Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Nineteen



            From a great distance, “the Maze of Masses” seemed an appropriate name.  Gravity surveys showed a tremendous amount of matter distributed in a mystifying manner: the weight of many planets hanging over light-years of space.  But these weren’t planets, were too dispersed to comprise a traditional solar system.  The collision of several such systems, perhaps—dozens of planets and several stars, smashing and warping each other into ruin.  Yet when high-sensitivity telescopes scoured the region, no such debris appeared.  No stars shone in that space; it appeared as a featureless void.  Singularities, the astronomers thought at first; but no, the mass wasn’t concentrated enough.  The gravity wells weren’t sufficiently steep.  Dark matter became the obvious explanation, consistent with all the observed evidence.

            The Explorer Corps laid that story to rest.  In one of the agency’s all-time marquee moments, ECV Doris Lessing’s C.O. Aruna Bareheni detoured for a brief confirmation.  If this famous artifact were truly just another veiled twilight landscape, they’d easily confirm it.  So the Corps frigate dived towards the Maze, pulling up short for a cursory scan, emerging to a sight they could hardly believe.  Where Earth-mounted telescopes had showed only emptiness, the astonished crew now beheld expanses of floating debris at unthinkable scale: made from metal, not stone.  They viewed an ancient battleground.

            Slabs of hull hundreds of kilometers long drifted through open space turning end over end too slowly for the human eye to perceive.  Particulate matter cruised by in belts, orbiting the largest masses.  Smaller husks intact enough to still resemble starships rode along in the battle formations where ghastly energy weapons had melted them practically to solid ingots.  Titanic mountains towered over these lowly citizens, followed themselves by further mountains and untold millions of smaller wrecks.  Off the Lessing’s port side, a spherical craft larger than the Terran moon was missing a ragged hunk of itself.  The same went on as far as the sensors could pick it up.

The combatants were unknown, along with their provenance and the ultimate reasons for their apocalyptic struggle.  Bareheni’s crew sorted the wrecks they catalogued into two opposed groups, though later analyses would identify no fewer than six distinct design trees.  Thus it could never be determined whether two races had fought, or six, or any number between.  Whatever the number, no trace of those aliens could presently be said to exist.  Certainly the scale of the craft involved bespoke vast empires—how else to marshal the necessary resources?—and yet no survey had ever uncovered a trace.  Science provided only one answer: the approximate date of the struggle, some forty-five thousand years past.  The debris hadn’t appeared from Earth because it hadn’t existed when that light was transmitted.  Sometimes the best explanations are the simplest.

Re-named the Bareheni Graveyard, it remained a source of myth and fantasy.  With all the aliens’ technology aged beyond operation or melted to slag, there was little incentive for anyone to finance scientific missions so far outside established human space.  The Federal permits alone ran into the high seven figures.  So the Graveyard was left relatively untouched.  Depending on one’s perspective, it was either a somber Ozymandian warning or a mess of floating space trash nobody cared to clean up.  Had the Ouro ever shown much interest in the wreckage, interspecies competition might have spurred a dedicated effort.  As things stood, the presence of an Ouro ship near the Graveyard would have been a statistically remarkable occurrence.  Which was precisely why Contact had flagged the outgoing flight path of an Ouro civilian vessel designated Subject 02.

*          *          *     
    
            “Drives are offline,” Zachariah Obo announced to the ship.  “Sixty minute cooldown, two hour re-cyc’.”  With no notable masses for a million miles in every direction, Konoko needed no immediate power.

            On the bridge, Ashley sat at the Navigation console as Vivek stood over her.  “I’ll walk you through the first stretch,” he said, “and then I’ll shut up while you do the second, correct anything afterward.”

            “Okay,” Ashley’s voice was level though already a small part of her chafed.  Vivek’s instruction always ran two steps slower than she preferred.

            “Remember your Belt training?  Same kind of dynamic space problem.  Determine the background gravity derivative, extrapolate your window from there…”

            “Yeah, I got it,” she hammered the keyboard.  “Most of these obstructions way outmass anything I did in training; this is actually easier.”

            “Don’t rush your numbers,” Vivek advised.

