|Credit: Alex Ruizart|
Lorena Mizrahi woke like rising through water. There was a gurgling in her ears; pressure’s iron fingertips relaxed their terrible grip on her cheekbones. The surrounding medium undensened and though her eyes were shut she could perceive light’s intangible aura. Forces woven into her bones—the nucleic-acid-etched inscriptions of her every cell—craved the happy yellow of a Class G star and so she swam propelled by elemental dictates.
She broke the surface. The water fell away and she felt something in her mouth which she spat out instinctively to breathe free. She was adrift, her perception of up and down erased by null gravity. Opening her eyes, she was surprised to find herself shrouded in purple twilight. The Sun had gone. There was a metallic clank as the Ouro breathing device struck a transparent barrier. She rotated in the air to survey her surroundings and quickly recognized the transit pod. Abei was gone; moving about, she felt the clammy cling of clothes soaked in suspension fluid and twisted her mouth into a scowl.
Lorena looked about trying to assess her situation. The pod wasn’t moving—what lights she perceived outside were anchored in place—and when she pulled the handy from her pocket she found it inundated, inoperable. She noted too that Beatrice was gone. “Bea?” she called out, to no reply. Whatever she’d expected to feel in this first free moment had been wrong. Only a numb hollow remained, which like any natural deformation would fill in time. She trusted herself with the patience to wait it out.
Lacking many options and unsure how to proceed, she parambulated around the bubble’s interior until she reached the door. The screen beside it was live, featuring a single blinking red island in an indigo pond. She passed her hand over it without touching, pulled it back and waited a moment looking around again. No hints came; no guidance as to how the door might be opened or whether opening it might drown her in suspension fluid before she could retrieve the breather. The pod sat at what appeared to be the top of a long vertical tunnel and the Ouro might very well have returned her to the dock. They’d taken care of the rest and she doubted they’d deliver her to any harm. She reached out—quick and sudden, denying herself any chance to change her mind—and jabbed her index finger into the screen’s center. The red circle flashed and was gone. A guttural tone played, like the shifting of a great beast’s bowels, and the door split open.
Light filled the pod like a spring shower. Lorena threw up a hand against it, shielding eyes that shrieked and recoiled at the flood. The sudden reaction imparted enough momentum to send her rolling backward; blindly she flailed at the air until one foot found the pod wall. With adjusting eyes she peered out to see the reception room’s checkered tile floor. Abei’s scarecrow frame stood out in rapidly resolving silhouette, floating in mid-air alongside a form more evenly proportioned. Clad in silver from toe to throat—where a thick roll of foil sat cowl-like—Yana St. Julien waited with arms akimbo.
Anxiety knifed through her. She emphatically did not want to exit her shadowed bubble of safety but knew she could hardly stay there forever. So with a bending and straightening of her knees, Lorena Mizrahi launched herself through the open doorway.
“Good evening, Doctor,” Yana said drily.
Lorena felt a strange re-orienting in her gut and she slid comfortably to a stop a meter in front of them, halted by Abei’s gravity projectors. He gave a limp-wristed wave. “Is it evening already?” she asked innocently.
“You’ve been under for almost ninety minutes.”
“Distinctly rapid, as such processes go!” Abei declared.
Lorena raised her eyebrows. “Your language skills are coming along nicely, Abei.”
“Many thanks, Doctor! Our minds in consultation have benefitted enormously from the data gleaned in your Conveyance.”
“You’ve made an awful lot of Ouro happy today, Doctor,” Yana sighed. Lorena had expected either ice or fire from the other woman—an executioner’s remove or seething rage, nothing in between—and was surprised to see the exhaustion in her effect.
“I did what I had to, to keep myself sane. You weren’t going to help me.”
“We’d have done what we could.”
“Right up until it compromised your goals; I know. I was a means to an end and I didn’t like it.”
“You’d have done your race a great service.”
“Maybe so. But if that’s what it would’ve taken…” Lorena trailed off, shrugged. “Be that as it may, I’m sorry for the damage my people did to Schmetterling. And any harm to your crew.”
