Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Forty-Two

Credit: strangelet


           The Federal Service Registry of Extant Alien Vessels was released in the early years of Ouro contact, responding to emergent and growing needs across several branches.  Though xenoarcheologists had long maintained compendia of recovered alien craft, their work instantly dwindled in importance when compared to the very much living Ouro civilization.  For many years, Contact and Navy research divisions snapped up field’s the best and brightest minds.  Government largesse poured into those departments as they inhaled every scrap of available data from humanity’s furthest reaches, collating it all at last into the edificially dubbed Registry.

            That information was hard come by.  Casual encounters with the Ouro were rare, the two races separated by millions of Lears and vastly more cultural differences than they’d ever share in common.  Space was awfully big, after all, and even relatively close proximity often precluded any contact.  Researchers piled aboard diplomatic ships to huddle in cramped makeshift labs, studiously ignored and overtly resented by the crews, pummeling the bio-manufactured Ouro hulls with every sensor known to man and hoping good data came back.  Most of the time they didn’t, but there was eventually enough compiled information for analysis—rudimentary, of course, given the limited and highly self-selected array of ships on display.  Every visitor to any portion of Ouro space found herself subject to a thorough Contact debriefing upon her return.  Far from a curious cultural inquiry, these sessions cut right to the quick: what ships did you see?  Describe them.  Draw them.  Compare them to these models.  You’re doing your species a great service.

            Countless sources pooled together and the Registry drew what distinctions it could.  Ouro civilian vessels were adapted to their own specific functions, most of the larger ones hewing to a fundamentally ovoid profile despite a Darwinian diversity of external adaptations.  Mining extractors protruded like piercing finch beaks, long-term habitats blistered from hullscapes and enormous gossamer sails scooped scant neutrinos from the ether.  By examination and sober reflection, one could generally determine a craft’s purpose.

            Warships, on the other hand, were enigmatic by design.  Smaller and sleeker than their civilian counterparts, they fit into a handful of distinct categories broken down by mass and electromagnetic profile—tremendous energy coursing through a metal can in near-total vacuum left telltale signs even the Ouro could only shield so thoroughly.  These two variables were the only tools any human vessel could rely on in a contact situation, so the Registry used them to name the various classes.  Their weapon loadouts, cargos, payloads and performance capabilities remained largely unknown and so the classes allowed only the most basic assumptions.

            Sloops occupied the bottom-most rung: sleek knives of ships roughly the size of human Trebuchet bombers, capable of superlight travel and often deployed in wings of six.  Hot little reactors easily tripped IR sensors and threatened to burn holes through hulls, and realistically only a handful of Ouro crew could fit comfortably in their limited volumes.  Deliberately slim profiles suggested a penchant for close-range engagements under heavy fire.  Corvettes were often sighted acting as flagships for small sloop flotillas, and maintained the low-profile philosophy of their smaller brethren.  An improved power plant with greater shielding made for stronger but more diffuse power signatures.

            Frigates and cruisers, the true capital ships of the Ouro Navy, took the shapes of long cylinders with engine ports on one end and a swollen, rounded nose at the other.  Glowing in space’s eternal night as beacons of energy and lacking external weapon pods, they were rumored to deploy staggeringly powerful gravity fields to rip targets asunder or crush them entirely.  Though dwarfed in size by a human Cruiser like Nimbus, intelligence services estimated the Ouro class equivalent possessed several times the power output.   Firepower, they reasoned, was most likely commensurate.

            Then there were the dreadnoughts.  Spotted only once in recorded history by the destroyer TNV Farallon and alluded to in the account of a xenolinguistic team’s visit to the Ouro core, they seemed from those limited accounts to be an exception to the general rule of undersized combat vessels.  Great oblong monsters many kilometers long, they could conceivably carry enough materiel to launch full-scale planetary assaults or weapons so terrible they might core suns.  Nobody knew and Contact thought it impolite to ask.  Instead the simple dictum stood: observe everything.  Assume nothing.  Do not, for any reason, attempt aggression.

