Lorena Mizrahi’s handy chirped and she snatched at it with such speed the playing-card machine clattered from faux-wood tabletop to steel decking. “Vivek?” she asked once it was back at her ear.
“Lorena. Any news?”
“Still in my ‘hold unit,’ which as far as I can tell is just a screened-off cell with nicer bedding. Haven’t budged since the last time.” A part of her wanted to ask about Maxi—about the both of them—but she quieted the urge. Subterfuge on Contact’s part, perhaps, though what goal would that serve? Yana St. Julien was many things, but Lorena had never pegged her for a liar. What the woman said, she emphatically meant.
“We’re still parked here and they’re not telling us anything. Waiting on your return.”
“Don’t hold your breath. The Emissary’s not letting me loose any time soon.”
“She’s that serious, huh?”
“I tried the door and it’s locked. Haven’t seen anyone else since they put me in here.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that.”
There was a quiet then. Vivek swallowed with a faint gurgle before saying suddenly, “Hey, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Her heart rose into her throat; she wished desperately he’d stop speaking. But no: “For the last few weeks, Maxi Leaf and I have been…romantically involved.”
No new information, of course, but still it struck like a fist in the soft of her gut. “Yeah?” she managed.
“Yeah,” his voice was heavy. “It didn’t start right away when we picked her up—not for a while after. But it happened. Abei told everyone, all the crew and the Emissary to boot.”
“I know. She told me, trying to hurt me, I think. It didn’t work.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“It didn’t work because I assumed it wasn’t true.”
“What the hell are you thinking, Pilot? This sort of thing would be bad enough with anyone aboard, even a civilian, but a criminal?”
“I know, ma’am. No excuses.”
“Don’t give me that boot camp cop-out shit!” Lorena was pacing now, whirling on one toe to start her next circuit. “Answer me: how could you let this happen?”
“It just happened, ma’am. We like each other.”
“You realize you’re fucked, right?” she practically yelled. Tiny spittle droplets gleamed on the handy’s smooth surface. “This is the kind of thing that ends careers. How could you possibly in a hundred years be this stupid?”
“I’ll accept the consequences, ma’am.”
Rage flooded her every capillary. Betrayal piled on betrayal and she felt she could hardly breathe. “Yes, you absolutely will! I’m here and you’re scraping out old fuel drums with your dick. Good God, Mohinder, I may never get out of this cell, but you better hope I don’t. When I’m through writing this up you won’t be qualified to fly a paper glider.”
“Sorry, ma’am. I understand; it’s totally inappropriate. But I felt I had to tell you.”
“You’ve been a real fucking ray of sunshine in this hole.”
“God, I’m sick of your apologies. Next time you feel like checking in, have Ashley do it and spare yourself the trouble. Seriously. Jesus Christ,” she thumbed the call dead and quickly set the handy down before the hurling urge overwhelmed. Hyperventilating, she shut her eyes and placed her face in her hands. She collapsed into the depths of loathing. Beatrice, squatting haggard against the wall, watched but held her tongue.
Back aboard ECV Konoko, Vivek grimaced at his handy. Heaving a sigh, he looked to Maxi. “That was really rough.”
“I know, babe,” she brushed her fingertips over his scalp. Slowly she was growing used to the little icy shocks sunk in warm flesh. “But it had to be done.”
“Think she bought it?”
“Doesn’t matter. Only that the Emissary did.”
* * *
“Putting you through to Captain St. Julien, sir.”
“Much obliged, sailor.” Vivek heard a soft staticky pop as the line was transferred. He shot a look to Maxi, inflated his cheeks and dramatically blew out. Here we go.
“Good afternoon, Pilot Mohinder,” Yana St. Julien’s voice came clear through his handy. Its battery of a dozen micro-speakers communicated only a fraction of her presence and for that he was grateful.
“Afternoon, Emissary. I trust your negotiations with the Ouro are proceeding well?”
“They are proceeding,” she said with a curtness designed to usher him forward.
“Yes. Well, uhh, we’ve got something of a medical issue aboard Konoko and we need your help. Schmetterling’s help, rather.”
“Describe.” The word sounded flat, artificial, almost automated.
