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.
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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
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!