Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Eighteen

Credit: Brent O'Gara


           She told him to meet her in a bar.  That seemed strange, though it was Vivek Mohinder’s first posting as Executive Officer and proper protocol eluded him.  Assigned to ECV Konoko for her first post-refit cruise under the command of one Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, he’d mailed the C.O. and in reply she’d told him to meet her for drinks.

            He strolled into a tastefully squalid Mars Dock establishment named Kavinsky’s, occupying a narrow lot adjacent a kebab eatery, the interior lined with ruddy red brick and screens playing footage from decades-old video games.  Flecks of nutshell crunched under his shoes and adhered to the soles through some mysterious stickiness.  Wandering towards the back of the bar without ordering a drink, he quickly recognized her from her picture in the Corps directory.  Sitting at a table made from a giant overturned cable spool with a pretty blonde woman whom he also thought he recognized from somewhere.

            “Doctor Mizrahi?” he asked to get her attention.  “I’m Pilot Vivek Mohinder.”

            “Vivek!  Of course you are,” she slid sideways out of her seat to stand and offer her hand.  They shook.  “Lorena.  We’ll be spending way too much time together, so it might as well be Lorena.”

            “Vivek, I guess,” her warmth took him aback.  He’d admired Captain Longley—a civilian freighter gone Federal for the benefits—but never in Vivek’s four tours as junior Pilot on ECV Lehua had the man spoken a non-business word to him.  But Lehua was a frigate: larger crew, more cliques, less mingling.  A five-man clipper crew seemed mind-bendingly small.

            Lorena gestured to the table where seats waited open.  “Sit down.  Wait, you don’t have a drink.  Shouldn’t sit down without a drink.”

            “I don’t drink,” he smiled awkwardly.

            “You should get something.  We’ll get you something,” Lorena’s hand on his shoulder gently turned him back around.  Towards the bar they fought, through dense knots of patrons crammed into small dark spaces.  They weren’t spacers, Vivek saw—this was more of what he’d call a townie bar.  He’d considered wearing his uniform and was now happy he hadn’t.  He told Lorena this.

            She snorted with laughter.  “Only uniform in the place?  Yeah, good call.  One of the nice things about this place.”

            He ordered some kind of fruit juice in soda, which drew a scornful look from the striking young lady behind the bar.  Lorena got “another” of a luminous drink Vivek couldn’t identify, but which obviously contained a great deal of tequila.

            “Is your friend having anything?” he asked.

            “Annika’s nursing her one for the evening.” She seemed uncomfortable and he wasn’t sure why.  

            “Is she in the Corps?  Feel like I’ve seen her somewhere.”

            “Yeah, she’s Corps.  Dockside these days.  So we like to stay away from Fed bars in the off hours; keep things separate, you know?”

            “Oh.  You’re an item?”

            She winced, cocked her head, made a noncommittal sound.  “Used to be.  One of those things.”

            Vivek quickly nodded, eager to defuse the sudden emotional charge.  “I get it.  We’ve all been there,” which wasn’t true, but seemed appropriate to say.

            They returned to the table, where Vivek and Annika were introduced without their professional titles.  “So what’s your story, Vivek?”

            He took a long sip from his drink, assembling his thoughts in an orderly row the way he’d trained himself when speaking to strangers.  “Grew up in the Greyson Arcology, on Luna.  Dad’s a tech for the Water Admin, mom’s a schoolteacher.  Primary.  We lived in Fed housing, but it was Luna Fed housing.  So, pretty nice.  From secondary school I did three years at University and transferred from there to the E.C. Academy.”

            “What’d you study in college?” asked Annika.

            “Physics, biology.  Sort of a science muddle.  Didn’t know what I wanted to do, obviously, but I guess I wanted to see space.  The best thing was just to go there.”

            “The adventuring type,” Lorena suggested.

            He laughed.  “No!  Not really.  More curious than anything, just a little more hands-on than school offered.  What about you?”

            “Single dad, old family in the American northwest.  Started out to be a doctor but hated the patients.  Much easier keeping Corps sailors alive,” she winked.

