Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Thirty-Six

Credit: jamajurabaev

           They laid down Konoko on February 29th, in the KaluKunWhalen shipyards orbiting low over Triton.  Neptune’s occluded blue eye watched her birth.  It was blind, she hoped, to her nudity, to the awkward clothing of core in frame and frame in flesh and flesh in mirrored skin.  Her reactor breathed its first life on a summer night with the blue orb above; below, on the moon’s surface, Lassell City’s great golden spiderweb of lights.  Smaller moons whipped by, their apparent motions accelerated by Triton’s obstinately retrograde orbit.

            She was built to last—a Limulid-class clipper, Series Four if anyone cared to inquire closely, which few did.  Navy ship buffs were a dime a dozen, but somehow the Explorer Corps had yet to spawn a similarly passionate community of hobbyists.  Her Chen-Hau core was fresh constructed, a new model good for at least a hundred thousand dives.  Her reactor, originally designed for Navy gunboats half her size, had been included in the blueprints to streamline a small portion of the Federal procurement chain.  One reactor for two ships—perfect!  A team of specialists shuttled up from Lassell to install and calibrate her extensive battery of sensors.  No expense was spared in that regard.  The Corps sprung for those staples; the rest of Konoko’s systems were essentially the most reliable, most efficient Navy gear from the preceding thirty years.  Quality midrange hardware with warehouses of spare parts already socked away, built less to take a hit than to operate in near perpetuity without needing any more repair than a small drone could promise.

As workers in pressure suits applied the last hull welds, a mechanical arm extended from the dock to stamp ECV Konoko alongside the Explorer Logo on her flank.  She’d have no grand ceremony like Nimbus, no symbolic waste of cheap champagne.  Just a two-man crew, a Chief Technician and his assistant who had the computer fly her at sublight to Mars Dock.  She left Triton orbit against Neptune’s enormous, impossibly close backdrop.  She stood out against the blue methane like a fish slipping alone through the sea.

At Mars, another crew of specialists who dived out to the Kuiper belt for proving.  She passed with flying colors, as she knew she would.  She had none of the provers’ doubts, could not know KaluKunWhalen’s poor reputation, did not existed for the intra-agency controversy the contract had spurred.  Federal contracts chased cheap labor, and Neptune was cheap as the Terran Core got.  But for all their preconceived notions, the provers passed Konoko with a 91% rating.  Which, as Federal statisticians would eagerly tell you, is in the 96th percentile of Explorer Corps CPE1 (First Commissioned Proving Evaluation) scores.

She found herself transferred at last to Captain Dario Abruzzini, a former Navy C.O. who’d lost his destroyer in a drug scandal.  Without delving too far into sordid detail, Abruzzini had been using a great many controlled recreational substances, and had employed his vessel’s hold in an attempt to smuggle still more.  He acknowledged his primary aim in this enterprise was to earn money to buy more drugs.  This ended his Navy career, but the Corps took what qualified personnel they could get and leadership was ever at a premium.  Following detox treatments and several years of professional rehabilitation aboard a variety of Corps vessels, he’d earned his second ship.

He treasured her.  Most of all, he treasured the opportunity and worked daily to validate it.  For four years under his command, Konoko volunteered for more humanitarian supply runs than any other E.C. clipper.  This won the now-grizzled Captain some minor awards and much-lauded articles in more than one trade publication.  It left Konoko low on young officers’ priority lists, particularly since medical freight runs offered few career opportunities.  Risks and rewards; Dario had run those straights and now he stuck to calm waters.  Techs never got their names in research papers.  EVA deployments—necessary qualifiers for senior deep-space positions—were vanishingly rare.  Academy brats branded Konoko a “Dutchman,” the facetious term for craft captained by old husks at the ends of their careers.  Drifting along without a care, without accomplishment, without the chance for anyone to earn his way off.  It was not a good thing to be, though of course Konoko herself remained mechanically oblivious.  She was only vaguely aware when Dario died aboard, heart stopping in his sleep, birthing with his end a hundred bleak jokes from his colleagues.

Not Lorena, though.  Lorena knew the vessel’s reputation when she took command.  Two tours under new leadership hadn’t changed a thing.  She knew she would.  She intended it, anyway.  Reputations, she knew, were built like diamonds: through relentless application of pressure.  Lorena decided, with Annika’s encouragement, to take ownership of both vessel and reputation.  She’d be the one to make good on the fine little ship’s potential.  She’d be the kind of C.O. people were eager to work for.