“Mm hmm,” Yana drew her lips thin. “Pluck they had, and balls too, but none of them are soldiers. That scavenger woman might be close.”
Lorena chortled. “She’s something, all right. Look, as far as they’re concerned…I want to take all the responsibility I can. I didn’t have to go with her. And I’m the C.O., besides. You’ll probably want to burn us all, and I’m sure you’ve got the authority, but please reconsider it. I’ll take whatever consequences come down the pipe.”
“That you will, Doctor. If you’ll accompany me back to Konoko, we’ll hash out exactly that.”
“All right,” Lorena nodded, looking down at the floor. “Doubt I’m coming back, right?”
“You will not be.”
“Right. Well, Abei, thanks very much. I’ll never be able to repay the Kin.”
He looked as though he wanted to hug her, but thankfully did not. “Accounts are more than settled. Even if no insight could we gain from your union with the skein, a charge would nonetheless be owed. For it is you, Doctor—and Konoko’s crew, forever esteemed in our histories—who served us first. It was you who Conveyed, through paths and methods still obscured, so many lost filaments back to the skein. In phrasing most resonant, you brought our people home. Your being has touched ours and always will the ripples run.”
She didn’t know what to say and so she just nodded again. Yana reached out her silver hand and Lorena took it. “Goodbye, to all of you,” she told Abei, and the Emissary began to pull her away.
* * *
“Lorena!” Ashley, seated closest to the door, was the first to spot her C.O. She leapt to her feet in excitement, only to find her shoulders grabbed and her rump thrust roughly back down to the blue metal bench by an irate Marine.
The rest kept quiet, though all perked up from their bored slouches to take her in. She walked unbound ahead of Yana and stepped into the locker room with a sheepish smile on her face. “Evening, everyone. Glad to see they didn’t rough you up too badly, Vivek.”
He returned a lopsided grin. “If I’m good at any part of combat, it’s waving the white flag.”
“Doctor Mizrahi, I’d order you to sit, but since there doesn’t appear to be any room on the bench you may stand,” said Yana impatiently.
“Take my spot,” said Zach Obo, pushing down on his kneecaps, hoisting himself to a standing position. “My back’s starting to hurt from this plank.”
“As you wish.” She gave them a moment to re-arrange. “Now, since I’ve finally managed to pin you all down in one place, we can hash out how exactly all this will proceed. What’s happened and what’s going to happen. Doctor Mizrahi, as you are no doubt aware, these officers under your command—not following it, I understand, but nonetheless under its umbrella—have conceived and executed a criminal conspiracy. A conspiracy in which Federal property was damaged and—more importantly—Federal personnel fired upon. This is to say nothing of direct harm to Contact objectives and the ongoing interests of the human race.”
“I’m aware. And I’d like to apologize to your men, for the danger they were put in.”
“They’re trained Marines, Doctor. You are presently in more danger than they ever were during your crew’s escapade.”
“Of course, Madam Emissary. As I said to you just minutes ago, I take full responsibility for their actions.”
“Perhaps the authorities disagree with that distribution of blame.”
“It was all done for my sake!”
“Yes; and what was done included deeds sufficient for capital charges. By all rights—and believe me, at this very moment there are those at Contact angrier with you than I am. They’d see most of you sent to prison colonies and Mister Mohinder summarily executed.”
“Executed?” Vivek cried out suddenly. “The Gustafs are nonlethal!” Maxi found her fists involuntarily balled.
“That being as it may, some believe it would send a powerful message.”
“But now we’re back to the record,” Obo butted in. “Can’t make an example of us without putting the details out there. And I don’t think that’s really what they want.”
“There are, as the Ouro say, many strains in the consensus. The most savage punishments, even were they to win the day, would be legally difficult to implement.”
“So no execution,” Lorena clarified. “Prosecution we probably deserve, though I can’t imagine there’s any criminal code for what I’ve done.”
“I don’t think it will matter, Doctor.”
