Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Fields without Fences, Part Sixteen



            They’d first met at the Hilton Hotel on Typhon Minor.  She worked the bar; he wandered in off the street wide-eyed with awe at the opulence around him.  The Hilton’s foyer showed off two grand staircases like marbled angel wings, wrapped protectively around a massive fountain stretching all three stories to the atrium ceiling.  Water fell from a spigot to one levitating platform after another: an archipelago of gold pyramids in the air.  The fluid ran quickly off their slopes, running from one to the next across spaces that seemed too far to cross.  But cross it did, showing off the world’s low gravity, lateral momentum propelling the slow-falling stream.  Zachariah Obo nearly collided with a busboy gawking at the hovering contraption and eventually found his way through a pair of double doors.  Behind them lay the bar, its polarized glass windows overlooking a large open-air swimming pool shaped like some exotic gourd.  Less than a hundred feet past the high fence sat a white sand beach bordering a strikingly purple sea below the enormous floating apparition of Typhon Major.  Terraforming had fed a massive global bloom of reddish bacteria, which killed nearly all the native marine life and led to the mauve hue.  This unexpected bug was swiftly recognized as a feature befitting one of the galaxy’s prime tourist destinations.

            He knew her name immediately—a brassy tag on the left breast of her pressed white shirt read MARY—but nonetheless ordered and consumed two drinks before working up the courage to ask it.  She was so pretty: coffee-gold skin he worried might smudge if he touched her.

            “It’s right there,” her eyes flicked down to the nametag and then back to his.  Her expression dismissive, showing neither pity nor scorn.  He took this as a good sign.  How many times a day did she endure the same routine from customers?

            “I’m sorry, m’lady, I never learned to read,” he gave her his biggest smile.  “But I’d like to learn about you, and your name seems like the place to start.”  This was her chance to bail.  If she’d told him to fuck off, he’d have politely fucked off.

            She didn’t.  “I’m Marietta.”

            “I’m Zach Obo.”

            Things progressed fairly quickly from there.  They had to, as his accumulated two months of R&R had bought him only five days on the resort world.  When she worked he’d hover about the bar, spending just enough to keep the managers from asking him to leave, clad in his best dress uniform so he’d warrant a bit more leeway with the aforementioned spending.  As a Technician Second Grade in the Explorer Corps, every dollar was hard come by.  When she got off they’d walk the beach; Marietta hated the hotels and casinos and their constant reminders that the closest she’d ever really get to the rich was serving them drinks.  Her home he never saw, as she lived in company-provided dormitories on the edge of town and wouldn’t permit him to see them.  She wasn’t going to sleep with him anyway, she stated—not some sailor on a five-day leave.  She wouldn’t start anything, wouldn’t put herself through that disappointment again.  He didn’t ask about the time before, just took what time he could and had an entirely different vacation from what he’d expected.  In the end, on the last day, she did sleep with him.  Obo decided not to throw this triumph in her face.

            But he did keep in touch, dispatching messages into the Corps’ messaging system whenever ECV DeGrasse drew close enough to civilization for a data dump.  He didn’t date anyone else, and through Herculean effort (not to mention the owing of many favors) he was able to get back to Typhon Minor for two days the following year.  When he asked her to marry him, she consented and then laughed until tears ran down her cheeks.  “My friends told me you would.  I told them they were idiots.  How will I ever live this down?”

            Logistical problems quickly reared their ugly heads.  How exactly two people inhabiting opposite ends of occupied space bind themselves into a family is a process not described in any book.  The ceremony was easy enough: she, a displaced war orphan from Calderis, had no family and his mother forbade anyone to attend his wedding to a girl “not o’ de islan’.”  Only time and grandchildren would bring her around.  Uncle Max spent most of his savings traveling to Mars Dock and stood, the only guest, beaming behind Zachariah while the chaplain read their vows aloud in his office.

She would leave Typhon—that much she insisted on—but where then to live?  And to work, since Zachariah’s wages wouldn’t sustain her in any decent locale.  That was to say nothing of any children who might one day appear.  It had to be in the Core, Marietta decided, since he always flew out of Mars Dock.  Earth was obviously out of the question and even Martian housing had grown expensive.  In the end, she found an acceptable long-term lease in a relatively new addition to Titan City.  It wasn’t an address to impress anyone; even in those days the Saturn Zone was decidedly un-hip.  But Titan Dock had enough hospitality business to keep her employed, and the little place was theirs.  The first Christmas they spent together—the third of their marriage—they decorated a stubby cultured pine cutting with ribbons and blinking multicolored lights and at the peak a glittering gold star of hope.  Zachariah found himself crying so hard Marietta could only hold him.

