Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Twenty-Three



           She is late.  Whether or not she can be reasonably blamed for this is an issue open for discussion, but the fact remains: Lorena Mizrahi is late and hating herself for it.  This section of Mars Dock is new enough to accommodate recent trends; studies make a convincing case that mental health and general welfare were linked to structures of scale, just the opposite of the dingy honeycombed warrens in which most non-Terran humans spend their lives.  Lorena steps from her train car into artificial daylight, crosses the platform under a blue haze of melded holograms that formed a passable sky, waits impatiently at a street crossing while passenger vehicles hum by.  Stretching as high into the fake sky as it could without hitting the Dock’s ceiling, the Federal Building is an enormous iron grey obstruction she does her best to ignore.

            She walks at a brisk pace down the boulevard, dodging uniformed Federal workers on their way to lunch and gaggles of loafing teenagers, gazes sullenly downcast at their handys.  Shouldn’t school be in session? she wonders.  It seems like kids are never in school.  She’d spent what felt like her whole goddamned childhood in the classroom, especially since it never snowed hard enough for days off.  She shouldn’t have cursed like that.  But neither should she have been fifteen minutes late and going on twenty.  Shit happens, always it seems, and after a while it doesn’t even matter why.  Today she won’t make excuses.  Worse, she knows Annika wouldn’t even ask.  She’ll be angry but she won’t say a word.  Not worth it; beating a dead horse.  She’d given up on that, as one day she would give up on the thing altogether.

            Shit happens.

            The restaurant is called “Pisc,’ a slightly upscale place serving a professional crowd and something of a Johnny-come-lately to the years-old aquaculture craze.  Lorena pushes her way through the oaken front door, so heavy it seems to work at excluding her.  “I’m meeting someone,” she tells the host just opening his mouth, hoping it’s true, that she won’t have to go back and ask for a table.  But no, there’s Annika, across the room at the bar, her platinum bob a beacon Lorena can’t miss.  She crosses the dining area tastefully decorated with blue and stormy grey with hints of green, takes the stool next to Annika and beams her a forced smile.

            “I’ll be grabbing five of those later,” she says with a nod at the blonde woman’s amber drink in its squat glass.  Adjacent waits a small plate piled with fresh greens, slivered almonds and tender sanguine lumps of meat from the real live belly of a real live tuna.

            “You should order if you’re going to eat.  Don’t want to rush through it,” Annika replies, the only reference she’ll make to the time.  She takes up a fork, spears a bit of toro, chews and noiselessly swallows.

            Lorena gestures at the bartender.  “Excuse me; can I get a menu?” he doesn’t reply, just gives the tiniest move of his head and stalks sullenly off to accommodate her.  It’s a slow day and Feds tip awfully.

            “I’m feeling great,” she tells Annika unprompted.  “Slept through the night and everything.”

            “That’s good.  Confidence is good.”

            “A few spots I feel like I might have reviewed again, but I should be fine.  I feel like everyone always thinks that, right?”

            “Maybe,” Annika sips her drink.  “Talk about crisis if you can.  They love hearing about crisis.  Crises.”

            “I’ve got some stuff.”

            “Not personal statement stuff.  Real situations and how you handled them.”

            “I get it.  We had some real patients in my internships.”

            “What’s your best pitch?  Twenty seconds, right now, nice and concise.”

            Lorena takes an instant to compose herself, straighten her spine as she’d been coached.  “On an internship rotation in my third year of school—“

            “Too much context.  It’ll take you five seconds just to start the story.  Jump in later.”

            “On an overnight shift we’re understaffed and get a double code; two crashes at once.”

            “I like that better.”

            “I’m already working a patient upstairs who we’re weaning off a tube.  Five minutes off, five on.  I rush downstairs for the codes and find myself as the secondary for number two.  It’s a full-on P.E., but three minutes in my watch goes off and I’ve got to tell the primary—“

            “What’s a P.E.?”

            Lorena stops short.  “Pulmonary embolism.  It’s a major artery blockage, usually ‘cause of a clot.”

