The drill’s sound was the worst part. That, and the way that shriek melded with the vibrations so it could be felt as well as heard on its grinding way through Vivek’s cranium. It didn’t hurt a lick—the topical injections saw to that—and the chems they’d lanced into the crook of his elbow thirty minutes before utterly dissolved his natural anxiety at the intersection of drill and skull. So there wasn’t any great suffering, but for years afterwards it was the sound that stuck in his memory and sent icy breaths down his spine. As if his very core were being shook to pieces.
Silver discs went into the slots created, set in place on the shaved and burnished bone while the flap of Vivek’s incised scalp hung suspended above. They didn’t reach down to the brain nor even the leathery dura concealing it. When placed their surfaces rose just a smidge over the crest of bone, to lie flush with the skin once the mechanical surgeon replaced it. A powerful computer in each implant would collect and interpret the data streaming through his occipital nerves. For all mankind’s computing advances, the brain itself remained stubbornly past interpretation. Reading nerves was itself a great achievement—one lost on Anuja Mohinder, who burst into tears upon visiting her son in the recovery room.
“How could you do this to yourself?” she demanded. Vivek, still sedated, replied with perfect logic: it would make him a better Pilot. This did not console her, which mystified him in the moment. As often happens, sobriety brought better understanding. The tears flowed not from his professional aspirations but rather the disfigurement they’d now caused. Mothers, he realized, could not be expected to rationally cope with holes being drilled into their babies’ heads. So he sat through her tears, monosyllabically answered her loaded questions and slipped relevant literature to his father. CYBERNETICS: PREJUDICE AND PERCEPTION. OCCIPITAL IMPLANTS: PROPELLING HUMAN EXPANSION! These volumes were frank enough about the challenges Vivek would face as a visibly augmented man, yet they maintained a calculated distance from anything approaching outright cybernetic advocacy. That, as everyone knew, wouldn’t fly.
His parents weren’t yet born during the bad times, before the Augmented Human Advocacy Act, when bands of crazed cyborgs roamed the streets of far-flung colonies rending (and occasionally devouring) their inferiors’ flesh. Those were the stories, at least, fresh enough to be credulously handed down to Anuja and Faisal Mohinder throughout their childhoods. Vivek was above such superstition—knew for all the very real unrest that the separatist clans had been earnest people pursuing their own interests—but his parents were old-fashioned people. Bogeymen take ages to die, and even the most enlightened citizen would concede the AHAA’s basic necessity if not every last one of its provisions. Like most legislation so named, it did not improve its subjects’ condition. Extant augmentations were grandfathered into approval, but maintaining them grew difficult as manufacturers diversified out of the once-lucrative business. Upgrades became impossible.
Occipital implants appeared later, as explicit products of the AHAA era. Having little practical application outside a Chen-Hau dive pod, designed to counteract a handful of conditions in less than ten percent of Pilots, they could reasonably be classified as medical devices rather than augmentations. Those Pilots affected were functionally disabled, after all. Who’d want a genetic condition to render him unfit for his job?
But Bogeymen take ages to die. Few experiences are so exhilarating to the average human being as disdaining his fellow man, and so the stigma persisted. Vivek’s mother cried just to look at him and continued to tear up like clockwork when he entered the room. The six weeks before he deployed for re-training were the longest of his life, spent skulking around the family apartment like a ghost. He tried wearing a hat, but for some reason that made her angrier than sad and he obviously preferred the latter. In retrospect, he decided, he should have just rented a room and eaten the cost.
Re-training was a grueling, frustrating experience that nonetheless beat the hell out of home. He failed his first four tests—failed them so terribly the proctors refused to meet his eyes as they read out the scores. But as always, Vivek drilled through reality’s obstacles with a bit of relentless will. Through meditation, study and countless hours suspended in the microgravity tank he forced his scores high until at last he edged his way to a passing score. He sensed a swell of pride in his instructors, noted the wide smiles on their faces as they congratulated him for everything he’d accomplished. Facing the end of his career, they marveled, he’d made the sacrifices to continue onwards in the face of genetic defect, or neurological condition, or whatever it happened to be—they weren’t looking to pry. Vivek smiled, nodded, thanked them for their time and concern. He was eager to get back to work, he said. He omitted only one personal detail: he wasn’t OKLM positive. He didn’t suffer nerve degeneration, nor a deficit of spinal fluid. He didn’t say these things because he could anticipate the reaction—the incredulity bordering on outrage, essentially the same reaction his mother had. The reaction most sane human beings would have when presented with Vivek’s personal truth.
