“Let’s start with the basics: what do we have, and what do we want?”
Lorena Mizrahi leaned forward in her chair and stared at the Comm console like it could answer such a question. Vivek let her think, hoping the Ouro would send some prompt to simplify their choices, but none came; comms had been quiet ever since Lorena called for the alien handshake. Whether the Ouro were confused or simply waiting, it seemed Konoko would have to make the first move.
“Think there’s some cultural reason they’re quiet?” Vivek mused aloud. “Maybe it’s protocol for guests to announce themselves.”
“They seemed happy enough to chat earlier.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe docking changes things.”
“It shouldn’t,” said Beatrice, who’d insisted on being present. “Frankly I expected them to be more curious, but it doesn’t take much to spook the Kin.”
Lorena wanted to reply but couldn’t in front of her Executive Officer. Bea had, in her fashion, chosen a particularly devious way to avoid an argument. Lorena focused on Vivek’s opening question. “What we have is a pile of data, Ouro in origin. Contents unknown, presumably valuable.”
“What about the wreck’s location? If a ship went missing, that’s something our government would want to know. For salvage and recovery if nothing else.”
“Good point. So we’ve got that too. Any other assets of note? What might interest the Ouro?” She gave a glance to Beatrice, inviting her to jump in. If she stayed she might as well be useful.
Vivek shrugged. “Can’t think of anything. Certainly no tech—they’re probably laughing at Konoko right now, the way I struggled with the docking…thing.”
“You did well. I think Ashley would’ve passed out.”
“Okay, so that’s what we’ve got. Though ostensibly we’re doing them a favor just bringing the data here.”
“Everything’s ostensible ‘til it’s done. Which brings us to what we want. First, I’d like that data out of my computer. Second, we need safe harbor for a few days while Obo rests the C-H drive and works her over. We might even need repairs, if it comes to that.”
“Think they could help with that? I know their drives aren’t the same as ours. Different substrate, right?”
“I don’t know, but given the tech gap it’s a decent bet.”
Vivek shrugged in a kind of half-agreement. “Anything else on our ‘ask’ list? We should be able to ask for something zazzy.”
“’Zazzy?’” she flashed a grin.
“Containing nontrivial amounts of zazz.”
“Well, there’s one more thing. I’d like to ask them about the device we found in the first ship—Subject Zero Zero, I guess, to be specific. The one that knocked me out.”
“What about it?”
“Any lingering effects—physiologically, neurologically. I had the most obvious reaction in the moment, but Karl and Ashley were also exposed. To what, exactly, is what I need to know. Ship’s doctor, after all.”
“You’re right,” he nodded vigorously. “Absolutely right. Though when I think about it, I wonder how they’d even know themselves. They almost certainly never tested the thing on humans. But you’re right, it won’t hurt to ask the question. They’re supposed to be curious, right?”
“How curious, exactly, when the questions get uncomfortable?” Beatrice wondered aloud.
“We’ll start with the most basic terms,” said Lorena, sifting through the console’s menus, the labyrinthine connections between ideas expressible as color and texture. The end result being a kind of addled, flapping semaphore: We possess records known to the Kin. Those in the distance who are dead are met.
“Are?” Vivek frowned.
“I don’t know; I can’t see how to shift tenses. It doesn’t even seem like an option.” We bear records to you with hope of aid, she entered. We swim as hunters, not speakers. We carry no diplomats.
“They did ask about that earlier and seemed happy when we said no. Good thought reminding them,” Vivek approved.
“Do you see anything obviously stupid in that transmission?”
“As opposed to the standard baseline of stupid we maintain around here? No, ma’am.”
“Always with the jokes. How you can keep that up right now is beyond me,” she slowly shook her head, reviewing everything onscreen. With a dramatically extended index finger she pressed SEND. “Though I have to say, I do admire it.”
“Admire all you like, Lor. Feels like it’s the only thing keeping puke off my shoes.”
