Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Forty-Four

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?”

            “What?”

            “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?”

            “Yeah.”

            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.”

            “Why 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?”

            “The first.”

            “So you’d like to kiss me again.”

            “Look—“

            “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.

            She answered glibly though her soft brown eyes were hard and distant, fixed on some horizon stark and distant.  “Another way for me to solve them.”

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!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Forty-Three

Credit: Cyril Levallois


            She does it in person, at least—at a Mars Dock restaurant named Hakar.  She has the decency to wait until the end, after they’ve sent the host for the check and sent the waiter with their leftovers for boxing.  Lorena supposes, afterwards, that this was a kindness though the kindness was muted by the bland and chewy kebab, the too-sour saffron in the rice.  They’ve never eaten here before—another deliberate choice, Lorena will realize—and they never will again.

            “What do you have going the rest of the day?” Lorena asks, pulling out her handy to briefly check her reflection in the screen.  She has successfully kept any traces of sauce from her lips.  Good; it’s a persistent issue.

            “Telemeeting with the other D.D.’s.”  Annika’s face is obviously spotless—she eats with the effortless grace of a sylvan elf—and her eyes seem to be focused on an errant rice grain fallen halfway between serving dish and plate.

            “Okay,” Lorena replies and the conversation goes dead.  She wants to ask more, to break the silence, but the Directorship’s meetings are strictly confidential.  Fraternization between officer and executive ranks they could tolerate, within reason, but Annika is subject to greater scrutiny and so Lorena knows better than to touch it.

            “So…” Annika begins with a leaning hesitancy that immediately alarms.  This is not typically how she speaks.  “With your next tour coming up, I thought we might talk about some things.”

            “Things?” Lorena is aware of a hot dry sensation at the back of her tongue.  She takes up her water glass and drains it.

            “Practical things.  Arrangements going forward.”

            “Well, I’ll be penned up in a tin can—the loveliest tin can I have ever seen, and I love her dearly, but after a year that’s what she turns into—and you’ll be living the high life.  Jetting between here and the Cape Town office, attending gala lunches.”  She smiles and finds herself working harder than usual.

            “That’s the thing.  We always find ourselves in such different places.”

            “We’re here right now, and I’m happy with you right now.  The rest is just the job.  C’est la vie.

            Annika gives a tiny wince, possibly at her French.  “Like I said, that’s the thing.  I like you a great deal, Lorena.  I love you, but I don’t think I can do this forever.”

            “What, the distance?  I can figure out a transfer.”

            “You’re about to take Konoko on tour.”

            “So it can be my last tour.”  Lorena is acutely aware of the conversations around her—each and every one, the chatter and laughter rolling into a hivelike buzz.

            “That’s not going to work.”

            “You’re a Deputy Director—I guarantee you can swing it.”

            “It’s not going to work.  For one, you know how terrible it would look to anyone seeing the order.  And then there’s the prohibition on close-proxy dating between officers and execs.  This whole thing is only allowed because you’re on the A.D. roster.”

            Active deployment, she means.  Lorena wishes for a refill.  Or the check.  Or just about anything else except what is presently crashing around her.  “So, what then?”

            “So I think it’s better if we…part on good terms.”

            “Well, since you’re making all the terms—“

            “Lor, please,” Annika shushes her.  She hadn’t meant to raise her voice.

            She sits seething, welling up, feeling the restaurant’s faux-brick walls shudder and threaten to disintegrate.  The world is about to explode.  Wishful thinking, a chunk of her snarls.  That same shard declares she will not cry.  She looks hard at Annika and sets her jaw.  “Fine.  It’s your right.  But this is it.  No back and forth.  No on and off; I don’t do that.  You don’t want me now, you won’t have me ever.”

            “I’m sorry,” Annika’s mouth barely moves.  She’s cast a frosty cowl over her face and Lorena appreciates this in a backhanded way because it’s the last and only buttress still supporting the no-crying gambit.

            Blessedly, the waiter arrives with a tablet.  Annika snatches it with authority and jams her thumb on the ID pad.  With a chime the bill is paid.  The blonde is suddenly, fluidly standing.  “I care for you, Lorena.  You’re a good person and a fine officer.  I look forward to a long friendship.”

            “Fine,” she stays seated as the waiter flees the charged situation.

            Annika ponders a moment.  “Are you just going to stay there?”

            Lorena sits with arms crossed.  “I’ve got to.  I took the leftovers to go.”

*          *          *          

            KINDLY ASK YOU FOLLOW.

            Kindly,” Ashley Duggins scrunched up her nose, drawing freckles into a loose nebula of melanin.  “Since when do they talk like that?  Makes me suspicious.”