            “They’re fine.  See, I just checked them.  So that’s the first part of the run, right?  First Contact emergence point.  Now for perspective,” she tapped a few controls and then used her fingertips to drag the plot up onto the big screen.  Another finger tap switched the view from mass to visible light.  Konoko’s intended course zigged and zagged in a gold line between titanic hunks of ruin.

            “And there we go.  Criticize away,” she leaned back smugly in her seat.

            Vivek leaned in, waved his hands near the screen to pull the view three-dimensionally through each gap.  “Turn two and turn seven,” he said at last, with confidence.

            Ashley wanted to snap back immediately but instead bent to her console examining the spots in question.  “What, you think they’re too close?”

            “Seven’s too close.”

            “What about two?”

            He smirked, enjoying the moment.  “You really don’t see it?  Want me to tell you?”

            “No, fuck off, I’ll get it,” Ash gnawed at her lip, scratched the nape of her neck where the shiny metal contact plate lay.  “Christ,” she groaned at last, “lost track of the fuckin’ negative.  The outside approach should be inside.”

            “Bingo.  You’d have plowed us right into…whatever that hulk used to be.  A wreck on a wreck.”

            “Would’ve been obvious before then,” she grumbled.

            “Well, Pilot, you’re in luck!  Because while Lorena would have made you squirm a while over this, I’m just going to watch you re-plot from turn one.”

            “I can just fix two—“

            “And then you’ll have to tweak your attack angle on three.  And four.  Just do it the right way, Ash.  The first time.”

            With a last ornery snort she wiped the Navigation console clean.  The image on the big screen exploded into colored particles and went dark.  She began her re-plot, meticulously checking each step. feeling holes burn into her from Vivek’s eyes.  “Hey, speaking of Lorena…you know her better than I do, so maybe you’ll tell me I’m full of shit.  But does she seem different to you?”

            “How so?”

            “The bird expedition, for one.  I couldn’t believe she agreed to it.”

            “It’s hard to say no to Obo when he’s set on something,” he shrugged.

            “But she seemed to enjoy it.  If she’d really disapproved she’d have let us all know, washed her hands of the thing.  She told us to come stat, Vee.  She was having fun.  And that was never her before, not even when she dragged us aboard that squid boat.”

            “That was duty,” Vivek agreed.  “And maybe some ambition.  I suppose she’s a little more…gung-ho?  Probably not the right word.”

            “But I’m not totally off here.”

            “No, you’re not.  If I had to guess, I’d say the shit storm that’s descended on us has her flying a little hot.  Running and gunning, if you know what I mean.”

            “I do.  Does that worry you?  I mean, she’s the C.O.”

             “So she can’t change things up?  Can’t make mistakes?” he inclined his chin defensively.

            “It’s not that.  More like, if there’s room for error, that’s us.  Me and Karl and you and Obo.  We’re the built-in error.  Lorena’s…she’s the Doc, you know?  She’s supposed to be cleaning up our messes!” Ashley grinned.  “I’m using up all my fuckup allotment over here, and I’m not sure we can spare any for Lorena.  Here, check those turns.  I did ‘em all pretty now.”

*          *          *          

            ECV Konoko dived into the Graveyard with Ashley Duggins at the helm, proceeding at a pace she found obnoxious but would spare her any grief from Vivek.  Her low throttle shrunk the computer-mandated buffers required for passing, enabling some close passes of truly spectacular artifacts.  Though Ashley had no vis-light display, her Pilot’s gravitic sense rendered the ruins like broken castles from a dreamscape.

            She flew through the broken ring of a residential craft, a city-ship.  Once shaped like a toroid some twenty-five hundred kilometers across, a solid third of its ring was missing—the exterior hull in similar shape, shredded by explosive decompression.  Above Ashley and below her waited two great cities, occupying opposite poles of the ring and looking across the gulf into each others’ skies.  They were dead and empty, both of them: arcology spires reaching fifty miles above the supporting hull, intricate hives of structures and streets at their feet where once millions went about their lives until beam weapons swelled and popped their dwellings like blisters.