*          *          *          

He woke to the sound of a page on his handy.  Even muffled in his back pocket and pinned under one buttock against the cot’s foam pad, he could divine his C.O.’s signature tone.  Obo swiveled his legs off the couch, stood just enough to extract the handy and sat back down.  Lorena wanted to dive again.  Looking at the time, he’d been asleep for one hundred seven minutes.  One decent cycle; he should have felt much better than he did.  Far from thirty and forty, he’d even hopped up easier at fifty.  He stood from his Engine Room cot to an arthritic pop in each knee: not too expensive to get fixed, but every dollar had to come from somewhere and once he retired the Corps’ Obsolescence Policy would pay every dime of it.  The human race teemed with young men and women needing jobs, needing opportunities, and extending already-long careers simply wasn’t a good bet for society.  Nothing destabilized local governments like large populations of unemployed young people; the docile elderly grumbled softly once bought off by public benefits.  Obo just needed to hold on a little longer and that social bribery would be his—a golden parachute most people scraped their whole lives just trying to reach.

Zachariah called Lorena on his handy, held the device to his ear with one hand and gently slapped at his cheeks and forehead with the other.  At the moment he couldn’t bear the intercom’s squawk.  Quit dragging.  He could hit the galley for stims once they dived.

“I wake you?” her voice sounded tinny, distant.

“Yeah, but I needed waking.  Think I overshot my one-cycle nap.”

“Happens to the best of us.  Genz didn’t see anything, but with the local luminosity he says that’s not surprising.  You see the itinerary?”

It glowed onscreen before him, the DURATION fields marked in yellow.  “Yeah.  Are we leaving these numbers tentative?  Says one, two hours.”

“For now, yes.  We’ll see what Pilot Duggins can do, she might have to dive longer.  Pilot Mohinder wants to do twenty-minute dips for his shift, sound good?”

“One moment,” he paused, perusing the stress tests from Konoko’s last dive.  “Yeah, we can do that.  She’s purring.”

“Great.  Sorry again.  Best Tech.”

“Best ship,” Obo hung up.  Lorena called for Vivek over the intercom while Obo prepped the ship for this peculiar method of traveling: slow, methodical, full of stops and starts.  Easily done, it was a question of four engine settings and two on the Chen-Hau drive.  The Pilots would find the transitions more jarring than Konoko herself.

*          *          *          

            Vivek rolled his head about his shoulders, wringing two satisfying cracks from his neck.  He leaned forward and lay down in the pod, saw the lights darken as Lorena pushed it shut.  “Okay,” her voice came softly through the speakers, “Obo’s ready to go.  You want a throttle safety?  We’ll use one for Ashley, but if you’d prefer…”

            “Use the safety.  One less thing to think about while I’m down,” he answered.  His occipital implants simplified the process, removing the delicate up-and-down of drugs, but repeatedly transitioning between one’s own body and a starship’s sensorium wore anyone out.  Vivek lowered his face to the pad, took deep breaths and willed his heart to slow.  Spines of cold tickled his shoulders.

            “Mister Obo, please engage throttle safeties at quarter-speed.  And then we’re ready to dive,” Lorena called.

            “Roger that.”  And after a pause, “Chen-Hau field is active.”

            He leapt past dark and into darkness swiftly populated by stellar masses.  The nearby neutron giant hung overhead like an axe about to fall and then it was gone, sliding behind him and into memory.  Throttle safeties kept Konoko locked at a constant speed, cruising leisurely out of the system and towards skies less wracked by solar radiation.  He didn’t need to pilot the clipper so much as steer, struggling all the while to maintain some sense of his own body inside hers, as separate from hers in an odd inversion of his training.  Starship piloting was an odd pursuit to begin with.