* * *
Genz and Obo hauled the massive storage case over the deck with the sound of a cat dying an awful mechanical death. Ashley Duggins stood by gritting her teeth until they’d finished. Electronic seals chirped open at a touch, exposing the Marina suits folded inside and against each other like circus contortionists leotarded in Explorer Corps blue. One by one they pried them out, creakily unfolded their half-rigid material, sorted out which fitted whom.
“I’d love another spin in that Gryphon,” Ashley lamented. “But at least we all got to try ‘em out.”
Karl pursed his lips. “Mister Mohinder did not. He stayed on board for both deployments.”
“Really? Well, his life is a tragedy.”
“He’s doing all right for himself,” deadpanned Zach Obo.
Ashley gave a quizzical look. “Huh?”
“What’s that mean? ‘Doing all right.’”
“Doesn’t mean anything,” he directed his eyes back down to the collar seals he was checking.
“You don’t talk about Vivek in general, and never like that. You meant something by that.”
“Gentleman finds way to enjoy himself, is all I meant.”
She rolled her eyes. “All you meant. Come on, you already opened your mouth.”
“There’s a kind of…partnered enjoyment.” Obo shot her a significant look. He’d speak no more of it.
It took her a moment. “You mean sex?” Another moment. “Oh shit, you do! But he’s—it can’t be Lorena. She’d never.”
“The possibilities are limited,” said Karl, grateful Ashley had figured it out and clued him in. He’d been mystified.
“Maxi? He likes girls and he’s certainly not prodding me. It’s got to be Maxi.” She looked to Obo, silently pleading for confirmation but getting none.
Karl frowned. “That would be highly unprofessional and frankly I cannot imagine Mister Mohinder engaging in such behavior. I have always found him to be very conscientious in his personal habits.”
“It’s hard to swallow,” Ashley agreed. “Seems unlike him. He’s not exactly smooth. And he’d have to be, bagging someone we practically arrested…whenever it was. I honestly can’t remember how long she’s been aboard. Anyway, I don’t buy it. I’m sure you’ve got some kind of evidence, and I’m sure you’re not going to tell me what it is.”
“Little things,” Obo smiled. “The sorts of things you only see once you’re old and your eyes go bad.”
She laughed. “Sorry, you’ll have to do better than that if you want me to believe my Senior’s banging a criminal.” They fell silent then for some minutes, running through the suits’ maintenance checklists until a spit of static from the intercom relieved them.
“Attention all hands,” Lorena began. “After a brief exchange with what we understand to be the Ouro docking authority, our presence aboard their station is requested. Pilot Duggins and Tech Genz will don pressure suits and accompany me through the Equipment Bay airlock, to greet our hosts and give them our best shot at amateur diplomacy. Senior Pilot Mohinder will command Konoko in my absence while Tech Obo continues his work on the Chen-Hau core. Now, assuming those instructions came through loud and clear, would anyone like to voice a considered objection?”
Obo took the handset from its loop, looking back and forth between his younger colleagues. When he’d satisfied himself no cavils were coming, he thumbed the key: “Acknowledged, ma’am. We’ll have your suit ready soon.”
“I’m sure you will. On a personal note, everyone, we’ve come a long way and you’ve all done amazing work. What’s left should be easy, but I trust you’ll all continue performing at the same exemplary level. Let’s get to work, make this data delivery and get headed home.”
* * *
Lorena Mizrahi stepped into her suit and hiked it up her legs. There was a pinch at her hips and a bit more room thereafter. Obo had her hold her arms straight out while he adjusted the Marina. She held fingers rigid while he slid the gloves over her hands and closed the wrist seals. Karl and Ashley stood by quietly, already zipped into their own suits. He held his helmet in the crook of his elbow while she turned hers over and over in her hands. Her airways tightened just thinking of the orange bath awaiting her, and so she pulled atmosphere deliberately into her lungs and pushed it out again. She’d done this before and emerged whole, but clearly her lower brain functions weren’t having it.
