Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Twenty-Seven

Credit: Colin Geller
            “I’m sorry, ‘umri,” he says.  He’s sweaty on account of Toussaint’s shoddy cooling systems and she knows he’ll end up leaving a damp imprint of his back on her sheets.  What’s more, anyway?  And even once it’s dried it’ll keep the smell of him, the sweet of his hair and the sour of his soap and the faint salty earth of that sweat too.  She likes it, though she’s not one to be sentimental about these things.

            “Sorry for what?”

            “That it wasn’t…longer.”

            “Are you serious?”

            “You didn’t finish.”

            She snorts at the ceiling.  “One: you don’t know that.  Two: it’s none of your business.”

            “Of course it’s my business!”

            “Explain,” she rolls, slaps at his upper arm, signals him to raise it.  He complies and she slides in against his left side.  Puts one knee up over his abdomen and admires the obliques moving under his olive skin.  She’s so pale.

            “Well, I’m here, yes?  I’m involved.  It’s something I want to be good at.”

            “Since when are you so achievement-oriented?”

            “Since always.  About this, anyway.”

            “Okay, well, I’m still here.  If I’m still here you’re doing well enough.”

            “I’d still like to know.”

            “Of course you would.  For men it’s all about completion.  About having a little bell that rings to let you know you done good,” she giggles.

            Taran chuckles along but she can tell he’s not satisfied.  “What did you mean,” he asks, “about achievement?”

            “Well…it’s not like you spend much time worrying.  Half of what I say to you is bitching about my career.  When have you ever talked like that?”

            “It’s not like I don’t think about it, or I don’t care.”

            “Okay,” she sighs.  “I didn’t mean much by it.  Just banter, you know?”

            “You never say anything unless you mean it, Maxi.”

            “Ugh, don’t make me account for everything I say when I’m naked.”

            “It’s a fair request,” he laughs again, authentic this time.  With his arm he pulls her closer to kiss the short fuzz on her temples.  She strokes his chest, the vertical line of hair bisecting it.  She feels him getting hard again, pushing at the underside of her leg, and decides she’d rather not deal with it.

            “Your think this’ll be enough?” she asks.  “For your dad, I mean.”

            “Oh.  I don’t know.  I hope so,” he says half-heartedly.

            “We’ve had a good haul.  By anyone’s standards.  He’ll have to recognize it.”

            “You’d think so, but you never know.  He has his ways, his own schedule for everything.  ‘All in the proper time,’ he says.  As a boy I could barely stand it.  Now, I tell myself he’s right.  Nothing I can do about it either way.”  The pressure on her leg is gone.  Few topics were so effective.

            “He wouldn’t send you out here if there wasn’t something to prove,” she assures him.

            “So you say.”  He seems glum.

            “Everything in its proper time,” she repeats, nuzzling into him.  “You never know when that time could be.”

*          *          *          

            “What happened back there?”

            Zachariah Obo looked down at the galley table, where his reflection stared back.  “Just thought of something.”

            “What?” Lorena frowned.

            “It was the mask, the tube—reminded me of something.  I hazed a little.”

            “More than a little, Obo.  Tell me what it was.”

            “I think—I think it was a grenade.  Or maybe a hopper mine.  But it just tore his chest up, and he was choking.  Drowning.”

            “And they intubated.”

            “Yes.  It wasn’t enough; don’t think anything would’ve been.”

            Lorena let the room be quiet for a minute, hands cupped about her warm mug.  The adrenaline had faded; only regular infusions of hot stim-laced drinks kept her head off the table.  And there was still so much to do.  “Thank you, Zach,” she said at last.  “For sharing that with me.  I know it’s hard.”

            “Embarrassing.”

            “We all carry our own burdens.  We do the best we can with them,” she smiled wanly.

            “A man’s life was on the line.  It’s not all right.”  He wouldn’t meet her eyes.

            “He lived.  And any lasting damage happened before you laid eyes on him.  This isn’t something you need to take with you,” she said, standing up from the table with her mug.  “And that reminds me, I need to check the Med Bay again.”

            “You did great in there, Doc,” he told her abruptly on her way out the door, lifting his head for the first time.

            “Thanks,” she replied, intensely uncomfortable.  She didn’t feel as though she’d done great.  She scurried from the galley.

            When Lorena got to the Med Bay she was surprised to see Ashley Duggins there, leaning against the wall, silently pondering the ponderous Bio-Stasis pods.  “Ashley.  Didn’t expect you here.”

            “Oh.  Yeah, I’m not really doing anything.  Just…didn’t feel like he should be alone.”

            Lorena’s shoulders sagged and she felt her heart melt a bit.  “Oh, Ash.”

            “I know it’s dumb.  Not like he’ll wake up.”

            “It’s not dumb.  It’s very kind of you.”