*          *          *          

            Vivek Mohinder was serving his Bridge shift when the chirp came; Konoko’s computer sending an automated alert.  Tucking his tablet under one elbow, he craned his neck to see the nearby console: NEW EMERGENCE CONTACT.  The arcane signature of a Chen-Hau field (or rather its close Ouro cousin) combined with a leaden slug of new in-system mass left little doubt.  Vivek’s first response was to stretch out his scarecrow arm and slap the red General Alert button.

            Next he pulled back the arm and craned himself down, rapping one knuckle on the touchscreen to expand the fresh notice.  Scanners fed him details while the computer bubbled suppositions.  The klaxon wailed and somewhere just outside his vision’s periphery a red light began to flash.  Boots clanged in the corridor outside and Vivek turned in his chair to see Maxi Leaf.  Beads of sweat stood out on her forehead and what hair she had was plastered to her scalp.  She must have been in the gym, just down the hall.

            “They’re here, aren’t they?” she asked, and Vivek could only nod.  “Numbers?  Tonnage?  What’s up?”

            Maxi stepped through the threshold, hung a towel about her neck’s nape and looked over his shoulder.  “Four of ‘em.  Holy shit.  Small at least.  Rapid response team, you think?”

            “Rapid’s for sure.  From emergence at system’s edge they’re already halfway to a planet-station Lagrange point.  They are hauling.

            She took in the screen, sighed and shook her head.  “I sure hope your girl’s got a plan in place.  And another one in case they don’t like it.”

            Not my girl, he instinctively wanted to say.  Instead he projected a wide, winning grin: “It’s the Open Territory; we’re all friends here.”

            At this moment Ashley came bounding through the Bridge door looking disheveled yet violently alert, wearing her jacket in such a way that the whole of it was rotated some thirty degrees about her body trunk.  “What’re we looking at, Vee?” she took one slightly confused look at Maxi before focusing on the big screen where Vivek had cast the scanner feeds.  “Three sloops and a corv’.  Holy shit.”

            “Seems to be the common reaction,” quipped Maxi.

            “Four contacts!” called Karl Genz over the intercom, operating from the Computer Suite.  “Mass consistent with three sloop-class vessels and one corvette.  Weapons and capabilities unknown.”

            “Thank you, Karl,” Vivek replied and released the push-to-talk control before either of the women could rib the German.

            “Slowing down now…” Ashley observed from the big screen.

            “I expect they’ll come to rest at a Lagrange point and wait for us there,” said Vivek.

            “No hails yet?”

            “Nope, and I’m taking the lack of an aggressive introduction as a good sign.”

            “Does that make sense?” Maxi asked.  “I mean, they’re alien.  We monkeys like to bang our chests and yell.  Squid don’t do the same.”

            “Gal’s got a point,” Ash conceded.  “And we’ve sent nothing, yeah?”

            “Waiting on the C.O.,” Vivek reminded her.

            “Yeah, where is she?”

            “Getting a rest.  I’m sure she’ll be up soon.”

            “When she does, how’s she gonna feel about…” Ashley tried a subtle gesture toward Maxi Leaf and failed at the first part.  “No offense,” she apologized.  “I just didn’t expect—“

            “Not your concern, Pilot.”

            “Yessir,” she took a seat at Karl’s usual console.

            Maxi heard a woman’s footfalls—sharp tympanic clacks much lighter than Obo’s or Genz’s—and suddenly she felt very vulnerable.  She fought the urge to bolt but knew she’d be seen all the same.  Instead she settled for slipping nimbly into a high-backed chair.  Lorena Mizrahi swept onto the bridge in a clean, pressed uniform, her frizzy hair still tightly coiled with damp.  She took in the big screen, standing in the center of the Bridge floor so close Maxi could smell shampoo.  An approximation of lilac.  “I heard Genz’s announcement.  Mohinder, your situation report.”

