Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Forty

Credit: NASA/Hubble Telescope


           We are doomed to die.

            It was every species’ first epiphany; the foundation of sentience.  One cannot know life without acknowledging there was a time before and, by observed corollary, a time after.  A time beyond, maybe, depending on the myths one chose to armor oneself.  Sentience arises from complexity, the universe tolerates this thermodynamic borrowing only so long before the bill comes due, and so any being able to think the concept Death in so doing signs its own warrant.  The question immediately becomes: what to do about it?  How to walk the edge of existence, always conscious of the precipice, without simply collapsing in the dust?

            Most ignored it, or tried to.  Some succeeded, particularly in civilization’s early stages when prospects were limited and death was less a philosophical concept than a hunter waiting to strike.  It was hard work simply keeping oneself out of the grave, and hard work highlights the immediate.  Faith could swaddle the grim idea with hopeful magic; chemicals offered a more rational route to the same destination.  Entire industries arose to cope with the psychological pressure of the end impending.  Men earned billions off their fellows’ demise and found themselves struggling to unload the lucre before estate taxes did their immortal work.  Only two constants in the universe, went the proverb, and here they intersected.  Men and women did what they could in the time allotted, fought bitter delaying actions in hospital beds, left their descendants to grieve the war’s inevitable loss.

            The Ouro saw things differently.  Death stalked the Kin closely, from their evolution in vast predatory seas to the dementia coring through their post-reproductive brains, and this struck their greatest minds as awfully unfair.  Why should a fragile corporeal husk have the last word on anything so beautiful as sentience, as intellect?  Ridiculous.  No engineer would tolerate such vulnerabilities in any system she designed.  And had the Kin not tamed their seas?  Had they not taught their world to provide beyond anything ecologists predicted?  They could do better.  Dumb animals submitted to their circumstances.  The Kin would conquer them.

            They began crudely but asked themselves the right questions.  What comprised them?  What was truly lost to the Great Beyond?  What might be salvaged?  From the lowest castes they conscripted Kin to live alongside luminaries—those wise and stoic Ouro who sacrificed their genetic legacies for accumulated learning.  A dormant gene-seed soothed the mind, kept it bound to reality for many orbits more before the dementing mist descended.  The young Kin were meant to study the wise ones’ ways, to learn the tales of their lives from the first to the last.

The sages spoke; their thralls did more than listen.  Tentacle on tentacle, one subcutaneous nerve cluster pressed loving against another, they came to know the elders.  Knew them better than their students, better than the far-swimming Preachers who bore their chromatic wisdom verbatim across Ort’s vast seas.  For a message was just that; a Kin was so much more than what he chose to express.  The thralls saw everything, heard and felt everything, documenting every facet of the sages’ being and committing it to sense-memory until every last cell hummed with synchronicity.  In the end the master could not even test his student; they inevitably grew too close, could no longer clearly divine the seam between minds.  Instead they stood separately before the Passage Tribunal for six days and nights, answering question after question posed identically and in the same order.  The sages noted every nuance.  The slightest dovetailing of response sent master and thrall alike back to their work; a pass from the Tribunal, achingly rare, set off days of celebration.  Upon the master’s death his caste, title and name fell to the thrall beneath.  In this way, Ort’s greatest sages had persisted undying for millennia.

It wasn’t enough.  Death they might have beaten, but still the trumpets of victory rang hollow.  Battle won, war still raging.  The wealthiest Ouro acquired their own thralls—their own vessels to cheat death, equally subject to the Tribunal’s judgment.  Still, the vast majority of Ouro were every bit as wedded to mortality as their ancestors.  They chafed at it, resented their betters, launched bitter internecine wars over the metaphysical insult.  Ort’s ocean welled black with blood, the castes were violently dissolved and in the end only the very greatest sages were permitted the Passage.

Time ran and they built machines: machines that moved, that worked, that computed and eventually thought much as the Kin themselves did.  In the machines they found their great solution.  With deep, long-practiced knowledge of their own souls, they taught the machines to learn the way the thralls learned.  Neither numbers nor politics cold stop them now.  In one fell swoop they won themselves an indefinite future, lacking locomotion but scarcely needing it for the Kin were not mere swimming beasts but thinking beings.  Gradually they filled their computers with sense-memory, with community, with wisdom.  They took that wisdom along to the stars.

