|Credit: Julie Grace|
The most amazing thing, proclaimed xenohistorian Doctor Kazama Ohachi at the conclusion of his historic tour, is that they ever crawled out of the water in the first place.
He had completed a comprehensive survey, the first of its kind, combining years of hands-on research with the aliens’ own account of their past. The Ouro homeworld—“Ort” was the closest phonetic approximation—had many positive features to recommend it. Bustling marine ecosystems, a hospitable climate and a dearth of large predators gave the fiendishly clever organisms a leg (or if you prefer, six tube-footed tentacles) up in their early development. They conquered their own warm seas without much difficulty. The darker and colder tides outside their atmosphere presented a stiffer challenge, to say nothing of reaching them. Prodigious mineral wealth particularly in rare earths and semiconductors laid the foundations for later success, but how to access it?
Industry at its earliest stages is fundamentally a question of locomotion, of transporting heavy things from one spot to the next. Water vastly complicated this question, being much denser and harder to move than Terran air. Extracting an energy tax on every bit of motion and raising the bar for success in any physical enterprise, Ort’s oceans nurtured the primal Ouro but thwarted their ambitions. For millions of years they hunted through vast coral cities, living as simple predators but nonetheless cultivating something like a society. Energy that might have gone to mining or metallurgy went instead to artistic expression, to the communication of the most exquisite sensations and experiences from one Ouro to another. Their chromatophore-laced skins expressed ideas with the data-rich intricacy of images. The communication of these ideas in crystalline clarity bound whole communities together tighter than any cult. Dubbing the phenomenon rentaikan from his native language’s word for togetherness, Doctor Ohachi declared it the cornerstone of all Ouro civilization.
Behaviors that might be irrational in one organism became rational in large groups. It made little sense for one Ouro to delve miles down to Ort’s bare crust, where chunks of minerals and water condensed by gravity into exotic “ice” waited in rich veins. For one Ouro to attempt algae-farming was nearly pointless when he might graze or hunt on his own. Accustomed to stability, the aliens needed a collective will to improve their collective conditions. Rentaikan drove some to farm, others to mine, still more to build and in time a patchwork society blossomed like Terran spring flora. Frustrated at their marine world’s glassy ceiling, the species determined to conquer it. Once flying through the air in fossil-fueled machines, they discovered space’s higher ceiling. Having come so far already and learned to protect themselves in sealed craft, the atmosphere’s edge hardly daunted.
So they cast themselves into the void without fear—one community fiber-optically interlinked into a global mass of colors and feelings and high philosophy. With expansion into the wider galaxy, rentaikan became its own objective. The Ouro, never particularly invested in their own physical bodies, relished risk-taking in pursuit of greater success. Pushing the species’ theoretical limits, the water-bound creatures adorned their home system with its own galaxy of artificial habitats like tinseled Christmas baubles, so many that FTL operations had to cease. Each habitat contained its own community as the Ouro were famously intimate, but Doctor Ohachi invested half a book chapter to describing the “infomotional” networks linking settlements together. Though it was evident that these networks were substantially larger and more traffic-laden than the raw Ouro population numbers would suggest, the esteemed xenohistorian never figured out exactly whence this extra bandwidth came. Those aliens he asked seemed not to comprehend the question: a common obstacle given the limits of spoken language. “Ghost users,” he ended up calling them—an homage to the horror stories he loved as a youth.
Those swollen networks were so vital, so precious to the daily lives of the Ouro that with enough time, rentaikan reached a state of equilibrium. Galactic expansion necessarily took place over staggering distances, enough for the speed of light to functionally sever colonists from the network. Communications drones flitted between Ouro systems with the relentless pace of foraging worker ants, but even so the most distant outposts were seen as the desolate ends of the universe. Having secured a sufficient resource base to support projected population growth for the indefinite future, the Ouro simply quit expanding in any meaningful sense. They built new settlements as needs required, placed in the ample spaces still available in the heart of Ouro space, but could not expand further without risking degradation in the social network. At small scales, rentaikan demanded expansion; at large scales, contraction. What began as an artifact of over-developed brains became through happy historical accident the foundational principle behind a grand order. The Ouro were, Doctor Ohachi could not help but conclude, better equipped by biology and temperament for civilizational longevity than the human race. For this pronouncement, he was not invited to the best parties.
