“You’re shitting me.” Ashley Duggins was the first to speak and left her mouth agape in the aftermath. The pod’s warm atmosphere had gone suddenly still and very cold. “Yana Saint fucking Julien.”
“Honored, explain the phrasing? The minds, familiar to obscenity, find themselves confounded by verbiage.”
Vivek ignored the ever-earnest Abei. “How? How could she possibly know where we are? Contact must have had her trailing us.”
Lorena stood with one hand cupping her cheekbones, contemplating the sea below her feet. “I don’t think so. Not following, anyway—what would be the point? If they wanted a constant minder on us, Contact would’ve just put her aboard. Somehow they tracked us.”
“Maybe our hosts tipped them off,” Obo nodded to Abei. “Plenty of time with a tachyon comm line. Five minutes after that station cooked our drone, Nimbus could’ve known where we were.”
“Well, why don’t we ask?” Lorena smirked. “Abei, this visit by our Contact division is unexpected. Do you happen to know anything about the mission? Since it appears to be authorized through normal channels.”
“Indeed were the request to local minds forwarding; sixteen Terran days prior.”
Karl filled in the gaps. “That would make it after our encounter with the station, but prior to our crossing the border.”
“Abei, did the Ouro establish any communication with human authorities pursuant to our presence?”
“No, Doctor. In this the Kin see no objective.”
Lorena shrugged. “There you have it. She tracked us somehow, though she must have come in a hurry.”
“And from a long way off,” Vivek noted. “Hard to imagine small craft hauling that hard. What’s a ‘special courier,’ exactly?”
“A designation left intentionally vague,” said Karl in a rare worldly moment.
“Something shinier than what we’re flying,” Obo grunted. “She’s an Emissary. I’m sure they’ve given her a proper chariot.”
“Return we now to regions diplomatic,” Abei told them. “Facilitating meetings requested under Repatriation.”
“Yeah, what did that mean?” Ashley asked her Commanding Officer.
“The Repatriation Treaty obliges them to turn any humans in Ouro space over to Contact authorities immediately upon request. And the reverse from our end, naturally.”
“But why? We’re not being held.”
Lorena snorted. “I’m pretty sure she knows that. She wants to see us and it’s the easiest card to play. Keeps us from saying no; takes any agency from the Ouro. Simplifies the picture.”
“I kind of missed her on Nimbus, when I overslept. Seemed like a real bitch.”
“And you should know!” Maxi got in the jab.
Lorena glared back for a moment before breaking into a grin. “Oh, she’s going to love you.”
* * *
Abei guided the glass bubble through waters that seemed remarkably more hospitable for the Emissary’s specter lurking just ashore. To the humans he wasn’t much help, refusing to divulge details of Contact’s arrival on the grounds that doing so might constitute some undue influence, and so they fell to haranguing Lorena. She knew she deserved it all.
“How long did you know? Were you ever going to tell us?” Zach Obo smoldered.
“It’s only recently, the last few weeks, that I pieced it together. At which point I didn’t know what to tell anyone.”
Vivek joined in. “Just tell us the truth! Tell us even if it’s uncomfortable because—in theory—you trust us! That’s the whole reason we’ve got titles instead of real ranks; a Corps crew is supposed to be a family. On tour we’re supposed to come to each other with anything.”
At this Lorena could only nod miserably. Karl was likewise perturbed: “Even setting aside the ethical issues, Doctor, this was an entity affecting all of our performance—however indirectly. For Pilot Duggins and myself the harm was more clear. It unmistakably altered our thinking and behavior. For example, my opening of Konoko’s computer to the Ouro A.I. It was a mistake on my part, but the fundamental idea originated with this…woman.”
“Genz, if that’s true we could be looking at something really nefarious. Electronic and psych warfare wrapped into one!” Vivek, aghast, shot Abei a suspicious look he hadn’t the guile to counter.
“No.” For the first time Lorena raised an objection and this surprised even her. “We can debate about how to think of her and certainly there’s been damage done, but there was never any malice. She’s not loyal to the Ouro, not as such; she was never advancing their agenda. I don’t think she even remembers what it was like to be one of them.”
