Purples and greens, oranges and reds, a rich palette of browns—flying sails waft in the breeze. They quake to their own internal rhythms like the steaming ribs of clustered livestock. From this close perspective, the colors stretch as far as the eye can see. Square miles of flesh billow with an infinitely textured richness that threatens to overwhelm. Gas sacs line the exterior, millions upon millions, helping to keep the great assemblage lighter than the surrounding air. Cilia pulse, apertures open and close and suck atmosphere through capillary passages where every last scrap of oxygen will be extracted. Aerobic metabolisms are demanding mistresses, after all.
“It’s disgusting up close,” says Uma. “I imagined it differently, from far away.”
Karl Genz presses himself up against the gondola’s window, feels the glass startlingly cool on his nose and brow. The twin suns Eos and Aeolus shine brightly and the clouds forming this world’s floor glow warm as dawn. It’s difficult to remember the weather outside is colder than anywhere on Earth. “What don’t you like about it?”
“Far away, it was this big thing in the distance. This big colorful balloon. Now you can see the skin. You can see the pores in the skin. And there’s just so much of it, I feel it wants to swallow us.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Karl snaps. Of course it’s ridiculous. This is a creature, after all—what the Explorer Corps Codex termed an Autonomous Colonial Organism (ACO)—so naturally it’s going to be made from organic tissue. What could Uma possibly expect?
“What’s ridiculous, Karl?” she asks innocently.
Karl does not see the trap. “That you would expect anything else,” he grouchily declares, irritated she doesn’t share his excitement. The ACOs of Eurus were widely considered a minor wonder of the galaxy. She should be excited, he knows. “And nobody has ever been eaten. It can’t eat us. It doesn’t even have a mouth.”
Uma sighs. She crosses her arms, crosses the gondola’s narrow sun deck to stare out the far side. Away from Karl, away from the vast animal hovering high in Eurus’ troposphere. She looks instead down through the rosy top layer to those denser clouds throbbing contusion-purple: methane, ammonia, nitrogen fog flitting in and out of a fluid state. She tries to appreciate the rays schooling about the gondola, curious as to how this whirring brassy machine found its way to their ancestral home. Generations had lived and died congregating about the floating leviathan, feeding on the bustling ecosystem it hosted. So many air sacs summed up to nearly infinite surface area, lovingly warmed, much of it moist. Microbes had a field day and wherever they flourished, more life bloomed. Staggering volumes of biomass transacted their way through the host creature each hour; profits could not help but accrue in the efficiencies evolution produces. Uma does her best to appreciate this, but fails. As a doctoral candidate in Nanochemistry, she understands the draw of science, but this particular niche of xenobiology leaves her cold. Eight months with Karl have taught her his fixations are easiest indulged, so here they are. She will travel on from Eurus to neighboring Zephyrus, larger and colder, where microbial life has thrived hold in a toxic anoxic soup. That’s more her speed. Karl has already passed on that portion of the trip; he’s headed back to Earth, his plans made and tickets booked before he breathed a word to her. This is the sort of thing to which she’s grown accustomed. She knows he has redeeming qualities and has to this point calculated they outweigh the rest.
Karl, for his part, is mesmerized by the scale of life before his eyes. He sees the colony’s rippling mass, eons in the making though no single polyp of the whole was more than a few years old. He thinks about how this happened; the mindless persistence overriding every steep challenge and long odd. He marvels at the beauty of seemingly random arrangement, how his own brain manages to be utterly different from everyone else’s yet still retain its basic function. In this moment matter’s shape seems driven by necessity. By what Karl would never in a hundred lifetimes call the hand of God.
* * *
There were six of them: six pods, egg-shaped, held equidistant from one another by long pylons extending from an enormous spherical hub. The station hung in situ, a moonlike mass over an otherwise barren gas giant. An ephemeral halo of dust and detritus encircled the world, closer to the equator while the Ouro station waited near one pole. Built from the same dark vat-grown material as the aliens’ ship hulls, it bore no visible thrusters, lights or viewport. A small docking bay—relatively to the installation’s larger mass, as the bay doors could have swallowed a Navy frigate—was clammed shut on the core’s underside. No other Ouro craft tripped Konoko’s sensors.
“None?” Lorena asked skeptically.