Beyond Ort’s birthing tub they found another sea: older, vaster, untamed and un-tamable.  Their ships bore them over its currents to strange lands and in those lands they found life.  More breathing worlds, more living species than they ever imagined lay out before them.  But amidst all this wonder the Kin could not help feeling lonely.  Not in any personal sense; their electronic community of living and dead grew larger by the day.  Nonetheless, on world after world they saw remnants of lost civilizations, dead peoples.  They saw structures at larger scales than simulations suggested were possible for meter-scale organic life, ended and ground down to dust.  They quailed to see Death once again triumphant, ashen cloak spread over galactic reaches.  These foreign beings, for all the wonders at their feet, had found themselves paupers when at last the great bill came due.

A younger species would have reacted with arrogance, knowing they’d found an answer, seeing in those extinctions proof of their own exalted status.  But the Kin had unnaturally aged, the swimming breathing mating Ouro with their hot passions tempered by legions of the departed who could not but mourn those dazzling boneyards.  In response they dug back through their history, excavating until once again they asked themselves the good hard questions.  What was sentience and what did it contain?  What was it to die?  How, in a quantifiable and thoroughly conserved universe, could anything so obviously powerful end?  How had they—no stronger they knew, than any other flesh—proved the exception?  Countless questions ricocheted about the Kin network, rendering only one point of consensus: given this apparently unprecedented gift, having developed the core of this technology, they had a solemn responsibility to share it.

*          *          *          

            “Six beams?”

            “That’s right, ma’am,” Zachariah Obo grunted in reply.  “One for each pylon, like the model shows,” he pointed to the blue wireframe pinwheel hovering chest-high in the air between them.

            Karl Genz, still in his seat, leaned into his console and set the model in motion.  From the swollen pods at the pylons’ tips emerged six crimson beams.  Like lighthouse beacons they wheeled and sought, sweeping ever-shifting routes around and around the station until it was sealed in a sphere of translucent red.  “That pattern is displayed in real time,” he explained excitedly to his C.O., “and utterly consistent with active scanning behavior.”

            “Scanning for what?” she glanced between them.

            Obo took up his coffee cup from the desk and drew it to his grey-stubbled upper lip for a slurp.  “Billion-dollar question.  Thing is, we’re two whole layers of exotica from an answer.  The beams themselves we can’t directly observe; it’s indirect.”

            “Second order observation,” Karl seconded.  “By way of the photino bird.”

            Lorena shot up her favorite eyebrow as Obo winced.  He preferred to skirt that detail.  “All this derives from something that dumb animal did?”

            “It exhibited an unusually regular photophore pulse, first noticed by Mister Obo and Miss Leaf.”

            That was why Obo’d sought to avoid the topic.  He shut his eyes tight against the flood of irritation.  “Maxine Leaf is spending her time in my docking bay?” Lorena’s voice rose as the sentence went on.

            “She was trying to stay out of our collective airspace,” said Obo, leaving alone the question of exactly whose bay it was.

            “Then she can stay in her damn cabin.”

            “With respect, Doctor, Miss Leaf’s observation did aid our search,” Karl contributed.  Lorena shot him a glare but found its effect irritatingly lost on the oblivious German.

            “If anything in there were out of place, I’d know about it,” Obo assured her.

            “Seriously, Lor, what’s she gonna do?” Beatrice asked rhetorically.  The holographic model cast striking shadows over her face.

            Lorena made a huffing noise and dropped it, not conceding the point but unwilling to push it past more serious matters.  “Fine.  You said second-order.  The bird’s the first; what’s the second?”

            “The outgoing beams are all we’re seeing, and only at close range,” Obo explained.  “You’ll note the spherical distribution—in theory we’d have seen the effect earlier, even a whole dive out.  But I checked the video and it didn’t start ‘til we killed the C-H gen’.  So either it’s meant for a local effect, or we’re only picking up a fraction of the traffic.  My money’s on the latter.”

            “Our money.  Proverbially speaking,” Karl noted.  “If we cannot understand the sensor itself, guessing its purpose is futile.”

            Lorena crossed her arms, took in the model once more.  “So how do we do that?  Earlier you said the station’s full of data storage.  If we could get to it, that’d be one thing…but I’m guessing scanners are no good here.”

            “Correct, Doctor.  First, the facility’s hull shields its inner workings from long-range scans.  Second, direct observation does us little good without knowing their system architecture.  It would be like a map with no starting point, no legend to guide.”

            “All right, next option?” she asked.

            “Direct engagement,” Karl said before Obo could answer.  “We carry so much Ouro data already.  We know the contact protocols function for both A.I. gateways and shipboard systems.  Perhaps they would respond to this.”

            “Their tongue, their rules,” said Beatrice with a nod of assent.

            “No, no, no,” Obo stepped forward sweeping his hands back and forth, waving off the idea, splintering the model as projector lights shone on his skin.