“But of course it matters!” Karl broke in.
“Not in the way you might think, Mister Genz. You see, circumstances have changed in the minutes since I left to retrieve your C.O. They have changed in ways of which I do not believe her aware.” She shot Lorena a look at once playful and predatory.
“Well, out with it, then!” Obo grumbled.
“As you are no doubt aware, I spent some time in negotiations with the Ouro on behalf of Second Division. While we reached no agreement, each side submitted their claims along numerous fronts and those positions had more or less solidified. But I spoke again with their interpreter unit while awaiting Doctor Mizrahi’s delivery, and their offer had changed considerably. It would seem they learned a great deal from your time in custody.”
Lorena gnawed at her lip, unsure whether to agree. “That seems to be their attitude, yes. Though I’d never claim to grasp all their motivations.”
“Yeah, what happened in there, Lor? Looks like you took a dip in the gack.”
Yana shook her head. “She can share her story later. For now, here is the situation: Contact Second Division and the Explorer Corps will designate the so-called “conveyance” facility as a neutral research site, in partnership with Contact’s Research Division and with all significant developments to be shared. Likewise, Research Division will establish a partnership to advance our species’ mutual understanding of each others’ electronic networks and computational architecture.”
Karl donned a puzzled look. “I was under the impression their comprehension was nearly complete.”
Yana snorted softly. “That’s correct, Mister Genz. It is not a terribly symmetrical partnership—but that, of course, was the point of all this.”
“Why would they agree to that?” Lorena asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, Doctor. Perhaps someone told them we wanted it. Perhaps that same person also happened to do them a favor,” suggested Yana with a side-eyed look. Lorena grew small and quiet.
Ashley was confused. “What do you mean, a favor?”
“The data we brought back,” Lorena said, forcing volume into her voice. “That data was more than network dross, it was dead Ouro. I don’t know how many; it’s got to be thousands. If we don’t bring them back they’re simply lost. That’s what ‘conveyance’ means, at least how the Ouro use it. It’s taking a living mind from its organic state to electronic, integrating it with the skein. It’s what they did with Beatrice while I was under.”
“Transferring your photino bird also furthered their goals with respect to the installation—a project to which the Ouro have shown extraordinary commitment. All through our talks they were quite insistent on protecting it,” Yana explained.
“All you saw was a stick,” Obo chuckled. “When they were looking for carrots.”
“Your retroactive analysis is certainly illuminating, Mister Obo,” she shot back.
“What’s this mean for us? Seems like you’ve got most of what you wanted…” Vivek trailed off with a hopeful tone.
“It would seem so, Mister Mohinder. It would seem so.”
Obo crossed arched his back to crack it. “Not that it’ll do us much good. You’ll have your pound of flesh, I’m sure. Eh?”
She cocked her head then, and pursed her lips. She held his gaze a long time and though an onlooker might have said she looked angry he’d have been hard-pressed to explain why. When she spoke it was with preternatural calm. “Whatever you may think about me, Mister Obo, know I take no pleasure in any of this. I didn’t send you out from Nimbus on a whim. You see a certain monstrous quality in everything I do; I know the reasons for this and I accept them, such as they are. But I’m not a cruel person, and I don’t hate any of you. To think otherwise betrays a distinctly…adolescent perspective.”
Obo looked down at the deck as Yana continued: “This crew made a long series of mistakes, from errors in judgment to outright criminality, and the currently convened Special Exigency Council back on Luna Base is arguing itself in circles over the particulars. They are able to agree in plurality on one fact: ECV Konoko accomplished her mission.
“Through methods both improvisational and unorthodox, you were able to secure invaluable electronic assets and use them to establish close contact with the Ouro. Those assets have now been parlayed into technological and scientific partnerships the likes of which were rebuffed in prior diplomatic efforts. You have meaningfully advanced relations between the galaxy’s two known civilizations, and that is no mean achievement. It is difficult, even for me, to challenge these ends.