What form those souls had taken, only a few xenoarcheologists could speculate.  Apocalyptic weapons and millennia of hard vacuum had left few biological traces.  Where flesh failed architecture persisted, laid out with all the planned precision of its extinct engineers.  It was almost a cruel joke.  When Ashley thought about that, how such a grand civilization could after millions of verdant years go cold and dead with only the galaxy’s biggest scrap heap to show for it.  She thought of the Duggins homestead on Mars, abandoned and seen from high orbit as lumps and scratches in a sea of choking red dust, so inconsequential to the viewer they couldn’t even be bothered to catalogue its existence.  Generations of parents and children, triumphs and troubles and loves and loves lost, would just be somewhere some dead aliens lived once.  This hurt far worse than she’d expected, felt bigger and sadder.

She carved a trail around a fast-moving cloud of debris that might once have been a wing of fighter-bombers; hit the proverbial jets for one last stretch through a gap between two halves of an eight-hundred-kilometer dreadnought; emerged on the far side, steeling herself through the rising panic in her chest that finally let go as the Nav computer chimed.

“Chen-Hau field dispersed,” Obo declared on the intercom.  “In normal space.  Drive’s looking dandy.  Nice handling, Ash.”

Ashley felt her heart leap like a girl seeing a gold star pressed to an assignment.  “Ta-daaa!” she sang into the pod’s microphone before sliding back to grin at Lorena.

“How’re you feeling?” the Doctor inquired.  “I upped the downer dose over a smaller time frame to maybe get you through the anxiety quicker.  Did it work?”

“Not sure.  It went fine.  I’ll have to think about it next time.”

“Okay, we’ll try it again.  Pilot Mohinder’s taking the next shift, I believe?”

“Yeah.  Needs to make sure I don’t put him out of a job.”

“Attention,” Karl Genz’s voice came from the overhead speakers.  “EM bands indicate live contact in our immediate vicinity.  Will attempt to confirm.”

Ashley and Lorena exchanged a wide-eyed look before the latter snatched the handy off her hip.  In a moment Karl’s face appeared, backgrounded by the dull metal and hardware cabinets of Konoko’s Computer Suite.  “I’m on my way, Genz,” Lorena told him.  “Are you always this lucky?”

“I’m not sure how to quantify luck, Doctor, but you will be disappointed here, I think.  No mass readings yet, but I have at the moment eight contacts using broadwave wadio communication.”

“With us or each other?”  Lorena said jogging down the corridor.

“The latter, Doctor, and in a Federally approved band for civilian commercial enterprises.  These contacts are human.”

*          *          *          

She dashed the rest of the way to the Computer Suite—thankfully not far enough to put her out of breath.  “What’re their auth codes?” she demanded without preamble.

“I’m—not, not entirely sure,” Karl stumbled, quickly immersing himself in the console as red bloomed over his Nordic cheeks.  “Do you mean the base encryptions on the comms?”

Obviously not,” she groaned.  “Why would that matter?  I want their permits.  Can’t operate commercially in the O.T. without a permit and by law they’ve got to pulse the authorization codes every fifteen seconds.”

“So, how—where are those?  I don’t believe any training scenarios covered this precise situation.”

She spoke deliberately to mask her frustration.  “Microwaves.  Check the commercial microwave band, whichever corresponds to the radio band they’re using.”

“It’s band Two Bee,” Karl declared.  “But I see nothing.”

“Then run the other commercial microwave bands.  Come on, Karl, I need you to be quicker.”

“Do you get something for stumping him?” Beatrice asked.  “A prize, maybe?”

“It was not in my training!” Genz protested.  “I cannot see how I may reasonably be expected—“

“I know, Karl,” Lorena patted his shoulder.  “That’s why we’re learning it now.  I know you’ll remember for next time.  Now just sweep the microwaves.”

He peered at the screen, checked his readings twice knowing another slip would make him want to curl up and die.  For fifteen seconds and five more the sensors fruitlessly swept.  “I’m sorry, Doctor, I see nothing.  Perhaps there is something else I have missed?”

“Nope,” she frowned, looking over his shoulder at the same display.  “This is exactly where you’d expect to see the auth codes.  Where Fed law requires them to be, in fact.”

“Pirates!” cheered Beatrice from behind.