            “Ma’am,” Vivek bobbed his head once as he shut off the General Alert.  “Four contacts emerged on the system’s periphery at sixteen thirty-one on the clock.  From there they traveled in formation at extreme sublight speed to a Lagrange point about the local planet and the Ouro facility, where they have remained stationary and silent ever since.  We have neither moved nor engaged.  Ma’am.”

            Obo broke in over the intercom.  “Engines prepped for dive on short notice, Doctor.”

            Lorena took this in, nodding, catching a glimpse of Maxi in the chair and seeming to notice her for the first time.  She frowned, showed annoyance but said nothing, looked back to her X.O.: “Then we’re in luck.  Easiest to start from an empty slate.  Pull up the Communications array and we’ll get going on, a, uhh…” she trailed off, searching for an appropriate word.

            “A dialogue!” Maxi chipped in.  It was a silly risk, calling any more attention to herself—Lorena tried to freeze her blood solid with a look—but again she veered away from conflict like an actor from a heckling performer.  She would not let the interloper nudge her out of character.

            “A dialogue,” the C.O. agreed.  “Miss Duggins, you have your flight suit?”

            “Yup,” Ashley unzipped the front of her jacket to show the tight black material beneath.

            “Good.  Mister Mohinder, as we discussed.”

            “On it,” he declared, opening the console’s Ouro hailing software as color from its menus washed rainbows over his face.

*          *          *          

            The two ships spoke over many miles of space; Konoko first, beaming out a standard hail over innocuous EM channels.  Her Ouro-friendly software she kept concealed for the time being—better kept in the proverbial back pocket, the kind of omission that wouldn’t smell of deceit.  If the Ouro smelled, anyway, which in some sense they could.

            Friend, the little clipper emoted.  Traveler.  Colors thrummed into receiving antennae.  We bear a cargo.  We bear a gift.  And then it waited.

            “Don’t you think we should say we got it from them?” Ashley chewed her lip half-mesmerized by the big screen’s warbling hues.

            “Keep it simple,” Vivek murmured, doing his best to pre-assemble replies for when the Ouro answered if they answered at all.  He was acutely aware that, for all their recent experience with the creatures, they’d yet to contact a healthy, active specimen.

            Maxi Leaf marveled at the XenoComm system, never having seen their like.  “So will they talk back in colors?”

            “Text,” Lorena sparely corrected.  “Translated back through the same protocols.”

            “You’re just sort of signing at each other through computers.  Not really talking.  Though now that I think about it, how would you?”

            “Eeeexactly,” the C.O. stretched it out, just condescending enough to silence her passenger.

            Karl Genz spoke through the intercom.  “Incoming transmission.  Sent via tightbeam, I believe from the corvette.”  There was a pause and they could hear his breath.  “Yes, the corvette.”

            “Got it,” said Vivek.  He threw the response to the big screen: UNANNOUNCED.  ATYPICAL PRESENTATION.

            Lorena grimaced.  “They’re suspicious.  We need to fix that.”  An understandable position, given the sudden appearance of human craft in proximity to a well-hidden installation.  Konoko’s arrival could not be coincidence.

            “On it, on it,” Vivek worked one last symbol into the outgoing package and dispatched it with a keystroke.  An item lost, the colors phrased.  Holding great value.

            There was a long break then; the Ouro seemed to be mulling things over.  “Any communication between ships and station?” asked Lorena.

            “None,” Karl replied.  “But given their obvious preference for tightbeam, I think it unlikely we would see.”

            “The fact that the ships are talking instead of the station makes me think nobody’s home,” said Maxi.  “It’s not as though they had to wait for the cavalry.  Cavalry’s all there is.”

            “We did suspect the facility was automated,” Karl agreed.

            Vivek’s console whined.  “They’ve responded.”  A single word appeared on the big screen: EMISSARY?

            Lorena and Vivek exchanged a look.  This they hadn’t expected.  “They think we’re Contact,” he reasoned.