            “If properly managed—“

            “No.  It was you blew our data security back in the Graveyard, and now you want to do it again.  Never mind that first one half-wiped our drives in an eyeblink.  A half-dead civilian A.I. with its transmitters fried by superlight breakup.  What do you imagine this thing’s capable of?  Did you think this through for even two seconds before blurting it out?”

            Lorena shot him a sympathetic look, placing herself on his side while also suggesting the younger man be given a modicum of slack.  “I asked for solutions, and that might work,” she began, watching Genz’s face recover from its bludgeoned look.  “But Mister Obo’s right.  What if this thing erased our star maps?  To say nothing of a dozen other core systems.  We won’t compromise the computers again if we can possibly help it.”

            “Understood, Doctor,” Karl dipped his head slightly.  Obo let out a long, phlegmy sigh and downed the rest of his coffee.

            “Well, what other questions can we answer about this beast?” Lorena paced a slow lap around Genz’s model like a clue might be hidden somewhere, though logically that was impossible—any clue would have originated in the German’s own mind.

            “Hard to answer from this range, Doctor.  If we drew near the station, we might glean something of value.  But I cannot speak to security.”

            “Again, seems like a bad risk,” said Obo.  “They’ve not acknowledged us so far, but who knows what proxy-based defenses we’re looking at?”

            “No conventional weapons, you said.”

            “No, ma’am.  Though any number of point defense systems could have slipped our notice.”  Genz rubbed his chin, bit his lip, pondered.

            “Give ‘em a poke,” Beatrice declared flippantly.

            “It is actually possible,” Karl gave a sudden nod.  Obo frowned, confused by his phrasing.

            “We have courier drones aboard, yes?  What if we were to use a courier drone to investigate?  Load it up with portable sensors and send it on a near pass!  It may teach us something about the station’s defenses, at the least.  That may yield larger clues as to its purpose!” he beamed with perfectly enameled teeth.

            Now Obo showed a scowl, seeming to chew on something though his mouth was empty.  He strove for a reason this couldn’t work.  He found nothing but for the feeble prospect of all-out retaliation—an idea swiftly rejected.  Whatever one might say of the Ouro, they certainly weren’t clumsy.

            “Fine,” he replied to Lorena’s questioning look.  “Can’t imagine we’ll find any other use for ‘em.”

            “Then it’s settled!” Beatrice crowed.  “Thank all that’s good and holy, we’re done sitting around!”

*          *          *          

            Karl gritted his teeth hoisting the drone from its black plastic holding case, long arms and big white hands seeking purchases.  With a clank he set the thirty-kilo mass down on the hastily cleared workbench.  Wide atmosphere-ready fins tapered gently to a rounded nose; the tail was a dense cluster of thruster nozzles.  Touching both seal releases with his thumbs, Karl flipped open a hinged door to expose an empty cylindrical compartment.

            “That an Emm-Eye-Eff Seventy?  We had a couple on Toussaint, remarked Maxi Leaf, bending down to peer at the silver machine’s inner workings.  Small, fast and disposably cheap, courier drones were the preferred method for moving small payloads between ships without the risk and hassle of docking.  Larger freight carryalls might deploy hundreds of drones at a given stop, ranging in size from shoeboxes to houses, though Federal law mandated human-piloted tugs inside designated Economic Development Zones such as ports and shipyards.

            Karl rolled the thing halfway over to check the numbers stenciled in white down its flank.  “Yes,” he declared.  “We have four on board, and two more of a larger model.”

            “You don’t know what kind?”

            “No.  Their maintenance is Mister Obo’s concern.”

            “He doesn’t like you.  Why is that?”

            Karl looked at her, unsettled by the question.  “He has never treated me inappropriately.”

            “Oh, come on.”

            “To answer your question, I do not know.  I have always assumed it was a question of seniority.  A form of unofficial hazing.”

            “But he obviously likes Ashley.”

            “That is different.”

            “Why is it different?”

            “I do...not have an adequate response.”  Karl stood up straight, rolled his shoulders, swung his neck in a circle to crack out some tension.

            Maxi let him off the hook with a tinkling laugh.  “I didn’t really expect one.  So what’s going in this critter?”

            Karl squatted to grab a canvas duffel bag stamped with the Explorer Corps logo.  He lifted its clunking mass and unzipped the bag before extracting a pair of cup-shaped plastic devices.  “These.  And a few others, likewise salvaged from the surveying gear.  I think I retrieved everything of use.”  Obo had declined to help Karl, leaving him to negotiate the unfamiliar supply manifest on his own.

            Maxi took one of the devices and turned it over in her hands.  “Basic broad spectrum EM stuff?  The sort of thing you’d set up planet-side and leave recording?”

