|Credit: Jon Sonting|
The Open Territory had not always been so open. Of course it had in a way. Space, after all, lacked concrete boundaries and thus the region itself was little altered. But the name was new. Human diplomats coined it, Ouro diplomats agreed to the concept if not the name itself, and with a quick transfer of signatures via tachyon pulse they struck a deal.
What we had rendered in diaphanous bold colors—our space blue, theirs red, all the old prejudices intact—we now blurred into craven yellow. Craven was the word the treaty’s opponents deployed, dubbing it a total capitulation. Never before in human history, they howled, had we yielded to another species. A turning point; the moment of inflection between our glorious rise and inevitable collapse in the crushing tentacles of our new alien overlords. This premise launched at least a few cults.
The government claimed the decision had been made in the spirit of inter-species cooperation. In reality, the wiser Senators on the Armed Forces Committee had examined extensive Navy studies and concluded they simply could not enforce the border. Not as it stood, not with a rapidly swelling population in need of policing. Reckless youth swarmed out by the hundreds of millions into fresh colonies along the Periphery, and the Navy couldn’t hope to cover all that ground without massive investments of the type those Senators were not prepared to make. The Open Territory, comprising vast tracts of uninhabited space far from the hottest growth zones, took enormous pressure off forces already strained to their limits. It was sold to a credulous public as an olive branch offered, a magnanimous gesture by a military of unlimited might. The wise Senators knew this and so they stuck to the line when cameras and microphones stared LED red. Behind closed doors they met with finance, with industry, and to those people they gave assurances: the Federal deficit would remain low, the markets pleased, the economy running hot with healthy interest rates from the Sectoral Banks. Rentiers would get their rents.
In practice the treaty had first-order effects on nearly nobody, the Territory’s borders cut specifically to avoid relocating any colonies from either side. Transit through the region was free for all, though commercial enterprises needed permits. Navy patrols were re-routed and Explorer Corps tours planned through the newly opened space. Markets surged in the treaty’s wake. Rents came as promised to the rentiers and all but the legislature’s most bellicose rump were generally pleased.
Breaches were rare—indeed, no Ouro craft had ever crossed the “Gold Line” from the Open Territory into Terran space. The converse was not true. Certainly the Federal authorities abided by the treaty and they did all they could to emphasize its dire import, but they possessed precious little power to enforce. A few idiots were bound to get through, the human species being so generally replete with them.
The first breach was committed by a mid-size passenger vessel carrying some four hundred of the aforementioned xeno-centric cultists in an impassioned attempt to “repatriate” themselves. They slipped through barely a thousand Lears through Ouro space before being intercepted by a swift picket craft, which crippled their drives with a single beam of radiation and dived off into the ether. After weeks of waiting, the increasingly desperate and strife-riven cultists welcomed the appearance of a truly impressive beast: one that opened voluminous hangars to swallow them whole. Locked away inside its belly, they sat in dark silence before being disgorged at last into open space. The Ouro departed, leaving them stranded in the Open Territory near the Gold Line. In time the Navy retrieved them, tried them en masse and delivered them miserably to a Federal penal colony.
It wasn’t warning enough, though likely nothing would have been. More than a few other expeditions had left various ports with similar objectives. Some broke down early enough for a rescue, others turned back; most never returned, and never again was a Terran ship “returned.” When asked through diplomatic channels of those missing, the Ouro would reply with a single pre-recorded data packet: the text of the treaty, printed in every language known to man.
* * *
“That’s Ouro space.”
“Not quite. Used to be!”
“Good as,” Lorena grimaced.
“It came from an Ouro ship,” Vivek reminded her.
Ashley nodded her agreement. “Of course a squid A.I.’s gonna want to head that way.”
Lorena reclined in her seat on the Bridge, took in her Junior Pilot’s freshly annotated map and contemplated her options. Speeding headlong to the furthest reach of the Open Territory seemed intuitively unwise. They could hang around here for a while longer, scan every last bit of Subject 02 and hope for miraculous deliverance in the form of an intact Ouro corpse. Subject 03 lay somewhere in Contact’s pre-plotted coursework, but what was that really worth to her? Nothing was certain and their first two leads had yielded nothing but frustration and complication. Perhaps, since they were already so far off schedule and carrying extra passengers, she should continue to improvise.
