|Credit: Edward Del Rio|
Lorena looks out through the hangar’s gaping maw and shivers, thinking of the bitter vacuum held out by an invisible skein of static energy. Mars’ surface was the backdrop, winter dust storms marring her features into a rusty watercolor portrait. The dark iron scrub of a city sprawls below but she can’t identify it—the Sun blots out any light patterns. So many times she’s stood in one of these hangars, nerves gnawing at her stomach, looking down at the red planet turning thousands of miles beneath. And yet she’s never memorized its face, the mountains and desiccated seas every bit as distinctive as those on Earth. Her visual cortex demands continents delineated by oceanic blue and nothing else seems to stick. If the great red sore of Olympus Mons is hidden by horizon, she’s lost.
“Just two bags this time?” Beatrice sidles up alongside.
“Got rid of a few things I didn’t really need.”
“When you’ve whittled it down to one, are you officially labeled a spinster? Or a shrew? Nobody calls anyone ‘shrew’ these days; I think it’s a waste.”
“Probably. But with three bags, I need a cart to get them on board. This way I don’t.”
Bea rolls her eyes. “Thank God. What an imposition that would have been. For Christ’s sake, if they give you a starship they’ll lend you a damn cart.”
Lorena chortles, though the mirth quickly drains out through a hollow patch in her chest. You shouldn’t be laughing, it tells her; you’re miserable. Her smile falls as she walks with Beatrice across the hangar floor, the nearly frictionless wheels of her bags softly humming. ECV Konoko looms before them, suspended from the ceiling by a mighty pair of tong-like gantry arms, her belly split open to reveal the wide-open Equipment Bay. The whole bottom plate is missing, to be re-attached just before launch. Mechanized loaders move battered silver crates up to men with anti-gravity hand trucks who’ll place each in their assigned spots.
“You know nobody did that kind of work for a hundred years?” Lorena asks.
“Can’t imagine why not; it seems like so much fun. Less so, I imagine, before AG equipment.”
“One of the first trades they brought back with the Universal Employment Act.”
“I tip my proverbial hat to the venerable profession of ship-loader. Or, uhh…longshoremen. That’s what they’re called, right? Seems sexist. Though I don’t see any women,” Beatrice smirks.
“They used to be called ‘stevedores.’ Absolutely no idea why. And they’re not all men; look, there with the tablet. Oh, and another over there. Yellow jumpsuit.”
“I’d never question your eye for ladies,” quips the raven-haired beauty with a twinkle in her eye.
“Classy,” Lorena snaps. “Thanks for salting the wound. Was that really necessary?”
“Oh, shit! I didn’t even think about it; I’m sorry,” says Beatrice with a wince.
“No you’re not.”
“I really am.”
“Fuck off. You never liked Annika.”
“It’s not that I didn’t like her. It’s just…my point is…well, do many people like her? It always seemed like that was the point. The goal, in social situations.” Beatrice searches for words, looks to Lorena hoping for a bailout. “You know what I’m saying. Not to be a bitch, but that bitch can be a bitch.”
“What’s that, a line from Donne? Angelou?”
“Lor, give me a break. I’m sorry things happened that way. I know she mattered to you. A lot. But she said it to your face and cut you loose. That’s more than a lot of people get.”
“That’s not much consolation.”
“Of course it isn’t. But this is a fresh start, a chance to get back to routine. You’ve got a crew you like. It’ll do you good to not spend every day idle and moping.”
“Not sure about the crew. Two fresh commissions: Duggins and Genz.”
Pausing to let a hangar Tech bustle past them and go first, the two women mount the gangway. “Point is, what’s done is done. You know what your job is, you’re great at it, and the whole future’s sitting ahead of you. This is it, Lor. The past is past mattering.”
