Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Eleven

Credit: ParagonQuest.com

           The Extraterrestrial Contact Administration’s very first Emissary was introduced to the general public amidst howls of outrage.  Having little desire to return to the “dark days” of unfettered human enhancement, a large segment of the voting populace was dead set against any push in that direction—to say nothing of an entirely new generation of cyborgs.  The Emissary Project saw some spirited opposition when first announced, but a particularly incendiary break-up between two popular singers blew it off the headlines.  Everyone more or less forgot about it as work proceeded in quiet, secured labs.  The final product, placed onstage nearly a decade later, was a touchy political moment.

            Contact argued persuasively, as before when pitching the project, that engagement with the enigmatic Ouro required a new class of diplomats.  Emissary Joseph Kang had been groomed since his arrival at the Naval Academy for this role, and the five years since his graduation had wrought profound changes.  Muscles were augmented, respiratory system retrofitted with gills, a visor installed to enhance his vision and holoprojectors implanted in his fingertips.  Computers put the cornucopia of human knowledge at his disposal.  Defense systems were darkly hinted at, though the details were never declassified.  Installing the implants had been easy, the project lead explained to credulous cameras; the hard part was learning to use them seamlessly.  Every move of Kang’s body was aided in some way by machinery, and it had taken years to acclimate his brain to a body not its own.

            Which was the whole idea, the Ouro being used to just such an arrangement.  Human scholars might grasp the principles of alien language, but interpreting Ouro in real time—let alone responding cogently—demanded more processing power and an altered larynx.  Kang was given both and the end result was the first Ouro-proficient human being.  More than a few right-wing organizations argued he wasn’t properly a human being anymore, which still more left-wing organizations found deeply offensive.  The Emissary, for his part, studiously avoided the public ramifications of his existence.  He was a perfect company man—perhaps a bit too perfect, his memoirs would later concede.  Whatever his politics, Joseph Kang was proud to serve his species in a unique capacity.  The Ouro were endlessly amused by his talents, the beautiful sprites emerging from his fingers to speak with them color’s own language.  He traveled with them across the galaxy, subsisting on Contact rations while touring an endless chain of flooded habitats.  His implants, for all their many virtues, did not allow him to subsist on the natives’ suspension fluid.

            The first Emissary was followed by others, just a few per year assigned in secret so as to avoid the unpleasant attention Kang had drawn.  As a consequence, most Federal citizens were vaguely aware of the Emissary Project.  Most of those, according to polls, believed it had ended with Kang.  A few engaged groups knew different, and those personnel serving alongside them.  To those sailors, Marines and Contact specialists, Emissaries were unnerving enigmas on par with the Ouro themselves.  Though with time’s iteration their hardware grew less conspicuous, they always carried with them the stain of other-ness.  Creatures of the agency: bound flesh and blood, root and thorn to Contact and its ever-nebulous goals.  This, explained in shimmering holograms to the Ouro, they found so hilarious their skins erupted with spots of purple and red like collapsing cloudbursts.

*          *          *          

            Ashley Duggins came awake with the world turned sideways.  Her mouth held an awful taste, old and stale and dry all at once—the telltale residue of liquor mixed with stims and poor choices.  Not altogether poor, she decided, admiring Medic Alvarez’s bare back, tracing the landscape of his spine, trapezius and shoulderblades that quaked and re-shaped itself in time with his breathing.  A crude tattoo of a Madonna graced the lower left quadrant of his back: old stick-and-poke work likely done in his teens.  She hadn’t known it was there until afterwards, when he’d done his yeoman’s work and collapsed into intoxicated unconsciousness.  If Lorena asked about this later, Ash would share this detail.  She was sure the Doc would appreciate it—yeah, he was that kind of guy ready for that kind of fling.

            Oh shit, Ashley recalled through her self-induced fog.  She’d expected a page from Lorena.  How long had she been down?  Grabbing her handy, she checked the time.  Ninety minutes asleep, over six hours since they’d arrived aboard Nimbus.

