“The thing about Chen-Hau drives is, they don’t give a shit about you.” Zora Antanarivo is a squat grey barrel of a woman whose jumpsuited legs don’t seem to taper before the scuffed black of her service boots. She sits on a creaking chair in ECV Degrasse’s Engine Room, looking down at her junior officer’s blue-trousered legs extending from below the console deck. He’s wedged himself in there, obscured above the waist, to find an electrical short.
“That’s the best thing, too,” she continues. “’Cause that means they don’t ask for much.”
“Mm hmm,” comes the muffled acknowledgement.
Zora stabs a stubby finger at the controls, cycling from one display to the next in the order they’ve agreed on. On the procedure’s third step, the screen goes abruptly dark—as it’s done a dozen times in a row. “Dark,” she says.
“Nothing but green down here.”
“Same deal, eh?” she rocks back in her seat, looks to the ceiling with its stale fluorescents. “Move the leads down another junction and we’ll try again.”
“Two of them are already at the base.”
“Really? Well, fuck me. Fine, move everything to the bases an’ we’ll work backwards.” As she says this, she powers the console back up and logs in. Good evening, Chief Systems Technician, a voice intones pleasantly. Degrasse was an older craft, assembled during a brief and unfortunate period in human history when it was thought cheery, personalized computers might improve Explorer Corps morale on long tours.
“I’ve reset the leads,” Zachariah Obo says from his place in the console’s guts.
“Okay, here goes again.” She goes through the sequence; again the screen winks out at the third transition.
“Got a red! Circuit Kay Eff Emm Oh Three,” he carefully pronounces.
“Great! Great. Strip it, re-thread it, patch it.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Taking a moment to memorize which of the many wires running through holes in the steel plate he meant to fix, Obo removes the leads and sets the diagnostic tool by his left thigh. He feels in the pouch on his right hip—in these cramped confines he can’t look down to see it—and extracts a pair of cutters.
“So like I was saying, can’t do much either way with a Chen-Hau drive but run it. It works, you’ve got a starship. It don’t, you’ve got a tin can with limited life support.” Listening, Obo makes an incision, carefully opening the yolk-yellow insulation, laying bare the copper marrow. He cuts it a half-inch lower down, lays the dangling thread aside and tries to remove the mount where the wire meets the plate. The console machinery lies just on the other side. Obo knows he must turn the black plastic disc counter-clockwise, but it’s not working. Try as he might, his fingers are too large for the tiny space. He can’t get a proper grip.
“You can fix any of the power inputs, the cooling system, re-install interface firmware. But once you’ve checked all those boxes and the fucker’s still not projecting, what’re you s’posed to do?”
“Open the core, maybe?” Obo knows it’s probably the wrong answer, but Zora expects a reply and he’s growing frustrated. He’s sweating now and the sweat makes the mount even harder to grip. He also feels the need to piss.
“Hah!” she cackles like the salty, twice-divorced grandmother he knows her to be. “Crack it open like an egg, eh? Dump the contents on the floor and pick through ‘em? Son, nobody without a Ph.D. in material physics can name half of what’s in there, let alone tell you how it works with the rest.”
He’s on the verge of giving up. The mount won’t budge. “Ma’am, I can’t get this mount off. My hands are too big; I can’t get a finger between them.”
“You want me climbing down there to help?”
“No, ma’am, I know. Your back.” He slides out from the console to make eye contact. The overhead lights seem very bright and sent a throb through his laboring irises. “I’m thinking we get a Maint drone in here—“
“Zach! You know the rules on my boat. Let the drones do one thing…“
“And you’ll have ‘em do anything. I know, but this won’t work unless I gouge it out with pliers. Which will damage the anchor plate.”
She looks bemused, which only adds to his frustration. “Zachariah, you’re not winning this argument. My boat, my rules. Figure out something else.”
“Fine. But I’ve got to piss.”
“Four babies beat my bladder to hell and back, and you’ve got to go.”
She doesn’t stop him, but she does insist on talking to him through the head’s outrageously thin door. “So what do you think? How do you fix a dead C-H core?”
“I’ve got nothing, ma’am.”