* * *
ECV Konoko emerged from her dip into yet another bleak stretch of this gulf between stars. Her recently tuned thrusters twitched as they returned to computer control. A chime over the intercom alerted all concerned that the Chen-Hau field was off, and Karl’s enormous hands leapt over his keypad in a practiced sequence. Sensors opened up and extended their vision at light speed throughout the region. Karl watched the returns closely, mouthing figures as they ran through his head. He felt frustrated. They’d lost the trail just one dip following, and had backtracked per his request to pick it up again. This was their third dip in the recommended eight-dip search pattern, so he shouldn’t have been so unhappy. Still he frowned because the longer they spent on this one step, the larger the trial loomed. The trail comprised many stops, more possibilities, and even this one troublesome scrap was over two months old. If Subject 01 still cruised, they’d never catch her at this rate. If the Ouro had stopped somewhere, overcome at long last by senility, this method would take months to get them just a smidge of the way.
Lorena took the news better than Karl feared. Vivek was less understanding, snapping FUCK as he smacked his pod’s hull with both palms. The C.O. let him be angry, focusing her attention on the Scanner Tech. “This is just a red herring.”
“Herring?” Karl was quite fond of them with onions in fresh rolls you bought from street vendors by the river bank.
“A false lead.”
“Oh. No, Doctor, it is absolutely indicative of Ouro presence. I am saying our sweep strategy is not a good long-term solution to the problem at hand. It is inefficient at best.”
“This whole mission is the fucking definition of inefficient,” snarled Vivek from the desk where he drained a mug of lukewarm tea.
Lorena crossed her arms sighed. “That’s fine, Karl, but what’s the alternative?”
“I…don’t properly know. I will have to give it more thought.”
“If you can give me a better option I’ll take it. But this is our only lead and it makes sense to follow ‘til it runs out.”
“I understand, Doctor. You are correct. My first concern was for Pilot strain on our current schedule.”
“Well, thank you, Karl!” Vivek sarcastically exclaimed. “This concern might’ve been better placed in your planning process, before you recommend a course of action.”
“My apologies, Mister Mohinder. A singular focus on the Phosphorus Thirty-Three trail predisposed me to short term planning. I suppose I let my excitement at the discovery override my better judgment.”
He looked crestfallen; it tugged at Lorena’s heart. “We all got excited, Karl. It’s easy to do when there’s not much good news. It’s good you brought this to my attention when you did. Either we admit our mistakes or we find ourselves bound by them.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am,” Karl stared at the deck.
“We’ll finish our current spherical sweep. If the trail’s gone, it’s gone. If we pick it up, we take it further. Until we find something better or you find a better strategy for the sweeps, this is our lead and we follow it.”
* * *
They picked up the phosphorus trail four dips later, inspiring Vivek to cry “Eureka!” into the intercom at Karl’s announcement. He promptly retired to his cabin and locked the door. Karl decided to apologize but was intercepted in the hallway by Lorena before he could knock.
“This isn’t a good idea. Let him be.”
“I just felt I should—“
“I know. It’s a good thought, but it won’t help. Pilot Mohinder will be fine, he’s not even upset with you. Just the circumstances weigh on him.”
“We talking about Vivek?” Ashley’s disembodied head and neck protruded into the hall above her hand gripping the gym’s open doorway. Sweat ran from her elbow and nose to patter on white decking.
“All those short dips wore him down,” Lorena explained. “And now he’s cranky, so we should all leave him alone. He’ll sort himself out.”