            “Not too bad,” she croaked to herself, tucking loose strands of kinky red hair behind her ear.  She sifted through the covers heaped below the bed’s foot, finally extracting her undergarments from where they’d been ejected in the last few hours’ activities.  In the suite’s voluminous walnut-paneled head, she splashed her face with water and surveyed herself in the mirror.  Circles under each eye, her skin’s typically Irish pallor no less healthy than usual.  Two full glasses of water went down her throat, which if Konoko departed soon would represent a robbery of the Navy cruiser’s recycling system.  Ashley banished the thought less than a minute later, dropping her undershorts to perch on the toilet.  Her handy chirped from the faux granite countertop and she strained forward to reach it, nearly losing her shaky balance to plop face-first on the faux marble floor.  She had messages, queued up in the system while she and Benicio had gotten first tanked and then into each others’ coveralls.  Of course she’d turned off the device.  They’d given her a plum diplomatic suite; could she not expect privacy inside it?

            Four messages, to be precise.  The first two were tersely businesslike, the last two no lengthier but infused with fearsome authority.  Lorena demanded in the most professional of terms to know exactly where in the nine hells her Junior Pilot was and why she wouldn’t report when paged.  Ashley’s stomach dropped and her mouth felt somehow more parched than before.  She was to meet her C.O. in the Brig—what the fuck?—no less than an hour before.

            She dressed at the highest of speeds, her profane frenzy sufficient to wake the man in her bed.  “What’s going on?” he inquired, not curious enough to repeat the question when she didn’t answer.  Ash zipped her coveralls, pulled loose hair from its collar, let down her ponytail to bind everything back up into a fresh one, slipped her handy into the right hip pocket.

            “You know where the Brig is?” she shot back at Medic Alvarez.  “Which tram station?”

            “It’s, uh, Central Security,” he groggily replied.  “Station Two.  Go aft, it’s one before the end of the line.”

            “Thanks.  If I end up arrested, send flowers.”

            “What?”

            “Nothing.  It doesn’t matter.  I’ll see you,” and without any expectation it was true, Ashley abandoned her confused new friend.  The corridor outside was wider than it had to be, paneled with reproductions of 23rd-century Extraterrestrial Expressionist paintings.  One she recognized from a museum visit in her youth—Estuary in Bloom, Churchill IV being the most commercially successful product of the “ExEx” movement and arguably of all human history.  The Mona Lisa was just so drably, stiflingly, provincially Terran.

            Alvarez’s directions turned out to be irrelevant: two Marines waited for Ashley in the lobby, arguing with the matronly woman at the desk about their privileges in the Diplomatic Housing block.  Ash’s appearance put the debate to rest, since the Marines immediately called her name.  About to get hauled before her C.O. by an armed escort, she thought she might be sick.  Her head spun; she couldn’t believe the mess she’d created.  Then, as if to punctuate the point, she dropped to a knee and vomited dark liquor onto the grey-blue checked carpet.

*          *          *          

            They kept the cuffs on Zachariah Obo until the last possible moment, just outside the room where his C.O. waited, when at last he felt their pinch relax.  An armored Marine pushed the door open with one hand; Obo strode into the interrogation room with a deliberate swing of his shoulders, showing by his body language the detention hadn’t fazed him.  That attitude last for perhaps two seconds before he pulled up and froze, hands at his sides, eyes wide.  He saw the Emissary.  His eyes snapped to Lorena’s, to Vivek’s and last to the Commander’s, pleading for an explanation of why this thing was here from anyone but the thing herself.

            “Please sit, Mister Obo,” she said simply.  One didn’t become an Emissary at this late date without a measure of admiration for their impact on other people.

            Obo pulled out a chair, caught one swiveling caster against the leg of its neighbor and struggled a moment to separate them.  Finally he sat, sweat already beading along his fading hairline.  He didn’t know what to say.

            “Is there anything you’d like to say?” Lorena did him a favor by asking Commander Boguns.

            “I’ve explained the situation already.  My apologies for our poor communication, Mister Obo.  Had you made your desire to re-board Konoko clear to me during our first meeting, it might have been avoided.  Such as things are, we’re not levying any charges.  What’s the expression?  ‘No blood, no foul?’”

            “I would like to know, please,” Obo chose his words carefully, “what your crew was doing to my ship.  It’s protocol, I believe, to inform the lead Tech of any retrofits.”

            “It is.  In this instance I’m afraid there wasn’t time.  What’s being done to your ship—and this concerns you, Doctor—is an enhancement to your Med Bay.”

            “Let me guess,” Lorena started.

