Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Fifty-Three

Credit: Alex Zutsy

            Vivek and Maxi walked uncomfortably down to the Equipment Bay.  For the first time they could operate with nothing to hide but the new situation seemed somehow more burdensome than the last.  Subterfuge was straightforward; bring in the daylight and judgment’s pall cast the gnarliest of shadows.  So they walked side by side for the very first time but hadn’t the courage to speak on their way down, lest they remind everyone of their mutual sin.  It wasn’t the best way to conduct a relationship.

            They arrived in the Bay to find it blessedly empty.  Obo wouldn’t have stopped them, but he would have looked and that look would have been excruciating.  “Should we suit up?” Vivek asked her.

            “Why?  Lock integrity’s held.”

            “If Contact is watching, we’ll look suspicious without suits.”

            “If Contact’s watching, we’ll look suspicious no matter what.”

            He couldn’t argue with that.  Straightening his jacket to look his best—assuming the Ouro had any notion of professionalism—he climbed down through the Pre chamber until a queasy shift in his gut signaled gravity’s departure.  His muscles relaxed and he continued down gingerly so as not to separate himself from the wall.  Federal service-issue shoes assisted him, adhering themselves to the rungs.  At the bottom he pushed off gently, rotated in the air and bent his knees coming to rest on the tiled floor.  A glance upward satisfied him Maxi was following without trouble.

            “Honored, many welcomes!”  Abei announced himself.  The hovering scarecrow was erected just a few meters before them.  “Unexpected to witness.”

            “Yes!  Well,” Vivek began, stopped, cleared his throat and began again: “We’d like to help our C.O.  Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, you remember?  Yes, well, Konoko’s crew would like to assist with the removal of her…uh, her projection.  The network processes buried in her brain.  We want to help you remove them, if it’s at all possible.  Does that make sense?  Do you understand?”

            “Indubitably!  Comprehended are the minds and always dissension to be supported when in earnest conducting.”

            “Dissension?  Explain that,” Maxi frowned.

            “Always the Kin embroil with discussion.  Dissension, inevitable in events passing, must sanction to be.  Indispensible with the fabric of skein.  Terran cognition rarely so proceeding, pleased and surprised are minds in a wider negotiation to resolve.”

            “We should’ve brought Ashley to interpret,” Maxi groaned.

            “I think he means they get we’re not with Contact.  Acting on our own.  Only for them it’s not mutiny or insubordination—more of a spirited discussion.  They thrive on interaction, right?  We’re just offering alternatives to whatever the Emissary offered.  Abei, do you think your minds can remove the projection from Doctor Mizrahi?”

            “At present unknowable.  Researching operates by hindrance, absent the subject Mizrahi, but highly positive the prognoses gathered.”

            Vivek’s eyes widened at the welcome news.  “You think you’ll be able to?  Do you need more time?”

            “Preliminary collection gifts to reveal crucial processes of Mizrahi the Doctor.  Spoken in juxtaposition to Kin-derived skein data already established—retrieving from craft Konoko, by way of Kin deceased—the minds arrive at superior understandings.  Regarding, with best specificity, skein data compressed within the Terran mind.”

            All this took a moment to digest.  “But our computers aren’t proper artificial intelligence, the way yours—the way the Kin have built theirs.  Are you sure it’s analogous?”

            Abei gave a smile more knowing than he’d yet shown.  “Evolutionarily iterated structures—organic neurology the priming exemplar—build naught but what from which they themselves presume construction.  Data structures flowing in natural order from microbiology superficially incidental.”

            “If he says it, I’m just going to believe it,” Maxi declared, crossing her arms.

            “That’s great to hear.  What do you need from us?  We’ll do anything we can to facilitate this.”

            Abei pursed his purple lips in an excellent impression of thought.  “Requiring once and foremost the subject oneself.  From telemetry have we acquired perspectives on these processes whilst eschewing intricate detail.  Presenting the subject in situ,” he brightened at the Latin, “ought predict direct methodology.”

            “They need Lorena back,” Maxi interpreted.  “Is that all?”

            “Still a tall order,” Vivek reminded her.

            Abei bobbed his head like a bird.  “Emphasizing secondly no guarantees established.  However, absent the subject, impossible.”

            “We understand.  Thanks so much, Abei,” Vivek nodded earnestly.  “If you’ll excuse me a minute, I’m going to try and reach her.”  He pulled out his handy and shot Maxi a hopeful smile.

            “Watch out what you say,” she cautioned.  “Need to be subtle.”

            “I know,” he shot back, slightly peeved.

            While he made his way through Schmetterling’s interface, Maxi turned back to Abei.  She’d thought of a gambit.  “So, what’d you discuss with the Emissary?” she asked with all the innocence of a child at a sucker.  The Ouro loved discussion, after all.  Perhaps they’d like to share.