“I like it!” Beatrice threw her a thumbs-up.
Lorena had more questions. “What’s in the region there?” she asked, pointing to the glowing red spot where the A.I. meant them to go.
“The charts aren’t great,” Ash admitted.
Vivek scratched the stubble on his skull and pondered. “Likely not a settlement. It’d be illegal, for one. And the Ouro don’t seem to have the same far-flung commercial interests we do. They’re all in on a system or they’re not, and I see no reason they’d build up there.”
“Couriers have to meet someone on the far side,” Beatrice suggested.
“Another ship!” Ashley exclaimed, just as Lorena was about to say the same.
“Hmm?” Vivek glanced back and forth between the two women, a step disjointed from the conversation. “Why another ship?”
“Think about it,” said Lorena as her mind walked itself through the steps. “Think in the loosest possible terms. The A.I.’s half dead. Out of nowhere comes this other computer, ours, and it’s a ray of hope. It’s an option. So it moves data to our drives—whatever it thought was important—and tells us where to take it.”
“But why does that mean another ship?”
“Because,” said Ashley, following Lorena and Beatrice’s logic, “what would that A.I. have that’s valuable? It’s just a floating can full of demented Ouro, or it would’ve been until the breakup. That first ship didn’t transfer anything big because it hadn’t lost anything.”
“So we’re talking about what?” Vivek rubbed his temples, trying to place himself in the position of an alien A.I.
“Network data,” said Beatrice.
“Network data,” Lorena echoed. “All the social input from all those Ouro. Maybe the computer wanted to try and preserve it. If that’s the case, it stands to reason we’d be sent to another ship. A better receptacle.”
“What sort of ship? Just the nearest, I’d assume, “Vivek frowned.
Ashley shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe it’s another sleeper ship. And if that’s the case, can you imagine? It might take us right to what we’re chasing!”
“Or a military craft that takes us for grave robbers. Which, at this point, is more or less what we are.”
“We didn’t ask for the data load. We didn’t ask for the directions. Or even the mission from fucking Contact, while we’re on the subject.”
“That’s enough, Ashley. Vivek, what kind of time frame are we looking at here?”
He scrolled through Ashley’s distance estimates, numbers tumbling about in his head. “Assuming we take a fairly direct route—and I can’t know that for sure, since our charts aren’t definitive for half the O.T.—we can pull this in about six weeks. Don’t hold me to that, but that seems about right.”
“The way things have been going,” Lorena winced, “we’ll probably blow that anyway. Something else will come up. But sure, let’s plan on this. Make up a schedule, yeah?”
“Vivek nodded. “Will do. We’ve been sitting around long enough, we should be able to pull some long hauls. Put a good dent in the distance.”
“What about the passengers?” Ashley asked her C.O. “What kind of time frame do they need? We can’t really keep Miss Leaf in that room the whole time.”
“The digger will be fine until next year. It’s her that’ll be the problem. She’s behaving now but I fully expect some tantrums once time stretches to weeks. When those happen we’ll ride them out, or lock her up when she gets too obnoxious.”
“Funny how fast we go from kicking scav ass to saving it, huh?”
“It’s the job,” sighed Lorena bitterly. “Rarely will you find any good first-order effects from doing it.”
“She did the right thing too, when she didn’t have to,” Vivek spoke up.
“Yes, and that’s why she’s got a cabin instead of a cell.”
He wasn’t used to seeing this vitriol. Ashley might say anything in a moment of dudgeon, but Lorena’s words had to make their way past more than a few filters. His first instinct was to defuse, to undermine with humor’s sharp spade. “To be fair, I’m not sure we’ve got handcuffs to fit her.”
Ash chortled. That was something. Lorena shook her head, fed up by the topic. “I’m going to get a sleep cycle. Get that schedule down, Vivek? And if Obo’s up, ask him if the hardware checks out. Rather have him sign off on everything now than tell us later why we’re wrong.”