            “They won’t know that.  Just say it’s a heart attack.”

            “Myocardial infarction.  And a P.E. isn’t in the heart.  Usually cuts off the lungs.”

            Annika groans, takes a slug from her drink and picks up her fork to prod aggressively at her salad greens.  Lorena doesn’t try to continue her pitch and Annika doesn’t ask her to.  The bartender returns with a menu; Lorena orders a French dip sandwich and he leaves once again.

Annika is puzzled.  “Really?  It’s a seafood place.”

“It’s on the menu, it’ll be out quick and I haven’t had roast beef in forever.”

“You know that’s cultured beef.”

“Your fish is farmed.”

“Totally different.  And besides, you’re going to make a mess.”

“The Anjou comes on the side.”

“It’s au jus,” the blonde woman corrects, “and I’m just thinking about your uniform.  That thing’s gonna drip.”

“I’ll be careful.  Anyway, if the medical stuff is going to bore them—“

“You won’t really bore them, it just trips up your self-presentation.  There’s a very specific image you want to project.  They want to see you can handle yourself, keep cool and make the hard choices when things are at their worst.  Push the right emotional buttons and the panel will eat it up.  They’ll throw a C.O. post at you.  Don’t, and it’s a harder climb.  Have any good athletic stories?  They eat that up.”

“I ran track in school,” Lorena offers, but Annika crinkles her nose.

“Not a team sport.  Were you the Captain or anything?”

“Treasurer my freshman year.  It was kind of a bitch job.”

“Yeah, skip that.”

“Well, what else do I have?”

“You know what?” Annika shrugs and shovels leaves to her mouth, limp and glistening with sweet vinegar.  She waits to continue until she’s finished chewing: “just go with the med stuff.  Double down on those terms.  Use a bunch and don’t explain them.”

Lorena laughs.  “We used to call that ‘pulling rank.’  Go into a room and pin someone’s ears back with jargon ‘til they’re confused and practically begging to agree with you.”

“Great!  Go in there and pull rank on the Admiralty panel,” Annika grins along and Lorena is struck as though with a backhanded slap by how gorgeous she is.

“Hey, thanks for this,” she says abruptly.

“For what?”

“For the advice, for taking me out to lunch.  For caring enough to help when nobody else would’ve.  I know you had to shift your schedule around to make it happen.  I’d probably be losing my shit right now if I had to eat alone.”

“Oh.  Yeah, well, I like you,” she says, pale cheeks showing a blush, compensating for the tenderness with a look that tries to ask what of it?

“I like you too.  I just hope things work out.”

“With the interview?”

“With everything.”

*          *          *          

            The emergency hatch was so small, Karl Genz had to hand his sensor case over before attempting to squeeze through.  Lorena went last, had an easier time with her smaller frame, and entered the pod to find an open interior space, the walls loaded with gear, still more equipment on the floor scattered about by the vacating atmosphere.  In the center waited a large circular hatch atop which Maxi Leaf crouched.

            “It’s pressurized on the other side,” she was saying.  “So we’ll blow out that atmo too, working section by section to keep fires from spreading.”

            “Twenty-six minutes since detonation,” said a heavily accented monotone Lorena took to be Quang’s.  “Anyone with access to a pressure suit will be using it already.”

            “How many won’t have suits?” Lorena asked, joining them in the floor’s center.

            The short man shrugged in his mustard suit.  “There is a suit for each man.”  No way to know, of course, how many had been wearing their suits at the moment of the blast.  Surely some had been cut off from their gear by barriers of fire or hard vacuum.

            Quang, more familiar with the excavation systems than they, convinced the computer to evacuate the atmosphere from the first section.  Anyone who made it that far would have been in the pods already, so they figured to be safe.  After a long minute the pod’s bottom hatch opened to a puff of ice and vapor.  Inside yawned a short, wide passageway bored through the wreck’s hull and into a tube of plastic sheeting installed by the miners.  They filed down, four of them, leaving behind only Baradei as a surface contact.