            “Incensed the Emissary claims, on account of Kin development long ongoing.  With minds apologizing at misconceptions, nonetheless insisted our interpretation.  The Emissary position we filter through skeining and still are they unpersuaded.  At that juncture of which concession cannot for principle exist, other interest notwithstanding.  A separation, then, episodal in nature.  Talks inevitably to resume.”

            Maxi nodded along, following just a moment behind.  She was opening her mouth to ask what other “interest” the Ouro might hold, but Vivek’s tone swiveled her head.  “You’ve got to slow down, Lor.  Slow down and tell me everything, from the top.”

            He listened then and Maxi watched with intense curiosity.  She heard Lorena’s voice coming through the tinny speaker at high speed and register but couldn’t make out the words.  “Shit,” Vivek said sympathetically.  “Jesus.”

            A while longer, a few more exchanges.  “Be safe and try not to worry.  We won’t be leaving without you,” he signed off and looked to Maxi.  “They found something—some reaction she showed to Ouro comms.  Seems like the experience shook her up pretty badly, and now she’s on indefinite medical hold.”

            “Because she freaked out?”

            “No, just for observation.  More testing or something.  She’s obviously still got her handy, but the Emissary can keep her locked up as long as she wants.”

            “Shit,” Maxi huffed.

            “I don’t see how we’re supposed to get her out,” Vivek sighed, rubbing at his face.

            “Doesn’t matter,” she shook off his despair.  “Not right now, anyway.  Abei, if we can deliver Doctor Mizrahi, are the Kin prepared to help?”

            “Without guarantees are agreed.”

            She gave a curt nod.  “Right.  Now, Vivek, with that taken care of, we need to find a way to pry her loose.”

            “I can’t imagine Contact’s going to hand her over.  They placed the medical old specifically because she wanted to leave.”

            “Perhaps inappropriate advising,” Abei broke in with one china-white index finger extended upwards, “but in estimation of the minds are Terran-betwixt conflicts nascent.  Unwilling are the Kin pragmatically to accept marked deterioration in relations interstellar.”

            Vivek tried to clarify: “So we need Contact on board for the release?” 

            “Not in all precision.  Risks taken, often mitigated in parallel concession.  With appropriate assets, compromising eased in passage.  Always, from our perspective, dialogue with constant transaction proceeding.  As every cell of its neighboring must always.”

            “Something to sweeten the pot,” Maxi translated.  “Ideally for all parties.”

            Vivek thought about his.  He’d always been horrendous gift-giver, accustomed to the disappointed faces of friends and family.  Skipping major holidays he considered a perk of his job.  “Abei, is there anything we can do to thank the Kin for their aid and hospitality?”

            “Questions persisted in the skein,” he answered quicker than Vivek expected.  “Concerning most priority the scanning happenstance of vessel Konoko.  Curious the minds remain, honored—with what implements came Technician the Genz upon our sight farthest reaching?”

            The humans exchanged a look, each hoping the other knew what exactly the android had said.  Vivek took a stab: “You want to know how Genz found…what?  What’s ‘sight furthest reaching?’”

            Abei worked his mouth in a way he likely meant to seem frustrated.  “Six sights positioned and programmed, from Open Territory across reaches large and through great obscuration.”

            Six sights.  Components shifted in his skull, locked grindingly into place.  “He means the station.  He wants to know how Karl spotted the beams from that station.”

            She scrunched up her nose, confused.  “It was just the stupid photino bird.  He picked it up and started flashing once we got close.”

            “Curious, honored: defining as a necessity with the phrasing used, ‘photino bird.’”

            “It’s a, uhh…” she trailed off, frowned.  “Damn, how to put it?  An animal living in deep space, shaped a little like a Terran bird?  Eats exotics.”

            “They’re probably familiar with the species, if we found one in the O.T.,” Vivek theorized.

            “Oh hey, I’ve got it!” Maxi snapped her fingers and dug into her left hip pocket.  Producing her handy, she activated its screen and began flipping through menus.  “I took some pictures and video, figuring I’d never see one that close again.”

            She found the media she sought and stepped forward, holding the little machine up to Abei’s glittering curious gaze.  “This.  You know these, yeah?”

            “Minor in population and with regard to transit incidental.”

            “Yeah, well, that’s how Genz picked up on your emissions.”

            “It fascinates!” Abei chirped.  “Unknown in character the interaction but surely can investigations run in pursuit.  Possession still Konoko maintains?”

            Vivek nodded.  “It’s in our Equipment Bay right now, along with its containment field.  Though I’m sure you could build a better one.”

            “Obo wouldn’t like hearing that,” Maxi mused.

            “Correspondence betwixt skein, sight and flesh considering rarest indeed!”  Expressive fingers fluttered with excitement.  “Mitigating in potential the setbacks inevitably along with process removal proceeding.  Long built, hard maintained the project—both Doctor the Mizrahi and Kin-external sight interaction promising avenues represented.”

            “Are you saying they’re the same?” Vivek pondered this, chewing the slick meaty inside of his cheek.  He looked to Maxi: “Does that make any sense to you?  How are they the same?”

