|Credit: Erik Shoemaker|
Lorena struck the hatch with her fists, with the hard soles of her boots. She wrung every decibel out of the impacts and kept shouting Abei’s name. The crew was shouting now, yelling her name and pleading for calm from the Marines hustling toward them. A part of her saw how wild this seemed and could scarcely believe herself but the forefront of her mind was clenched with white-hot suffocating desperation. She knew if she couldn’t raise Abei now, she’d lose her chance. Beatrice wouldn’t be kept secret—someone would say something, likely the clueless Abei himself in the course of jumbled conversation—and Lorena’s grip on her own fate was seconds from slipping. Again she screamed. She thought she saw movement behind the tinted glasswork.
But then she lost contact. All the energy poured into that hatch Third-Lawed back to gradually push her airborne and she found herself drifting away toward Konoko’s airlock. Marooned several feet from the floor, she could do nothing but heave with defeat. Power-augmented gloves gripped an arm and a leg; the Marines shouted instructions over each other in the manner of barking dogs.
The hatch slid open.
“Honored, how arriving to conflict?” Abei’s voice rang out crisp and innocent.
“Confusion!” Lorena called before Yana could say anything. “Some confusion about the stakes here.”
“No confusion whatsoever,” hissed the Emissary, fire and quicksilver in her eyes.
Lorena turned back to her. The Marines held fast but couldn’t seem to decide what to do otherwise. “It’s more complicated than you know. I need something more from the Ouro, they owe it to me and I’m not leaving without it.”
“You’re not in any position—“
“Tell her, Abei! Tell her what I told you. About the projection I picked up from the skein.”
“Surely most fine is it said between like tongues.”
“Abei, they won’t believe it from me. It has to be from you.”
At first the android seemed unsure what to say. Yana St. Julien peered at him a long moment before sighing to her Marines, “Stand down. She’s not going anywhere.” They let Lorena go and she took a step away, adjusting the pinched spots in her Marina’s fabric, glaring resentfully at the large men behind their grimly flat faceplates.
“When having ended the second cycle,” Abei turned his hands over thoughtfully as he began, “many the Kin brightest exposure demand. Close into the skein are they drawn and most assuredly are they exhaled with greatest luminosity. This Doctor the Mizrahi by way of inadvertence exposed. Skein data made autonomous in her cognition.”
Yana blinked. Her mouth opened a crack and her tongue slashed over her teeth like some smear of makeup needed scouring. “If I take his absurdly convoluted meaning, your episode of unconsciousness aboard Ouro Subject Zero Zero has yielded unexpected consequences.”
“I’ve got on Ouro in my brain,” Lorena helpfully explained. “A personality that walks and talks, like a lucid dream. She looks like a person—she’d say she’s a person—but it’s all a projection taken from the Ouro network. Tech Genz and Pilot Duggins were also exposed.”
“They’ve got their own projections?”
“They see the same woman I do and know her as my friend. It seems to be a limited connection; they see her only because I do.”
Abei bobbed his head, pleased as a parrot. “Wonderfully innovated! Naturally unforeseen these events in concert, nor considered the recombinant result. Heartening vastly with regard to parallel enterprises, but limited in the tightest proximity. The Doctor demands excision and our minds must ethically considered agree.”
“Agree on what grounds?”
“Technology producing results so radically diverged, sequelae persisting for cycles beyond typical Kin reckoning. In insufficient conscience can we refuse the demand so made.”
“He makes sense to you, huh?” Ashley remarked.
Yana tapped her chin with a finger. “Contact has experience with these kinds of devices. This is just the newest model…though they’ve grown quite good. They’ve really emphasized the hands. I assume you and Tech Genz are prepared to confirm this account?”
“To the last detail,” said Karl helpfully.
She sighed. “That’s quite a complication. Not something with which I’m personally familiar.”
“So it’s never happened before?” Lorena asked.
“No. I can’t imagine where any human might have received such high-resolution exposure to the open Ouro network. The circumstances simply weren’t in place. We didn’t know about the late-life sleeper ships.”
Abei gave a happy nod. “Then again a chance for lively learning! Exchanges unanticipated but tremendously gratifying.”
Yana’s lips were drawn thin. “Indeed. Doctor Mizrahi, are your standing statements on this matter final?”
It seemed an odd question, but Lorena nodded all the same. “They are. It’s very real, I’m sure it’s very interesting, but I don’t want it being a part of me.”
“And why might that be?”