            The dig’s first section was that simple transit tube, accordioned thirty meters down a deep hole cut into the missile cruiser’s flesh, ending in a glowing veil of permeable static energy.  A second screen waited behind, the two of them forming a crude “field lock” to hold in atmosphere.  Quang switched them off, as there was no longer any air to preserve.

Past the field lock the tube opened up to alien corridors: broad and tall enough to accommodate elephants on parade, more ornately decorated by far than their human counterparts.  Tiny ceramic tiles whose deep-sea color space had perfectly preserved were arranged in expansive snowflake designs whose endless fractal detail made Lorena dizzy when she stared too long.  The place felt like a cathedral long since converted into a museum.  She admired the brutal efficiency with which the scav diggers worked, tunneling rather than navigating the enormous craft’s interior.  They came to the end of the dig’s first section, demarcated by a standard what appeared to be a lift shaft.  Breaking into its side, they’d strung fierce white lights two hundred meters down to the floor where two laser-cut tunnels branched in different directions.

            “Do you have a plan going into these things?” Lorena asked nobody in particular.

            “Only vaguely from what I could tell,” Maxi volunteered.  “Start with a basic idea of where the magazines might be, figure out a good ingress point and improvise from there.”

            Quang spoke up.  “Acoustic sounders.  Make the map as you go, cut to open spaces.”

            “It’s a little like mining,” said Karl Genz.  “But without the threat of structural collapse.”

            “Yeah, they’re really playing it safe out here,” Vivek chirped in the Gryphon helmets where the scavs couldn’t hear.  His voice, blasted by the Corps clipper’s powerful transmitters through the swirling radiation, instantly soothed Lorena’s jangling nerves; it served to remind her that Konoko’s waited just a proverbial stone’s throw away.  Help was nearby.  She had the situation firmly under control, so long as those fires didn’t touch off anything else.  The sooner they could vent the oxygen from this wreck, the better.

            At the silo’s floor, Quang took them down the right fork.  “Magazine C,” he said by way of explanation.  The corridors down here were smaller, though still they seemed grand and sad.  They hurried along the strung-up white guide lights, passing holes casually bulled through the bulkheads to expose other compartments.  Through one of them Lorena spotted a bulky figure slumped against a wall—far too large for a human, half-hidden in shadows, utterly still.  Something called her to take a closer look, but she couldn’t spare the time.  From the hallway’s distant end came the flickering light of flame.

            Another field lock stood at the mouth of a doorway—one of the few times the diggers had elected not to make their own doors.  Smoke brushed up on the static and found itself repulsed in a glowing curtain.  They pushed through the lock one at a time, ensuring both fields were never simultaneously breached.  In a controlled shipboard environment, oxygen content could be dropped low enough to quench flame and remain, at least for a short while, breathable.  That wasn’t an option here; the same element powering the inferno had to sustain the survivors.

            “ANYONE?” Maxi shrieked through her external speakers once she stood in atmosphere.  “IS ANYONE HERE?”

            “You got anything?” Lorena asked Karl.

            “No,” he said checking his hand scanner.  “Too much heat, too much radiation.  We’ll hear them first, or see them with our own eyes before the scanner does.”

            It was a large, wide-open space with pleasantly curved walls reaching up to a high vaulted ceiling.  Heaps of tools and gear and storage bins and bulky digging engines dotted the floor.  Tents and sleeping bags had been clustered in one corner around space heaters but the camp was presently empty.  Floodlights mounted to the walls were dark; the only light came from their suits and the raging inferno by the far wall.

            “Generators burning,” Quang declared.  That would explain the darkened lamps; the field locks were likely powered by their own backups, pressure seals being much more valuable than lights.  They made their way across the cluttered floor, calling out for survivors and hearing no replies.

            “Holy shit,” Lorena declared when they reached the back.  Stacked before them, just fifty feet from the burning generators, were racks of missiles—long and slender like fifteen-foot needles, four wheeled trucks holding four warheads each.

            “I don’t know if those are live,” Maxi said quickly.  “Quang?”

