Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Fifty-Eight

Credit: Jim Hatama


            Lorena looks out through the hangar’s gaping maw and shivers, thinking of the bitter vacuum held out by an invisible skein of static energy.  Mars looms large astride thousands of stars, winter dust storms marring her features into a rusty watercolor portrait.  The dark iron scrub of a city sprawls below but Lorena can’t identify it—the Sun blots out any light patterns.  So many times she’s stood in one of these hangars, nerves gnawing at her stomach, looking down at the red planet turning thousands of miles beneath.  And yet she’s never memorized its face, the mountains and desiccated seas every bit as distinctive as those on Earth.  Her visual cortex demands continents delineated by oceanic blue and nothing else seems to stick.  With the great red sore of Olympus Mons hidden by horizon, she’s lost.

            “Once lost, now found,” quips Beatrice, standing by her side.

            It’s an odd thing to say, even by her standards.  Lorena looks at her, blinks, and has the sudden realization the place isn’t real—not the hangar, not the planet looming outside nor the space beyond it.  She knows who she is and what Beatrice represents.  She’s been here before and she stands with the yawning precariousness of a freshly lucid dreamer.  “Never without a line, are you?” she answers at last.

            “All I’ve got, really,” Beatrice shrugs and takes up her boarding trunk in one motion.  She starts walking forward, swaying asymmetrically with the weight, and in so doing she passes like a ghost through an orange-jumpsuited Tech crossing the hangar deck.  “Oops!”

            Lorena follows, noting the absence of her own bags, noting too the ship perched expectant in the launch gantry.  It is not Konoko.  Indeed it isn’t a ship at all but a house—Grandpa’s cabin stripped from the Terran surface and laid atop a powerful anti-gravity platform studded about its corners by thruster nozzles.  She admires the dream’s commitment to its own integrity.  “Are we supposed to leave in that?” she asks.

            “We weren’t supposed to be going anywhere, but then someone up and decided she’d rather I wasn’t around.”

            “I said I won’t feel guilty about this.”

            “I know what you said, but when have your ever done anything for yourself without a deluge of guilt following?  It’s not me trying to tug your heartstrings, sister.”

            To this Lorena has no good reply.  She walks alongside her friend for a while longer.  “So what happens now?”

            “With your filaments separated, each may return to its state of lowest entropy.”  The Conveyer’s rasp takes her by surprise.  An androgynous figure has appeared at her shoulder opposite Beatrice, clad in an unmarked blue Explorer Corps uniform that reveals a swell of hip but not of breast.  Its face is pleasing to behold and viscerally familiar in the vein of déjà vu; she suspects he has donned an amalgamation of facial features culled from her memory.

            “She’ll return to the Ouro network?  What you call the skein.”

            “Correct, albeit in a form your present sensory apparatus would not recognize.”

            “I can recognize you.  Your person-skin’s very convincing, in fact.”

            “Practiced I am, and so too I live.  Death dries the fibers on the skein and forces their re-integration.  In many instances this process smoothly attends.  In other eventualities my encouragement is needed.”

            “I’m so glad you could help me—if this is what that looks like.  I don’t even know.  She’ll board the…house…and be gone?”

            “Indeed, to your cognition.”

            “Thank you,” she reaches to take his hand and squeezes.  “Thank you for doing this, even if it causes you some grief down the line.  Humans love feeling wronged and Contact might try to use this against you.  Which is silly, right?  I mean, it was Contact who sent us out looking for Ouro tech after the first encounter.  If not for that, I’d never get within two million Lears of this place.”

            “The consequences should be superior, we think,” the Conveyer smiles back at her.  “Having happened by dumb luck upon your organism, and observing as our Minds currently are the state of your sensorium, we face the real prospect of yields most satisfying.”

            “I saw the photino bird in the pod.  What do the Kin want with it?”

            “The creature—‘Coleridge,’ so named—demonstrated a remarkable affinity for the same radiation we employ in our Conveyance systems.”

            She scrunches up her face.  “Conveyance systems?  I thought it was a more holistic process, one on one with someone like you.”

            “Indeed that method is best, to be deployed at every practical opportunity, but scenarios arise wherein the opportunity to intervene is emphatically impractical.”

            Emphatically,” chortles Beatrice.

            That he’d use Lorena’s signature word made sense, she supposed.  “Out of comms range, you mean?  I thought the Kin network kept more or less instant even over distance.  Unless the systems took catastrophic damage, like the ship we found.”

            “Correct for cases held within the Kin entire.  But what we most pursue is expansion of the paradigm.  Vast resources have been expended in this pursuit with apparent futility—though as one must always concede, advancements come neither when nor from whence one expects them.  Two serendipitous interactions have yielded unexpected fruit.”

