|Credit: Robert D. Brown|
A two-faced clock shows 14:29 on its left and 07:56 on its right. From the platform Maxi Leaf feels vibrations crescendo through her feet. She knows the train won’t stop here; the so-called “express” routes run uninterrupted between the lakeside communities in the city’s south and the glittering financial center at its northern extreme. Tens of millions exist in the intervening expanse, concentrated into high-rise residential communities commissioned by the Isis planetary government, and for the most part they rely on the lines running perpendicular to the express routes. Citizens move west to east and east to west when they have to move at all, which is seldom. Building after mountainous apartment building stand in an ordered grid laid out before her, diorama-like past the station’s insulated plate glass. Each arcology is a community unto itself, a great conglomeration of needs serviced by citizens themselves. Sanitation, education, maintenance and countless other commercial niches manifest themselves at the scale of human want.
The train passes by at extreme speed and the platform hums a distinctive note—one that’s grown intimately familiar since her arrival on Isis. How many hours, she wonders, has she spent on these half-deserted platforms? Hundreds in just a few months. With most drones banned under the Employment Code and a population intensely unused to mobility, Kapadia Couriers provides the modestly moneyed people of Isis with an invaluable service—particularly if they value discretion. Maxi has generally noticed a connection between those traits: the wealthier people grew, the more eager they became to conceal how they spend that wealth. This makes for a lot of northward trips, from the Kapadia Couriers offices to the glass cathedrals of high finance looming on the horizon. It means waiting for the North C train.
The C line is a relic, a vestige of flawed urban design countless successive municipal regimes have failed to totally stamp out. It serves, to be fair, a valuable purpose for the handful of people living in the Urban Sector and working in the Financial Sector (an exception having been written into the Employment Codes for drone labor in the latter). C’s circuitous route covers as much of the Urban as convenience allows before turning northward, and those many stops pile atop a legendarily poor maintenance record to make the North C a unique tarnish on Isis City’s otherwise sterling transit system. Maxi understands patience is a virtue but has grown no more comfortable with it.
At 09:10 on the right clock face, it screeches up to the platform. The banks run on Terran GMT and by these standards she is late. Nothing to be done for it. Boxy cars with small rectangular windows set the North C apart from the express lines’ blurred, eerily quiet silver torpedoes. Maxi has joked the line will be retired the moment the last of these old trains finally gives up the ghost. She boards, flashes her personal transit pass by the door scanner and quickly decides against taking a seat. A few are open here and there, most bordered on at least one side by a visibly disturbed person. They often ride the North C from dawn to dusk just passing the time, like through these regimented migrations they might one day find holy land. A dark and unidentified fluid oscillates in the pit of one free seat with the stopped train’s leftover inertia. Maxi shifts her one-strap courier bag around to her belly and grips a support pole, leaning into it. Having staked out a claim to space, no man may ask her to cede it. The train lurches back into motion.
She watches the city pass the window, titanic structures crawling by with the exsanguinated grace of nimbus clouds. The train seems to hit every stop and at one point it halts completely, suspended at a great height by a thin ribbon of track. Maxi finds herself in a cold sweat with teeth gritted until it starts again. A spaceborne upbringing leaves one poorly equipped to deal with heights in gravity wells. Eventually a bend of the track brings the Financial Sector into view: the buildings squatter than in the city center, bracketed by moats of green vegetation and on-site recreational facilities. Selected by early settlers for her remarkably Earthlike climate and the minimal terraforming she’d require, Isis was the first world in the reach to be settled and has built this historical advantage into an enduring industry. A part of Maxi knows this isn’t strictly fair, but a second part reminds the first that this advantage pays her wages. Indeed, there’s barely a worker on the planet whose existence doesn’t in some way derive from the font of money pouring in from orbital datastreams. Some people swallow that fact easier than others.
She exits the train, passing under high arches and abstract murals aglow in the afternoon sun. The station isn’t much different from its Urban Zone counterparts—the police presence is noticeably heavier here, which she has never quite understood given the relatively few people passing through. Maxi is well within her delivery window but later than she’d prefer to be, and so she walks at a quick clacking pace in the heeled boots she wears to keep from being mistaken for a child. Hair gets in her eyes and she sweeps it away only to find the tips pinned painfully beneath her shoulder strap. The experiment in growing it out has coincided with the experiment in dirtside living. Give it a try, her mother had said in the missive. You need time to heal. At the moment she’s thrilled with neither.