            He made a noncommittal burbling noise.  “We have to move them now,” Lorena said to Maxi, wide-eyed and pale-faced though the other woman couldn’t see.

            “There’s a loader over there,” Maxi pointed.

            “No time.  We’ll use the Gryphons, they’re better than anything you’ve got down here.”

            “Okay,” Maxi agreed, though it killed her to do so.  If we could afford your fancy shit, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.  “Do you need both?  I’d like to send Quang ahead with your Tech.  Can’t waste any time.”  She waited for Lorena’s reaction, hoping to get under her skin.

            “We can vent the atmosphere from this section once we reach the end,” Karl volunteered.

            Lorena didn’t appreciate Karl’s intervention but didn’t want to argue.  Time certainly was precious.  “Fine.  Go with him, Karl.”  She didn’t trust what the big lug would say around Maxi anyway.  This Quang fellow seemed harmless enough.  It dawned on her that her counterpart would likely say the same about Karl.

            The racks on which the missiles rested projected a weak magnetic field to keep them from floating away.  Lorena bent, gripped its edges and with her enhanced strength she pushed the first rack into motion.  She threw her back into it but couldn’t tell how much it mattered, how much of the power was hers instead of the servos’.  The rack’s static friction resisted at first but quickly yielded, accelerating across the floor with a loud grinding noise.  After about fifteen meters she let up, turning over her right shoulder to see Maxi Leaf pushing a rack of her own at nearly the same rate.  Hers made no noise, gliding as it did a few inches above the ground.

            “Found the mag release!” she announced cheerily.  “Help me slow it down?”

            Lorena was a step slow, lurching into awkward action and reaching out to grab the rack.  She pulled, feeling its mass try to pull her off her feet.  Maxi nimbly crouched to slap the magnet control; in a moment the thing thunked back down to the deck.

            “You should’ve let me do it.  We really don’t need any jostling.”

            “Worked out, didn’t it?  Let’s get moving.”

Lorena took a moment to admire the plumes of smoking rising to the ceiling, spreading across it in a miasma of foul black chemicals.  “Karl,” she called into the local radio channel, “where are you?”

“We can see the field lock now,” he replied through sputtering static.

“Any survivors?”

“We have seen none, Doctor.”

“Okay.  Blow the atmo when you can and don’t wait up for us.  Let’s get this fire out.”

The two women moved from the storage room down the hallway as it turned in a curious and ponderous S-shape.  An electronic scream of warning echoed down from in front of them, emitted by the field generators as Quang pulled the proverbial plug.  Air began to rush past them from behind—a strong gale that barely swayed Lorena in her Gryphon but sent the smaller Maxi stumbling in her lighter suit.  She stopped momentarily to huddle against the wall, reducing her profile until at least the pressure approached vacuum.  “No need to point it out.  I’m small.  I’m a tiny woman.”

“I wouldn’t say anything.  It’s only this heavy suit keeping me upright.”

“You’ve got an ass, at least.”

“’My kingdom for an ass?’” Lorena grinned.

“I don’t get it.”

“It’s from an old book; some people read it in school.  Just a joke.”

“Wasn’t much in the way of school in the freight trade.  Dad put me on programs, but what kid’s going to stick to that if nobody makes her?”

“Makes sense.  Sounds like you’ve come a long way.”

“Does it really?” Maxi snorted.  “You’ve got some low fuckin’ standards.”

“There aren’t many women in your position.  Or anywhere near it, from what I’ve heard of private spacing.”

“I suppose.  It’s not a happy puffy protected cloud like Federal service.  Be honest: you didn’t work a day on a starship before you hit the command track.  I heard the big geek call you ‘Doctor.”

“They’ve got their own standards and they picked me,” Lorena bristled.  “Maybe one day they’ll come to their senses and ask you to run the Corps.”

“I hope they do.  My first day I’d board the whole place up, to spare everyone the shame of being a pack of bleeding-heart kids playing grown-up.  The Navy gets shit done, at least.”

