|Credit: Chris Cold|
When the first traders reached the Ouro homeworlds they were shocked to see the volume of drifting particulate debris. It made a certain amount of sense: the boneless aliens had been spacefaring far longer than humanity, and the artificial habitats with which they’d cluttered their systems certainly upped the chances of collision. Relativistic breakup was a risk all spacers took, a slight psychic tax on everything they did and a carefully managed source of costs for their employers. Advances in gravity sensors and Piloting technology succeeded in bringing the error rate to an acceptably low level, though the numbers were always tricky. A ship breaking up above light speed couldn’t exactly file a report. And that thought was so horrifying even for the workaday civilians who’d never been on a starship in their lives—being torn apart slowly and quickly all at once by forces beyond biological comprehension—that public opinion forced the threshold of acceptability even lower than economics alone might have dictated.
But the Ouro, despite their obvious technological edge, appeared to suffer a failure rate several times higher. When asked they furnished their own numbers, confirming what the traders and Contact analysts had long suspected to be true. The rate was indeed higher. More interesting still: they didn’t seem to care. Certainly the loss of any ship, its crew and passengers, was a tragedy. But it was a problem they’d never totally resolve, and the numbers were acceptably low. Cheaper Chen-Hau cores, less emphasis on bodily integrity or a shortcoming of imagination—whatever the reason, humankind was pleased to feel superior to their intragalactic competitors. They humans congratulated themselves on the happy accident of their neurology. Ouro gravity sensors picked up everything theirs could and more, but there was something truly special in that human interplay: from sensory nerve impulses to a brain response, rushing back down the spinal cord to the tenderest tips of motor neurons. The human mind could see what a computer couldn’t and react with a physical precision beyond any Ouro tentacle.
For the Ouro’s part, this business with high-speed breakups struck them as a peculiar fixation. Those preening apes, they might have thought, exhausting every measure to protect their fleshy husks! They’d feel superior as well, and they too would be pleased. The obsession was, they had decided after long discussion in the roiling chattering pandemonium of the Ouro social networks, endemic to the human condition. With their beings so centralized—bottled up into a single clot of tissue atop the brittle spinal column, most of its neurons given over maintaining basic bodily functions—how could they be blamed for the temptations of the flesh? Which to the Ouro meant not sex or sensory pleasure, but flesh’s dogged selfish grip on its own existence. Living tissue replicated itself and it would naturally protect itself at all cost. That was natural. Resisting that impulse was the civilized mind’s highest calling. And bless those hairless apes for trying! For struggling vainly against themselves.
* * *
ECV Konoko emerged from her Chen-Hau field into an amber snowfield. The gritty chunks of culture-grown starship hull still drifted, but here they were outnumbered by ice crystals in countless millions. They glowed darkly orange in the white suns of Konoko’s short-range floodlights, they burst like dry snowballs on her hull.
“That’s the gack,” Ashley said to the image on the big screen.
Karl nodded at his station. “Confirmed with rapid spectral scanning. Ouro suspension fluid.”
“This is about where we turned back,” Maxi testified, standing in the center of the room with arms crossed. She hadn’t wanted to be here, had preferred the rudimentary cabin they’d set up with its rich library of popular entertainment, but Lorena had insisted. “Didn’t figure we’d find anything worthwhile and all the ice strikes had my techs nervous.”
“Jalopy like that, I’d be nervous too,” Ashley smirked.
Maxi deliberately kept her gaze fixed ahead, irked at the young Pilot’s irreverent comfort. Count your blessings, she reminded herself. At least she’s not a frosty bitch like Mizrahi.
“As you might expect,” Karl continued, “the ice is occluding our mass sensors. But when we overlay the scans from further out…” Several objects appeared on the screen, forest green and translucent to indicate their positions in the background. The many smaller masses slowly built the nascent beginnings of a macabre accretion disc around the largest.
“Way bigger than the first one. Cracked in half like an egg,” said Ashley with a tinge of awe.
Maxi nodded. “You’ve got those two big pieces and a lot of smaller ones. And I’d never seen an Ouro ship before, but it’s nice to know they’re not all this big.”
“Still pretty huge. Though it’s funny—compared to most everything else in the Graveyard, we’re all gnats,” Ash noted.
Lorena keyed the intercom. “Nav Suite, call in when ready.” She’d left Obo to get Vivek Mohinder in and out of his pod—a deviation from procedure she hated but had to accept here. She needed Maxi on the Bridge in her capacity as guide, and Lorena wasn’t about to leave the scav Captain alone with Karl and Ashley.
“Nav suite,” Obo’s voice came from the speakers. “Pilot’s out and doing fine. He’s on his way up already.”
