“Full throttle, Ephram Eight evasion pattern and keep the reactor cycling below eighty.” Lorena Mizrahi is sweating. It’s warm but comfortable in the Bridge compartment and yet she can’t help the moisture building at her collar, trickling solitary down her temple, itching in a way she’s dying to scratch but can’t for fear of calling attention to the sweat. She’s terrified to lift her arms, knowing what likely lurks in the sockets.
“Got it, ma’am. Engineering advises we’ll have to leave weapons unpowered. Can’t swing ‘em without pushing the reactor harder.”
“I’m aware. Be ready to power up the Imperator,” she keeps her tone stern, magisterial, recalling the square-jawed officers of the martial-drama vids and their starched collars aglitter with insigniae like sharp silver jacks. Imperator, in this case, being the brusque shorthand for the Daesun-Kuwat KL190 Imperator 4G laser weapon slung under the ship’s belly. An efficient beam-sweep device deployable at long range, it can conveniently be powered and pre-heated in under four seconds. When she needs it, it will be there.
“We’re still out of range, ma’am. Eight seconds more,” her Senior Pilot and Fire Control Officer tensely deadpans.
“Incoming fire, ma’am—ballistic spread!” Scanner Tech and Reconnaissance Officer Jan Levsky’s pale skin shines with his own perspiration. It helps Lorena feel more thoroughly in control. She’s not the only one under pressure.
“Void the E-pattern! Hard port swing, and S-curve us back on approach. Give me that laser now,” Lorena barks the orders, picturing the clipper’s violent turns though she’s got no way to feel them. Even on a real ship, even outside the Academy’s rigid testing protocols, inertia-killing fields have long isolated crews from the consequences of all but the most violent maneuvers. In this case, a quick juke is all she needs to dodge the unguided slugs screaming by. Dumb but dangerous, accelerated to relativistic speed and made massively more massive in the process, a single hit will splatter them all to silicate dust. Simulated silicate dust, at least.
“Fire range in three seconds.” The laser will be ready a moment after. Perfect.
“Target the turning thruster bank on the rear port assembly,” she stares hard at the two ships’ relative positions on the big screen. She must remind herself to blink, is rewarded with burning and tingling. Levsky does not note the enemy slugs have passed them by; he does not have to. In the event of a hit, they’d already be locked out of their consoles and the sim would be over. Re-take opportunities are limited and Lorena has already used one on this very portion of her proving finals.
The Imperator laser fires, flashing out over space as fast as anything possible, carving out the precious few arc-seconds subsumed by their quarry: a thoroughly convincing and heavily armed approximation of a Navy frigate. A lazy, uncreative behavior program keeps the fight relatively fair despite the disparity in tonnage. The laser strikes low on the frigate’s dorsal hull, in the rear on the port side, cleaving through armor and hull and several meters of components. Sweeping down, back and left, it opens a long incision along the hostile ship. Vented atmosphere bursts into an icy fog that momentarily obscures the breach. The thrusters Lorena have targeted flare bright blue and die.
“Breach, three compartments!” Levsky announces, excitement evident in his voice as he reads from his sensor screen where the frigate’s interior layout is described with wireframe precision. “Two gaping open and a third nicked.”
“Loop out at full throttle for another pass. Back to Ephram Eight.”
“Roger that, ma’am.” Pilot Sun Jae An’s eyes go wide. “Plasmics coming online. They’re about to fire!”
“Emergency boost, same heading. Get us out of range and we’ll trust the evasion pattern for the rest.”
Sun nods, her jaw set. Green globs of plasma whizz by so close, Lorena imagines she feels the heat of suns. But the gods of probability reward her confidence and the frigate’s swiveling gun battery is slow recognizing the clipper’s computerized flight pattern. Its precious few shots don’t land and then the Explorer Corps crew is out of range. The precisely calibrated magnetic shells dissolve and their payloads splatter out harmlessly in cold vacuum.
Lorena takes a step towards the big screen, locks hands behind her at the base of her spine the way she feels she ought at this moment. “Take us around and back in. Throttle back on the approach and keep the Imperator hot. I want another cut here, from the rear of the command assembly sternward,” she frees a hand to rap her fingernail on the frigate’s image.
“Got it. Ma’am, I think we should expect another full spread on approach.”
“That’s an excellent point, Miss Sun. Let’s flip the evasion pattern to something in a nine-matrix. Use your discretion.”
“Nail this pass and we’ll have the hard part down.”
The simulated clipper bears down on the larger frigate, deploying devilishingly complex movements that shift with the jarringly counter-intuitive logic of an arcanely academic musical composition. “She’s rolling!” Levsky calls out.