“Don’t let it get broke in the first place.”
He laughs, but gets no response through the door. “Serious,” she says. “Problems ain’t owe you no fixes. All the smarts and all the experience you’ll ever get don’t matter. Galaxy gonna have its way.”
“Always did,” he must agree, grimacing as he steps out from the head.
“Always was.” She works her mouth like she’s chewing something. “And what that means is, sometimes you gotta yield. You came up Earthside, right? So you seen rats.”
“Big as dogs. Looked that big in the dark, anyway.”
“A rat’s a hell of a critter. Tough, smart, mean if he’s gotta be. But why’s he in that dark? ‘Cause he ain’t fucking with you. You’re big, he’s small. He wants the food from your plate but he takes it from the trash. He cares about you but that ain’t true the other way. So he keeps his head down, sticks to the shadows, does what he can to get by. Something changes, the question ain’t why. It’s what’s he gonna do? How’s he gonna live? He lives by knowing where he stops and the world begins. He don’t question it, just plays things careful.”
Obo nods along though he is at least a little lost. He looks around at the Engine Room, the heaps of printouts and black-bindered manuals she’s heaped into precarious towers. “What you’re saying is, the C-H drive might as well be a force of nature. It needs our respect.”
“No. It doesn’t need anything. That’s the whole point. But you’ve still got to manage it, ‘cause you’re a Tech, so you watch and react. You keep your distance. And in that distance you just might find an answer, if God left it there to find.”
“You see,” Zora smirks. “You say this, but I wonder if you really do.” With this she hooks strong stubby fingers into the seam between keyboard and console lip, lifting the top plate, exposing the components. One calloused knuckle-rap and she’s pushed Obo’s sticky mount out of its slot from behind. He hears it clatter and roll about, dismembered.
“Gonna scare up some lunch,” she announces on her way out the door.
* * *
Days to come saw them fly through bright and crowded space. Not so old as they might have been, the volumes swirled with elemental gas and shone the honey-glow of main sequence stars. Nebulae birthed daughters drawn to each other by gravity, cavorting in looped chains like fleuristes. Planetary systems accreted from dust and loose matter, as families do; those stars hung isolated and suburban. They watched Konoko pass and felt nothing, serene in their dominions. Emergent life scuttled and mated and swam and died under their benevolent gazes.
Past these suns they went. Past, too, a cluster of black holes fallen from degenerate blue giants and left to fight screaming x-ray arguments. Konoko skipped up a twinkling spiral staircase of stars affectionately dubbed the Handle, coming to rest at last in a morass of dust and plasma sitting atop it. The Mjolnir Nebula, as this bruise-purple cloud was known among human astronomers, took the appearance of a great, vaguely rectangular block just galactic-topward of the Handle. The hammer-like assembly hadn’t looked that way for long—the Handle stars bring recently birthed, the head expanding and dispersing over eons—but no Terran primate in all of history had ever seen it differently.
“We’ve emerged,” Zach Obo announced over the intercom. “I’ve started the Chen-Hau cooldown procedure. Full shutdown in two.”
“She’s purring like a kitten,” Ashley said a moment later over the same channel. “Promise, Zee.”
“No doubt. Standard substrate check.” The word routine encouraged sloppiness.
Karl Genz listened to the exchange. An hour at least, he guessed, to the next dive. Plenty of time for a good look around. The gaps had been tight of late and casting Konoko’s long-range sensors around was rarely worth his trouble. Dragging his fingertips over the touch interface to highlight a dizzying assortment of scanners over many spectra, Karl sent them all booming out into space with a last authoritative tap.
The results were as picturesque as he hoped: half the non-quantum periodic table spilled out before him in a color-coded list. Sorted first by relative concentration and then by atomic mass, it painted a fairly clear map of his surroundings. Planetary nebulae tended toward the predictable—soups of simple, fuse-able matter through which heavier elements ran like cold seeps down riverbeds—and at first glance this locale was no different. Hydrogen mostly, alongside helium, lithium, silicon. The matter worlds were made of; the stuff comprising, more or less, Karl himself.