            “Me and the obelisk.  And Cole with your station?”  Lorena stops now and places her hand over her mouth as the others turn to smirk at her ignorance.  “That’s what Abei meant by research.  That’s what the station was for.  It was a giant Conveyance facility!”

            “Indeed.  A fact never deliberately obscured but nevertheless poorly illuminated.  Your comrades Mister Mohinder and Miss Leaf recently became aware through dialogue with our interpreter unit.  Their responses, such as we read them, were much the same as yours.  Apologies if this comes in some way as a shock.”

            “I don’t—it’s not a shock.  Just not what I imagined.  You scan the galaxy for…what?  Compatible computer systems?”

            “A different problem; easier in some ways to resolve.  What we seek are those at the cusp of death, for in that moment of expiration the sentient mind is vulnerable.  Nearly the whole of a Kin can be captured and transmitted in an instant—this we know how to do.  Accomplishing the same with neurology built on fundamentally different premises, and to do so at great range: this is the goal.  It is a goal you have advanced today, Miss Mizrahi.”

            Lorena snorts.  “I’ll take that right back to the Emissary.  ‘Sorry I set back human computing by a hundred years, but maybe one day we’ll go to computerized Heaven with the Ouro!’”  She is laughing out loud now.  “Not that I don’t find it terribly compelling.  I just doubt the sentiment will catch on at Luna Base.”

            “Bigger miracles have happened,” says Beatrice, setting down her heavy trunk and cracking her exsanguinated knuckles.

            For the first time, the Conveyer’s pleasant shows concern: “A strain of our consensus warned identically.  With regrets, we enjoy no capacity to protect you from repercussions.  If you suffer because of our deeds, know the Kin blanch with regret.”

            “It’s all right.  It’s better than the alternative.  It’s what I wanted.  I’m just sorry myself, that my crew will be punished for their part.  That some non-zero number of other human beings will have their prospects diminished, because of whatever tech I cut off.  Whatever this thing in my brain would have given rise to.”

            The Conveyer brings his hands together, fingers aflutter.  “The Kin are infinitely warm amongst themselves, and it is that closeness of thought and sensation that renders us opaque to the outside.  To your kind.  For when one is accustomed to such heat, as larvae in eggs, one finds oneself overwhelmed by the vastness of the outside strange.  The cold is shocking, nearly traumatic, and for long the Kin have been a private people.”

            “I suppose.  We’re not the best at outreach ourselves.”

            “True as it may be, the gulf I think is greater.  Even were it not, the skein is the great project of the Kin.  It is our legacy and it must expand lest it over-gnarl.  Long-building in our consensus, this idea has in recent times gained momentum.  It is an idea to which you, Doctor Lorena Mizrahi of the Explorer Corps, have applied no insignificant impulse.”

            “Why would the Kin get that idea from me?”

            “It is your arrival, Doctor, that has lent irrefutable physical evidence to more than a few underpinning claims.  The process standing before us, the entity Beatrice, is a strong suggestion this new Conveyance may succeed.”

            “At least you’re buying me a house,” quips the raven-haired beauty.  “It’s the least you could do for all the help.  I did help you, Lor, and maybe one day you’ll be able to admit it.  I did my best to be your counterpart.  A good friend, even if I wasn’t the one you wanted.”

            “I’m not sure what I wanted,” Lorena replies, “but you’re right.  You deserve better than this.  I’m just sorry I can’t be the one to give it to you.”

            “There you go with the apologies.  The gnawing guilt.  Pack it up and send it out with me, if you can.”

            “I can’t, but thanks for the offer.  Mister, uhh…Conveyer, sir?  I think I’m ready to go back and face the music.”

            The creature nods.  “As you say.  You have progressed with remarkable alacrity through the Scenes of Six.  With regrets I cannot restore the full contents of your memories—no mark on the mind may ever be truly undone—but trust when I claim their truth stands unaltered.”

            “I do.  They made sense, in their own strange ways.  They made the questions clear, I think.”

            “Well, I suppose that’s it,” Beatrice extends her hand.  Lorena takes it and suddenly finds herself pulled into an iron embrace.  “I love you, Lorena.  Really I do.  Sorry other folks haven’t always felt the same.  But you’re worth it, kid.  Really you are.”

            She lets go and gives a tight-lipped smile.  Lorena returns it through tears she hadn’t planned to shed.  Taking up her trunk once more, Beatrice lugs it alone the last few meters to the cabin.  She struggles with the latch—it’s always been finicky—and Lorena quickly scurries to assist.

            “What’s the old joke about screen doors on a starship?” Beatrice wonders aloud.  She hauls the trunk inside and holds the door open against its closing spring as the two women look at each other.

            “Goodbye, Bea.”

            “Happy trails, Lor.”  With a last smile she withdraws.  Weathered cedar bangs against itself on the doorframe.