            Lorena had to admit the tone had changed.  “I wouldn’t worry too much.  Assuming they were waiting on some say-so from a third party, we’re not even talking to the corvette anymore.”

            “What exactly do they mean by ‘follow?’”  Vivek had only just arrived on the Bridge.

            “Clearly they want us to go somewhere,” replied Lorena, looking back at him.  “Though there’s nothing coming down the line but text.  No nav data.”

            “Well, obviously they’re waiting on an R.S.V.P.!” Beatrice reclined in a bucket seat.

            “We should give them an answer,” Ashley concurred.

            Lorena gnawed at her lip.  “I’m hesitant to commit to anything.”

            “We’re not really committing, are we?” Vivek asked.  “They can’t make us go anywhere we don’t want to.  We can always bail later.”

            “It won’t be that simple.”

            “Well, they can’t shoot us down in a Chen-Hau field.  And I should take this moment to point out they haven’t so much as mentioned all the guns they’re packing.”

            “They have given no indication their weapons are powered,” Karl Genz crackled from a speaker.

            “Might as well say yes and see where it takes us,” Vivek shrugged.

            Lorena glanced between those seated.  “Fine.  Say yes, but I want you to specifically ask for info in the reply.”

            “Yup,” he punched at the console.  Consent to follow.  Need destination.

            TRANSMITTING.

            “Incoming datastream,” said Karl.  “They are employing U.G.S. encoding.”  If two spacefaring races could agree on nothing else, the Universal Geographic Shorthand offered an agreed-upon protocol for describing precise points in three-dimensional space.

            “Mister Obo,” Lorena called out loud, “How soon can we dive?”

            “You said ten minutes, so it’s ten.”

            She smirked.  “We might not need to hurry so much.”

            “Ohhhh, what?” Vivek sounded bewildered, examining his screen.  “Karl, you sure this is standard U.G.S.?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Are you damn sure?”

            “Yes, Mister Mohinder!” he irritably snapped.

            “Well, then, we’re fucked all over again.”

            “What are you talking about?” Lorena didn’t appreciate his cryptic complaints.

            “It’s Ouro space,” he hissed, throwing his navigational display to the big screen where a galactic map obliterated the corvette’s last text message.  It zoomed in quickly, boring with furious purpose through seas of suns until the Corps officers could recognize the Open Territory’s amorphous blue lump at the top-left corner.  Buried in the image’s center waited a glowing gold point—immersed so deep in Ouro crimson it threatened to drown.

            “Jesus Christ,” Ashley breathed.

            “Not sure how much He’d have to say on the topic.”  Lorena crossed her arms and took in the destination.  It seemed to wink at her, infuriatingly begging the question: what’s a little more?  What’s a little farther?

            “We can’t do it, Cap’n,” Obo declared.  “The treaty’s the treaty.  Not even that Contact witch said anything about breaking the treaty, and that’s not just borderlands.  It’s fifteen thousand Lears past the border.”

            “Would we really be?” she wondered out loud.  She looked to Beatrice, who smiled in the enigmatic way she did when there was mischief to be made.  “Human ships have crossed the border before.”

            “Authorized diplomatic missions,” Vivek reminded her.  “Arranged years in advance with full transparency.”

            “But what’s the crucial thing there?  Permission,” Lorena answered herself.  “And an armed escort.”

            “Didn’t we already agree they’d talked to the boss squid?  That makes this an invitation,” Ashley agreed.

            “Lorena, we don’t have to do this,” Obo warned.

            “What’s a little more?” Lorena said flatly, not expecting an answer.  “What’s a little farther?  Vivek, tell them we’ll come.  But in the interest of prudence, we’ll see what guarantees we can get.  Ask if they’ll take us on as guests.  Don’t mention the treaty for now; they might think we’re getting squeamish.”

            “A little presumptuous, isn’t it?” Beatrice asked.  “Running those assumptions back and forth between an alien brain and yours.”

            Lorena snorted.  She tried to smirk but it came out a kind of grimace.  Welcome visitors?  Vivek shot to the Ouro.  We seek protection.

            THE KIN SHOW WELCOME.

            “Well, that’s nice!” the X.O. cackled.  “Guess I was wrong.  They just want to be loved.  Like puppies!  Giant, slimy puppies.”

            Ashley giggled.  “Puppies luring us to our doom.”

            “Don’t joke about that shit.”  Zach Obo’s voice was gravelly, supremely tired.

            “Who’s joking?  Let’s just hope it’s an appealing kind of doomed—locked in a human nature preserve on Ort where they’ve been hiding ship crews for years.”

            “I fail to see the appeal,” Karl deadpanned.