“Thanks very much,” said the doctor once her Tech handed her a helmet. Immediately she pulled it over her head, taking care to maneuver the curved back lip over the soft bun of her hair. A double-touch at the throat seal’s catch snicked it shut. Everything went quiet for a moment until the suit’s merry start-up chime. With a twitch of sinus muscle she popped her ears.
Lorena flicked her eyes over the HUD’s start up menu, activating the external speakers. “Testing comms.”
Obo gave a thumbs-up. She opened a local channel. “Testing internals.”
“I’ve got you,” Ashley replied.
“Hear you loud and clear,” said Vivek from the Bridge.
“All right. Unless anyone’s suit throws a warning, we’re ready for the Pre chamber. Mister Obo?”
“Open SES-AME!” he barked in dramatic baritone from the Bay’s all-purpose console. The chamber’s small circular hatch cycled open; one by one the three pressure-suited officers climbed through and down the inset steps. They folded themselves uncomfortably in the cramped cylinder, Karl’s lankily irregular polygon at the bottom, and on Lorena’s call Obo shut the hatch again.
Lights flicked on after a dark instant. There came a mechanical grinding, more felt than heard, accompanied by a warning klaxon as the apertures under Karl slid open. They knew what to expect—the onrushing tide of sickly warm Ouro suspension fluid—but nothing came. The holes snapped shut with a last indignant honk from the klaxon.
“What’s the hold-up?” Lorena demanded over the Corps channel, floating free and gently colliding with a padded wall. The chamber pod having already penetrated the Ouro hull and so sat outside Konoko’s gravity field.
“Looks like the computer’s expecting a fluid transfer.”
Ashley suppressed the urge to make a joke. “Obviously we all are,” Lorena replied. “Why isn’t it happening?”
“It’s not happening because there’s no fluid coming. Not even a pressure delta. Computer didn’t get what it expected and now it’s pitching a fuss.”
“Why would that be? I thought we had a docking seal.”
“We do. It’s just…there’s no fluid on the far side. From what I can tell, it’s atmo.”
“The fuck?” Vivek couldn’t help interjecting.
“Terran-standard composition. The gas mix, anyway—real Terran air would be a hell of a lot dirtier. But yeah, it’s sea-level atmo.”
“What else is on the far side?” Lorena hated being stuck in the tin can of the Pre chamber.
“The collar sensors are only meant to test conditions,” said Karl.
Lorena sighed. “Well then, we’ve got these suits on. No reason we can’t take the conditions. Override the computer and open the outer doors.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll need a second—she’s never happy being told she’s wrong.” They waited. The klaxon resumed shriller and more urgent until, with a suddenness invoking a sullen teen’s concession, the outer hatch slashed open. Beyond was light, warm and white with a touch of yellow.
Karl pushed down through the hatch first to find himself in a strange rectangular room. Ten meters across, roughly twice as long and half as high, empty of furniture or adornment save for an anodyne pattern of black and white tiles on the floor. The walls were similarly lifeless: flat and grey, metallic in appearance, marked only by glaring light panels. A single wide door stood at the room’s far end, white with a panel of black glass set in its face. Perhaps it was the austerity or just the unexpected nature of the place, but it gave one the impression of a place outside of time—unmoored from conventional space, dismembered from nature. Just abreast of the door, hovering with such effortless stillness Karl hadn’t immediately noticed him, was a man.
Ashley and Lorena made their way from the Pre chamber and spun agape, disoriented with awe. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” Lorena intoned. “What is this place?” She looked to Karl, saw his outstretched tree limb of an arm, traced his pointing finger to its target where she stopped dead.
“Vivek,” she said into the Corps channel with what she hoped was calm, “unless I’m completely insane, there appears to be a person here.” This was a more complicated statement than she meant Vivek to infer.