            Ashley turned bright red.  “Like I said, I wasn’t doing anything.  Genz is asleep, Vivek’s upstairs with that scav woman.  She’s their C.O.?”

            “She is.  Not exactly what you’d expect, right?”

            “What’s she like?  She seemed like kind of a bitch, but—“

            “Oh yeah, there’s a bitchy streak a mile wide.  But she cares.  When the first detonation happened, she grabbed her suit and went to get her people.”

            “That’s a funky suit.  I kinda want it,” Ashley gave a devious smile.

            “Probably end up in an evidence locker,” Lorena shrugged, going to the occupied pod.  “Now let’s see how the dice landed for this poor fellow.”

            She reached to the pod’s diagnostic screen, stroked fingers along it, paged quickly through its lengthy report until she reached the radio imaging of the digger’s brain.  It looked encouraging, though she could only tell so much without baseline images for comparison.  Still, it was impossible to miss the dark stormclouds, the islands of withered ebony in a sea of bright blue brain function.  His temporal and parietal lobes were worst hit, governing language and movement respectively.  How exactly he’d function when conscious was an open question.

            “Could’ve been worse,” she told Ashley.

            “Not a vegetable, at least,” Beatrice’s tone was upbeat.

            “Otherwise it’s the kind of physiological response you’d expect from smoke hypoxia.  Nicely stable readings otherwise; we won’t need to cryo him.  Could even come out of the pod in a day or two.”

            “Look at the bottom,” Beatrice said, suddenly.  “’Anomalous cell behavior.’  What’s that?”

            Lorena frowned, expanded that section of the report, bit her lip and sensed her stomach drop.  “Jesus.  He’s cooked.”

            “What’s that mean?” Ashley pressed in close behind her.

            “The radiation,” she groaned.  “Cell damage, dimers all over the place and God knows what else.  I can’t imagine all the particles flying around down there.  And they had no suits.”

            “Should you check yourself out?”

            “Yeah.  Yes, I should.  Genz too.”

            “It’s probably nothing,” Ashley tried to sound positive in the face of near-total ignorance.  “Those Gryphons are supposed to be shielded against everything.”

            “You weren’t there.  If you’d seen what I saw when that second one went off…” she shook her head, trying to clear the mind-bending memory.  “I’ve got no idea what we might’ve been exposed to.  Could be something we’ve never heard of, something we wouldn’t even think to shield for.”

            “That scav captain didn’t have a Gryphon either.”

            “Right.  I’ll need to test her too,” Lorena drained the last of her drink and reached up to massage her temples.

            “Christ, what a mess,” Ashley sympathized.  “So what happens with this guy?  Is he gonna die?”

            “We’ll stasis him, definitely.”  As she said it, the consequences of that decision began to filter into her brain.  The digger would have to stay aboard Konoko.  His condition would rapidly decay out of the pod; any chance at recovery would lie in a full nanosurgery ward.  Which meant he’d be there, in that pod, until the end of the tour at least.  How would Maxi react?  Contact certainly wouldn’t smile on this particular use of their Ouro-transporting equipment.  But there was nothing to be done about it, unless she were to allow the radiation sickness to freely run its course.  One more choice made for her.

            “What about anti-rad drugs?” Ashley asked as Lorena configured the pod for long-term stasis.  The screen suffered some kind of cosmetic malfunction; it flickered, subtly changed hues and seemed almost to throb.

            “We’ve only got the mild stuff aboard.  Nothing near what this would need.”

            “There’s the nano-pharm,” the Junior Pilot pointed.  “If it can whip up whatever chems they’ve got me on, shouldn’t you be able to do something?”

            “Maybe.  But remember, we don’t know too much about his exposure.  Some of those agents work wonders on rad-damaged tissue, but they take time.  If they weren’t working, we wouldn’t know until he badly degenerated.”

            “Anything we do is likely to kill him,” Beatrice explained in her loud, flippant way.  “So we’ll make sure nothing at all happens until we can pawn him off on someone else.”

            Ashley looked shocked for a moment, her mouth left slightly open, before dissolving in a burst of laughter.  “I can’t believe you said that.  Exactly what I was thinking!  But I wouldn’t have had the stones to say it in front of Lor.”

            “She’s an awful prude,” the willowy brunette said with a cluck of her tongue.  “But don’t hold it against her.  She’s only doing her job.”

*          *          *          

            “They’re sending the shuttle out again,” said Vivek, watching the simple display on the bridge’s scanner terminal.

            Maxi Leaf had been staring at the floor, asking herself some difficult questions, and now she looked up.  “Taran’s sent them back after the cargo.  That’s very quick.  He must be pissed.”

            “Wonder if we should do something about it.  I’ll call Lorena.”

            “Really, you need to call her for this?  You can’t really do anything.  By sending it out, Taran’s saying he doesn’t care about any threats you might try.  He’s cashing out.”

