Mornings were the worst. The island never got too cold but still they shivered against clapboard walls painted four different colors and all of them bleached out. Mama and Pops put on a show of not being scared, staring straight ahead with placid expressions, never saying a word because none of them could risk anything above a whisper. Zachariah knew it was an act, felt how their arms instinctively tightened about the children with every distant mortar burst and rifle report. In years past they’d rise early, putter in Pops’ motor scooter down to the shore and cast nets for the dawn feed. Now anyone casting a clear silhouette in a wide open space was begging for a round in the skull. It was safer later in the day when bright light let the fighters separate friend from foe, when brutal heat drove them back indoors and underground. You could find them lounging in cafes if you knew where to look. Zachariah noticed they did not seem very interested in fighting when the option to eat or sleep presented itself. Neither party could defeat the other because neither really cared to.
Relief from the tension came in roaring turboprop crescendos, building from a great distance until the children wrested free of their parents’ clutches and stood to look out the window. The UNAID carryalls whupped percussively overhead, flying high enough to avoid small arms fire, on a lazy course to the local airfield where Fed troops had taken control. Most of the local government long gone, they secured the airfield and surrounding shanties but went no further. Just watched from hastily erected prefab guard towers as loyalist and separatist tore the rest of the island apart. Just held pulse rifles to nano-reactive armor chestplates, held the airfield, held firm. The Federal apparatus was nothing if not committed to local sovereignty.
The carryalls would crawl their way overhead and Zachariah’s parents would hiss angrily at them to get back down, to keep their heads low. Later they’d eat a cold breakfast of strangely salted protein and farmed seaweed from military rations, disseminated by aid workers once the great armored albatrosses landed. Those packaged rations quickly found their way into partisans’ bellies, but that could scarcely be helped and families like the Obos had few other options. The fish came out at dawn and dusk, cruelly tracking their schedules with the fighters’, and without decent catches they couldn’t feed themselves. So it had been these rations for months, on top of whatever Mama could buy from the corner store with her mending money. Pops just stayed indoors, staying out of sight since they liked to snatch men off the streets and push guns in their hands. Boys too, folks murmured.
Eventually they’d sold Pops’ fishing gear, most of it, figuring it was months since they’d been kept off the beaches and only God knew how long until they’d get back. It seemed there’d be nothing but salty, squishy rations forever—a permanent dependency, more or less, which wound Pops into a rage whenever he discussed it. In those times Mama said she was glad the fighters had taken all the liquor from the stores. Zachariah couldn’t share the anger. He only looked up to the sky, saw those clumsy beautiful birds flying in from so far away, was reminded in turn of how much so far away the world really held. Awed, he’d trace his eyes along the thrashing blades, thrusters with burning mouths, stubby wings and ponderous bellies defying gravity without so much as a respectful nod in its direction. Zachariah knew men had built these things and a tiny part of him had the audacity to suspect these men weren’t much cleverer than he. Wherever he wanted to go in the universe, he reasoned, there was a machine to take him there. There were people willing to pay those who built them, knew them, could maintain them.
If he learned anything and everything he could about those things, then he knew he would one day find himself at that airfield, walking through the gates with a bag on his back, stepping onto one of those beautiful birds and flying away—forever away—from fire and blood.
* * *
Coleridge turned loops in his vacuum cage. It wasn’t his usual behavior—typically he just cruised, flapping his wings every so often, surveying the universe with his sensory pits. Now he flew faster, performing off-kilter barrel rolls with orange photophore bursts to punctuate them. It caught Zach Obo’s eye as he hauled a load of medical gear into the lower bay. What’s got into him? Obo set down the case labeled DECOMPRESSION KIT, tucking it next to the first aid kit that always waited in the bay. He piled the oxygen tanks and masks near the control terminal so he could grab them quickly later.
He keyed the intercom to the bridge. “Docking bay prepped to take on casualties, if we have to.”
“Roger that,” Vivek’s voice replied.
“Anything from the Doc?”
