They’d never severed the link. Though Lorena, Karl and Ashley had crossed back to Konoko, they’d closed only the outermost door. Sensors showed the same atmosphere on the far side and so returning became a simple matter. Karl folded himself through the Pre Chamber’s bottleneck to emerge on the far side, stretching to full height in the Ouro reception room where the ceiling glowed like morning sun above the walls’ grey fog.
“Guten Abend, mein Herr,” Abei called, spreading his hands beatifically, hovering near the door at the room’s far side. Karl saw it was open now, but the space beyond was dimly lit and obscured by the alien herald.
“Charmed,” Karl replied in the same tongue. He thought to approach Abei but thought he’d better wait for the others. “But you say the Rs too hard. Let them float a little higher, towards the back of your mouth.” Having just said this, it dawned on Karl that Abei’s mouth was more affectation than orifice.
The android bobbed his head in understanding but then, as the rest of the genuine humans pulled themselves into the room, switched back to English. “Good evening to you all! Please the Kin to see you, the six! For they who now we meet, I is Abei by name. Come well in peace and hospitality to our home.”
“Introduce yourselves,” Lorena instructed.
“Vivek Mohinder, Senior Pilot and Executive Officer, ECV Konoko.”
“Zachariah Obo, Systems Tech, Konoko.”
“Maxine Leaf. Uhh, civilian,” she added.
“I don’t know that. Civilian,” Abei frowned. “The word known, its use confounds. Explain, with grace?”
Maxi was frozen, mentally pinned between the room’s disorientation, Abei’s striking features and his queer speech. What’s more, she had no idea how to answer his question and guessed Lorena wouldn’t appreciate any unscripted speech. “I’m…not an Explorer Corps officer. Not working for the government. Just a, uhh, a passenger.”
He seemed to understand. “To travel over the empty in search of new truths. This is known among Kin much honored.”
“Thank you,” she managed, desperate for those silver eyes to leave her.
Abei obliged, shifting his attention back to Lorena. “Doctor Mizrahi, awaiting your vehicle. All accommodations made in hospitality’s interest! We seek ease upon the guests, aware like we are on the lighter truth you navigate.” Gliding smoothly backward down an ephemeral slope of gravity, he gestured to the open hatch.
Lorena approached slowly, doing her best to maintain an appropriate level of suspicion. The Ouro interpreter’s whimsical grammar and guileless manner made this harder than it should have been. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand how you’re using the word ‘truth.’”
“Truth, it surrounds!” he waved his hands about in an intricate pattern none of them could decipher. “Here and in those human homes. In your craft. Here too about the Kin—denser.”
“Refers the minds are to the concept, simple! Mass by volume sundered.”
Ashley let out a giggle swiftly suppressed. To dissolve Lorena’s instant glare she explained, “It’s atmo. He means atmo. Suspension fluid for them. Or water, I guess, on their homeworld.”
Abei looked as happy as they’d yet seen him, which was clearing a fairly high bar. “Makes perfect sense if you think about it,” Ash continued. “A fish wouldn’t say he swims in water. He wouldn’t even know what water was! It’d just be this constant, right? Something taken for granted.”
“Didn’t someone famous say that?” Vivek knotted his thick eyebrows, trying to recall.
“Pretty sure I just made it up.”
“Mister Abei,” Lorena said, “we’re happy to accept the Kin’s gracious invitation.”
“Excellent well! This one, myself, to follow.” He drifted back and turned suddenly to the open door without moving an artificial muscle, slipping into shadow past the threshold.
* * *
It was a bubble of sorts—a sphere of glasslike material several meters across, its transparency broken only by a black metal ring presently mated to the open hatch and a dozen fist-sized thrusters studding the exterior. An ocean of orange suspension fluid limited visibility and filled the bubble with a kind of ruddy twilight. Karl saw lights through the cloudy stuff, apparently quite close, and placing his face just inches from the glass he could feel warmth through it. His boots fixed themselves easily to any spot on the pod’s inner hull; his magnetized fingerpads the same.
