|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.
“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.?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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!