            She shrugged.  “Guess the ‘ECV’ prefix doesn’t translate.  Tell them we’re Explorer Corps, not Contact.  Tell them who led us here.”  Seekers.  Not diplomats.  Sent by the Kin.  The first two sentences conveyed by means of audio burbling.  Such narrow human concepts didn’t merit visual expression.

            YOU MISSPEAK.  Assertion, not query.

            “Repeat the last part,” Lorena’s eyes narrowed.  She didn’t appreciate the thrust.

            Sent by the Kin.

            Another lengthy pause.  EXPLAIN.

            “Well, that’s an improvement,” Maxi remarked.  “Dialogue!”

            “What’ve we got for this?” Lorena wanted to know.

            Vivek paged through his menus, grumbling.  “I can’t find ‘wreck’ or anything near it.  What if we were doing rescue and recovery?  You’d think that would be a thing.”

            “Try to think abstractly.”

            “I’m trying, but ‘abstract’ is still a long way off from ‘alien cephalopod.”  That made Maxi smile.  From her silent perch she took in the bridge’s bustle, basked in the thrill of command in crisis—albeit vicariously.

            Lorena bent cranelike at the waist to look closer.  She struggled to focus the tiny tooltip text.  Another one of age’s nagging claims; she’d had her eyes adjusted just three years back.  “There’s a glyph for ‘the dead,’” she said.  “Assuming it means to them what it does to us.  Just say ‘the dead Kin.’”

            “That won’t work.  Read to the bottom of the tooltip; it’s using ‘the dead’ as a noun.  Not an adjective.  So it’s gonna be even clumsier than usual.”  Vivek hammered out the next package.  Discovered the dead.  Encountered Kin A.I.  Sent by the Kin.

            QUERY: EMISSARY AWARE?

            Ashley looked suspicious.  “That’s pretty quick.  And why would they care?”

            Vivek rubbed absently at his implants.  “Curious who knows we’re here.  Which, now that I think about it, is almost nobody.  We’re way off the reservation and it might be better if they thought otherwise.”  He looked to Lorena, who bit her lip and ran her eyes over and over the hovering text like it would give up a secret.

            Maxi, sensing hesitation and naturally irritated by it, picked this moment to butt in.  “Throw the doors open.  Tell them we’re all alone.”  As quizzical eyes descended she continued: “You want them to trust you.  Clearly they don’t.  They think this is some Contact scheme.  So show them it’s not.  Throw your cards on the table and show them we’re every bit the lost little lambs we really are.  No offense; anyone would be flying blind here.  And whatever you do, it’s best done quickly.  Don’t want to take too long with this kind of question.”

            “She’s right, about that.  The last part,” Vivek nodded.

            Lorena let air hiss between her teeth.  “Fine.  Put it through.”

            Diplomats absent.

            AWAIT FURTHER RESPONSE.

            “Guess they heard what they wanted to hear,” Ashley shrugged.

            “I’ve got a question,” Lorena turned to her unwanted passenger.  “You just made a pitch for honesty.  Why’s that?”

            Maxi wasn’t sure how to respond.  The question seemed to come from another dimension.  “I…I, uhh, thought it was the best thing to do?”

            “And yet when we first met, you lied right away.  You went through all sorts of evasions.”

            “I did, and it didn’t work out.  Would you like me to say sorry again?” Maxi’s heart was going faster.  She felt sweat’s damp along her hairline.

            “Just wondering if fortune’s changed your attitude.”

            “Doctor,” she plastered a sweet smile over her face, “my attitude’s never changed.  I lied to you because it made sense at the time.  I pushed for truth just now because it made sense at the time.  I ask what I want and who I need to get it from.  Who’s got the power and who doesn’t.”

            “We had the power then, the Ouro have the power now.  I don’t see the dividing line.”

            “Difference is, you actually give a shit about making them happy.”  With that, Maxi got to her feet, rocked back cheekily on her heels and strode out the Bridge door.