“Got it, thanks,” Lorena looked to Karl next. “What’s our next step here? There have to be bodies somewhere; they’d come out with the fluid.”
“You’re looking for their bodies?” Maxi’s brow furrowed.
Shit, Lorena thought, wanting to pinch herself for the curse on top of the mistake. She’d never been good at hiding things. Well, what could her counterpart do about it anyway? It would take her damndest just to stay out of jail. “Medical research,” she told Maxi authoritatively.
“They tell us what to get and we get it,” said Ashley with a shrug. Maxi didn’t inquire further.
Karl spoke in a halting cadence, carefully plucking the correct English words from his mind. “What I would do, is…sift the particulate…for the largest grains I could find. To see how big is…what survives. If the Newton forces got too high…it is unlikely we find intact creatures. In that case…we would approach the larger wreckage. I think.”
“Do you need a whole squid?” Maxi asked.
“I’m sure Contact would take a part,” Ashley ventured, “if a part was all we had.”
Karl shook his head. “A small piece of tissue is, in this environment, nearly indistinguishable from a piece of ice.”
“Oh, I guess that makes sense. Water, salt and protein, after all.”
“Indeed. Doctor Mizrahi, with your leave, I will retire to the Computer Suite. With so many parameters to consider…” he trailed off, licked his lips. “I believe I would be more effective there. With your leave.”
She assented; he left with a nod and not another word, his scarecrow frame rudely brushing Maxi on her way out. She glared watching him go and reached to massage her own elbow. “Damn, his elbows are sharp. Someone’s gonna get killed.”
“Thank you, Captain Leaf,” said Lorena in a businesslike manner. “For your assistance and advice. Now my crew has work to do. Kindly clear the Bridge.”
“You’re right, what am I doing here? Not like anyone fuckin’ asked me.” She turned to go and abruptly found herself nose-to-nose with Vivek. He hopped back quickly, lean and agile in his body-hugging flight suit.
“Lotta traffic coming through here,” he wore a disarming smile. With a bitter snort, Maxi stepped around him stormed down the hall. Vivek stepped in, slightly bewildered.
“That’s pretty harsh, ma’am.” Ashley looked slightly stricken, but Lorena wouldn’t have it and Vivek wasn’t about to step into whatever he’d missed.
Lorena addressed her Executive Officer. “Vivek, let’s do a little burn and get moving toward those big hulks. I’ve got a feeling we’ll head that way in the end.”
He nodded. “Roger that. Grav repulsors are active; should save us a coat of paint. Ash, what’s the field manual say our max V is here?”
She rolled her eyes back, hummed between pursed lips and tried to remember. A picture appeared in her mind of a textbook page, a formula in large print framed by a dozen concentric orbits of black ballpoint. A small m, in italics. “It swings on the mass!” Ashley gleefully announced, scooting over to Karl’s vacated chair. “Mean particulate mass. Forty-three grams local? That’s nothing. So plug in point oh-four-three…point nine! Oh, shit. Point oh-nine. Nine percent C,” she looked to Vivek, eager for reinforcement.
“Right! Though we’re not even getting near that speed. But since there could easily be bigger ice chunks, particularly as we get closer, we’ll cut it back by the standard safety margin.”
“Half, rounded down,” Ashley said before he could ask, feeling herself.
“Four percent,” he confirmed. “Punch it in.”
“Yessir,” she laid in the course and speed. Climbing indicators on the screen were the only evidence of acceleration as Konoko’s thrusters flared.
“And with that,” Vivek announced, “I’m going to lie down.”
“Yes. Please do,” Lorena nodded. “And have Obo do the same. You’re both badly due a sleep cycle.”
“Okay, but you know him.”
“I do. Sleep well.”
* * *
The little chrome angel flew on vapor wings toward distant grey mountains. Beyond them the sky was a black canvas brushed with red-orange nebular oils and speckled with diamonds that for all the mountains of hydrogen they burned still shone so cold. Lorena Mizrahi watched them on the Bridge’s big screen and imagined their stories, conjured warm seas and black beaches inhaling heat and breathing it back up to her feet. She much preferred that place to the haunted ruins all around, vast and bleak and dolorous. Stocking feet perched on a console’s rim, giving her space to slouch down and recline in the high-backed seat. With the lighting turned down to convince her animal brain it was evening, the monitors’ green pulses alternately illuminated her face and plunged it into dark.
“Doctor Mizrahi?” Karl’s Genz’s voice came through the intercom like a ray of light.
She’d kept the handset in her lap. “Hi, Karl. Any news?”
“I have finished with preliminary mass sorting. Of the high-water particles, none in the local area reach even the meter scale.”