“I’ve got your camera feed up here, and if you’re crazy we’re all crazy.” The man was dressed in a one-piece jumpsuit, the slightest shade of grey lighter than the wall backdropping him, cut in Navy fashion but with a slovenly looseness about the legs. His skin was very pale and his hair very dark, falling forward over his downcast face to obscure his eyes.
“One of ours?” Lorena wondered aloud. “Does Contact have any presence in Ouro space?”
“No offices, no permanent personnel.”
“Well, I guess we’d better say hello.” She oriented her feet to the floor and engaged the magnetic grips on her boots. Karl and Ashley did the same as she stepped steadily, confidently, toward the floating man. A look at his feet showed he wore no boots, just black socks. Was he supposed to paddle his way through the air? Lorena noticed too his calm, dry presentation—if he’d recently been in contact with Ouro suspension fluid, she saw no evidence of it.
She keyed her suit’s speakers. “Hello, I’m Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, Commanding Officer of the Explorer Corps Vessel Konoko. Who are you? We weren’t expecting to meet a human.”
As she said it, the man raised his head—smoothly, moving not a single unnecessary muscle, somehow managing not to shift his body’s position so much as a millimeter. Absent gravity this should have been impossible, but any reaction to that jarring fact was swiftly overwhelmed by the man’s face. The eyes were oversized, open unnervingly wide and marked by irises of glittering silver. His aquiline nose was thin and sharp, shaped so finely it seemed chiseled from white marble. Wine-purple lips so thin they may as well not have existed. The man’s features were perfectly symmetrical and might even have been beautiful were it not for the queer proportions between them, the way each stated a kind of artistic intent without the least concern for its fellows—a gallery curated by Philistines.
The man’s lips moved and sound emerged from his mouth but the two were not in perfect synchrony. “Good day to you. Or night, clocks say?” He grinned, showing a row of even teeth in a way that meant to disarm but only managed vaguely to horrify. Lorena felt her arm hairs standing on end.
“It’s day,” she managed, barely. In a little Terran town at that moment, it happened to be 1:23 P.M.
“Then good day and fine welcome, all. And you. And you. Greetings you are bid to our home.”
“Are you…an Emissary? From Contact. Your eyes—they look like Emissary eyes. Diplomat eyes.“
“Tunnels to the soul, as it says! They model themselves as you do. For comfort and ease in the meeting.”
“The hell is he talking about?” Ashley hissed in the radio channel.
“So you are not a Contact Emissary.”
“Abei, as known am I, chosen for comfort and ease.”
“I don’t think he understands exactly, ma’am. Try asking some other way,” suggested Vivek.
“Scanning him is a simple matter,” Karl declared, reaching for the hand scanner at his hip.
“Stop!” Lorena hissed just as quickly as she could turn off the speakers. “Don’t touch anything. Don’t pull anything out. Just shut up and wait, Genz.” Sullenly, Karl dropped his hands to his sides.
She chose the plainest possible wording. “Are you human?”
“Artificial organism, honored.”
“Oh shit,” Ash whistled.
“Terran form the model, as observed,” Abei continued. “This unit built for verbal talk. For comfort and ease.”
“Yes, you’ve said that. Am I to infer you’re being…controlled by a third party? By our Ouro hosts?”
“Indeed my interests align. Kin minds in congress.”
“So there’s an A.I. behind him. Or several A.I.s,” said Vivek. “More or less what you’d expect; no reason to do that processing locally. Lord, he’s convincing. And yet something’s off, looking at him.”
Ashley snorted. “Trust me, it’s even more off in person.”
“Honored, may we introduce?” Abei reached out his arms and spread his fingers, pointing past each of Lorena’s shoulders at Karl and Ashley. His hands were pale like the rest of him, long and thin and clean with cuticles no hangnail ever marked. They were absolutely perfect—soothing to look at, a welcome respite from the rest.
“Tell him your names,” Lorena ordered. It seemed a fair interpretation.
