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.

NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART THIRTY-SIX: NEARING THE END OF THE A.I.'S PLOTTED ROAD, KONOKO STUMBLES ON A FRESH CLUE AND FACES A WRENCHING CHOICE. CHECK BACK FOR MORE "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES!"

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