Ashley stepped into the corridor clad in a sleeveless white workout shirt and electric blue leggings. She yanked an absorbent cloth from her back waistband and wiped her face from brow to chin. “He pays a price for all that pious no-chems stuff. Even if I get drilled, I’m using chems for dipping.”
“We’re not sure you can even dip right now,” Lorena reminded her.
“You know, I’m feeling pretty good about that. Ran through all the exercises before I hit the gym. Did the mental ones while I ran. From what I’ve read, this new regimen actually works better for quick ups and downs.”
Lorena had also seen that in the literature. “That’s what they say.”
“Well, Doctor Mizrahi,” Karl broke in, “there is an open question as to what precisely Pilot Duggins will be doing.”
He peered into his handy’s screen and his wording suggested something amiss. Lorena arched her eyebrow. “It was my understanding we’d settled on a course.”
“Yes, Doctor, but that course was predicated on an assumption I don’t believe we even stated,” he explained, clasping his hands together. “Baked into the Contact predictions and therefore into ours was the assumption the subjects in question were traveling from Ouro space into the Open Territories.” He took a deep breath. “Spotting the phosphorus is easy. Gauging its level of decay, particularly with a small sample, takes time. I’ve just received the results on my handy.”
Karl presented the tiny device. With a sustained tough of a button on its side, the image leapt off the screen to hang suspended in the air as a hologram. “It’s too small to read,” Lorena complained.
“And I wouldn’t get it either way,” smirked Ashley.
“Half-life projections place the sample’s age at seventy-five days,” he said gravely.
Ashley frowned. “Wasn’t the last figure sixty-eight or something?”
“Yes. This is older.”
“Christ,” Lorena slapped a hand to her face.
“That’s the opposite of what we expected, right?” Ash glanced between them, correct but unsure of herself.
“The plot’s all wrong,” Lorena groaned as Karl nodded sad agreement. “We’ve been going the wrong way. Subject Oh-One was headed back to Ouro space.”
“Or we’ve picked up samples from two ships,” Karl suggested. “Highly unlikely, but…what isn’t?” At this point nothing seemed a coincidence.
“If it were two ships, could you tell the difference?”
“No,” he shook his head conclusively.
“So it doesn’t even matter.”
“Not really, Doctor.”
The C.O. massaged her suddenly aching brow. “Well, Vivek sure as hell doesn’t need to hear this now. We still have the first itinerary—yes, Ashley? Okay, then we’ll use it. Just do what Contact originally said because right now we can’t tell what’s what.”
Karl blinked rapidly, like a startled bird. “We are to abandon Subject Zero One?”
“Seeing as it’s running opposite our plots, might be two ships and has already stressed the hell out of my senior Pilot, I’d say so. We push on with a long dive and proceed to the Oh-Two jumpoff. You got me, Ashley? Normal schedule?”
“Roger. Nav Suite in ninety.”
Karl stood up straight, eyes wide; something had just occurred to him. “Doctor, given this new information…would you say Subject Zero One was a ‘red herring?’” His voice carried a hopeful tone.
Lorena stared at him a moment, shook her head and began to walk away. “God dammit, Karl.”
* * *
Ashley Duggins roved the universe ahead of a glowing contrail. Stars whipped by her sensorium at thrilling speeds; no throttle safeties, no quick emergences to distract her. The drugs in her blood—cooked up that very day by Lorena nervously operating the new nano-pharm—felt better than ever, better than the original regimen. She felt Konoko handled better though she had no easy way to confirm it. For the first time space’s cold kissed her neck with affection.
She emerged from her Chen-Hau cocoon into the warmth of a yellow sun, around which orbited a trio of bloated gas giants. Distant estrangement from their hydrogen-fusing mother thickened their atmospheres to placid seas. Ashley heard Zach Obo call in her ear that the field was off, as though it weren’t obvious to her of all people. She forced herself to breathe and to realize she breathed, to hammer the idea into her chem-addled brain. Konoko still cruised at a healthy sub-light clip, and into the limits of Ashley’s viewfinder filtered a spread of unusual mass signatures. She thumbed her own intercom microphone, seldom used. “Leave me in a minute longer, Lor. I think we’ve got birds!”
