Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Twenty-Eight

Credit: Dr. Kevin Johnson, F.I.T.


            White wings beat against an iron sky.  Chevrons of black begin at their tips to sweep dramatically back over the coverts, fading as they do so until they reach the shoulder.  Lorena stands on the cliffside, nine years old and three careful strides back from the lip as her father has mandated, watching the shearwaters wheel and dive and strike the grey-green sea.  They vanish momentarily in spray and pop back up, coal-streaked seraphim rejoining the host.

            “Did they get a fish?” Beatrice is so excited she shouts, which lifts her little-girl voice to piercing.

            “I can’t tell.”

            “I bet they did.  Look at that one’s face.  He’s so happy.”

            Lorena peers at the closest bird, trying mightily to see what it is Beatrice sees.  She wants to see a smile, wryly confident like the birds in her cartoon vids, always ready with a witty line.  “You’re right.  I see it,” she declares, though she doesn’t.  A dank wind blows hair over her face.

            They make their way along the cliff, tiny shoes padding over the scratchy brown vegetation, keeping that three-step buffer until at last they find a path down lower.  Scooting down a dirt embankment on their rears and the heels of their hands, they reach the white rocks crusted with salt and guano.  Lorena wonders how high these cliffs used to be.  She knows the sea used to be much lower.  Waves slosh below them and the highest spray speckles the dirt at their feet.  The water is a deep dark green, opaque and forbidding, swallowing what thin light comes through the flat featureless clouds.  Fifty feet offshore drift great rafts of jellyfish, big and round as dinner plates, colored a baleful shade of orange like a full moon stalking the horizon.

            “Why don’t the birds catch those?” asks Beatrice.  “It would be easier.”

            “I think they’re too big.”

            “No,” pronounces the girl with the enviably straight hair, “they’re not that big.  It’s just the water.  Under the water they seem big.”

            This doesn’t sound right to Lorena, but neither can she prove it wrong.  Since she knows her friend will simply sink her teeth in and refuse to let go, she doesn’t contradict.  A subtle challenge instead.  “How big are they really?” she asks innocently.

            Beatrice reaches out, pincers her fingers together and holds them perhaps a half-inch apart.  In this span she contained one of the balloon-like creatures.  “That big.”

            “That’s silly.  Obviously it’s bigger.”

            “It’s only as big as it looks.”

            “Well, what if they got closer?”

            “If they got closer they’d be bigger.”

            Lorena scowls, nowhere near satisfied.  But it’s the sort of assertion that taunts you to engage.  She lets it go, climbs over a hump of granite and down to a sheltered spot on the water’s edge.  There’s a shallow shelf here, extending ten feet out before its lip plummets into brine, and tidepools are socketed into its face.  Lorena squats and peers between her denimed knees at the water’s surface, at the greens and whites and purples and splashes of orange beneath.  Tiny fish flit between hidey-holes so quickly they seem to vanish and appear again.

            Beatrice hops down beside her.  She drops her face to the pool, runs her eyes over the realms contained therein.  Suddenly she plunges her hand into the pool, which seems just inches deep until it swallows her right arm past the elbow.

            “Bea!  Roll up your sleeve!”

            The taller girl contemplates her appendage with bemusement, like she’d never thought of the sweater now soaking past her shoulder.  Sky blue fabric darkened to navy.  “It’s cold,” she grins, and Lorena doesn’t know how to answer.

            “It looked so shallow,” she says lamely, adding nothing intelligent to the spectacle.

            “It was shallow, until I reached in.  And now it’s not.”  Beatrice is digging at the pool’s bottom.  Lorena can’t see what she’s doing through the stirred-up water and sediment.  Finally Beatrice rears back, extracting her dripping arm from the water, carrying a curious lump in her very white hand.

            Lorena sees the lump: a fleshy red-black thing, vaguely tube-shaped and thick across the middle.  She is reminded of a squash, or a cucumber.  It flops around as Beatrice turns her hand, flaccid but moving slowly with its own mucusy purpose.  It is clearly alive; Lorena spots a small mouth-like aperture on each end.  She sees no eyes.  Perhaps it’s a kind of fat, disgusting worm?

            “Take it,” Beatrice holds it out.  “I can’t feel my hand!  Or I can, just a little, and it tingles!”

            Lorena doesn’t want to hold the creature, but neither does she want to endure Bea’s mockery if she doesn’t.  So she quickly tugs the sleeves up her forearms and takes it with both hands.  “Oh!  Oh!  I don’t like it!  It’s so gross!”  Slippery, cold and clammy, writhing blind between her palms.  “What is it?”