“She hasn’t popped back up yet. No sign of anything since they went below. But it seems like the interior fires are dying down.” The vislight telescopes were all he had to go on as Konoko hovered over the dig site, her Nav computer perfectly matching the wreck’s angular momentum.
“No change, eh? Thought there might be something by now. Cole’s freaking out.”
“The bird?” Vivek asked before Ashley leapt over his shoulder into the conversation.
“What’s wrong with him? Is he okay?”
Obo smiled a little at the concern her voice. “He’s just spinning around in his cage, over and over. Flashing his lights.”
“Did it just start?”
“Not sure; I left to get the med gear and he’s doing it when I get back. Couldn’t be more than ten minutes.”
“The radiation from the wreck, maybe. I hope he’s okay. Oh, shit!”
She didn’t reply immediately, though the intercom stayed open and Obo could hear her speaking with Vivek. “We got movement on the surface,” she was saying.
“Zoom it in.”
“Trying, trying…don’t normally do this shit. It’s Genz’s thing. There we go…suits, definitely. A half dozen. Maybe more.”
“They’re coming from the pods to the surface.”
“Abandoning the pods,” Ash sounded confused.
“Yeah, headed for the shuttle.”
“Lorena?” Vivek tried the radio. “Mizrahi, Genz, come in!”
“Don’t see Gryphons yet,” Ash muttered. “Or that purple suit from earlier. They must still be down in the dig.”
“Call out where the shuttle’s headed,” said Obo.
“No obvious casualties,” Ashley assured him. “Guessing they’ll run back to the mother.”
“And then they’ll come back. What you describe can’t be everyone. They’ll have to make a second trip.”
He heard a soft thump over his shoulder, turned to the source, saw Coleridge had run into one of his tube walls and bounced off. Photophores pulsed a frantic white. “How’re the EMs looking?” he queried the bridge.
“Fucked if I know,” Ashley took full verbal advantage of the C.O.’s absence. “Vee, come take care of this.”
“Busy,” said Vivek, working his way through the comm bands once again, trying to find Lorena. “From where I’m sitting the interference looks about the same.”
A ball of anxiety had formed in Zachariah Obo’s stomach. He felt a premonition of doom but lacked any material evidence to support it. These feelings, Marietta always assured him, were learned behavior. They were hardly infallible. And yet he was certain the photino bird felt something. With all those exotic particles gnashing about since the blast, who knew what he saw through those blind leathery pits?
* * *
“Good news and bad news!” Maxi Leaf bellowed over the radio. The static seemed to be getting worse but it was hard to tell. She knew anxiety warped perception. With a flip of her wrists she cast a large battery pack up towards the ceiling, exposing below it the rubbery grey of a pressure suit. “I found one.”
“That’s great news!” Lorena stopped her own search to look back.
“Not so great. It’s only one, and no helmet.”
“Genz! Find the helmet. It can’t have gone anywhere. Should be the most obvious part,” she called, hurrying across the room to the scav captain. “Give it to me; I’ll take it back and start getting one of them into it.”
Maxi handed it over, wanting to check the men herself but knew Lorena could better handle their limp forms. She made her way down the dig wall, eyes searching for anything that might contain a suit. Karl Genz, for his part, had an epiphany. Setting his Gryphon’s floodlights to their absolute brightest, he began to rapidly cast around their glare. Any flashing reflection drew him closer, eliminating glossy objects one by one—one of them, he figured, would eventually be a helmet visor.
Lorena clomped back down the corridor, hugged the wall and with her armored body she shielded the lighter pressure suit from the flames. Most of the fires in this section had dropped to a smolder as oxygen ran out, but the plasma fuel was formulated for hard vacuum. It would burn to the last molecule. Droplets were loosed from their pressurized canisters to drift through the corridor, swaddled in spherical bubbles of flame, glowing like tiny ghosts on a smoky moor. She reached the room where the diggers lay and could barely see them for all the noxious chemical occlusion. Dropping to a knee and unfolding the pressure suit, she tried to eyeball its size relative to theirs. Couldn’t afford to waste time half-suiting a man who wouldn’t fit. Both were fairly small, just a bit taller and heavier than she. She faced an awkward choice: whom to suit up first? Which man to save? Of course that was a false choice, she reminded herself; somewhere in the dig a second suit waited. She’d save them both. But one had to come first.