            “I’d heard about the initiative to get more C.O.s with medical backgrounds.  That’s very cool,” he nodded.  “How many tours have you got?”

            “Seven as Med Chief on frigates, Five as X.O. on clippers, one as C.O.”

            At this, Annika coughed.  Lorena shot her a look.  “What?”

            “Four months,” the blonde woman raised her eyebrows, then shrugged and wouldn’t meet Lorena’s gaze.

            “The C.O. stint was stand-in.  Captain Park had a medical emergency,” Lorena explained to Vivek, who wasn’t about to ask.  The situation had him feeling awkward.

            “Oh, I don’t know anything about it,” he protested.  “It’s my first X.O. tour, so you can tell me up is down and I’ll believe you.”

            “He nearly died, had to evac him to Navy and then finish off the tour.  It was a myocardial infarction.”

            “Funny word,” Vivek took another long sip through his straw.

            “Heh, I suppose it is.”

            “All’s well that ends well,” Annika remarked to the tabletop.

Vivek fought the urge to run screaming.  “Well, it’s good to know you’ve seen the worst already.  I’ve always believed crises are learning experiences.”

“Here’s hoping,” Lorena slugging from her drink and making a face.

“I’m serious.  I bet in another crisis situation, you’d have a clearer picture of what to do.  You’d make the right choices.”  His skin felt very warm.  It dawned on him that he hadn’t specifically ordered the juice virgin.

“The thing about life or death choices is,” Lorena said with a grimace, “they rarely come with an obvious label.”

*          *          *          

The door opened before them without a sound, just a breath of ice crystals flying out to the void.  Zachariah Obo gave his looped invention a push, the Gryphon suit’s thrusters a-flutter on his back.  Ashley and Karl flanked him to either side, lending their grips to ensure the contraption stayed level and didn’t clip a bulkhead.  Heavy-duty cable spooled out behind them, carabinered to the environmental unit, as the three human beings slowly descended towards their exotic prey.  Strapped and leashed to each right thigh waited meter-wide static nets, inactive and still telescoped down into their black cylindrical handles.

If the birds took a swerve at this point, the game would be up.  Konoko’s flight computer had locked onto sthem but now simply cruised, holding course so as not to whiplash the apparatus about by its cable.  The Gryphon thrusters, while powerful, weren’t built for speed.  So they descended slowly, careful always to stay in the creatures’ dorsal blind spots.  Photino birds picked up EM signals at great distance and interpreted them with the richness of poetry, but their gravity sense illuminated only those obstacles directly ahead.  Having evolved in deep space, they needed only the barest of geographic data to survive.

“Hold up,” Obo called.  “Let it go.”  At his command, Karl and Ashley released their holds.  Immediately a slight spin was noticeable, propelling Obo along with the cage he’d built.  At last Obo released it too, checking his visor display to lock the cable spool.  The last fifteen meters they crossed without the cage, unwilling to risk it swinging into a bird.  “Then they’ll all lose their shit,” as Obo helpfully explained.

From a distance one could imagine them angels or some lesser fable brought to life.  Up close, the photino birds seemed somehow less impressive.  Imagination gave way to messy biological reality: those outstretched wings revealed as odd fleshy elephant-ear protrusions, those proud heads unnervingly featureless but for sensory organs like little pockmarks.  The same dark, rough, leathery skin stretched over every inch of bodies that in their searchlights looked flabby and feeble.

But then came a wink from their photophores—an arc of blue from the wingtips that ran back and blushed into purple by the back remiges.  This pulse in the lead bird spawned a cascade of replies in its flock that rippled over their flesh like water in a whimsical fountain.  Obo thought of the Hilton on Typhon Minor, his sense of wonder instantly restored.  The colorful display petered out eventually, but the electromagnetic chatter burbled on for a long time.  They dropped below the closest bird, spotting at last the young with their stubby wings and gawky overlong bodies undulating fishlike through cold vacuum.

“Go for these?” Ashley asked over the radio.  “Three here.  That one’s got five.”

“Doesn’t matter to me,” Obo replied.  “Can’t tell them apart anyway.”