* * *
They woke, most of them, at 8:30 A.M. according to Federal Shipboard Time. The timing was fortuitous, the conventional conception of morning falling in close proximity to Konoko’s scheduled emergence. Sitting upright in dimmed cabins, they rubbed their eyes or cleared the phlegm from their throats. Ashley Duggins stepped into a shower so hot she spent the first minutes gritting her teeth; Zachariah Obo stood for a long time before the toilet, pushing hard and in vain against his prostate’s ironclad resistance. They gathered in the galley, variously disheveled, nursing their hot beverages and foil-topped fresh fruit cups.
Ashley looked around between their drawn faces. “This feels like a family breakfast. Like we’re all on vacation, getting up early for something, and we’re not sure we want to be here.” She settled back into her white plastic chair giggling, though nobody else laughed.
“I was thinking,” said Obo after a long moment, “since we’ve got close to no idea what we’ll see on the far side, we might ask Mohinder.”
“Doubt he’d appreciate the distraction,” Lorena slurped from her mug; loud enough her father would have shot a sideways look.
“Still, he’s the only one with any perspective. He could tell us what he sees.”
Karl took exception. “We are not completely blind; I have been running full-band EM scans between our dives. From this we may draw several conclusions.”
“Really? Thought you were running a xeno-bio project down there,” said Obo snidely.
“The Xenophon whale was an incidental finding. There are more important data—transmissions, especially, in the low-frequency bands. Radio, microwave.”
“Since when do the Ouro use microwave?” Lorena frowned.
“Centuries at least. Millenia, perhaps. I do not believe the timeline is well established, and in any case those portions of our archives have been corrupted. Which is, I realize, an amusing coincidence.” Karl smiled his thin, shy smile. His humor was no better received than Ashley’s.
“It shows we are, at most, only several thousand light years from the Ouro homeworld,” he continued, “which suggests we have already entered a relatively high-density region. It is likely we have already past dozens of populated Ouro systems without realizing it.”
“They’re taking us downtown,” Obo muttered.
“Seems odd, doesn’t it?” Lorena asked, contemplating her fruit cup, leaving it alone until the sour-earth taste of coffee grounds left her mouth. “Given the station we found and where we found it, you’d expect some sensitivity. Some discretion. Thought they’d lead us to a border installation, not march us down the Appian Way.”
“What’s that?” asked Ashley. Karl looked similarly perplexed and if Obo thought anything of the reference, he didn’t show it.
“Ancient Terran road, built by the Romans.”
“They built pyramids, right?”
“Those were Egyptians. Earlier, and the other side of the Mediterranean.”
“Mediterranean?” Ashley shrugged.
“The Mediterranean Sea,” Lorena was growing irritated.
“Couldn’t point it out on a map.”
“That’s ridiculous. What kind of schools taught you?”
“Martian schools. If I outlined the Kaiser Sea, could you tell it apart from the Ausonian basin? Probably not, right?”
Lorena sighed. “Probably not.”
* * *
“Two minutes,” Vivek murmured into the pod’s microphone, so close he felt the screen’s whisper on his dive-dried lips. He’d begun decelerating some time back, slowly burning Konoko’s nose thrusters, stretching the tight labyrinth of local masses into a hedge maze—looser, longer, provoking decidedly less anxiety.
This was exactly what he needed at the moment, because the going had gotten rougher. The space he crossed had grown crowded, pregnant with planetary masses and scored by the courses of smaller objects that hummed by him at tremendous speed. These he took for ships and so he did his best to steer clear, knowing the Ouro A.I.s couldn’t really see him. There would be evidence of his passing, of course, and idly Vivek wondered what the aliens would think of his distinctly human emission signature. He wondered if Konoko’s sudden arrival would make headlines across the Ouro civilization. He wondered if they even had headlines.
But he forced his fatigued, wandering brain back on-task. The ship’s velocity dipped lower and lower, subjectively crawling but objectively still over light speed until at last her computer found itself at the prescribed destination. A simple signal to the Chen-Hau core and the mighty energies ceased fluxing through its exotic substrate. The field dissolved; Konoko snapped back into the simplest definition of existence.
“Chen-Hau field is disengaged,” said Zach Obo over the intercom.
“Let’s all remember to thank Pilot Mohinder for his hard work while we slept,” Lorena added, pulling open the Piloting pod. “Bridge crew: what’re we looking at?”