“Who?” asks the private guard at the front desk, tucked into a ground-floor lobby under a glass edifice heaving skyward like a tidal wave. Boredom seeps into his tone.
“Yuswandari,” she repeats, irritated she’s got to.
“That a last name?”
“Yes.” Of course it is.
With a somnolent blink he manipulates a console screen turned away from her. “Okay, you’re good to go up. Fifty-seventh floor, follow the directory to Mister…Yuswandari’s office.”
“Got it. Thanks.” She adjusts her bag strap and steps away from the desk.
“Oh, hey,” he stops her short. She turns back. “You toss me some when you come back down?”
“When you’re done. You look real good and I know you gotta go up, but I’m just saying, when you head back down…what’s your rate?”
“I don’t understand,” she says, though she thinks she does. Her throat starts to constrict.
“Saying I’ve got a little room back there. Break room, yeah? I got cash.”
“I don’t do that.”
“Oh, fuck you,” he waves a hand, dismissing, holding his wide smile though it’s grown decidedly less friendly. “Said I got cash. You take his cash and not mine?”
She takes a moment to mentally unwind the wires ivying her jaw shut. “Dropping off a package,” she says stupidly. Like they’re having a discussion.
“Sure you are. I know just what kinda packages you handle. Girls like you.”
“Sorry,” she apologizes. With some urgency she jabs at the call button. In a rare act of mercy, the care is already waiting and the doors open immediately.
“Dumb fucking cunt,” she hears him grumbling to himself as they close. Why did she apologize? She is awfully dumb. As the car decelerates towards its arrival on the fifty-seventh floor, it dawns on her she’ll have to exit through the same door. She’ll need the guard to sign the Kapadia Couriers official manifest on her way out.
Maxi Leaf makes her way to the prescribed office, lays her satchel against the faux-wooden door with its brassy nameplate and leaves it there without knocking. She exits through a fire door as alarms howl awake, already paging through her handy to book a seat on an orbital shuttle, to message her mother and pre-empt her objections. After the next twenty-four hours, she will never set foot on Isis again.
* * *
Konoko knifed through space in her static-anchored Chen-Hau bubble, Ashley Duggins at the helm. She looped around suns and moons, sprinted through the gulfs between, skipped over hydrogen clouds gleefully scuffing her toes in the matter. Light years ticked by in Ashley’s HUD, part of the star map-derived Local Info window she’d tucked into the lower left corner. Vivek preferred more instrumentation, he’d told her—felt real responsibility to all the clipper’s systems. He was the X.O., after all, but Ashley found herself in the enviable position of Pilot. Junior, sure, but rank was responsibility and therefore encumbrance a distraction from the goal: flight.
Stimulants swelled her veins. Space’s shroud rested cool and light on her shoulders. With movements deft and subtle she shrugged off the masses laid on her like hands. She spurned their overtures and pushed ahead. The throttle slide under the middle finger of her left hand nudged up against its plastic ceiling, opening the thruster apertures as wide as they’d go. Ashley willed herself forward, unconsciously tightening her shoulders and drawing her legs together until her knees touched, assuming a slimmer profile that felt faster.
Approaching the Open Territory’s edge, the fact suddenly dawned that she was about to travel further afield than nearly every person in history. In purely mathematical terms this had long been true—one could qualify merely by stepping off one’s birth planet—but crossing the Ouro border would put her, Ashley Duggins, in utterly rarefied air. How many living Pilots had entered alien space? A dozen at most, each of them representing the elite of human talent along with the bleeding edge of Contact training. And yet here she was, approaching the invisible plane bisecting space into the familiar and the forbidden. She glanced down at the generally neglected Local Info window for a quick impression of the distance. Back then to the star field ahead; she gauged where the line might fall. It lay, Ash decided, in dead pocket between a nebula-turned-star-cluster and a dying binary system where one neutron giant had collapsed to a black hole and commenced to eating its twin. Long strands of nuclear fuel trailed like flaps of flayed skin towards a blackness that glowed fiercely in Ashley’s gravity-sense.