Though their wings flapped, in relative terms the creature barely moved.  They seemed to hang suspended as in a dream.  Ashley slipped her static net from its strap and touched the stud on the handle’s heel to extend the instrument.  In a moment it extended three feet, opening a meter-wide circle that crackled with silent sparks at her every motion.  “You want a boy or a girl, Obo?”

“I believe they are hermaphroditic,” Karl informed her.

“It’s a joke, Karl.”  Space was so vast and chance encounters between birds so rare, they couldn’t afford to specialize.

“Let’s go for that one,” Obo marked it on their HUDs, extending his own static net.  “Genz, hang back.  The cage is prepped but you’ll need to open it.  Ashley, we come in at two angles from the back.  Use the net’s projection mode.  You know it, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.  Now for the love of Christ go slow.  Not a fingertip gets in front of the wing vane.  Or it’ll—“

“Lose its shit, yeah.  We’re steady,” she affirmed.  “We’re good.”

Together they closed on the little birds, their thrusters already dead, propelled by their last dregs of momentum.  With static nets outreached, they readied to strike.  “Give me first scoop.  I’ll go on three, you follow a beat later.  We get one shot.”

“Okay.”  Ashley was intently focused, gnawing on a lip and practically twitching to swing her net.

Obo drained his voice of all the tension he felt—painfully aware this might literally be his only chance.  Retirement loomed.  It had to be now.  “Three; two; one.”

He swung his static net in a tight arc at high speed enhanced by the Gryphon’s intricate servo network.  Faster than he expected; he nearly struck the little bird with the net but managed to get its lip around its stubby nose, projecting behind it a shimmering sleeve of static electricity.  The young bird, sensing the lip as it flashed by, dove abruptly down and to the left to track the still-open mouth of that sleeve.  Then Ashley’s net came in, swooped by through the space Obo’s net had just vacated and wove its own sleeve running the opposite direction.  Where the sleeves met they formed vertices and projected walls, the two nets adroitly combining their efforts until they held hovering between them a seamless static sphere.  In its center the photino bird thrashed, buffeted between energy barriers and utterly confused by this new circumstance.

“Perfect!” Ashley cried.

Obo felt an irrepressible grin stretch his face as they pushed back and lit thrusters for Konoko.  “Hold her steady,” he called, trying to contain his glee until the task was done.  If the nets got too far apart or badly mis-aligned, they’d drop their fields and the bird would snap free.  Below them, the other birds kept their formation.  If they noticed the larva’s sudden absence, they gave no hint of it.  In an environment lacking predators, why would they worry?  If one among them decided to run off and deprive itself of mating opportunities, it was no concern of theirs.

“I’ve opened the cage,” said Karl.  He’d lifted up a hinged section of tubing and now held it open for the others as they approached.

“Here’s the hard part,” Obo warned.  He and Ashley cut their thrusters but for tiny course corrections, slowly maneuvering the bewildered animal towards the cage door.  “Just drop it in.  Pretend the nets aren’t there.”  Sensing the environmental obstacle, their static-powered tools warped their fields around the plastic cage walls.

“Close it!” Ash demanded, but Karl had already snapped shut the door.  With gold-alloyed fingertips he pressed down its edges, verifying the catches held.  Obo and Ashley flicked off their static nets, collapsed them back into their handles and replaced them in their slots.  In these seconds the photino bird re-oriented itself, freed of the nets’ bewildering electromagnetism that must have sounded in its head like a prison of screams.  Perceiving the physical walls that now bound it, the bird did its best to circumvent them—plunging at a frantic pace down the tube in a perpetual left turn, pumping its wings to go nowhere.  Novae of bioluminescent distress burst along its flanks.

Obo slid down, powered up the environmental unit, watched its feedback in his Gryphon’s visor.  Once he confirmed its proper function, Obo moved his hands to a pair of valves on either side of that bulky grey box.  He gave them each a hard turn to the right and felt the servo-screws finish the motion, sealing themselves shut.  Hard vacuum reigned inside the cage and without, but carrying that vacuum seamlessly to the clipper’s docking bay loomed as his real trial.  If something went wrong, he wouldn’t know until the bird died.  Like a canary in a mine—except in this case it was oxygen that killed, or human-friendly temperatures denaturing proteins like fondue.  Hold for me, baby, Obo willed his old invention.  There hadn’t been time to run every check.  It would have to hold.