Ashley Duggins took a moment to answer. “It’s a lot, ma’am. A whole hell of a lot. You better get up here.”
“All right. Give us a minute.” Lorena plucked out Vivek’s spinal leads while he pulled back his scapulae in a long feline stretch. “Sounds like a busy neighborhood.”
He shook his head. “You don’t know the half of it. So many bodies I had to just tune them out and stick to the open approach channel—which I expect was a designated shipping lane. Right now, somewhere, an Ouro traffic controller is losing his mind.”
She helped him down and closed out the medical console. Together they strode through the corridors and up the stairs to Konoko’s top deck. “Obo says we’ve got to shut down the C-H drive for a few days. We’ll be staying, at least for the short term,” she told him.
“He mentioned something about that last week. Figured if it were really important he’d do more than gently grumble.”
“Right. Just letting you know, we’re committed. Whatever happens with the Ouro, skipping town won’t be an option.”
“Lorena, I’m going to say something that sounds like a compliment but isn’t: nobody under your command would ever question your commitment.”
She laughed out loud, the hardest in weeks. “I insist on taking it as a compliment anyway. Now let’s go see exactly what I’ve gotten us into.”
They pushed through the Bridge door to a dazzling scene. Karl had piped Konoko’s telescopes through to the big screen and in the panorama before them glittered diamonds by the hundreds. Visible even at great distance, the Ouro habitats were enormous spheres strung into long chains and coiled like pearls around a trio of barren rocky planets. Craft of varying sizes schooled about and between them; vessels large enough to be habitats of their own wobbled at the system’s periphery. Low in the display and near to Konoko, nearly lost in the eye-catching local chaos, waited an Ouro corvette with three sloop escorts—presumably those they’d seen earlier, though they had no way to be sure. The local star, a late-stage red giant massing little enough to rule out nova or collapse, was noticeably brighter at its poles than across its equator. It seemed blurred, obscured by a barely perceptible lattice.
“What’s up with the sun?” Ashley wanted to know. “It’s…blocked.”
“Absorption lattice,” Vivek guessed.
Karl nodded. “Pilot Mohinder is correct. The local star is orbited by a high-volume, low-density structure. Its luminosity is functionally reduced by eighteen percent.” Energy being the ultimate limiting factor for any civilization’s expansion and hydrogen fusion being the universe’s most reliable source of said energy, a choice presented itself: one could either ship fusion reactors to the far ends of the galaxy, or devise an efficient use of the reactors already scattered across it. Solar cells were one thing, sipping free light from great distance—absorbing energy up close was something else entirely. Human technology simply hadn’t yielded the right materials. Of all the alien treasures coveted by Terran physics laboratories, Ouro absorption lattices ranked near the top.
“How many Ouro d’you think live in this system?” Lorena asked, struggling vainly to count the winking metal pearls, to estimate their sheer scale.
Karl squinted at his monitor. “The habitats are not of uniform size, but ninety percent fall between two hundred fifty and three hundred fifty kilometers in diameter. I cannot guess at their density, but I would estimate several million Ouro inhabit each of them.”
“So a billion-plus, all told,” said Vivek, awe in his voice.
“A conservative estimate, Mister Mohinder.”
“Incoming hail,” Lorena noticed, moving quickly to the Comm console. “It’s the corvette.” KINDLY FOLLOW. KINDLY SLOW, KINDLY CLOSE. She read it aloud.
“Computer can put us two thousand meters off her stern,” Vivek suggested.
“Do it. Halt us and auto-match speed from there. Let them take off first.”
“Put it in, Ash,” he nodded. She complied and immediately the big screen’s perspective began to shift. They felt no sensation of movement. Lorena glanced at her X.O. to see him looking in turn at the door. Maxi stood there, peeking goggle-eyed at the big screen but staying quiet. Vivek seemed to be communicating something with his eyes and Lorena might have commented had Ashley not broken in again.