There was nothing medically wrong with him whatsoever.
* * *
ECV Konoko slid sedately from Hangar Four’s mouth and out into the universe. Stars shone every which where, their light lensed by gravity and distance into long twisted noodles that to the human eye seemed to twinkle. She accelerated down Nimbus’ fuselage, whipping by windows, catching sailors’ attention as they wondered aloud where those Explorer Corps eggheads were running off to so soon.
Those sailors were the precise reason for their rapid departure. Contact’s imperatives notwithstanding, whispers had begun to fly so fast and furious that Boguns personally fast-tracked their rapid exit. Ashley’s fraternizing (a word he imbued with fabulous venom) was just the salacious spark needed to send up the whole ship in a blaze of rumor-mongering. That’s one hell of a crew you’ve got, Doc. Though I guess you folks gotta take what you can get. That Lorena might take offense evidently did not occur to him. She had to set her jaw, force a smile and carry on. And why? Because he was maddeningly right. They had fucked things up, hadn’t they? Fucked them up royally, from Vivek’s crash-out to Ashley’s bender and in every scrap of space between. What an embarrassment; thinking of it boiled her blood as surely as any vacuum. One would think this occasion—boarding a Navy cruiser to carry out a Contact directive—would have inspired some decorum. She was furious at all of them, even Karl though if pressed she’d concede he’d done nothing wrong.
But Lorena couldn’t very well bawl out her whole crew. Obo in particular wouldn’t have it; a public fit would cost her more than she gained. So it had to be Ashley. As a young officer and the one who’d most obviously erred, the choice was obvious. It was so obvious, so inevitable to all on board, that Lorena did her Junior Pilot a favor. Her shame would be private, at least.
Ashley announced herself with a knock at the door, imbuing each rap of her knuckles with a confidence she did not feel and which vanished the moment Lorena called “Enter.” She turned the handle, felt the faux-wooden door swing inward with a surprising lack of weight and for the first time beheld Lorena’s office.
It was small, plain, cream white walls sparsely decorated with a poster promoting a band Lorena had liked at university and a marginally tasteful floral painting installed by Konoko’s previous C.O. An artificial plant squatting dark green in the corner, pale veins and striations painted on broad heart-shaped leaves. A large panoramic screen inhabited a simple brown desk, occupying most of its ample surface and turned away from the door. Lorena reclined in an imposing black chair made for a larger person, its back reaching above the crown of her head and reflecting the ceiling’s wan fluorescents. She’d made nearly no changes to the office as she’d found it; had never in fact used it since their tour began. It wasn’t her style, carving out a cube of personal space when she already had her own ship and a cabin aboard. It felt like puffery.
“Take a seat, Pilot,” said Lorena, indicating a pair of simple chairs against a wall. Ashley took one and sat. “You know why you’re here.”
“I know, ma’am, and let me just say I’m so sorry—“
“Why don’t you start with a story? The whole story, from the moment you left the Med Bay.”
Ash gave a shuddering sigh, sucked back the mucus from her weeping nose, collecting her thoughts. “First, I thought we’d have some time. More time than we did, I guess. At least a full sleep cycle. And I was feeling anxious, the way everything went with the Commander, like I needed to blow off some steam. So I…” her throat closed up, was forcibly at the toll cost of fresh tears. “I called a guy. Just a guy I’d seen, one of the medics who met us.”
“Oh,” Lorena raised an eyebrow. “That one. I know which one.”
This made Ashley feel worse, which she’d have bet just seconds earlier was impossible. “Yeah,” she miserably managed.
“Go on,” Lorena kept up the torture.
