“Need a read on him.”
“He’s said a good bit already. Artificial, not cloned. External A.I. control, likely with a solid internal system for low-order processing and backup autonomy.”
“We’ve got to do better. Is it a shielding issue?”
Obo cleared his throat too close to the microphone. “Sort of. Too much for passive pickup, but active scans would work. Assuming our hosts don’t mind a high-energy rad sweep.”
“Which they very well might,” Vivek sighed.
“As you say.”
“What about Genz’s hand unit?”
“Yeah, that’d work. But it’s not active.”
“And they took their helmets off,” groaned the Executive Officer. “Can’t relay a message without the Ouro hearing.”
“I’d rather not interrupt what the Doc’s got going.”
“Same. So we’ll wait. Get anything from the cameras? Just the eyeball test?”
“Whatever they’re using for skin makes him look like a corpse. The color at least. Can’t say anything about the texture. They could’ve just pulled it over a metal frame.”
“No vessels, no organs?”
“Speaking, he showed teeth but no tongue. And the lips didn’t seem right. Makes me think sound’s coming from a speaker, which means no airways.”
“At which point, why bother with the rest?”
“Right. Oh, and the way he moved in zero G—no Third Law momentum. I bet he’s got his own grav-pulse drive.”
“No way. The kind of reactor you’d need…”
“You got a better explanation for Sir Newton?” Obo chortled.
“So we watch and wait.”
“Guess so. At least she kept the cams on.” Vivek scratched at a stubbly spot where jaw met throat. The screen before him showed Lorena’s feed: the Ouro welcoming room’s interior, its maddeningly blank walls and the cadaverous form of Abei all turned ninety degrees to the left. The helmet still rested in the crook of Lorena’s elbow.
“And when we emerged at the last location—again, I can’t say why the Kin A.I. didn’t use U.G.S.—we found an installation,” she was saying. “A Kin installation, very large. Hails went unanswered, so we attempted closer observation with a small drone.”
Abei chose this moment to break in. “Of this we’ve come to know. Take apology: a system meant for other bodies.”
“Point defense, as we thought. Pünkteverteidigung,” Karl added, as their interlocutor had asked he do for unusual terms.
“Concurrence. Though with this event we came to acquaint you, and sound assistance to dispatch.” His language skills had indeed improved in just minutes and his quease-inducing face wore a pleased expression.
“Yes, the corvette—I mean, the Kin warships—appeared not long after. But before that, I want to talk about the station. What is it?” She decided not to mention the Open Territory or the associated treaty.
“The query, vague,” Abei attempted an apologetic look but only managed a compromise between the verge of laughter and physical pain.
Karl tried to assist. “The installation emitted six continuous beams of exotic matter unknown to our systems. It was only by coincidence we discovered them. What was their function? By corollary, in what way does that function comport with the Galactic Interspecies Diplomatic Preserve Establishment Treaty?” And then he repeated the question in German.
Lorena screwed her eyes shut with exasperation and rage, but opened them again to preserve the illusion of a long blink. Abei regarded them blankly for a long moment, mirrored eyes unfocused before momentarily re-acquiring the humans. “The device referenced; research in nature, chasing enumerated exceptions. Section Fourteen Bee Cee. Construction the end result of a project long ongoing.”
“I see,” murmured Konoko’s C.O., unsatisfied. Karl’s bald question was easily riposted.
“Respectfully how,” asked Abei pensively, thumb and forefinger pinched near his lips as though addressing Socrates himself, “did systems Terran evaluate the materials presented? We ask for one has said, ‘coincidence.’”
“It’s a long story,” Lorena interrupted before Karl could answer, angry he’d ineptly handled the treaty question and unwilling to give the Ouro anything further. “And perhaps you can discuss it with Technician Genz later. Once the Kin warships arrived, we hailed them and began a conversation. We followed them and here we are.”
“I see,” said Abei, nodding slowly, hands once again steepled in a gesture drawn from a seemingly limited catalogue.
“We would like to discharge our data cargo into your care, make any needed repairs to our vessel, and be on our way.”
“The need, understands. And granted with every haste! But this cargo intrigues and very much would the Kin appreciate examining.”
“Perfectly fine. Technician Genz opened our systems to yours so adroitly before; I’m sure he can do it again,” she shot Karl a pointed look, which he gamely endured.
