|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.
“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.
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!"