Someday, she’d change everything.

*          *          *          

ECV Konoko emerged from her dive to the sight of an orb, great green and gaseous.  Only a few light years across, it was a solitary product of a solitary tragedy.  A star, having reached the end of its long road, having fused its greater bulk to iron, finally shuffled loose its mortal coil.  Far from metaphor, that coil contained some seventy percent of the parent’s mass.  What planetary bodies might have existed were swallowed whole.  Outward it rushed through space, that slightly ovoid bubble of superheated matter, until gravity’s slow pressure arrested its expansion.  The star’s withered white dwarf heart sat in the center: an impotent king watching his empty kingdom.

“Almost a perfect circle,” marveled Karl Genz.  With a few keystrokes he knew the bubble’s precise eccentricity, its density and chemical composition.

“Looks like a kid was playing with a bauble and then forgot about it.”  Beatrice watched his results, saw what he saw.  “Just left it sitting there for Mom to pick up.”

Karl shrugged.  “It is pretty.  Our own Sun should be so lucky, when the time comes.”

“Wrong composition?”

“More a question of total mass than composition.”

“Oh, well.  A girl can dream.  Is there anything left of—“ she cut herself off at Karl’s astonished look.  “What is it?”

“Phosphorous,” he said, clearly distracted.

Fists balled and rested on her hips.  “You just said it was mass.”

“Pee Thirty-Three,” he said hoarsely, forcing air through a throat that tried to constrict.  It was right there, hot and fresh, impossible to miss, practically glowing with fresh radioactive decay.  “Pee Thirty-Three!”

*          *          *          

They were jammed together, all of them, into the Computer Suite.  This made Karl intensely uncomfortable; he felt confined, harried, an irrational part of his brain clamoring they’d never leave.  He did his best to focus on the conversation but found every calm moment swiftly swept away.  Every new bit of onscreen data blew his thoughts into swirling disorder.  

“We won’t get a fresher trail,” Ashley was saying.  She’d come with Lorena directly from the Nav Suite, still wearing her flight suit, hair still pulled up into a leaky bun.  The implanted contact plate gleamed from her neck’s nape.

“First one we saw was a fresher trail,” Obo reminded her.  “No clue what’ll happen.  We made a plan.  You drew the map.  Why divert now?”

“Because we can’t be far!  Eight days, right, Karl?”

He didn’t appreciate being employed in her argument but nonetheless confirmed what he’d already told them.  “Eight days’ radioactive decay on the phosphorous, yes.”

“And the sleeper ships are slow, right?  We could probably catch up in a few days!  A week, for sure.”

“You’re making a lot of assumptions, Missy.”

“Don’t call me ‘Missy!’”

“Don’t call her ‘Missy,’” Vivek stepped in.  “And Ash, keep in mind we had no luck tracing the last dive trail.  One bad guess and we’re back to square one.”

“Well, that seems less likely, right?  Given the signal strength, how fresh it is.  That’ll be much easier to pick up, yeah?  Karl?”

“In theory, yes,” he half-groaned.

“There you have it.”

“Still not a good enough answer,” Obo insisted, less sharply than before but still firm.

Ashley rolled her eyes.  “Fine.  I guess I’m the only one on this ship who thinks hot iron’s there to be struck.  We got lucky, we should take that for what it’s worth.”

“Luck ain’t worth shit, not on this cruise.  You even sure it’s luck?  The second we get close to Ouro space there’s Ouro ships.  Doesn’t seem like luck to me.  Just common sense.”

“Well, what do you think?” Ashley swiveled to her C.O., resorting—as youth often do—to higher arbitration.

Lorena Mizrahi had held her tongue since Karl explained his findings.  Her second likewise kept his own counsel, ever the good soldier, unwilling to risk public disagreement.  “Genz,” she began, “are there any changes we can make to our search pattern?  Meaningful changes.  Offering more than marginal improvements.”

“I can think of nothing,” he admitted.  Nahsing.  “There is too much space to cover.  Chance will remain an inextricable part of the process.”

Lorena nodded her understanding.  “Well, in that case, I don’t see there’s much to be gained by chasing.  The P-33 trail might not even be a sleeper, and if it’s going full steam we’ll never see if again.  There’s just too much unknown.”

“But we also don’t know when we’ll find another!” Ashley objected.

Vivek picked this moment to speak up.  “Point taken.  Still, the most solid intel we’ve got is the A.I.’s map.  We’ll see where it takes us.”