Lorena snapped.  “I’ll have you know we’re diverting from a Contact mission to save your sorry ass!  This is exactly why scavving is illegal: people like you fuck up without someone to hold your hand.”  Having said this, she cringed immediately.  The Contact line was stupid.  Losing her head was stupid.  She, Lorena Mizrahi, was an awfully stupid woman.

Maxi would have snapped back—with something witty, though she wasn’t sure what that might’ve been—if the Contact line hadn’t also shut her up.  This was an unexpected turn, but like any lone light in a vast darkness it brought more questions than answers.  The two women were content to march on in stony silence, passing the dead field lock, crossing under a hole bored through the hull thousands of years before to let the stars stare down at them.

“Captain,” Quang pronounced it kiptin.  “Section Three is depressurized.  The field locks are active but it’s just vacuum behind them.”

This was both good and bad news: good because there wouldn’t be fire, bad because anyone with access to a pressure suit probably wouldn’t still be down here.  Maxi keyed her radio: “Acknowledged.  We’ll try to catch up.”

The two women took a faster pace, doglegging through portals the diggers had carved in the bulkheads.  They came to a lower level where the spaces were smaller, the halls narrower and now decorated only by piping and conduits.  It was as though this section were made for different creatures entirely than those above.  Another cut passage was screened off by the active field lock Quang had mentioned.  As they crossed it—in tandem, having no pressure to protect—the shared radio channel hissed to life.

It hung quiet a long moment before Karl spoke.  “We have casualties.”

Oh, no, Lorena thought.  A part of her had known the odds involved, but a larger part had chosen to hope.  Oh, no.  “How many?”

“Two here.  Mister Quang is searching the compartment for more.”

“Did they have suits?” Maxi interjected.

“No.”  It was all he needed to say.  Space offered the human form many ways to die.  Vented decompression was about the worst.  Vessels ruptured, lungs filled with blood as pressure gradually dropped to zero.  Maxi would rather get blown from an airlock to hard vacuum—explosive decompression, at least, flash-boiled your brain in its dura like an egg.

Lorena wanted to offer her condolences but knew better.  Maxi focused on the decking under her boots.  It waited there at a fixed distance, at the ends of her legs, just like the nearest wall stood at arm’s length.  Everything was very still.  But in her head there was only the sound of roaring water, of a raging river, and the floors and the walls seemed to stand at a terrible distance like a sunset horizon, like dreams never to come.

*          *          *          

            When they caught up to Karl he was still standing over the bodies—huddled together in an alcove as shelter against that terrible wind, having bought themselves seconds that counted for nothing.  Maxi studiously avoided looking; Lorena took a glance to confirm as a Doctor ought that they were truly dead.  Their cheeks were pink, the edema frozen in their skin.

            “Mister Quang has gone ahead,” Karl told them.

            “Should’ve gone with him.  Dangerous to be alone,” Maxi scolded.

            “I…yes, Captain Leaf.  I felt…” he trailed off.

            “What, Karl?” Lorena asked, gentle where her counterpart had been harsh.

            “It seemed as though I should stay here.  With them.  Until you arrived,” he finished the halting statement.

            Professionalism and practicality kept Lorena from hugging him.  “We can’t help them, Karl,” she said, stepping past the bodies with a hand on his shoulder to turn him away from the sight.  “There was nothing we could’ve done.”

            Kiptin!” Quang’s voice rang in their radios from somewhere deeper in the dig.  “Life signs!”

            “Where?” Maxi demanded.  “We’re at the bodies you found.”

            “Down the hall some hundred meters and take the right fork!”

            “See, Karl,” Lorena gave a slap on his back, spurring her servo-strengthened legs into an embarrassingly clunky run.  These people we can help!”

NEXT WEEK, IN PART TWENTY-FOUR: DIGGING THROUGH THE WRECKED WRECKAGE, OUR HEROES PLAY A BRUTAL GAME OF NUMBERS - TIME, OXYGEN, PRESSURE, THE DEAD AND THOSE WHO STILL MAY LIVE.

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