“Got it. Sleep well, ma’am. If anyone deserves it, you do.”
Lorena sucked at a tooth. “So you say. Good work, guys.” She opened the Bridge door and was gone.
“Surprised you’re sticking up for the scav, Vee,” Ashley remarked offhandedly.
“Someone’s got to. She hasn’t got a lawyer.”
“But it’s not the same, is it?” He gave her a quizzical look and so she continued: “What’s done is done; she’s got her cabin, she’ll be here until we find Navy and then she won’t. I guess my point is, I thought you’d be just as hard as Lorena. Executive Officer, you know? Law and order, all of that.”
“I guess you thought wrong,” he said in a tone suggesting he was through with the topic.
A moment passed, Vivek picking at his keyboard while Ashley looked at the floor. Guilt gnawed in his gut; he knew she responded badly to dismissal. Lorena, Yana St. Julien or anyone else could suck eggs for all she cared, or at least that’s what Ashley told herself. Her superior’s approval was the one window left open, the patch of armor undefended. She needed a lifeline, a conspicuous path to swift redemption. He would provide it: “Hey, Ash, do something for me?”
“Yes?” She was hopeful, guarded.
“Take the courses you crunched down to Obo and look them over with him.”
“I could just send it.”
“He’ll have questions. Even if he doesn’t, he likes you enough; he won’t grumble the analytics are wasting his time.” He smiled, saw her lips curl in response. Good.
She slid over to the Karl’s console and ran a simple query. “Okay, but he’s still in his cabin. Still sleeping, I guess? Been a while.”
“Have you ever run an Obo search before?”
“No,” she looked at him like this was a silly question indeed.
“Check a full bio-scan of the ship.” He waited, arms smugly crossed, while she did so.
“Okay…oh, what the hell? Now he’s not in the room,” frowned Ashley, quickly counting the onscreen blips. “Okay, seventh signal in the Engineering Suite. How’s that happen?”
Vivek laughed softly to himself. “He set it up last tour. Ask for him and the computer basically throws a Do Not Disturb. That’s how he dealt with Dell.”
“Last Scanner Tech. You think Genz is weird? Let me tell you, that Teutonic goofball’s a saint by comparison. Though I guess Dell never threw open our firewalls to Ouro A.I.s. Scanner Techs, Ash. There’s always at least one screw rattling around, you just hope it doesn’t come all the way loose.”
* * *
She found Zachariah Obo where that second scan said he’d be, perched on a rotating stool between two prismatically glowing screens, knees sharply bent so his pants rode up a little to expose dark blue socks over thin ankles. The contrast of those ankles to his large feet gave him an almost clownish look, gangly like a teen yet to grow into himself.
“Hey, Zach,” she said so softly he didn’t hear at first. She said it louder and he turned. Warmth spread over his face; the rest seemed to have done him good. “Sleep well?”
“A fine few hours where no one compromised security,” he replied, turning back to his monitors.
“We finished our analysis of that Ouro map data. So there’s a course for the next few weeks; Vivek made up a prelim schedule,” she drew her handy from her pocket and offered it up.
“That was quick. I’ll take a look.” Obo flipped one screen to receiving mode and glanced back expectantly.
She held a key with her thumb and with a flick of her wrist cast the data from that device to the screen. Numbers scrolled down before Obo’s face, found themselves trapped in his eyes’ reflecting pools. “Lotta long hauls.”
“They’re front-loaded for local space while our charts are still good. Obviously we made them without checking with you, so…now we’re checking with you.”
Obo harrumphed, his face drawing into its professional scowl, refusing to admit a spark of positivity before the empirical returns were in. “First two weeks are okay. Not three. You’ve got too many drive-hours.”
“It’s fine by our health charts.”
“Didn’t mean that. Core can’t be active more than twelve hours per day-cycle over any given eighteen-day window. You’re nudging past that,” he tapped the screen idly with his fingers, lips working silent figures. “Pull it down to the day-twenty level by day fourteen and it’ll all pass regs.”