            With a mighty hum the cabin rises from the ground.  Its engines start to wine and Lorena steps back for safety, though in this place the concept is at best nebulous.  The Conveyer has vanished.  She stands there alone in the hangar, hands on hips with hot streaks down her cheekbones, as the engines ignite.  Their fire builds until all around her is searing light.

*          *          *          

            She gathered them together in Konoko’s locker room, just off the Equipment Bay; arranging them on the benches, shoulder to shoulder, with three armored Marines standing watch over them.  None were armed, as the Ouro would have no firearms transported through their jurisdiction, but their combat suits offered muscle enough.  This was to say nothing of Yana St. Julien, of her own suit and the various combat capabilities her flesh concealed.

            “We will piece together this sequence of events, you and I,” she said, “from the very top.  I will ask the questions and in reply you will furnish answers that are not only truthful but complete.  Failure to comply will result in the immediate filing of charges including but not limited to treason under arms.  Cooperate to my satisfaction and it is very possible these charges will be downgraded or dropped completely, though in these matters promises are difficult to come by.  Please understand this, gentlemen and ladies: your futures, your freedom and possibly your lives depend on the completeness and authenticity of what you say to me in this room.  Naturally, all of this is being recorded.”

            Yana let it sink in for a long minute, flicking mirrored irises between them.  At last she spoke again: “Mister Mohinder, please describe your actions beginning the moment we parted in the Ouro transition room.”

            “I decided, after consulting with the crew, that we should consult the Ouro on the possibility of helping Lorena.  I went along with Maxi—we didn’t tell anyone else—and consulted with the interpreter, Abei.  Abei said the Ouro would likely be able to help her if they could get access to her person.  Which, obviously, we couldn’t provide.  But after talking with Lorena over her handy, she seemed truly distraught.  More upset than I’ve ever seen her, and that convinced me that I would be remiss in my duty to my Commanding Officer were I not to at least attempt retrieval.  I came up with a plan to sneak aboard Schmetterling, I convinced Maxi and the crew to go along and I called Lorena to engineer a kind of falling-out.  To throw you off the trail, as it were,” he shrugged miserably.

            “The plan was mine,” Maxi butted in, earning two very different flavors of outraged look from Vivek and Yana.  “Fifty-fifty credit if you want, but he’s trying to take the fall for all of us.  Don’t bother, Vee.”

            He grimaced.  “The plan, such as it was, consisted of boarding with a medical excuse, gaining access to Schmetterling’s internal spaces and using the threat of non-lethal force to liberate Lorena.  We would then slip her back to the Ouro as quickly as possible, ideally before anyone noticed, though I suppose that was stupid.”

            “You suppose correctly, Pilot.  Continue.”

            “We’d use force—the threat of force, rather—to get her out, while Obo and Ashley handed over a photino bird we’d picked up…god, I don’t even remember where it was.  Before Baraheni, I know.  The Ouro wanted it in a kind of trade for helping Lorena, to make it worth their while since Contact would be upset about it.  So Obo and Ashley transported the bird while we did our part.  Karl stayed behind in Konoko to run sensors, comms and E.C.M.”

            Yana arched an eyebrow.  “I wasn’t aware you’d picked up such a specimen.  Why did the Ouro want it?”

            “It’s...Abei explained, but I’m not sure I got it all.  It’s because the bird interacts with the Open Territory facility, the one you think is illegal.  I’m not sure it is—according to Abei, it’s a kind of large-scale technological attempt to communicate with the dead.  And that sounds stupid, I know, but—“

            “It’s been explained to me as well, and how the Ouro choose to spend their enviable wealth is their business right up until permanent facilities go up in the O.T.  This is not your concern, Pilot.”

            “Noted, ma’am.  Sorry, ma’am.  Anyway, that’s why they wanted the bird.  And that’s my role in all this.”

            Yana gave a slight nod.  “Technician Obo, I’d like to hear your story next.”

            So they went, each of them in turn, corroborating Vivek’s account of events and letting their own perspectives shade in the edges.  Yana asked questions, they answered and in time only Maxi Leaf was left to describe her time in the ventilation duct.  “He didn’t cooperate; we just grabbed his hand and held it to the door sensor.  From there I threw my gun at him—I pulled the power cell first—and rushed out after Lorena.  You caught up with us, obviously.”

            “Yes.  Very well, gentlemen and ladies, would anyone like to add anything to the presentation?”  They didn’t.  “Then let me say first: you pulled off an impressive trick.  Sorely lacking in its planning, though audacious enough to make up for it.  Operational sloppiness, such as it existed, paled in comparison to our own lack of preparation.  It’s not easy to pull one over on a Marine detachment the way you did, even if they were utterly unsuspecting.”