            Vivek had been reaching for the intercom handset but now he stopped.  “Does that mean he’ll dive soon?”

            “Hard to say.  Might be some more stuff in the dig he wants.  If it were me, I’d wait a while to see if anything else was going to blow up.  Then I’d try to recoup some of my losses.  If it were me,” she finished with a shrug.

            Vivek’s handy chimed.  He pulled it from his pocket and opened the incoming audio link from Lorena.  “Mohinder.”

            “Vivek.  Is Captain Leaf still on the bridge with you?”

            “Yes, ma’am, she is.”  Hearing this, Maxi narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

            “Well, we need to keep her digger for a while.  Like, for the duration.  He’s badly exposed to radiation.  Probably be dead in forty-eight hours out of the pod.  He’s got to stay.”

            “I understand.  I’ll tell her.  You should also know the scavs have sent their shuttle back to the wreck.  Captain Leaf thinks they’re trying to move cargo.”

            “Well, they should probably know they’re walking into a radioactive death trap.  I dunno if suits keep this stuff out.  It’s really nasty, Vivek.  Everyone who went down there needs to be scanned.  I’m running myself now.”

            “Okay, I’ll tell her everything.  And we’ll try to stop the Bingo.  Mohinder out,” he ended the call and turned to Maxi.

            She nodded in a slow resolute rhythm as he relayed everything Lorena had said.  “Okay.  If he needs to stay in the pod, that’s what he needs.”

            “I’m sure you don’t like leaving your man behind.”

            “Well, he’s hardly my man.  It’s just…somebody had to go get him.  I don’t even know his name.  Quang’s got the records somewhere.  Never talked to him; don’t even know if he spoke English.”

            Vivek listened in sympathetic silence, one eye on the Comm Console as he tried to raise the scavs’ outbound shuttle.  Nothing.  “Your man’s keeping his lines closed,” he told her.

            “I figured.  Nothing to gain by talking at this point.”

            He swiftly typed out a message.  “I’ll set a repeating text alert to warn them about the radiation.  Here’s hoping they see it.”

            “Won’t matter.  They’re running a numbers game right now.  Mitigate losses, maximize gains.  They’re cutting ties with anything they don’t need.”

            “And where does that leave you?” Vivek asked gently.  Her phrasing suggested to him she already had an inkling.

            “Leaves me here, don’t it?” she forced a lopsided grin.  “Right here, and shit out of luck.”

            “We can take you back.  Lorena’s not arresting you.”

            “Not sure it’s a good idea.  Not that Taran would hurt me—I don’t think he would, at least—but it wouldn’t be my ship any more.  He’s in charge.  And when we get back, his dad’s not going to be happy.  Even less if the core ends up on an impound list.  That might really be some shit.”

            “So what’s the way out?”

            She gave him a long look, up and down.  “Mohinder, right?”

            “Vivek Mohinder.  Senior Pilot, X.O.  Vivek’s fine.”

            “Well, Vivek, there’s not always a way out.  Sometimes you just have to take what’s coming.”

            “What if…” he scratched his chin where stubble sprouted, felt self-conscious about the salt grains scattered amidst the coal.  “What would happen if we actually did arrest you?”

            “Fuck you,” Maxi snapped before her brain could catch up.  She gnawed her lip, felt her heart hammer her ribs at the prospect of imprisonment.

            “We wouldn’t be clapping you in irons.  Just telling Toussaint we’re keeping you.  That gets you off their books without it being your fault.  Nobody can say you bailed on the enterprise; you were arrested by overstepping Explorer Corps assholes,” he grinned.

            She didn’t return it.  Nothing about this seemed funny.  But his logic had a certain sense to it—an inescapable sense, if she had to conjure an awful pun.  For what had already happened, the el-Assan organization had no protocol: a deep-space weapons dig goes awry, the Feds appear, some people are killed and opinions differ on how to save the rest.  How to deal with that except capriciously and with bias towards Taran?  But if she, Maxi Leaf, were to be arrested in the course of her illicit activities…well, that was much simpler.  Starship captains working for criminals got arrested all the time.  There were funds for their defense, for their protection.  Silence was bought with forgiveness and comfort.  You’d do your time, but that’s all you’d do.

            So the choice was made, for her rather than by her.  It was lately something of a pattern, and she hated it, but so too she prided herself on practicality.  “Well,” she sighed, “I suppose there are worse fates.”

            “She’s a nice ship,” Vivek nodded, meaning Konoko.

            “I don’t suppose there’s any way to get the trunk from my cabin?  I really liked most of that underwear.”

            “Sorry.  But I can promise our food’s better.”

            “Not much of a promise.”