            “Feel it.  That’s what it is,” Beatrice tells her in a condescending tone.  “That’s all it is.”

            Lorena tries to quiet her revulsion, turns the thing over in her hands to admire the soft nodules down what she imagines is its back.  As if on cue, the tiny orifice on the nearest end sucks open to discharge a long thin jet of clear fluid.  It catches her right in the face.  “God!” Lorena shouts, recoiling, dropping the creature back into the pool with a splash.  Running down the side of her nose and over her lips, she wipes her mouth with her sleeve and spits profusely.  Just seawater, but gross.

            Beatrice is doubled over, shuddering with laughter and starting to shiver from the cold of her soaked sweater.  “Well, I guess I’m wrong, Lor!  There was something more to it!”

*          *          *          

            Lorena Mizrahi woke to her alarm’s grating cheep.  She’d set a time that would allow three full sleep cycles, but she’d slept fitfully and the strategy had failed on account of it.  Swiveling herself out of bed, she padded toward her bathroom behind the momentum of a great mass in the front of her skull.  The same mass weighed her eyelids down even as she swept cold water into her face trying to jolt them wide.  She gripped the sink, set her feet and rocked back to stretch legs and back.  A few drips of water fell from her cheeks and chin to the floor.  She thought of sea spray pattering bomb-bursts into the Oregon dust.

            “It was a sea cucumber,” said Beatrice.

            “I hope whomever came up with that name is proud of himself.”

            “You know my favorite thing about them?  Besides the water-spraying; that was magnificent and I’ll never forget it.  It’s the protein in their body walls.”

            “Collagen.  We’ve got the same.”  Lorena has dug the sharp clots of mucus from the corners of her eyes.

            “Right, but they can tighten up the molecules to get firm and relax them to get soft.  They can turn themselves practically to paste.  Can squeeze through the tiniest holes and firm up again, pretty quickly.  The things are practically defenseless, and how do they get by?  Flexibility.  Malleability.  Confronting the problem at hand on its own terms; no assumptions made about themselves.”

            Lorena snorted.  “Oh, that’s where we’re going?  Thank God, I wasn’t sure.  Now that I know this is some abstract commentary on my life, everything you’ve said makes perfect sense.”

            “I struggle, out of love, to address your massive personal shortcomings,” Beatrice grinned.

            “Given the events of the last twenty-four hours, I’d say my approach works pretty well.”

            “Would you say emphatically well?”

            “No.  What?  That doesn’t even work in that sentence.”

            “Never mind, you missed it,” Beatrice sighed.  “My point is, you might want to spend a little less energy bickering with that scav skipper and a little more taking notes on how she operates.”

            “Really?  Who would you rather be right now?  She’s under arrest.”

            “She’ll worm out of it.  She’ll figure out a way.  She’s whatever she needs to be at any moment.  You see how fast she dropped everything, personal and professional, when the tables turned?  Real survivor, that one.”

            Lorena took a clean towel from the rack.  Its softness reminded her of warm bedsheets.  She wanted a second nap.  “If all I did was tread water, I’d never get upstream.  Now get out, I’m going to shower.”

            “Okay, yeah,” Beatrice rolled her eyes.  “I can’t see you naked.  Certainly never seen that before!  Hide from my all you like, Lor.  It won’t work and it never did.”  She left the door hanging open behind her.

*          *          *          

            Lorena approached the Bridge and was surprised to hear chatter rolling down the hall, echoing down the stairway.  She found the small room thoroughly occupied: Karl and Vivek at their stations, Ashley bent over bracing herself against the rear bulkhead.  Up and down she bounced, hair bobbing along with each calf lift.

            “There’s not much magic,” she was saying, “and what you see is really big stuff, really awesome.  Not, like, magic wand, poof!

            “Still don’t like magic,” Vivek shrugged.

            “A famous author once said, and here I am paraphrasing,” Karl interjected like a scalpel, “that any item of sufficiently advanced technology cannot be told apart from magic.  It is merely a term to describe anything not understood.”

            Ashley finished sixty on her left and switched to the right, lactic acid’s warmth soaking past her knee.  “See, what he said.  Can you imagine what early humans would think of Konoko?  They’d worship us as gods.  That’s after they finished shitting themselves.”

