“You people are outside your damn minds,” Terran Federal Marine Master Sergeant Nnamar Chekwa blinked in disbelief as Vivek slipped the helmet off his head. The HUD functions had shut off automatically when the catches at the back of his neck released; in his shock seeing Maxi’s rifle, he hadn’t pulled off the intricate sequence of orbital muscle cues needed to sound an alarm.
“Toss it over here,” she told Vivek, who did so into the now-denser pile of trash.
“Thought we might need it later,” he said.
“Won’t be much of a later. Sergeant Chekwa, sorry for the goonery, but we’re here for Doctor Mizrahi. Strip his right glove off; we’ll need the I.D. chip.”
“This won’t work. You won’t get out of here.”
She suppressed the urge to smash the rifle stock across his broad jaw, into the nose that had clearly been broken before. “Shush, you. Back up into the corner. Back. Don’t suppose there’s anything to tie him up with, huh? Ehh, waste of time anyway.”
“You should stay here,” Vivek told her on the private channel, turning the disembodied gauntlet before his face. The LEDs on its manual control panel had gone out. “I’ll go get Lorena. Compartment seven, right? It’ll be easier to do it solo and they won’t challenge me as aggressively.”
“Just gonna mosey out there with the other gun?”
“I’m not taking the gun. Genz, are you still tracking those biosigns?”
“Yes, sir. One more added on the other side of the nearby wall, in compartment ten.”
“How many in the corridor now?”
There was a pause. “None properly in the corridor, but the second Marine who met you is still at the airlock and he may have clear line of sight all the way down.”
“There is another problem. Assuming the door is locked, the glove you have taken will not open it.”
“Chip’s in the glove, right?”
“Yes, but the glove itself is keying off its wearer’s proximity. It will not respond positively to query otherwise.”
“Shit.” It was Maxi’s turn to curse.
Vivek’s mind raced. “What about the mobile scanner? We’ve got the Sergeant right here, and there’ll definitely be some R.T.S.’s. It’s the Med Bay, after all.”
“Using your Marina’s onboard processors…yes, I suppose it would be possible.”
“Then get working on the back end.” Throwing open drawers and cabinets, Vivek sought out the distinctive green-packaged Remote Topical Sensors distributed throughout the Federal services. He found them, picked out three and walked back to Chekwa. He applied them to the man’s exposed right wrist, and to each temple of his shorn head before pulling out his handy and claiming their outputs with a few taps at the contextual interface.
“Take the scanner off my hip,” Maxi said with a demonstrative waggle, having taken a step closer while Vivek did his work. At this range and with this power, a discharge from the rifle would crater his chest armor and throw him into the wall. With the heavy soundproofed bulkheads, she wasn’t sure anyone aboard Schmetterling would notice. Vivek took up the scanner and the glove in his hands and approached the doorway, where the access panel flashed green. He punched a button to turn it red.
“Okay, Genz. Proof of concept,” he called back to Konoko. “If you can get us out of this room, we’ll be good.”
“I need a minute. The gauntlet’s processor is not accustomed to independent access.”
“You don’t have a minute. How long ‘till your buddy checks on us?” he switched to external speakers to address the captive Marine.
“Any second now,” Chekwa sneered. Vivek realized he’d been stupid to expect a helpful response. He hoped the man was lying.
“Very well, Mister Mohinder. Try it now.” Hearing this, Vivek extended the glove’s limp palm to the door scanner.
It chirped. The light went green. The door hissed open, which he should have expected but instead found himself propelled backward in terror. By a stroke of luck that immediate segment of the corridor was empty. “Jesus. Genz, is anyone in the hall?”
“Just the single Marine in plausible sight, sir. The same as before.”
“Can you do anything to distract him?”
“Since he is by the door, I will send a docking request by the normal channels.”
“That might lock up the whole system,” Maxi worried. “And then how do we get out?”
“It is only a tertiary system, Miss Leaf. Likely to be read as an error.”
“It’s our best shot. Be ready to do it, Genz,” Vivek told him.
“Take the other gun, Vivek.”
“No, I said—“
“Fuck that. No way to know if the distraction’s working or even if he’ll look in the first place. If he’s not, no worries. If he is, you’ll want the gun.”
He sighed. “Two down on the right?”
“All we got.”
“Fine. Genz, on three. Maxi, be safe.”
“Genz—one,” he checked the safety, upped the weapon’s power and kept a wide spread. “Two,” he pressed himself against the wall at the rear edge of the door so he could spring out without having to turn.