*          *          *          

            Lorena Mizrahi took in the proposal placidly.  In a remotely rested state she would have reacted more strongly, asked at least a few questions, raised some obvious objections to the plan of adding yet another human being to Konoko’s long-term plans.  Maxi, unlike the digger, would spend the journey conscious, walking about, talking.  Ugh, the talking.  Still, Lorena had to admit this solution squared their present circle.  Maxi thought she’d be in danger returning and Vivek believed her, at which point Lorena needed a very good reason to subject her counterpart to such risk.  So an arrest she would make.

            “All right.  You do realize, Captain, that this can’t be rescinded?  I’ve got to file a report in the computer, and that’s not going away.  You’ve been an honest partner so far, and I certainly appreciate how you sticking your neck out for your men.  Most wouldn’t have done it.”

The fuck do you know about “most?”  Maxi wanted to ask.  Instead she merely inclined her head in acknowledgement.

“I’ll put in all the good words I can, but I won’t be the one who decides whether to charge you.  We’re going to offload you to Federal authorities at the first available stop.”

“I understand.”

“Okay.  First thing’s first.  Roll up your sleeve,” Lorena instructed Maxi, crossing the Med Bay to pick up a hand scanner and syringe from a polished black countertop.

The smaller woman complied without complaint.  “Rads?” she sucked at her front teeth as the needle went in.

“Right.”  Once the little ampoule was sated, she withdrew, popped out the capsule and discarded the needle in a Biohazard bin.  The capsule she plugged into the base of the hand scanner.  She raised the machine then, adjusted something on its bright touchscreen.  “Mouth open, tongue out.  Breathe deep, in and out.  Again.  Again.”

“Okay,” Lorena said when at last she was satisfied.  “Prelims look good.  Won’t be totally sure for a few minutes, but the system’s seen your digger so it’s got an idea what to look for.”

“Am I free to go?”

“Go where exactly?” Vivek asked with a chuckle.  “We don’t exactly have a bed made up.”

“We can do it pretty quickly.  Maxi, there’s a guest suite aboard.  It’s very small, but it’s got its own head.”

Maxi nodded her thanks, kept her jaw set, hoped she wouldn’t be asked to say anything nice.  She hated being put over a barrel like this.

“Vivek,” Lorena continued, “have Ashley put the place together.  Is there anything else, Captain Leaf?”

Maxi suddenly remembered something.  She dug in her pocket for her handy.  “About a month in, we had a general database crash.  I started backing up our log data on this in case we needed a backup again.  Figures we never did.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Getting to it.  Anyway, I just remembered our conversation about the Ouro,” she explained while flipped back through her archives.

Vivek shot his C.O. a worried look, incredulous she’d spilled the beans.  “Go on,” Lorena prompted, ignoring him.

“Everything we grabbed on those scans is in this.  We had a deal, yeah?  Figured since I owed you extra I might as well hand it over.”

Lorena widened her eyes.  “Well, thank you.  We’ll do what we can with it.  Vivek?  Take that.  Wake up Genz and start him running through it.  In six hours I expect you to have a course ready.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he quickly pocketed Maxi’s device.  “What’ll you be doing, if something changes with the scavs?”

“First I’m going to process Captain Leaf’s arrest report.  Send a copy to Toussaint; otherwise I think we’re done here.  We’ve got their C.O. and their core.  No more use playing the heavy.  And after that, Vivek, I’m going to take a damn nap.”

NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART TWENTY-EIGHT: A BATTERED, HARROWED CREW AND THEIR PASSENGER TAKE THEIR FIRST STEPS BACK TOWARD ROUTINE. NEW LINES ARE DRAWN; KONOKO TAKES OFF AFTER "SUBJECT 02."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Twenty-Six

Credit: jOuey


            His name was Phy Lo and he is dead.

            He was born twenty-eight years before on Kai-Shen Station to Phy Chantha and a man of no consequence who had perished of acute alcohol intoxication on the bathroom floor of a bar named the Red Elephant some four months prior.  As a young boy Lo spent his days in the care of his aunt Maly, who had two boys of her own and a husband who made enough as a tug pilot to let her stay home.  Chantha spent fourteen hours a day in a black plastic seat atop a loading crane in the station’s B Dock.  Maly had begged her husband to arrange it and he had and because of him her child could eat and never for a moment was this fact lost on either sister.

            He hadn’t been a bad child by any means, quiet and distant at first but warm when he trusted, which wasn’t often outside of family.  But he dearly loved his cousins and they loved him back with the same fraternal ferocity.  They grew up together, took their school lessons together and ignored them together.  They fought together in the streets against the other boys and after receiving one memorable beatdown they commiserated by getting their first tattoos together.  They tried to hide the evidence but one day Maly spotted her son leaving the shower and then there was hell to pay.  Even worse when the police hauled them home one night blood-drunk on stims too hard to be legal.  Lo stood up and took the blame, said it was his idea, he’d arranged to buy them from someone at school.  His cousins were immediately grateful; his aunt laid into him with more viciously he’d imagined.  The last half of her denunciations she directed at Chantha, who took it all miserably saying nothing.  She wouldn’t speak to Lo for weeks afterward—if anything her anger was colder and more sustained than Maly’s had been.  Lo never understood why that was.