Exerting what little manual control she still possessed over the starship, Ashley throttled back once the forms drew close. A few taps at her right-hand controls flipped her viewfinder from Mass mode to visible light—much enhanced, naturally, since so few photons existed to gather. “Oh my god, yes,” she hissed to herself before hitting the intercom once again. “Birds! Holy shit, look at ‘em. Tell Genz, he’s got to record this!”
Just a few hundred meters ahead of Konoko pulsed an intermittent chain of soft blue lights. Spaced apart at even intervals, gossamer wings outstretched on either side of stumpy blind heads, a flight of photino birds ran through open space. Batteries of highly peculiar microbes ensconced in the vanes of their wings dipped from one universe to another, interacting physically with dark matter in ways corporeal beings simply shouldn’t. Build a big enough universe, as a great scholar once quipped, and you can break any rule. Had the microbes—classified under sorely limited Terran taxonomy as Archaeans—been content to exist on their own, and the result was arguably the galaxy’s strangest symbiotic organism. Dark energy turned to light, photinos converted by delicate particle processes into a mix of photons and sugars. Meanwhile, the purely physical interaction was powerful enough for the eight-meter animals to propel themselves with simple wing beats.
It was a brilliant strategy, closely considered. Photinos being the most common particles in the universe, overwhelming photons and all other “light” matter in scale and spread more equitably over space-time, harnessing them only made sense. The birds themselves hadn’t any connection to the dark universe. They seemed to perceive the gravity shadows it cast, but otherwise appeared blind and dumb. Their client microbes were the key; how they executed their little trick an utter mystery to modern science, for they would only perform it in vivo. Separated from their host cells, the Archaeans perished like candles suddenly snuffed out. Their stunt, never replicated in Terran nor Ouro laboratories, sustained a scattered population of untold billions throughout all known space. One might spend ten years in space without a sighting. Some lifelong spacers went to their graves without sniffing the opportunity.
Ashley pulled Konoko into chase position two hundred meters over the echelon, her computer locked onto the leader wherever it might turn. The junior Pilot ejected from her pod and bounced up grinning despite the depressants in her system.
“Unplug me, quick! I want to get upstairs for a better look.”
“Not sure you want me yanking on needles,” Lorena chuckled, plucking out the younger woman’s leads with practiced snaps of her fingers.
“Come on, you want to see ‘em too. Wait, have you seen them before?” she craned her neck trying to look back.
“Once. It was my second tour—right outside the Core, actually. Very lucky.”
“They’re always lucky.” Ashley hopped to the floor, swung her shoulders and kicked her legs to work out the long dive’s stiffness. “Am I dismissed?”
She took off jogging down the hallway towards the stairs. When she reached the bridge, she found Karl Genz and Zach Obo staring agog at the big screen. “They are beautiful,” intoned the gawky German.
“They’re the best,” Obo sighed, standing close to the video image like he wanted to touch it. “Years back I wanted a photino bird tattoo but Marietta wouldn’t have it.”
Ashley sidled up to them, admiring the creatures hanging in formation. How they seemed to speak to one another with flashes of light from their wingtips, those feeble flickers inhaled by pigmented spots along the birds’ flanks. Something caught her eye—tiny flashes very near the creatures yet still distinct. “What’s that?” she pointed. “Zoom in on that one. Just do it.” Karl had given her a bewildered look.
The Scanner Tech worked his console and in moments the bird filled the screen. From under its fuselage winked two smaller purple lights, moving with the same slow undulation their parents did. “They’ve got babies!” Ashley hissed. “That’s what those are, right?”
“Jesus, there they are,” cooed Obo. “Good eye.” Abruptly he turned on his heel like he’d just remembered something, and in three quick strides he was gone from the bridge.