At the system’s periphery Vivek encountered a belt of comets roped in by the blue star, running slow loops like shimmering white birds on an infinite migration.  At full speed he’d have steered clear, perceiving it from distance as a stream of half-molten mass.  Quarter speed offered a closer pass and a better look; he saw a gap and took her in.  Contact plotted the course without knowing about the belt, so this was permitted if not altogether wise.  Fuck it.  The comets drew him in with their gravitic beauty, mass spread unevenly into internal structures he could perceive but never describe to another living soul.  Motoring through, he watched the biggest lumps rotating through the halo oblivious to tiny frozen couriers flitting between them, impacting, shattering to dust.  At the barest glance from the star those crystals blushed to vapor, were drawn by gravity towards the other masses and refroze with time into new comets.  New fish for the sea—fresh spawn who swam through a firmament of their own shattered flesh.

Konoko burst through the belt into empty space trailing a cloud of steam: ice vaporized on the Chen-Hau field’s static energy gradient.  She sailed rimward for only minutes before a cut back to the core, tracing the imagined emergences and course corrections of Subject 01.  An audio tone gave Vivek his five-minute warning.  Frustration knifed through his mind—so soon?—and almost sent him wobbling out of synchronization.  He felt the gravity-sense fading, disintegrating like a sand castle in high wind.  Deploying an old trick, he focused all his wavering attention on the nearest star: a white dwarf sputtering its life out in an apt metaphor.  Staring at it through Konoko’s sensors, he imagined he saw the star through only his left eye.  Then he imagined it through only his right.  Left, right and repeated again, using the narrow parallax as a wedge between what his brain knew to be true and what it perceived.

Vivek kept that point resolved in his mind until the sensation filtered back in completely, until he could once again feel every point of mass along his back and down his legs.  He was stabilized, in total control.  And then he heard Lorena’s voice.

“Thirty seconds to emergence.”  God dammit.  He’d just re-synched himself, recovered his balance and now had to climb his way to emergence?  Running through another of his meticulously practiced routines, he pictured his hands and feet and each of his fingers and toes.  He imagined knees and elbows, shoulders and hips, scars and chest hair—everything that made him up, the components that came together through evolutionary miracle into Man.  Vivek Mohinder emerged, paradoxically, from light years of space to a confining pod.

“Woof,” he proclaimed once Lorena extracted him.

“Rough?  I thought the first one might be.”

He was struck suddenly with a profound sense she’d said it before.  That he’d been here before, in this place at this time of day having emerged just emerged from a rocky dip through a belt of comets.  He saw it all at once.

“What’s up, Vivek?  You look miles away.”

He was about to speak, to beg corroboration for this eerie sensation, but instead screwed shut his eyes, dropped his head and gave it a vigorous shake.  No, no, no.  You idiot.  “My synch wavered.  I got it back at your thirty second call, and then I was in.  Couldn’t get all the way out before emergence.  And now I’m DV’ing.”

“Ahh. Sorry about that.”  Déjà vu was a classic symptom of rapid synch drops.  That birfucation Vivek had willed into his brain stuck even out of the pod, occasionally forcing memory to chase perception.

“Don’t think it’s fatal,” he tried to sound chipper.  “How long will Genz need?”

“Hard to say.  He said it’d be quicker than the last, that he’s gotten his bearings already.  Paraphrasing.  You know how he gets.”

“Right.  I’ve got time to piss and hit the galley, at least.”  He plucked his handy off the console desk, and left Lorena to prep the pod for their next dip.

“It’s always something with these Pilots,” snarked Beatrice.

“When it rains, it pours,” Lorena concurred.

*          *          *          

            Karl Genz sat alone in the Computer Suite, which he’d re-arranged to feature a single chair between two screens pulled out to allow him an easy swivel between them.  Data from Konoko’s just-opened eyes flooded the monitors before and behind him.  He ran his cursory checks, examining the local space for anything obvious.  They sat in a pocket of void some eight light years across, having no particular significance except in the elaborate statistical plotting of Contact analysts.  This was a game of probability.

            Predictably, they had no ship contacts.  No masses greater than hydrogen pockets as far as Karl could see.  With the neutron giant’s blaring radiation mercifully muted (though still detectably present), Karl got a much clearer picture of the surrounding EM landscape.  He rooted into it like a woodsman though a glade, surveying the delicate flora and fauna: gold light from the nearest stars like flowers, fluttering chirps of radio waves like songbirds, the delicate prancing forms of gamma rays like twitterpated fawns.  The neutron giant, still fiercely luminous for all its distance, a single sun in the sky; and arcing over them all like a blue-green rainbow, so candescently obvious Karl could not believe he’d first overlooked it.  Phosphorus-33, hanging in a distended band where once an Ouro starship dumped it.

