One move and he’s off to the races. The other boy relaxes for a moment, straightens his stride, lazily watches the ball without an eye on his mark. With that opening Vivek cuts inside, gains the first crucial step and burns hard down the green. The ball arrives precisely when and how it needs to—backspun, softly squeaking as it skips off grass into the space ahead. With a burst of speed Vivek is on it, pushing it ahead, careful to do no more than graze his toe tips on it. He knows he always hits the ball too hard. He always loses control.
Here and now, for the first time he can remember, his way his cleared. No defenders stand between him and the goal save the keeper himself: a fat classmate made small and feeble under the hulking frame. Vivek rushes in towards the goal. He takes the proper angle, hears his mark’s whuffing breaths too far behind to make a difference, hears too a high-pitched call from the far sideline. Jenny Schurrle is there, he knows—flushed from the running she’s done, resplendent in her short red shorts. Her legs are so pale and long and straight and smooth. He always wants to look at her, but looking at her means looking at those legs and he’s gathered girls don’t like that. Which makes no sense to young Vivek; if he possessed some similarly lovely feature (he does not) he’d certainly want others to notice. But this is not how girls operate, he has learned only through painful experience. They always seem to want different things from what he wants. They are always so difficult, the path forward pitted with potholes, challenges piling up until failure seems certain. That’s how he normally feels about football, too, but today is clearly his day. His path is clear.
It’s the moment of truth; he’s near enough. His angle will not improve and the fat boy has begun to trundle from the goal to close him out. Swooping in on the left wing, Vivek knows he will shoot with his right foot. From a full dash he authoritatively plants his left foot, the right rearing snakelike back to strike. He is utterly focused on the ball and on the topmost surface of the striking shoe. There is no way for him not to score.
But the planting foot doesn’t plant. It slides instead. His body weight flying full speed is enough to overcome his shoe’s friction with the ground. For it is only a shoe, after all—not a proper boot, Vivek’s forgotten his pair at home today—and the diligently watered grass owes it no loyalty. He kicks at the ball, frantic to score before he slides past it entirely, making only the most glancing contact. Driven into the ground more so than across it, the ball takes off at a high, useless chop. Tons of sidespin. Vivek, too long and lanky for football, can’t keep himself upright. His feet fly out from under him and he lands, hard, on his ass. The ball, for its part, bounces out of bounds without the fat keeper needing to touch it. Everyone is laughing. Vivek laughs too, is sure to laugh the hardest of all, desperate for them to believe he’s in on the joke.
“Oh my God, Vivek.”
He looks up at Jenny Schurrle. Such a pretty girl deserved a better surname, he’d long believed: something a little less redolent of blowing one’s nose. He’s come out of the game and now sits along the sideline. Other children wanted to play and his heart was no longer in it.
“That was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
That can’t be true, Vivek thinks but does not say. “Thanks,” he gulps instead. What a pathetic response. He wishes for Oberon’s crust to open and swallow him whole. He hopes she’ll move out of the way when it happens; terrible waste, otherwise.
“And I thought it was great how you laughed too. When you fell.”
“Well, I set it up.”
“No you didn’t.” Of course he didn’t. What an obvious lie. What a stupid fucking thing to say. Instantly his ears burn.
“But that was smart,” she continues. “Most people wouldn’t think of it.”
“Thanks. I like to laugh.” What the fuck did that mean? It’s as though somebody else is speaking through his mouth, having an entirely different conversation.
“You’re good at it. Making everyone laugh, I mean. Not, like, you’re good at laughing.” Of course she didn’t mis-speak. She is a perfectly beautiful creature and she never mis-speaks. Not like him.
“Thanks.” He cannot manage to start a reply with any other word.
“Last week, in English class? When we were doing that old play and you read the cop out loud? Remember?”
“Dogberry,” Vivek manages his first intelligent response and leaves it there, quitting while he’s ahead.
“Right. You were so funny, that voice you did—I literally peed my pants.” She does not mean “literally” in the literal sense.
“Thanks.” He’s happy to have gotten that much out. He can barely breathe.
“Hey!” she shouts so suddenly he jumps. “I’m in next!” Someone has just scored a goal—imagine that!—and Jenny wants to sub in. “See ya,” she says to Vivek, and jogs away onto the field. He feels he should say something more, anything more to keep her near, but instead just watches her recede. He drowns in himself.