“None, Doctor,” Karl replied from his seat on the Bridge. She’d called them all here; all but Maxi Leaf, who had the good sense to stay quietly away.
“Just the station, then. Still, that’s one hell of a thing.”
“One hell of an illegal thing,” added Vivek.
Anxiety stabbed at Lorena’s heart as she thought of something. “Maybe. Do we know for certain we’re still in the Open Territory?”
Ashley Duggins spoke up. “I’m sure. We’re close, but ‘close’ in this case should still mean a couple hundred Lears. Not like the border runs through this system and that monster’s just on the far side.”
“Throw out the A.I.’s map and use our native star charts.”
“Fine, but you’ll see what I mean,” Ash got to working on the Navigation console.
“Does it really matter what the law says?” Zach Obo asked sardonically from his post at the crowded room’s rear. “We’re in no position to enforce it. That’s not a pack of scavs,” he concluded, glancing quickly over his shoulder, concerned Maxi might be lurking.
“There we go,” Ashley replaced the vis-light telescope’s image on the big screen with the Explorer Corps’ official O.T. chart.
“There we go, indeed,” Lorena nodded slowly.
Vivek scratched at his chin. “Maybe they’ve got a different idea of where the border lies?”
“Could be. But like Obo said, there’s very little to be gained from an aggressive approach. We should ask ourselves instead: what’s it doing here?”
“Military outpost or colony habitat,” the X.O. suggested.
“The installation’s power profile is most consistent with neither,” said Karl. “A large power plant, with batteries of backups, but they’re all in the center module and if I can see them at this range, they cannot be heavily shielded.”
Obo shook his head. “There’s nothing to fight out here. And it wouldn’t be easy moving that thing around. No engines, right?”
“Nothing identifiable as drive ports, no. Microthrusters only, for positioning rather than long-distance travel. Markedly different from the standard Ouro procedure of short, high-speed dives.”
“I don’t see any weapons either. So scrap the military explanation,” Lorena stood from her seat, crossed her arms over her chest and started pacing slowly in the tiny scrap of open deck available. “What else would draw that kind of power?”
Ashley pondered a long moment. “Maybe it’s a way station. Automated. Re-supplying Ouro Navy patrols or something.”
“Then why put it here?” Obo objected. “Could just as easily drop it on their side of the border, cut out the risk of being found.”
“Like Vee said, maybe they disagree on where the border is.”
“More ideas, Lorena pressed them. “I’d like to figure out what we’re doing quickly, so we’re not surprised when they do something. Like invade our computer.”
“All our firewall channels are closed. There is no risk at present,” Karl sniffed, sensitive after the incident prior. “And in any event, I see no outbound transmissions. Not even a passive invitation to handshake.”
That surprised Lorena. “Normally they’re busy little bees. Curious, I mean. Their A.I.s, certainly.”
“Unless it is tightbeaming with another craft we have not detected, the installation is ganz ruhig. No broadcasts. Which I will confess is frustrating, as I had thought it could be a communication device. A transmitter.”
“Could be a transmitter turned off,” Ashley pulled the star chart and once again the Ouro station filled the big screen, slightly blurry and warped by gravity lensing, the flat of its disc staring Konoko down like a malevolent eye.
“We’re not going anywhere or doing anything,” Lorena announced, “until we have a better idea what we’re looking at.”
Vivek raised an index finger in the air. “I should note: given this station’s almost certainly illegal nature, we’d be justified bugging out and taking these coordinates to Navy.”
Lorena considered it, clucking her tongue. “Waste of time,” she concluded after a moment. “It’ll be a month to find a blue boy patrol and still longer to do anything about this. And I can’t imagine Contact taking kindly to that diversion.”
“Yes, ma’am, if you say so.”
“I do!” she forced a warm smile, doing her best to bolster their spirits through such uncertainty. “Tend to any errands you’ve got. Things that’re quick, that can’t wait. Get those done and then this is our Priority One. Man the scanners, hit the Codex, whatever it takes. Figure out what we’re looking at, and then we’ll figure out how to deal with it.”