            “Maybe they’re not.  Maybe they just hold something in common.”

            “It’s the interaction,” Vivek suddenly realized.  “That’s got to be it: why Contact wants Lorena, why the Ouro want her too.  The thing she picked up bonded with her brain, which…Abei, has that ever happened before?”

            “In all the skein undocumented.”

            “Okay.  So Lorena’s special because of that interaction.  The photino bird showed the same thing: non-Ouro response to Ouro tech.”

            “I think it’s more than that.  Remember the end of the tour, right before that Emissary bitch showed?  Someone asked about the point of that big-ass station and Abei took us up near those obelisks.  He talked about bright lights being needed to go vast distances, to cut darkness.”

            “He was talking about the obelisk and getting through to the senile Ouro.”

             “It’s all the same thing, don’t you see?”  She found her pulse quickening.  “The tech is designed to keep dead Ouro around in their network—call it a simulation or a projection if you want, that’s what it does.  And it’s a two-way street, at least for Ouro.  Lorena proves something that’s not Ouro can still use that street.  It’s not just about accessing tech, it’s about transferring consciousness.  Even beyond death.  The station wasn’t collecting observational data—it was scouring the galaxy for souls.”

            This was a lot to take in.  “How would that even work?” was the most intelligent thing Vivek had to say.

            “The physics?  Beats me.  But their A.I.s obviously know how to deal with minds in different states.  If they can take an image of an Ouro at the moment of death, what’s to say that can’t transfer?”

            “Pleased fantastic at such harmoniousness!” Abei broke in.  “In matters so concerning discover the minds themselves at a depletion of linguism in nature.  Poor seem the tools before us until belonging ignorance such pleasingly demonstrated.  Thanks be, honored!  With consideration upon this shall we prevail the Emissary, her comprehension limit no longer in linguism deficiency.”

            “She’s must still be convinced it’s military,” Vivek said to Maxi.

            “I’m not sure we could persuade her.  It’s in her interest to believe that, right?  To use as a chip in the talks.  And she’ll question whatever you tell her about it, because of course you want everyone to buddy up and release Lorena.”

            He scratched his chin, where tenacious stubble was sprouting.  “So where does that leave us?  I can probably persuade Obo to part with the bird if the Doc’s on the line.  But then we still need the Doc.”

            Maxi let her mind run—the brain she’d always treasured for its scheming capacity.  For rodent-like survival skills the gods had apparently compensated her with a ghostly complexion, crooked teeth and a flat chest.  She tried to think of everything on Konoko, every bolt and girder and piece of gear she knew of, considering the gnarled paths sucking open and shut like ventricles before her.  Negotiation with the Emissary wouldn’t work, she decided.  Even the idea would offend her, would yield cries of insubordination at best and mutiny at worst.

            If you can’t come by things honestly

            She got an idea.  Just an inkling, just the barest hint of possibility, but the start was most important—the big outline into which smaller solutions could be written as needed.  “Vivek,” she said, breaking his considerably less effective reverie, “I think we should get back to Konoko and mull our options.  Mister Abei has been so kind and we know what he needs from us.  We should leave him to rest.”  She did not know whether this last bit was true and decided it probably was not.

            Still, Vivek got the message.  “Okay.  We’ll regroup and discuss everything with the crew.  Thank you very much, Abei.  We’ll stay in touch.”

            “Overjoy!  Much exceeding are the pleasures of the company.”  He raised an arm and waggled it from the elbow, his grin as always an unnerving rictus.

*          *          *      
            “This strikes me as a poor idea.”  Karl Genz gnawed at his already ragged right thumbnail.  They sat in the Galley where Vivek had convened them: Karl leaning forward with gangly elbows on the table, Obo reclining as far as the white plastic chair would allow with hands settled on the swell of his belly.  Vivek had stood to speak while Maxi sat quietly near him.  Ashley paced about the table’s far side, too upset to sit.

            “You strike me as a clueless asshole,” the junior Pilot fired back.  “They’ve kidnapped Lorena.  Fuck them.”

            “The Federal Service Charter authorizes detainment for medical observation.”

            “She’s not sick and she’s certainly not contagious.”

            “With respect, Miss Duggins,” Karl replied, cool and condescending, “the both of us have found ourselves afflicted by the same condition.  For that reason alone, I would categorize it as contagious.”

            “And for that you’re willing to leave her.”

            “I do not believe we can positively influence the outcome by challenging the Emissary.  That leaves aside the question of any further degeneration.”

            “Degeneration?  I’m fine, and so are you.  It’s Lorena we’re trying to help.  And, yes, I think that’s more important than whether or not a scary woman chews us out.”

            “You really think that’s the problem?” Obo broke in.  “Tell you what scares me: court-martial.  Prison.  Hell, even an admin discharge zeroes out your pension.”

            Ashley was defiant.  “Fuck my pension.  I don’t care.  This is about what’s right.”