“It’s the one target we’ve got that isn’t moving,” said Lorena with an air of finality.

Ashley looked back and forth between them, mouth slightly agape.  “Is that it?  We’re walking away from this?”  She could hardly believe it, felt there must be some recourse but found none.  So she slumped her shoulders, crossed her arms and set her jaw.  “Fine.  If no one wants to listen to me, I can’t make you.”

“I appreciate your passion,” Lorena said as a sop.  “I really do.  It’s not an easy choice and obviously we’re making it with partial information.  We’ll do the best we can.”

“Fine.”  She stayed surly.

            Lorena caught Vivek’s attention and drew it with quick glances to Ashley and then the door.  He got the message.  “Hey, Ash,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulders, “let’s get you some food, huh?  Long stint in the pod.  And a good run!”

            He steered her reluctantly yielding frame through the Computer Suite’s crowded confines and out the door.  They stepped into the hallway and came to a sudden halt—Maxi Leaf waited there, reclining with sharp shoulderblades against the bulkhead.

            She met their astonished looks with an impish smile.  “Too bad, Ashley.  I agreed with you, for what it’s worth.”

            “What’s too bad about it?” asked Vivek, stepping in front of the oncoming conversation, denying his junior officer the chance to say anything stupid.

            “Too bad you’re bailing on a good lead.  Too bad I’m not in charge, obviously,” she finished with facetious flourish.

            “Keep eavesdropping and Lorena’ll make you captain of your own locked cabin.”

            “Oh, please.  It’s hardly eavesdropping if I’m waiting here to be caught.  There needs to be skulking, and look at me here.  Zero skulk.”

            Ashley giggled.  Vivek didn’t appreciate it; he honestly had no idea how Lorena might react and suspected it might go badly.  “So you just wanted to be involved, I guess?” he asked, leading Ashley farther down the corridor as Maxi tagged along.  He bought some more distance from the door, the risk someone in the Computer Suite might poke her head out.

            “Everyone dashes down here all of a sudden, of course I’m going to see what’s the hubbub,” said Maxi.

            “Did you hear everything?” asked Ashley.

            “More or less.  There’s only that one big piece of info, with the phosphorous, so once I knew that the rest filled itself in.”

            They approached the stairs leading up to the habitation level.  “I’m getting Ash some food before my flight shift.  D’you want to come?” Vivek asked Maxi.

            “Nah.  Think I’m gonna go down to the equipment bay, check out that photino bird your Tech keeps pent up.”

            Vivek stopped.  “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

            Ashley groaned impatiently and kept going up the stairs.  “I can forage for myself,” she declared.

            “Not a good idea,” Vivek repeated once she’d gone.

            “Why not?  What am I gonna do, mount a daring escape out the airlock?”

            “Obo can be…difficult.”

            “Don’t be cryptic with me,” she admonished.

“Territorial, is what I mean.  And the bay’s his space.”

            “I won’t touch his gear.”

            “It’s his bird.”

            She rolled her eyes.  “Oh, please.  Like they’re fast friends?  The thing’s less a bird than a goldfish, stuck behind glass.  You could pet a bird.  Talk to it at least.”

             “Does this mean you’ll spare us the whole tragic metaphor song-and-dance?” Vivek chuckled.  “You know, the prisoner and the caged bird?”

            Maxi cackled in response.  “That’s good!  I hadn’t thought of that, but it would have been perfect.  ‘Only he understands me!’  Now you’ve ruined it.”

            “A tragic loss, I know.  The sacrifices I make for shipboard comity.”

            “Well, I do appreciate that.  So, just to prove how much I appreciate it, I’m willing to not go down to the bay if you don’t think it’s a good idea.”

            Vivek intentionally stumbled, halfway to a pratfall, and fanned himself feigning a head rush.  “I’m sorry, I just blacked out.  Were you just letting me have my way?  For real and for true?”

            “What can I say?  I’m generous to a fault.”

            “That is a thing I’ve heard about you.  Big part of your reputation.”  Though she’d just relented, he nevertheless felt a pang of guilt.  How could she possibly settle into a home—and the ship was indeed their home in every way that mattered—whilst being excluded from most of it?  If the lower decks were explicitly discouraged, made pregnant with the threat of discord, wasn’t she back to being a prisoner?

            “Hey,” he said in a tone that snuffed out their comic lumen, “thinking about it, I think I may have been out of line there.  When I asked you to stay out of the bay.  It’s not right; you’ve been given run of the ship and that’s no more than you deserve.  Especially when you’ve been a model citizen.”

