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.”
“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.
NEXT TUESDAY: HAVING TURNED UP HER NOSE AT SERENDIPITY, KONOKO REACHES THE END OF HER MAPPED COURSE. HAVE THE CREW PASSED UP A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY, OR WILL LORENA'S CONVICTIONS BE REWARDED? STAY TUNED AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!