            “No need, Doctor, you’re an intelligent woman and I’m sure you’d come near enough to impress us all,” the Emissary testily intervened.  “We’re giving you the equipment to house and preserve a deceased adult Ouro.  Or, if the opportunity should arise, to sustain the basic functions of a living specimen.”

            A chime sounded from the table.  The Commander pressed a key.  “Boguns.”

            “Commander, we’ve got a Tech Genz here, one of the E.C. guys.  No word yet on the Pilot.”

            “Send him in.”

The door opened once again and Karl appeared, looking worried for the barest moment before fixating on the comely cyborg.  His jaw dropped.  “You’re an Emissary.”

“And you lack tact, Mister Genz.  Yana St. Julien, Second Division.  Kindly take a seat and do more listening than speaking.”  Every passing minute seemed to tax her patience.  Karl sat.

“Since we’ve assembled four of you and the fifth appears to be lost, I will make your ongoing directive perfectly clear.  You are to travel, using your best discretion, to the points we have specified—points that even now are being entered into your Nav computer.”  Yellow spots popped up like happy little canaries across the star map her hand projected.  “You will investigate those points, seeking specifically the kind of derelict Ouro vessel you have recently encountered.  You will board those vessels, take what samples of living and dead organisms you are able, and once you have done so you will return with all haste to the nearest Navy vessel of class Cruiser or above.”

Karl had the look of a barnyard animal placed suddenly on a bright stage.  “We can’t do this, Cap’n,” Obo hissed to Lorena.  He glanced to Vivek, sought agreement and found only resignation.  “Isn’t this illegal?” he asked the Emissary—the first time he’d dared to look her in the face.

“Mister Obo, you’ll be pleased to know that there are precisely zero articles of legislation pertaining to this assignment.  If at the conclusion of the tour you’d like to lodge a formal complaint within the Federal command structure, well…” She showed her teeth as if they were fangs, “you’re welcome to do so.  In the meantime, you will continue to perform your job as admirably as your dossier suggests you do.”

Her last attempt at pleasantry unnerved Obo even more, and so he fell silent.

St. Julien sighed and allowed the hologram to fade, placing her palms flat on the table.  “I understand what you all are feeling at the moment.  I don’t know it, but I understand it.  You’re being made to embark on a mission longer and considerably more hazardous than what you’d planned for.  Nobody would react favorably to your situation.  But appreciate this, if you can: the Ouro nervous system is the most sophisticated anatomical structure we’ve ever seen.  Just the shrapnel of neurons we see in a scrap of dead tissue suggest a network of biological micro-computers superseding anything our engineers can imagine.  Their skin thinks, Doctor Mizrahi, using sensory dendrites like chained processors.”

“I’ve read the textbooks.”

“The sum total of human knowledge on the Ouro remains pathetic, generations after first contact,” the Emissary practically spat.  “A fact of which they are keenly aware.  They’ve rejected our scientific exchange proposals for just that reason.”

“In their position I expect we’d do the same,” Vivek ventured.

“It would only make sense.  But we’re not in their position, and being in ours we’ve got take opportunities when they arise.  Your recent adventure was just such an opportunity.  If only circumstances had allowed for specimen recovery…”

“But they didn’t,” Lorena objected, “because of a mechanism we don’t understand.”

“Only late in your boarding action.  Had recovery been your first priority, had the directive appeared sooner, who’s to say what might have happened?  Be things as they are, your ship and your crew represent our best short-term chance to recover an intact Ouro—preferably one still living.  However demented it might be, the essential processes still active in its body would open up vast research possibilities.  However personally inconvenient your accident,  it could make a real difference to human development.  We’ve all got a special opportunity here,” she concluded with a frosty smile, crossing arms over her chest and surveying the crew like she expected them to heartily agree.  Maybe even to thank her.

Lorena stood unbidden.  “If that’s everything, ma’am, I’d like to get back to my ship.  Mister Obo will need to inspect and approve the Med Bay mods.  Our computer will also need a total reinstall before we leave dock.”

The Emissary looked up, vaguely amused.  “Doctor, I’ve acquainted myself with every one of your ship’s systems, and while you’ll be safe to dive I’m afraid we can’t wipe your computer.  With all the Ouro docking protocols it downloaded during your contact, a full wipe would be…counter-productive.  But the rest shall be as you say.  You are dismissed.”