            “Hey, now,” she nudged his arm, kept her smile.  “Don’t go slurring my good name like that.  I’ll have to sabotage the ship just to feel normal.”

*          *          *          

            Konoko dove from there, left the phosphorous behind and forgotten like a slug trail in the woods’ darkest heart.  She coursed between planetary systems, Vivek Mohinder at the helm, finding her way amongst the motes of mass adrift in endless sea.  He felt them go by, leaning ever so slightly to compensate for their pull and hold the clipper’s heading.  Dwarves, white and brown and red, orbited by husks of planets long since toasted to cinders.  This was a very old part of the galaxy.  The bodies it contained had formed together, in a nebula now vanished—depleted, bled dry by serial birth-giving.  The space between them bore no dust accumulated from age, no musty mothball smell.  Only the stars stood to mark the time, consuming their last dregs of fuel at a low, slow burn.  They had eternity to wait.

            But around them all worked processes no eye could see and no human could know.  All the long ages past, all the bloody toll of creation and destruction and time’s endless march, had wrought subtle changes in space itself.  For it was not empty, had never been empty, had ever been its own substance.  Like a sheet of fabric laid over an infinitely large table, it had started taut but grown mussed with age.  Stellar birth and death left wrinkles on the surface; the slow invisible sifting of dark matter and other particles loosely termed “exotics” left the sheet itself parched, frayed, threadbare.

            As Konoko ran over the old rumpled sheet, she did her own creasing.  She moved mass, she expelled energy.  Her Chen-Hau field was a whirling shimmering post-baryonic bubble and the exotics quailed in response, moving in a wave before Konoko like crowds parting for a tyrant.  Charged, agitated, they re-ordered themselves with dizzying speed.  Pockets formed in existence; they collected gravity that flowed like quicksilver over space-time’s landscape; they allowed the logic of physics to pile up like so much driftwood along a flooding river.  Vivek’s skin broke into goosebumps, his pulse raised and along the rims of his implants he felt a faintly electrical burning.  In the equipment bay not far below his prone belly, the photino bird Coleridge had a minor conniption.  Zach Obo, grinning, filmed the gyrations and the frantic symphony of lights.  He knew his girls would love it.

            Ashley got the worst of it.  She groaned her way through a vicious series of migraines Lorena chalked up to the unusual combination of designer chems and proximate space-time anomalies.  As diagnoses went it was relatively unsupported, but it fit the facts and Lorena was no longer a practicing physician.  For the C.O. of a Federal starship, the correlation was enough.  She ordered Ashley to bed rest against her strong objections, unwilling to prescribe medications for a condition she didn’t fully understand.  Ashley waited miserably as Vivek took all the flight shifts, pushing them forward through the ancient crackling void until at last the migraines faded.  With two functional Pilots back at the helm, Konoko flew at full steam over the zig-zagging highway Ashley had plotted until at last she stood at the end’s precipice, the penultimate emergence point.

            Which was the wrong way to think about things, Lorena did her best to remind them, preparations for the last dive being well underway.  One dive meant hundreds of light years, a non-trivial sliver of the galactic span, more space and matter than could’ve been contemplated by the vast majority of people who ever lived.  More to the point, the ending they’d projected was just that: a projection, imagination rendered into navigational data.  Worse than imagination, it might even have been hope.  The Ouro machine’s last prayer to save its charges; the crew’s hope their tortuous journey might be nearing its end.

            But if there stands one trustworthy rule to the universe’s wide and treacherous dealings, it is this: there are no ends, only an onmarching glacial tide of new beginnings.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Thirty-Five

Credit: Keith Perelli

            A man in an oversized grey jacket, rumpled brown pants and great heavy boots pauses to speak into a black box.  He holds it in his hand, speaks quickly and intently, his furtive whispers running from the box down a slender cord, up an oxbow in the cord and into a pair of large noise-cancelling headphones clinging to either side of his head.  The man speaks to himself through this strange apparatus, eyes focused on a spot of ground just ahead, until at last he stops and seems to recall some errand.  He looks up, lowers the black box from face to chest level and resumes his shuffling gait.  Like if one foot every moves too far from the other the center will not hold, will collapse, will rob those murmured words of their purpose.  Whatever that purpose might be.

