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.

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