In the end she picked the man on her left. His boots were lighter, easier to get off with fingers made and clumsy and ogre-strong by her gloves. The suit was a simple one-piece model with a zip seal, a fact for which she muttered a brief thanks to anyone watching, and so she laid it on the deck splayed open like a dissection. She rolled the unconscious man to his back and grimaced to see the cyanosis frosting his nose, his cheeks. She tugged off his boots then lifted and slotted his feet into the suit’s legs, giving each a tug to verify his feet reached the bottom. Tugging his trunk into position, struggling with his mass in zero gravity, she managed to work the suit up around his midsection. Inertia tried to carry him back out of the suit and towards the ceiling, so she held his shoulder while hiking him back down. His arms were easier than his legs; before too long she had the digger zipped up in his suit. Its life support unit blinked green—good to go the moment it perceived a solid seal.
The second man had drifted up off the deck, no longer wedged into the recess with his companion but still bound by his mag boots. He swayed in the air like the strangest of plants; a giant drooping sunflower that swiveled slowly about its base.
“Doctor!” Karl’s voice came through with a pop of static. “Where are you?”
“End of the hall!” she called back.
“I cannot see. There is a great deal of leaked plasma and it is burning.”
She wanted to scream. Didn’t. “Yes, Karl! It’s past the fire! Is there a helmet for this suit?”
“I’m not sure. What is the manufacturer?”
“What? Why does that matter?” She craned her neck trying to see a logo anywhere on the weathered grey thing.
“It may not seal properly.”
“You’ve got a helmet!”
“Yes. But I wasn’t sure--”
“Goddammit Karl, bring it!” she snapped. Yelling at Karl and cursing on comms: two sins in the same breath. She pulled air through her lungs, told herself things were about to get better and the poor man in her arms would breathe the same. The second still had some time; her visor showed nine percent atmospheric oxygen. She could only hope the hypoxia wasn’t burning its way through his brain already. Karl’s on his way. You’ll get this done.
Lorena Mizrahi felt the detonation first, felt the deck shift under her feet. When she heard it, a split second later, she was bewildered: who’s making tea? Through the suit’s external microphones came a rising steam kettle squeal, fine and tinny and at once louder than God. It textured the air, perambulated waveforms through smoke clouds, screwed Lorena’s eyes shut with discomfort. And then with a last popping noise it was gone. She felt a terrible inertia in her legs, as though she stood in a vehicle accelerating.
She opened her eyes to a warped world. Her arms felt long—too long, which was a strange sensation, but when she looked at her hands they seemed very far away indeed. The deck below her feet seemed to fall away in a steep curve and seeing this she lost her balance, stumbling but catching herself after a step. She saw her left leg stretching away in a rainbow shape she knew it didn’t possess; she felt her left foot’s solid purchase on the deck but couldn’t see the foot. It seemed to be behind something, hidden past a horizon formed by the floor itself. Terrified and disoriented, Lorena looked around and saw every surface in the room similarly warped. The unsuited man was shaped like a question mark, bent at the waist into a sickle curve. She wondered if she had gone mad.
But then the feeling left. Lines bent themselves straight before her eyes. Her foot rolled back into view over that eerie horizon and she was whole again. She stood frozen in place, afraid to move lest the universe shatter itself to pieces. Silence had yielded to a sound that reminded her of rushing water until its throat widened to a mounting roar.
The seals were gone.
She couldn’t sense the wind herself, cosseted in her servo-powered suit, but all the same felt it pull with terrible strength at the man in her arms. The other man’s boots kept him anchored for the present. “Karl!” she yelled, struggling to pull her charge clear of the doorway and its gale.
Karl Genz stood in the hall with a bowl-shaped black helmet in his right hand and wonder in his eyes. He had seen it too: the curvature of time and space compressed and laid bare, the universe’s clocktower shrunk to watchwork. And at the end, as it rolled back, he felt he could toss his vision in a languid arc to the well’s very bottom until at the last moment everything was straight again and the chance was lost. Karl felt frustrated and he hated it.