            “Just so.  Though this one is designed for acute radiation, and this uses algorithmic filters to pick faint communications out of incidental EM,” he brandished a pen-shaped device along with a meaty black disc like a hockey puck.  Each went into the drone’s open compartment, and once he’d gotten an idea of the space he took up a number of unmarked yellow grease cloths from a basket below the workbench.  His great white hands twisted, warped and crushed them.  He pushed them in around the sensors as wadding to hold them in place.

            Maxi watched, frowning quizzically.  “Has it been modded?  Because if it’s no different from—“

            “No modifications post-manufacture.”

            “Well, that’s why I brought it up.  If it’s commercial stock, it’s got no inertia field.  Mif70s never had ‘em.”

            Karl paused, looking down at the objects stuffing the drone.  “I am not sure this equipment warrants such safeguards.”

            “I promise you, the moment this thing burns up to cruise speed, it’s all getting crushed into the compartment floor.  This thing might make it,” she said, flicking the hockey puck with her fingernail.  “But the rest will break before you get a reading.”

            They stood there a while, the two of them—Karl staring silent and ashamed at the childish mess he’d assembled, Maxi waiting for him to react though it didn’t seem to be coming.  “Maybe,” she said at last, “we should think of a better layout.”

            “I am unsure how to proceed,” he finally admitted.  “I must concede I am beyond terrible when it comes to handicrafts.”

            She laughed again and began emptying the compartment once more, pincering her fingers to yank out the crumbled yellow cloths.  “Sorry to say, it shows.  Look here, at the inside walls.  See those ribs?  They’re anchors for just about any modular bolt-in frame you want to use.”

            “Do we have any?”

            You’re asking me? she wondered, halfway between flummoxed and charmed by the holes in his knowledge.  As though the Karl Genz factory had simply failed to ship some minor components.  She looked around the workbench, the toolboxes and supply chests.  She saw what she sought.  Pointing: “Over there, on the wall rack.  The thin metal rails; go grab them for me.”

*          *          *          

            The courier drone slid down the reflective metal chute into Konoko’s jettison tube and settled at the bottom with a soft clanking sound.  Zach Obo closed the hatch, twisted the handle clockwise to seal it.  There came a high drill-bit whine and an LED flipped from red to green.

            “Mohinder put together a flight plan already,” he was telling Karl and Maxi.  “Get it there in about a half hour.  Faster if we had a head-on course—at this speed it’ll have to spiral in—but it’s only a few minutes more.”

            Obo took out his handy to hail the bridge.  “Hey, we’re about to launch the drone,” he announced.  “Objections?”

            “Can we give it a name first?” Vivek chirped back.  “Before we send it off to its fate in the infinite?”

            “Proceed with launch, Mister Obo,” said Lorena.

            “Roger.  Firing,” he said and without further ado jammed his calloused thumb down on an orange plastic button with a little glowing light trapped inside like an ambered insect.  A low mechanical baying cut itself off with a two-stage CLU-UNK.

            “Payload away,” called Vivek.  Karl was already hustling away, legs battling each other propelling him downstairs to the Computer Suite.

            The drone’s engine screamed to flaming life.  Crude carbon-based propellant catapulted it to high velocities as Karl’s surveying sensors strained against the light aluminum framing he and Maxi Leaf had so recently installed.  The drone had an added edge from Konoko’s momentum, forcing it into a shallow rightward turn, cutting coreward from the clipper’s orbiting course.  It circled the Ouro station once, twice, three times—every circumference a fraction of that prior.

            Circling the pool, winding its way down the drain, the little drone broadcast a flood of mundane data back to its mothership.  Karl watched it come in, every sense perched alert.  He watched the proximity numbers descend as the drone approached the end of its course.  He was prepared for anything.

            And yet when the end came it took him by surprise.  The courier’s tapered tube whistled toward an inevitable conclusion, but suddenly it was warmer.  Its internal and external temperature spiked quite alarmingly—a fact appreciated only up to the point where the surveying sensors melted and the remaining propellant ignited and the drone became nothing more than the briefest flare before it was gone and dust and dead.

NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART FORTY-ONE: SHOTS FIRED! KONOKO'S CREW SCRAMBLES TO REACT, SMOOTH OVER HOSTILITIES AND KEEP THEIR SHIP INTACT LONG ENOUGH TO CONTACT THE ENIGMATIC OURO. ANOTHER WEEK, ANOTHER EPISODE!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Thirty-Nine

Credit: Ifreex & alexniko


          Lorena Mizrahi looks down at the tray on her desk and draws a slow breath through her mouth.  Nothing through her nose; she’s trying to avoid the sour fumes of preservative wafting up like reaching fingers of plague.  A rat lies in the tray, dead, sliced open from throat to gut.  Its skin is peeled back, the ribs snapped one by one at their midpoints so the animal’s body cavity lies open.  Inside waits a bewildering array of components, each its own very particular hue Lorena has never before seen.  They fit together in the ribs’ tight confines like the world’s best-packed luggage.  Some bear tiny stickers affixed during the prior day’s class, color-coded to match entries on the teacher’s assignment.  In time they’ll label all the organs; the major ones at least.  Beatrice takes issue with the omissions.