            “That’s very easy for you to say,” he said wearily.  “And I’m sure you even believe it.  But I’m not twenty-four, hopped up on Piloting adrenaline and sanctimony.  I’m an old man—an old goddamned man, Ash.  We get back, I’m never setting foot on a starship again.  I got a plan.  That plan is supporting my wife, my girls, and the grandkids I’d like to be a free man to see.  That plan is everything.  I didn’t hop land mines on the way to school, get off the island and work thirty-three years in deep space to run it all into the ground.  So fine, fuck your pension.  But I’m getting mine.”

            Obo let it stand in the air, rising and looming like a column of smoke.  He looked about; nobody would gainsay him.  Vivek, still standing, endured the long silence by looking at a spot on the floor where an enterprising spatter of marinara sauce had managed to evade the cleaning drones.  He thought about what to say and came up empty.  It was no man’s place to tell another man his business—even less so given the physical embodiment of indiscretion by his side.

            Yet it was Maxi who next spoke.  “Fuck you.”

            Heads snapped to her.  Anyone lost in his thoughts now turned all his focus to the diminutive woman in her hand-me-down fatigues.  Obo’s face had just begun to register his incredulous outrage when she followed up: “Seriously, fuck you.  Spawning young and getting old doesn’t entitle you to a different moral standard.  We’ve all got things we care about, Zach: shit we’d rather do than this, places we’d rather be than here.  But here we are, and all we can really know is what’s in front of us.  Right now, that’s the fact your C.O.’s missing.”

            “Kidnapped,” Ashley added.

            “She’s being held against her will.  And if she stays, if things keep going the way they’re going, you won’t get her back.  They’ll hold her and pick her brain apart until she’s comatose or half-crazed from that squid bitch in her head.”

            Vivek cringed a little at the slur, but he let her continue.  “So at best—at best—she’s in serious trouble.  At worst it’s mortal fucking danger.  Which brings me to the rub of all this.  If it were you—any of you—in the same spot, what do you think she’d do?  That’s an honest question.  I don’t know her; she’s your C.O.  What would she do?”

            Quiet.  She crossed her arms and glared about the table.  “Personally, I see no chance in the galaxy she’d leave you in that hole.  I don’t know her, but I’ve seen how she works—that bitch could core through a planet.  And that’s coming from me, who hates her fucking guts.  Come hell or high water, she’d do what she could.  She’d do what she could,” Maxi concluded with a long hard stare at the Systems Tech.

            Zach Obo stared back, his prior fire snuffed to a smolder by the diatribe.  He wiped his face with one hand, from the height of his receding hairline to his jaw’s budding grey whiskers.  He looked at his palm at it came away, the creases and calluses under a sheen of sweat.  “What did you have in mind?” he asked at last, the creak of an old oaken door in his voice.

            “That Contact ship is tiny.  Simple axial layout, likely minimal crew, run by a woman who thinks we’re cowed.  I say we bust her out.”

            Ashley gave an involuntary snort of laughter.  “Maxi, I like the spirit, but that’s a Contact Emissary running the show.”

            “Accompanied by a detachment of Marines,” Karl reminded them.

            “I’m not suggesting we kick down the door.  I’ve got a plan, or most of a plan, to get us aboard.  From there we can sneak her out or run for the airlock they’ve been keeping open.  We get her to the Ouro, hand her over and let them do their thing.  Afterward…well, there might be some music to face.  Vivek and I will take the blame.  And the biggest risks.”

            “That’s generous of you,” grumbled Obo, “but frankly the risks are fucking stupid.  These people are ruthless.  You don’t understand what a Contact priority really means.”

            “I’m hardly an innocent flower,” Maxi shot back, slightly offended.

            “They sent us on a mission to find dead Ouro and armed an Explorer Corps ship, shredding protocol all the way.”

            She leaned back in her chair, eyes wide with surprise.  Konoko’s armed?”

            “Just shipboard carbines; nothing external.  Still, they’re not fucking around.  They find you out, they’ll waste you without a second thought.  Mohinder they might not shoot to kill.”

            Maxi ignored most of the statement, a smile spreading over her face.  “You know,” she said to those nervously gathered, “this might turn out to be even easier than I thought!”


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Fifty-Two

Credit: parablev

           “Lean back, please.  Farther back.”

            Lorena complied.  Pushing her spine against the seat she felt a hinge yield intelligently until she lay just a few degrees from prone.  The scanner arm moved overhead without a perceptible noise, just the faintest rustle of the Med Tech’s long sleeves.  Puke green they were, and reminded her of the scrubs her class had been assigned in a sly form of institutional hazing.  The light at the arm’s tip swelled until it filled her vision like a burning sun aligned at high noon.

            “Still, please.”

            Lorena complied.  A slim panel of black material moved over her vision, though the way it blotted out the light anything would have appeared black.  Her ears triangulated its whirring, letting her track the panel as it orbited her head.  After the first revolution it performed a second, moving steadily up and down as it did so, finally coming to rest before repeating the process.  Lorena closed her stinging eyes against the light and amused herself with the writhing chromatic amoeba it had burned into her retinas.