             Vivek Mohinder watches the man go, working his deliberate way down the corridor past a vending machine hocking nutrient and calorie packs.  Three women stand in line and as the man with the headphones passes they coil away, bunching up closer to avoid him as it’s clear he won’t be altering course to avoid brushing against them.  They watch him with suspicion.  They glare at the wizened lady heading the line, who works her way through the vending machine’s menus at an agonizing pace.  Further down the narrow hall, pipes are clustered into tumorous masses.  A tired-looking clerk sells fried plantains out of a fragrant, blightly lit stand bearing the name of humanity’s third-largest agrocorp.  Past the stand, a cluster of children play football in a wider section of corridor where enterprising builders have knocked out some supports for additional room.  Nobody seems concerned.  If it were that poor an idea, the place would’ve fallen down already.  But it hasn’t.  Sumarae City, for all its warts and hair-raising dereliction of municipal codes, has a tenacious spirit—“Sumarae, never die,” being a popular local retort to any outsiders questioning what they’d built.  And who can argue, Vivek wonders?  An offshore settlement designed for sixty thousand people now exceeds half a million.

            The expansion started almost immediately, Vivek had read on the ferry from Sao Paolo: the first surreptitious plumbing installed within thirty years.   The Federal government promoted its new, “wholly sustainable” oceanic habitats long after they’d ceased to be sustainable or even properly governable.  Equatorial populations needed these floating cities the most—ocean levels had risen to the point where Sao Paulo now had a waterfront—and a solution that kept the last and the least offshore had its own undeniable appeal.

            As it turned out, the people didn’t mind it much.  Many found these new habitats preferable to the ancient, moldering favelas regularly torn apart by gun violence.  Citizen councils did a reasonable job of policing their own neighborhoods; freed by segregation from the upper classes’ political interests, they pursued a more granular agenda.  How many gallons of potable water did they have, and where was it needed?  How many megawatts of power could be wrung from the illicit carbon-fuel generators and solar panels mounted on Sumarae’s ever-climbing, perpetually redefined roofs?  A new family’s construction sapped precious water pressure from their neighbors just adjacent, across a paper-thin bulwark of corrugated steel stamped with a shipping company’s logo; how to settle the dispute?  It was the boring work of governance, for which no prestigious awards or coveted fellowships were granted.

            Vivek has been to Earth before—just once, on a family vacation.  But families on vacation, he knows, see a manufactured reality.  A cynical person might insist that’s the whole point.  He wants to see more.  He wants to see how people live when they aren’t manufacturing realities for people like him.  He sees this impulse as noble.  So when Vivek’s privileged position in the Federal bureaucracy affords him a chance to return, he jumps at the chance and is sure to fit the now-infamous Sumarae into his schedule.  He makes arrangements to stay with family—distant family, descendants of long-lost cousins separated by interstellar emigration—and on their advice he leaves every article of Explorer Corps gear behind in Sao Paulo.  The mega-slum takes fierce pride in its autonomy, and the passage of centuries found their Federal resentment undimmed.

            He leaves the scene with the vending machine and the troubled young man.  He strolls, hands in pockets, down corridors lit by searingly bright construction lamps.  Men hoist pipe lengths into position, they press pneumatic hammers to walls and they blow out chunks of material with nary a discussion as to load-bearing walls.  From the holes they pull electrical cables, cut them with pliers and loop them about their arms.  They seem to know intuitively where and how the current flows, like the slum’s power grid could be augured by one look at a graffiti’d expanse of concrete.  Vivek moves with and against the flow of people issuing from every conceivable door, people in a vast array of different outfits originating in different nooks of the human Diaspora.  Some are terrifically dirty, others assault his eyes with vivid color and he quickly finds it difficult to tell one person from the next but for their outfits.

            The address he’s been given does not seem to exist.  He asks countless passing strangers for help, getting nowhere until he’s struck with the idea of offering cash for guidance.  He’s barely produced the coin from his pocket when a gaggle of lean youths with impeccably white smiles materialize to assist.  Vivek is embarrassed, feels over-privileged and out of place, but swallows it all as they lead him up winding stairs, across clattering catwalks and under rumbling ductwork.  They leave him in the doorway of a family whose scrawled surname on nearby wall he recognized.  He pays the boys; they plead for more; he refuses; they demand more; he gives more.  When they’ve gone he chides himself for his weakness.