“It’s re-written my memories. Half of my life at this point is a lie—even worse, it’s a lie I can’t define. Since learning about this, I spend every day cataloguing all the minor lies. But I can’t know what the truth really is, and even if I could she’s still here—in the room right now—stealing from that truth. I don’t deserve this and I never it. I want it to be over.”
She’d started crying and Konoko’s crew dropped their gazes to the floor while she tried to reign it in. Vivek felt sick for not knowing, for not seeing there was anything to know. He was her X.O., after all, priding himself on what they’d built over two tours. But in the end he’d been too distant. He’d left her to bear the unbearable alone and he hated himself for it.
“You’ve suffered terribly,” said the Emissary. “Circumstances have subjected you to a condition you didn’t ask for and couldn’t have anticipated. I’m sorry for that.” The look on her face had warmed somewhat but no one would have called it sympathy.
“It’s not your fault. It happened before we met on Nimbus. I just need it gone, and like I said—I deserve this.”
“And no right-thinking person would contradict you. Abei,” she addressed the hovering man, “is the ‘excision’ you describe technically feasible?”
“Unknown too precisely in the moment. Investigations establishing underway.”
“Very well." Yana looked back to Lorena. “What you want may not be possible.”
“I know and I don’t care. Whatever it takes, I’ll try it.”
“Certainly you’d concede there’s nothing to be done at this exact moment. In which case, Doctor, I’d request you submit to study. Non-invasive, of course.”
“Pass. I’ve authorized the Ouro to scan us; they’re collecting data right now.”
“Absolute!” Abei chirped.
“I didn’t authorize any such collection,” Yana’s diction accelerated markedly. She glared at the oblivious Abei.
Lorena kept her spine an irod rod. “You didn’t need to. I used my authority as officer-in-charge of the mission.”
“That being as it may, the collection stops. Now, Abei.”
“As demanded,” he bowed his head agreeably.
“Wait a minute!” Lorena broke in, physically stepping between them as the Marines took a step and emitted grumbling noises. “You can’t do that. They need that scanning to—“
“To obtain exclusive knowledge of your condition; I’m well aware of the tactic,” snapped the Emissary. “Needless to say, we’ll be relying on our own expertise for the time being.”
“What expertise? It’s their tech! And I don’t appreciate being treated like an asset.”
“Doctor, you’re a commissioned officer in Federal service, and that was before you managed to get your brain loaded with the century’s most valuable scientific find. What the fuck are you if not an asset?” And then, cutting off Lorena’s retort: “Your personal desires are noted and, believe me, will be considered. But they may not be possible, and in the interim I don’t believe it serves the Federal interest to allow the Ouro unlimited data extraction while we sit on our hands. We will make our own conclusions and determine through negotiation how that information is exchanged.”
“I don’t believe you. You’ll never let them take it out.”
“We haven’t even begun the discussion. In the meantime, Doctor Mizrahi, you will accompany these men to Schmetterling’s Lab suite. I think you’ll be very impressed with our facilities.”
“I’m not going.”
Yana cocked her head with a bemused expression. “What a thing to say.” She flicked two fingers in an underhand motion and the Marines moved in. Lorena looked like she wanted to say something but bit her tongue. She did not struggle as they took her arms.
“I want to go with her,” Vivek announced, stepping forward.
“No, Mister Mohinder, you’ll return to Konoko with her crew and lead them until your C.O. returns.”
“You don’t have grounds to arrest her.”
“I’m not arresting her. She’ll keep her handy; you may contact her at any time. Does that soothe your fears, Pilot?”
“Well, I…” Vivek looked to Lorena, who gave a slight and pathetic shrug. “Yes, ma’am,” he said lamely.
She was taken from the room, led down the new hallway and through the hatch at its far extreme. She made no noise or gesture of protest. Yana St. Julien watched her go along with the Corps officers before looking back to them: “Now, unless there are any other issues unresolved—and I’ll admit that was quite a relevant one—the rest of you should make yourselves at home back aboard Konoko. You were very fortunate to get a tour from our hosts, but an Ouro habitat’s got little to offer human beings.”
Ashley mustered the nerve to speak: “When will we get her back?”
“When we’ve learned what we need to know.”
“That’s not good enough. We want her back.” Obo shot her a warning look. She clenched her jaw to ensure it wouldn’t quiver.
To their mutual surprise, the Emissary only sighed. “Much as you’d like to cast Contact’s Second Division in general and myself in particular as black-hearted villains, I’m afraid we don’t fit the bill. You see, I hold no ill will toward your Commanding Officer, nor any of you. We’ve all got jobs to do. Mine comes with a wider responsibility.”