            After what seemed a long time, she heard the whirring stop.  “Done.  You can move again,” said the Med Tech.  He moved the scanner arm away, tucked it somewhere in the backstage dark.  Lorena blinked at the dimly lit ceiling.  A vent the size of her foot exhaled cool air through a fine-latticed screen marked with an illegibly tiny serial number.  She felt sleepy, though they’d plied her with no chems.

            “Gonna sit you up slowly,” he told her and touched a control that made it so.  “P.E.T. scanning leaves some subjects disoriented.”  Gamma particles flashing through her skull by the billion supplied the scanner with micron-scale cross-sections of her entire brain at a glance.  Always the most illuminating perspective on the organ, it had for much of human history carried the unfortunately necessary precondition of death.

            She waited uncomfortably while the chair returned to its upright position.  “Is that the last one?” she asked.  The PET scan was either the seventh or eighth different diagnostic—she’d lost track somewhere in the succession of bright lights and beeping machinery and stultifying boredom.

            “I believe Captain St. Julien has her own Contact-specific procedures to administer.  But that’s all I’ve got for you.”

            “You’re not Contact?”

            “Navy, ma’am, E-6.”

            “Really?  That’s no Navy uniform.”

            He peeled off his gloves and deposited them in the sterilizer, next to where her stripped-off Marina suit lay in a depressing heap.  Bronze-skinned and broad-shouldered with a powerful chest, his nose had been broken at least once.  “I get passed around the services.  Work where I’m needed.”

            “I’d imagine you’ve got some very specialized skills, then.”

            “Have to ask the officers, ma’am,” he smiled kindly.

            “So if you’re done, am I free to go or am I waiting on Her Emissaryship?”

            The Tech chuckled as he sat at the console, calling something up on the screen.  “She’ll want to see you, but I don’t believe she’s back aboard yet.”

            “Still talking to the Ouro?”

            “Can’t speak to it, ma’am.”

            “Is this your first time in Ouro space?”

            “Can’t speak to it, ma’am.”  His tone was polite but firm.

            “What’s your name, sailor?”

            “Kenekua, ma’am.  Solomon Kenekua, E-6.”

            Still he gave just his grade—a man without proper rank aboard a ship without proper designation.  This told her at least as much as the questions he wouldn’t answer.  Qualified and capable a Med Tech as he might have been, this man held Special Forces work in his portfolio.  Lorena sat patiently waiting for him to leave so she could check her handy and message Vivek in peace, but he stayed at the console.  She wondered whether its position between her and the door were entirely coincidental.  Perhaps he was as engrossed in the functional imaging data as he seemed, or perhaps he kept her always in the corner of one eye.

            “Ask if he’s single,” suggested Beatrice.

            Lorena prided herself on patience but the flashing whirring scanning had bled her white and the Med Bay’s interior wasn’t interesting enough to hold her attention.  A smaller and therefore more cluttered isomorphism of Konoko’s, its poor lighting suggested an origin as some other kind of space—a storage room, perhaps a Tech’s workshop, now equipped with tools more diagnostic than therapeutic in nature.  This was a place of examination, not healing.  In time Lorena produced her handy and called up her text conversation with Vivek.

            They’re done with the first round, she sent him.  Emissary coming in next for some other tests.

            How’re you holding up? he replied after what seemed an irritating delay.  The little machine’s timeline showed it had been less than a minute.

            Fine.  Same scans you’d get in any Med Bay.  Like I’ve got a concussion.

            Maybe they don’t know what they’re doing.

            Always assume Contact has a plan.  Everything fine aboard?

            Fine.  Want you back ASAP.

            No cuffs on me yet.  Must sign off.  Do nothing stupid.  Pocketing the handy, she looked up to the Med Tech waiting for her attention.  “Sorry.  Checking in with my X.O.”

            “That’s no problem, ma’am.  I’ve been told to inform you that Captain St. Julien’s on her way.”

            “You keep calling her ‘Captain.’”

            “Force of habit, ma’am.  And it’s easier to say than Emissary.  I’ve also been asked for your permission to administer chems in advance of the examination.”

            Lorena was taken aback, her suspicions immediately aroused.  “Which chems?  I’ll need a full list before any permission—“

            “It’s just the one, ma’am.”  In one hand, she now noticed, he held a small chrome vial and now lifted it to her eye level.  Heavy, much-calloused fingers rotated it to display the black-on-white printed label.  “Couldn’t pronounce it for you anyway.”

            She squinted at the absurdly long Latinophone name.  “That’s just Pilot’s lube.”

            “Be that as it may, ma’am,” he shrugged.

            “So you don’t know why she wants to use it?”

            “No, ma’am.”

            “In that case, I’ll wait for her to explain it herself.  I won’t consent to chems or anything invasive without a full explanation.  I’m a doctor,” she added so as to seem less combative.  If Kenekua cared about this, he didn’t show it.  He placed the vial on the console desk and sat back down.