“Not sure what I expected,” Zach Obo remarked, pulling himself through the hatch. “But it wasn’t this.”
“Whoa,” seconded Ashley. “I like it. How do you fly it?”
“A.I. control, I suspect.” Karl rotated, climbing the pod walls, trying to orient himself in space. The Ouro solution made determination difficult at any range, but it seemed as though the reception room sat suspended in space at the cap of a long slender tube running what his brain coded as “down,” though it was merely the habitat’s coreward.
He thought of the tower they’d approached. “We will likely go down from here into the habitat itself,” he told his crewmates who seemed not to listen.
They were all in the pod now. Abei entered last, drifting to the sphere’s center and anchoring himself there like a lodestar. “Safeguarding the self please upon bulkheads, against the inertia.”
“They are magnetized,” Karl informed them. There were thumping sounds and once they’d secured themselves the hatch shut itself with a businesslike click.
“Life support shall not require. All administered,” said Abei as the pod slid perceptibly into motion.
“It’s a remarkable system you’ve set up,” Lorena marveled. “Have you hosted human guests here before?”
“The first, the six. Developed these systems periods past, for facilitation should serendipity arise. As, pleasing, it has!”
“Do most habitats have them?”
“Of all in system, only this.”
“But there are others elsewhere.”
“Are there more of you?”
“Of Abei, there is one.” He seemed pleased with this. The pod fell past great machines, themselves on the move though not nearly so fast. White lights too, spaced at even intervals to mark their descent.
“What’s this place called?” Ashley asked.
“The phrasing in your tongue? No consensus between minds. To say a place among the Kin—for places it gives many kinds,” he shrugged. “In the skein or in the truth.”
“It doesn’t matter where you come from?” she interpreted.
“Only consequence that you are.” Light built in the murk below their feet. Karl swung around, inverting himself so he seemed to be rising. Maxi dodged his legs and rolled her eyes.
The light below expanded as though an aperture were opening and abruptly the tube walls fell away. They were in the clear, in open-ended space below a receding ceiling of seemingly infinite dimensions; a bulwark that must mathematically have curved but did so somewhere past sight.
The pod changed course, smoothly pressing them against the walls as it did so. Large shapes resolved from the orange murk, dark blots cloaked in coruscating colors. Floating free in the soup and anchored by independent drive systems, each was roughly a kilometer across and frankly abuzz with activity. Vehicles they recognized from far out, but as the pod drew closer tiny motes could be seen against fizzling multichrome backdrops.
“Lord have mercy,” hissed Beatrice in Lorena’s ear. “There they are.”
Kin beyond counting moved in every imaginable space—running with their mobility harnesses between the lumbering vehicles, schooling in and out of lit portals, over the ignited screens that flushed their skins and tattooed them with intense sensation. Vessels dilated and finely nested nerves squealed with delight and the onlooking humans could only imagine what they felt.
“Residential habitation,” Abei noted.
Maxi frowned. “Where are the industrial centers?”
“Production concentrated offsite, toxins better to manage.”
“Gotta keep that fluid clean,” said Obo. “Polluting in here would literally be shitting where you eat.”
“Precision in reasoning, Mister Obo. Terribly suffering in early Kin stories. Much sacrifice, the damage to heal. Greater perspective than even the Codes of Carbon known from Terran accounts.”
“So you move workers from here to the factories? Using shuttles, or a mag-rail?” As a lifelong veteran of spaceborne habitats, Maxi knew how societies were built and felt she had to be missing something.
“Efficiency through automation,” Abei shone with pride. “Phrase taken off recordings. Output exceeding demand estimates, local and over the Kin’s breadth. At which juncture, peace and ease both.”
“Commercial districts?” Maxi was growing frustrated.
“Requisitionary applications, should one need. For major of the vast does the skein suffice.”
“They don’t really buy things,” Lorena explained. “Just like they don’t really work. The fluid takes care of their bio-needs.”