“That doesn’t mean you can—“
Yana silenced her with an upraised finger. “A responsibility for our race, Miss Duggins. A responsibility for which I’ve sacrificed a great deal. A responsibility I take very seriously. So we’ll all do our jobs, yes? I’ll begin negotiations with Abei and the Kin he represents. You’ll prep Konoko to leave once Doctor Mizrahi’s ready. Very well? Then get to it.”
“If I might ask one question,” said Karl, “how do you know Abei’s name? He has not said it and never were the two of you alone together. I am sorry if the question seems strange.”
“Contact suggested the name decades ago. They’re all named Abei.”
“Abei notes fantastic pleasure at the ease of use! Greatly facilitating we hope have been.”
“Well, Abei, until we meet again,” Ashley considered offering a handshake but grew immediately queasy at the thought. Setting for a half-wave, she was suddenly struck by an idea. “Hey, I know you’ve stopped scanning Lorena, but would it help to keep gathering on myself, or Genz? Since we were also exposed. I just want to do whatever we can to help her.”
“Already done and only the greatestly minor deltas we noted. Hormone fluctuations minimal, most particularly if comparing Pilot the Mohinder and Civilian the Leaf.”
“Wait, what’s that mean?” Ashley scrunched up her face.
“Just an example,” blurted Vivek.
“Marked elevation in mating-associated hormones when delta’d with alternative samples.”
Her eyes went wide and her jaw dropped. “What—are you serious? Vivek, what the fuck?”
“Shit,” Maxi said, simply, to no one in particular.
“Roughly the level of professionalism I’ve come to expect from the Federal service’s intrepid explorers,” Yana said wryly. “Now that you’ve got some juicy gossip to chew on, would you kindly vacate the premises?”
* * *
“It’s not right,” said Ashley, hanging the blue helmet by the rest of her pressure suit. She had been repeating these three words, with various inflections and emphases, since the moment they’d crossed back through the airlock.
Nobody was willing to gainsay her. They’d undressed to awkward calm—Obo glowering at the floor, Vivek and Maxi shamed into silence, even Karl showing some respect for their sundered emotions. They stashed their suits in the Bay’s numerous extra lockers, keeping them available though no one knew when they might next be used. Ashley found she’d sweated through her thin black undershirt. When everything had been put away and they might have drifted off to their own pursuits they stayed in the Equipment Bay, plopped down on whatever benches and crates were most convenient. None seemed willing to leave, to be the first to break away and symbolically abandon their C.O.’s specter to the airlock.
Maxi Leaf sat next to Vivek on the case that once had held the Marinas. They had no illusions left to maintain. Vivek should say something, she decided. It was his job, after all. But he just sat, gnawing a lip and staring at the floor, mind reeling unbalanced with shame like a weighted wheel. So she nudged him—just a knee into his, drawing his eyes up to meet a forceful look he clearly hadn’t expected. He seemed to recoil just the slightest bit before collecting himself: rebuked and reassembled in a moment.
He stood, put his hands on his hips, reached down to smooth out his undershorts where the Marina had bunched them, put them back on his hips. “All right, guys. First, I want to apologize to all of you for my relationship with Miss Leaf. It showed—continues to show—a lack of professionalism and decorum on my part. I don’t believe I’ve allowed it to compromise my professional judgment, but if you disagree with any decision I’ve made in the last few weeks on those grounds I won’t argue. Naturally, I’ll accept any and all consequences for my actions when Lorena gets back.”
“If she gets back,” Ashley broke in.
“My next point: we ought to assume all parties in scenario are acting in good faith. We’ve seen no evidence to the contrary, despite—despite,” he cut Ash off before she could object, “the obviously unpleasant person we know Miss St. Julien to be. She didn’t have to give us any reasoning for what happened, but she did and I think everything she said makes perfect sense from her limited perspective. So we assume everything she said is true: she’s going to find out whatever she can from Lorena, she’s going to negotiate some settlement from the Ouro and we’ll have our C.O. back in time to head home. That’s what they’re going to do. The question is, what are we going to do?”
“Emissary said we chill here,” Obo reminded him.
“Sit-and-wait is absolutely an option. But it won’t do much for the Doc.”
“What in the galaxy would?” Ashley doubled over, heaved a sigh and violently yanked the tie from her hair to spill down its red curtain.
“I don’t know,” Vivek grimaced. “And with the way I’ve acted these past weeks, with my dishonesty, I can’t demand you follow me anywhere risky. But all the same, if you are, I’m willing to lead. To do my best to lead,” he drew his shoulders square.
“She’s gonna kill you once she gets back.”
“I deserve it. She doesn’t deserve to be stuck there.”