“As mentioned in our initial report, we took on two passengers from the civilian scavenger vessel TCV Toussaint—the first being Maxine Leaf, whom you’ve met. The second being an excavation laborer of unknown name and origins. We put him in a bio-stasis unit due to the…fairly exotic nature of his injuries.”
“It seems he’s—the second one, I mean—he’s taken a turn for the worse. His pod’s been throwing off warnings for the last hour and as far as our Techs can tell it’s not a malfunction.”
“Not my concern.”
“I get that, ma’am, and under normal circumstances we’d handle it ourselves. But at the moment you’re holding Konoko’s only qualified medical officer.”
This reply was not immediate and when it came Vivek still heard the slow and deliberate inflection, drained of character and specificity: “Subject remains under indefinite hold.”
“Yes, ma’am, I understand and I respect your judgment. What we’re asking is the transfer—temporarily—of the civilian and his support hardware to Schmetterling, where his conditioned can be monitored by professionals. I know it’s an imposition on your crew, but this man was exposed to some highly unusual weaponry and your facilities are no doubt superior.” He swallowed hard having said this, finding his throat parched.
Another pause. “Acceptable. Approval relayed; contact Master Sergeant Chekwa, Federal Marine Corps 689522-148,” she rattled off each of the numbers in a clipped monotone. “St. Julien out.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Vivek, but the line was already dead.
“Two for two?” asked Maxi with her viciously toothy grin for which he’d rapidly acquired undue fondness.
“I’m not counting my chickens yet.”
“What’s that mean?”
* * *
Zachariah Obo brought the power sled up from the Equipment Bay to the Medical Bay and along with Vivek he tilted the bio-stasis pod back on its heel, down into the humming cushion of anti-gravity that kept it from smashing to the deck. Maxi monitored the AG field on a tablet linked to the sled, watching as the red lines rose and fell and shuddered and slowed, gradually drawing down the power until the heavy machine and the man it held clanked safely horizontal.
They hooked up a pair of portable power cells and disconnected the wall jack once every transfer capacitor showed green. Elastic ties secured the cells to either side of the sled, flush with its clean steel edges, leaving about a decimeter of space between pod and cell. Maxi pulled a white disposable shroud from a drawer, ripped open the plastic wrapping and flapped the material out to its full size as footsteps rang in the corridor.
“Jesus,” muttered Ashley Duggins, awkwardly maneuvering through the doorway with a weapon held vertically in each hand. The Gustaf ASD Shock Rifles, liberated from their storage closet by the code only Lorena and Vivek held, gleamed under a lacquered Navy-blue finish. Grips of heavy black rubber lent them a kind of brutal handsomeness.
“Two big goddamn guns,” she announced, handing them off to Vivek and Obo who tucked them into the sled’s open side slots. “And one magazine for each. Sure you don’t want more?”
Vivek took the clips she produced from her hip pockets. “If we discharge even one, we’ve already blown the plan.” He clicked them into place at the rear of the rifles’ stocks, sockets positioned to avoid accidental detonation by incoming fire. Safeties on, the Corps officers used another set of quick-release elastic ties to keep them from shifting. When this was done, Maxi draped the shroud over the whole sled and Ashley tucked it in at the corners.
They stood back to inspect their work. “Looks pretty good,” remarked Maxi. Indeed, the Halliburton pod and bulky cylindrical power cells held up the shroud and defined its corners. The rifles, with their slimmer profiles, could not be seen.
“What happens if the Marines look under the sheet?” asked Ashley.
“The guns are riding low enough, we can pull it back to show his face under the canopy,” Vivek shrugged. “They probably won’t see anything.”
“And if they do?”
“Then it was my idea, and Maxi’s, and you disavow absolutely everything about it.” He did his best impression of a confident wink.
“That’ll be a hard sell if I’m shipping Cole through the airlock,” Obo noted. “Or if they notice Karl’s active tracking before you can get everyone out.”
“Well then, we’d better hope they don’t!” Maxi reached out to jab her knuckles playfully into his arm. He reacted as a mountain might to a goat trotting up its side and so she added, “Think of it this way: if anyone gets shot, it won’t be you. They’ll need you to get Konoko back, after all!”
Obo, to her surprise, gave a low gravelly chuckle. “Once a captain, always a captain. Here, I’ll help you with the sled.”