“So no possessions? Like that old song?”
“The idea to own, admittedly foreign. Admittedly troubling at first the skein but with time and study, satisfied. The Kin see now the physiological accomplishment of needing.”
“Funny way of putting it,” chuckled Maxi, shooting a look at Vivek. He immediately looked away, like a teenager caught staring, and she found this utterly charming.
“Hard to imagine, huh?” Ashley marveled. “Not much caring what food tastes like, what music sounds like. If we spent our lives just hanging out with one another, talking. I think I’d rather go senile.”
Lorena shook her head. “More than talking. Feeling with one another. We’ve got no idea what that’s like.”
“Maybe like the best sex ever?” Ash suggested.
“That is your example precisely because of a limited perspective,” Karl broke in. “The two species’ neurology is so differently configured—“
“I get it, Genz.” Now Ashley looked to Maxi and they both smiled. This guy.
“Precise reasoning behind the minds’ eager welcome,” Abei said as they passed closely by one residential block. At this range, what first had seemed a sphere was in fact a sneakily irregular polygon comprised of blocks plated with swirling screens. Arranged in an improvised manner, they created bizarre non-Euclidean bulges and indentations that loomed suddenly at the passing pod.
“Are these areas pre-fabricated?” Vivek asked.
“Indeed the cores, the systems of support. But in the particulars assembled by the ambitious.”
“Like an art project?” Ashley wondered.
“Like Sumarae. Any of those unincorporated mega-habs back on Earth. People build what they need. Here I’d guess it’s what they like to see.”
“Of many filaments the skein knows all. Still their knots are not prescribed.” A few Ouro had taken notice of the pod and approached, pulling into formation alongside it and looming large through the glass. Ashley found herself physically recoiling, pushing herself to the back of the bubble and glancing over her shoulder to see yet another of the creatures. Bigger than she remembered from the first Ouro craft—several meters of muscular tentacles and billowing mantle all skinned in undulating mucous membrane—it wore a black mobility harness sporting a ring of thruster nozzles winking blue. A tawny-green eye the size of her fist panned over the spectacle, focused on each of the odd primates in turn. Red and gold blossomed on its skin. An arm reached to touch the pod, grazing it in an idly unconscious manner as tube feet planted hundreds of kisses on the glass and left satisfied.
“The Kin give ecstatics,” Abei translated, explaining the display as an amalgamation of joy and curiosity rewarded, which may have been the same thing. Regardless, diamond-shaped pupils left the humans feeling distinctly cold. A crowd of sorts gathered around the pod as it circled the glowing block. News of the exotic visitors propagated quickly and gawkers were quick to arrive. Ashley began to relax; somehow dozens of the creatures unnerved less than just one.
“If they’re all connected right now,” asked Lorena, “how is that done? Implants? Can everyone see what anyone sees?”
“The transmit, un-visual and apart from the conceptions evinced. Electronics low on overhead enhance experience and differentiate data. Similar perhaps with those Pilot Mohinder wears.”
“That’s an exception from the general rule,” said Ashley as Vivek instinctively reached back to touch the cold metal in his scalp.
“The practice, known. Accepted as faith practice. Cultural penumbra.”
“It’s not faith. We just think the body’s sacred—though that’s the wrong wording, obviously.”
Maxi chipped in: “You’re born with it, you die with it. Doesn’t need elevation, just respect.”
“What you really mean is,” said Obo slowly, “We can’t have anyone putting himself over the rest. Changing the rules like that. One man does the work of two men, he’s put someone else out of a job. And that man’s either taking a third man’s job or he’s fighting the first man for taking what’s his. That’s why you don’t see ‘borgs the way you used to—not in my time, you understand. Way before. But we tried that, and it didn’t work.”
Abei nodded agreeably. “Observed and discussed in length prodigious. Advanced species, the minds in main agree, showing tragic little guide. Each multi-determined in fashion fractal. Metaphor,” he added as though it were needed.