            It made more sense to him later, when they robbed a corner store at knifepoint and got caught.  Having thoroughly cased the store the trio was undone by bad luck; a police patrol not sixty seconds after they pulled their blades.  The officers came in looking to buy snacks.  This bought the young men enough time to rush out the door before guns came out or the way could be blocked.  They split up from there; one got caught and kept running and got himself shot eighteen times in the back.  The cops called it even, closed the case.  Chantha kicked him out then and he could hardly blame her.  I love you and you’ll always be my boy, she’d said, but I won’t take your disgrace any more.  I can’t even look at my sister.

            So he left—kicked around the station for a few years working odd jobs of a progressively less licit nature.  When the Kai-Shen Gang Riots of ’46 left half the neighborhood burned or bullet-riddled, he was among the first enforcers to turn tail.  He wasn’t too smart but he certainly wasn’t that dumb.  By a stroke of luck his employers were killed in that tumult, letting him off the hook for having deserted.  Phy Lo found himself at a crossroads, with few skills and fewer prospects yet still a young man.

            One fine night, blind drunk in the slums, he had nonetheless recognized his cousin.  One of them, at least—the other still serving his fifteen.  He was poor as shit, Phy Lo explained, and couldn’t even afford the liquor he drank.  He intended to skip out on the check and never show his face in that particular drinking hole again.  The cousin patted his back, told him he’d cover it, that he had a good job and could get Lo a job too.  They’d have to go away for a long time, he explained, and the work might be a little dangerous, but everything else was above board and they’d be side-by-side like back in the old days when things were easier.

            Lo eagerly agreed.  Getting out of town for a while sounded good.  The months boarding on an employer’s dime with a fat paycheck at the end he liked even better.  How’s my mother?  I don’t think she wants to talk to me.

            She’s okay.  Lost her job on the crane so she had to get married.

            Had to?

            Well, you know.  You use what you got.  Had a ring finger, right?  She married some shopkeep.  Had a baby last year.  Don’t see ‘em much.

            She had a baby?

            I know, right?  My mom couldn’t believe it.

            Rage burned in Phy Lo, anger he understood but couldn’t articulate out of shame.  It wasn’t anger at his mother; if your son was such a disappointment of course you’d get rid of him and have another.  He hated himself for deserving that, for earning every bit of it, for being another big bottle of soju away from the same end as his father.  He’d take the job, he told his cousin.  And he’d bring that fat paycheck home to Chantha.  On bended knee if he had to.  At any cost.

            And now he is dead.  Momentum carries him away from the newest hole in the missile cruiser’s hull.  He lazily turns; gloves and boots stripped away, hands bare to show flesh merrily pink with edema and feet covered in a triple layer of black thermal socks.  Lo’s feet used to get so cold he’d lose feeling in his toes.  Frost masks his face from the sights around him, the endless wreckage and cold infinite.  His eyes are mercifully closed.

*          *          *          

            They alighted towards the stars—four angels fused into two warped homunculi, the digger clutched to Karl’s chest and Maxi unhappily to Lorena’s.  She badly wanted to stay, fully expected the Explorer Corps officers to arrest her but couldn’t convince herself to leave the unconscious man.  Whoever the fuck he was.

            Konoko was their silver polestar, their beacon in the night.  She grew steadily in their visors once a long thruster burn from the Gryphons made up for the wreck’s angular momentum.  It turned beneath them, the digger pods riding from under the horizon up out of sight.  A green reticule flashed to highlight the Bingo’s nearly invisible form, in transit back from Toussaint to the surface.

            “Hope Baradei can put her down on that moving deck,” Maxi remarked.

            “Not what you’d call an ace?” Lorena was happy not to bicker.

            “Taran’s cousin.  You know what they say: family doesn’t make for good business.”

            “Where’d you pick up up your X.O., if you don’t mind me asking?”

            “Well, his name’s el-Assan.”

            “I don’t know what that means.”

            “You never heard of the el-Assan Combine?”

            “Oh—wait.  Those el-Assans.”

            “Those ones.”

            “Lord a-mighty.”

            “One way to put it.  Anyway, he came with the job.  Package deal.  I may have taken a few more liberties than advertised on the label,” Maxi snickered.

            “Thought I spotted something.  You guys should be more cautious.”

            “Nobody on the ship can say shit and as far as his dad’s concerned, he’s having his way with the help.  Who’s complaining?”

            “You’re clear of the wreck’s swing now,” Vivek’s voice broke in over the public channel.  “We’re gonna tap the engines one last time and pull up close.  Stop motion towards us, please, and we’ll be there in a second.”