“Pirates take live ships,” Lorena corrected.  “These are just scavengers.”  She backed up a few steps to the intercom.  “Attention all hands: we have multiple active contacts, human and civilian in nature.  Possible illicit activity.  I’m instituting a state of alert.  Pilot Mohinder, please meet me on the bridge.  Pilot Mohinder to the bridge, out,” she repeated.

“Would you like me to accompany you?” Karl asked, already halfway out of his seat.

Lorena shook her head.  “I need you to keep watching the bands for those codes.  Let’s go, Bea,” she said on her way out.

Beatrice followed, swinging her slim hips around at the doorway to look back at Karl.  I get to come along!” she leered.

He looked so bewildered, her expression relaxed in sympathy.  “It’s a joke, Karl.  Just laugh at it,” and then she was gone.

Vivek got to the bridge first.  She walked in to find him already hunched over his console, immersed in the debris field ahead.  “How many are we looking at?”

“Genz said eight, but who knows?  Definitely human, but they’re not transmitting any auth codes.”

“So, illegal scavs.”

“Likely.”

“What do you want to do about it?” he asked an open-ended question despite knowing what she’d say.

“Gonna take a look.”

Vivek have a half-shrug while he pulled up the new data Karl pulled down from the Computer Suite.  Of course we will.  “About forty light-minutes out.  I assume you’d rather get there sooner than later?”

“If we come in slow, they’ll just scoot.  We’ll dip in.”

“Do they know we’re here?” Vivek asked before answering the question himself: “Wait, of course they don’t.  They won’t see our EM for forty minutes and our mass is nothing in this debris.  Okay, we can do a dip…” he trailed off, massaging the plot on his screen.

Lorena nodded.  “If they’re working an active site, it’ll take more than an hour to pick up stakes.”

Ashley Duggins abruptly poked her head through the door.  “Smugglers or scavs?  What’re we doing?”

“Not now, Pilot.  You’re dismissed,” Lorena shot her a testy look.

Vivek worked for another minute.  “Got it.  Pretty simple approach; we’ll be able to burn hot at the end and emerge with plenty of speed.  Set the E point a ways out to be sure we keep them all in front of us.”

“Great.  You ready to fly?”

            He winced.  “Yeah.  But you know, while I’m a fan of law and order, I’d also suggest we have a lot on our plates already.  Without trying to play Johnny Law with a pack of podunk scavs.”

            “It’s the O.T., Vivek.  We’ve got the same imperatives as Navy out here.”

            “I know.  I’m just saying, discretion’s in the toolbox.  It’s one of the only things in the toolbox; if the scavs do something stupid—“

            “Making arrests is not my plan.  But we’ve got to take a look.  It’s the job, Vivek.”

            “Yeah, well.  Just lending some perspective.  I’ll get my flight suit on.”

            Lorena smiled approvingly and picked up the intercom handset.  “Mister Obo, here’s the plan…”

*          *          *          

            Konoko slipped through a little-populated corner of the graveyard, where tasteful landscapers might have placed a copse of somber willow trees.  From there she sliced around another dead city-ship the size of a continent, pulling ever closer to the human craft while using the hulk to disguise her mass from them.  At least she broke its horizon and into the clear, Vivek throwing his throttles forward to quickly close the gap and steeling himself for the sudden computer-imposed lockout.

            “C-H field is dispersed.”

            It came like a punch in the gut, though less visceral than mental—like hearing a pun so bad it doubled him over.  There followed a moment of severe disorientation, his control having been so rapidly severed.  But then it was over; Vivek perceived his body and knew he lay inside a tubular pod.  The Bareheni Graveyard that just moments before had whipped by like a roadside now appeared nearly frozen.  A vast lance of wreckage that could have impaled Luna like a cocktail olive provided a static backdrop for smaller, closer objects to move against.  Konoko’s engines burned hard, accelerating once again after her precipitous drop from Chen-Hau travel.

            Ashley extracted him from the pod, pulled his leads and used the medical scanner to perform a cursory vitals check as Lorena had instructed.  “Uhh, this looks good, I guess.  Do you feel good?”

            “Fine.”