And something more besides. The blond German frowned and expanded the S.E.P. display. Sequestered Energy Particles were queer things, recognizable cousins of conventional isotopes able somehow to hold back the burning impulse to decay. Radioactive particles with a puritan streak. Not what anyone living would call exotic, but perhaps halfway there. They did not occur, to use an oversimplified term, naturally. Yet here they were, winking at Karl Genz from the safe perch of his holo-screen.
“I was not expecting that,” he declared. Konoko’s computer offered no pure matches, though it advised him certainties would be easier to establish were the particles actually collected.
“My kingdom for proper A.I.,” Beatrice pined from the other chair.
“If there is one thing our species should take from the Ouro, it is that.”
“Easier said than done. What seems overwhelmingly powerful might quickly turn pedestrian if translated to human terms.”
“I do not believe we are so far apart in intellect.”
“That’s not what I meant. It’s a question of architecture—complexity is all perspective.”
Karl paid barely any attention, staring half-stupefied at his screen where sat the SEP signatures alongside the closest comparisons on record. “That is awfully funny,” he said.
Beatrice swiveled to see. Her eyes narrowed. “That’s got to be a coincidence.”
“With nearly anything but SEPs, I would agree. But they do not naturally occur.”
“Never? Come on. An anomaly seems more likely, and anyway the signature doesn’t match what we’ve already got on record. We know what these things crap out and that’s not it. Close, but not quite it.”
As if on cue, a warning tone honked through Karl’s system. The SEP display went suddenly opaque and receded into the projected background as an urgent notice leapt to his attention. High-sensitivity gravity scanners wailed away, informing him they’d discerned a solid mass—distinct from the nebular cloud and moving at high speed. “Nearly relativistic,” Karl marveled.
“Neither. Density too low. Far too low. Hah!” he threw back his head to laugh. “I know exactly what it is.” He directed all scanners to aggressively track the mass, twenty A.U. distant, and then he picked up the intercom handset. “All hands, scanners have picked up what appears to be a Xenophon whale.”
Ashley was there in what seemed just a moment, still wearing her flight suit; Maxi and Vivek arriving exactly fifteen seconds apart. It might even have seemed deliberate if anyone had cared to time them. “That’s absolutely nuts,” said Ashley.
Xenophon whales were, like photino birds and a goodly number of other organisms inhabiting space’s raw void, loosely classified by xenobiologists into class Vacua. Discovered inhabiting several hot young nebulae in Terra’s immediate environs, the kilometer-scale megafauna drifted about sifting nutrients from elemental gas. Augmented by vaguely photosynthetic processes, their metabolisms cranked out sequestered energy particles to power millions of cilia carpeting their bodies. With nothing to slow them down and living glacially long lives, the beasts reached spectacular speeds, allowing them in turn to inhale even more matter and energy. A mature whale was a fantastic repository of clean, efficient energy—enough, when processed and concentrated, to accelerate and decelerate starships. They held simmering in their bellies the means to transform interstellar travel from luxury to mere commodity.
What followed should have been obvious to any student of human history. We hunted them until there were barely any left to hunt. Men shipped out by the hundreds of thousands to populate the great and since-abandoned whaling stations, named with a sense of history: Bristol, New Bedford, Lahaina. Electromagnetic shielding of the period didn’t allow most advanced electronics to function in the nebulas, and so the men (they were overwhelmingly male) crowded into overheated engine rooms and observation bubbles and insanely dangerous free-flying outrider pods to bring them down. No easy work, slaying giants moving at nontrivial percentages of light speed, but unbelievably lucrative once you’d hauled back your loot by the millions of gelatinous gallons. Xenophon whales soon rendered the great railgun networks obsolete, dominating interstellar travel until the appearance of the Chen-Hau drive—made possible by the very advancement of SEP science the whales had spurred. From a certain perspective, the creatures just managed to head off their own extinction.
“Can we get vislight on it?” Ashley asked.
“No,” Karl shook his head. “Too far, too fast, not bright enough.”
“You’re not bright enough,” she joked back. “Is it alone?”
“Yes, one mass contact only. Though it might be several in extremely tight formation.”