Obo sighed. “Gonna engineer a prison break?”
Vivek shook his head. “No, of course not. But even more than getting her back, we need to find a way to get that…whatever it is...out of her mind. The Ouro are probably our best bet for that. It’s their tech. They’ll figure out removal long before the Emissary.”
“Provided she is interested in the topic at all,” Karl reminded him. “If her behavior to date is any guide, she will concede Doctor Mizrahi’s well-being the moment she perceives a larger opportunity. She will release the Doctor and allow the excision only if she perceives no advantage whatsoever in doing the opposite.”
They took this in for a second before Ashley laughed. “Genz, that’s the smartest thing you’ve ever said.”
“Thank you, Pilot Duggins,” he blushed.
“The next time I need advice on a cyborg without a conscience, I’ll come right to you.”
“So what I’m getting here,” Vivek interrupted before Karl could get huffy, “is that we’re all willing and eager to help the Doctor. And we should start off by trying to raise the Ouro through back channels.”
“If there’s any way to pull it off without landing in a brig or jeopardizing my retirement in good standing. Yes,” Obo grunted.
“Jawohl, Herr Meisterpilot,” Karl pronounced the end pee-lote.
“Me too,” Maxi said at the end, drawing surprised looks. “You want to stay out of jail; I’m already headed there unless she vouches for me. Besides, you all seem to like her. She was always a bitch to me, but that’s got to count for something.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but since it’s out of the bag, are you two…still?” Ashley flushed a little.
Vivek could not have looked less comfortable if his underwear had spontaneously turned into bees. “Well, I don’t know if—“
“Yes,” Maxi interrupted him with a roll of her eyes. “Yes we are.”
* * *
Vivek sat alone on the Bridge, fingers laced over his freshly shaved scalp. He tried to empty his mind but found himself hopelessly bailing water. Screens flickering around him displayed anything he could possibly want to know about Konoko and her systems, restarted and brought back to full speed at factory specifications. The Ouro A.I.s were predictably thorough in their work; they’d scoured the drives clean of Ouro skeinwork and not even Zachariah Obo could voice objection at the result. Everything aboard ran swimmingly. Everything else seemed to be going to shit.
“Hey,” Maxi announced herself, rapping knuckles against the doorframe and sidling through. “You’ve been here a while.”
“I’m hoping every one of my problems miraculously resolves itself.”
She sighed, reached in and grazed the back of his neck with her fingernails. “Is it working?”
“Not yet. Thought I might give it a few more minutes, just to be sure,” he leaned forward in his chair.
“Have you checked in with Lorena yet?”
“Her handy’s on the far side of some seriously dense shielding. We can’t raise it directly—only by hooking in through Contact’s comm system. Which they’ll allow us to do, I’ve tested the login and we had a quick text exchange…”
“But they’ll be monitoring anything you say.”
“Right. So what’s the point, until they’re done with her?” he shrugged.
“I agree, there isn’t one. Did you try to raise the squids?”
Vivek groaned and rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah, but it’s the same issue. From the report Genz and Obo sent me, the Ouro took the liberty of hooking all our comms together.”
“I’m sure they thought they were doing us a favor. But we can’t get any messages off this ship without Schmetterling landing a copy.”
Maxi pondered this, watching a 3D model of the Contact ship rotating on a screen. Striking in mottled red and black, she was a long slender needle of a thing with delta-sloped wings suggesting she was atmosphere-capable. The reactor swelled her abdomen, but not enough to disrupt the smooth fluidity of her frame reaching out to three oversized engine ports on each side of the midline. Gorgeous. Maxi would’ve killed for her. “Play it straight, then.”
“What’s that mean?”
“When you Corps cowboys came rolling up on Toussaint, did I skulk around trying to pull tricks?”
“Please; it was only a little, and once my options ran out it was time to go with the flow. Don’t run up against things you really can’t change. They’re monitoring all EM comms, right? So try something they can’t directly monitor.”
“Anything that’s not on our ship or theirs. Go back through that airlock and see if they’ll still talk to you.”
“I doubt they’d undermine their own position talking to us on the side. What could we possibly offer next to an Emissary’s clout?”
“Nothing, but we might not need to. The squids don’t seem too clued in on human bickering, so you’ve got a chance at an audience. Just play it from there.”
Vivek scratched at his chin. “It’s not the worst idea, I guess.”
NEXT TUESDAY: AS VIVEK AND MAXI EXPLORE SOLUTIONS TO HER PLIGHT, LORENA MUST FEND FOR HERSELF AGAINST THE EMISSARY'S INQUISITION. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" SOLDIERS ON!