            She didn’t have long to wait.  Lorena heard the clack of steps in the corridor and the door slid abruptly sideways to reveal the prim figure of Yana St. Julien, still in her form-fitting black Contact uniform with its red trim.  In her left hand she carried a brick-sized box wrapped like a Christmas gift with long fine wires.

            “Madame Emissary,” Kenekua said with a salute once he’d stood.  Lorena stayed seated and said nothing.

            “Mister Kenekua, I assume Doctor Mizrahi’s been prepped?”

            “The test checklist’s done, ma’am.  She refused the chems; said she wanted to talk to you.”

            Finely machined eyes held Lorena in a cold steel embrace.  Yana breathed once.  “Very well.  You’re relieved, Mister Kenekua.”

            “Yes, ma’am,” he entered a last command on the console—unique logins were unheard of on Corps ships—gathered his handy and a tablet from the desk into his arms, and with a last nod to the two women he scuttled out through the door.  It closed behind him but didn’t lock.

            “How’d everything go?” Lorena asked feebly.

            “Defining parameters,” Yana replied with a breezy shrug.  “Ouro thought is often …discursive.”

            “I can imagine.”

            The Emissary started to glare but then relaxed her expression to a smirk.  “Yes, I suppose you could.  What’s this about refusing the chems?”

            “What do you need neural lubricant for?”

            “For you, obviously.  Our experts suggested it and they’re not prone to speculation.”

            “You think it’ll...loosen Beatrice up?” Lorena cringed at her own choice of euphemism.

            “The state of medical science has clearly defined multiple-personality constructs in terms of presentation.  We can access them with nano-compounds.  Your case is unique because the construct was inserted by Ouro technology.  Any connection between your brain and that same technology is worth probing.  If it exists, quoth the hypothesis,” she said, phrased in a way that suggested her own skepticism, “it’s buried under your own sensory filters.”

            Lorena walked herself through the logic.  “So Beatrice can interpret Ouro signals, but I’m tuning her out without meaning to?  And you think the lube will stop me tuning her out.”

            “That is a reasonable description of the theory.”

            “And it’s just the lube?  I won’t have this turning into an interrogation without an advocate.”

            “You may inject yourself, if you’d prefer.”

            “I would.  You understand my caution.”

            “I do.”

            For some reason, Lorena found this persuasive.  Rising to her feet, she took up the vial and rifled through knee-high white cabinets until she found a gas driver.  With the vial snapped in place she dialed the appropriate dose into the chamber and clicked the driver’s nose into the sharp dispenser.  A single dewdrop gleamed at the needle’s tip before she buried it in the soft skin of her neck.  She winced at the icy sting and felt the muscles of her clavicle clench involuntarily.  An orbit of her head sent a crack down her neck.

            She looked back at the Emissary to see her gathering her own hair in one hand, pulling it back to expose a block of tiny chrome jacks.  Into some of these she strung the leads running from the black box, which she’d placed on the desk.  Once placed her hair fell back to cover them and they ran from beneath the black curtain like a curious fashion accessory.  Other leads she plugged into the console computer itself.

            “Sit back down,” Yana commanded.  Lorena complied, trying to catalogue the drug’s encroaching effects which were at the moment limited to be a pleasant buzz at the back of her skull.  It felt like the first onset of the milder recreational chems—the sort hardly anyone bothered to abuse.  So it was that with a sanguine expression she watched Yana pick up what appear to be a heavy pair of black goggles, examine them and extend them to Lorena.

            They were video-equipped and made to wrap around the head: goggles equipped for a particular class of immersive entertainment products.  Lorena even recognized the brand logo stamped at each temple.  “I never really enjoyed these,” she said, lining up the goggles with her face.  “At least, I don’t think I did.  Hard to be sure.”  She thought about this and decided it was something she’d have said without the drug.  She was prepared to clam up at the first hint of lowered inhibitions, but Yana asked her nothing and instead tapped at the console until the goggles were placed and Lorena could see nothing but the flat black deadness of their interior.

            “The box I brought in is a prototype: a one-off from Section Two labs.  It’s an expansion of the XenoComm devices made standard issue for the Explorer Corps.”  Lorena could hear her still at the console.

            “Expanded how?”

            “Difficult to quantify.  The best way to put it would be an expanded vocabulary.  And a more…intimate experience.  The signal will start streaming momentarily.”

            “Why’d you plug in yourself?”

            “So I can watch you.”

            The black birthed a blue cross, expanding from the center, four sharp points reaching to the limit of her vision and exceeding it.  The heart of the cross grew until all she was blue, then riven by a second cross of orange following the same trajectory as the first.  She found the colors bright, vivid, enjoyable—but still they were merely bursts of electrons behind a glass panel.

            “Seems like an Ouro screen,” she said out loud.  “No different from any other, as far as I can tell.”