            The door opens to a woman with weathered skin and a guarded expression.  He gives his name and sees her face melt into a toothless grin.  She ushers him in, calls to her children, offers Vivek a cup of tea he doesn’t want but can’t in good conscience refuse.  Vivek pulls the knit cap off his shorn head.  The home is two rooms and both are intractably cluttered.  Worn clothes, derelict toys, bits of disassembled machinery and discarded food packaging form a sedimentary layer on the floor so thick it seems inconceivable it could ever be cleared.  A boxy refrigeration unit labors under a broken lamp and a heap of waste paper; Vivek imagines the microbes inside are close to developing sentience.  The woman, Raha, cleans a tin mug with a hand irradiator she produces from seemingly nowhere.  She pulls a handle attached to a standpipe on the wall, allows several seconds of water to trickle from its base and places the mug atop a tiny countertop stove unit to boil.  Burning biofuel’s sour musk quickly fills the room.

            Vivek converses with Raha; her children seem to be absent, she shrugs with a nonchalance Vivek’s parents could never have mustered.  She points out a roughly square hole in the wall tacked over with cellophane at domelike structures dotting the southeast horizon.  Her husband is nearing the end of his month-long shift at the aquaculture plants, she explains, and they’ll have barely any money until he returns with his pay.  None aside from the dollars she earns here and there washing others’ dishes—the irradiator is an asset of great value.

Do the children work? asks Vivek.  Of course they do.  They’re out working now, three teenagers spread five years apart all helping to break down the endless flow of broken, cannibalized materials.  Sumarae’s perpetual ad hoc construction is an economic engine of its own, though collectivist rules specify drastically lower pay for children and other non-breadwinners.  Compromises have to be made, just as sectors of the mega-slum rotate brownouts on a precise schedule during the warmest months.  Heavy wind shields are erected in the howling faces of hurricanes and later repurposed for the inevitable repairs.  Circumstances arise and the teeming masses make the best of them.  Sumarae, never die.

Vivek knows he cannot ask these people for anything more than the tea now scalding his palms through the tin mug.  Raha is speaking aloud, planning for his stay, and he knows he cannot.  He’ll find a hotel, he declares, assuming such establishments must exist on the floating habitat.  As his host protests, Vivek sets down the mug and bends down to the bag he’s placed on the floor.
He hears her gasp, shoots his gaze up trying to spot what’s wrong.  He sees nothing, and yet her face is pale.  She chatters rapidly in a language he doesn’t know and clutches at her chest, eyes wide.  Vivek retreats, taking up his bag, putting out his hands in a gesture of piece until he realizes what’s set her off.  His doubling over gave Raha her first look at the back of his skull.  At the nerve-reading mirrored discs set into the bone.

“Emissary,” she manages amidst a patois flurry of what he assumes is religious invective.  “Abomination!”  Vivek does not attempt to explain.  He merely leaves the apartment, pulling the hat from his pocket back over his head, hurrying down the hall and across the catwalks before any more fuss can be raised.  Fear spurs his heart to race.  He burns with uncharitable rage.

*          *          *          

Down Ashley Duggins’ mapped helix ran Konoko, flitting from one emergence point to the next like a fleet mirror-skinned pixie.  She kept a tight schedule.  Vivek and Ashley shuttled in and out of their pods according to schedule, Zach Obo kept the systems operating and Karl recorded what information he could in the thirty-minute gaps between dives.  This frustrated him to no end—he felt like a princess trapped in a tower with only one window, explained this to his superior officers and grew more upset when Vivek visibly stifled the giggles.  But there was nothing to be done, Lorena explained.  He should simply run his cursory scans and document what he found.  Karl presented his research on the stromatolitic structures he’d glimpsed below the waves: surely this was evidence for a slower approach.  In the end he found himself overruled.  Lorena made it clear he didn’t have to like it, which took the edge off the sting.

They settled into a rhythm as best they could, circumstances not being conducive to social bonding.  The Pilots put in long hours and spent much of the remainder trying to maintain their own bodies.  The inactivity, intense concentration and in Ashley’s case regular infusions of powerful chemicals made simple upkeep a challenge.  The pod atrophied muscles; time in the gym restored them but mandated more rest.  Hours in bed stiffened the joints and walked back  the gym work.

“Bottom line, kids,” as the Academy’s longtime Physiology professor condescendingly put it, “the human body’s not meant for something so simple as office work.  That goes a hundred times over for space travel and a thousand times for neuro-harness Piloting.  It’s not natural for us and it’s never going to be.  The question is how we deal with it.  There are no free lunches when it comes to this.”