“They’re moving.” After the briefest of forward nudges, the corvette seemed to stop in their vision as Konoko matched speed. The sloops turned with the eerie coordination of schooling fish to take wing positions. The Explorer Corps clipper found herself enclosed in an envelope just dorsal and behind of the corvette.
They moved through the system at plodding speed, course corrections kept gradual so as not to jar the slower human computer. The outermost planet presently sat on the far side of the girdled star and so they had a sizable gulf to cross as other ships emerged from dive. Commercial vessels, Karl Genz guessed from their power outputs as they swept by on their way to the inward habitats. If the merchants thought anything of the mongrel squadron, they gave no indication—though as Lorena reminded the crew, they were likely under full A.I. control.
In time one habitat grew larger than the rest and they surmised this was their intended destination. Not noticeably different from the rest, some three hundred twenty kilometers across, the great sphere lay at an unremarkable juncture in the pearl string wound delicately around the system’s middlemost planet.
“No lights on the surface,” Maxi Leaf remarked from the back.
“Waste of time and fuel, hauling things in and out of a gravity well,” Vivek explained. “Unless you really care for solid ground under your feet. And the Ouro obviously don’t.”
Maxi nodded, thinking her way through this. “So the habs are just big swimming tanks? No interior G?”
“Maybe some rotational G, but they don’t look like they’re spinning.”
“They are not,” Karl confirmed.
“Well, that had to make things easier. It took us five hundred years in space before we figured out how to stick ourselves to the floor. Turns out the squid don’t even know about floors.”
“If ever you were to stop calling our hosts squid,” Lorena warned, “now would be the time.”
Maxi tried to nod soberly but cracked a smile all the same. “Yes, ma’am. Absolutely. We need to show them proper respect, being floor-bound barbarians.”
The habitat came to fill the entire screen and still its features grew. Lights shone dazzling colors from mounts in its skin, flickering and pulsing and warping and warbling in nearly aural patterns. They seemed to have been installed haphazardly, without regard for symmetry, and garishly competed with one another for the humans’ attention as Konoko glided close above. She came at last to a cluster of towers jutting over a kilometer out from the hull, to which had been affixed a great variety of docking gantries. A port of sorts, though they had also noticed small craft flitting in and out of various hangar openings elsewhere on the habitat.
“Seems like they want us to come in,” said Ashley. “The computer’s guessed, and it wants more instructions. Anything from the corvette? I’ve got no idea where to go or what gear they might have that even fits Konoko.
“I’m guessing that has something to do with us,” Vivek pointed. The others looked closer at the big screen as each and every eye widened.
“Holy shit,” Ashley physically recoiled, pulling her hands momentarily off the console. “Those are tentacles. Oh shit.”
She wasn’t wrong. The docking appendage over which the corvette parked them grabbed the eye, between the searing red beacon lights down its length and the clutch of writhing matter at its broad paddle-like tip. Dozens of long, slender black filaments rooted in the gantry reached and curled, rubbed and writhed, caressed, wrapped about each others’ stalks and disengaged to mingle with all the other willing mates.
“Karl, please tell me what I’m looking at.” Lorena looked at the orgy with a rising knot in her throat.
“The device is mechanical in nature. Materials unknown. Based on its location and the composition of surrounding structures, I surmise it is some manner of docking equipment.”
“How the fuck’re we docking with that?” Ash was pale as, well, ash.
“Kindly maintain your professionalism,” snapped the C.O. Kindly? her brain registered. A favorite Ouro adverb. Why exactly had she picked that word?
“This is speculation,” said Karl, “but a non-articulated docking system would carry certain advantages. It would be highly adaptable for craft of different sizes, different constructions.”
“Makes an awful lot of sense,” Vivek shuddered.
The Comm console chirped. THE KIN BID WELCOME TO HONORED GUESTS. KINDLY MATE.
“Mate?” Ashley squealed.
Horrified silence reigned on the Bridge for just a moment before Maxi burst out in peals of pixie laughter that tinkled in the confined space. “My god, that’s priceless. They call it mating! Of course they do.” Then, when the others still didn’t get it, “It’s a dock, guys. You’ve come this far; time to get personal with those things.”