“We went out. Well, ‘out,’ A couple sailor bars. One in particular, where he said the medics decompressed. I don’t remember the name. We drank, we did some chems—nothing illegal, I swear. You can test me right now.”
“After the bars, I went with Benny back to the suite. The one they gave me. I turned off my handy and everything, I meant to turn them back on, but I didn’t and I fell asleep first.”
“Why’d you turn them off?”
“I didn’t want to be bothered.” As she said it, Ash seemed to physically shrink.
“Bothered in the middle of what?”
“Lorena…” it was almost a whine. A mournful look at her C.O. said no relief was coming. “Fine. We had sex. I didn’t want to be paged during sex,” she spat petulantly, as if there were any rhetorical points to be scored.
“And did it occur to you at any point that this might not be a good idea? Given the sensitive nature of our business aboard Nimbus.”
“Honestly, ma’am, I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t want to. That was the point.”
The honesty Lorena expected—it was the vulnerability that struck her as unlike Ashley. “Ash, by the letter of the law the only thing you did wrong was turning off your devices. In isolation, it’s not the worst thing. But everything in life’s about time and place; the circumstances are bigger than one broken rule. It’s how everything looks.”
“Especially for the Navy. You know the Explorer Corps gets little regard and less respect in the other branches. You saw it yourself, plain as day from those sailors. The ones you weren’t fucking, anyway.”
Ashley reddened, dropped her head further, said nothing. Lorena sighed, knowing her Pilot deserved another few rounds of brickbats but unwilling to rain them down upon this pathetic spectacle. “Look. Realistically, there’s not much I can do with you if Contact’s going to send us rushing all over the O.T. Grounding’s not an option and Corps regulations don’t leave me too many other options under the circumstances. It’ll be written up, I promise, and you’ll likely face administrative punishment when we get back to base. But right now I think it’s best you just slink out that door.” Lorena sat back in the chair, feeling demeaned by its almost comical size, and watched Ashley stand.
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered, turning away. She was reaching for the door when she paused. Lorena thought she was about to speak, but instead she turned back and reached for the chair. With one hand she started to drag it, back towards its old spot along the wall.
“You don’t have to—“ Lorena protested, but Ashley went ahead anyway. She pulled the door inwards, slipped out through the smallest crack she could manage and closed it behind her with a muted mechanical click.
* * *
Vivek was the only one on the bridge when Lorena arrived. The Open Territory sprawled on the big screen before him, Konoko’s itinerary plotted in a meandering gold road through it. Uncontested Ouro space menaced in bright crimson, to which Lorena noticed their path came very close at several junctures.
“Cap’n on the bridge,” Vivek announced to the otherwise empty room. “Just working on our first dive. Trying to plot out our schedule, see what the next two weeks look like. Sleep cycles and whatnot.”
“All right. I don’t want to push either of you this early. Keep the dives under six hours, no sense in rushing around just to make Contact happy. It’s not like the Emissary’s aboard.”
“God, can you imagine? What a nightmare. You know, I worried she might try to hop a ride.”
“Really?” Lorena’s stomach jumped though she wasn’t sure why.
“The way she bossed us around, focused on every detail…maybe that’s just how they are all the time. I know I’d be, with computers in my head and no way to shut them off. Just got the sense she’d like to do the job for us. Which I’d welcome, believe me, so long as I didn’t have to go along. Give that thing a ship. Let her hunt the alien derelicts.”
“They can’t have her doing it. That’s a disaster if she gets caught.”
“So what happens if we get caught? You see how close we’re getting to the O.T.?”
Lorena let out her breath as she sat next to him. “I see it. Humanitarian aid is really our only crutch here.”
“That’s a shitty crutch to rely on.”
For a long minute they sat in silence. Vivek called up the dive schedule he’d been working on, started whittling down the long ones and re-plotting their exit points. Suddenly he stopped short, curling a long bony arm to tap fingertips on his forehead. “We’ll want to keep these flexible, yes? Depending on Ashley’s reactions to the new drugs.”
Lorena snapped her head around with a frown. “What’s that? Who changed it at all?”