Karl blinked twice. “That was unexpected.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what he’s up to,” Ashley frowned as she picked up the intercom. “Attention, anyone with a soul: we’re tracking photino birds up here on the bridge. There are baby photino birds. Everything is amazing. That is all.” She went back to the big screen and peered at the young creatures cruising in their parents’ wakes. Out of the twenty-something adults in the flight, a solid handful had young.
On her way from Konoko’s lower decks back to the bridge, Lorena Mizrahi encountered her Systems Tech heading the opposite direction with a decided sense of purpose. “Where are you off to?”
He stopped, put his eyes to the ceiling, chose his words. “You heard Ash on the intercom? There’s photino birds.”
“And baby birds.”
“Well, yes. Obviously they have to reproduce.”
He threw her a crooked swashbuckling grin and made an absurd statement: “I want one.”
* * *
Zachariah Obo led her to Konoko’s basement, to the airlock room where the freshly reinstalled Pre Chamber stood above the floor like a great and cursed sarcophagus. In a back corner sat a waist-high heap of machinery concealed by a nondescript brown tarpaulin. “I built it years back when I served on the Gogol. Read something about a lab working with live photino birds—kept ‘em in vacuum, in looped tubes so they could fly.”
He knelt to free the ties on one side and with a dramatic sweep removed the tarp to reveal a curious contraption. Eighteen-inch transparent plastic tubing had been joined into an oval loop five feet wide and perhaps ten long. Catches on the topside marked a detachable section for ingress and egress. A heavy-looking metal box squatted on the floor below, joined to the loop by a conduit. “We saw birds on the Lessing but it wasn’t ‘til later I thought to make my own. Built entirely from spares; C.O. didn’t care.”
“You’ve lugged it to every post since? How’d you slip it on board?”
“Kept it in storage between tours, always put it down as ‘surplus tubing’ on the manifest. That’s how it started, after all,” he slyly grinned.
“And how’d that get past the dock techs?”
“Techs know techs. Not so hard to get a little favor done. Obviously I never tested it on a real bird, but the climate unit sustains a cold hard vacuum,” Obo tapped the box with his foot.
“I can’t let you bring a photino bird on board,” Lorena tried to sound authoritative. With any other crewmember it might have worked.
Her tech stubbornly crossed his arms. “And why not? Can’t be a safety issue, since I’m Systems Tech and I’ve researched this in and out. Can’t be health ‘cause we’ll never share so much as an air supply.”
“After everything that’s happened, it just seems like a bad idea.”
“Lighten up, Lor,” Beatrice advised. “I really want to see this.”
“That’s not a real reason, Cap’n. With respect,” Obo softened his pose, kept the atmosphere friendly. “Think of it as a science experiment. The sort of thing we’re supposed to be doing when Contact doesn’t need its dirty errands run.”
Lorena pondered. “Won’t it die?”
“Maybe, though I’ve read they do well as long as they’re not handled. Even a peep of oxygen is toxic.” That ancient and most vital of poisons.
Lorena had to admit it was an interesting idea, in addition to a bit of passive-aggressive rebellion against their Contact masters. “I assume you’ve got this planned already?” she asked Obo.
“The rig’s made to go into space. Take it out the equipment door, grab a little guy and run back. Oh!” he clapped his hands and wore a gleeful expression. “It’s a perfect chance to try out those new Gryphon suits.”
Beatrice giggled, pounded Lorena’s shoulder with a playfully closed fist. “Oh my God, Lor, you have to let him do it now. You’d be a bad captain not to!”
The C.O. sighed, crossed the room and picked up the intercom handset. “Duggins and Genz, to the docking ready room. To the docking ready room, stat.”
NEXT TUESDAY: THE SPACEBORNE ADVENTURE CONTINUES! THE CREW RISK LIFE AND LIMB IN PURSUIT OF A PRETTY SWEET PET, AND VIVEK FINDS HIMSELF IN AN AWKWARD "THIRD WHEEL" SITUATION.