She burst through the star cluster and swung wide starboard before tacking back, in a moment sweeping Konoko millions of miles off her course and away from the singularity. High speeds, as her X.O. always emphasized, were best maintained far from high-mass bodies. The dual and half-seen giants pulled so hard she affected a kind of lean, shifting most of her weight towards one shoulder. It compressed her right breast uncomfortably, but soon she’d be past.
A bright tone sounded in her ear. “We’ve just crossed the Ouro border,” she heard Vivek say with a solemnity belying the audio cue.
Shit, she thought to herself. She’d been preoccupied and missed the moment. Oh, well. I can always just tell people I got goosebumps.
* * *
Vivek Mohinder replaced the intercom handset and gave a deep sigh. Acid bubbled at the base of his throat the way it used to before a big race, when he’d stand half-naked before the blocks with the goggles sucking at his eye sockets and the dangling end of their rubber strap ground between his teeth. His flight shift wasn’t scheduled for nearly four more hours but still he felt wired, compelled to pace between the Scanner and Nav consoles. This augured poorly; he kept his metabolism tightly regulated and the hours before flight hewed to a prescribed schedule. He should be at a low for the next hour at least before a gradual rise to peak alertness.
Vivek forced his rear into a chair. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes and breathed deep, allowing the rush of air to dispel disruptive thoughts. He imagined deep space, the bone-chilling silence and how the emptiness rolled on unceasing. And just as he felt the stirrings of inner peace, a clanging electronic bell blew them instantly away.
He didn’t open his eyes; just put the handy to his ear. “Mohinder.”
“We need to talk.”
It was Maxi. God dammit. When a woman uttered those four words, he rarely found himself pleased with the aftermath. But she had a point. “Yeah.”
“And I don’t think it should be on the bridge. Swing by?”
Vivek didn’t bother knocking, choosing instead to pop open the guest cabin door and slip inside. Every instant spent standing dumb in the corridor carried with it the risk of discovery. Which, he had to admit, was pretty exciting—in a vacuum, at least. The thrill would vanish the moment Lorena asked one question about it.
She was standing with her back to him, hands on hips, but turned once he’d shut the door. He’d expected a drawn or severe expression but instead found her unreadable—frustrated, perhaps impatient, but neither sad nor angry. “We kissed a few hours back,” she said.
Whether it was her rehearsed cadence or the statement’s utter banality, Vivek found himself suddenly laughing. “We certainly did,” he managed. “It was unprofessional of me. I’m sorry.”
“Well, like I said. Unprofessional.”
“But why apologize? To me of all people. I’m not your C.O.”
Vivek had thought he was doing well but now realize the laughter had delivered false confidence. He swallowed. “That’s a good point. I said ‘sorry’ because I thought it was what I was supposed to say.”
“Sorry for kissing me when I damn near told you to.”
“Look, you’ve got me over a barrel,” he groaned. “Even if you’d rather not extort anything from me, I did something stupid. This is my way of acknowledging it was stupid.”
“But…” she prompted.
“But what? It was stupid. Won’t happen again.”
“And why’s that? Because it’s dumb, because you don’t want to or because you think I don’t want you to?”
“So you’d like to kiss me again.”
“You’re just holding yourself back,” she took a step closer. “Suppressing your brute instincts.”
He stood his ground though every hair on his body stood on end. “Please don’t make this difficult.”
“Don’t blame me for your problems. Why do men always blame women for their problems?”
“I’m blaming me.”
“You know what I think?”
“What?” he snapped, frazzled and eager to escape.
“I think if you want to kiss me again you should quit fucking around and do it.”
He stared agog for a moment. Just a moment; when two elapsed he was already into her, pulling her close with two hands clasped on the fuzz at the nape of her neck. She kissed back with enough force to clack their front teeth together. With a deft application of body weight he drove her back against the boxy dresser with its clattering empty drawers.
