|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.”
“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.
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!"