“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.
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?”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
NEXT WEEK, IN PART FIFTY-THREE: WITH LORENA IMPRISONED ON THE CONTACT COURIER SCHMETTERLING, VIVEK AND MAXI DECIDE TO TAKE MATTERS INTO THEIR OWN HANDS. STAY TUNED AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" BUILDS TO ITS CLIMAX!