            Lorena took that moment to announce herself: “Thanks for that image, Duggins.”

            Ashley snapped her head around.  “Morning, ma’am!  We’re just discussing about Vivek’s awful taste in vids.  How did you sleep?”

            “All right.  Where’s Captain Leaf?”

            “In the cabin I made up, snoozing herself,” Ashley shrugged.

            Vivek struck a few keys at his console.  “We’ve got the course you wanted.  The start of it, at least, before we get back to scanning.”

            Lorena frowned.  “Was the nav data not specific enough?  Too old?”

            “It’s highly specific,” Karl Genz assured her.  “But I would prefer to see the trail myself, from a distance, before we dive into close proximity.”

            Lorena approached Vivek’s station to peer at the screen.  “That’s a pretty short dive.  Two hours?”

            “Thereabouts.”

            “Okay.  Genz, anything new from either the wreck or the scavs?”

            Toussaint continues its recovery operation.  Two drop pods released from the wreck and returned; I surmise they are loading cargo in preparation for a dive.”

            “We’ll let them.  Whatever they take, they’ll have to sell real high to make up for an impounded core.  No more detonations from the wreck?”

            “Mister Mohinder moved us to greater distance, but no.  Nothing.”  Nahsing.

            “That’s our first lucky break today.  Figures it’d benefit someone else.  Vivek, are you available for this dive?”

            “Yeah, I’ll suit up now.  Haven’t talked to Obo, though,” Vivek stood from his console.

            “It’s fine.  I’ll do it.”  Lorena picked up the intercom handset, hovered her finger over the controls and looked to Karl Genz.  “Where’s he at?”

            Karl quickly consulted Konoko’s internal monitors, saw the System Tech’s heat bloom where he didn’t expect it.  “Mister Obo is presently in the ventral docking bay.”

            “Still?” Ashley wondered out loud.  “Didn’t you talk with him?”

            “I did,” Lorena frowned before hanging up the handset.  “Ash, why don’t you run down there?  Tell him we’re getting ready to dive, see what’s going on.  Can you do that for me?”

            Ashley felt out of place, unsure of what exactly Lorena had in mind.  She hesitated but then gave a quick nod.  “Yeah.  Sure.”

*          *          *          

            She found him sitting on a box—a different box than before, a crate of all-purpose batteries he’d hauled adjacent to his jury-rigged vacuum cage.  It was lower to the ground and so as he sat he seemed almost to squat, knees higher than hips, left arm tucked to his stomach while the right was draped over a knee.  His hand dangled in the air, a calloused thumb endlessly working against his first two fingertips.

            “Hey, Zach,” she said, padding innocently towards him at a clearly visible angle so as not to startle.

            “Hey, Ash,” he softly replied.

            “How’re you doing?”

            “Been better.  Been a whole lot worse.”  Age-yellowed eyes tracked the photino bird Coleridge making its slow circuit around the cage.

            Ashley decided this was, on balance, a positive response and she didn’t want to ruin it by delving into whatever he meant by a whole lot worse.  Instead she looked where he looked, at the creature in its contraption, and conjured something else to ask.  “Hey, I meant to ask, how’s the suspended gravity work in there?  Don’t think I’ve ever seen a toroidal AG field.”

            He blinked twice, seemed to reach a plane just a bit less foggy.  “It’s a disc,” he said after quickly woofing phlegm from his throat.  “Field extends through the middle.”

            “Oh, that’s neat.  Cole seems to like it.  Not that I know anything about photino birds.”

            “I like looking at him.  The way he moves, without a care in the world.  I wonder what he sees.”

            “Without eyes, I doubt it’s much.”

            “Got to be something.  He’s flying through dark matter, y’know.  A whole other world we don’t know, and it don’t know us.  Except the photino birds…half of ‘em in each.  Far as Cole’s concerned, we’re the ones who can’t see.”

            Ashley just stood nodding, arms crossed.  Obo continued, “And you’d think it’d swamp him under, seeing the whole universe at once.  But it doesn’t.  He’s so peaceful.  Maybe it makes more sense, you know?  When you can see all of it.”

            “Zach, Lorena’s worried about you,” blurted Ashley.  “I think we all are.  We’re not used to seeing you like this.  And I don’t want to pry, but if you have something to say I’ll listen.”

