She has decided to wear a suit. The jacket is synthetic wool, charcoal in a herringbone weave, wide lapels embroidered with crimson roses, their vines and thorns. It falls over her shoulders, stands open over a tight black-and-red shirt with a high neckline. No cleavage shown—she hasn’t any to speak of, had never much developed, shorted in the genetic lottery yet again. Rudi has described the men she is about to meet and Maxi Leaf would rather they didn’t think about her chest whatsoever. If she had it she’d show it off—this is a job interview and she’s no martyr—but under the circumstances she preferred a void, a patterned singularity to inhale and distract attention. When she left the room they’d say amongst themselves she was short, slight, girlish. That she could live with. She summons every bit of confidence packed straining into her frame and makes her way through the Grand Pelican Restaurant: a dark figure stalking in an ocean of white linen. Noon is more than an hour off and the place is not, technically speaking, open.
Two enormous men in rust-colored suits loom astride a set of double doors that look too small to admit them. They do not acknowledge her presence. “My name’s Maxine Leaf,” she states with a haughtily inclined chin. “I’m here to see Mister el-Assan.”
They take her in like oxen just stirred awake. If they blink behind dark lenses she can’t see it. One touches the handy strapped to his forearm. She hears an electronic murmur from their earpieces. Without a word one reaches a gargantuan paw to pull open a door by its heavy brass handle.
“Thank you,” she says, and immediately wonders whether this is a mistake. These people aren’t the type to thank the help; what if it reflects badly on her? A sign of weakness? Well, it’s not like she can turn around and slap one to make it up. She steps through the door into a dining room meant for parties of twenty or more that currently contains just three. A handsome, weathered man of about sixty—though with the very rich it can be hard to tell—sits at the centerpiece of a wide table. He is flanked by two other men: the one on his right is reedy and bald and quite old with an irritated bookkeeper’s bearing, the one on his left is much younger and very good-looking in a way that clearly recalls the centermost fellow. They are eating what appears to be a pair of actual ducks roasted in a red-brown sauce, spreading the birds’ carved bodies out between their plates in distended piquant links of connected components
“Gentlemen, I’m Captain Maxine Leaf of TCV Argosy. Pleased to make your acquaintance,” she enunciates clearly, smiles confidently and strikes what she hopes is a commanding pose.
The bookkeeper says something very brief in a language she doesn’t understand. The centermost man smirks and gives him a glance that seems to gently admonish. Maxi begins to understand her task here. “Miss Leaf—it is Miss?” the salt-and-pepper gentleman asks.
“It is,” she says pleasantly, suppressing irritation at the question.
“Kindly sit, Miss Leaf,” he indicates an empty chair on her side of the table. It does not have a place setting. She sits.
“You’ve come inquiring as to our latest opportunity.”
She thinks to clarify but barges ahead instead. Project strength. “I have.”
“Then you will want to meet my business associate, mister Abdul Nasef,” he gestures one hand towards the oldest man. “And my son, Taran.”
“Mister Nasef, Mister el-Assan,” she nods to them each in turn. “I’m very pleased to make your acquaintances. And yours as well, Mister el-Assan,” now she addresses the father.
“Please! We are sharing a meal!” They were not, by her reckoning. “I am Hassan.”
As if she didn’t know. As if any serious spacer inside ten thousand Lears had not at least heard of the man. Despite the dramatic label “crime lord,” in such circles Hassan el-Assan wasn’t feared; fear you reserved for those who might harm you. The man had reached such heights he’d never need to. Maxi Leaf knows in this moment she is less than an insect. There isn’t even a bodyguard in the room. “I’ll try to use it,” she says, “but I’m sure I’ll slip.”
“How long have you been on Kai-Shen station?” he smiles entrancingly.
She consults her memory: “Four days seventeen hours.”
“And how long do you plan to stay?”
“Argosy is on a three-month refit. I’m not sure what ownership plans for her after this.”