*          *          *          

            The cage seals held while warm air once again filled the airlock.  Obo knelt by the environmental unit, monitoring everything that transpired through his visor though he couldn’t do a thing about any of it.  He’d chosen his materials well: the tubing didn’t even frost despite the gap of over three hundred degrees Kelvin from within to without.  At last the airlock lights turned green and the crew could unseal their Gryphon helmets to the popping of ears and the sour smell of grease in the docking bay.

            Lorena waited patiently while the equipment hatch hissed open, arms crossed and stomach churning.  This gambit was just too strange to be a good idea.  But there they were, safe and sound once the door stood wide open—three human forms and the waist-high machine they’d left with.  She liked photino birds as much as the next woman, thought they were pretty but never gave much thought to them.  Her one sighting she’d enjoyed the way one might enjoy a visit to some minor historical monument: it was nice.  I’m glad I went, but if you’re ever in town what you should REALLY see is…

            “All crew safely back aboard,” she called through her handy to Vivek, who monitored the action from the bridge.  She approached, trying not to look at the specimen so as to maintain an air of mild disapproval.  It did not work.  Having helpfully taken Karl and Ashley’s helmets so they could set about their other seals, she turned and found her eye suddenly captured by the form flapping inside Obo’s cage.  It was so small, appeared so fragile, seemed anything but majestic in its current condition.  Isolated from its family and displaced from the void it called home, the photino bird looked to Lorena like a little lost creature.  Somehow she felt the need to protect this odd thing, evolved in such radically different circumstances they may as well have inhabited separate universes.  Yet there it was, flapping slower in the cage as it adjusted to its new surroundings, lights down its wings settling into happy blue pulses.  It swung around the cage again and again as dark matter coursed cleanly through Konoko’s hull.

            “Where are you going to keep it?” she asked as they offloaded gear in the ready room.
            Obo, unsuited to the waist, held that wide grin plastered over his face.  His strong arms didn’t look quite the way they had ten years before, and his grimy sleeveless blue undershirt was a little fuller.  “Down here for now.  If I need to work on the cage, I can.  If he starts ailing, I can push the whole mess right back out the airlock before he fades too far.”

            “It’s a ‘he,’ huh?”

            “Yup.”

            “Hey, that’s bullshit!” Ashley declared, long red hair sweatily plastered to her skull.  “We all went out to get the thing.  If we’re making up a gender I say we vote.”

            “I veto your vote!”  Obo shot a finger in the air.  “That’s democracy where I come from.  Island style!” he broke into booming laughter.

            Karl frowned quizzically; male or female?  They were neither!  “What does it matter?  I don’t want a vote.”

            Ashley cast an exasperated look over her shoulder.  “It matters for naming the thing, obviously.  You have a name picked out, Obo?  It better be really good if you do.”

            “Haven’t decided,” he shrugged.  “Any bright ideas, I’ll listen.  But it’s a he.  I’ve got two girls already and you couldn’t pay me to raise a third.”

*          *          *          

            The away team gathered in the galley for hot drinks.  A walk in space, even in the best pressure suits, always left one cold.  Obo, wrapped in a heavy woolen coat with a cap perched on his head, watched a video feed of the docking bay on a tablet while sipping his imitation coffee.  He’d first tasted the real stuff at age twenty-seven and found it revolting.  Ashley and Karl wore lighter jackets; Lorena and Vivek tagged along.

The X.O. was in better spirits, now rested.  “Obo, while I’ll admit I thought this was a silly idea, if you can keep that thing alive I’ll be impressed.”

“What’s the record?” asked Ashley.  “For survival in captivity, or however they measure it.”

“Nine months or thereabouts, with no handling at the Federal Zoo of San Diego.  I built the climate box to the specs from that case.”

“What happened after nine months?”