They powered it up and led the humming thing under remote control through the door, left and down the corridor to the lift. Ashley followed behind, unsure what to do but sure she should be present for whatever occurred, squeezing herself into barely a square foot of open space near the door. “Sure you don’t want me with you?” she asked.
“That’s a lot of risk for not much reward,” Maxi told her. “Spaces will be small in there and we’re only packing two guns anyway. Every extra person adds problems and suspicion. We’ll have to get Lorena out of there too.”
The lift reached bottom and opened to disgorge them all onto the Bay floor. Ashley looked to Obo. “So, uhh, you need help with the cage?”
“Yeah. Gotta strip it down before anything, or it won’t fit through the lock.”
“It’s really sweet of you to give him up like this.”
“Hmm. Not much of a choice, was there?”
“Well, I just know how much you like him.”
“Think about it, Ash: what’re the chances I’d really get to keep him shoreside? And besides, if I’m already risking prison and my family’s future on this scheme—an idea I might kindly describe as cockamamie—this isn’t much of an ask.”
Vivek and Maxi helped one another into their pressure suits. Leaving aside the Federal protocol demanding them for all interspecies contact, they’d offer some protection in the worst of cases. Gryphons might have in some ways better suited the task, but even a rudimentary tactical mind would have thought them unsubtle. When all but their collar seals were checked they walked over to the sled, pulled the sheet back and examined the weapons one last time. They opened and replaced the ties three times, making sure their gloved fingers wouldn’t slip in the crucial moment. They verified the shock rifles’ settings: broad spread, power level a painful but nonlethal 40%.
“Never shot one of these,” Maxi remarked, securing it in place before pulling the sheet back over the sled.
“How many guns have you shot?”
“At other people?”
“Do you really want to know?”
He supposed he didn’t. They sealed their helmets, moved the sled to the airlock mouth and Vivek climbed down first before Maxi and Obo pushed the whole assembly upright. Ashley stood by, adjusting the AG on the tablet as they went. Vivek pulled it down with him into zero-gravity; Ashley killed the power and Maxi let go. Swinging herself into the Pre Chamber, Maxi gave a last look and a thumbs-up. “Make the transfer quickly,” she advised. “Before we hand off Lorena. By that point, Contact’s probably going to know what’s up.”
“We’ll get it done,” Ashley assured her.
“Don’t fuck up,” was the last thing Obo said. Maxi grinned wolfishly back at them, but her faceplate obscured it until her head ducked below the hatch.
* * *
Maneuvering the sled was easy enough absent gravity; the shroud was the real challenge. Though Maxi thought she’d secured every corner, scraps of material constantly worked their way loose and it was all she could do to keep the whole thing from sliding off under its own inertia. It was easier at the bottom, where their boots could grip a solid surface instead of ladder rungs and the sled could be returned to its native horizontal.
Two Marines, helmeted and visored with tablets in their hands instead of weapons, stood waiting in the Ouro’s odd reception chamber. Abei hovered above, peppering them with earnest questions. Their total non-response didn’t seem to faze him. “Honored, how stressing the extremities comes the enhancement of strength? And which to the degree of non-fracture may reliably augment?”
“Hello, Abei,” Maxi called through her helmet speakers. Anticipating the creature’s utter lack of guile, she threw him a line. “Karl Genz sends his regards. Sorry I can’t remember them; they were in German.”
His mouth broke open to emit a laugh’s crude simulacrum. “Astonishing may it not to be, those barriers linguistic persisting even in contact close. Astonishing to think the Kin Terran so veile erreicht hat.”
“Ha ha! Exactly!” she made sure to laugh loudly and emote strongly, taking that moment to nudge Vivek with her hip. Abei had said nothing about their plans; it was time to spirit them along.
He stepped forward and drew himself as high and straight as possible, did his best to inhabit the role. “Senior Pilot Vivek Mohinder, Executive Officer and acting C.O. of ECV Konoko. We’re here to transfer this patient to your care,” he bent and thumped his glove authoritatively on the pod, letting out a hollow mechanical thump.
“Who’s she?” asked the shorter and stouter Marine with the stripes on his shoulderpad.
“Accompanying me is Maxine Leaf, late of TCV Toussaint and this man’s C.O. She bears the most proximate legal responsibility for his health.”