* * *
Maxi Leaf sat in the docking bay, in Konoko’s ever-humming belly, reading from her tablet. It wasn’t hers exactly—nothing on the ship was, save for her handy, her pressure suit and the skintight one-piece she’d worn beneath it. That wasn’t appearing in the clipper’s corridors; absolutely not. Just imagining the look she’d get from Lorena made her mad, and yet she’d kept the thing for reasons she’d have preferred not to articulate. She’d settled instead for the smallest uniform spares, still oversized and conspicuously missing any identifying details. Maxi was left looking like she’d borrowed an older sibling’s pajamas.
She was catching up on the recently concluded basketball season, accounts of which had been transferred to Konoko during her meeting with TNV Nimbus. Small conveniences seemed heaven-sent, privacy most among them, and so she was irked to hear the steady clanks of thick-soled work shoes on decking.
“Hi,” she called as Obo came into view and descended the steps from catwalk to bay floor. She didn’t want to be a rude shock and neither did she want to seem scurrilously eager to avoid oversight. As if such a thing were even possible; as the sole non-officer aboard a Federal service vessel, she alone was exempt from professional courtesy. The clipper’s computer silently, benignly, tracked her every breath. It had to, for the inevitable inquest should anything terrible befall her.
“Morning,” he answered after an infinitesimal double-take. In a very particular spot on a small green island in Earth’s North Atlantic Ocean, it was indeed late morning, and that arbitrary standard was good enough for the ship’s clock.
“Just reading down here, trying to stay out of your hair. Which I guess isn’t working.”
“It’s no problem,” he shrugged.
“I’ll head upstairs to my cabin,” she started to rise off the stacked equipment boxes heretofore supporting her lumbar spine.
“It’s no problem.”
Obo moved to a different box, released its catches with his thumbs, hoisted up the lid and doubled over to immerse himself head-to-waist in its spacious interior. Maxi watched, heard him rummage amongst heavy-sounding objects. At last he emerged with a metal cylinder like a track baton thickened at each end, painted a serious matte black and studded with small buttons. With a satisfied grunt he closed the box and re-sealed its lid.
“Neutrino scanner,” he explained, prompted by her curious look. “Konoko’s got her own, but with particles that rare it’s nice to go local. Might get something new in a different compartment.”
“I see,” she nodded attentively despite having just been distracted by Coleridge in his cage. The photino bird glowed radiant green, washed that green like liquid chlorophyll from tail to head and followed it with a deep, bassy pulse of purple. Whether it was a trick of her eyes or just tightly spaced photophores she couldn’t be sure, but it seemed the colors washed together in cross-currents over his fleshy wings until green was purple, purple green and she could not honestly spot the contradiction.
“Genz asked about it,” Obo continued, meaning the sensor in his hand, “but I knew he’d never find it on his own. Maybe should’ve made him try,” he smiled to himself.
“If I were you, I’d do whatever it took to keep that oddball in his happy place.”
“Ehh, few folks ever pick who they work with,” he shrugged.
“Truer words never spoken,” she agreed, finding her eyes once again snapped up by the bird’s color display. Another wave: green, purple. The miscegenation thereof.
“Sorry,” she cleared her head with a single emphatic shake and looked back to the Systems Tech with a sheepish smile. “I’m getting distracted by sparkly things. Guess I’m just a flighty girl after all.”
“I saw it too,” he stepped to the cage and bent down for a better look.
His sudden interest surprised her. “Does it not normally do that?”
“Don’t recall seeing those colors exactly. That’s bright even for him.”
“Well, who knows why these critters—“ Maxi pulled up short as Coleridge flared again. Verdant light seared their eyes for a moment until the following nightshade cloaked it.
“—do anything. Like that,” she finished lamely.
Obo lowered himself slowly, heavily, to sit on a box. He leaned in and watched the photino bird, saying nothing but silently moving his lips nonetheless. He shaped one word at a time with short pauses between and nodded his head in rhythm with them. Maxi watched him, curious. She saw he was counting.
Coleridge flared a fourth time and now Maxi struggled to imagine this was meaningless. “Wow. What do you think—“
Obo hushed her with a raised hand, still counting, unwilling to lose his place. At the fifth flare he spoke softly: “Seventeen seconds, thereabouts.” They waited for the sixth and at that he gave an emphatic nod. “Little more than seventeen.”
“It’s going like clockwork,” she said softly, with a hint of wonder.
“Guessing you think there’s a good reason.”