            Lorena and Karl pulled up short.  Konoko’s quicksilver dollop was static in the distance until suddenly it wasn’t, swelling and then stopping with such startling speed it seemed a phantom projection in space.  The human brain was never meant to interpret such size and acceleration in utter quiet.  “We’re stopped,” Vivek told them, and the Gryphons’ thrusters lit up once again.

            The bay’s outer doors waited open for them.  Once they were through, Maxi freed herself from Lorena’s grasp with an assertive push and went to take the digger from Karl.  The outer doors closed and air cycled into the bay.  When the inner doors finally opened, Maxi and Lorena stood with the unconscious man hanging between them, Karl a step off to the side.

“Take him!  Take him!” Lorena ordered through her suit speakers, meaning the digger.  Vivek and Ashley rushed to assist, bringing the basic medical and hypoxia kits with them.  Obo set to work on her suit seals, releasing them with deft snaps of his strong calloused fingers.  Once Lorena’s helmet and gloves were off she dropped to her knees and opened the hypoxia kit.  Vivek and Ashley helped Maxi get the digger’s suit off.  She’d already removed his helmet and cringed to see the purpling of ruptured capillaries in his nose, his cheeks.  A trickle of blood had run from his nose to dry in the sparse wiry hairs of his upper lip.

Karl worked to get himself out of his suit, setting one clunky article after another on the deck.  He felt awkwardly empty-handed and realized he’d lost his case of advanced scanning gear—had set it down in the dig and never thought of it again.  The decompression had probably ejected it like so much other detritus left unsecured.

He knew he should tell someone.  “Dammit!” he said loudly, to signal something amiss.

Obo turned to look.  “Yeah?”

“I have left the sensor case back in the dig site.”

Bafflement crossed Obo’s face, followed quickly by scorn.  “What the hell’s wrong with you, boy?  That don’t matter now!”

“I…I’m sorry,” Karl said feebly.  Lorena was crouched over the fallen man, slipping a probe needle into the soft thread of his carotid artery and covering his mouth with a clear plastic mask.  Karl Genz felt utterly lost.  What was there for him to do?  He very much did not want the man to die but there seemed no practical way to help.  So he took up his suit components and tromped off still half-clad to the locker room to stow them.

“Get those adhesive patches and stick them to his hands,” Lorena was saying.  “His feet too.  Cover all the exposed skin you can.  Layer the suckers if you have to.”  The fingers were blue with cyanosis; the palms were puffy and marred by pitted edema.  Designer nano-agents from the patches would filter through the skin, oxygenating stressed tissue, dissolving bubbles of gas and fluid wrenched from the man’s cells by decompression.

“Oh-Two’s flowing,” Lorena announced, “but he’s not taking it.”  The digger’s breathing was so weak and shallow, his arterial oxygen levels barely climbing as the probe broadcast back to her handy.

“Give me the tube,” she called, turning to take it from Ashley.  Lorena pulled off the oxygen mask, opened the man’s mouth and slipped a pencil-thin black cord down his trachea.  His back spasmed, his chest reflexively fought the intrusion but she pushed it down all the same and with a precise triple-tap on the protruding end she triggered its self-inflating mechanism.  The tube swelled and expanded in seconds; Lorena quickly connected the end to a corresponding slot in the mask and high-oxygen solution flowed once more.

“Need a couple leads for his chest,” Lorena yanked the man’s shirt collar down to expose his pallid, jutting collarbone.  “Two general-use.  Make it three, actually.  Obo, can you grab them? Obo?”

But he wasn’t quite there.  Zachariah Obo had backed off their frantic huddle to sit with his back against a waist-high equipment box.  His eyes were wide, his breathing rapid.  The digger arched his back once again with a retching noise and the Systems Tech twitched.  He saw the digger but he saw another man too, arching his back just the same, gagging on bloody sputum as more of the precious stuff poured from the terrible wounds in his chest.  Shrapnel, the surgeons said, perforating the lungs and God knew what else.  They put the tube down his throat, affixed the mass, worked their hardest against the tide and came up short all the same.  Obo let out a sob, glanced up at the equipment box’s lid and hunched lower.  Keep your head down.

“Jesus, Obo,” Vivek yelled at him through a fog.  Was there smoke?  He didn’t feel he could move.

“Leave him,” advised Lorena.  “He’ll be fine.  Focus on this.  Where the hell is Genz?”

“That’s all the strips,” Ashley said.  “Should we open another package?”

Lorena surveyed their work.  “That’s fine.  The decompression damage is mostly local.  Cardiac arrest’s the big worry; once I got the helmet sealed he was out of the woods there.”  She rummaged through the hypoxia kit and picked out two ampoules, one with a yellow cap and one purple.  The yellow she used first, unsheathing its one-use needle, jabbing that needle into the man’s arm.