It is a common tactic. Unable to outfox the more nimble clipper, their quarry resorts to rapid rotational maneuvers. They flummox any attempt to target specific systems; they hide and thus they shield the segments already damaged. “Target as called,” Lorena assures her lottery-assigned crew of fellow trainees. She’s never worked with them before, but has at least five years of age to lend her an air of reassuring authority. “Take the shot when you have it. Hit the right spot lengthwise—that’s all we need.”
The spot to which she refers contains no meaningful systems: no weaponry, no computer systems, no potentially explosive magazines nor crucial engine components. Rather, it’s a relatively benign knot of corridors, storage lockers and other personnel spaces. Most importantly, it represents the corridors through which their simulated enemies will at this very moment be flooding. Into the frigate’s rear, into the compartments already opened by the first laser strike. They will investigate damage, shut any doors that haven’t already sealed and re-route important systems. They are exquisitely vulnerable.
“Fire,” Lorena orders, and good Lord almighty does it feel good.
The laser reaches again, vaporizing hull plates in a long circular ribbon as the frigate keeps rolling. The tactic has only made things worse. When the Imperator shuts itself off to avert overheating, some 40% of the enemy frigate is open to vacuum. Blood boils, flesh purples and dozens of virtual souls are sucked virtually screaming to void’s embrace. “Great fuckin’ hit!” Levsky can’t help himself shouting.
The frigate hails within moments, offering its unconditional surrender. Lorena has passed; she has won. “If all this job meant was killing assholes,” she will insist at the party her roommates throw for her that evening, in the deliberate diction of the thoroughly intoxicated, “it would be a damn sight easier.”
* * *
“Weapons contact! Remote source!” Vivek Mohinder shouted louder than the cramped space warranted, though circumstances accounted for most of the gap.
“From the station?” Lorena had been sitting but suddenly found herself looking over Vivek’s shoulder, her white-knuckled hands gripping the back of his chair.
“Of course it’s the station! They vaped our probe.”
“No signals from the drone,” Karl confirmed.
“Shit,” was Ashley’s helpful contribution.
At some point a warning klaxon had begun to sound and it cried softly in the background as they waited, as they breathed. Karl was typing furiously; his breath hissed in and out between gritted teeth. Lorena wanted to snap, to bark out orders and demand information, but she held her tongue and let the crew work. No volume of vitriol would bring answers any sooner. “I have pulled down the data from the remote sensors,” he said at last. “They show a dramatic surge of infrared radiation in the last half-second of transmission. The cutoff pattern is consistent with acute heat damage.”
“Think it’s just an IR projector?” Vivek kept his eyes glued to his own screen, watching the space between Konoko and the Ouro station for the first hint of incoming fire.
“Consistent with the facts, yes.”
“Agree,” called Zach Obo through the Bridge speakers, having kept an open line through his handy while he prepped Konoko’s engines for emergency maneuvers.
“Short range only, yeah?” Ashley huddled next to Lorena, hands jammed in her pockets, taskless and visibly antsy over it.
The C.O. gave a curt nod. “Yes, the beams lose cohesion at distance. Assuming that’s all they’ve got. Which seems like a bad assumption.”
“Well, they haven’t used anything else. What if it’s just a point defense system? Vaping loose rocks, free roaming ice crystals and the like.”
“Here’s hoping. Genz, what else did you get from the remotes?”
“Ehh…not a great deal, to be honest. No measured variation in the station’s power signature, which of course one would expect given such a weak weapon. Relatively speaking,” his shoulders nudged up in a little shrug. He seemed to be taking the loss of his mechanical progeny well.
“I do note one thing,” Karl continued. “The relative gravity sensor picked up a distinct waveform, of the type the Ouro tend to use for long range comm signals.” RG sensors measured gravity over distinct volumes, their data used to plot local space-time with a high degree of precision.
“When?” Lorena frowned.
“Roughly two seconds before the IR spike.”
“Someone’s calling out the dogs,” Vivek murmured.
“Distress signal,” Obo concurred from the Engine Room.
Ashley took a stab at optimism. “Possible it’s not. Could be meant as a warning, as a greeting…”
Lorena shook her head. “They’ve got normal comms for that, and they’re not using them. A long range signal’s meant for a long range audience.”
Vivek swiveled his chair around to face her, forcing her hands off the headrest. “So what’re we doing, Cap’n? Maybe Genz digs some epiphany out of the logs, but we should expect some kind of response in the near future. More than a dead drone, I mean.”
“You think something else will show up. A ship.”