Abei got that distant look again. “Honored, minds accept. Easily cooperated.”
“Gratitude instead to you, Doctor Mizrahi!” he grinned. She wished he would stop and to her surprise he quickly did. “What cargo you bring is nearly lost. Fear always the Kin our loss. Fear always, to fall through the skein.”
She sensed a change in Abei’s tone—more open, almost introspective in a way he surely lacked the capacity to be. Another step forward in his learning process? She decided to poke at it, to see if it would shrivel or stick. “You used the word ‘skein.’ What does that mean to the Kin? What’s the skein, to you?”
He gave an odd look, as though it were a silly question. Almost disdainful. “Hardly can it say, skein and Kin to be separate. Skein is the truth through that we walk. For between the many truths is empty.”
Lorena nodded, overselling her half-comprehension. He meant the Ouro network, didn’t he? A universe nested in nutshells of steel and silicon. She found herself glancing to Bea for a hint, the splash of shame soaking in as the other woman nodded.
But then Abei spoke again and parsing his sentences took all her attention. “Bid am I to throw another invitation. The minds and all the Kin beloved seek audience.”
The word audience that threw her off; as though they were being worshipped, in accordance with so many tales of colonial ages past. Lorena frowned: “Are you saying you want us speaking to the Kin? On your network, on the ‘skein?’ Instead of just you, and your minds.”
“A near miss at the barn’s broad side!” Abei looked smug, convinced he’d pulled off a tricky idiom. “Invited, all ECV Konoko, to works of the kin. To walk in our truth, through welcome shelter provided.”
Ashley Duggins, who had stood only slightly more silent than Karl during this conference, was the first to understand. “They want to take us on a tour.”
“Precision!” Abei clapped his hands.
Lorena struggled for a polite way to refuse. “We’ve got to file reports,” she said apologetically, “and start up the file transfer. Of the cargo, I mean.”
“The need, understands. Commence our business; knows not when you prefer. Suggest two hower?”
This violently confused Lorena. She was sheepish a moment later: “Two hours. It…it would be possible.”
“Then we expect the six! So lucky, auspicious arriving in such legion!”
All of us? It seemed a poor idea. Corps regulations had been amended in years past, no longer mandating a full-time human presence aboard clippers, but the opposite impulse was thoroughly baked into Academy courses. The specter of emptying Konoko terrified Lorena so thoroughly and immediately, it surprised her. Something to grind against, Annika might have said. “Thank you for the offer. We would enjoy seeing your habitat. But I don’t think everyone will want to come, and one of us is…is not crew. Not an officer. A passenger.”
“Passengers surely welcome with the rest. And how says, six visitors! A figure meaning great. The Kin reaching; water-bound atoms of oxygen. Many are the sixes. Proportions serendipitous.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Lorena in the historical fashion of countless people fobbing off petitioners. Lifting the Marina’s blue helmet from beneath her arm, she popped it over her head and engaged the seals. Karl and Ashley did the same as Abei grinned with his awfully perfect teeth—enamel unblemished behind anthocyan lips.
* * *
“You’re kidding me.” Obo stood with arms crossed and chin dipped to his chest, eyes swiveled up like disbelieving floodlamps.
“I had the same thought when Abei told me. But the Ouro seem quite serious about it.”
“Doesn’t matter what they think. They can’t compel us to leave the ship.”
“Yeah, no way that’s legal,” Ashley chimed in.
Lorena shot her a withering look. “There’s no law or treaty governing polite invitations. This is something our hosts want us to do. They want all six of us—including Miss Leaf, which is why I’ve brought her into this discussion.” Maxi, standing deliberately opposite the Galley table from Vivek, gave the slightest nod. She knew better than to voice an opinion.
“You’re honestly okay with this?” asked Vivek.
“Color me surprised too,” smirked Beatrice.
“Look, I don’t like the idea of leaving Konoko any more than the rest of you—even less, I’d bet. But we’ll need to shut down most of her systems anyway, right?”
Karl nodded. “For the transfer, yes. I would expect three to four hours of downtime while the Ouro A.I.s investigate our computer.”
“So it’s not as though they’d steal the ship. What would they see in it, anyway?”
“Still not chuffed to suit up and take a bath,” Obo said gruffly.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“I’ll stay, thank you.”