            “Then she wants you upstairs.”

            Her instincts were to run but Vivek walked and so she matched his deliberate pace.  They reached the bridge to see Lorena and Karl already at their stations.  Vivek sat at the Nav console and Ashley took one of two spare seats in the back.  Obo waited below, monitoring his roaring engines for the slightest hiccup.

            “Our signal just reached them,” Lorena filled in her Pilots.  “But so far, nothing.  I thought they’d have split by now.”

            “Eight contacts holding steady,” Karl declared.  “They are affixed to that wreck.”  He threw the vis-light image to the big screen: a fairly intact missile cruiser, small by Bareheni standards but still so massive Konoko could have flown comfortably down each of its twenty-four open warhead tubes.  Zooming and rotating the image, he showed off the highlighted human craft affixed to various points on the hull.  Lumpy round things burrowed like ticks into alien alloy and marked themselves with flashing hazard lights.  It was a work site, after all—safety first!

            “Way too small and cheap,” Vivek shook his head.  “Those things can’t dive.  There’s got to be a mother.”

            “None that is obvious, Pilot Mohinder; I’ve been looking,” Karl promised him.  “But then, all we have is EM.  With the debris, mass scans cannot be dispositive.”

“They could be tightbeaming,” Ashley suggested.  “Look at that distribution—all on the same side of the hull.  You could get a laser from each of them to the same spot and we’d never know.”

“Or the mother already ran,” said Vivek.

“Without her pods or their cargo?  Doubt it.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lorena cut them off.  “If it shows, it shows.  We got the jump on the pods and it looks like they’re now going to make us chase them.”

“What’s the alternative to flight?” Vivek asked rhetorically.

“It won’t come to that,” Lorena assured him, working her Comm console to hail their fast-approaching quarry.  They didn’t acknowledge; not so much as a blip came back from any of the eight.  Konoko slowed, swooped low and thoroughly needled the alien wreck with her sensors.

“Roughly two dozen power sources inside the structure,” Karl read from his screen.  “Human emission patterns.  They’re maintaining several small pockets of atmosphere,” he sounded impressed.

Lorena nodded.  “If it’s worth their while to set up atmosphere for suit-free work, then this is a long-term operation.  Which means any reputable outfit would be broadcasting their damn codes.”

Vivek worked his Nav console like playing a gentle sonata, pulling Konoko  in a wide loop for another close pass.  “If they’re not going to answer, then sooner or later we—“

“EM pulse!” Karl called excitedly before frowning.  “And now it’s gone.  We had a momentary data-bearing contact.  Infrared band.”

Ashley clapped her hands.  “Tightbeams!”

Lorena snapped her vision from Ash to Vivek.  “Bring us back around.  Genz, check for it.”

“Looking…” he pursed his lips.  “Pilot Mohinder, could you lean a bit to port…ja, gern!”  Genz’ eyes flew over his screen and then he looked straight up as though the ceiling didn’t exist.

“Karl?”

His mouth worked like a landed fish’s.  “They’re above us.”  His hands flew over the keyboard and on the big screen appeared contact number nine.  With a long slender spine and two pairs of docking structures reaching out at its fore and aft extremes, the ship was a splay-toed salamander hanging in space some ten kilometers overhead.  Lights flashed in the spots where its excavation pods might rejoin their mother.

“Who’s the best?” asked Ashley rhetorically, raising both hands over her head in triumph.  “Who called tightbeam comms?  This gal!”

“We might make something of this one,” Beatrice remarked to her old friend, who’d occupied herself searching the ship’s image for obvious threats.  Nothing on its external hull so much as resembled a weapon system, for which Lorena found herself immediately grateful.

The positive feeling wasn’t long to last.  Her console lit up suddenly, practically squealing with incoming data: a high-resolution video link.  Giving away her crew’s paltry numbers seemed poor tradecraft, so she swiftly rejected the request and replied with her own audio feed.  “They’re hailing,” she informed her crew.  “And I need everyone to shut up while I take this.”

NEXT TUESDAY: FURTHER INTRIGUE IN THE GRAVEYARD AS LORENA PLAYS LAWMEN! "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES APACE.

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