            “Well, I’m obviously the best-looking,” she joked, “so I assume the breeding program will pair me up with the best matches from the herd.  Beats the hell out of the Corps’ dating prospects.”

            Lorena couldn’t help but smile along.  “Inspiring as that idea is, Duggins, we’re diving and you’re still first on deck.  Squeeze out that bladder and meet me in the Nav Suite.”

*          *          *          

            Konoko motored past the station’s six-pointed jack and the gas giant’s mottled blue marble, tailing the Ouro flotilla out to the system’s edge.  Past gravity’s grasp, the Explorer Corps officers watched the four dark blots shift against starscape until they’d assumed their dive formation.  The sloops swept from outrider positions—where they’d formed a roughly triangular shell in constant roving motion to huddle close along the corvette’s profile.  What might have been an awful liability in combat became a convenience as the smaller craft folded neatly into their leader’s Chen-Hau field.  Sloops could dive on their own, but enclosed together their A.I.s could operate in perfect synchronicity.  Consummate number-players, they’d take a marginal risk reduction anywhere they could get it.  Their dense patch of space rippled with exotic energy.  The four ships grew fuzzy in Konoko’s vis-light telescope, like a misty tear blinked over an otherwise clear eye, and they were gone.

            “How will they pick us up again?” Ashley rocked back on her knees, awaiting the spinal leads’ inevitably cold nips.

            It was an unusual setup, Lorena had to admit: the long-diving Corps clipper and its star-hopping (though presumably much faster) escorts, tracking one another across great gulfs of space-time with relativity-warped perception.  It wasn’t quite like following a car down a highway.  “Vivek already sent them our first emergence point over U.G.S.  Emergence will be exactly the same and we’ll meet them on the far side.  I’d be surprised if we make it first, but there’s no harm in trying.”

            Ash couldn’t help her lopsided grin.  “Really?  I can let the throttle out?”

            “Sure.  At worst, it’ll be the second-dumbest thing I’ve done today.”

            “You won’t regret it.”

            “I won’t, but run down Obo’s drives and you might.”  The spinal leads applied and intravenous catheters inserted, Lorena tapped Ashley’s back.  The young Pilot leaned forward to lie prone and Lorena closed the pod over her.

            She took up the intercom handset.  “Are we ready for dive, Mister Obo?”

            “Everything’s clear.  Ash has manual control and she’s revving the engines already.”

            “I said she could push.  Is that a problem?”

            “Nope.  Best ship.”

            “Best Tech.”  Konoko called upon terrifying energies and then she too blurred away, leaving the vast Ouro construction to its cold and quiet night.

*          *          *          

            “And we’re off,” declared Beatrice, leaning back, bony elbows in their loose black sleeves resting against Vivek’s open flight pod.  “Again.  For who knows how long.  You probably don’t care about this, but I thought you played everything about as well as you could.”

            Lorena regarded her coolly, feeling a pressure in the back of her skull she couldn’t decide how to relieve.  “Of course you did,” she said at last.  “You always get what you want.”

            “I’m sorry?” Bea gave a puzzled look.

            “Tell me when you came aboard.  The date and time.”

            “Beats the hell out of me; check your own calendar.  I came aboard when you did.”

            “As what?  Holding which title?”

            “I’m your friend.”  Beatrice wore the bemused look of one watching another embarrass herself.

            “That’s not a thing.  There’s no ‘captain’s bestie’ position on a Corps ship.”

            The leggy brunette threw back her head then and laughed.  “And there we have it!  Bravo, Lorena.”

            “Explain yourself,” Lorena narrowed her eyes, maintaining the illusion of control though her stomach lurched and the room grew hotter.

            “I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know.”

            “That’s bullshit.”

            “Is it?  Let’s try this in reverse.  Tell me your earliest memory.  Something I couldn’t possibly know about.  Lay it on me.”

            “Okay.  I don’t know my age at the time, might’ve been three or four, but I remember running through a grassy field.  My mom was bent half over holding my hand.”

            “There were flowers,” Beatrice butted in, “tiny yellow buds of weedy wildflowers.  A cold grey day in the Spring.”

            Lorena swallowed hard.  “How the fuck—“

            “I told you one lie.  Hell, I didn’t even have to say it, you were so happy to accept the premise.  So the deception was simple; a cloth folded to hide a stain.  I never lied about being your friend.  The lie was in the always.”

            “Why?”

            “The same reason anyone does anything.  The very first reason: survival.  I needed you.  Didn’t ask to be here, didn’t ask for this flavor of existence,” she looked down to regard her own beautiful, perfect body with a mix of detachment and disgust.  “But once it happened I did my best to stick around.  I even made friends with your crew.”