So they dealt with it.  Vivek had his routines, his rituals, his teas, his immersive video games, towels he soaked and heated and wrapped about his head when he’d just gotten out of the pod and his consciousness threatened to bleed back out into space like lucid dreaming.  Ashley’s routine was looser and involved a good deal more sleep.  The immersion drugs knocked her out, their counter-agents even more so.  Her workouts suffered; she lost five pounds over two weeks and so Lorena prescribed an appetite booster along with supplements to replace the minerals the booster leeched from her body.  No free lunches.  She felt worn, stretched, haggard.  She dealt with the feeling as best she could, increased her stim intake, adjusted her sleep schedule to maximize every slow-drawn breath.  She managed, was proud of herself for managing, but couldn’t manage to find anything for her hair.  The stress and nutrition squeeze had desiccated it, split the ends and made a mess of the whole enterprise.  It felt to her like a cap of dry kindling.

The others went about their business, their assignments, treating the Pilots with the mix of distance and reverence one might show a wayward ancestral ghost.  If they spoke they were to be indulged in conversation; if not, given space and solitude.  Lorena brewed Ashley’s drugs, reviewed course plots with Vivek and maintenance reports with Obo.  Karl kept to himself, rarely emerging from his Computer Suite nest except to feed or exercise, always checking the internal sensors first to ensure they were unoccupied.  Maxi Leaf struggled the most.  Though long accustomed to spacing’s rhythms, she was for the first time since childhood cut out of them.  Unable to work, she amused herself with the scattered, tattered scraps of Konoko’s once-proud library.  Browsing was itself an adventure: half of the menus dissolved like ropes of sand when the system couldn’t find where they led, and there was no rhyme or reason to what content remained whole.  Only the even-numbered episodes of a popular romance series; only the Divine Comedy’s second stage.  Maxi mourned the apparent fact that Konoko’s only friendly crew happened to be her Pilots.

After three weeks of hard slogging, they scaled back the dive schedule: five-hour dives with two-hour breaks.  Practicality demanded a slow pace even by Vivek’s conservative standards.  He was tired, Ashley downright depleted, and by now they’d drawn perilously close to that great invisible line shearing across the cosmos—the Ouro borderlands.

*          *          *          

            Maxi stewed, staring at the ceiling, willing gravity to suck sand quicker down the hourglass.  The chime from the door surprised her.  “Mute audio,” she said, and the soap opera she’d been ignoring went silent.

            She’d expected anyone but Lorena.  “Good evening, Miss Leaf,” the C.O. smiled pleasantly.  Maxi noticed she’d dropped the typical outfit—coveralls and jacket were replaced by loose khakis and a Terran university sweatshirt colored a trademarked, proprietary shade of red.

            “Lorena,” Maxi did her best to keep the name utterly flat but didn’t think she succeeded.

            The other woman’s smile flickered a moment but reconstituted itself.  “I’ve come to invite you to the crew dinner.”

            “Since when do you eat together?”

            “I schedule them from time to time, usually after a big push like we’ve made.  I’d have sent the invite through your handy, but Konoko’s computer isn’t cooperating.  Didn’t go through, and I didn’t realize until just now.”  Her pose relaxed a little.  “So, would you like to come?  Short notice, I know.”

            “’Cause I’ve got so much going on in here,” Maxi chuckled acidly.

            “Respecting your privacy.  I know you might feel put on the spot.  It’s no problem if you’d rather pass.  But if you’re stuck here for the foreseeable, we might as well get to know each other.”

            She was laying on thick and this made Maxi intensely suspicious.  “You’d like to get to know me?  Hard to believe; I’m sure you understand.”  Suddenly she knew the answer: “Mohinder put you up to this, right?  Just come clean.”

            “He did not,” Lorena wore a satisfied smirk.  “I’ll have you know he didn’t think I should bother.  Said you’d turn me down.  Which you’re free to do, by the way.  I’m just headed to the Galley now.”

            Vivek said that?  Oh, she’d show him.  “Yeah, I’ll come.  Need to change first.”

            “If you like.  It’s as casual as casual gets,” Lorena gestured to her present attire.

            “Casual for you.  Not quite the same for me.”  Maxi started to close the door but stopped short.  “Thanks,” she muttered, and shut it.

            The Galley door stood open and Maxi Leaf paused outside it.  She smelled the fatty vapor of hot cooking oil, heard it sizzle, heard enough voices to suspect the whole crew already waited inside.  She sucked in a breath and held it, willed that lungful of air alchemically into iron and exhaled the empty dross.  Ferric strength rushed through her blood and leeched into flesh until she wore a coat of armor.  She walked through the door.