“Navy docs. Put her on some experimental regimen they’ve been trying. That’s why they gifted us that Nano-Pharm. This was in the briefing docs.”
“I didn’t have a chance to look at them. Too busy making sure that Emissary got off my ship. And tearing Ash a new one.”
Vivek’s eyes went wide, seeming to stretch his already proud nose. “Wait, so you didn’t read her test results? Before you talked to her. Lorena, she’s OK poz.”
The blood left her face. “Oh, no. Really? It must have been the late-developing variant. We’ve been seeing more of those, setting in after puberty.”
“Yeah, well, you’re looking at another.”
“Have you talked to her about it? Has anyone besides some soulless Navy doc? God, I fucked up. I didn’t even look at that section of the report. And of course that’s why she had a bender. God. I’m an idiot,” she kneaded her brow with fingertips.
“Slow up there, hoss,” Beatrice advised.
Vivek shook his smooth head. “You’re too hard on yourself. There was no reason to look for it. And I don’t think she’s told anyone, except maybe Obo. I think he knows.”
“Why d’you say that?”
“He was up here earlier, when you and Ash were in the office, and he said something about hoping you took it easy on ‘the poor girl.’ He seemed really sad saying it, and I knew about her test already but didn’t want to say anything. Figured he wouldn’t respond anyway. You know how he gets with me.”
She winced. “He doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s just…Obo.”
“He thinks I’m a joke at Number Two. Maybe he was fine with your last guy—“
“Right, Roner. With a thirty-year veteran like himself in the X.O. slot, he’s fine. With me…look, we’ve been over this. A dozen times at least. And you’re right, there’s nothing to be done. That’s why I didn’t press him on Ashley.”
“Okay. It doesn’t really matter what he knows or how. Maybe they talked. But I’ll try and find a time to talk with Ashley again, without it being an appointment. You should do the same. She needs a gentle approach right now.”
“Right. I’ll make a point of it. She’ll still be raw with you. Not that she didn’t deserve everything she got. Hell, most C.O.s would make things a lot more uncomfortable. I remember my first, Doc Phillips—he’d have blown me right out the airlock for pulling that shit. You’ve done fine under the circumstances.”
“Thanks, Vivek. We’re all in uncharted territory here. It’s going to be important we stick together these next months. Or however long it takes.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
“As for Ashley, cut her dives to four hours at the start. She’ll complain, but if they work well we’ll push them up. See how good those Navy drugs really are.”
“Aren’t you worried?”
“Of course I’m worried,” Lorena snorted. “We all should be. But this is the hand we’ve been dealt, and I think the five of us are good enough to play it. Or we can be.”
“Here’s hoping,” Vivek replied with a shrug, slowly breaking into a smile. “Though I have to say, I’ve always thought of us as world beaters. One Pilot’s got a bad mutation and the other got himself drilled just to cut it. One Tech’s up in the clouds, the other’s one tour from retirement. If I were a betting man, I’d bet on us.”
“There’s the spirit!” cheered Beatrice.
Lorena ignored her. “Nobody has any idea what they’re capable of until it’s in front of them. Robinson Crusoe was a layabout until being marooned gave him a purpose.”
* * *
Konoko carved through banks of hydrogen like a board in surf. The stubby tips of her fuselage dipped into charged gas, excited it, heated it with the friction of her passing and left it churning frustrated in her wake. At the helm Vivek felt the gas impede him, almost infinitely denser than the space around though in Earth’s sodden atmosphere it would be imperceptible. He pulled around in a wide arc, starboard fin dipped lower than the port to use the gas’s resistance in his maneuver. Snapping straight, he allowed himself an indulgence: a little wobble up and down, wiggling Konoko’s nose to ride the currents, luxuriating in their liquid flow like a child holding his hand planed out a vehicle’s window.