            The armored men squirmed.  “Setting aside my professional admiration, the fact remains that the five of you conspired to board a Federal vessel—under arms, no less—in an attempt to kidnap an individual in the custody of legitimate authorities.  You threatened Terran Marines with violence, discharged weaponry at others and damaged Federal property.  All this in the service of misguided personal loyalty, at the expense of Federal operational objectives and to the genuine detriment of the human race.  You must be punished.  You know this.”

            “Pardon my saying so, ma’am, but I don’t know shit,” Zach Obo spoke up abruptly.  “You’re the one who gave a mission, months back.  To do anything we could to get something for you.  And I won’t say what exactly it is, ‘cause Lord knows you’ll slap me with another charge, but you weren’t too concerned about how we got it.  We didn’t leave Mars Dock with those Gustaf rifles, ma’am.”  He crossed his big arms, forcing Ashley and Vivek each to nudge a few centimeters down the bench.

            An indulgent smile flashed over Yana’s lips.  “Why is this relevant, Technician?”

            “Relevance is, you gave us a whole globe’s worth of latitude at the outset.  We proceeded according to mission right up until you appeared.  It was you who disrupted the mission, not us.  You don’t really know what’s going on in the Doc’s head.  The Ouro do.  The Corps isn’t the Navy, Miss St. Julien, and we’re within our charter rights using our judgment to pursue the mission you gave us.”

            “And Vivek never even shot anyone!” Ashley protested.  “Nobody got hurt!”

            “Pilot Duggins, not another word.  Technician Obo, your argument is laughable.  As ranking Contact officer, I have the final say on all activity undertaken inside Ouro space.”

            “I know that, ma’am.  Just thought you might stop to consider that you don’t really know what’s going on here, any more than we do.  You don’t know we’ve compromised any mission, and absent concrete proof of malicious intent the S.J.P.’s don’t apply.”  Shipboard Judicial Protocols permitted commanding officers to act as judge, jury and executioner under emergency conditions.

            “Nobody’s going to serve your sentence today, Mister Obo.  We’ll need you all to fly Konoko back to Nimbus—under Marine oversight, naturally.  You’ll undergo your respective court-martials back at Mars Dock, under the standard procedure.”

            Obo raised a finger and turned it in the air, as though stirring an upside-down mug of invisible coffee.  “Ahh, but is that really in Contact’s interest?  In order to defend ourselves, we’d be entitled to all pertinent mission details.  Will your superiors really be able to defend Shanghaiing a Corps clipper and her crew for secret Contact missions?  What about prosecuting those officers for actions taken under that legal shadow?”

            “You’re very confident in your claims on Federal policy.”

            “A man planning his retirement looks into the nuts and bolts.  And I may not know everything about it, but I know this’ll go over Director Murane’s desk.  You think she’ll let Lorena get buried over this?  Without putting every relevant detail on the record?”

            Yana’s squinted slightly.  “The Deputy Director has always been an enthusiastic supporter of Contact ops.  I doubt she’ll see any reason to make an exception here.”

            “Well then,” Vivek mustered the nerve to speak up, which he’d been avoiding on account of his massive culpability, “I doubt you’re aware she and Lorena have a romantic history.”

            Now her eyes were silver slits.  “If that were the case, disclosure—“

            “They never worked together, never cohabited and so they never filed the dee cee paperwork.  Trust me, it was real.”

            “If you want to burn us all over this,” said Ashley, feeling herself, “you’ll have to do it the long, legal way.  We’re officers in Federal service.  We’ve got rights.”

            Yana didn’t respond directly to this and an objective onlooker might question whether she heard it at all—head cocked and vision focused elsewhere as she absorbed some new information pulsing through her implants.  They saw this and waited, unsure how to proceed.  Typical human conversation held few conventions governing such behavior.

            After a moment she seemed to re-focus.  She looked up then, not at Konoko’s crew but at her own Marines.  “Bind them.  Zip ties should be sufficient.  Guard them here until I get back—nobody moves off this bench and no trips to the head.  I shouldn’t be long.”

            “What’s happening?” Maxi broke in.

            “I place you all under arrest on suspicion of treason under arms and conspiracy to commit the same.   All process rights appropriately conferred.  Any statements made in the presence of these authorities may be considered official evidence against you.  So I’d suggest you all clam up and consider your predicament while I go below.”

            “This is the lowest deck,” Obo frowned.

            Yana grinned and her canines glittered.  Maxi noticed one was crooked, askew, half-turned sideways.  “Below to the Ouro.  They’re releasing Doctor Mizrahi.”

NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART FIFTY-NINE: BATTERED AND DRAINED, KONOKO'S CREW FINALLY REUNITES. WIELDING THE LAW'S FULL POWER, THE EMISSARY RENDERS JUDGMENT. ONLY TWO CHAPTERS REMAIN IN "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES!"

