|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.”
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.”
“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!