“That was my general thrust, ma’am.”
Ashley opened a drawer below the Nav console and pulled out a tablet, on which she began paging through the Ouro ship registry. “Could be military when it comes,” she said.
“It very well could. And I emphatically do not want us sitting here with our pants hanging off our asses if and when it does.” Lorena felt the mild curse appropriate. She wasn’t using any names in vain. “So here’s what we’re going to do. We are not moving from this spot and certainly not getting any closer. We wait—at least for now—and expect Ouro company.”
“Hostile?” Vivek wanted to know.
“Assume not. We’re standing our ground anyway; this is the O.T. and we’ve every right to be here. More so than this station. First, maintenance. Genz, run through everything from the drone and collate that data with the onboards. Obo, wind back the drives but keep us ready to dive on ten-minute notice.”
“Duggins, you’re on flight alert. Keep yourself rested, hydrated, whatever you need to be ready in those same ten minutes.”
“Got it, ma’am,” Ashley saluted. Vivek smirked seeing it.
“Mohinder, plot an intercept route to the nearest Navy patrol in case we find ourselves with an incident.”
“Running home to mama,” Beatrice teased from the back.
“Don’t need that from you right now. Mohinder?”
“What? Oh, yes, absolutely,” he nodded, slightly jarred. To whom had her first sentence been addressed? An odd slip of the tongue?
“It might be a long way off, but we need the start of the route. When you’ve done that, find me in my cabin. And will someone please turn off that alert tone?”
“Will you be awake, ma’am? In case anything changes in a hurry.”
Lorena gave a bitter chuckle. “Don’t you worry. No sleep for me. I’ll be tearing my hair out instead, trying to figure out what manner of Ouro’s likely to appear next. You’re going to help me figure out what in all the night sky we’re supposed to tell them.”
* * *
She did fall asleep, as it turned out. Vivek Mohinder rapped his knuckles on her cabin door, heard nothing, whispered open the unlocked latch and found his Commanding Officer sprawled on her couch. She’d keeled flat on her right side, topmost arm dangling off the cushions while the other clutched a bright red throw pillow under her head. A tablet had slid from her lap and, neglected, turned off its screen. Her mouth lay open and every breath sighed out through contorted passages and a lolling tongue.
“Lorena?” he asked softly, closing the door and moving closer. “Hey, Lor…”
“Wumf,” was the sound from her mouth as her eyes shot open and she reared half up off the couch. A long string of spittle stretched between pillow and lip, caught the light and fell like gleaming spider silk over her jacket breast.
“Sorry! Sorry to startle you,” he put his hands up, smiling, and took a step back.
“’S nothing,” she slurred, rubbing the sleep out of her face, scowling and looking disgusted at her palm once she felt the drool. “Shouldn’t have fallen asleep.”
“No worries, ma’am. You’re under a lot of pressure; you need your rest.”
“That’s sweet of you to say. And silly.”
“Everyone’s silly when they’re tired. Like earlier, on the Bridge, when your brain wandered off,” he grinned to show he meant no offense.
“Huh?” she frowned.
“You were giving me an order and then you said, ‘don’t need that from you.’ Which didn’t make sense to me, but then you asked me to confirm. As though, halfway through, you forgot who you were talking to.”
She screwed up her face. She couldn’t remember the moment. Sleep’s dark pall must have swept it from her mind. In the end she shrugged, “Sorry, I must have totally blitzed out, because I can’t recall.”
“It’s nothing; just funny. We’re all running down, showing it in different ways. These days I can barely work up the energy for a thirty-minute workout. And it’s been weeks since I’ve had anything close to an erection. That’s when you really know the male body’s out of whack: morning boners die off.”
Lorena doubled over laughing, palm clapped over her mouth as if she were shielding him from some embarrassment. “I must have missed that vital fact in med school. Anyway, before I passed out I was combing GIDPET, looking for the specific language on habs and other stations. Or, as they dubbed them, ‘operationally sessile facilities.’ Found most of what I needed, but then I was just really sleepy.”
“Can’t imagine why,” joked Vivek as he sat beside her, deciding not to tease though the lines from the pillow fabric were firmly etched into her cheek. The Galactic Interspecies Diplomatic Preserve Establishment Treaty was legendarily redundant and obtuse in its language—a groaning, overwrought beast attempting to bridge two wholly alien tongues that in either seemed only a bulwark.