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Fifty-Seven

Credit: Eddy Shinjuku


            Down a tube they moved, and then across a gulf.  Lights on the pod’s exterior set the space around them softly aglow and she could feel the suspension fluid’s warmth better than before though the pod walls conducted no heat.  Lorena wanted to ask Abei where they were headed but knew the answer would reveal itself before long.  Watching the murk outside with its slow-migrating motes of light, she felt the labor and strain of days past settle like a woolen blanket over her shoulders.  She wanted desperately to sleep and hoped whatever the Ouro had planned bore at least some passing resemblance to unconsciousness.

            The pod held her in a timeless dusk.  At some point six orbs of light swam up to take positions in a loose and friendly escort around them, and they stayed along with the pod as it approached a structure of seemingly continental scale.  Her eyes traced the Ouro civilian traffic, the solo swimmers in their harnesses and the hulking transport vessels, as Abei guided the pod to an infinitesimal pore on the structure’s outer hull.  They slipped through the aperture into another tube barely wide enough to accommodate the transport pod.  They met forks and passed them by at high speed, or slowed dramatically to alter course without smearing Lorena against the walls.  She felt spun and turned about, as though riding in a marble through a maze, and absent any sense of her orientation in space her stomach started turning.

            They hit a last long straightaway; Lorena noticed herself drifting distinctly forward relative to the pod and put her feet out to the wall, bracing against the sharp deceleration.  The pod stopped at the end of the solid tube and around them on all sides was pure blank dark.

            “Honored, presently accepting,” Abei held out a small lumpy device to her.  Obviously of Ouro design and construction, it was shaped like a small symmetrical cucumber studded with tubercles.  A hollow nozzle several centimeters wide and long extended from its curved inner cusp.

            Lorena took it skeptically, turned it over in her hand and looked up to the floating man.  “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

            “In oral orifice inserting, accommodating needs biology,” he smiled kindly, as though she might find this encouraging.

            Though she emphatically didn’t want to put an Ouro device in her mouth—she imagined a taste like briny decay—she saw no way around it.  Placing her lips around the nozzle, she slid it gently back until its mouth rested cold and solid on her tongue.

            “Phenomenal!  Now, kindly accompanying having one moment followed.”  As he said it, the door emitted a whining sound.  Though it didn’t open, orange fluid began to run from its creases.  Insistently and with building pace, it bubbled in airborne rivulets that met each other, joined and built in mass.  Wobbling orange blobs swelled in the null gravity, taking up ever more of the pod interior as Lorena shied back instinctively.

            “What’s going on?” she asked Abei, pulling the device from her mouth.

            “Kindly repositioning, honored.  Surveying from your mouth is the field,” he said with enough urgency to compel her to replace it.  The bubbles of suspension fluid ran against the pod’s walls, met each other and joined with the compulsive spontaneity of birds in breeding season.  Lorena fought off a wave of nausea as her pants and then her shirt were inundated with bloody warmth.

            The fluid kept flooding in past her neck and it was there she saw it halted.  Not the level—it continued to rise, clearly intent on filling the pod completely—but the stuff’s smothering pressure.  A bubble of air remained, a sphere about her head, allowing her to breathe cleanly and keep her eyes open while submerged.  At last the door opened and the pod was flooded with sunny yellow light.  Abei reached out his hand; she was somehow surprised to find it cold.  He motored them forward them with his gravity drive, through the door and into the cloudy glow.

            Details resolved.  The room was a barn-sized space walled in the darkly solid material undergirding most Ouro construction.  A high ceiling barely contained the centerpiece: a two-story obelisk of the kind she’d encountered what seemed like ages ago.  Screens adorned the walls, but only a few—most clustered around large flickering terminals sporting clusters of manipulable control sticks.  At each of these terminals floated an Ouro.

            Taking note of Lorena’s presence immediately, perhaps sensing her disturbance in the water, all turned their bulbous heads to fix great ponderous eyes on her.  Heart pounding in her chest, the human woman coasted forward along with Abei to greet them.  There were six in total—of course there were—and all abandoned their work to cruise over.  They reached with their arms and she held out her own in a gesture vastly more welcoming than she felt.  Over her shirtsleeves they ran with delicate touches that nonetheless hinted at tremendous strength.  Their tube feet were ten thousand little kisses, sucking and sampling every inch of her below the neckline.  Their hides coursed with rainbow freshets of pleasure.  They took care not to breach her airy halo, but all the same she found herself wobbling at panic’s edge.  The device in her mouth forced her breathing slow and level and for this she was grateful.

            “To you, honored, they come knowing,” said Abei, his voice somehow crystal clear through the medium.

            She wanted to respond but worried the bubble would collapse if she moved the device.  “One arrives in such locating, intent with to heal,” he said soothingly as all but one of the Ouro retreated to their terminals.