* * *
“Last call,” Lorena said over Konoko’s ship-wide intercom. “Anyone?”
She waited, got back only silence. Thumbing the handset again, reading from a list on her handy screen: “All right then, since nobody’s got anything to add, here’s the final rundown. Acknowledge when I state one of your tasks. One: Genz soft reboots the computer, checks de-frag, full band sensor diagnostics.”
“Affirmative,” she heard Karl reply.
“Two: Obo brings up the drives. Thruster check, C-H conduction check.”
“Yes, ma’am. And the EVA checks after.”
“Right, we’ll get to that. Three: Mohinder and Duggins check our approach, confirm the emergence point. Plot a turnaround maneuver and exit dive if something goes wrong.”
“What could possibly go wrong? Confirmed,” she could hear the wry smile in Vivek’s voice and couldn’t spare the time to chide him.
“Four: Mizrahi—I’ll do full bio-prep for both Pilots in both pods. We’ll have Pilot Duggins take us to the emergence point with Pilot Mohinder standing by. Flight-ready.”
“Roger,” Ashley’s tone was flintily professional.
Vivek: “Got it.”
“Five: Obo does the EVA gear check. All Gryphon suits along with their deploy equipment. Maxine Leaf to assist on the checks.”
“Confirmed,” said Obo as Maxi echoed him in the background.
Lorena muttered to herself, her face lit green by scrolling text. She tried to account for anything that could possibly go wrong, for every screw and weld on her ship. “All right,” she said at last. “That’s everything on our schedule. All hands to your tasks; report back with your dive-ready checks. Mizrahi out.”
“All hands to your tasks,” Beatrice repeated once she’d replaced the handset. “All ducks in a row.”
Lorena plunked herself down in the Nav Suite’s big bucket seat. She plucked out her ring of hair elastic, snapped it around her wrist while she ran fingers through the frizzing mess, gathered what loose sprigs she could and yanked them impatiently back into a low-density bun. Back went the hair tie. She rested elbows on her knees and heaved a sigh. “As well as they can be.”
“You feel prepared?”
Lorena shrugged. “Question of tense. I know we have prepared. No clue if we are. At this point I’m just covering the basics. We’ll roll with whatever the fuck happens next.”
“Whoof! Such language!” Bea feigned shock. “Things must really be getting to you.”
“I guess I did curse, huh?” her friend gave a bitter chuckle. “Honestly my head’s half here. I’m barely paying attention to what my mouth does.”
“Just be careful not to drool, babe.”
Pulling up the calibration forms on her console, Konoko’s resident physician started her winding way through the various entry fields. “I haven’t thought about the whole toll of events too much…well, what I should say is, I’ve tried not to think about it too much.”
“But failed, being you.”
“Right. And any time I asked myself what I could’ve done differently, there aren’t any good answers. I feel like we did our best at every turn. Where things went wrong, they went wrong all of a sudden in ways that even now frankly seem crazy. Which is probably a comment on me, right? If things keep going wrong over and over, the universal variable is you.”
Beatrice tapped her lower lip with a finger, thinking before speaking. “Remember your mother? That whole shit-show at the end?”
Lorena let out a long sigh and once she inhaled again there still seemed to be less of her. “Hadn’t thought about that for a long time. But yeah, everything with Uncle Diego. And then the banking crash, job loss, cancer. You’re right, the very worst things have a way of piling up.”
“Didn’t they used to say cancer would be cured in twenty years?”
“I think they’ve been saying that forever.” Silence fell as she worked her console, finished Ashley’s primary entry and created a new form for Vivek. One my one she filled the fields, freeing most of her brain to turn idle circles until—like a stick thrust through bicycle spokes—it hit upon something jarringly wrong.
“Hey, Bea,” she said, “When did I tell you about my mom?”
Her friend’s face said it was a stupid question. “Uhh, beats me. We’ve known each other forever, it’s a central event of your early life...it’d be odd if I didn’t know about it.”
“I don’t mean about it. It’s the way you said things…like you were there.”
“I was there. We’ve been together practically our whole lives.”
“Right. Practically. Not for everything. And we didn’t meet until after mom died.”
“Yes we did.”
“No we didn’t! Tell me the first time we met. Describe it.”
“Are you serious, Lor?”
“I am serious.” She looked, hard, at her friend. Golden-brown eyes met ice-brittle blue.
“That’s too bad, because honestly I can’t remember.”