            “Good luck talking to squid.  Holler if you need any more strategy tips,” she called from the hallway as Lorena seethed and Vivek did his best to distract her.

*          *          *          

            The knock came at Maxi door and at first she planned not to answer it.  The second knock brought her groaning to her feet like a put-upon teenager, but opening the door she was surprised to see Vivek Mohinder in its bright rectangle of space.

            “They let you off the bridge?” she asked flippantly.

            “Technically I’m on my way to the head.  The Ouro haven’t answered anyway.  Just thought I’d drop in, let you know Lorena’s not pissed.”

            “Don’t much care if she is.”

            “I know you’ve got your prickly schtick.  But she does appreciate your help.  We had to act quickly and she’s not her best acting quickly.”

            “No shit.  Every time she opens her mouth you can see the machinery inside.  Like a hundred cables and counterweights all tugging each other into a knot.  Everything gets so much more complicated.”

            “That’s about the best way I’ve heard it put,” Vivek smiled.  “And she actually gets that too.  Really, she does.  Painful self-awareness is part of the whole mess.”

            Maxi flopped her shoulders in resignation, turning from the door to pick up derelict serving trays from the couch.  She’d stacked them, space being at a premium.  “Well, that’s fine.  Any idea what the squid are waiting on?”

            “Waiting on instructions, most likely.  If that station could send out a superlight distress call, I assume they can work this out.  Were you cleaning when I knocked?”

            “Huh?” the sudden change of subject jarred her.  “No, not really.”

            “So why’re you cleaning up now?  Keeping up appearances?” he goaded with a grin.  “Thought you didn’t care what we thought.”

            “Yeah, yeah, you got me.  Give yourself a point,” she set the trays in the disposal bin by her doorway and tapped a toe against the green button on its side.

            Vivek huffed, disappointed.  “A point?  I outwit the legendary outlaw Maxine Leaf, and I should get more than that.”

            “Like what?  I don’t own much at the moment.  Oh, I’ve got these amazing Explorer Corps surplus shirts.  As many as you want.”

            He laughed as a mechanical whine sounded from the corridor.  “It’s that wit that keeps me from ever worrying about you.”

            “Well, that’s good.  Because I hate being worried after.”  Maxi tried to project toughness but found herself smiling instead.  She opened her mouth to speak but found herself interrupted by the cleaning drone she’d summoned, skittering in past Vivek’s ankles to snatch the trays from the disposal bin.  Once it found a workable balance of masses on pencil-thin limbs, it motored insectoid from the room.

            She watched it go and looked up to find Vivek standing closer than he’d been.  Maxi met his eyes questioning though certainly part of her knew what was going on.  Two pools of deep earthy brown glittered over his proud nose and high cheekbones.

            “Take a shot,” she said, because she knew he wouldn’t otherwise.  They were kissing them, and it was warm and wet and exciting in the fashion of first times.  Before life’s little damages could accrue.  He pulled back first having applied very little tongue; she found this pleasingly un-desperate.  Maxi met Vivek’s eyes again and he cracked an uneven smile, halfway to a giggle.  Fifteen years old again, she thought, they way they always got.  They couldn’t help themselves.

            “Pilot Mohinder to the Bridge.  Repeat, Mohinder to the Bridge,” Ashley called via intercom.  “Get your hiney off the head, Vee.”

            “I’ve got to…” Vivek pointed, his brain’s various components firing out of sync.

            “Go,” Maxi finished, and he was gone.  Hmm, she thought bemusedly, lowering herself back to the couch.  Might be some trouble about that.

NEXT TUESDAY: KONOKO AND HER CREW RECEIVE NEW INSTRUCTIONS FROM THE OURO AND MUST DECIDE WHETHER TO COMPLY. WHAT ARE THE ALIENS THINKING? HOW CAN THE CREW PROTECT THEMSELVES IN SUCH UNCERTAIN SEAS? "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" ROLLS ALONG!

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