|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.”
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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!