“You’ve got the right historical anecdote from my life ready to deploy at the drop of a hat—my life, not yours—and you don’t remember how we met?”
“Dunno what to tell you, babe.”
Lorena glared, frustrated. “Well, I want you to think about it. Try very hard to remember. Because I remember.”
“What’s this about, Lor? Out with it, you know you’re shit with subterfuge.”
Beatrice had a worried look. That alone was enough to pique Lorena’s curiosity. “I guess I’m not always sure you have my best interests at heart.”
“And you want me to come up with this…why? Some kind of ham-handed loyalty test?”
“Because I want to know where my memories stop and yours start.”
“Cryptic as hell.”
“That being as it may…” Lorena shrugged. She gave no ground.
“Fine. You want to be a bitch, I’ll amuse myself elsewhere,” Beatrice huffed, walking slowly towards the door like she expected to be called back. It didn’t happen. Lorena looked back to the glowing green, unwilling to watch her friend leave. Guilt knifed at her insides. Always the guilt.
* * *
“Okay, looks great. Now do it again.”
“You heard me. It’s a fine plot, but we need a second.”
“Okay,” Ashley didn’t bother concealing her irritation. She stabbed at the console, returned to the present spot on the star map and had Konoko start a fresh Nav plot. “Anything special, or do you just want a second?”
“I want an escape contingency in case the mass profiles don’t line up with what we expect. We don’t want to find ourselves ad-libbing around an occlusion.”
“If we run in and things go south, we bail. If the geography prevents it, lock in the second course and bail.”
“Fine. Makes sense.” She touched her right middle fingertip to the console and with it she drew the start of a fresh gold line. Her left hand ran down the screen’s edge, slowly rotating the two-dimensional map to let the computer know where exactly in 3-D space she meant to go.
“So,” she started without looking back at him, “not to tempt fate, but if we’re near the end of this mission, what’ll you do for vacation?”
“Hadn’t thought about it.”
“Come on! They’ve got to at least double the standard leave. Six months, Vee!”
“This is beyond premature.”
Ashley was undaunted. “You and Maxi could set something up. Long getaway together?”
“What?” he screwed up his face, incredulous. He understood her thrust but not why she’d say anything so absurd.
“Only a suggestion.”
“Bullshit. What the hell was that?”
“Just thought you two would have fun. And I hear she’ll be unemployed!”
“Miss Leaf could very well be facing charges. And that’s still outrageous.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Okay. You’re right, it’s ridiculous. I’m making all of this up, for fun.”
“Making what up?”
“See, now you’re interested!” she chirped. He rolled his eyes as she continued: “We went down to the bay a couple days back to see Cole. You were in the pod. We got to talking, and the type of questions she asked…well, it was like she was trying to learn about you. Whether you’re…attached.”
“Seems out of character. She really asked you that?”
“Not in so many words. With those things, there are ways to work around the edges. I know because I’ve done it. I think every woman’s done it. Guys are just such blunt objects, they can’t pull it off.”
“And you told her what?”
“I let her know you’re single without giving away the game. You can’t give away the game,” she explained as though he’d have any idea what she meant.
“Well, it’s neither here nor there,” he shook his head, tried to mentally bury the conversation. “Nothing can come of it.”
“Hey, I’m not saying anything will. Just keeping my ear to the ground, sir,” she giggled and mimed a salute. He glared; she laughed harder and went back to her winding golden plot.
Vivek watched her work a minute, knotted his brows and frowned. “Did you save the last plot? The first escape route.”
“Uhh, I think I did.”
“You sure? Because there’s usually an icon in the upper left when a data set’s already locked into memory. If it’s not there you’ll have to re-do it.”
Ashley frowned, pulled up a menu, checked an action history and then slowly lowered her head until it clonked on the console deck. “Fawwwwk.”
* * *
Maxi Leaf gnawed her lip, checking each seal by hand. Her own purple suit had been quick and easy enough, but the Gryphons presented thornier problems. She was a small woman, after all, and Konoko’s standard gravity turned each meticulously engineered component to an awful kludge. They had to be pressed up against each other, the “male” and “female” ends, and lifting with one hand while guiding with the other she couldn’t keep one piece or the other from wobbling. Her work was painfully slow and she could tell Obo noticed. One piece against the other, slide the thumb seal over until it clicked and she heard a beep. Unseal in the opposite direction to a sharper beep: anxious, slightly aggrieved.