“But we are still left with the question of means.” Lorena felt her stomach drop along with the proverbial other shoe. “And the fact remains, you executed a conspiracy to board a Federal vessel under hostile arms. This cannot go unpunished.”
“You’re right,” Lorena said softly.
“At the same time, there is the question of optics. As Mister Obo and others have already noted, in any court-martial you would all be entitled under Federal law to full public disclosure. This is something Second Division would rather avoid. Indeed, we intend to classify most of the official report concerning this operation, and thus the judicial process is best circumvented.”
“So push us out,” suggested Ashley. “Clean discharges all around. You’d get your retirement, Zee!”
“Show me those papers and I’ll sign ‘em,” he agreed.
Yana shook her head. “Again, the question of optics. One doesn’t simply debrief the crew from a classified mission and set them loose in civilian life. Particularly not when the mission must—for public relations as the very least, and certainly within the intelligence community—be considered a rousing success. You see my difficult position: I can’t throw you in prison, but still I’ve got to hand down a verdict. I’d wish you all into the ether if I could.”
“Airlock’s right there,” Lorena snickered, thinking it something Beatrice might have said.
The Emissary ignored the joke. “We’ve settled on a motley sort of compromise. One that, like your own actions today, won’t be entirely right or wrong.”
“C’mon with it,” Maxi griped. “No need for theatrics.”
Yana squared her shoulders, drew her spine straight and clasped her hands into parade rest. “I will deliver command’s judgments first to the civilian, and then in ascending order of rank. Maxine Leaf, you find yourself in a genuinely perplexing legal situation. As a civilian infiltrating Ouro space, you’d be prosecuted in civilian court. As an authorized agent taking up hostile arms against Federal personnel, you’d be court-martialed. But given your current situation—brought involuntarily into Ouro space in the pursuit of justice for numerous civil offenses already committed—command remains unsure how to proceed. Rather than leaving such sensitive issues to government lawyers, we would prefer to place you under obligation of the State Secret Act and simply release you to your own cognizance. Frankly, Contact is not overly concerned with the affairs of petty criminals.”
Maxi crossed her arms with a snort. “Point me to the curb and I’ll get off.”
“Junior Pilot Ashley Duggins, you bear the least culpability of all those assembled. While you actively participated in the plot, your role was largely immaterial.”
“Hey!” she objected.
“Please don’t interrupt—if you stridently object to these determinations, you may exercise your Federally guaranteed right to prosecution under court-martial. Now, as a junior officer, you could not reasonably have been expected to defy established leadership. Additionally, Konoko’s flight records demonstrate an admirable performance piloting at high speeds in poorly charted regions under emotionally and physically strenuous circumstances. By stress-adjusted aptitude scores, you beat out Schmetterling’s third Pilot and nearly matched her second. Given all the factors involved and the sensitive information to which you’ve already been exposed, command has determined an inter-service transfer is in order. Following standard Explorer Corps debrief at Mars Dock, you will travel immediately to Luna Base to undergo occipital sensor implantation begin additional training pursuant to your new role as Pilot Specialist, Contact Second Division.”
The room fell quiet. Ashley’s eyes were round as saucers and her mouth worked like a stranded fish. “Pilot Duggins, do you find these accommodations agreeable?”
“I…do I…can I think about it?”
“You may not.”
“Okay,” she said in a daze.
“Then you find them agreeable?”
“Yes.” Her hand went unconsciously to her scalp, to the healthy auburn tresses. She looked to the others expecting either counsel or reprobation, finding only the same shock she felt.
“Scanner Technician Karl Genz, you share junior-officer status with Pilot Duggins and thus you bear similar culpability for the recent illegal activity. I say similar, not equivalent, because your surveillance and electronic warfare operations were integral to the execution of those crimes. Your facility with hostile systems and direct experience with Ouro computational components renders you a similarly positive candidate for inter-service transfer, yet your service record indicates you rebuffed prior recruiting efforts from both Contact and Navy intelligence. Tech Genz, do you maintain your preferences as stated at that time?”
“Yes, Madame Emissary.”
