbon over the predicted Ouro courses, red text springing up to denote dates and times at every vertex.

“Ouro information is difficult,” he explained excitedly, “because it’s irrational.  Well, obviously it is rational to an Ouro.  But my analysis won’t hold much value for that reason.  Brain architecture, computer architecture, it’s all too different.  Not predictive.”

            “I understand.  I’m just asking—“

            “My capacity is limited,” he interrupted, determined not to let social niceties derail his train of thought.  “But Contact has more capacity.  And they’ve had this information to analyze for years, some of it.”

            “So we should trust their schedule?  I don’t see how we have much choice anyway.”

            Karl grinned.  “There is a saying in English: ‘trust, but verify.’  I cannot reasonably know what an Ouro crew thinks, or how its computer might behave.  But I don’t need to!” he crowed.  “I have Contact’s results.  That means I know, or can determine, what they think the Ouro are doing.  How they’ve interpreted this data.  What assumptions they’ve made.  It was an obvious line of thought and I didn’t take it.”

            “Well there you go,” Lorena said cheerily.  “Glad to be of help.  Any other pressing problems to solve while I’m up here?”

            “I don’t think so,” Karl bristled.

Lorena knew she’d made a mistake.  Karl’s self-regard was a delicate flower she’d just disrupted.  Calling attention to it would only magnify the slight.  She chose a different course.  “Hey Karl, how do the Ouro craft we’re tracking compare to the first one?”

His blue eyes shot back to his screen, grew wide trying to process the flood of information.  “That is an interesting question!” he exclaimed, his prior surliness dispelled like a spring breeze.  “It was I suspect one of their primary sorting metrics.  You see the masses there?  Wait, let me apply the filter—ja, gern—and now they’re measured relative to the ship we lately encountered.  One point zero is equal mass, two point zero two ship masses.”

“I follow.  Most are pretty close.  I see nothing below point eight.”

“And only a handful over two.  One at three-four—that would be quite a thing,” he finished after pausing for the intercom’s chirp.

“Hold that,” said Lorena, plucking the handset from its cradle.  “Bridge, Mizrahi.”

“Lorena, did you ever see the full manifest for the Nimbus mods?”  It was Obo.

She’d caught up on that at least.  “Yes.  Is something out of order?”

“Y’might say that, Doc.  I’m down by the docking collar.”

“I’m on my way,” she snapped, replacing the intercom and hustling out the door without a word back to her Scanner Tech.  A slightly crestfallen Karl Genz returned to his analysis.

*          *          *          

            She descended through every deck, entered the collar compartment and found Obo in the ready room amongst the lockers.  Most were open, their various contents—air filters, hoses, portable battery packs and hazmat kits—spilled carelessly onto the floor.  The Tech himself stood bent at the waist, leaning into a locker so it consumed his top half.  “Lord, Obo,” Lorena remarked surveying the scene, “looks like burglars went through here.”

            “Had to be sure,” he answered with a metallic ring.  “Once I found the first one, it had to be a full inventory.”

            “The first what?” she asked even as the answer drew her eyes to the open lockers against the back right wall.  So much shining gold alloy was hard to miss.  Featuring myomer fiber joint augmentation, force projection thrusters and dual-material armor plating for both ablative and ballistic damage, The Gryphon VI heavy utility pressure suit was the most sophisticated piece of hardware in its industry class.  The cost of one could outfit an entire hard-vac mining team with new Marinas, and yet Lorena found herself confronted with six.

            It seemed like a bit much.  “Are they kidding us?” she asked.  “The hell are these for?  There was nothing about them in the manifest.”

            “Precisely,” Obo groused, finally extracting his face from the locker to scowl her way.  His hands stayed immersed.

            “I suppose they’d help with boarding actions.  Much better than a Marina in Ouro suspension fluid.  Did they take the Marinas?  I guess they did,” she checked the lockers where the blue suits once had hung.

            “It’s just one more layer of wool on our eyes.”

            “Oh, hardly,” she waved away his comment.  “Of course it’s wasteful.  But if they want to spend millions giving us nice equipment, who’s to tell them otherwise?  It’s their money.  Who’s going to use it better?”

            Obo grimaced.  “It’s not worth it, ma’am, though I know there’s no choice being made.”

            “Know the old line about gift horses?” Lorena asked rhetorically.  She lifted the nearest Gryphon’s gloved hand and admired the workmanship—soft flexible fingers with conductive pads for electronic interfaces, a solid plate of armor that would easily deflect a pistol shot to top the hand.

            “We’re not slumming any more,” Beatrice remarked over her shoulder, immensely pleased.  “You could haul two dead Ouro yourself with one of these things.”

Behind them, Obo squatted to face a large low drawer running under the lockers, hooked strong fingers under the grip’s rim and with a grunt yanked it open.  Lorena turned at his curse.

“Look at that, Doc.  Look at that,” Obo demanded, pointing, agitated.  “It’s a bad place we’ve gotten ourselves to.”

Lorena was speechless.  Any incidental equipment that had heretofore lain in that drawer was gone.  In its place was a solid block of dark grey foam, filling and padding the space but for the indented slots cut into the material.  Those slots were shaped very precisely, meant to accommodate very specific pieces of equipment that themselves could have only one purpose.

The Tech, the Doctor and her tall strange friend took in two sleek tubular spars of black metal, buttressed by grips and batteries with catches for quick replacement, each capped at one end by a collapsible plastic stock and at the other by a forbiddingly yawning maw.  They stared down agog at a Gustaf ASD Shock Rifle.

NEXT TUESDAY: PART FOURTEEN! FOLLOWING THEIR CHEKHOVIAN DISCOVERY, THE INTREPID CREW OF ECV KONOKO STRUGGLES RETURNING TO ROUTINE! ASHLEY LEARNS THERE ARE NO FREE LUNCHES AND LORENA DISCOVERS A NEW FORM OF PORNOGRAPHY.