She glanced to Boguns, who was checking his handy.  He looked up to see her irritated and quickly explained, “They found Pilot Duggins.  They’re bringing her here.”

St. Julien scowled.  “Belay that.  Reroute them to meet us at Hangar Four.  Doctor, your crew has a singular knack for troublemaking.  I swear we’ll need a Marine detachment just to keep you in one place.”

*          *          *      
   
            When they reached the Hangar tram station, Ashley was already waiting for them flanked by her armed escorts.  Her eyes were red, her hair disarrayed, her jumpsuit stained down the breast, giving the junior Pilot the shrunken miserable look of a half-drowned cat.  Seeing Lorena and Vivek exit the tram, she seemed to grow even smaller, her hands hidden behind her though she wore no cuffs.  At the sight of the Emissary, she practically recoiled.

            Lorena tried very hard to be angry with her, but found her passion lacking.  Ash looked so pathetic; it seemed senseless even to speak.  But there were appearances to keep up, after all.  So she squared her shoulders and drew herself up straight to look up only a little into eyes glittering with shame.  “Pilot Duggins.  Report.”

            “Ma’am, I’m so sorry.  I turned my handy off, I thought just for a bit, but then a fell asleep.  I thought we’d have a few hours.”

            “For what?  This is not shore leave, Pilot.  There’s no vacationing going on aboard this ship.  I told everyone to be ready for a page and you weren’t.  I’d say it’s that simple, but you’re covered in vomit and stink like a colony still, so it’s emphatically not that simple.”

            “I’m sorry, ma’am.”  Lorena considered another broadside, but then decided otherwise.  Ash and Obo would get it later, behind closed doors.  She had no interest in entertaining the Emissary.

The group proceeded through docking facilities, past bays where plasma torches screeched out staccato bursts of blue-green light so bright everyone but the Emissary shielded his eyes.  Workers parted at their approach, giving this constructed creature a wide berth and murmuring amongst themselves once she passed.  They’d certainly known she was aboard, as an academic fact, but rarely did Contact feel the need to stalk their halls in the mechanically enhanced flesh.

The crew, Marines and Emissary passed through the droves to find themselves in the hangar proper.  Konoko waited in her mooring as they worked their way around the docks, bobbing in and out of sight behind blocky Trebuchet-class bombers—their bellies gaping open and empty, anti-fighter guns tucked demurely against the hull on their AI-targeted swivels.  They entered the ready room outside the gangway, where Obo glared at the Marines standing guard.  In full armor and behind their faceplates, there was no way to tell if these were the same men, but rage scratched at his throat all the same.  He noticed the gear boxes were gone.

Without a word, the guard moved aside for the Emissary.  Down the gangway and into the ship she led them, dismissing two more sentinels from Konoko’s side of the airlock.  “In four hours fifty minutes,” she announced like someone had asked a question, “you’ll have approval for launch.”

“What are we still waiting on?” Lorena asked.

“A main computer RAM dump, Chen-Hau core recalibration, five thruster replacements on the port and ventral hulls, Pre Chamber refurbishment to go along with your new docking collar.  I don’t believe I mentioned that earlier.  Yes, and a material re-provision.  Foodstuffs, boarding equipment, contingency gear, water recycler filters,” St. Julien read off the copious records flashing through her head.

When Lorena saw the new Med Bay, her physician’s heart skipped a beat.  Against the right wall, three Halliburton EXM-ED BioStasis Tubes had replaced a little-used cluster of cabinets.  The Auto-Surgeon module was suddenly much newer and more expensive; the chem station had yielded to a hulking contraption bigger than the galley refrigerator.

“You folks just happened to have a Ridder Nano-Pharm lying around?”  Lorena ran her hands over the gleaming hardware, duly impressed.

St. Julien gave her most authentic smile of the day.  “I’m sure the Medical quartermaster is pitching a fit.”

“So why install it here?”

“Contact hopes very much for your success.  It’s only logical we’d give you every available tool to achieve it.”

“At the same time, you’ll acknowledge we’re expendable.”

“It’s a big galaxy, Doctor.  In the end we’re all expendable.”

“Some of us just cost a little more,” Obo offered deadpan from the stasis tubes, provoking an odd rumbling laughter from the Emissary’s chest.