“Three! Go!” Vivek crouched, planted his back foot and gave the Scanner Tech a second to work. A moment later—a totally arbitrary expanse of time—all his weight was slamming into the floor beneath the power of his Marina’s combined motors. The rifle he held at his right hip just fore of Karl’s scanner, bobbing it as he ran at what he hoped was a stealthy stoop, bringing his head up to look down Schmetterling’s corridor. He could see the top half of the inner airlock door above the steps they’d taken down, but didn’t see the Marine they’d left there. Crouching, he needed only a few meters before the angle obscured him entirely from the airlock, and he crossed that distance with soft footfalls. In the artificial gravity, his boots saw no need to clamp themselves down.
At the door marked 07, he dropped to a knee and raised Chekwa’s glove like an offering to a primal god. He looked to and fro, pulse pounding, fully expecting to be caught at any moment. He’d have to drop the gauntlet to use his weapon and so in that moment it was useless. It dawned on him he had to piss.
“Fertig!” Karl announced in his ear. The door opened so suddenly he actually fell through, realizing only then that he’d been leaning against it. Skittering forward quickly on hands and knees, he felt the deck’s vibration as the portal snapped shut behind him.
He was in a small room; a half-room really, split down the middle by a screen stretching from floor to ceiling. Vivek had seen the like before. Made from a rectangular panels of substance he couldn’t name with properties somewhere between glass and plastic, it was quite strong and could be made transparent, opaque or anything in the wide spectrum between. Currently they were all tuned to the same setting, allowing perhaps 80% of the light through and showing a blurred human form behind.
“Lorena?” he called through his speakers. He rapped his knuckles on the screen and repeated it.
“Vivek? They let you in?”
“We’re here to rescue you.”
“What? What do you mean? And who’s ‘we?’”
“We tricked them. Not much time, gotta go. How’d they get you in there?”
“The panels shift and slide on a track. Controls are on that side,” she pointed.
“Genz? Can we get through them?”
“You may try the glove again, but I am skeptical. It is likely the Emissary—“
Vivek was already trying it. “Nah, didn’t work.”
“—keyed it to a higher security code. I am at a loss, Mister Mohinder. If I touch the system directly, an alarm will almost certainly sound.”
“Probably wouldn’t work anyway.”
“You didn’t have a plan?” Lorena called from behind the screen.
“Not for this exact part,” Vivek confessed, looking around the room for an answer. A console on the wall behind him displayed Lorena’s biosignals and it seemed her cell contained some basic furniture.
“How much longer?” Maxi suddenly demanded from the other room. “This guy’s helmet just started squawking. They’re asking something and I’ve got a feeling it’s for our man.”
“Lorena’s behind a locked screen and the glove’s not working.”
“Just a screen? Or brig door?”
“It’s a screen. The kind they use in conference rooms, corporate offices…”
“If it’s not a brig door, bust it down.”
“You’ve got a fucking gun!”
“Oh. Right.” He looked down, considered his options, decided the time for discretion was past. Eighty percent power, narrow spread. Setting the glove on the floor, he leveled his rifle at the rightmost panel. “Lorena, get back!”
TOOM. He felt the servos clench to absorb the bruising recoil. The panel ahead went suddenly black and where it had been marble smooth it now bore a fist-sized hole surrounded by rippled concentric fractures. Hairline cracks leapt with alarming speed from the blast point to the far corners.
“Jesus. Are you crazy?” she was yelling from somewhere he couldn’t see. He heard the wailing of an alarm and similarly struggled to place it.
“One more!” he yelled back. Keeping the Gustaf’s power setting high, he set it to medium spread, re-shouldered it and hit the firing stud. TOOM—another leap back. The screen burst with a great crunching sound, chunks of it flying back to clatter off the cell wall and crash to the deck. He’d blown out the whole middle section, though broken roots remained at the ceiling and floor.
Lorena waited a second; when she was confident he wouldn’t fire again she craned out her head. They looked at each other, the man in his blue pressure suit and the woman in her jacket, across the breach between them. Fine particulate matter hung in the air, kicked up and circulated by otherwise imperceptible currents from the vents. The ringing faded from her ears only to be replaced by the alarm.
“You shouldn’t have come,” she told him.
He approached and offered a hand. “Well, I’m here. Maxi’s here too, and we need to go.”