            Zachariah Obo stood over the conduction stove, one hand on his hip while the other held a pan handle.  Aquacultured scallops the size of skipping stones popped and spat a microbe-derived lipid specifically engineered for deliciousness—defined in this case as a strong resemblance to that old Terran staple, butter.  Obo stood watch over his scallops as Ashley Duggins maneuvered around his bulk, light on her stocking feet as she snatched a garlic shaker from a cabinet.  She pirouetted back around the Systems Tech to a saucepan and poured a flurry of fragrant sawdust over simmering tomatoes, peppers and onions she’d poured from now-empty cans.  A third vessel waited on the conduction stove: a deep-walled pot in which sat boiling a thick yellow clot of linguine.

            “I don’t suppose you’re allergic to shellfish?” Lorena sat at the big table, reclining in her big white plastic chair with hands clasped behind her head.  She’d been the first to spot Maxi in the doorway, since Karl Genz was immersed in his handy and Vivek busied himself amassing silverware on a nearby counter.

            “No.  No allergies,” Maxi forced her voice above a mumble.  Everyone turned to look at her; she withstood this first salvo of attention and sat across from Lorena, using the table as an additional bulwark.

            Vivek disrupted the silence before awkwardness could settle.  “I had a nut allergy years back.  Tree nuts.”

            “That’s on the RV list, right?” Ashley asked, stirring her sauce.

            “Yeah, on Oberon at least.”  Governments had long since discovered that retroviral gene treatments, blocking off histamine reactions at the source, were vastly cheaper to administer than protections and provisions against the most common and most lethal allergies.

            “Not many government health codes observed on commercial haulers,” said Maxi drily.  “Hell, a ship’s doctor delivered me.  Lifetime of low standards, here’s the product.”

            Ashley was intrigued.  “So on your Fed birth certificate, the location is…what?  A ship’s name?”

            “Not even that.  Just says ‘Terran Commercial Vehicle.’  Capitalized and everything.”

            “Are you serious?  They just stamped it TCV?”

            “That ship’s been scrapped, I’m pretty sure, so no big loss.”

            “Ash, where’s the grease rag?” Obo broke in.  Ashley stepped back from the counter, drew out a drawer and handed over a thin folded yellow cloth.  Obo used a fork to flip the scallops, one after the other, onto the cloth where they donned spreading stains like oily little halos.

            The oven dinged and from it Ashley pulled a steaming sourdough batard, its smell intoxicating despite having been a frozen block just minutes before.  Pasta was strained, tossed with sauce and scallops.  A pre-fab but surprisingly crisp green salad with finely diced red onions and whole cherry tomatoes rounded out the meal.

            “This almost tastes fresh,” Maxi remarked, having just appreciated the salty-sweet detonation of a tomato in her mouth.

            “You wouldn’t expect it,” Lorena agreed, “but it’s something Corps Provisions does well.”

            “Poor use of space,” said Obo.  The Tech’s aggressive approach to his meal suggested the inefficiency didn’t bother him too gravely.

            Karl speared a scallop on his fork, bit off half the morsel and admired the rubbery white flesh.  “Given the unique gastronomic benefits of fresh greens, one could argue they’re worth the compromise.”

            “Navy clearly doesn’t think so,” Obo replied.  “Their small ships are all-supplement and the cruisers have hydroponic decks.”

            “A question of differing scales, obviously,” Karl said with a hint of exasperation, like he’d been poorly understood.  Obo let it be.

            Lorena saw all this and smiled.  “What we’re trying to get across is: Navy can throw their budget into every exotic project under the Sun.  But when it comes to the little things—salads, if you like—they’re left looking up at us.”

            Maxi almost second-guessed her reply.  “Would you say they’re…green with envy?”  She pulled from her water glass, lifted her eyebrows and looked Vivek in the eye as shocked silence reigned.  How’s that?

            He broke out laughing—peals of laughter, his back half sliding down the chair.  Ashley broke down a split second later and even Obo showed a wide ivory grin.  Karl looked confused while Lorena held a hand over her mouth.  “That,” she said, “was one heck of a pun.”

            Maxi set her glass down, fought to keep her face straight, took up her fork, placed a scallop in her mouth and diligently set to chewing.  She had nothing more to say.  She felt she could simply be.