“Everything else is the same?” Vivek wanted to know.
Karl chewed his lip. “Now that you mention it, the low-band SEP signature is different. Markedly so. We may be observing an as-yet-undescribed species—I will record what we have for analysis back home.”
“That’d be a hell of a thing! More history made,” beamed Ashley. “When they write about this tour they won’t know where to start. All the crap we’ve done and been through.”
At this, Maxi snickered. “Babe, at this point, Contact’s in so deep they’ll never let this out. We’ll all be lucky to stay out of Federal prison. Best case, they give you a clean discharge and send you back to civilian life. If you want to be in the history books, you picked the wrong gig.”
* * *
“Chen-Hau drive is engaged,” said Zach Obo, and the intercom popped to quiet. Lorena stood from the console and tensed her leg muscles to force blood through them. She reached to zip her jacket up but found the zipper already at its ceiling. The room felt chilly and the hairs stood on her skin. A stone sat in her stomach though she couldn’t remember the last time she’d consumed anything solid. Weariness clung to her bones like fog on steep hills.
“I can’t remember anything true anymore,” she said to the cold grey wall. “Nothing that isn’t in some way, even unconsciously, corrupted. I don’t know who I am.” The wall said nothing. Lorena turned to find Beatrice, pleased but anxious when she wasn’t there.
“Well,” she snorted. “First time you’ve had nothing to say.”
Her handy chirped with such perfect timing she startled and nearly threw the thing across the room. Seeing Obo’s name onscreen soothed her mind but did nothing for her thudding heart or the burn of adrenaline in her veins. “What’s going on?”
“Ma’am, I didn’t want to worry everyone with an all-hands announcement, but I’ve got some concerns with the C-H core and obviously you’ll want to know.”
She ran a hand over her face. “Can’t be too serious, or we wouldn’t be in dive right now.”
“Just concerns, like I said. We’ve been running real hot for a real long time. Restarts and cooldowns keep her happy, but there’re diminishing returns for that sort of thing.”
“Meaning what? What’s going to go sideways? We’re pushing operational limits, but as far as I know we’re not exceeding them.”
“You’re right in that, ma’am, but I’ve got my own guidelines. Believe me when I say we’re risking a destabilized core substrate. Not tempting it, mind, but risking. Numbers on the board, you know?”
“I get it. If you want to throttle back we’ll do it. The Ouro will probably have to wait on us anyway.”
“At this point, far as we’ve gone and close as we seem to be, there’s not much point. Slowing down won’t much change the probabilities. We need to shut it down, the whole thing, for at least a few days.”
Lorena winced, though he couldn’t see. “That’s not an option.”
“Right, ma’am. I’m aware; that’s why I’m only bringing it up now. I know you’re run down.”
However true the assertion might have been, she wasn’t happy to hear it. “That’s ridiculous. Everyone’s tired; if there’s something I need to hear I can hear it any time.”
“Sorry, but like I said, it’s not urgent. What it does mean is, if we get where we’re going and don’t like what we see…”
“Then we’re running a big risk,” she finished. Imbalanced substrate conditions were rare, but they could lead to any number of nasty outcomes from marooning to near-instantaneous light speed breakup.
“Just so. Wherever we’re going, we’re stuck there until the core re-orders itself. Five days, if I had to pick a number.”
“Okay. Thanks for the call—this was probably the best way to handle it.”
“How’re you doing, Zach?”
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
“Just asking. We haven’t talked much recently. Besides the diving pitter-patter; that’s a poor substitute for human interaction.”
“It’s all a routine for me. The dives, the ship, the parts of her. I’m busy without the free time to start climbing the walls. My job doesn’t have the stakes yours does.”
“Of course it does.”
“Well, I won’t argue. Your little bird’s all right?”
“Don’t think he knows another way to be.”
NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART FORTY-SIX: WELL PAST THE POINT OF NO RETURN, KONOKO AND HER CREW ARRIVE IN A DENSELY INHABITED OURO SYSTEM. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES, FEATURING THE VERY LAST FLASHBACK OPENER BEFORE OUR RAGING CONCLUSION!