“Everything around here’s got a damn reason,” he grumbled. “The trick’s sussing them out. Good news is, Cole won’t lie about it. That’s more than you’ll ever get from an Emissary.”
“You ran into an Emissary? A Contact Emissary?”
“Is there another kind?” Obo hurried to his console and began flipping through menus. He pulled up Konoko’s internal camera footage from the equipment bay, rifled through it and swiftly found the very first moment Coleridge had flared. The sheer brilliance made it fairly obvious.
“Jesus, you guys are truly cursed.”
“It’s been a topic of some discussion,” he said with a bitter half-smile.
* * *
Karl Genz arrived some minutes later, having immediately resisted Obo’s summons. He preferred to stay in the Computer Suite and attempted to litigate the precise reasons why his physical presence wasn’t strictly required, but a dose of gruffly implied menace from the senior Tech swayed him.
“What exactly is it you mean for me to see?” he clanked impatiently down the steps, long grasshopper legs pumping up and down.
Maxi watched him descend. “Give it a moment.”
Karl looked her up and down like she had no business being there. “Mister Obo said something about the photino bird—is that it?” he asked as Coleridge flared.
“That’s it,” said Zach Obo from his console, where he attempted to line up internal video with external sensors.
“It is very pretty. Why is it worth my time?”
“It’s worth our time,” Obo deadpanned, “because it’s going in a perfect rhythm. Seventeen seconds and change, regular out to thousands of a second.”
“According to the internal cams, he only started once we got in-system.”
“Really?” Maxi frowned. “When we came out of dive, I was already here. And I didn’t notice anything until after you came down.”
“We kept the C-H core hot for fifteen minutes after emergence, just in case we needed to bounce. There’s some interference going along with that. You missed a few flares, not many. Check the timestamps, you’ll see the first flare happens eleven seconds after I shut down the core.” He stood back to let Karl examine the console.
Maxi and Obo watched the big German’s rime-blue eyes slowly relax their skeptical squint. “You glad we had you come down?” she couldn’t help but snark.
Karl barely noticed, lost as he was in the apses and transepts of his own skull. Linking the console to Konoko’s sensors, he saw he couldn’t fit all the displays on a single screen. But this was fortuitous; he didn’t, he realized, need all or even most of them. He’d have seen regular pulse along the electromagnetic spectrum’s broad breadth. It would have been obvious. The answer therefore had to lie in either dark matter or the so-called “exotics”—material his tools struggled to detect.
“They’re staring, you know,” Beatrice’s voice came like an open window’s cold draft. “Just tell them what you think. I guarantee it’ll make more sense than any ideas they cook up themselves.”
“What we have,” he spoke carefully, leery of pushing his conclusions further than warranted, “is a local body emitting concentrated non-baryonic matter. We cannot know what precisely that body is, as it may itself be undetectable, but in the absence of evidence we will prefer the simplest solutions.”
Maxi softly clucked her tongue. “Simplest being, it’s the Ouro station.”
“I believe we are best served proceeding down that avenue, yes.”
“But it’s done nothing except light Cole up. Nothing we can see, anyway. So why send it? A transmission? That seems simplest, unless the Ouro are building giant stations to talk to photino birds.”
“It best fits the evidence,” Karl agreed. “It was one of our first ideas, fitting the power profile and general layout. We rejected it for lack of EMs, but obviously things have changed. It would appear that conclusion was hasty, however warranted in the moment.”
Obo nodded understanding. “All right. We’ve got a good idea, but it’s not solid all the way through. I don’t want to bother the C.O. with anything less than solid.”
Beatrice chortled. “That’s our girl, always low-key and hands-off.”
“I am sure Doctor Mizrahi would want to know—“ Karl objected.
“If she asks what you’re working on, by all means. We’re a long way home and way out on a limb, dealing with aliens we can’t understand. We don’t move until we know what kind of ground we tread. When we speak to the C.O., we don’t speculate.”
NEXT TUESDAY: KONOKO AND HER CREW DELVE INTO THE NEWEST MYSTERY HOVERING BEFORE THEM! LORENA'S SUSPICIONS OF BEATRICE DEEPEN AS THE INCREASINGLY MYSTERIOUS WOMAN PURSUES HER OWN AGENDA. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" SOARS ONWARD!