“Can’t let a civ aboard, sir. CR-2 clearance.”
“I’m aware, Sergeant. As acting C.O. of an Explorer Corps vessel I’ve got the authority to grant clearance up to CR-1. Check Konoko’s database; you’ll find the needed passes. And believe me, on this trip she’s seen much higher than that just by accident.”
“I can imagine,” chuckled the Marine, calling up the information on his tablet and seeing the paperwork Vivek had approved just minutes before. Sloppy it might have looked, but the man had no real grounds for challenge. Besides, his temperament seemed blessedly meek. “Emissary had us hauling so hard into Ouro space, we figured some real shit would go down.”
“Is that…how she normally operates?” Vivek kept up the conversation.
“That’s her reputation. They don’t use Emissaries on low-impact gigs, you know? You folks must have picked up something real valuable for us all to still be here.”
“We go where we’re sent.”
“Don’t I know it. Okay, you’re passed through. Follow me; that sled’ll fit through the lock just fine.”
“Thank you very much. Sergeant Chekwa, is it?”
“Nnamar Chekwa. Pleased to meet you, sir.” They shook. The Marines turned; Vivek and Maxi followed them down the corridor.
“Many good tidings!” Abei called after them.
* * *
Some thirty meters later, their plan hit its first snag. Though Schmetterling held its outer airlock open as had Konoko, their designs were distinct and the Contact ship boasted a two-door design. The interior door, which Sergeant Chekwa opened with the I.D. chip in his right glove, could have easily withstood a shell from a main battle tank. This sort of system wouldn’t simply yield to Karl’s electronic cajoling, as the Scanner Tech was presently explaining in Vivek and Maxi’s ears over their suits’ secure channel.
“I am unaware of the specific protocols. It is possible the system will only accept pre-cleared Navy I.D. chips, in which case—“
“We’re probably fucked. Yeah,” Vivek grimaced behind his faceplate.
“Oh, lighten up. We knew the door might be tricky. Switching channels.” Maxi flipped to the local channel they shared with the Marines. “Sergeant, would you mind leaving the inner airlock open during the transfer? We’re keeping a constant line between the pod biometrics and Konoko’s computer, and our Scanner Tech says we might lose comms with the door shut. We can transfer everything once the pod’s set up, but right now I’d hate to lose the link with this,” she demonstratively grabbed and waggled the active scanner strapped to her hip, through which Karl could examine their surroundings with nearly all of Konoko’s considerable investigative tools.
Chekwa thought for a moment and shrugged. “All right. Watch the door, eh?” he asked his colleague. Leaving the inner airlock door open, the second Marine took up a relaxed guard position by its control panel.
“Not much of a fix,” Vivek said in her ear.
“Thank you so much, Sergeant!” she reached out and touched his elbow affectionately. “Sorry to be a bother; I just feel awful for this poor man.”
“What happened to him?” Chekwa asked as they descended a handful of steps to the central corridor. The airlock was sandwiched between Schmetterling’s two decks and on this level the corridor ran for a good sixty meters, wide and high-ceilinged, painted in Navy colors with conspicuous highlights of Contact red. Buttress-like archways gave the place a stylish look; it even smelled new, fresh, finely engineered. Closed hatches dotted either side of the corridor, bold yellow numbers their only signage.
“Exotic weapon exposure, on a Baraheni Graveyard dig,” Vivek explained.
“Some. Hard to say; we got him in the pod as soon as we could. Didn’t want to wait for things to get really bad.”
“Probably for the best. Hey, he’s lucky you even had a pod.”
“I guess so, but he’s got your Emissary to thank. She’s the one who had them put in. Part of the mission.”
“Say no more, sir, say no more. Next words outta your mouth’ll have clearance attached.” Perhaps somewhere inside the Marine’s helmet he was winking.
“From inside, Schmetterling’s power profiles are remarkably transparent,” Karl’s voice crackled in their ears. “She is operating two reactors—a caterpillar-style antimatter drive for the engine outputs and simple fission for shipboard systems. I am seeing concentrations on the second deck and near the stern of the first.”
“We’re headed there now,” Maxi replied. “To the stern. This boat seems pretty empty, to be honest.” While they could both hear Karl, they’d agreed the channel back to Konoko should run by default through her helmet. Vivek would handle the open channel; the Marines in any case were content for the civilian woman to say nothing.