Maxi spoke up. “The Ouro didn’t know anything about it, so it can’t have been getting orders. And for what it’s worth, I’d never tell my crew anything like this. It’s too wacky—just look how all of you are acting even with proof!”
This from the woman whose first officer, investor and sometime lover deposed her, she would have said had Maxi not just defended her. This realization only made her feel worse. Still, the scav captain’s outburst had momentarily shamed Konoko’s crew into silence. Lorena took advantage, turning back to Abei. “What do your minds think of this?”
He’d been unusually taciturn these past minutes, content perhaps for the humans to bicker while information filtered down to the Ouro collective’s least capillaries. “Minds conceive, certainly, that phenomena so described being ought subject to research. Further study yielding prospects most superior.”
“I want it removed. Taken out of my brain.”
“Unsure, the possibility, given processes heretofore unknown.”
“If a Kin device can interface that thoroughly with a human brain, surely you could manage something. Your technology is so far beyond ours, it’s the only chance I’ll get. If I leave here, she’s in my head forever.”
“Agreed upon in the terms ethical. Though unexpected were the Kin involved, in the present phenomenon the minds carry culpable.”
“So you’ll do it? I need to know.”
“Can’t imagine the Emissary approving,” said Obo.
“She doesn’t need to. We’ve committed no crimes; she’d have no legal basis to detain us. Besides, Konoko’s stuck here a few days yet. The Kin will have time to figure something out,” she finished with a hopeful look to Abei.
“Consideration given. Permission we the Kin ask to collect information by course of scanning? Heretofore eschewed for treaty terms.”
“Yes, that’s fine. Scan away. I’ll agree to whatever you need. I just need this…character to be gone.”
“Sure about that?” Vivek arched an eyebrow. “Like the man said, it’s research-worthy. Might even be valuable to Contact.”
“We should tell them about Beatrice, at least,” Ashley chimed in.
“She’s right. Big bargaining chip, even if you end up getting fixed. Sorry; that came out wrong,” Maxi winced.
Karl kept it short. “Concur.”
Obo put a hand on Lorena’s shoulder. “It’s best that way, for all of us. This time we get a say, all right? We make choices together.”
Lorena gave an agonized sigh “If that’s really what you all think, I’ll tell the Emissary. But,” she squeezed shut her eyes to keep them from tearing and found her voice growing suddenly hard, “we don’t make this choice together. At the end of this, I’m getting rid of her. It’s my choice, and yes—I might change my mind. It’s theoretically possible. If I do, it’s something I did for me.
“You need to understand that,” she said, opening her eyes to meet each of theirs in turn. “All of you. I love you all dearly, I’m proud to be your C.O., but this is about who I am. What I want my life to be.”
“Okay,” Obo’s big blue paw gave an understanding squeeze. “It’s your choice. But know your choice might affect us all, and if that happens you’re hearing about it.”
“Because I don’t hear it now,” Lorena showed a savage grin.
“We’re with you, Cap’n, all the way to the end,” promised Vivek. “We just need to know you’re with us too.”
Abei’s delighted clipping broke up the moment. “The minds revel! Elucidating, illuminating to the witness. Many volumes deciphered, the exchanges having seen!”
* * *
The pod approached a narrow passage and dropped down into it, cutting off their views of the habitat interior and leaving them all with a weak keen of claustrophobia. By the lights on the walls they recognized the docking tower’s interior; what seemed down was up, away from the habitat’s core and to the high reaches where Yana St. Julien waited. A floor emerged from the murk and proceeded to swing about the pod one hundred eighty degrees until up was up again, and the transparent vehicle’s heavy black door swooped in to kiss its counterpart. There came a hissing noise, the squelch of suspension fluid forced violently from between the doors, and then silently open they slid. Lorena drew herself as upright as her squat frame allowed.