“Why would she—“ but then she gave up on the question, grunting out her breath instead as Vivek’s augmented grip helped her over the barrier and through the hole. “What now?” she asked, but Vivek seemed not to be listening.
In his helmet, Karl was displaying what for him was a great deal of concern. “Mister Mohinder, your weapon discharge has tripped Schmetterling’s internal alarms. They may not yet realize what precisely has happened but they will know where it has happened.”
“I’m headed to you now,” Maxi broke in. “Open the door for me. Five seconds.”
Vivek snatched up the glove from the floor and lunged for the door panel. The door jumped open just in time for Maxi to dash through, her weapon across her chest. “Shit,” she declared. “There’s at least three guys at the top of the hall. Blocking our exit. In unis; no armor yet, at least not that I saw. They probably saw me.”
“Armed?” Vivek asked.
“Didn’t stick around to check.” She turned her head slightly to see Lorena, arms, akimbo, staring at her with a perplexed look. Maxi had to concede the situation was odd. “We’ve got what we came for. I smashed that guy’s helmet comm and locked the door behind me, but it’s time to run.”
“Run where, if they’re blocking the way?”
“Oh, I bet we can make ‘em scurry. Wind your Gustaf to narrow, open the door again and follow my lead.”
“We can’t get into a firefight with them.”
“Pop off a few shots; even on narrow they won’t go that far. Just need to scare them.”
“God dammit, Vivek, we can’t be pussyfooting around!”
“Genz, are there any other ways out of this room? Answer fast.”
“Ehhh…” the German whined, paging through his options. “The ventilation system runs beneath the central corridor. You might access it from here, and I could use the mobile scanner to conceal the Doctor from internal sensors, but I cannot imagine you will fit.”
He highlighted the grating on Vivek’s visor. Schmetterling’s highly modular design had left her with easily accessible interior spaces, but even so the grating was barely two feet wide. He’d never make it. “Not in the suit, no,” he grimaced. No time to take it off.
“Mister Mohinder!” Karl called. “Armed units are approaching your position. At least two Marines with an anti-personnel drone. And a moving power source I believe to be Miss St. Julien.”
“Might be the end of the line,” Vivek told Maxi, who was still fixated on the grating.
“Might be,” she concurred. “But there’s one play left on the board.”
* * *
Slowly, agonizingly, clumsily and with many back-and-forth recriminations, Ashley Duggins and Zachariah Obo prepared Coleridge for transport. Having already suffered capture at human hands, the otherwise oblivious photino bird larvae seemed bent on thwarting them. Each attempt to slide a field seal between the cage’s segments induced a flurry of flapping that sent the creature careening through the loop at high speed, triggering auto-safes in the machine Obo was trying to hold perfectly still. Whether they were reactions to the or ornery self-expression, Cole’s antics left Obo sweaty and cursing.
Finally Ashley stepped in, deploying a portable UV light easily found in the Bay to attract the bird toward one side of the loop. Obo slid one field in place and then another adjacent. Cole circled the cage, encountered the sudden barrier and stopped before pulling an awkward U-turn. Together Ashley and Obo took the two field projectors and worked the bulky things slowly around the loop. They closed off progressively more and more space, one or the other pausing whenever Cole got close so as not to accidentally bump him. When they’d cordoned an appropriate straightaway of tubing, they released the seals at crucial points around the loop.
A large segment drifted off slowly, still suspended by the anti-gravity field for a few moments until momentum carried it past the edge and it rattled loudly to the floor. Obo had no more use for it. They took a pair of elastic vacuum seals and slipped them over the ends of the remaining segment before stepping back to inspect them. Cole wobbled nervously in the limited space; he endeavored to keep himself lined up with the anti-gravity projector while the two humans lifted up what remained of his cage.
The act became unnecessary once in the airlock, once transferred to the constant zero-G of the Ouro habitat. Obo turned off the human device and unclamped it from the cage, tucking it in his back pocket. “Bought it myself,” he explained with a wistful smile. “Though I doubt it’ll ever get used again.”
“It’ll remind you of Cole,” suggested Ashley. “Always good to have a memento. Better than pics or vids, I always thought.”
“Yeah,” he sighed.
“Sorry you have to give him up.”
“Could be worse.”
“Hard to think of a better reason.”
They came through Konoko’s airlock and into the Ouro reception chamber lugging the stunted cage between them, mouthing frantic apologies each time the slim little animal bumped a phosphorescent wing on the wall. “Pleased be, you to see!” Abei’s merry voice rang out.
