89 \ 177

The spaceship pursuing Drift 9 took another jump – tiny in comparison to previous distances crossed, but giant in that this one finally overtook them. Young Toller in the pilot’s chair brought Drift 9 to an emergency halt, now faced with a ship directly in front of them. He looked at the dash clock and tried to remember exactly when Wendel said their cannon was three minutes to ready. It felt like two and half minutes ago. As seconds passed, he was able to see two figures in the front of their ship, as well as signs that they were also probably charging a weapon. His alarm reflex rose, and to Soleil he yelled, “Get down and hold on!”

There was a cross of blinding flashes. The two of them felt a bad shudder, though their compartment was intact. After a couple breaths under cover, Captain Wendel Harper clambered in from the back. “Our propulsion engine is slashed. Pinpoint beam. They were just a little faster, it was so close!” Her fury of failure under duress emerged in those last two words as she obscured Toller at his controls, reaching in to test other systems. “They’ve got us. Their ship is the only way out of here.” For a moment, she melted onto the control board and kissed the CD band unit. “I love you,” she whispered, unclear whether to her ship or to someone else, possibly Leiv.

Drift 9 shuddered again as their attacker grab-connected the hold entrance. The captain picked herself up again and aimed a camera to inspect the other craft. “HA!” she yelled, pointing to the image of one of their antennas, slashed in half. She snapped her jaws together, teeth bared.

They heard the resonant pong of the hold door’s locking mechanisms unlatching. Harper abruptly left the cockpit and disappeared. Toller and Soleil got up, readying for hostilities. Soleil did not attempt to alter her appearance. The ship was quiet as steps approached unhurriedly.

Two men appeared in the corridor, and Harper dropped down onto the one in front, a glinting bowie knife in her fist. The large man moved with surprising grace, dancing her into an arm lock that resembled a dramatic dip. Extended, the knife fell from Harper’s squeezed grip. They remained in this embrace while the one behind stepped around them.

“Hello, everybody,” said Raev Sturlusson with a note of cool surprise.

“Hello,” replied Princess Soleil with an expectant undertone. She and Toller remained crouched in ready stances.

“You’re going to come with us.” Sturlusson lifted his one hand, a crackling ball of bronze lightning appearing above his palm. A thread-slim bolt precisely struck the cockpit’s lighting fixture, leaving the chamber dark but for the energy still crackling in the invader’s hand. “Don’t resist.” Drift 9’s original occupants respectfully relaxed.

All went from the hold door through the tube chute with Sturlusson escorting from behind. The three captured were brought to seats in a passenger niche and fitted with captivity harnesses. “Fancy meeting you here,” Sturlusson said to Soleil as he carefully set her straps. “This is certainly making the most of a visit. Verne doesn’t even have to report on his objective. Which was you,” he said turning to Wendel where she sat securely. She bared her teeth at him. “After your little tango, I think you get to know his first name. The notoriously curious Captain Wendel Harper, of the Starweavers. And…” he narrowed his eyes at the boy, “is that Lowercase T?”

“I know who you are,” said Toller with defiant nonchalance.

“You know who he is?” Soleil asked, sounding slightly offended.

“Just so that everyone is certain,” said the dark-haired man as he exited to join his pilot, “my name is Raev Sturlusson, of Hirylien.”

The captives listened silently to the conversation up front. “What to do with this?” Trosper asked Sturlusson.

“We have to leave it.”

“I’m going to make it look natural. It’ll be simple enough.” Wendel let out a rising growl of frustrated hostility. They felt a weapon charge and release. “What a shame,” called Trosper back to his captive, “it looks like your engine exploded. That’s a rare type of failure, but it happens. At least someone must have come to pick you up. That’s very lucky.” Wendel lowered her head to hang down as far as it could.

Sturlusson called back to them as well, echoing words from a happy time. “Road trip, everyone!”

88 \ 176

Somehow, again, the ship behind them had come even closer. It wasn’t an equipment malfunction, or paranoid trick of the mind. They approached at an inconceivable rate – not within ten years of development, possibly not humanly allowable. Might someone be hacking their system to deceive them, and why? A thought that made more sense to Wendel, in context, was that someone might be trying to kill them with never-before-seen weapons and equipment. That wasn’t the first thing she’d never seen before, today, signifying different waters; a new ocean of possibility. The leaps forward defied velocity, killing the rear longview pathing. The ship never fell back or changed track. Ship database info wasn’t available yet at this distance, but Wendel was guessing it wouldn’t be helpful.

What could be bigger than the trouble that’s after me? Maybe the trouble that’s after her.

Wendel Harper freed her chair to swing around, and engaged Princess Soleil in a staring contest. She had to try not to ask about Zero-Clearance particulars, though it was hard to wrangle a question away from that topic. She tried her best with a little readiness testing, a good idea in situations involving untried adults. “Without inquiring into your situation, can you tell me if this might probably be something that involves you? I ask for the sake of decision making with regards to our welfare.”