“Would it be fair to say,” the sour-faced Nasef inquires, speaking for the first time with the precise accent of an educated man, “that you are the former captain of his vessel?”
“I don’t believe so, sir,” she replies with a stone-faced stare. “Until P.I.D. Shipping puts another name on my cabin door, she’s my charge.”
Nasef snorts, takes a duck’s leg between his fingers and cracks it off at the hip. He brings the traumatized stump of bone to his mouth to suck out the marrow. “What manner of craft is the Argosy, Miss Leaf?”
“Branch Industries IU-4 Medium Freight Transport; she’s a prefab model out of the Fort Danika shipyards.”
“Is that the whole of your opinion?” asks the elder el-Assan.
There is a twinkle in his eye. She’s not sure whether he’s flirting, decides he’s looking for something else. “Her C-H core should have been decommissioned ten years ago and she handles like a brick shithouse,” she says with a bemused smile to match the grin spreading over his face.
“Do I take it from this you’re a woman of refined tastes?”
“Just a hardworking spacer who thinks she’s earned an upgrade.”
“And what would that look like, to you?”
“I can imagine a lot of things. My friend Mister Rudolph Batori led me to believe you’ve already got a ship lined up.”
“Did he? Mister Batori has a great gift for knowing things outside of his own business. I will confess I am embarrassed.”
“Shouldn’t be too embarrassed,” she feels increasingly confident. “He couldn’t tell me anything outside of the core’s registry number. That’s a nice piece of hardware.”
Hassan laughs. His son joins in a second later. “I’m glad you think so. And that Mister Batori saw fit to send you my way. He’s so resourceful! I do admire him. It was no simple matter acquiring Chen-Hau equipment of such quality. But if I send a ship so far with so much of my money on board, I want it back, eh?”
“Absolutely,” she adopts a more businesslike attitude. “And I’m aware jobs like this have more risks associated with them. I’ll limit those risks. I’ll protect your investment above all. I know how this business works, where the money comes from and where finishes,” she finishes with a respectful nod to the shriveled Nasef.
With ring-studded fingers Hassan el-Assan takes up a squat chrome teapot, pours into his own teacup as well as his son’s, gestures for Maxi to take the latter. “I think we will be very good for each other,” he declares, lifting the cup, prompting them both to sip. The tea is far too hot and it instantly scalds the taste buds from her tongue. “There is a proviso, for my own peace of mind. Your Executive Officer.”
“I hadn’t one in mind. My guy on Argosy’s good, but way too square for this.”
“I have one in mind. To watch my interests should anything become of you, sweet girl.”
“Oh?” she does her best not to be offended.
“My Taran,” he reaches to squeeze the young man’s shoulder. “He has worked my ships before. A good boy.”
She wants to say I see but instead says “Very well” in a highly agreeable tone, extending a hand to shake Taran’s. She gives him a big smile; he returns it with the barest of winks.
“I’m sure you’ll be great,” he says earnestly.
She doesn’t answer, just smiles and ducks her head as one does for gracious compliments. This is an unexpected development, but a lucky one: she’d expected a wiser choice of caretaker. Of course el-Assan wants his own man in authority, but if the son were really so valuable he’d never send him so far from home. Can’t be that bright, she decides, but he’s certainly not bad to look at. And he clearly likes her, is much easier to read than his father. The coiffed hair, the fresh shave, the smell of cologne. Not averse to thinking with his dick. She will, she decides, have him eating from her proverbial palm the moment they’re spaceborne.
She takes another sip from her tea, moves it quickly through her mouth to keep it from burning. She swallows, nods gratefully at the obscenely wealthy crime lord sitting before her. “You’ve made a good choice today, Hassan.”