            “If it was a girl we’d label the uterus,” she complains.

            “Well, what’s the point in labeling these?  You can see them already.”

            “You can see everything.  I cut him open.  Why not label his balls along with the rest?  I mean, look at those things.  They’re huge.  My God.”

            “I’m sure He appreciates your oath on behalf of rat balls.”

“He loves everything great and small, right?  He’d see I’ve got my priorities straight.  You sure you don’t want a turn with the knife, by the way?” Beatrice brandishes the tool.  Steel blades are considered considerably safer than energy cutters while in teenage hands.  In the same enlightened vein, society has determined the practice of real dissection (as opposed to the simulated alternative) is too cruel to impose upon the vast majority of creatures but acceptable for rodents.  The vast rat populations enabled by humankind’s mass-urbaning may have something to do with this judgment.

            Lorena makes a face.  “It’s called a scalpel.  And no, I’m queasy just sitting here.  Let’s stick with what’s been working.  Besides, if we pass it back and forth we’ll have to keep washing our hands and changing gloves.  Someone’s got to handle the tablet and you’re not getting rat juice on mine.”

            “Fine.”

            Their teacher is assisting another student when her unheard question prompts him to rap his knuckles loudly on the desk.  “You’ll notice,” he professes in his booming lecture-voice, “features you don’t see in the text.  Fat deposits, cysts, lesions or scarring on the tissues.  Some of the organs may not look exactly how you expect them to look.  That’s because your book shows the ideal animal, the way it is when it’s born.  Clean as a whistle.  These animals lived full lives—they ate and drank and moved their bowels and reproduced.”

            “How old were they?  Is there a way to tell?” a round-faced girl with ample freckling wants to know.

            “If you’ll look at Page Five of the lab worksheet, you’ll see the step for blood work.  Follow the instructions, slip your vial into the analyzer slot—the little one at the top—and you’ll be able to pull a ton of data onto your tablet.  Only one person can use the analyzer at a time, so keep your eyes open for when it’s empty.  No need to waste time forming a line, people.”

            Lorena despises his serial use of people as an address but cannot articulate why.  Instead she puts up her hand.  “But they’re only a year or two old, right?  Rats don’t live that long.”

            “That’s right, Lorena.”

            “So why are they all beat up so soon?  I mean, we’ve been eating and pooping and everything else for much longer.  We’re not like that inside, right?”  She is proud of herself for not quavering or hesitating for the dangerous word poop.

             “Not yet, but given enough time you will be.  I’m sure I am.  We just age at different rates.”

            “Right, so why is that?”

            “It’s a bigger question than we can really dive into here.  We’ll get to senescence in Chapter Eight,” the teacher is genuinely excited.  “For now, the best way to explain it is that species make choices.  Not at the individual level, but as a population over time.  They figure out what’s available to them.  Which tactics, in their environments, can they possibly use to survive?  That question determines how big they’ll be, how early and often they reproduce.  Little things like rats tend to get eaten a lot, so they want to breed fast and young while they’ve got a chance.  Make growing old a real prospect and they’ll put their resources toward personal growth instead of breeding.  Which isn’t even selfish, because the longer you live, the more young you can potentially have over your lifetime.

“So, everything ages at its own particular rate and follows its own rules.  And there’s too many variables to really predict how that will work, so we’ve got to observe them and carefully document the results.  That’s what science always comes down to!”

Beatrice lets out a groan just loud enough for her to hear.  Mister Carpenter is very pleased with his sweeping conclusion.  “And after that long digression, everyone back to work!  Remember, your specimen needs to be in cold storage at one-twenty so you can all scrub up.”

The class puts their heads back down, joining those who’ve tuned out the lecture entirely.  Murmured conversation springs back up.  “It seems so odd to me,” Lorena says to Beatrice, “even after he’s explained it.”

“It’s one of those things that makes a lot of sense at first glance and less the closer you look.  Rats are little vermin things; of course they die early.”

“But that’s just what he was saying.  It’s not always like that.  Rats could live longer, but at some point they decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.  Live fast, die young is their bet.  And it works for them.”