An observer would have seen their course as a ribbon of light. For a long stretch of light years the clipper’s trail was a signature in ion glimmers, a sine wave claiming this reach of the cosmos for he who had first come. And had Vivek not as much right to this place as anyone in the universe? Certainly no less than those who’d look on in wonder when, centuries hence, his scrawl appeared in their planets’ skies—a miracle, an unmistakable sign from their gods. I am Mohinder, king of kings. Look upon my wakes, ye Mighty, and despair! With only the glacial breath of solar wind to disturb it in the stillness of space, the inscription would stand for years.
The gas grew denser and so Vivek tacked outward from the gradient and the gravity well it represented. He perceived it as a hole, the accretion disc thickening like a snowball as it rolled downslope. At the base of that pit lay a black hole—a large one, thousands of solar masses from the way it scratched at his sensorium. The largest were counter-intuitively the most benign, their gradual wells easy to see and map at great (and therefore safe) distance. The small holes were the nasty ones, the ones that tore ships out of dive like the precipice at sleep’s edge.
* * *
Lorena Mizrahi woke at her alarm’s first chirp. Her eyes snapped open and she pulled herself upright in bed, abruptly alert like someone caught dozing at her post. She checked her watch though of course she remembered what time she’d set the alarm. Vivek had been immersed for nearly five hours while her brain turned in three full cycles, and now it was time for work.
With her rear on the toilet she rubbed static from her eyes, trying to quiet the stress and fatigue keening through her skull. It’s too soon to feel this shitty, she told a body that for all its relative youth wasn’t hearing the message. Minutes later at the sink she bent and drank water from her cupped hands, filled them again and splashed the cool fluid on her face. She felt it run down the sides of her nose, through lines that had lately appeared about her mouth.
Her console flashed on as she sat—its implanted camera mapping the proportions of her face, flipping open the screens she’d most recently viewed. Four new messages waited in her inbox, three of them automatic blasts concerning their departure from Nimbus. These she deleted with a finger swipe. The fourth she did not open immediately, instead staring at the address like it might explain itself.
MURANE, ANNIKA. COMMODORE EXPLORER CORPS. Subject line left pregnantly blank.
Lorena felt the sensation of moving very quickly though never did she move from her seat. At last she reached out a finger, hovered it over the screen. She left it there a long moment before stabbing suddenly forward, striking the screen so well the very tip of her fingerbone mashed against its hard surface and struck a burning match of pain. She clucked her tongue, sat back in her chair as two bare skeletons of paragraphs popped onscreen. Just below Annika’s name was a timestamp: 11:06:49 GMT. Final departure clearance had arrived from the Nimbus dock controller at 10:57. The message had slipped through the network late, arriving just before Konoko’s dive took her out of transmission range. It had come through the Tachyon Pulse transmitter, somehow granted priority to squeeze through that trickle of bandwidth.
Lorena, we at EC Command have been apprised of your situation. Was taken aback to say the least. What I can say now given the circumstances is you should abide strictly by Contact directives. They know what they are doing and I know you well enough to know you’ll suspect them. You will feel thrown to the wolves. Understand at the end of things we all answer to the same masters. Those masters reward us too. It’s a great chance you’ve got ahead. I know you’ll do well.
I am sorry I did not write when your father passed. I worried it would not be helpful or that it might upset you more. This was presumptuous of me and again I apologize. Will see you in person upon your return.
“Well,” Beatrice clucked, “isn’t that a delight!”
Lorena just sat, her arms crossed as feeble protection.
“What do you think she’s after?”
“I don’t think she’s after anything,” Lorena snapped defensively. “She’s trying to help. Which she might as well. She owes me at least a little.”
“You really don’t see it? It wasn’t obvious years ago?”
“No, I don’t. Why don’t you explain?”
“Annika’s out for Annika. How long’s it been since she wrote you? She said herself, not even when your dad went. Now, bloop! Message for you! Because you’re her thing now. You’re hers, she found you. Right? You can help her now. When you know the whole problem before was, you couldn’t.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Don’t need to. Just use your fuckin’ head, Lor.”
Lorena snorted, flipped the console dark. She got to her feet, pulled out her hair tie, re-arranged her dirty oil-darkened curls into a loose bun and snapped the elastic back in place. “It’s all I’ve really got, right?”