“Her optimal capabilities would seem to greatly outstrip the present configuration,” Genz agreed. “In particular I note four conduit nodes with structural augmentation suited for weapon pods. Currently they are empty. Sensor and communication suites are robust but not terribly remarkable.”
“Stripped her down to a rocket,” she mused. “Can’t do much aside from hauling, but damn I bet she can haul. Five hundred C’s, easy. What about the crew?”
“With short range biometrics I have successfully tagged five individuals on this deck, including your two escorts and three in the compartments you have recently passed. Anything outside of close physical proximity to the scanner would require access to Schmetterling’s internal sensors, which for obvious reasons I do not have.”
“Understood. We’ve seen no one else. Wait, we’re slowing up.” Chekwa stopped them some ten meters from the closed double doors at the corridor’s rear, emblazoned with the word ENGINEERING in gold and unlocked if the glowing green light on the side panel was any indication.
“Here we go, Med Bay,” the Sergeant said perfunctorily. He waved his hand before the access panel and the door marked “12” slashed open. Carefully they drove the sled through the opening and into a corner at the back, where Chekwa cleared a space by kicking aside a heap of empty plastic bags and floppy black tubes with corrugation like a serpent’s ribs.
“She’s not in the Med Bay, Genz,” Maxi relayed back. “And there’s no other compartment attached to the Med Bay, like a quarantine unit. She said she’s in the transit cells. We need to find them.”
“Do you know if they took her upstairs?”
“No. She didn’t volunteer it and we couldn’t ask without making someone suspicious.”
“Well then, I am unsure—“
“Figure it out, Genz! Quickly. Do your best. Out,” she flipped exclusively to the local channel, where Vivek was attempting to persuade Chekwa he didn’t need help with the sled.
“I think Miss Leaf would like a moment alone with her man,”
“We can get him off the sled at least.”
“We can handle it. You’ve been very kind, Sergeant.”
“Come on, she’s tiny!”
“My suit’s augmented, same as yours,” she announced sharply, stepping into the conversation. “And if I’m handing him off, I’d like to say goodbye.”
“Fine, ma’am. Have it your way.” Chekwa stepped back, putting his hands up, unwilling to argue further.
Maxi knelt, plucked the sheet out from the tucked-in spots and pulled it back far enough to expose the pod’s head and shoulders. The man’s face was murky behind the heavy canopy, under the amber bubble of fluid the machine had secreted to halt his metabolism. She took in his face with his scraggly mustache and heavy brow that, downcast as his face was, cloaked his eye sockets in shadow. His mouth had adopted a kind of pained scowl around the tube that ran to his lungs, ready to evacuate them at his moment of waking. She knew she had seen him before but could not recall his name because she had never known it. If the diggers’ crew manifest had once crossed her sight it was long forgotten. Not her business, not her problem, she would have told herself at the time.
“Miss Leaf, good news,” Genz said suddenly in her helmet. “With the unwitting help of Schmetterling’s computer, I have located Doctor Mizrahi’s handy some thirteen meters from your present position. The compartment, numbered seven, is listed as an elevated security zone.”
“Can Sergeant Chekwa let us in?” she found herself muttering carefully, as though her voice could be heard or her lips read.
“Okay. Seems like our best bet. Vivek,” she said over the shared local channel, “I think I’m ready.
“You sure?” she heard the trepidation in his voice as he knelt by her.
Sliding her hands under the sheet, Maxi loosed the ties on one of the rifles. Her fingertips found their grip points along the barrel and stock. “No. But it’s time. Get his helmet.”
“Hmm?” She couldn’t be sure whether Vivek, Chekwa, or both had said it. She jerked her arms back and in a flash she flipped the mass around and snapped it to her shoulder, suit servos whirring capably as she did so. A twitch of her thumb removed the safety and a slide of her left index finger honed the Gustaf’s fire spread to a lethally narrow angle.
NEXT TUESDAY: THE DIE IS CAST! VIVEK AND MAXI BATTLE SCHMETTERLING'S SECURITY AS ASHLEY AND OBO WORK TO MEET THE DEMANDS OF THE OURO. EVENTS HURDLE TOWARD THEIR INEVITABLE CONCLUSION AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!