“But they get bigger eventually.”
“Much nearer to the primary wreckage, yes.”
“Okay, we’ll continue our approach and you keep looking.”
“Acknowledged, Doctor. Computer Suite out.”
She let the handset fall back to her lap. Back to waiting. “Sometimes the quiet’s best,” said Beatrice from the seat adjacent, her voice low and husky.
“That’s rich coming from you.” Lorena instantly regretted saying it.
Beatrice just shook her head, watched the orange hail come in relentless. “What do you think it’s like?” she asked after some time had passed. “Breaking up like that.”
“I don’t think anyone will ever know. Like dropping into a singularity, there’s just no coming back. You’re on this side and then you’re on the other.”
“No. Nothing’s that simple. Nothing like this, anyway.”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Maybe you’re pulled apart. You’d be many places at once, very suddenly, all your components separated over a half-million miles. Or flash-frozen and blown to pieces. Crushed by inertia.”
“It’s not pleasant, I’m sure. But I doubt it’s painful in any meaningful way. By the time a signal reached your brain it’d be long over.”
“I wasn’t talking about pain,” said Bea, a little defensively. “I just wonder how it was, in that moment. Like when the warhead went off. We saw something there, something we weren’t meant to see.”
“’Meant to see?’ By whom? It was frightening tech, to be sure. And they were scavving it! Pirates throwing those things at each other, can you imagine?”
Beatrice’s face registered irritation. “Dammit, Lor, can you stop drifting off topic? I’m trying to think through this.”
“I saw a bend, like the floor was falling away, but I couldn’t fall. Like I stood on my own little world out in space.”
“And there was a tunnel,” Bea prompted.
“It was kind of a tunnel, the way everything curved away from me.”
“And at the bottom…”
“I never saw the bottom. It seemed like I might, but at the last moment, that’s when it ended. And it seemed…I don’t know how to describe it, but that seemed perfectly natural. Like there wasn’t anything left to see, like I’d pulled a bit of string that snarled into a tight knot and suddenly popped clean.”
“You don’t find that suspicious? The instant resolution, gratifying all your senses just as they’d started asking big questions. Soothing like a lollipop. Like I said, we weren’t supposed to see that bit of stagecraft.”
“What are you talking about?” Lorena asked, exasperated. “Are you saying that was the hand of God? That we glimpsed some vast cosmic conspiracy to do…what, exactly? Toy with overworked spacers?”
“No, I’m saying we saw something so far past us we can’t even begin to interpret it. We don’t have the words to even begin the discussion. At the point where we’re considering the invisible hands of magic beings, the discussion’s really gone downhill,” Beatrice smiled pityingly.
“It was a mortal weapon, made by mortal hands. Someone understood them, once. Someone buried in a Federal lab might understand them still.”
“Harnessing something isn’t the same as really controlling it. They call this place a graveyard, after all. Whoever built that warhead, things didn’t work too tell for him. Just keep in mind, the universe doesn’t really want us here. It set us down on little blue puddles and expected us to stay there. To be content with basic survival, to play by the rules like so many other organisms.”
“We’re always bad with rules.”
“Until it’s convenient to lay them down yourself. Then you expect the cosmos to sort itself according to your ideas. Binary ideas, naturally, given the tyranny of twos evolution foisted on you. Two eyes, two ears, two hands and two feet. An accident of biology becomes the basis of a worldview and you don’t think twice about it!”
Lorena chuckled. “I get it. Did you mean to make that pun? ‘Think twice’ after ranting about twos.”
“As a matter of fact, I did. Nothing’s black and white, Lor. Not magic and tech, not love and hate, not even life and death.”
Lorena Mizrahi listened to her friend and did not truly follow but nodded all the same. The metal mountains swelled before them so immediate she could see the seams in their slopes, the cracks, the veins of ore upthrust: vestiges of terrible violence long past. Konoko crossed the snowy plain, her steps powder-muffled. Sometimes the quiet was best.
* * *
Konoko wound her way computer-guided around masses of increasing size, chunks of hull thoroughly rimed with suspension fluid. She swept in close to the edge of the great split eggshell, into the half-shade of the half-light from distant stars. Her sensors swept up and down, pummeling the grotto walls with EMs from every last tint of the spectrum. Karl Genz leaned forward in his chair, his face just inches from the monitor, back ramrod-straight and elbows on the console’s lip.
The biggest ice masses intrigued him. Surely countless Ouro had been ground to bits in the initial chaos, but large volumes of frozen fluid might contain whole specimens. Finding objects, particularly those biological in nature, in blocks of water-based ice was notoriously difficult through passive scanning. An active approach was needed—typically, lasers shone through to test for occlusion. The darkening, thickening agents in the Ouro fluid further complicated matters, but it was certainly his best lead at the moment.