“Great! That’s just what we wanted to know. I’ll make the corrections,” Ashley smiled sunnily, trying to draw the man back out from the engineer. It didn’t seem to take. Spotting a live video feed of the Docking Bay, she spotted an opening. “No weirdness since the explosion? With Cole. I’d hate for it to…mess up his gyro or whatever keeps photino birds going straight.”
Zach Obo waved off her concern. “Oh, he’s fine. Don’t even need to feed him; the microbes eat off the dark matter going right through the hull.”
“Think you could keep him planetside?”
“Oh sure, physically, though he might take a turn. Figure when he dies it’ll be like a goldfish, just plop and nothing to do about it.”
“Don’t talk like that, it makes me sad just thinking about it.”
“Well, don’t worry your head. He’ll end up in a zoo or something. No way they’ll let me take him off the ship myself.”
“We could let him go.”
“At Mars Dock? Five seconds, he’s sucked into an intake,” Obo leered morbidly.
Ashley snickered despite herself. “Okay, whatever you think’s best. Would be nice to take him home.”
“Tell that to Mariella. She’d divorce me! Take half my pension and run. Lady wouldn’t even let the girls get a dog.”
“Remind me of their names? Lupita, yeah?”
Obo nodded. “And Nora. Twenty-two, twenty-six.”
“They both on Titan still?”
“Titan City, yeah, but not with us no more. Nora got married last year so I gotta split time now.”
“You’ll have a lot more time to split,” she said encouragingly.
“True ‘nough. I’ll drive her so crazy she’ll have to pop out some grandkids just to get ol’ Dad off her back,” Obo cackled.
“Make up for lost time.”
“Too much lost time,” he sighed.
“Don’t beat yourself up about it, Zach. I mean it,” she jibed, “Absent father mourns being absent? It’s an old story.”
“There’s a reason for that. It’s an old tradition.”
“And there’s reasons for that too. You’ve got a plot and a house paid for—in the Core, in a spot people would kill to live—and your girls had everything they needed ‘til it was time to get their own. Hell, you paid for a wedding!”
“Prob’ly two when it’s all done. But that’s not all girls need to grow.”
Now her temperature climbed. “Oh, please. Look—I’m not saying you’re all the way wrong. But what we need to grow isn’t what you think. We’re not flowers you need to nudge towards the light. You don’t need to trim the weeds and your presence doesn’t somehow protect us. You know what ‘girls need to grow?’ Exactly what you gave them: a safe place to live, school, a few opportunities. That’s called providing and that’s what you did. There’s lots of different fathers, Zach. Maybe you wanted to be a perfect one, and the fact that you even care about that says something to your credit, but you made the choices you did. And they were pretty good.”
He’d listened to everything in stony silence and now couldn’t meet her eyes. When it seemed he wouldn’t reply, she continued: “Look, my dad was in the service too. The Marines, three civil-unrest deployments in five years. He’s gone for four of those. And yes, we missed him, but his checks came in twice per month and that was a hell of lot more than our neighbors had in the drought years. So in the end it’s fine. Life sucks, nobody’s perfect and we all make compromises somewhere. Girls don’t need constant care to grow. They need what everything else in this universe needs: resources, safety and space. Take care of the basics and we’ll figure out the rest. A lot of girls would rather their dads were all the way gone. Believe me, I know a few.
“You did the best you could and it was more than good enough. Let that be that,” she finished, reaching one hand to rest over his dark, calloused mitt. “Want to make a few more birthdays? Plenty of time when you’re pensioned.”
“Yeah,” Zachariah Obo said at last. “That’s what I mean to do.”
“You’ve got a grandkid, so it’s perfect timing. Spoil the kid rotten, pawn off the real work on his parents. If Cole’s any indication, you’re good at spoiling.”
“Oh, yes.” Finally she got a smile out of him. “You’re a good girl, Ashley. I can always trust your heart’s in the right place. Thank you, truly, for your kind words.”
“Shit, now I’m blushing. You’re too sweet. You’re a sweet old grandpa.”
NEXT TUESDAY: MAXI LEAF REVISITS HER TROUBLED PAST AS KONOKO FLIES EVER FARTHER INTO THE OPEN TERRITORY. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES UNINTERRUPTED!