* * *
Section Four was decompressed. It had been spared the warhead’s immediate wrath, but once the explosion retreated matter rushed to fill the void, hauled on the wreck’s bulkheads already running like warm margarine. A cloud of moist slag was the result, ripped out from the dig section’s side like an old scab and emptied into deep space slowly cooling through blackbody radiation alone. Oxygen quickly bled through the ragged holes, depleting inside conditions until they matched the outside. Heaters and atmosphere generators rumbled on in a futile effort to cozy up the universe.
Quang rummaged through his bag, hanging suspended in zero gravity before him with its zipper open. He found the cutting torch: an L-shaped contraption with a tube on one side of the elbow and a bulbous oxy-fuel tank on the other. He held it close to his face and squinted closely to read the label on the fuel nozzle. Didn’t want to turn it the wrong way. A red-orange glow came from his right, muted by his dark faceplate—Karl Genz used a laser cutter, superior by far to Quang’s smaller conventional tool. “Stand back!” he called in the Greater Khmer dialect shared amongst most of Toussaint’s diggers. At such close proximity their radios could operate.
Blown out and still very soft, the wreck’s odd hybrid of alloy and ceramic had warped as the warhead’s prodigious forces spent themselves. The layout those ancient shipwrights had chosen no longer existed; so too the diggers’ crude warrens had re-arranged. Four men were presently trapped on the far side of a bulkhead: what appeared to have been floor plating from a different level. A great deal of structure crumpled and folded like a paper carnation. It had to be broken up.
Quang started on the far side from Karl, sparking his torch and pressing it close to the rubble surface. Searing white light marked a contrast with the Gryphon suit’s bloodless laser work. He held the torch steady, allowing its heat to deluge the material, lifting it up after ten seconds to see the material wasn’t cut. It had barely been heated and only retained the barest red hum like a nearly extinguished ember. He burned for another ten, checked again and saw the same. “I can’t cut,” he despaired into his microphone. To everyone else it sounded like modest disappointment.
“Malfunction?” Maxi asked in his ear. “We’re almost there.”
“It won’t heat with the plasma torch.”
“My laser cuts perfectly!” Karl helpfully contributed.
Maxi and Lorena arrived a minute later and thirty-nine following the explosion. “Four behind the barricade,” Quang explained.
Lorena flicked her eyes between visor menus, accidentally powering two incidental tools before at last the laser cutter’s icon sparkled green. She approached the spot Quang indicated, knelt and took the cutter’s lens assembly from its recessed slot near her left wrist. With a finger touch she fired it, felt its slight hum and saw the blue speck quickly swallowed in warmer light. The laser cut easily. Lorena moved it from her starting point to the obstruction’s foot, then back up to meet Karl who approached from the far side. At last she turned her cutter off and let him finish the work with his longer limbs and steadier hands.
“Fertig!” Karl announced at the end. He replaced his cutter in the wrist compartment and joined Lorena in placing his hands against the debris. Maxi did the same though her contribution could never be more than negligible. She irritably motioned Quang to do the same. Together the four threw thousands of pounds of force into a heave. With an angry grinding vibration that in atmosphere would have issued a hair-raising shriek, the obstruction gave way.
It flew off some feet before encountering a bulkhead, bouncing and rolling away. From around a corner peeked a flat grey faceplate; seeing the way was clear, a whole human form hurried into Lorena’s peering lights. It gestured and three more emerged, all small men who waved their arms and turned the radio channel into a chopped cacophony of Greater Khmer.
“Quang. Quang!” Maxi cut them off. “Tell me what’s going on. Who’s still in here?”
Adrenaline thickened the man’s accent. “Dey say da Chief gone. Him’n two udda.”
“Natting lift in Meg Cee.” He spread his hands like dispelling a parlor illusion. Vaporized in the blast.
Maxi swallowed hard, told herself it had been quick. Better than decompression at least. “Two were with the Chief? That’s five gone. Four more here—can they move?”
“Our lasers died widda gens,” explained a digger with better English. “An’ plasma don’ do shit.”
“Do you know where last two are?”