            He sat bolt upright and fairly lunged at the screen trying to focus the sensors’ vision.  The isotope burned its life out in the vacuum at a very specific rate, and in just moments Karl knew exactly when the radioactive cloud had first been belched into the universe.  His heart sank a little seeing the results: sixty-eight days past.  The craft could be long gone.  Still, it was a damn sight better than he’d expected.  He completed his sweep, making every check he normally would and then a handful more, distracted all the while by his own excitement.  At last it was done—nothing else to speak of—and he reached for the intercom.

            “Doctor, I believe I have good news.  I would like to show you the scan results.”

            A moment later her response: “That’s excellent, Genz.  Meet you on the bridge.”

            “Uhh, Doctor, I am not at this moment on the bridge.  My data is ready to display in the Computer Suite, if you would meet me there.”

            “Even closer!  See you in a minute.”  She was nearly three minutes in coming, which irritated Karl though he knew better than to mention it.  When she strode in ahead of Beatrice, the monitors he’d swiveled towards the door for his presentation flickered.  He frowned, flicked one with a fingernail and saw an odd sheen of static that quickly dissipated.

            “Wow, Karl, you’ve got yourself a setup here,” said Lorena as she took in the room.

            “I find it a stimulating work environment.  If you will look here,” he rushed enthusiastically to the point, gesturing at the leftmost screen, “you will see highlighted in blue a substantial body of Phosphorus Thirty-Three.  This is an unusual heavy isotope, not naturally occurring and therefore taken to be indicative of F.T.L. travel by Ouro spacecraft.  In this case, some sixty-eight Terran days in the past, judging by the particles’ state of decay.”

            Lorena knew exactly what it meant.  Leaning in to examine the blue mark closely, she then turned to the right monitor.  “And this is your plot?  Where it went from here?”

            “The computer’s plot, yes.  Cross-referencing the Contact projections.”

            “Right.  Well, Karl, I’ve got to say you did it.  This is great work.  Very exciting stuff!” she beamed.

            “Thank Jesus,” Beatrice breathed with an eye roll.

            “I thought so too,” Karl agreed.

            “Are we done here, then?”

            “I’ve completed my sweep and uploaded the location for our next scan to the Nav computer.  Pilot Mohinder will likely wish to review it.”

            “I’m sure he will,” Lorena nodded.

            “I was hoping,” Karl continued, “that in the event I cannot find the same Pee Thirty-Three trail at our next dip, we might backtrack.  Ouro craft rarely dive for more than thirty light years without emerging for course adjustments.  Having picked up the trail, we should investigate all possibilities.”

            Beatrice rolled her eyes.  “It’s sixty-eight days old.  Not much of a trail.”

            “It is vastly better than anything we could have expected so soon,” Karl retorted irritably.

            “Still won’t do you any good.”

            “It’s outrageous to say that with any certainty!” he sputtered.

            “We’ll do as you say,” said Lorena, shooting her friend a look.  “Make sure you don’t lose that lead.  Good work, Karl.”

            “Thank you, Doctor.”

            “Anything else for me?  I’ve got to get back and set up Vivek’s pod for another dip.”

            “No, that is all.  I don’t wish to keep you.”

            “Very well,” Lorena gave a decisive nod and turned to the door.  “You shouldn’t antagonize him,” she murmured to Beatrice in the hall, unsure whether they’d outdistanced Karl’s hearing.

            “Just some harmless fun.”

            “It’s not harmless with him.  He’s sensitive and half-lost in his own head; it’s all he can do to carry a conversation.”

            “Well then, I’ll toughen him up.”

            “I don’t think it works that way.  And it’s my business to know,” she scowled.

            “Fine, I’ll be nicer.”

            “Bullshit.  No you won’t.”

            “You got me marked,” grinned the angular beauty.

            “It’s always been like this.”

            “Hah!” her tongue peeked pink between her teeth.  “Lor, I’m just getting started.”

NEXT TUESDAY: THE CHASE CONTINUES ACROSS THIS WILD GALAXY! IN THE COURSE OF PURSUIT, OUR HEROES ENCOUNTER SOME EXOTIC WILDLIFE, AND ZACH OBO DECIDES HE'D LIKE A PET. FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES CONTINUES!

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