Obo came to check on her with two suits left. “How you faring?” he asked in a neutral tone.
“Slow,” she admitted, just so he’d know she knew. “Been a long time since I checked any EVA gear aside from my own.”
“Ever worked with a Gryphon?”
She snorted at that. “No. I’d only ever seen pictures ‘til two of ‘em show up on my ship. Still, it’s not the design. It’s the weight.”
“I’ll help you out with these,” he said, kneeling.
“No, you don’t need—“ Maxi started, but he’d already detached a boot from its slot on the magnetized rack. “Thanks,” she finished lamely.
He grunted in response and tested the seal in two fluid movements. She winced at her own inadequacy, focused and quickly slipped the pauldron she held into the breastplate’s corresponding slot before her treacherous hands had a chance to wobble it off course. Snick, beep, snick, boop. “Drives looking fine?” she asked. Obo was a blank slate to her, an inscrutable stone, and it made her uncomfortable. Conversation made him seem less threatening.
“Lately they’ve gotten the right mix of work and play. She’ll be good for whatever Cap’n wants and then some.”
Maxi thought she understood what this meant. “I imagine it’s nice hardware, yeah? Most of my ships were built around dinosaurs. A core’s fifth, sixth generation by the time it gets out to the Periphery.”
“I bet. Safety record’s half the reason I got into Federal service.”
“You’ve got a wife and kids, right?”
“Gotta make sure Dad comes home.”
“Mmm,” he replaced the last bit of the suit on its rack and moved to the other. Maxi was nearly finished with hers and tried to hurry, determined to get it done before he finished his second.
“Mine just took me along on the ships. It worked out, I guess, but hardly the best way to raise a daughter. Or anyone, I suppose. Yours are in Saturn sector, yeah?”
“Oh, wow. A lot of people would kill for that real estate. Did you grow up there?”
“Terra!” she exclaimed, using the official term. Nobody outside of the Core called it Earth. “That’s even more rarefied air. You’re lucky. It must have been nice.” Maxi finished her suit, felt a thrill run through her at having bested this contrived competition. She turned to Obo showing a wide grin but dropped it immediately upon seeing his expression. Where once he might have been stone—sturdy, solid and obstinate—now he stood a block of soul-dead iron.
“No,” he said. Gravel ran through his voice like down a river bed. “It wasn’t.”
* * *
“Best Tech,” she said, and they were off. Vivek felt the cold cloak settle on his shoulders. He felt the stars’ brush upon his flesh and he reached out to touch them, to haul on them like cracking reins. Konoko reared and screamed into a gallop, ionized hydrogen the dust plume rising behind her.
Four hours they spent in transit; four hours that might’ve been used for prep had Lorena been willing to risk the slightest malfunction. Konoko had served them well thus far; the little clipper had been just about the only cooperative factor in a big wide universe practically gnashing to do them all in. Four hours in transit; the Techs passed the time back-filing ship’s reports they’d left too long to linger. Lorena watched every throb of Vivek Mohinder’s heart, followed every draw of his lungs, lived every turn of the dive along with him as a high whine of anxiety played in her mind.
Konoko ran past nebulae, between the puttering embers of an ancient globular cluster. She passed by comets: a shoal of them broken apart from a larger iceberg, propelled together across the galaxy by inertia and gravity’s romance. As she hummed toward her destination—an unremarkable main-sequence star system—its indistinguishable mass swelled and atomized into asteroids, moons, planets. Vivek perceived the space between. He saw microns exploded to millions of miles. He let up on the reins, dropped Konoko’s speed low and brought her to the emergence point at the exact moment her computer dropped the Chen-Hau field. Still plugged into the pod with its incredible precision of input, he could feel every body in the system. He could turn them over in his hands, feel their familiar weight like worn old stones.
All but one. It defied his understanding, slipped from his grip like it were oiled and hovered in his sensorium obstinate, mocking, leering. Vivek could say very little about this thing and yet he knew precisely what it was.
NEXT TUESDAY: SHIT HAVING GOTTEN REAL, KONOKO'S CREW THROWS THEIR COLLECTIVE EFFORTS INTO INVESTIGATION. WHAT IS THIS--APPARENTLY ILLEGAL--FACILITY USED FOR? WHY HAVE FATE AND CIRCUMSTANCES CONSPIRED TO BRING THEM HERE? "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!