She took up the tablet, turned it on and showed him the relevant passages. He read aloud: “’Whensoever an operationally sessile facility (henceforce abbreviated O.S.F.) shall be deployed in an operational capacity for 1.588 times ten to the fifteenth cesium-133 oscillations, it may be considered in provisional violation of the aforementioned Treaty Agreement, subject to the Compendium of Agreed Terms, Subsection A19(c).’ Great eye-gouging Christ. Couldn’t be clearer, could it?”
“Certainly seems like a treaty violation. So we’ll be ready to cite them on it.”
“Write them a ticket?”
“You know what I mean.”
“This isn’t our first play, right? Please tell me it’s not,” Vivek looked queasy.
“Of course not. It’s a legal backstop in case they get chesty.”
“How can you tell a chesty Ouro from any other? I’ll bet it’s some color-change thing. Anyway, why would they respond to a legal threat we’ve got no way to enforce?”
“We could scoot to the Navy.”
“Color me skeptical. I’ve got plenty of confidence in myself and Ashley, but if an Ouro warship wants us, they’re taking us. Let’s make sure it doesn’t get to that point. What,” he wondered, running a hand unconsciously over his occipital implants, “could we possibly do to make the Ouro happy in this situation? What might persuade them to trust us right at first blush?”
* * *
“Not too shabby, as Lorena plans go,” said Beatrice once Vivek had taken his leave and her friend had returned to reclining on the couch.
“What’s a ‘Lorena plan’ entail?”
“If I had to pick one overriding characteristic, it would be a commitment to white-knight fantasies. Like you expect the galaxy to reward you for good behavior.”
“When have I ever said that?”
“It’s what you do. Sitting on a bombshell, you want to sidle up straightening your lapels and offer to help.”
“I’m saying I agree with it! In this very specific situation, I actually agree with your conventionally pansy-ass approach.”
“Great! Thanks for that, my day was really riding on it,” Lorena cackled.
“Make the Ouro happy and it’ll be that much easier to make Contact happy. Then you’ll get a few months leave before they come to you for some other impossible thing.”
Lorena shook her head, no longer smiling. “Seems impossible sometimes. We’re not even that long out of dock—what, four months? But it feels like three tours back-to-back. Feels like there’s barely anything to go back to.”
“Aww, don’t talk like that,” Bea sat on the cushions by the curled-up Lorena, in the open nook between her belly and her half-folded legs. “You’re not allowed. No melodrama in front of me; I’m not buying it.”
“I know, I’m bitching. Need something to go right, is all.”
“You never know. It might.”
Lorena just murmured in response, shifting to get comfortable and hearing the scratch of fabric where her left ear was pressed into it. After a minute she opened her eyes to look at Bea. So warm in the curve of her gut, she didn’t want her to leave. And yet she had to say it. “Hey, when Vivek was confused about what I’d said? I thought about it. I was talking to you.”
“But he didn’t know that. He was totally confused. As though he’d never met you.”
Beatrice just looked back, blinked slowly. “I find myself more confused,” Lorena continued, “every day, by things I’ve always known. Things that were just…constants. Things no sane person would question—like even asking the question was calling a square a circle. Contradicting a central premise. At which point, it’s impossible to conceive a reply. It’s impossible to extract what’s wrong from what’s right.” She looked hard at Beatrice. Challenging.
When the beauty spoke her voice blew in brittle and bone-dry like autumn leaves. “What do you expect from me?”
Lorena swallowed. Her own mouth felt gummy. She thought she tasted copper. “I want to know who you are,” she said, and because that seemed suddenly impossible she amended: “Not now. I know it’s bigger than now. But soon, before it’s too late to matter. Because I’m not sure what home there is to go back to.”
She fell asleep then and dreamed of a wide, flat beach. The sand blinding white. A bull stood on the beach—great and muscled and dark arterial brown like hewn from wood—and he stared at her across a wide expanse. She met the rage in his eyes. He charged and closed the gap at terrifying speed while her feet seemed rooted to the sand. Unable to flee and seeing no shelter, she made the obvious decision and burrowed straight down. Like a corkscrew she cored herself into the sand until only the top of her head protruded. The bull bore down at a full gallop, rushing onward over the top of her. At the strike of his left forehoof upon her scalp she burst upwards, exploding from the sand and like a coiled spring launched the bull into the air. Higher and higher he flew, ungripped by gravity and bawling, fading from view. More dreams came, more than a few, but when she woke Lorena would remember only the bull on the beach as perhaps the silliest and emptiest of her life.
NEXT TUESDAY: LORENA AND HER CREW ARE FORCED INTO SOME QUICK-THINKING DIPLOMACY AS VIVEK FINDS HIMSELF IN A HIGHLY COMPROMISING SITUATION..."FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" MARCHES ONWARD!