Ashley was so nervous she blurted out instantly, “Junior Pilot Ashley Duggins.”
“Scanner Technician Karl Genz.” Beatrice, for her part, paced a slow circle around Abei, taking him in as her expensive shoes clacked on the floor tiles.
“It fascinates!” beamed the strange man, steepling his fingers before him. Though the motions should have imparted some momentum, still he did not move from his spot in the air. “Question please: the home of your language? To be German, yes?”
Karl blinked twice behind his visor. “I am a native speaker of the German language. Yes.”
“Terrifically this pleases! Such work done to the common tongue. A challenge, you understand. Demography. We thank for the opportunity.”
“Adaptive learning,” said Zach Obo in their ears. “It’s probably based its language structure on intercepts alone, so any face-to-face fills in the practical gaps.”
“Honored, all welcome in the Kin home! Shelter and sustenance are granted from the many assembled,” Abei bubbled and once again spread those soothing white hands. “The minds my masters ask: your visages.”
“What?” Vivek sounded confused.
Lorena spoke slowly, doing her best to avoid glib contractions or imprecise phrasing. “I am grateful, but I do not understand what you ask.”
“Visages. The front portion of the face comprising angular features,” he rotely explained as though reading from a dictionary page.
“You want to see our faces.” She chided herself a moment later; should have lilted her voice at the end, pronounced it as a query.
But the built man seemed to understand. “Yes, ‘twould greatly please. Designed for highest comfort and welcome, this place!”
She glanced about the stark, rootless room and smirked behind her visor. “Doesn’t seem like a good idea,” advised Vivek from the Bridge. Obo concurred with a low wordless murmur.
Beatrice rolled her eyes. “Please. Are they going to gas you?”
Lorena flipped off her external speakers and addressed the channel: “Why would they ask?”
“Adaptive learning, like I said,” her Systems Tech replied. “Reading facial expressions, biosigns, sampling microbes.”
“Any real danger?”
“Honestly, doubt it. Environment’s fine. But you never know, and pressure suits are built for ‘never know.’”
She bit her lip and made a quick choice, grateful the Ouro seemed a patience bunch. Without bothering to re-activate her speakers, she reached up to the neck of her Marina suit and released the seals. There was a pressure in her ears, easily relieved, and a slightly sour odor she couldn’t place. Otherwise the alien simulacrum felt and tasted exactly like shipboard air. She blinked at the light in the room; liberated from visor filters, it was remarkably warm and pleasant. She thought of the day she met Beatrice: summer Sun on the flowers and the opal-fire in the trout’s scales. Not even color could be extricated from the lie.
Abei bowed his head to her. “Such pleasure, this visage speaks. Beautiful!”
“He’s done it now,” Bea snickered.
Lorena started to frown, a stranger’s declaration of her beauty being highly off-putting in the best of circumstances, but then she forced her face into a rigid half-smile. “Thank you. Genz, Duggins: do the same. We’ll talk face to face, like people.”
At this Abei curled up his arms, wrapping himself momentarily in the briefest of fluid embraces—an unconscious gesture of pleasure? A mechanical error, a loose bit of code? He watched smiling as the other two humans removed their own helmets.
“Remarkable,” he said once they all faced each other, the evolved apes and their machine make to mimic them. “Commencing business, Doctor Lorena, of dead Kin we speak?”
“I am Doctor Lorena Mizrahi—Doctor Mizrahi. And yes, we encountered an Ouro shipwreck—a very recent Ouro shipwreck—in the region we know as the Baraheni Graveyard.”
NEXT WEEK: CONTACT ESTABLISHED (ALBEIT STRANGE CONTACT), KONOKO'S CREW GET DOWN TO BUSINESS. WHAT WILL THEY MANAGE TO SALVAGE FROM THIS HARROWING ADVENTURE, AND WHAT WILL THEY LEAVE BEHIND? "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!