            Lorena’s heart crashed against her ribs.  “That can’t be.  Vivek didn’t know you.  He can’t even see you.”

            “Karl does.  And Ashley.  I gradually made my introductions.  We’ve all had conversations together!  Though obviously I’ve got to pick and choose when.  The rest of your crew isn’t properly primed.  Bringing that Maxi woman aboard really complicated my life, if you want to know.”

            “Oh, she complicated your life?  And what do you mean, ‘primed?’  How would...oh,” she went quiet, eyes wide.  “Oh my God.  We went to the Ouro ship.  The three of us.”

            Beatrice nodded slowly, pityingly.  Lorena continued: “We found that pit.  With the pylon, the obelisk, whatever it was.  I passed out.”

            “You sure did.”

            “And that’s when you got in.  When you wormed your way into my skull, you fucking bitch.  You fucking alien bitch.”

            Bea laughed again.  “This is a side of you I never get to see.  I’m surprised.  Not shocked, but yes…surprised.  And as for alien,” she raised a hand and with two fingers she prised apart one set of her own eyelids, leaning in to peer at Lorena with the theatrically bug-eyed look of a fairy-tale crone.  Dark iris, white sclera laced with capillaries.  A window to an utterly human soul.  “We’re only the products of our form, and my form resides in your brain.  A primate brain with primate wiring.  I’m barely more Ouro than you are.”

            “But you were.”

            “Now we’re treading on philosophically shaky ground.”

            Lorena rubbed at her eyes, already mentally exhausted.  “A dead Ouro made into a computer construct and beamed into my brain.”

            “See?  Where to even begin?” Bea grinned.

            “Jesus, we’re running headlong into Ouro space,” Lorena grabbed her handy.  “I’ve got to have Obo kill the engines.  It was all a damn trap.”

            “Wait, wait!  No trap!” she threw out her hands.  “They don’t even know.”

            “Bullshit.”

            “You keep saying that and it keeps being untrue.  I can’t leave the ship any more than you can.  I’m bound to you, to Karl and Ashley.”

            “You’re in our computer too.  The vestige the Emissary found.  Oh, shit,” Lorena’s anxiety reached a new level.  “How much does she know?”

            “Yana St. Julien doesn’t know a damn thing, any more than those Ouro do.  And I’m obviously not in the computer if I’m talking to you right now.  It hasn’t got the drive space or the architecture to house me.  It’s more of a vehicle, moving information between primed brains.  Which, by the way, are surprisingly well-adapted to the task.”

            “Of course they are.  I’m sure you were specifically designed to live in them.”

            “Unlikely.”

            “Don’t you know?”

            “Honey, we’ve been over this.  I know only what you know.  With a bit of extra context.  There was a time when I was Kin and that time’s over.  Their systems weren’t meant to interface with humans—and they certainly couldn’t plan on you stumbling across a sleeper ship.  No one could know you’d come aboard, that everything would play out like it has.”

            “If you want to claim innocence—“

            “I don’t.  I’m not.  But the situation is what it is.  We’re stuck with each other, and given that fact I’ve got a lot of help to offer you.”

            “So far, your idea of ‘help’ has been ransacking my mind.  Warping my memories to cover your own ass!”  Tears of rage rolled hot down Lorena’s cheeks.  She shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around the betrayal’s whole.  “Half my life feels like a lie.  I don’t know what was real.  How can I even trust who I am, let alone trust you?”

            Beatrice was quiet for a while.  When she spoke it was with a gravel Lorena hadn’t heard.  “I came awake a gaggle of ideas scattered over your brain.  No clear idea what’s I’d been, just an inkling.  A cloud ripped apart by high winds.  Those memories were the only anchors I could find.  Snippets of people you’d known, conversations you had, things you wanted…I took them and built a shell around the scraps I had left.  The shell you’re seeing now, which just happens to look like something you wanted to be, or parts of you did.  So understand, Lor: I couldn’t be me without you.  You can ignore me if you want, but you’re diving deep into Ouro territory and I’m the closest thing to an interpreter you’ve got.”

            By this point Lorena had swallowed down her lump of tears.  She pressed the sleeve of her jacket to her face, the glossy material smearing more moisture than it soaked.  “Yeah.  Maybe you’ll come in handy.  Maybe you already have.  But right now, Bea, I need you to leave me the fuck alone.”

NEXT TUESDAY: AS KONOKO CROSSES THE OURO BORDER, VIVEK AND MAXI HAVE TO ACCOUNT FOR THEIR INTIMATE MOMENT WITH THE MOST UNCOMFORTABLE OF ARBITERS...EACH OTHER. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES! LESS THAN A DOZEN EPISODES REMAIN!