The next complication: scale. Konoko had only two active laser scanners for the mountain’s worth of ice surrounding her. Karl thought momentarily of an Alpine vacation some winter long past, the faint dusting of snow clinging in a desperate chapeau to the Matterhorn’s scalp, the lower green slopes dotted with the crumbling struts of derelict ski lifts. He considered the Ouro wreck and decided he had never seen so much solid ice in all his life. Unless one counted Europa’s white marble out a shuttle viewport, and who would?
But he started the lasers all the same, pulsing red and blue, methodically stitching their way over the glacier’s exposed surfaces. Through the ice and reflecting back to optical sensors, they let the computer assemble a three-dimensional picture of the prism’s contents. Occlusions appeared: bits of hull, machinery knocked loose from its moorings and frozen mid-careen. The lasers worked on, but the computer warned Karl it couldn’t see much beyond thirty meters’ depth.
Karl frowned at the screen, traced its endlessly winding streams of numbers like they might conceal a secret and elemental geometry. “It will likely take some hours,” he said to Beatrice.
“We’ve got nowhere else to be. Lorena won’t mind waiting.”
“I am expecting her to mention my departure from the scene, while medical treatment was given to the digger. She has not.”
“What makes you think she will?”
“Ashley said something to me afterwards, in passing. She did not seem to appreciate my answer.”
“I did not believe in that moment that I was needed. Apparently I was mistaken. It is something she seemed to think should be obvious,” he sighed, shook his head and continued pondering his screen.
“What’s that? Explain that,” Beatrice pointed a delicately nailed finger to the display.
“Oh, it’s nothing much. A pulse in background radiation,” Karl waved a hand.
“Are you sure? Maybe you should look closer.”
He shot her a cross look but nonetheless exploded that readout. “Temporary increases in radiation like one would expect in this environment look on the EM scanner like…” he trailed off, eyes widening. “Like a power source.” Spiderlike hands pounced on the keyboard.
“Tell me again it’s nothing,” she snickered.
“I suppose it is possible a tertiary generator survived breakup. But…no, it’s not enough power to match an Ouro cell.”
“What if it’s a backup battery? Like you’d use to preserve a computer.”
He considered this. “If this were the case, it would still do us no good. To recover one small piece of their network is useless.”
“We could try talking to it.”
Karl inhaled all the information his sensors spat out. He instructed Konoko’s sensors to seek out light cesium isotopes, of the type used for the aliens’ many disparate solid-state drive cells. Sure enough, bright braided loops of blue appeared on the visual overlay. “I…would not know how to begin.”
“I recall that ice queen Emissary saying your computer’s set for easy Ouro interface.”
“For their docking systems, she meant,” Karl corrected. “We can only connect to the docking computer.”
“Karl, I’m surprised at you! Such a basic error,” she clucked.
He opened and shut his mouth like a fish choking on air. He wanted to retort but instead forced himself back through his recent statements. Where might he have confused her? He’d tell her exactly where and why he was right. Only then did he realize he couldn’t. Because he wasn’t right and she wasn’t wrong. “Of course,” he groaned. A boneheaded mistake of poor perspective, of provincial human ignorance. “It is all the same system. Each point in the network equivalent to all others in capability.”
“And there we are,” she grinned triumphantly. “Jump on in there!”
He eagerly complied. Already in the Computer Suite, rigging Konoko’s systems to interact with the Ouro took only minutes. Beatrice’s helpful advice made the transition quicker still. Routing the back-channel input through both a 3D visualizer and text interpreter program was a particularly good suggestion. At last he was ready, tremendously excited at this most fortuitous breakthrough, so excited he couldn’t be bothered to alert anyone else. Taking advantage of the Explorer Corps clipper’s point-blank-range position, he sent an un-encoded burst over simple infrared. Quicker than he expected came the reply, in several components. First and most obviously was the visual: purples and blues and yellows with blushes of red in the seams where they turned in melted-wax veins. They washed over Karl Genz and he felt happy, refreshed, like he could jump right out of his seat and run ten klicks at a spring. Then came the other component: words in a cryptic script that merely suggested their shapes let somehow released them to play in his ears, oddly and eerily disembodied like a cemetery whisper answered.
We are ended.
Who will carry?
NEXT TUESDAY: CONSEQUENCES FOLLOW FROM ACTIONS. KARL HAS OPENED A CHANNEL TO THE OURO A.I., BUT CAN THE CREW MEET ITS DEMANDS? FIND OUT NEXT WEEK AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!