“I like that.  I see why you get into trouble,” she sighed.  “Can’t remember the last joke someone made around me.”

“Well, that’s the point, yeah?  You don’t call something an Emissary ‘less you want it noticed.”  The Tech knelt by the rightmost pod, strong callused fingers prising open an access panel at its foot.  The plate clattered to the deck, revealing a regiment of fine-printed yellow warning stickers.

“It’s best I direct you there,” St. Julien fretted, moving to join him.

“She wanted to go along,” muttered Beatrice once the cyborg turned her back.

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Her tone.  The way she insisted on telling us every last bit of information when the Commander said they wanted this buttoned up.  She wants to take the samples herself, Contact won’t let her and now she’s making damn sure we do it right.  And look at all this hardware.  Who’s trained or experienced using any of it?”

“We’ll get caught up.  I’ll do the reading on these tonight.”

“What a fine student,” Beatrice gently mocked.  “What I meant was, she probably ordered this aboard when she thought she was coming.”

“Why isn’t she?  I couldn’t say no to anything else, they could’ve pushed her into the guest cabin,” currently lying fallow between hers and Vivek’s.

“My guess is, so if something goes wrong they’ve cut their losses and kept everything deniable.  An Emissary on a little Corps clipper in the O.T. would look terrible.  Obviously there’s more they’re not telling us.  You see her give Boguns an order back there, at the end?  ‘Belay that?’  Nobody out-service says that to a line officer, let alone the X.O. of the second biggest—“

“Third biggest.  Merovingian’s launching next year.”

Bea rolled her eyes.  “Fuck you.  Point is, something changed when you found those Ouro.  We’ve always been fleas on a giant’s back, but that role gets dangerous when giants start moving.  When they come in conflict.  We’ve got to watch we don’t get crushed, and if it happens I’m betting Miss Saint Julien is the grinding wheel.  Just keep that in mind.”

“I think you don’t like her because she’s prettier.”

“That bitch.  A snort of laughter, quickly muffled.  “You’d need a lot of foundation to hide that hardware.  Hear they’re great in the sack, though.  I bet it all detaches for easy cleaning.  Get worn parts replaced and you’re tight as a vice!”

Lorena stifled a snicker.  “That’s cruel.  You heard what she said to Obo—an Emissary scares or repulses everyone she meets.  How much actual human interaction does she get in a given week?  Just giving or receiving orders, carrying all the tonnage of Contact on her shoulders.  She’s a monster working for a vast faceless organization.  How’s anyone supposed to behave like a human being under those constraints?”

“They aren’t.  Most people don’t make those choices.  She did, probably for some good reasons.  You make yourself a hermit, don’t whine you’re lonely.  And you, Lor—don’t romanticize the hermit’s plight.  She doesn’t need or deserve it.”

“Fine.  She didn’t seem thrilled by her own situation, but I take your point.  I’ll watch out for her.”

“That’s all I’m saying,” Beatrice agreed.

“All right.”  Lorena looked back to the pods where Obo crouched, and saw St. Julien’s reflective irises staring her down.  Her mouth was instantly dry.  The Emissary gave another instruction to the Sytems Tech before turning and approaching, wearing a curious look.

“Is anything the matter, Doctor Mizrahi?”

“No,” Lorena replied, a little too quickly.

“For a good six seconds, since I glanced back at you, you stood stone still.  Your eyes moved in rapid cyclical patterns consistent with seizure events though clearly you have not suffered such an event.”

What in the world was she talking about?  “I was just thinking.  Running through dive cycles in my head before we get launched.”

The Emissary met this response with the skeptical look it deserved, but if she disbelieved kept it to herself.  After all, there was nothing demonstrably wrong with Lorena.  “I’m going to review your new itinerary with Pilot Mohinder upstairs,” she declared, and turned on her heel.

Beatrice sucked at her teeth, watching the cyborg leave.  “She’s remarkable.  It may seem like we’re being cut loose, but she’s got something else planned.”

“Not much she can do over thousands of light years.”

“There’s something.  Mark my words.  She’ll never let us out from under her thumb.”

NEXT TUESDAY:
VAQUEROS RETURN TO THE LONG DUSTY TRAIL IN "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" PART TWELVE!

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