“Hi, Abei,” answered Ashley, still laser-focused on the task.
“Kindly release to permit,” the android said with a lilt in his tone suggesting a request. Ashley and Obo let the cage go, seeing it turn free a moment before the motion was suddenly arrested. It stood in the air still as Abei himself.
“Beautiful!” he exclaimed. “Serene in characteristics surpassing.”
“Yes. Well, we’re glad you like him. We’re fond of him ourselves,” Ashley said with a tight-lipped smile. She genuinely meant the pleasantry; the knowledge she’d never see Coleridge again was a cold and sudden knife.
“Shit. Hold a minute,” Obo pulled out his handy as Abei donned a curious expression. In a moment the device beeped. The Systems tech turned it sideways and stepped closer for a better angle.
“Marietta, I did it!” he grinned though the recording wouldn’t pick it up. “Photino bird. The real deal. Was gonna save him for a surprise—you would’ve screamed your head off, babe—but he’s found another home. This is Coleridge. Nora, ‘Pita, sorry I couldn’t bring him home. Oh, and the man in the air’s Abei. Tell you later. I said lataaah, girls!” he ended in a kind of sing-song before a last decisive tap on the handy screen.
“Can you believe that?” he asked Ashley, shaking his head. “Almost let him go without the proof.”
“Konoko’s got her vid logs.”
“Trust me; Contact’s impounding every drive they can. Won’t see the light of day again, trust me.”
“I believe it. Is that all you need, Abei? We had him in a sealed vacuum environment with an AG field. I’m sure you…people…can figure out something to make him happy.”
“Acknowledge and appreciating. Fully equipped in capability, in hardware on-hand for the creature’s sustenance accommodated.”
“That’s good to hear,” she nodded, willing the lump back down her gullet. She might have cried if not for Abei, whose demeanor—cool and warm at once, a fish crossed with a dog—lent the room an odd emotional gravity.
“You haven’t seen Lorena yet, have you?” Obo wanted to know.
“No. Pilot the Mohinder and civilian the Leaf have with cargo to the Terran Naval Vessel Schmetterling absconded. Re-acquisition yet, sadly, to establish.”
“All right. You take good care of her when she does show.”
“Honored, most assuring.”
“Then we’d best get back to our ship. Thank you again, Abei. And to the minds you speak for,” he inclined his head. With a look at Ashley he turned to go.
“Sorry,” she told him again.
“You got nothing to be sorry about, sweet girl.”
“It just makes me sad to think about. And then I think how you must feel and I get even sadder.”
They stood beneath Konoko’s open airlock, cargo and duty discharged. Obo lifted Ashley up by her ankles to grasp the ladder rungs. “What makes you think I’m torn up?”
“I know it’s something you always wanted.”
She was puzzled. “So? Don’t people feel angry when that happens? I mean, I’m probably gonna need holes drilled in my head to keep piloting, and even that gets me so mad—“ she choked up, swallowed and kept climbing. Obo followed close behind and she hoped he hadn’t noticed.
“It’s not the same,” he said gently, after a pause. “You’re young. Young people give their lives to what they want. When you’re old…well, the time’s spent. You’ve got what you got, whether it’s what you said you wanted or just what you learned to live with. I guess you come to know you’ll never see and do everything. The horizon’s limited. And with time that doesn’t scare quite the same way.”
She passed into Konoko’s gravity field, sagged with new weight, hauled herself the rest of the way and waited for him. “Know what I think it is? My problem with Cole?”
“What?” he panted atop the ladder, sweat beaded on his brow from the climb.
“Giving him away like that…it just hit me it’s all going to end. This mission, this tour. Your career! I mean, there’s no way I ever see you again. I just got here and it’s already over.” Now she was crying.
“Honey,” he wrapped his big arm around her, then another. She could smell the acrid silicate grease covalently bonded to his jacket fibers. “Everything ends. It’s whether you did good; if you stayed true. No tears then. Can’t be tears, even if you want ‘em. You’ll be fine. So fine you won’t even miss me this time next year.”
“’snot true,” Ashley sniveled into his chest, trying to pull herself together.
NEXT TUESDAY: BACKED INTO A CORNER, VIVEK TAKES THE CONTACT FORCES HEAD-ON AS MAXI TRIES TO SMUGGLE LORENA OUT. THE ROLLING ANTI-GRAVITY TREAD TRULY MEETS THE ROAD AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CRESCENDOS INTO ITS CLIMAX!