* * *
After some consideration they disabled the piloting computer. Try as he might, Vivek couldn’t coax it any closer to the Ouro appendage—it wanted no part of the tentacles, couldn’t square them with the round holes of its contextual intelligence and certainly couldn’t rationalize coupling with something so violently at odds with its conception of docking equipment. So it had to be relegated to an observer’s role, bleating feeble protests as Vivek took the controls himself and nudged Konoko down towards the grasping tendrils.
Collision, repeated the computer, punctuating each loop with a half-second of dead air. At about fifteen meters’ distance the crew felt a shift in their guts. The deck tilted slightly and swung back, the artificial gravity system’s gyroscope thrown momentarily from its axis as the audio warning took on a shrill new urgency.
“We’ve made contact,” announced Vivek as though it weren’t obvious.
“Still ten meters out,” Ashley frowned at the proximity sensor, which seemed to have frozen. “Just a bit farther.”
“I can’t.” Vivek applied steady pressure to the touch-sensitive controls but wore a frustrated look. Sweat shone on his scalp but hadn’t yet beaded.
“There’s resistance. I don’t know—“
Lorena broke in. “Genz, externals. Give me vislight.”
The tall German shook his head, knees sharply bent, folded anxiously into the limited space between seat and console lip. “Cameras obscured. The feeds are active but none with a coherent image. The tentacles seem to have completely encircled the ship.”
“Pull out?” Ashley suggested, looking nervously to Lorena.
Vivek grimaced. “Don’t think I can. They’re holding on tighter than the maneuvering thrusters can handle, and I’m not touching the drive thrusters.”
Obo’s voice cut in from the Engine room. “He’s right. Hit the drives and you’ll paste us.”
They sat in the machine’s embrace. Thick black ropes of myomer built to replicate muscle slithered over her silver skin, wrapping her up with a fist’s tightness. Punching Konoko’s tiny thrusters once again, Vivek could practically feel her straining against the grip. Trying to quiet the panic congesting his lungs, he suddenly recalled the old stories his parents used to read him—about the land of his distant ancestors, where great snakes hunted through sticky forests. A man encoiled, the stories made clear, had one real recourse: lying perfectly still. The beast exerted itself holding still its prey. Once that prey went limp, its grip relaxed. “Gonna try something,” said Vivek, taking his hands off the console and sitting back while thruster power ebbed to zero.
“What’s that?” Lorena asked, puzzled.
“Playing dead.” The proximity gauge was displayed on the main screen and as he said this, they all watched the once-frozen frozen number tick down. Eight meters, then seven, then six and five and four quickly before slowing again to one. They stopped, held close by the tentacles’ bonelessly iron grip, cupped in a giant’s palm and tucked in to rest. A clang sounded in Konoko’s depths, deep and elemental like a tolling bell, and she’d docked.
“Access inquiry at the ventral docking collar,” Obo informed them. “Standard diplomatic handshake. Default accept?”
Lorena shook her head though Obo had no way to see the gesture. “No. They’ve called enough shots. Gracious hosts they might be, but we’re at a disadvantage here.”
“What’re you thinking, ma’am?”
“I’m thinking we make them think. Let’s make them wonder, just for a moment, who and what they’re really dealing with. Obo, send over the Ouro handshake and get to looking over the engines. See if we took any hull damage in the docking.. Duggins, Genz—assemble in the equipment bay and break out the old Marina suits. Don’t want to make them nervous with the Gryphons. Miss Leaf, I’d kindly ask you to clear the Bridge for the time being.”
“What do you need from me?” Vivek asked.
NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART FORTY-SEVEN: WITH KONOKO BOUND IN AN OURO EMBRACE, OUR HEROES STEP THROUGH THE AIRLOCK TO MEET THEIR FATE! TWO DISTANT SPECIES COME TOGETHER, NEITHER WITH ANY IDEA OF WHAT THE OTHER INTENDS.