“No ma’am. Sekshun six mebbe.”
“Quang, take them back up top. Remember that big hole in the last section? Use it to hit the surface quick. Move over the hull from there.”
“Ya, okay,” he gave a thumbs-up and relayed instructions to his workers.
“Oh, do we have spare suits anywhere?”
“Dey be widda diggas in dey sekshun.”
“Shit. Well, get moving. Start shuttling men back to Toussaint. We’ll meet you later.”
In a moment they were gone, hustling down the corridor out of sight. “Two left,” Lorena sighed over the radio. “Here’s hoping they had their suits.”
“I’m sure you’ll have to bail them out anyway. Since we’re such helpless fuckin’ bumpkins,” Maxi sneered.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I said.” They’d been trotting through the vacated dig section with its bizarre masticated bulkheads and their tattered seams showing little specks of the universe. Before them stood another obstruction, distinct from the first but still far too substantial for the Gryphons to pass.
Maxi put her fists self-righteously on her hips. “Well, you’re about to look even better.”
* * *
They cut through this new barricade and swam across a gulf of floating particulate debris where the explosion had carved a kind of atrium. Like an expansive indoor garden built as a monument to ruin. Flecks of broken ceramic struck off their chestplates. Beyond lay an unmistakably digger-carved tunnel they followed down.
“What did Contact have you looking for?” Maxi asked after a long silence and without preamble.
It took Lorena aback. “That’s none of your—“
“Please,” she stopped the angry woman short. “You’re the one who blurted it out. I’m just trying to see if I can help you.”
“Worry about these men you’ve endangered.”
Many times Maxi would’ve taken this bait, would’ve gotten into another verbal tussle. But Lorena’s slip had given her an edge and in this moment that advantage made graciousness unusually easy. She kept her tone civil, level. “What I can’t figure out is why Contact would send you here. To the ‘Yard. The aliens who built these ships are practically fossils. I thought maybe a courier mission since it’s the O.T., but in that case you’d never waste time on petty enforcement.”
“You just keep those wheels turning. I’m sure you’ll come up with something brilliant.”
“Seriously. I’m often good at these things but I can’t figure you out. No way the ‘Yard is on the way to anything important.”
Lorena knew she should let Maxi yammer on, shouldn’t encourage her with a response. But the scavs had been here a long while, like she’d said. Maybe they’d gotten a peek at Subject 02, or at least its telltale emissions. So she opened the door another small crack: “we’re tracking a ship, if you must know.”
“Huh? Couldn’t be hot on its trail or, again, you’d never stop.”
“We’re looking for a trail. An Ouro trail.”
It tickled something in Maxi’s memory. Excited discussions during the first surveys ultimately leading to frustrated groans; fragments of distinctive hull plate scooped up like so much sea drift. “Is it a civ ship?” she asked, seeing the other woman dead-stop and wishing she could see her face.
Lorena forced her legs back into motion, cursed herself for reacting that way. “Passenger vessel, we think.”
“Well, it’s slagged,” Maxi said smugly. “We found some debris, might’ve been our second week out here. The ice from that shit they swim in stood out from the ambient mess, obviously. And we got real excited, ‘cause who ever found an Ouro wreck? But we find some of the bigger bits and it’s clear it’s a civ model. Which was the end of that. No weapons, no bother.”
“What of the drives?” Karl broke in. “What of the computers? The organisms themselves?”
Lorena flipped to the Corps radio channel to hiss “Karl,” at him. They were at enough of a disadvantage already without giving over more chips.
“Want a frozen squid, you go to a fish market,” Maxi quipped. “As for their tech, it’s so big, we can’t carry much. Everything’s gotta be high margin.”
“Weapons,” Lorena filled in for her.
“For what it’s worth, we’d like to take a look at that wreckage.”
“Done. See? Now we’re best friends.”