            “Please don’t speak.  I’m about to bring in the audio feed.”

            Lorena sat back to a swelling warble.  Muddy, murky, pealing for all that—it called and howled from close proximity yet through a barrier.  It annoyed her.  It seemed a non sequitur, a distracting mess, a lazy juxtaposition.  She thought to complain to Yana but held her tongue, sticking it out a bit longer, eager for the Emissary to realize her crude gadgetry had failed.  She waited while yellow poured like liquid into maroon, displaced it, swirled and self-distributed.  Red sprouted new buds that drank the yellow and laced the maroon with filamentary root complexes.  The growths red spawned spoke with the greenery they ought to have been and together they lamented the opportunities lost.

            Thrumming sound seeded the image with new complexity—gave it layer upon layer in ever-out-zooming stromatolitic accretions until it seemed thick as a planet’s crust.  And still her perspective seemed to expand.  She could see the world’s curve now, majestic and elemental, reaching to and past her own mental horizons.  She was hit with a precipitous feeling, as though she stood at a great height upon a tower swaying in a treacherous breeze.  The crust, so far below, still spoke to her with all the countless voices of its inhabitants at every layer and depth.  Even from this height she could see all of them, their details preserved in fractal multiplicity.

            And then she rocketed higher still—off the platform into orbit where still her fish-eye perspective couldn’t finish the horizon.  Farther and farther the curves strained and very nearly met at the bottom but in the end they always warped down and out of her sight.  Yet around her were more worlds, populating the skies in every direction with their own apparently infinite volumes, and when she looked at them directly she found they too were warped.  Perspective-damaged, their incompleteness agonized like lungs bursting for air.  She felt she was drowning and she wanted to scream and then her hands were at her face clawing at the visor until a seam appeared at the bottom and through it she could once again see her jacket with its Explorer Corps logo: the golden rocket emerging on apogee from Terran orbit.

            “Is there a problem, Doctor?” Yana asked.  She did not rise from the console.

            Lorena tried to form words and found them lacking.  She left her mouth hanging a bit open, which was well enough since she found herself breathing hard with heart racing.  “Jesus,” she finally managed, swallowing hard, sitting back and blinking.

            “I’d surmise from that you had a noteworthy reaction.”

            “Said you…saw me.”

            “An abstraction.  I watch the raw output with one set of eyes, and you with another.”

            “Guessing you saw a physio spike.”  Lorena filled her lungs, held it a moment and exhaled.  “Just now.”

            “More than I’d optimistically hoped for.  Tell me what you saw.”

            “At first…just colors.  One after the other.  But then there was more to it, like the colors were—like they were talking with each other.  And I could hear it.  It wasn’t words, but I could hear it.  And from there it was pulling out, like taking off from a surface and seeing everything get smaller as you get to orbit.  Only if you could still see it all—all the detail, I mean.  Down to the roads and signs.  Closer than that, even.”

            “Beautiful,” Yana nodded, her lips curled into a genuine smile.

            “It wasn’t…wasn’t beautiful, really.  Scary if anything.  Like it was just too much—more than I was ready to see, thrown at me too fast.  At the end, when I was furthest out, there was more than the world I saw first.  There were many worlds, each of them built the same way.  All of them overwhelming.  None I could really hold whole—it’s like looking through a thick lens at something too close.”

            “And this was…unpleasant?”

            “It’s too much.  I felt like I might scream or pass out or throw up or wet myself.”

            “Wet yourself.  As in, lose sphincter control?”

            “Not literally, I don’t think.  But it was way too much.”

            Now Yana looked irritated.  “I’m struggling with that phrasing, ‘too much.’  It’s not very descriptive.”

            “It’s the best I can do.”

            “Do better.”

            Lorena swallowed, furious at the other woman’s tone and ashamed by it too.  She wasn’t sure she could do better.  She looked around for Beatrice, casting for a lifeline, and saw her friend seated heavily against the cabinets with her face against her knees.  “There was too much detail.  Too much information packed into such a small space, not tucked away like in a library but instantly accessible.  So accessible it pushed itself on me.  It jumped out of the frame at me so bright I had to look away.  Like a singularity of information, pumping out x-rays, only that was just the first world.  The others were exactly the same.  Like seeing the whole universe at once—not literally, it wasn’t that, but it felt the way I imagine that would feel.”  Her shoulders slumped, her brain depleted by the rambling recollection.

            “Thank you, Doctor.  May I note you found it unpleasant, then?”

            “Yes, note that.”

            “Would you want to repeat the experience?”

            Once again Lorena looked at her warily.  “No.”

            “It will likely grow easier with time.  My own implants—“

            “Once was enough.  I’m not putting those back on.”

            Yana looked disappointed and Lorena hated how much that mattered to her.  The Emissary scanned her console.  “As you wish, Doctor.  Tell me, is the apparition you mentioned present with us now?”


            “Can you speak with her?”

