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.”


            “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.”


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