They came to a field lock, the nearby bulkhead marked with a crude painted 6, and passed through it into a curious world of sound. Pressure had held, though the rolling clouds of black smoke suggested Section Six was no longer a very hospitable place. It was a larger space than Lorena expected, most of the walls cut away and hollowed out by diggers who’d left behind a clutter of discarded tools and detachable mag clamps. Alien tech waited in the opened compartments though much had been stripped to lie in an enormous refuse pile. From here Lorena could see the magazine’s layout—the open spaces for warhead transport, the heavy gear to load and arm the weapons, the open mouths with grabbing mechanical teeth waiting to suck them forward to their launch tubes. She saw a single large fire at a generator hub but knew there were more.
“HEY!” she called through the Gryphon’s booming external speakers. “HEY!” her mind raced trying to think of a more useful exclamation. Nothing came.
“Spread out,” said Maxi, moving ahead herself. “And look for suits if you can find them.”
“Constant contact, Karl,” Lorena reminded her Tech.
“Ambient oxygen seventeen percent,” he told them, his hand scanner feeding through his visor. “The fires will extinguish themselves before long.”
“Can you look for power sources?” asked Maxi from ahead. “If the big generators are cooked, the suit gens might show up.”
“Excellent idea!” Karl’s tone was inappropriately bright. He applied the necessary filters.
Lorena took the rightmost angle, skirting along the dig’s right side. It was less modified than the left, representing an outer section of the magazine Quang’s diggers hadn’t cared to excavate. They’d cut out the doors though, excised them like vestigial organs and cast them aside to open up more storage space. She ran down a short hallway half-blocked by flames shooting through one of those open doorways—a blazing white efflorescence suggesting some plasma fuel burned within. She slipped by sticking to the corridor’s far wall, grimacing at the heat she imagined she could feel through the Gryphon’s near-impervious shielding.
She found them at the corridor’s end, in a small room with a recessed floor. Smoke drifted in fogbanks from floor to ceiling; two men lay fetal in the floor’s basin. They wore only their coveralls, boots and work gloves and they did not move when she called to them. Oh, no. Rushing down to the den they’d used as shelter from the smoke, she prodded them with her hands but still they did not move. In an environment with gravity, the pit would have been a wise hiding spot. Heated smoke couldn’t rise without that anchoring force.
“I found them!” she cried into the radio but heard only static in response. The others were out of range. She had to reach them. Wait, first thing—were the men alive? The Gryphon’s gloves were like gauntlets and she couldn’t feel a pulse. She thought she saw them breathe but couldn’t be sure in the smoke and through her visor. The suit had diagnostics, she knew, but flipping through the visor menu got her nowhere. She could remember the pathway on a Marina, dammit. Her brain rushed, stumbled over itself, and Lorena realized she was wasting time. Assume they’re alive—in which case the first order of business was finding pressure suits. They needed fresh oxygen and couldn’t get to the surface otherwise.
Lorena stood up, fled the room and back down the corridor. She strode straight through the flames, still calling over the radio. Second order of business was smothering that fire, though their options would expand once the diggers were safe from vacuum. The corridor seemed impossibly long now and Lorena felt very alone. Her heart throbbed on the verge on panic; she tried to soothe it with thoughts of running water and saw the attempt flash futilely to steam.
“Help, anyone!” she yelled into the radio where she thought she heard voices, buzzed and slurred with interference though they were. “Help!”
NEXT TUESDAY: TASKS TAKE ON NEW CLARITY! THE QUEST FOR SURVIVORS BECOMES A DESPERATE SEARCH FOR A PRESSURE SUIT, AND A PHOTINO FOWL PROVES HIMSELF A PROPHET. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!
NEXT TUESDAY: TASKS TAKE ON NEW CLARITY! THE QUEST FOR SURVIVORS BECOMES A DESPERATE SEARCH FOR A PRESSURE SUIT, AND A PHOTINO FOWL PROVES HIMSELF A PROPHET. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!