“Adrenaline dilute,” she explained to those watching, “gets his blood moving fast for when the E-Hemo hits.”  That was the purple ampoule.  She watched her handy screen intently, noted the encouraging rise in blood oxygen and waited for the digger’s heart rate to pass ninety beats per minute.  Once it had, she counted off three full seconds in her head and applied the second needle.  The chemical hit his bloodstream; within a minute his climbing heart rate had crested and begun to fall.  Facsimiles of hemoglobin raced to sponge up oxygen in his lungs, thickening his blood but driving that arterial oxygen indicator higher.

“Okay,” Lorena said at last.  “He’s stable; all the damage is done.  Let’s get him to Med Bay.”  Ashley and Vivek went across the bay to fetch a stretcher while Obo opened up the cargo lift.  Maxi stood over the doctor and her patient, watching in silence, featureless in the helmet she still hadn’t removed.  As if every breath she drew from Konoko’s environmental system would be added to her bill of debt.  Together four of them moved the digger onto the stretcher Vivek brought.  Maxi insisted on taking up one pair of grips while Vivek got the others.  Obo had pulled himself up to sit atop the big metal box with his head in his hands.  Sweat glistened on his scalp, dripped from his brow to the deck.

Once in the Med Bay, they laid the man into one of the Halliburton Bio-Stasis pods Contact had stuffed into the overcrowded room.  Lorena set it up for a thorough scan.  Brain function was the big question: how much he suffered in the absence of sufficient oxygen?  High-defition radio imaging couldn’t give a thorough answer, but severe damage at least would be obvious.

Lorena checked the pod’s settings one last time and with a sigh she stepped back.  “We’ll have a better idea of what he needs once the scan’s done.  Thirty minutes, give or take.  Now, Captain Leaf, what about the rest of your men?”

“I don’t know, what about them?  You made me leave them.”

“Mister Mohinder will take you to the bridge and help you make contact.  Once you get out of that suit.”

“Keeping it, thanks.”

“My ship, Captain.  My rules.  Fed rules too—I’ll confiscate it if I have to.  Not having a criminal with servo-aug’ed strength on my bridge.  No offense.”

Maxi reached up, freed her neck seals and yanked off the helmet so Lorena could see her withering glare.  No offense.  Why even say it?”

*          *          *          

            “You gotta take everyone,” Maxi Leaf said sternly into the Communications console.

            “Ma’am, I can’t.  Capacity’s four passengers and there are six still onsite,” explained the shuttle pilot Baradei.

            Arithmetic flashed through Maxi’s head.  Of the eighteen diggers (the Chief included), seven quickly made it to the pods.  They’d sent four back towards the surface along with Quang.  That left twelve in total for the shuttle to evacuate, and if six remained after one trip… “You said capacity’s four?”

            “Yes, ma’am.  Nav computer goes sideways if we’re over mass.”

            “But you took six last time, right?  The Bingo should fit at least that.”

            He waited several long seconds to reply.  “Uhh, yes, six last time.  But this time we’ve got equipment on board.  Heavy equipment.”

            Maxi’s stomach started to turn.  She knew exactly what he referred to, in his clumsy way.  “That’s a negative, Baradei.  Leave the gear.  All the gear.”

            “Ma’am, there’s some very advanced—“

            “I know,” she growled into the microphone.  Vivek, seated at the console, watched her with keen interest.  “I know exactly what you’re talking about.  Leave it.  We get our people out first.  See about recovery later.”

            Another long pause.  “Sorry, ma’am, it’s already loaded.  We can’t take on any more mass.”

            “Well, fucking unload it!  Now!  We’re running on a clock, pilot, and for all we know there’s another warhead about to blow,” she ended on a bargaining note, hoping the suspicions bubbling through her brain weren’t valid.

            “I’m…I am sorry, ma’am.  My orders say otherwise.”

            Fuck.  She screwed her eyes shut.  “Whose orders?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

            “Mister el-Assan’s, ma’am.  He was quite specific.  We’ll get everyone on the next trip.”

            Her heart raced.  She felt utterly helpless, wanted to scream.  “Belay that, Baradei.  Don’t do this.  I’m gonna talk to him,” she said quickly, jabbed her finger into the console, killed the link.

            “Raise Toussaint,” Maxi told Vivek.  “They’re trying to move the stored ordnance first.  Oh, and give me a video link.”

            Vivek nodded his understanding and quickly complied.  In moments Taran el-Assan’s square jaw and dramatic widow’s peak dominated the big screen.  His image pulsed and twitched with interference but the connection seemed stable.

            “Captain Leaf.”

            “Taran.  Please tell me your idiot cousin’s just being an idiot.  We need all the diggers out now!”

            “They’ll be out soon.”

            “Not soon enough.  You didn’t see it in there.  These aren’t conventional warheads, you can’t know when they’ll—“

            “Look, it’s done.  We’ll sort it out soon.”