She stepped through first to find the welcoming room altered: no longer a unitary rectangle, it had become a lumpy L-shape with a long slender wing extending to Lorena’s right. The airlock to Konoko on the far wall remained in place. Whether a segment had been tacked on or the room assembly utterly replaced in their absence, the place showed no signs of modification. It was once a rectangle; now it was not. Still devoid of furniture, the room was populated by three human forms all blessedly rooted to the ground; Lorena didn’t think her taxed brain’s language centers could process several Abeis. Two of those forms waited akimbo before a hatch at the new wing’s far end: Navy Marines, armored but unarmed, visibly uncomfortable without their accustomed rifles. The third person, presently pacing a track halfway up one wall to stand ninety degrees sideways in the null gravity, was Yana St. Julien.
She must have known they’d entered, either by sound or infrared glow, but continued her slow, idle walk up the wall with back turned. Once the last Corps officer stood anxious in the chamber, she swiveled with a dramatically deft turn of the heel. Vivek felt Maxi suck in her breath beside him and fought off the urge to touch her hand. Mirrored irises took them in.
“Doctor Lorena Mizrahi and her intrepid crew,” said Yana, dry as leaves on frozen soil.
“Emissary St. Julien,” Lorena dropped her chin an inch. “Pleasant surprise, seeing you here.”
“I’m sure.” Though Yana’s face was still as a mask, Lorena thought she detected the slightest incline of an eyebrow. “On behalf of the Terran Federal Extraterrestrial Contact Administration, we thank the great Kin civilization for its hospitality,” she said, acknowledging Abei.
The simulacrum made a shallow bow. “Accomodations requesting, easy made. Exigencies emerge requiring address and remedy.”
She stared at him for a long moment, taking in his disconcerting visage and constantly expressive hands. “Under Repatriation Treaty provisions, I formally request to speak alone and unmonitored with these officers.”
“The Kin grant,” Abei made a second bow and backpedaled hovering, swiftly and silently returning to the bubble pod. The hatch slipped shut behind him.
The crew felt like child whose preferred parent just abandoned them to the disciplinarian. “Now, then,” Yana glared at Maxi Leaf. “Who’s this?”
Lorena started, “She’s—“
Yana cut her off. “I’ll have her speak, thank you.”
Maxi drew herself upright and cleared her throat so fear couldn’t constrict it. The eyes, the nearly feline grace and the image of machinery implanted in flesh made her adrenaline flow. “Maxine Leaf. Commanding Officer, TCV Toussaint.”
Hearing the civilian designation, Yana really did arch an eyebrow. “And where is your ship at this moment, Miss Leaf?”
“I don’t know. It was taken from me.”
“By my First Officer. Long story.”
“I suppose it would be.” One corner of the Emissary’s mouth curled contemptuously. “Am I then to assume your presence aboard an active-duty Federal vessel is humanitarian in nature?”
“You could say that.”
“What an enlightening response. I do hope your patron is more forthcoming.”
Lorena responded: “There was an accident at a small illegal scavenging operation in the Baraheni region. We diverted to assist, and Miss Leaf’s associates took advantage of the chaos to commandeer TCV Toussaint. Under the circumstances, returning her to her ship seemed unsafe. For both Miss Leaf and ourselves. We have another civilian aboard Konoko as well, in a state of biostasis due to injuries suffered in the accident.”
“Held in one of the pods I had installed,” Yana surmised.
“That’s correct, ma’am.”
“It seems to me, Doctor Mizrahi, that at every moment since being dispatched on this mission you have attempted to subvert it. Do you think that accurate?”
“I don’t, ma’am. I believe my crew and myself have acted at all times in accordance with Explorer Corps procedures and priorities.”
The Emissary chuckled and somehow this was worse than her typical frosty glare. “Explorer Corps priorities. That’s an interesting argument.”
“It’s what I believe, ma’am.”
“Then perhaps you’d like to explain how exactly you found yourselves in Ouro territory, in direct contravention of your orders?”
“Miss Leaf provided us with the location of an Ouro shipwreck, also in the Baraheni region. While exploring that wreck, Konoko’s computer was infiltrated by the damaged Ouro A.I. The A.I. uploaded a large volume of unknown data, in addition to specific navigation data.”
“You made no attempt to contact Federal authorities after that development.”
“And why is that?”