“God dammit, Genz!” he heard Lorena in his ear and suddenly he was back in the hall. Plasma flames whipped from the burning storage closet, drawn with cold fingers towards open space. He strode forward aided by that wind and careened down the hallway keeping contact with the wall at all times. Who knew when the floor might start moving again? The howling wind accelerated still, taking up the fire, stretching it like soft clay. A cyclone took shape, its contours defined by smoke and fire. Elemental forces ground against each other and stretched the cyclone into a writhing serpent down the hallway’s left fork. Adrenaline surged in Karl’s chest; he stayed low and surged towards the door where Lorena waited.
But he couldn’t get through it. The air came rushing out of its chokepoint so fast and hard it sent him staggering.
“Give me the helmet!” Lorena screamed, half-releasing her charge to stretch an arm towards the doorway. At that moment the vacuum’s sucking force exceeded the clinging power of the second man’s mag boots. She saw him lift up off the deck, first toes and then begrudgingly his heels, like a weed trying to thwart a gardener. She saw everything as it happened and she wasn’t fast enough, not even to call to Karl. The wind took up the man and then he was gone.
“Genz, the helmet!” With a grunt he thrust it through the door plane. Lorena saw its blessed black glass pop into view and reached to grip its base. “Got it!”
His gold glove released the helmet and disappeared. Lorena snatched back the helmet and tried to stuff it over the digger’s head, but his neck hung limp and she couldn’t do enough with one hand. The second she lightened her grip on his chest he started to slide and that wouldn’t work either. Instead she reared back, pulling them both to the deck and lifting her feet to let the wind slowly pull them. They slid backwards across the deck together, but in this compromise Lorena freed her second hand. The helmet popped down over his head. She wiggled it, tried to find the right spot for the sealing catch, though she got it right and turned. The thing rattled out of the neck collar. She found the spot again and turned again; same result. It was the wrong helmet. Fuck. She wanted to scream, to pray. They’d be just as futile.
“Seal it,” said Beatrice. She seemed unnaturally short, standing in the floor’s depression with raven hair wild from the wind and long indigo skirt a-flap. Lorena heard her quite clearly, as though the wind had stopped.
“I can’t. It won’t go.” It was nearly a sob.
“Spray seal. On your belt.”
“It’s standard. You read about it.”
“You can. Your hands know it. Trust them. Trust you.”
And then the bottle was already before her eyes, its pneumatic trigger depressed to discharge adhesive polymer at high temperature and pressure, her other hand steady atop the helmet holding it down. Steam hissed away; she plastered the flesh-colored stuff in a long gooey stripe all around the collar’s circumference. The suit’s environmental unit chirped and its indicator light gazed solid green. Lorena clutched the man to her belly, sunk her faceplate in his back and willed herself not to vomit. The wind seemed to continue for a long time afterwards.
At last the night was silent. Karl’s voice broke it: “Doctor?”
She looked up to the great tall German in his golden shell. She couldn’t think of anything to say. After a long moment she became aware of an aching in her shoulders and realized she still held the digger in a death grip against her chest. Released, he drifted slowly upward.
“What’s his condition, Doctor?”
“Alive,” she croaked. It was true for now. She needed Konoko’s med facilities in a hurry, to save what she could of his brain. The image of the other second man, limply reclined in the giant’s grip on his way to the maw—to the vacuum’s grinding teeth—sent a knife of ice through her.
“Mizrahi!” Maxi’s high voice slipped through interference. “You alive? Anyone? Come in, you Fed fucks!”
“At the hall’s end,” Karl replied helpfully. “We have a survivor. Unconscious.”
The scav captain’s purple suit swiftly hurried around the corner. “Shit. At least you got him suited.”
“What about the second suit?” Lorena demanded, getting to her feet. “Where the hell were you?”
“Looking. I couldn’t find it before everything went sideways. Whatever you’d call it. Didn’t seem like an explosion.”
“Not all explosions occur at the same rate, Captain,” Karl said patronizingly.