“Bets don’t always pay off,” Beatrice reaches back to tuck a dangling strand of raven hair behind her ear.  She stops short, remembers her sticky gloved fingers, and resorts to awkwardly scraping it back with her shoulder.

“It’s true.  Our bodies are supposed to last a long time.  Sometimes they just don’t.  That’s what they said when my mom got sick: ‘bad genes.  Bad luck.’”

Beatrice stops her shoulder-rolling motion and looks to her friend with a pained expression.  She doesn’t know what to say, isn’t the type to say sorry for things like this.  “It’s fine,” Lorena tells her, which it mostly is.

“Still sucks.  Nobody likes to lose.”

“Yeah, well.  That was the point of the lecture, right?  When it comes to death, we all make our own compromises.”

*          *          *          

Four hours later and no real progress.  Karl Genz and Zach Obo pounded away at their problem, the two largest officers seated back-to-back in her cramped Computer Suite.  They exchanged few words and rarely needed to, as each could see what the other’s console was up to at any given moment.  They worked their way methodically through each of Konoko’s sensors and scanning patterns, seeking any hint of correspondence with Coleridge’s pulse period.  Karl got up to walk a lap around Deck Three with the neutrino scanner, but returned after some minutes with a sullen expression.  Obo didn’t ask after it.  He ran another series of scans—these for NBAN (Non-Baryonic Artifact Noise), those for NOBU, which he knew was similar though he couldn’t recall the precise acronym.  If the NOBU reading matched the seventeen-second period in any way, which it didn’t, the details might matter.  It didn’t and so they didn’t.  It dawned on him that a younger Zachariah would have cringed at the hole in his memory, that the present man didn’t much care.

That’s why you’re retiring, old hoss, one parish of his brain reminded the rest.  If there’s one thing age taught a man, it’s that time passes on its own terms.  No sense in forcing anything.  To that end, Obo planted his palms in the chair’s padding.  Elbows rustily levered him to his feet.  “Taking a break,” he announced without preamble, and creaked his way out the door.

Karl Genz vaguely scandalized, watched him go.  Who could walk away from this puzzle, this conundrum, particularly when they’d enjoyed such a breakthrough already?  Karl would stay on-task and in-seat until his legs atrophied, if he had to.

“You’ll have to forgive him,” said Beatrice, who’d taken Obo’s vacated perch.  “I have already.  This seat is so warm.”

“We are trying to answer an important question.  Leaving one’s post strikes me as…inappropriate.  Under the circumstances,” he finished haltingly.

“When you’re as old as he is, you’ll understand.  You won’t have the same urgency.  The creaks and pops, feeling tired every afternoon.  Nosing down towards an end, which is especially hard to see when you’re still climbing.”

“How old are you?”

She snorted.  “Who in the galaxy asks a woman that?”

“I was curious.”

“Too bad.  You’re not getting an answer.  Older than you, that’s all you need to know.  Younger than Lorena if anyone asks,” Beatrice snickered.

“I do not know this for certain, but you have known each other for many years?”

“She might say too many.”

“And you are her friend.  But sometimes it does not seem you act that way.”

“Complicated girl, what can I say?”

“This is not to judge.  I merely want to understand,” Karl shrugged.  “I do not have many friends, but they are always my friends.  For my own part, I try to keep relationships simple.”

“Let me guess: stable upbringing, parents still together, a life of general privilege and comfort?”

“A good guess.”

“Then consider this: maybe you can keep everything simple because it’s always been simple.  And you go on expecting that from others.  Which is fine, as far as it goes, but not everyone gets to pick out life’s best parts and ditch the rest.”

Karl had turned red and presently looked at the floor.  His hands had migrated from the console to his lap.  Beatrice rolled her eyes and coaxed him: “That’s not to judge, though it might sound that way.  Offer anyone in the universe better cards, they’ll take ‘em.  I mean you’d do well to think, at all times, from a perspective truly removed.  Do the hard work it takes to invert that angle, to place yourself somewhere else entirely.  Under a wholly different set of rules.”

“I do not think that is something I can do.”

“Sure you can.  It’s in your head—you know you’re bad with people and that becomes an excuse not to engage.  You telling me you’re not smart enough?  Because neither of us believes that.  So, let’s try something you won’t spook at: that.”  She swiveled in her seat and reached out a thin scarlet-sleeved arm to point at the Ouro station, hovering in wire-frame diagram on Karl’s screen.

He squinted at it, looked back to her.  “You will need to be more specific.”

“Uh huh.  What do you think you’re looking at?”

“A transmitter.”

“Okay, what does a transmitter do?  It sends something out.  What’s it sending out?”