Vivek broke away gently, letting her keep his lower lip an extra moment. He looked at her strikingly pretty face with its blue eyes below a boyish chop, the soft nose and the fine chin and the slim mouth framed by dimpled creases. She leaned back, supporting herself with hands looped over his triceps. “Don’t tell me you’re having another attack of conscience,” she said. “I couldn’t take it. I’d punch you right in that shiny dome.”
“I’m just looking at you. You’re beautiful. Just thinking I might never get to kiss a beautiful woman again.”
“Oh, spare me.” They went back to it. She unzipped his jacket and tugged, spurring him to drop his shoulders and let it fall.
“Serious,” he half-whispered, still struggling for discretion, taking advantage of the pause in kissing to yank her white undershirt over her head. Maxi, having little need for support and finding no properly fitted bras onboard, wore nothing beneath. “This is totally uncharted territory—our maps aren’t even recent. We might all be vaporized tomorrow. Almost certainly by the end of the week,” he flashed a ghoulish leer.
Maxi grinned back and planted two palms in his chest, playfully shoving him back. Vivek’s calves hit the couch cushions and he sat by instinct. “Get rid of that junk,” she instructed, using one shoe to pull off the other, bringing the still-shoed foot up cranelike to remove it. He scooted back on the cushions, just a hint of lean muscle moving like a shadow over his stomach and down his legs. She hooked thumbs in her waistband, contemplated a moment and then shuffled her pants to the floor leaving underwear in place—plain and white, oversized, not attractive. She’d wait to see how he went about removing them.
He wasn’t in a hurry, as it turned out. They spent what seemed a long time half-prostrate on the couch groping and kissing, which was nice enough—his hands all over her—but her mouth was getting dry and she grew tired with the relentless jabbing at her thigh. So she broke away putting a hand on Vivek’s chest, pushing him flat before she lifted one leg and flipped her whole body around, offering herself up and bringing all of him in reach. He got the picture and wasn’t shy about it. The give in the white fabric made things easier. Before too long, he did manage to slip it off.
She slid back around, dropped her hand to guide him, felt the push and the stretch while he gasped and she bit her lip. “You all right?” he asked. She grinned, eyes shut, and pushed her hips down harder. He kissed her again and kept moving. He didn’t talk too much; made just enough noise to cover hers.
* * *
Vivek Mohinder strode into the Nav Suite with his flight suit zipped up trimly and a pleasant smile on his face.
“Morning,” Lorena nodded from the console. “Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for your first Ouro-space dive, I see.”
“Oh yeah! Had a good nap. Feeling good.”
“If you’re really feeling that good,” said Ashley, sitting on the rim of her open pod, “see if you can top my L.S. average for that run.” Linear speed, a general measure of velocity, compared a starship’s progress against an imaginary line drawn between dive and emergence points—rewarding not just speed but tight turns and fine anticipation, an artist’s approach to geometry.
“Ashley’s run the engines hot all night,” Lorena explained.
Vivek raised his eyebrows a smidge, wishing he could manage Lorena’s inquisitively one-sided arch. “Obo let her?”
“You said I could!”
“Lighten up, Ash. Just having some fun,” he smiled at her. It dawned on him that his resent infusion of good spirits might attract suspicion. It also dawned on him that this attitude was almost certainly paranoid.
“Schedule says five hours fifty-five. That right?” Lorena asked him.
“More or less—I was filling it out quickly and just mashed the Five key.” That was definitely not the sort of thing he’d usually say. He resolved to clam up.
“We going right back into dive once he’s out?” Ashley wanted to know.
“That’s the plan.”
“Good. Things work out so well when we plan.”
Ashley levered herself away from the pod, gave a half-salute, took up her jacket and left the Nav Suite. Lorena looked at Vivek and suddenly he noticed how tired she seemed—like an old church, her struts and seams sagging under the dolorous weight of duty. “Another day, another problem,” he told her, unable to conjure anything better as he pulled open his flight pod.
NEXT TUESDAY: ZACH OBO HAS NEW CONCERNS OVER THE SHIP'S WORKLOAD AS KONOKO PLUNGES TOWARD HER INEVITABLE ENCOUNTER WITH THE ENIGMATIC OURO. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CRUISES TOWARDS ITS CONCLUSION!