            “Assembling, in greeting, the personage of present Kin.  Nomination as needs be impossible for the hominid vocals, distinguishing be our Conveyor to the deceased.”  Abei made an elaborate cyclical gesture with his hands, presenting this lone creature.  To her surprise, it tilted its body momentarily forward and then back—using its siphons to affect a bonelessly smooth bow.

            She was surprised to find herself instantly and enormously humbled by this gesture, imported from hierarchical primates across millions of light-years to a race of communal cephalopods who couldn’t possibly understand its meaning.  But they’d done their research, just as they’d gone to the trouble of assembling the android Abei, of honing his most evidently human components: hands, face, eyes.  So many accommodations, and she hadn’t the slightest idea how she might reciprocate—like a sensitive child at an early Christmas, painfully aware both of his parents’ generosity and his utter helplessness to return it.  So she bowed back, listing forward and then back in the null gravity as she did so.  The Ouro saw this and its skin thrummed with pleasure.

            She wanted to respond verbally and shot Abei a helpless look to find him happily oblivious.  And why shouldn’t he be?  This place and its inhabitants rendered most human speech irrelevant.  Nothing she said would move the Ouro more than the simple gesture they’d already shared, with the volumes inscribed beneath its long skirts.

            “In spirits conjoining, sojourn through fibers of the skein intends,” her guide explained as though he expected her to understand.  She did not, and only his pointing to the obelisk cut through her mental haze of fear and awe.

            Lorena tried to move toward the object.  Arms and legs propelled hands and feet oarlike; she struggled through a meter or so before arresting the motion out of sheer embarrassment.  The Ouro, for its part, once again extended an arm until it wrapped around her own.  The tubular siphons below each pair of eyes flared, the five free arms kicked backward and she found herself steadily pulled along behind it.  She cast a last look backward to Abei, who hung back with the beaming pride of a parent dropping his charge at the first day of school.  A part of her brain tried to recall her own first day, but her higher functions extinguished the process.  She knew it was tainted.

            “It was raining,” said Beatrice, walking confidently along the floor despite the null gravity.  She’d pinned her hair back and the fluid’s drag billowed out her dress’s umbra.  “One of those days late in August where the sky says fall but the air’s still sticking like summer.”

            Lorena shut her eyes tight to shut it out but knew the gesture’s futility and thus re-opened them.  She floated before the obelisk, even now bruising with blues and darker chroma.  There came a gurgling sound and she saw the other Ouro on their way out—leaving swift and fleshily agile through a port that opened in the ceiling and shut after them.  She was alone then with the Conveyer, with the silent Abei, with the friend she never had.  She gazed into the obelisk’s solid surface, in which she began to perceive microscopic yet dynamically whirring textures.  Trumpets sang out in many tongues all louder than thunder.

*          *          *          

            “I cannot sufficiently express our pleasure at seeing you, Lorena Mizrahi.  Physician by training, Commanding Officer by occupation; latest of the Explorer Corps clipper ECV Konoko.  The Kin welcome you to our home.”

            The voice was husky, low, a rasp stripping it at once of gender and warmth.  At first Lorena could not determine from whence it came.  The room had lost its floor, its ceiling, its walls and indeed the obelisk itself.  She stood amongst billowing clouds lit by a warm sun overhead she somehow knew was Sol himself; on what felt like solid ground though she could see no substrate.   She peered hard at the spot where she felt the obelisk should be, and when it did not reveal itself she turned to look about.  It was here she saw them: Beatrice, on her knees with dress darkly pooled along the invisible plane; the Ouro calling itself Conveyer, hovering with arms dangling down and feeling tips placidly adrift as though suspended in water.

            “Did you speak to me?” she asked.  Her mouth was empty, the device simply gone.

            “A connection not easily forged.  I confess myself disoriented in your speech—limited enormously, yet in that statement I describe those limits less than my own.  It is the joy, of course, in what we do: finding beauty in spaces between the small.”

            She detected no movement of mandible, no synchronized dilating of siphon while it spoke.  “Thank you for your hospitality.  For taking me in like this.  What the Kin have built here is truly amazing.  I have to say, I don’t feel worthy of the attention.”

            “What a surprise,” Beatrice cracked.

            “This is Beatrice,” she said to the Ouro.  “You can see her too?”

            “Here I may Convey only what you see; so surely I sense her presence and hear her words though in large part they are yours.  Never in our most scrupulous calculations had we considered the eventuality now presented.”

            Lorena felt her lips curl, hearing hints of the same galloping, over-eager cadence Abei favored.  “Be that as it may, I didn’t ask for it and I want it removed.”

            “I’m ‘it,’ now, am I?”

            “Your current altered environment is the first measure I have deployed.  From this stable location we will attempt to excavate those memories overwritten by anomalous process Beatrice.  Are you prepared to begin?”

            “Wait.  What does ‘Conveyer’ mean to you?  How is it you operate?”