“That is the point of this!” Karl was growing frustrated.  “That is the question we are trying to answer!”

“Stay with me, süsser Junge.  It’s sending out something, but there’s nothing coming back.”

“Impossible to know.  The photino bird’s reaction may be to one type of non-baryonic activity, picked up by dumb luck.  There may be a hundred other signals passing undetected through us each moment.”

“You’re getting mired in specifics.  Think outside of the transmitter; what kind of device shares its characteristics, but emits signals it doesn’t expect to receive?”

Karl pondered, eyes narrowed to slits, chewing gently on his cheek’s fleshy interior.  “The best answer I can produce,” he said at last, “is an active scanner.  But that hypothesis has its own problems.”

“Such as?”

“Why the Ouro would deploy a scientific installation here, of all places.  Even if they are observing something we cannot, as seems likely, I cannot imagine why a depleted Ouro A.I. would send us to such a facility.”

“Maybe you need a bigger, better imagination.”

 “Perhaps the A.I. was attempting to retrieve help.  Perhaps this is merely the closest port.”

“If it’s a port, where’s the traffic?  One docking bay and a giant non-baryonic array?  You’re focused on the wrong things, Karl.  Losing the thread.”

“None of the thread makes the first bit of sense,” he growled before settling himself.  “Very well.  A scanner will examine either local or remote phenomena.  Unique objectives typically warrant specialized scanning patterns.”

“Like what?”

“The basic sphere pulse for EMs.  Figure-eight sorting for tightbeam lasers.  That kind of thing.  So, maybe…” his head fell back, his mouth opened and closed, he licked his lips.  And then he sat up abruptly, raising pale pianist’s fingers to hammer a quick query on his console.

“We aren’t moving,” he announced.  “Not relative to the station.  So the pulse’s period regularity would suggest a spherical approach.”

“It suggests but doesn’t prove.  Think about pulsars.  Bright as hell and regular as clockwork so long as you’re sitting in the stream’s path.  Move a ways and you’ll never even know it exists.”

“An excellent point.  That is the place to start,” Karl bobbed his head like a happy parakeet as he snatched his handy from the desk and thumbed the voice-comm icon.

*          *          *          

            “Oh, hey,” Vivek Mohinder heard the chime in his right hip pocket and contorted in his seat to pull it out.  His face screwed up in puzzlement.  “It’s Genz.”

            "Apologies.  Vivek Mohinder is currently unavailable,” Ashley droned.  “Aww, you’re gonna regret this,” she clucked as he took the link anyway.

            “Mohinder.”

            “Sir, I would like to make a request.”

            “You’re requesting to make a request?”

            “I…yes, sir.  Mister Obo and myself have isolated a non-baryonic discharge, likely from the Ouro facility.  It continues with a period of some seventeen seconds.”

            “That’s great.  What do you need from me?”

            “I am attempting to determine whether the discharge is propagational or focused in emission, and have only limited tools to do so.  I therefore request that Konoko be moved from her present location.”

            “To where?”

            “Sir, I cannot be certain.  As the discharge is non-baryonic in nature, we have only the observed period to work with.”

            Vivek frowned.  “Doctor Mizrahi put us in a hold and hasn’t given any contravening instructions.”

            “If she is opposed, I will withdraw my request,” Karl’s voice strained with impatience.  “But unless you are actively pursuing a better lead, I believe she would support this course of action.”

            “Probably would,” Ashley remarked.

            “Genz, I’ll need something more detailed than ‘fly around a bit.’”

            “Sir, with all honesty, it may be just that easy.  We don’t need to get any closer.  Simply pacing the perimeter at a constant distance may narrow the possibilities.”

            “Speed?”

            “Irrelevant, in theory.  Two percent C?

            “Okay, will do.  Should be in motion momentarily.  Mohinder out,” he said, severing the link before he turned to Ashley.  “What are the chances this goes horrifically wrong?”

            “Negligible,” she deadpanned.  “For any other crew, at least.  On this boat it’s at least ten percent, and double that for any idea birthed in Genz’s misshapen head.”

            Vivek laughed out loud.  “Oh, be nice.  It’s not misshapen.”

            “Not really—like, it’s symmetrical, it’s not monstrous.  But it’s so big and his brow’s so prominent, and the back kind of has that bulge to it.  It just sort of takes you aback with how straightforwardly cumbersome it is, like a French horn or something.  Big and awkward like the rest of him.”

            Vivek did his best to program the flight computer through the tears in his eyes, the aching muscles in his cheeks.  Laughing so hard he reminded himself to breathe.