“We thought it might detract from our mission, ma’am,” Lorena forced an earnest, honest expression to her face.
Yana darkened and Lorena was happy to see it; the guileless claim offered no easy comeback. “One must use what judgment one has,” she managed. “So rather than take this information to the appropriate channels, you departed for the Ouro border.”
“Yes, ma’am. Following the path from the A.I., we made our way to the coreward-spinward limit of the Open Territory—“
“Where you encountered a large and stationary Ouro facility.”
Lorena was fairly certain she performed a double-take. She already knows? Beatrice’s eyes widened: “Oh, wow.”
“I’m acquainted with all the broad details,” Yana smiled now, relishing the crew’s obvious dismay. “We’ve been tracking Konoko since she left Nimbus.”
“How?” asked Obo.
“The same way you’d track anything: a simple transponder, routed through the computer outputs and physically hidden.”
“Hidden where?” Lorena demanded, surprised at the anger unwisely surging in her voice.
“The best place—in plain sight! Even a tachyon transmitter can be made quite small.”
“You put a split tachyon on Konoko?” Ashley was incredulous. “How does that…the expense alone—“
“Was an easy bet to make,” Yana finished her sentence. “One easily recouped. It was always safe, tucked into gear you couldn’t function without. Even if you’d found it, you’d never have jettisoned it.”
“The C-H drive? Engine core?” Vivek frowned.
Obo shook his head. “Wouldn’t have had access. Not in the time we were off the ship.”
“It’s the pharm,” Ashley moaned. “She put it in the damn nano-pharm. Dump it and I can’t fly; we’d be down to one Pilot.”
The Emissary held her superior look. “Your young colleague can be quite incisive, when she’s not distracted.”
This turned Ashley turned bright red and clammed her up instantly. “Given the opportunity at our fingertips,” Yana continued, “and the investment your mission represented—humanity’s only shot, for the short term surely, of finding those materials—how could I not invest my best hardware protecting that investment? In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. So the pharmacy goes in, and the stasis pods, and the tachyon transmitter. It’s beautiful, by the way—tiny as a ring box.”
Lorena felt a leaden lump in her stomach. “You’ve got the whole story, then, down to the last detail. That still doesn’t answer why you’re here now. Why you’d scramble a ship to run us down.”
“Allow me to walk you through Second Division’s thought process,” with a push of one leg Yana crossed daintily from wall to floor. Her long black hair had developed a bright crimson streak since last they saw her and it flowed loose a war banner in the null gravity. “Our asset travels through the Baraheni Graveyard, attempts to assist criminal civilians unrelated to its mission and finds itself deluged with exotic radiation. Shortly thereafter and while in close proximity to an Ouro I.F.F. signature, the asset’s computer—on which we rely for this information—suffers major malfunctions it is unable to self-correct. After this point, the asset embarks on a course for the Ouro border. It was not unreasonable to surmise the asset might be threatened, or—worse—its mission compromised to the other side.”
“The other side?” asked Vivek, startled. “We’re not at war, Madame Emissary.”
“Mister Mohinder, I’m not sure you realize—nor is it your legitimate business to realize—exactly how close we are to war.”
A murmur went up amongst them. “Jesus,” Ashley couldn’t help murmuring. Lorena wasn’t having it: “with respect, ma’am, that’s absolutely untrue. We came here of our own volition and they’ve shown us nothing but goodwill.”
Yana chortled; a swift expulsion of air from flaring nostrils. “An illegal Ouro facility opened fire on your unarmed drone. I wonder what would rise to hostility, if not that?”
“It was a misunderstanding. They apologized—“
“As would I! Had I acted in grave violation of the galaxy’s most important treaty, I’m sure there are many things I would say. There are many things I would do, to appease or silence anyone who knew.”
“That’s not what’s going on here.”
“Doctor, I suggest you confine your analyses to the workings of the human body. Needless to say, none of you need worry about either safety or diplomacy. My colleagues and I are more than capable of handling both.”
“What do you expect us to do, then?” asked Vivek.
“On approach we noticed Konoko’s systems powered down. This was done voluntarily, I presume?”