            “Those accorded my talents must return, by means much varied, those threads which tatter and fall from the skein.  Few among the Kin find need for such amelioration, but those few may suffer greatly in their condition.”

            “So I take it you’ve never worked with a human before.  How exactly do you do it?”

            “Means much varied.”

             “Doesn’t inspire confidence.”

            “Vast labor, already sunk, has established the processes most fundamental.  As the process Beatrice is uniquely Kin in origin, its workings are known to us.”

            She sighed.  “I suppose I’ll just have to trust you on that.”

            “Last chance,” said Beatrice.

            “What’s going to happen to her?” Lorena asked.

            “When laid in the skein with care and diligence, each fiber will find its place in support of the whole.”

            Beatrice watched her along with the Conveyer: six eyes staring intently.  Lorena noticed her heart had once again begun thudding.  “All right,” she muttered.  “I’m ready.”

*          *          *          

            She stands amidst grass tall enough to tickle the backs of her knees, Sun on her face, hair wrangled into a sloppy frizzy bun.  She smells manure’s cloying damp, sees a squat red house and the tiny white flowers dotting the green field like dust motes frozen in sunlight.  She knows she is with her father at her grandparents’ cabin far upstate.  She does not know where they are.

            The trucks are where she expects them, the white and the burgundy: antiques long since converted to clean H-cells and parked in a long grass-lined drive of red clay.  The dog, Bo, seems to be nearly as old; a golden retriever gone alpine white, who sits on the rusted little bench in grandma’s garden reading a book through his wire-rimmed spectacles.  She enters the cabin through the screen door grandpa says he keeps that way “to hear the ghosts coming in.”

            Lorena has no siblings, very few friends and certainly none way out here.  She invited her friend Kelsie out for the summer, or at least part of it, and found herself politely turned down.  So alone she goes upstairs, to the room barely bigger than a closet where the head and foot of her bed lie less than an inch from the walls.  The smell of mothballs—real mothballs, which she has attempted to describe to confused and indifferent classmates back home—hits her in the face along with a gust of air as she pulls open the door.

            Inside is a tempest.  At first she shrinks away but once she’s forced open her eyes against the lashing winds she sees it’s really quite small.  It has, in fact, been left quite carelessly by the foot of her dresser.  She picks it up; it’s cold and smooth in her hands, writhing like a rabbit’s muscles under its loose pelt.  Its wet leaves tracks on the floor and its clouds lash butterfly kisses over her wrists.  She takes it into the bathroom so it won’t make a mess and holds it over the sink cooing at the creature.  In time it seems content.  Lorena looks up to the mirror; behind the speckles of toothpaste and spittle she sees her father’s dead face, embalmed at the funeral home.

*          *          *          

            He’d died on a Friday.  She always remembered that.  The number fourteen, too: fourteen days between his last breath and the message arriving in her inbox with a whisper’s weight.  Friday to Friday—at the time these things seemed important symbols, turned by her mind into nearly religious totems, and even years later that passion left them branded on her memory.

            She walks into Nasser’s Delicatessen wearing a walnut brown jacket and a loose pair of sweatpants secured in a frayed tie.  The pants are her father’s; she’s put on weight over Hecate’s long cruise and none of the clothes surviving from her teen years fit.  The other patrons are watercolors—limbs rumpled and disjointed, faces gaunt despite the paint’s rosy flush—and as they take their breakfasts they leave the frames on the walls eerily depopulated.

            Lorena takes a seat at an empty table.  She considers ordering coffee but having spent the whole night awake drinking it she knows her stomach needs a break.  She sits for a long time by herself, reading trivialities of the local news still charmingly printed on paper.  At one point she turns the page and the text falls wholesale from the page to the tabletop.  She sweeps them surreptitiously to the floor.

            “Sorry I’m late,” her friend says once she appears.  “Lily had the most awful accident and every piece of clothing had to be changed.  I couldn’t leave the sitter with that.”

            “It’s all right.”

            “I was so sorry to hear about your dad.  Was it sudden?”

            “Very sudden.  On Friday, early morning while he slept.”

            A deep, sympathetic nod.  “Well, we should all be so lucky.  When the time comes.”

            “It’s been bothering me.  That he went on Friday.  Confession’s Saturday.”

            “Sorry?”

            “He’d go to confession every Saturday.  They schedule it then to let folks clear the slate before Mass.”

            “Lorena, if he was going that often, I’m sure God understands.”

            “Maybe,” she shrugged.

            “Did you want to get anything?  Have you ordered?”

            “Nobody’s come by.”

            “Babe, they don’t come to get your order here.”

            For some reason this is deeply, seismically funny.  Lorena finds herself doubled over laughing, forehead against the table, her best tears of recent days pooling on burnished steel tabletop.