“No you won’t. We’ve been invited and it behooves us to keep the Ouro happy.”
“Why would they possibly care whether a Tech comes on their tour?”
“Because, as I’ve already said, they want all of us. Something about the number six. It had them very excited.”
“I know it sounds dumb, but that’s what the guy said,” Ashley seconded. “Six arms, six visitors. They’re a-twitter over it.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“That being as it may,” Lorena cocked her head, “you’re all coming. We’ve no idea what we might need to ask from our hosts these next few days.”
“We’re already returning their data; a job we didn’t ask for,” Vivek reminded her.
“All the more reason to pile up chits while we can. Now, that’s the end of it. Thirty minutes from now, I want everyone mustered in the Bay. Miss Leaf, you’ll use your personal suit. Make it clear you’re a civilian.”
“Yes,” Maxi avoided any honorific.
“I feel I should state for the record,” Karl spoke up, “that I remain tremendously excited for the opportunity presented, and I feel we should all approach this visit in the spirit of inter-species cooperation.”
“Thank you, Karl. I think that’s the right attitude,” said Lorena, thoroughly charmed by his earnestness. “You’re all dismissed.”
They filed out in various emotional states: the seething Obo and sympathetic Ashley, unreadable Maxi and eager Karl Genz. Vivek gave her a searching look—you sure about this?—but said nothing once she met the gaze. In the end she was left alone with Beatrice in the Galley.
“Gotta hand it to you, Lorena. This whole thing’s changed you.”
“We’re all the products of our lives,” she replied, shutting the door and slumping into a seat at the table. It felt outrageously comfortable and she wanted to stay seated until at least the end of time.
“Whipping up the crew to curry favor with the Ouro! Contact will have a position for you yet. If you don’t mind a few nips and tucks in a cybernetics lab,” Bea grinned.
“For what I’m about to ask them, I’ll need anything I can get.”
“What’s that, exactly?”
Lorena drew a deep breath and exhaled, shuddering. “I’m going to tell them about the first Ouro ship. About you, and me, and Karl and Ashley. I’m going to tell them everything and then I’ll ask them to get rid of you.”
She didn’t meet Beatrice’s eyes but hardly needed to. “And then what?” her friend asked at last. “You’ll head back home to your full, fantastic life? Christ, Lor, you don’t even have a cat.”
“I’ll figure something out. There’s always the cross-service dating boards. Or knitting.”
Beatrice cackled. “See, it’s a bad joke even when you say it.”
Now their eyes met. Lorena took in her friend’s chiseled features, willowy frame, alabaster skin. She admired it all but the last gave the game away—too clean, too smooth, too china-perfect to have been anything but a fantasy like the android Abei. “You’re not real. You don’t belong here.”
“But I am here and we are talking. Why’d you close the door, Lorena?”
“So my crew doesn’t realize I’m as crazy as I obviously am.”
Bea let out a disgusted noise. “Did Moses argue with the burning bush?”
“That’s a hell of a comparison to make.”
"Yeah, well, I made it. Did it ever occur to you that there might be some reason behind all this? That somehow the universe’s threads put us together—whoever I was and whoever you are—and maybe that means something?”
“It means I’ve got years of therapy ahead. While you can…flit off into the Ouro network. The skein.”
“Lorena, I’m just a reflection. A formula, a program running in your brain. I’m what you make me and nothing more.”
“So you’ll just vanish?”
“I don’t know. That’s not even why I’m upset—it’s because you’ve got an incredible opportunity in front of you and don’t care to take it. The first time in recorded history two species share the same brain and all you can think of is how badly this disrupts your life. A sad, lonely life if ever there was one. For all the leaps you’ve made, you won’t take this one and it’s killing me.” She paused to let out a bitter laugh. “Quite literally!”
“That can’t be my problem. Too many things are already my problem.”
“We both know you’ll go back home, file your reports, request commendations and get turned down. Then it’s back to the grind, tour after tour, never once doing anything as important as you’re doing now. This could be a giant moment in galactic history and all you can think about is check-out processing at Mars Dock.”
“All I can hear is this crazy bitch who’s ruined my life and now wants to cast herself as…what, exactly? My guardian angel?”
“If that’s the case, nobody ever gave a briefing. There wasn’t a meeting to attend where God said, ‘here’s what we’ll do with Lorena.’ And besides, no angel would dress this well.”