“Lost weight, seemed listless.  Didn’t recover, so they let it go.  That’ll probably happen with this one, sooner or later.”

“That’d be so sad,” Ashley pouted.

“Probably for the best,” Vivek chipped in.  “That thing’s going to outgrow its cage eventually.”

Karl raised a schoolteacher’s correcting finger.  “It is a very long-lived species, with extremely slow growth due to its flat mortality curve.  Meaningful growth will take years—perhaps decades, though of course I cannot be sure,” he muttered into his mug of real coffee, realizing everyone else had stopped listening.

“Just make sure, if things go south, that you get that thing off the ship before it croaks,” Vivek smirked.  “Anyone ever read that old poem, where a sailor kills an albatross and the whole crew’s cursed by it?  I think they turned into zombies or something.  Anyway, can you imagine the cosmic fallout from killing a space albatross?”

“It is a bit like an albatross,” Obo conceded.

“See!  You’ll curse us all!” Vivek waggled his eyebrows, joking.

“You know how I feel about superstitions,” tutted Lorena.

Vivek waved her off.  “Now it’s bad luck to talk about bad luck.”

Ashley pulled out her handy, tapped at it, read something.  “I knew I’d read it in school!  And there aren’t zombies; they’re like happy ghosts.  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Wait, doesn’t ‘rime’ mean frost?”

“Written before standardized spelling,” said Lorena, recalling now she’d read it too.  She couldn’t remember when.

“Well, why didn’t they fix it?” Ashley asked, clearly vexed.

“Coleridge,” Obo said out loud to nobody in particular, releasing the name to hang above the table like fragrant smoke.

They pondered for a minute, focused on warming themselves.  “That’s a nice name,” Ashley conceded at last.  “It’s grim as hell, but honestly that seems appropriate given recent events.”

Vivek nodded slowly.  “Could even shorten it to Cole, if it needs a cute nickname.  Does it do cute things?  I haven’t seen it.”

“It’s amazing,” Ashley quickly attested.  “And if it’s got to be a ‘he,’ that’s a good name.”

“Then we agree,” said Obo, raising his mug clasped between both hands in a kind of toast.  “His name’s Coleridge.”

*          *          *          

Days to come saw Vivek and Ashley riding their metal horseshoe crab over shoals of stars.  From the flight of photino birds she turned counter-spinward, deeper still into the Open Territory.  Konoko skipped like a cast stone across the flat accretion disk of a supermassive black hole, slingshotted around a nearly conjoined set of binary twins, surged past screaming comets to leave them bewildered in her dust.  She paused for a pilot swap in sight of a rocky, terrestrial world recently sundered by planetoid impact.  So massive had been the foreign body that at the moment of impact it ceased to exist—liquefying the larger planet and itself, rendering an unthinkable volume of rock almost instantly molten and spewing the chimeric remains over hundreds of thousands of miles.  The droplets quickly re-hardened in cold space, becoming a massive archipelago of small meteors the largest of which still held wisps of frozen atmosphere in thrall.

Zachariah Obo’s new pet adjusted to “his” surroundings and the rhythm of life aboard.  Chen-Hau travel confounded young Coleridge—he grew visibly agitated whenever the exotic field appeared or disappeared—but otherwise he seemed to happily abide.  Obo fancied the creature felt his presence on the walls’ far side, could recognize him from the others, even bore some affection towards its new patron.

Konoko wound her tortuous way through barely charted space, coming at last to a stopping point where Obo intended to recalibrate her flight systems.  This work would be sorely needed, as Konoko’s pursuit path called for a hard and hazardous road.  She sat poised at the edge of the O.T.’s most famous geographic artifact—first known on early Terran star maps as the Maze of Masses, since re-named the Baraheni Graveyard.

NEXT TUESDAY: IN PART NINETEEN, KONOKO PLUNGES INTO THE LEGENDARY BAREHENI GRAVEYARD, TOMB OF WHOLE CIVILIZATIONS! MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE--THANKS FOR READING--AND I'LL SEE YOU ONCE MORE BEFORE THE NEW YEAR.

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