“In that case, command is content for you to remain in your present post. A formal reprimand for insubordination will be affixed to your service record, and you will be re-assigned indefinitely to Open Territory deployments.”
“Thank you, Madame Emissary.”
“Systems Technician Zachariah Obo, as senior NCO you were involved in both the planning and execution of the aforementioned raid on TFV Schmetterling. At the same time, your direct involvement was limited to the transfer of biological assets from ECV Konoko into Ouro control. Given your extensive and impressive record of Federal service, the Explorer Corps will issue a formal reprimand for insubordination and accept your retirement paperwork, effective immediately upon debrief at Mars Dock. Naturally, you may opt for court-martial in order to continue your long and distinguished career. Technician?”
“Full retirement benefits?”
“Then I’ll take my papers, ma’am.”
“Very well. Senior Pilot Vivek Mohinder, of all those assembled you bear by far the most responsibility for what’s happened. You boarded Schmetterling under false pretenses and under arms, exchanged fire with my Marines and broke a subject out of medical hold in the active contravention of human interests. Nonetheless, I recognize you found yourself in an extraordinarily difficult position. From your perspective, following orders would have meant abandoning your commanding officer.”
Yana gave the slightest of eye rolls. “Yes. You were forced to choose between two values our mutual Federal service holds dear, and that is an unenviable position. Given everything that has since transpired, we have no interest in criminal prosecution. However, as a matter of policy, command simply cannot tolerate actions such as these. Following debrief you will be offered an unconditional discharge, which you will accept. You will receive no residual benefits and ineligible for further employment in the Federal services. You will be bound under the same State Secrets edict affecting everyone in this room. Is this acceptable, Pilot?”
Vivek tried to sigh but couldn’t manage to fill his lungs. The fluids in his chest seemed to have entirely congealed. Though he’d tried to mentally prepare for a prison sentence, even the end of his career was arresting. His heart was racing and part of him wanted to scream. Instead he said, “Yes,” he murmured. When it seemed she couldn’t hear, he followed with a miserable nod.
“Commanding Officer, Doctor Lorena Mizrahi—you have found yourself in an utterly unique position. No priest, scientist or bureaucrat could adequately describe your circumstances. Suffice it to say you’ve come closer to the Ouro than anyone in human history. The partnership you stumbled into has already altered relations between our species in ways no one could have predicted. While acceding to Pilot Mohinder’s misguided ‘rescue’ attempt was immediately damaging to our interests, it is difficult not to conclude humanity owes you a substantial debt. At the same time, your psychiatric condition as a result of these experiences leaves you, in our estimation, unfit for duty on a starship. Like Pilot Mohinder, you will tender your resignation. Unlike Pilot Mohinder, you represent a significant ongoing asset.”
“Beatrice is gone.”
“Entirely possible, Doctor. Yet the time may come when your unique attributes are needed by Contact, and for that reason we offer a permanent role as a paid consultant of Second Division.”
She screwed up her face in confusion. “What would I be doing?”
“Whatever you like, Doctor. Nothing, if you prefer. We would expect only that you make yourself available when called upon.”
“You want me on retainer as a medical subject.”
“That is one way to express our intent. Is this agreeable?”
“It is.” Like the others, she struggled to imagine a preferable alternative.
“My Marines will transfer the bio-stasis pod and its subject back to Explorer Corps custody. Konoko will seal her airlock and leave the dock, to be escorted at sublight speed to the edge of the system. Mister Obo, I understand her drives are shut down for reconstitution?”
“Once they’re restored, you are to make immediately for the Terran Core along the shortest possible course and put in for debriefing at Mars Dock. Do I make myself clear?”
Lorena nodded. “Yes.”
NEXT TUESDAY: THE FINALE! WITH GOALS MET AND PRICES PAID, KONOKO'S CREW BEGINS THEIR LONG JOURNEY HOME. LOOSE ENDS ARE TIED UP AND LAST WORDS EXCHANGED AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" REACHES ITS STIRRING CONCLUSION. PART SIXTY OF SIXTY!