Obo nodded. “Yeah. Letting the core settle a few days.”
“Perfectly adequate. I suggest you all consider yourselves on shipboard R-and-R until such time as you’re able to safely dive. At which point, you’ll be headed back to Luna Dock for Contact debriefing. As opposed to interrogation.” She wore a satisfied look and took them in like she expected gratitude.
“And the mission?” Obo asked with genuine hope in his voice.
“I expect when negotiations are concluded, Contact will be satisfied with the results.”
Karl raised his hand briefly and was not called upon but said anyway: “What are the plans of Contact for the Ouro network fragments stored in Konoko’s computer?”
The Emissary’s expression wavered just a bit. “Having invoked the Repatriation Treaty, the Ouro were obliged to make us aware of the transfer. Your decision to blindly hand it over was at best naïve, but in this case of little consequence. Undifferentiated data under such heavy compression gets us nothing without the architecture it’s made to run on. That was always the goal, if you’ll recall—a goal we’ll now be able to achieve through careful application of leverage.”
Lorena understood. “The station we found wasn’t populated, and armed only for point defense. It thought our drone was debris.”
“Your point, Doctor?”
“It’s conducting research. That station’s not violating the Open Territory accords, any more than our deep sounding stations.”
“Again, Doctor, you exceed the limits of your expertise. Once we knew of its existence and repeating patterns, coordinating long-range tests became Contact’s top priority. We sent signals to every cruiser in the fleet. And would you like to know what we found?” She flashed between each of them, standing silent. Of course they wanted to know.
“The beams Konoko picked up were perceptible by Nimbus in the O.T. el-Habiid Khebira in the Geidi Cluster, Tenzin Gyatso over Neptune. I could keep going. Vesperian saw them as far away as Argus. That station is trawling the entire fucking galaxy for God knows what—but please, Doctor Mizrahi, by all means, tell me how innocent it is.”
“You don’t know what they’re looking for.”
“Neither do you, but I’m going to find out. And I’ll make sure the human race has some say in it.”
“From what I’ve seen, I really don’t think it’s about us.”
“Your opinion is noted. Now kindly relocate yourself and your crew back to Konoko. Thank you for your contributions. You’re done here,” Yana concluded icily.
The crew stood there for a quiet moment, bewildered by what seemed a bizarre anticlimax. Zach Obo shrugged, turned and had barely taken two steps when he heard Lorena speak up behind him: “No.”
A bemused smile flickered over Yana’s face. “No?”
“I’m not done here. There’s something I still need from them.”
“Doctor, your needs are not my concern.”
“They’re the only ones who can help! It has to be done before I leave.”
Now the silver eyes narrowed. Suddenly she stood on shifting ground. “What has to be done, exactly?”
“I need to talk to Abei,” Lorena evaded, racking her brain for some way to withhold the information. She emphatically did not want Yana St. Julien knowing about Beatrice. Yana would keep the creature, keep the projection and its host for Contact study much as the Ouro had wanted. Lorena suspected the latter would be preferable.
“Might have to tell her anyway,” her friend said.
“What you need to do, Doctor, is to return to your ship immediately.” The Emissary’s voice had taken on a dangerous edge.
“I’m going to talk to Abei,” Lorena asserted stupidly and backed up toward the closed pod hatch.
“Doctor, watch yourself,” Yana warned. Lorena backpedaled further and saw the Marines take a step. Firing a glance to the hatch she made a mental calculation. It could work, might work, but only done quick. So she decided to go quick.
“Lor…” Beatrice warned as she spun on a toe, bent her knees low and launched herself into the air. Boots left the decking and Lorena sailed the few meters back in an instant. She brought her legs around to break the impact and struck the hatch with a resounding CLANG.
“Mizrahi!” Yana roared. The Marines were running now, the Corps officers struck dumb.
NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART FIFTY-ONE: LORENA MAKES A DESPERATE PLAY TO PRESERVE HER SANITY , WHILE VIVEK FINDS HIS OWN INTEGRITY CALLED INTO QUESTION. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" ROLLS ON TOWARD ITS MAMMOTH CONCLUSION!