            “No, we’ll sort it now!  The fuck’re you trying to pull?”

            “Taking care of business, ‘umri.  I know it’s hard for you.”

            Maxi looked so angry, Vivek thought her eyes might pop out of her skull.  “Don’t take that tone with me, Taran.  I’m C.O. and this is my show.  This is business!”

            “We’re paid for the hardware, so I’m securing the hardware.”

            “Not good enough.  Listen to me!  Taran.  You want your own ship, you need your men.  Can’t do this.  Word gets around, spacers hear everything.  It’s bad business.  You don’t want to do this!”

            ’Umri, I care for you very much.  But sometimes you are a silly girl,” Taran sighed.  He gave a shrug and a wistful smile that said he didn’t blame her.  And then his image was gone.

            She clasped her hands behind her head, laced her fingers and clenched every muscle.  Each hand tried to crush the other; her shoulders locked and biceps groaned with strain.  When the pain got truly unpleasant she exhaled and let everything go.  “Well, that’s it.  There goes my ship.”

            “I’m guessing,” Vivek said slowly, “there’s a little something extra between you two.”

            “That fucking skeeze.  And to pull it over this of all things, with lives on the line,” she shook her head.

            “Can we lie to him?  That Bingo’s comms won’t make it all the way to Toussaint in this interference.  We could lie to him, say you talked to your X.O. and changed his mind.”

            “No good.  They’re family; he’ll never go for it.”

            Vivek’s eyes went suddenly wide.  “Genz!” he called into the intercom.

            “Hier Genz,came the reply from the Scanner Tech’s recent perch in the Computer Suite.

            “What’s the status of that Bingo shuttle?  Has it lifted?”

            “Negative, Bridge.  Though power levels suggest that is imminent.”

            Vivek called the shuttle back, biting his lip when the link wasn’t immediately taken.  “Baradei,” the scav pilot said warily.

            “Mister Baradei, this is Vivek Mohinder, Executive Officer of ECV Konoko.  You are ordered to offload all non-human cargo immediately, and return your people to TCV Toussaint.”

            “Negative.”

            “He’s trying you,” Maxi hissed in Vivek’s ear.  “He knows you can’t shoot him down.  You’ll have to get Taran’s voice in his head.  Make him think Taran would change his mind.”

            Vivek’s mind raced.  He saw an option and quickly decided to take it.  “Mister Baradei, what your X.O. doesn’t appreciate is, we’ve scanned your Chen-Hau core.  You know what those cost, pilot?  How much is coming out of your hide?  Take off without every last one of those diggers and I’ll make personally sure you do twenty years in Geidi.”

            The radio emitted a soft static pop.  Otherwise there was no sound.  “This is a big moment for you.  Kick those weapons out the door, grab your people and lift.”  He forced the last word into a rasping sneer and severed the link.

            Maxi stood back, quietly impressed.  “That might not work, but it was a good bluff.”

            “Not much of a bluff; Lorena had Genz scan your core.  We really can have it impounded.”  Vivek looked slightly sheepish.

            Maxi chewed on that for a moment, riding out the initial surge of angry betrayal, knowing she would have done exactly the same in her counterpart’s place.  She’d been outmaneuvered, by the Explorer Corps and by her own X.O.  Her meticulous monitoring of Taran had let her feel safe and thinking herself safe was always a mistake.  She’d cut herself off at the knees the moment she stepped off Toussaint.

            “All crew on board,” Mohamed Baradei’s voice crackled from the bridge speakers, breaking through her thoughts.  “Lifting off now.”

            “Acknowledged, shuttle,” Vivek replied professionally.  “Your cooperation will be noted.  Thank you.”  And then he did something Maxi Leaf did not expect.

“Yes!  That’s it!” he shouted, turning to beam at her, clapping her shoulder with one hand.  “You did it!  You got ‘em all.”  Having possibly just saved the lives of his fellow human beings through nothing more than aggressive bluster, Vivek Mohinder gave over the full unadulterated credit to Maxi.  A pang of guilty unease hit her stomach so hard it nearly doubled her over.

“A lot of people are still dead,” she reminded him.  “And those men are on that shuttle because you had the wit and guts to respond.

“You’re making me blush,” he waved it off, his wide even smile gone suddenly crooked.  “Not that you could tell.”

They both laughed then.  “Honestly,” Vivek said, reclining in his seat at the console, “I should have just said it at the start, saved everyone a lot of time.  I’m not used to acting like a cop.  It’s a strange feeling, saying something and watching everyone jump to it.”

“It is,” Maxi agreed.  “It really is.”

 NEXT TUESDAY: THE IMMEDIATE CRISIS MAY BE PAST, BUT KONOKO AND HER CREW MUST MAKE ACCOMMODATIONS FOR A NEW UNCOMFORTABLE REALITY. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!