“If God’s got a plan here, it’s some real roundabout shit.”
Beatrice didn’t seem to find this funny. “He’s holding His tongue, eh? You’ve certainly been asking a lot.”
“Fuck you. That’s not for you to see. Or hear. That’s for me.”
“I can’t hear. That’s funny, isn’t it? I can hear everything else going on in there, if I care to. Not that; you wall it off, which is interesting. Maybe it means something. But either way, I don’t know what you really want—just that you’re asking. Asking and wanting so badly it makes you sick for Him not to answer.”
Lorena shut her eyes and was surprised to find sudden tears running from under the lids. She drew breath and it seared badly as anything. “I just want to go back,” she whimpered, pathetic and hating herself for it.
“Back to what?”
“To knowing who I was. However shitty I was.”
Bea squatted alongside her chair, put a hand on her knee and forced their gazes to lock. “No one gets to go back. Not ever, not really.”
“I know,” Lorena swallowed and wiped her wrist across her face. Embers breathed in her eyes once the sleeve came away. “But I’m going to try.”
* * *
They stood, four of them in blue and one in purple, displaying various nervous tics while awaiting the last. Ashley drummed fingers over her helmet’s crown; Maxi held one arm at her side, gripping its tricep with the other; Vivek shifted his weight from one hip to the other in a constant tidal slosh. Lorena kept trying to check her watch though the slim wristbound anachronism was hidden under the Marina’s padded sleeve.
At last there came a ringing of boots on metal panels and Karl Genz descended from above, hurrying, doing his best to keep one great lembic foot from catching the other. “I have opened the gates!” he called to them. “Konoko’s computer is engaged with the Ouro A.I.s.”
“Here’s hoping they leave her in a flyable state,” Obo grumbled.
Reaching the Bay floor, Karl crossed quickly to his locker and pulled on his Marina boots. Vivek and Obo approached to assist him with the rest of the suit and grudgingly, fussily, he accepted. At last they stood together in a loose circle, holding their helmets while Lorena laid out her expectations.
“Address Abei as you would a human being, with one exception: always keep in mind he’s a puppet on strings. Anything you say to him you’re functionally saying to Ouro network. He calls it the ‘skein,’ which is a little precious.”
“Most of what he says sounds bizarre at first—you have to think about it for a moment,” said Ashley.
“You showed great facility interpreting him,” said Karl, doling out a rare compliment. “I must confess I was lost for most of the conversation.”
“Martian public schools. You get good at bad English.”
“That being as it may,” Lorena interrupted, “the moment we cross that airlock, it’s a public performance. We’re representing our entire species to their entire species.”
“Good thing we’re such a virtuous, upstanding group of individuals,” Vivek flashed a grin as acid bubbled up his esophagus. Maxi smirked to herself.
“You’ve already done the service proud. This is just another step before we’re on our way back home.”
Obo cleared his throat. “Speaking of which, ma’am…how exactly are we getting home? Contact gave us a mission. I don’t like it—sure nobody likes it—but we don’t have the goods they asked for, and they asked for something very specific.”
Lorena nodded. “You’re right. The information we’ve collected is almost certainly valuable, and that might satisfy them. Just in case, I’m planning on asking our hosts for some help in that regard.”
“Meaning what?” the Systems Tech frowned.
“Not sure. Contact doesn’t care about getting their hands on Ouro tissue; they care about the tech they think it’ll lead to. From what we’ve seen, the Ouro have tech coming out their siphons. They might be feeling generous. And we have done them a favor.”
Obo seemed to accept this, nodding and crossing his arms. “Speaking of tech, you ever ask about that big honking station that vaped our drone?”
“Scientific data collection,” Karl answered. “Permitted under the Treaty’s enumerated exception for such projects.”
“Seems a bit much for an experiment. You could fit a hundred habitats in that volume. And why there?”
“It only came up briefly,” said Lorena, “and only in the context of the treaty. It’s not a priority, as far as I’m concerned.”
“All right. Now, Karl—you want to be first through the airlock?”
NEXT TUESDAY: STRIDING BACK THROUGH THE AIRLOCK, KONOKO'S CREW TAKES A GRAND TOUR OF THE VAST OURO HABITAT. SENSES ARE STRAINED AND MINDS EXPANDED AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!