            “She’s…I don’t think so.  She’s not responding.  Bea?” Lorena called hopefully, feeling ridiculous though Yana clearly believed her.  Beatrice lifted her head a few inches only to lay it back down.  “Nothing.  Like she’s catatonic.”

            “This seems to worry you.”

            “Of course it does!  I don’t want her to suffer.”

            “And yet you’ve expressed a strong desire to eliminate the projection completely.  Forgive me some confusion at the contrast,” Yana gave a sly smile.

            “No more,” said Lorena with what she hoped was an air of finality.

            “As you say.  But you realize, Doctor, that our capacity to understand your condition will be limited without research.”

            “I’ve got no interest in becoming a research subject.”

            “Ahh, but you have expressed interest in having this deeply embedded process removed.  How do you suppose that will happen, exactly?”  Before Lorena could answer she put up a declaratory finger: “The procedure you need hasn’t been invented.  It does not presently exist.  Developing it will take a tremendous amount of work—work the Second Division is happy to undertake on your behalf.  Truly, Lorena, we are.  Surely by now you’ve pieced together some notion of your importance.”

            “My value,” Lorena corrected.  “You mean my value.  To you, to Contact, to God knows how many people.”

            “The bitterness in your tone suggests you’re unhappy with that.  Might I suggest you reflect on what you might accomplish for your species?”

            “Your species,” Beatrice croaked from where she sat.  Still she did not look up.

            “The single most striking thing, from the perspective of natural history,” Yana continued, “about Terrans and Ouro, is their convergence.  That two organisms from such different circumstances, built from such radically different plans—though, to be fair, supported by similar molecular architecture—would simultaneously find themselves the only interstellar civilizations in the galaxy is if nothing else a beautiful coincidence.

            “But still the gulf remains between us.  Obviously Ouro technology outstrips our own, particularly with regard to machine processing.  They propel their entire society with A.I.s while we labor with pale imitations.  This, if you’ll recall our conversations aboard Nimbus, was the fundamental logic behind your mission.”

            “I remember.”

            “Your unlucky circumstance renders that mission unnecessary.  At least, if I’m correctly interpreting what I’ve seen so far,” Yana reached back to pluck the leads from under her hair and deposited them in a neat cluster on the desk.  “It certainly seems to me that your brain is able to interpret the Ouro network.  The result might not make sense to you, it might be overwhelming, but it’s finding real purchase in that Ouro-imported projection—like a tiny remote processor.  Understanding the data structures is the first major step toward replicating the larger systems.  Your friend Beatrice, in other words, is the key to resolving this.”

            “Doesn’t sound like you mean to take her out,” Lorena said suspiciously.

            “As a physician, you should know all processes are incremental.  I ask you only for some time.  Surely our civilization’s welfare is worth some patience.”

            “It’s not a guarantee.”

            “There are no promises when it comes to such things.”

            “Miss St. Julien, I mean no offense, but under the circumstances I’ll take my chances with the Ouro.”  Lorena swung her legs off the exam chair and stood.  “I’d like to return to my own ship, please.  From there I can negotiate this on my own.”

            Yana shut her eyes, rubbed at her temples.  “Doctor Mizrahi, you’re not an authorized interspecies representative and you won’t be negotiating anything.  Nor will you be leaving this ship without my express approval.”

            Lorena stepped back as her heart took off at a gallop.  “What are you doing?”

            “I’ve made my position clear, Doctor.  I presented you with a perfectly rational argument as to the best interests of yourself and our mutual race.  You don’t have to accept that argument, but as a Federal officer you will accept its conclusion.”

            “I’m sure the Ouro will share whatever they find—“

            “It’s wonderful you’re so sure, but I’m not.  In our opening talks they were remarkably curious about you and your condition.  They’re downright eager to get you back, and after their explanation of the facility you uncovered I don’t doubt why.”

            This surprised her.  “Why?  They were trying to explain it to us on the tour, but we were interrupted when you showed up.”

            Yana let out a peal of unsettling laughter.  “Is that so?  What an unfortunate coincidence.  That, my dear, has already been classified to the absolute highest levels by Division Director Obunde.”

            “What is it?” Lorena demanded.  “This is horse shit.  You can’t just detain me on some bureaucratic—“

            “I’m detaining you for medical observation, Doctor.”  The Emissary produced her handy and spoke into it: “Escort, please.  One to the transit cells.”

            The door opened behind Lorena to reveal two Marines in service fatigues, black pistols holstered at their hips.  “You can’t do this!” she shouted at Yana, fists impotently balled.  “I demand to speak with my Executive Officer.”

            “I’m not taking your handy.  Chat away once you’re down there,” Yana said breezily.  “If he’s not too busy pronging your stray scav.”  She took in the eye-bugging reaction and barked laughing.  “You didn’t know!  You honestly didn’t.  Well, you’ve been distracted, I suppose.”

            Lorena wanted to reply but couldn’t, cut off at the knees and wracked with a palette of emotions between fury and despair.  She wordlessly let the Marines whisk her away.