*          *          *          

            Zachariah Obo lay back on the firm, broad-topped sofa with hands clasped behind his own neck, fingertips kneading sore pressure points like penance could be wrung from the muscle.  He arched his spine and felt a cascade of pops, components jarring into place.  There was the sound and sensation of a steel cable, tensed and twanged.  His doctor had recommended a course of nanomachine therapy, but the Corps wouldn’t pay for the treatments unless he committed to another five years.  Five commissioned, full-duty years of touring, all for a dollop of borrowed time.  Those tiny robots sanded their way through scar tissue, buttressed cartilage and lubricated inflamed joints, but their ministrations could only do so much.  After a certain age, the human body grew remarkably determined to destroy itself.  Money bought time, but the returns swiftly diminished.  Obo could think of better ways to spend money, and the Corps’ offer of time for time held even less appeal.

            At the new sound he sat up abruptly, paraspinal muscles threatening to spasm under the sudden strain.  Most of the crew wouldn’t have heard; no stranger to Konoko could possibly have picked up the superstatic keen.  Her engines were in motion.

            “Why’re the thrusters up?” he demanded of Vivek Mohinder the instant their handys connected.

            “Burning us to point-oh-two C,” the X.O. replied.  “Just running a circle around the station.”

            “Why?”

            There was a pause.  “For you and Genz.”

            “What?” Obo was flummoxed for only a moment before striking himself in the forehead.  “Jesus, what did he tell you?”

            “Karl?  That you were on a non-baryonic discharge and he wanted the ship moved to test propagation.  Is that not right?”

            “I’m sure he said that, but he didn’t say shit to me.”

            “Oh.  Well, I’m sorry.  He said you were working together.”

            “We were; I stepped out for a moment and he must have run himself off the rails.  Did the station respond?”

            “Not yet.  We’re holding distance, just flying a perimeter pattern.  If anything’s changed on your end, I assume Genz will be the first to know.”

            Obo strode from his room, clattered down the stairs and swept his way like a storm front down the corridor to the Computer Suite.  “Why is my ship moving?” he called loudly enough for Karl to hear his approach.

            “I asked Mister Mohinder to test a hypothesis,” the Scanner tech’s demeanor was bright and earnest, seemingly oblivious to Obo’s vitriol.

            Which left the older man no happier.  “And you didn’t think for one moment about security.  About all the bad shit that could happen if the Ouro get offended.  Or worse: nervous.  That station’s probably illegal and who knows how they’ll act?”

            “I have seen no evidence—“

            “Stop it!  Jesus!” Obo bellowed.  “I know you’re a clever boy.  I know you think you’re clever enough to argue your way through everything.  I’m sick of it.  Try to imagine for one moment—one solitary moment in your sheltered life—that what you want is not the most important thing in the universe.  That other things and other people depend on you.  That every time you follow your instincts, you step right over the rest of us.”

            “With respect, Mister Obo, I perceive this among my duties.  My role demands a certain degree of independence.”

            “How convenient for your ‘role’ to warrant anything you want to do at the moment you want to do it.  This is Federal service, not the Academy.  Not some intellectual journey.  What we do has real consequences.  You’ve already compromised operational and computer security.  This shit could start a war.”

            “I understand, sir.  And I apologize for not consulting you, but you had stepped out and I am aware you dislike interruption.  Particularly from myself,” he finished, and did his best to meet the other man’s eyes though the deck suddenly held wondrous appeal.

            Obo sighed; evaluating, somewhat chastened.  He’d thought his outburst fair, but had to admit he disliked the big blond stork.  What’s more, he had to admit he’d made it plain.  It was not the way a senior Technician should treat his junior, but lately he’d lacked the energy.  “Well,” he said, phlegmilly clearing this throat as a crude transition, “since we’re moving, what do you see?”

            Instantly the mirth returned to Karl’s face; a smirk dimpled his cheeks and his shoulders rose up squarer.  He pointed to the live video feed of Coleridge in his vacuum cage.  A digital timer ran at the bottom, hundredths of each second whirring by with the half-predictable flickering fluidity of an open flame.  26, read the leading figure—and counting.

            “Once displaced, we lost the signal,” he explained, his cadence accelerating.  “And did not pick it up for forty-two seconds.  We are at twenty-six on this period.  The anomalous field is not a sphere.  The station cannot be a transmitter.  It is actively searching for something.”

NEXT TUESDAY: WITH THIS NEW KNOWLEDGE IN HAND, HOW TO USE IT? KONOKO'S INTREPID CREW EVALUATE THEIR OPTIONS AND TAKE A MAJOR GAMBLE. THOUGH I'VE ONLY HAD USE OF ONE ARM FOR THE LAST WEEK, "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES ON SCHEDULE!