*          *          *          

            White wings beat against an iron sky.  Chevrons of black begin at their tips to sweep dramatically back over the coverts, fading as they do so until they reach the shoulder.  Lorena stands on the cliffside, nine years old and three careful strides back from the lip as her father has mandated, watching the shearwaters wheel and dive and strike the grey-green sea.  They vanish momentarily in spray and pop back up, coal-streaked seraphim rejoining the host.

            Wind knifes in from the northwest, off the sea.  She wraps her arms around herself and turns away as her jaw quavers with spontaneous electricity.  “Lorena,” her father says, and hair blows sideways over her face as she turns to him.

            “Take the cooler for a moment.  I want you to hand it back to me once I’ve climbed down.”

            “Okay,” she takes the box, white and bulky but feather-light, and watches as he hikes himself down over the cliff edge.  She imagines him plummeting off into the void though the slope isn’t really steep enough to menace.  When only his head is visible he lifts his arms to take the box.

            “Hop down,” he says, lowering it to his feet where one galosh pins it against the wind.  “I go first down the steep parts, you hand me the box and climb after.”

            They reach the bottom in minutes, without incident but for a brief slide down a gravelly stretch that strips skin from the heels of her hands.  She refuses to show him the wounds, adding them to the silent tally of the day’s resentments.  At water’s edge are clouds of red—thick wads of coarse-fleshed algae anchored to the granite.

            “Used to see crabs down here,” he tells her, sawing at a stalk’s base with his four-inch serrated knife.  “There were still a few when grandma’d take me down here.  Snails too—dozens of them glued into the cover.”  He pulls the dripping mass from the water and lifts up a beet-colored frond to show her.

            Lorena can barely pay attention, fixated as she is on the shadow looming under tidal surge.  Monstrous in shape and larger even than her father, it seethes with organic motion.  A skirt of six tentacles, the great gold eyes that stare unblinking , the gills that with their undulations seem themselves to blink.  Closer it creeps; she tries to scream but, in the manner of nightmares, finds the air stopped in her throat.  Eugenio Mizrahi stuffs the algae in the open white box and crouches, returning his knife to labor.  The bite of surf and decay fills her nostrils.

*          *          *          

            Lorena Mizrahi looks down at the tray on her desk and draws a slow breath through her mouth.  Nothing through her nose; she’s trying to avoid the sour fumes of preservative wafting up like reaching fingers of plague.  A rat lies in the tray, dead, sliced open from throat to gut.  Its skin is peeled back, the ribs snapped one by one at their midpoints so the animal’s body cavity lies open.  Inside waits a bewildering array of components, each its own very particular hue Lorena has never before seen.  They fit together in the ribs’ tight confines like the world’s best-packed luggage.  Some bear tiny stickers affixed during the prior day’s class, color-coded to match entries on the teacher’s assignment.

            “Lorena, this isn’t an optional thing.  It’s a part of the class.”

            “Vireet’s doing her whole lab on her tablet!”

            “Her parents talked to me weeks ago and filled out the exemption form.  Yours didn’t.”

            “So?  It’s the same thing!”

            “Lorena, just do it.  Everyone else is doing it; you’ll be fine.  Now come on.  This is your grade.”

            That’s what gets her, as Mr. Carpenter had to know it would.  She takes up the scalpel and the cold steel nips at her fingers.  She poises it over the rat carcass lying pathetically in its tray; her Biology teacher turns away satisfied, giving her another chance to stall.

            “It’s totally fine,” says the boy at the desk to her left.  “Start at the belly where it’s soft and push down hard.  Once you’ve cut it open it’s just like the sims.”

            His name is Lucas and she has suspected for some time that he’s interested in her.  She might entertain the idea if he asked, but this unsolicited rodent-butchering advice isn’t helping his case.  It’s not as though she can’t do this, like she’s searching for the right technique.  She’s cleaned trout at the cabin, but God himself draws a line between fish and mammals.  But it’s her grade, after all, and without answering Lucas she slices through the dead rat’s abdomen.  The blade moves easily up until it meets cartilage; she grinds through it until reaching the throat.

            Blood seeps out to either side, driven out by the pressure she’s applied, quickly reaching the tray floor in half-clotted globs.  Lorena’s steeled herself but all the same is taken back by the blackness of it, its contrast with the dead white ribs exposed by skin and muscle’s retreat.  Nausea strikes her, and dizziness too until she screws shut her eyes against the sight.  Lucas is laughing.  Enraged and ashamed, she rushes toward the darkness behind her eyes and comes to a vision of untwinkling space.

NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART FIFTY-EIGHT: SUBMERGED IN THE FIRMAMENT BETWEEN THE OURO SKEIN AND HER OWN MIND, LORENA ATTEMPTS TO CONSTRUCT HER OWN EXIT. ONLY THREE CHAPTERS REMAIN IN "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES!"