Lorena cut in. “We needed that second suit. Your man’s dead because of that second suit.”
“Chief Wacken fucked up is why he’s dead,” Maxi fired back. “I found the first suit, couldn’t find the second. I don’t know what you want from me.”
“I want you give a shit about your men. Why is it I find myself caring more than you do?”
“Maybe it’s ‘cause you’re a stuck-up bitch who’ll see whatever she wants to see in the name of feeling fucking superior. Like right now, when you’re letting this man’s condition decay for the sake of browbeating me. Strong work, Doctor.” With that, Maxi gripped the digger’s legs and pulled him into motion.
Lorena and Karl followed her out the door in uncomfortable silence. Maxi went right instead of left, heading down the way the wind had taken the second digger. “Quickest way to the surface,” she asserted to the tense channel. “You might want to start calling your boys. Baradei’s taking the shuttle back to the pods. He won’t even see us.”
* * *
“Oh my God,” said Ashley Duggins. “Oh my God.” She tried to stop saying it but nothing else would come out.
Vivek paid her no mind, sunk in rapid conversation with Obo over the intercom. “Can you give me a number? A guess at a number?”
“Say twenty percent? It’s much calmer now.”
“EMs look as bad at ever on the comm channels.”
“I meant the exotics. Non-baryonic shit. They set that thing off, but it seems clear now.”
“What do you mean ‘seems?’”
“Cole’s back to normal. Thought he’d beat himself to death on the cage when the pop happened, but he’s happy as a clam now.”
“That’s hardly scientific.”
“It’s good enough for now. We gotta go help the Doc.”
Vivek sighed. In the end these questions were barely relevant; to the wreck they’d have to go. “Yes. We’ll do it, me and Ashley. Get our suits ready.”
“Got it, boss.” The line went dead.
Ashley ran fingers through her red hair. The scratch of nails on her scalp was soothing. “What if they’re dead?”
“They’re not dead, Ash.”
“You can’t know that.”
“I assume that. It wasn’t as big as the first. More a leak, like it wanted to burst but had to rush out a side hole. Point is, comms are down and we need to go and see for ourselves. All right? It’s gonna be the two of us.”
“What if another one goes off?”
“You heard Obo; things have settled down in there. The photino bird says we’re safe now. All right? Cole promises,” he smiled warmly, doing his best to indulge her, knowing time was wasting.
She met his eyes, joined blue to earthy brown, and blinked hard. “Okay,” she said.
They met Obo in the bay’s locker room, finishing the Gryphon checklist, his face a mask of grim determination. “Get changed,” he told them. “You got two minutes.”
But it wouldn’t matter. Suddenly the speakers squealed over their heads: “-ko! Mizrahi hailing Konoko. Come in, Konoko!”
Zachariah Obo rushed to his console so quickly he tweaked his back, staggering the last few steps and picking up the handset with bared teeth. Ashley and Vivek ran after. “Konoko acknowledges! Reading you, Doctor.”
“What’s your status, Lor?” Vivek demanded somewhat unprofessionally. “Is everyone okay?”
“Emphatically no, Mohinder. We have wounded and need immediate pickup!”
“Uhh…roger. How many?”
“I’m okay. Genz and Captain Leaf are okay. We have one digger in a pressure suit. Acute hypoxia. In the Med Bay there’s—“
“Got the hypoxia kit already,” Obo told her.
“You’re a saint. We can boost off the surface; will you be there?”
“No worries,” the Systems Tech grinned, though it quickly faded.
“The fuck you waitin’ on?” he demanded from Vivek, presently doubled over with relief. “Get to the Nav ‘puter!”
The X.O. looked like he’d been startled awake. “Oh shit! Nothing, on it! Come on, Ash!” With a scrambling of his froggy limbs, Vivek Mohinder dashed up the metal stairs out of the bay.
NEXT TUESDAY: MEDICAL EMERGENCIES BRING OUT THE BEST AND WORST IN THE CREW. MAXI WORKS TO EVACUATE HER OWN PEOPLE, RUNNING FACE-FIRST INTO AN UNPLEASANT NEW REALITY. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!