Ash took a stab at philosophizing. “There’s got to be something—besides dumb luck, I mean—that links them. I mean, we’re talking, right? Through however many devices, we’re still talking. So there has to be something shared.”
“Universal,” seconded Vivek. “Even if it’s not predictive. Sufficient but not necessary.”
“In this again we agree to degrees unanticipated. And with this reason commissioned the minds our installation so witnessed!”
Lorena narrowed her eyes. “The station we found? The station that called you?”
“Is that what you meant by science research? When Tech Genz asked about the Open Territory provisions.”
Abei seemed to think for a moment. “Demonstration warrants,” he said at last, and as he did so the humans felt inertia’s nag. The pod changed course, extricating itself politely from the clutch of escorting Ouro who parted for its passage. They felt it accelerating, and though the ride was smooth the alarming pace with which the kilometer-wide floating baubles retreated suggested some technology beyond simple thrusters. The unyielding elemental wall appeared in the gloom and the humans found this comforting in its assertion of plane, form and order. Bulges, towers and other utilitarian structures revealed themselves as the pod slowed again.
The brightest lights had receded into the volumes behind and so this place was dimmer than the rest—colder somehow, grey like the soggiest days of autumn. A few Ouro near the wall meandered about with no obvious purpose. As the pod slowed it cut beneath an egg-shaped craft disgorging more tentacled creatures from an open trellis-like hull. The forms motored themselves down toward the mouth of a wide, shallow bowl sunk into the wall. Lower Abei brought them, and as they cleared the transport’s bulk they saw colored lights playing on its undersurfaces. Sourcing the light, their eyes found a spot at the bowl’s epicenter. There they saw an obelisk, at least a hundred meters and high and surrounded at its base by dark fleshy knots of Ouro. Rolling against each other and absently caressing with their arms, they bathed in truths liquid and luminous.
“In long twilight holds skein the more beauty,” Abei’s tone approached reverence.
“How is the central structure distinct from the broadcasting devices in the residential segment?” asked Karl.
“Great intensity; luminosity corresponding to twilight obscuring.”
“Of course,” Ashley’s voice was hushed as if the still water’s peace was not to be broken. “If they go senile like Contact told us, skin absorption might not be enough. They’d need something stronger to break through.”
Lorena chewed her bottom lip. For a moment she worried about giving offense, but if the artificial man had any capacity for anger she’d yet to see it. “Abei, we’d like to know about the end of the Ouro life cycle. We understand—we are told in our schooling—that the Kin are less…active after a certain point. That their behavior changes.” The pod was near enough the obelisk to reveal its most basic, low-resolution patterns. They pushed at Lorena’s temples and through her retinas with the buzzing, boring pressure of a lucid dream.
“Agreed, honored, though minds note non-static conditions inherent to biology. Post-reproductive Kin often encountering twilight in chances asymptotic.”
“Well, if that weren’t clear enough,” Ashley joked, looking to Lorena for confirmation. Instead a worried look spread over her face. “Ma’am, are you all right?”
“Now this is interesting,” said Beatrice. “You can sense it too.”
“Fine,” Lorena managed, unconvincingly. She took a deep breath and tried to focus on Abei’s unmoving shape.
“Pardon our interlopement,” said Abei, “but physiological observers note alterations in one Doctor Lorena Mizrahi.”
Lorena found things were easiest if she turned away completely—if she looked to the boxy utility structures in the distance, the buzzing settled.
“Something with the obelisk,” Vivek guessed, and as they rushed to comfort her Abei took the pod up higher, away from the wall and the crowded amphitheater.
“Profusely apologizing!” he was saying. “Equipment untested against non-Kin physiology.”
“I feel fine!” Ashley volunteered. “Everyone else seems fine, right?”
Breathing deep to combat the nausea welling up her throat, Lorena decided she wouldn’t hide any longer. She’d never get a solo audience; besides, it was time Karl and Ashley knew. “It’s from the first obelisk. From the first Ouro ship; Subject Zero Zero.”