            He turned his head to her, smiled gently.  These weren’t her burdens to bear.  His own girls didn’t know anything beyond the barest historical details—gleaned from articles Marietta made them read because the schools didn’t concern themselves with such minor brush fires and Zachariah certainly wasn’t going to bring up the war.  The girls had asked him many times, pleaded with him, but he always told them he didn’t remember.  Marietta was too kind to call him out on the lie.  “It’s just a place I go sometimes.  I wish I didn’t.  But I’ll be fine.”

            She nodded, looked down at the deck, swallowed.  “So, uhh, when you’re done down here you might want to call Lorena from the Engine Room.  I think she wanted a dive update.”

            “Oh!” his eyes widened.  “Dammit, why didn’t she say something?  I thought we were waiting on—“

            “It’s not a big deal.  I’m sure it’s not.  Just came down to see how you were doing, let you know about this.  That’s all.”

            “My darling,” Obo forced a chuckle and patted her knee.  “You’re so kind.  I’ll get a move on.”

*          *          *          

            ECV Konoko accelerated between the scavenger and the listing wreck.  She made her way from that unstable system around a great wheel-shaped weapons platform that in its hanging shattered state resembled a staring eye.  Still at sub-light speed, she waited for a wide open space before diving.  Konoko lit out across the Baraheni Graveyard, proceeding on her mission as though what happened hadn’t just happened, as though she weren’t burdened at every moment by a weight greater than the two new human lives.

            Vivek took her tacking up channels of open space like long-extinct Arctic cetaceans nosing through ice veins.  Carefully modulating the clipper’s speed, he kept the fine maneuvers safe and made open light-years practically vanish.  He was happy to fly again; so many hours pent up minding the radio had him itching to run.  In space there was only the cold, the so-called “maze of masses” surrounding him in an endlessly delighting physics puzzle.  Love isn’t how they show it in the movies, an uncle once told him.  It doesn’t knock you on your ass.  If there’s something that fascinates you, that rewards you the deeper you dive into it and never has a bottom, that’s love.  It’s something that gives the more you give yourself.  For Vivek, that was space: its nothingness simulated against his skin, the neural tickle of approaching mass.  The implants only made it better, like a lover’s fignernails on his scalp—a blessed corollary benefit to the sacrifice he’d made.  And he’d given a lot over the years, worked himself ragged growing just good enough to have her.  To finally win what he wanted, to be Senior Pilot on his own ship when he never thought he’d be good enough for Junior…it made everything sweeter.

            Konoko dropped her Chen-Hau field at the prescribed point, slamming (to any observer’s astonished eyes) abruptly into reality.  The little chrome horseshoe crab decelerated to a slow cruise to take in her surroundings: a soft pocket of mossy turf between the Graveyard’s crowded slumping headstones, picketed on all sides by the ribs of great beasts.  She slid through a field of smallish debris, buffeted by flecks not much bigger than garden gravel.  The draft off Konoko’s engines blew it out into streams and whorls and suspended columns like dust in an ancient attic.

            “It is not the ceramic blend we typically associate with the region,” Karl spoke deliberately into the intercom from his comfortable post in the Computer Suite.  “Highly consistent, at first glance, with Ouro manufacture.”

            “Magnificent!” Lorena exclaimed from the Bridge.  “What about the rad trail?”

            “Phosphorus scanning is not as conclusive as I had hoped.  The signature is quite old, and in the ambient dynamics it has diffused.”

            It wasn’t the clearest statement, but Lorena understood enough to ask the pertinent question: “is it consistent with Captain Leaf’s data?  Can you see enough to warrant departing from the plan?”

            “No, Doctor.  If indeed the Ouro craft suffered relativistic breakup, this is the scale of debris I would expect at this distance.”

            “Thank you, Karl.  That’ll be all.”

            “You really know how to find them in the Corps, huh?” Maxi asked with a smirk from her position in the rearmost seat.  “I had no idea actual human beings talked like that.”

            “In his defense, ma’am,” Ashley piped up, “he’s German.”

            “I know that’s a place on Earth.  I don’t really get what you just said.”

            “It’s a joke, mostly.  I think German people have a reputation for being odd.”

            “Whatever their reputation, I refuse to believe there’s a whole population anywhere who act like your Tech.  It’s impossible.  You’d never get them to breed.”

NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART TWENTY-NINE: HOT ON THE TRAIL, KONOKO AND HER CREW MAKE THEIR WAY TO THE SITE OF A TRAGEDY. SEARCHING A GRAVEYARD WITHIN A GRAVEYARD, THEY PUT LARGER MACHINES IN MOTION.

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