Her fellow officers froze, looking quickly between each other for any hint at her gambit. Why would she divulge that, particularly to those for whom it would be most sensitive? But she only continued: “Some months back, we happened to encounter an Ouro civilian vessel, derelict in the Open Territory. Not the destroyed ship I’ve already told you about; this was intact. It didn’t respond to hails, so we tried to render aid. I boarded the vessel along with Pilot Duggins and Tech Genz. While aboard we found a device like the one you’ve just showed us and experienced its effects at close range.”
“Fascinating! For what were these events not heretofore described?”
“They happened earlier. They might not have been relevant. I worried how the Kin perceive it. And while I’m being honest, I was afraid of telling my crew every detail.”
Obo scowled. “What detail have we missed?”
“Something I’ve hidden. From all of you, even those it affected. And I’m sorry.”
“Lorena, what are you talking about?” Vivek was incredulous.
“When I passed out in that ship, something…happened. I picked it up then and it hasn’t left. It’s…a passenger in my head. A person; a woman. Someone I thought was my friend.”
“Here we go,” sighed Bea.
“A woman’s in your head? Jesus Christ, Lorena—“
“I know what I said and I meant it. In the midst of all those dead Ouro, one of them jumped onto me and stole a ride. The obelisk beamed her into my head when it activated and whatever it left took that shape. She’s a woman named Beatrice. Tall, light skin, dark hair. Mean sense of humor.”
She looked up to seven wildly diverse expressions, from Vivek and Maxi’s contemptuous disbelief to Abei’s delight. Ashley and Karl were aghast, pale as sheets; Abei wore a gleeful look and Beatrice watched fascinated. Only Zach Obo stayed unreadable, his eyes yellow-sclera’d slits. “Karl and Ash, you know her. You’ve talked to her; I’ve seen it myself and I’m sure it also happened when I wasn’t around. But you know it’s true. You know Beatrice is real, and again I’m sorry you have to see her. It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault.”
Vivek shook his head. “That’s ridiculous. Look, I’m sure whatever you’re feeling feels very real. Once we get you back to Konoko we can—“
“She’s real, Vee,” Ashley’s voice was suddenly ragged. “She’s standing here with us right now.”
“Guilty!” Bea chimes without much vigor.
“Genz, is this true?”
Karl paused at this. Surely the woman had seemed real—he couldn’t deny his own perceptions—but neither could he easily bring himself to admit his place in anything so outlandish. So he paused, and sputtered, and in the end it was the accusing stares of the three women that broke his pride. “Yes, Mister Mohinder,” he said at last. “I have observed the phenomenon as described. Though I never connected it with the chronology the Doctor describes.”
“To them, it’d seem like she was always there. It seemed like that to me too, for a long time. She really nested herself deep. And that’s why,” Lorena turned once again to Abei, “I want it out. Out of my head and out of my life.”
He tapped fingertips together before answering. “In main the minds agree, events occurring as described. Would the Kin assume deedship, ethics demand we acquiesce. But in the very moment I am told and therefore tell: we return to the craft Konoko.”
Now Lorena was confused. “What? Now?”
“Indeed for a visitor appears! Unexpected for the minds local but known to those more distant, from Terra space arrived! And first is the Doctor’s presence asked.” His silver eyes flicked upward and once again they felt the pod accelerate.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Lorena said insistently, as though she could will his words into perfect sense.
In response Abei opened his mouth and the voice that emerged was not his but high, smoother, unaffected and more obviously human. Lorena felt cold chitinous needles up the side of her neck. “Terran special courier TFV Schmetterling requesting permission to dock, citing the Interspecies Repatriation Treaty. Diplomatic ticket marker now transmitting.
NEXT TUESDAY: KONOKO'S CREW WAS PREPARED FOR ALMOST ANYTHING, BUT THE SUDDEN RETURN OF YANA ST. JULIEN THROWS A CHILLY CYBERNETIC WRENCH INTO THEIR PLANS. CATCH UP WITH THEIR STRUGGLE AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!