Wearing the same face as when she’d first noticed the pursuant craft’s maneuvers, the Princess replied, “Perhaps. Without inquiring into your situation, do you think that this might have something to do with your affairs?”

“Possibly,” replied the captain. “How dangerous is your situation?”

Princess Soleil cleared her throat and indicated the rear longview screen. “How dangerous does that look? At the current moment, this is our situation.”

Even if splitting up would make a difference, Wendel wasn’t sure that she would want to. The captain didn’t necessarily think of herself as an authoritarian or one of great fealty, but there was something inspiring about this young woman. Wendel felt honored to have her aboard; she wanted to help her, somehow. “Yes, as of now we are in this together.” She was unaware that the Princess felt the same way.

They both turned their heads back to the screen in time to observe another disturbing leap in pursuit. “Do you think I should say something?” Toller asked, looking at the screen but pointing to the CD band unit. Oh – he did already understand that they were in danger. That saved Wendel an awkward pep talk. Now they were a team.

“No, don’t bother,” Captain Harper replied. “Do not extend the situation. You can keep talking, in case we can catch anything pertinent – and that way someone might remember when you stopped.” Toller handled the morbid suggestion of that statement very well.

“Lowercase T, the lightweight terror, with another shot to the gut – and by that I mean a morsel of wisdom that feels real inside when it lands. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but your best. Try to hide it, try to deny it, and forces might drive you all the way to the edge till that best comes right out of you, by golly it will. So do your best, or they’ll make you. Another square hit from Lowercase T, fightin for ya till the knockout.”

Seeing another positional jump in the rear longview, Wendel and Soleil groaned. The readings would lose their senses for a moment, then regain them with a shrug as though there were nothing strange about the ship simply being much, much closer. Wendel abruptly left her seat to put her own hands on the peripheral device and check it herself. Toller’s hands darted up towards the copilot control yoke, but stopped, hovering innocently two inches from it. Princess Soleil, having put the pieces of that particular puzzle together, looked directly at the boy and said, “It’s fine, you can go ahead.”

Speaking out of her side awareness, Wendel backed them up. “She says it’s fine, Toller. Special case right now.” Wendel resignedly patted the peripheral screen, still faithfully transmitting. “This thing is fine, too. But that -“ she jabbed her finger toward the icon now resolving into parts of an image, “- is not fine.”

Toller let his hands rest lightly on the controller for just a moment before peacefully withdrawing them to his lap as the captain took her seat again. Harper rambled as she reported her moment-to-moment cogitation. “I’ll run this last time period through the onboard path analyst, see if it sees what we see.” Nobody asked her to elaborate as she made commands and read output. “So, it reads correctly – that is, the unusual data translates between machines, visual and formula.” She flashed the chart onto the central screen, if anyone should so desire to corroborate her assessment. “The ship is approaching. They’re not entirely close enough to bounce off of, but they soon could be. It’s like they scoot up with a sort of cloaked leap. The period appears to decreasing.”

“You have very good longview devices equipped,” remarked Princess Soleil. “Standard anticipation measures?”

“A kind of professional’s insurance,” Wendel stated calmly, “cuts down likelihood of avoidable accidents. And hey, there it goes again. Yeah, both the time between leaps is decreasing, and the amount of space covered. By the rate of decrease, we could determine their target along this road, but I don’t think we need to bother. There’s nothing else out here. It’s probably us. What do you think, Princess?”

“Infinite approach. They’re utilizing an infinite approach formula.” Aside from this bit of insight, Soleil just gave a serious affirmative nod.

“Did you say Princess? Princess of what?” This time it was Toller’s turn to rotate his seat to face her. “THE Princess? Like, all the Princesses ever?”

“A bit like all of the Princesses in my line, that of the Magus Dynasty.” She nodded kindly. “Do you not take in the news very often?”

“Almost never,” he said, looking down at his clothes as though they should tell her something; though, this was a fairly new set. The Princess just smiled, and he smoothly rotated his seat back around to the controls.

“Okay, that was another slide forward just now,” announced Wendel. “Now they’re in bounce range for visual. Gripes, but that’s a fast ship. Littler than us, but definitely faster. From there, they could catch up with us the old-fashioned way in about twenty minutes. Also I apologize, I truly thought I had mentioned your grace – I probably had a hard time registering that someone could not know. Then again, you introduced yourself to him as Soleil, and maybe I just didn’t want to give any more information than you gave… even though I thought your grace was obvious and easily known. Zero-Clearance is weird and scary.”

“Darnit, the CD bands are going wonky. They’re still there, it’s just wonkytown.” The boy’s twiddling took on the dire focus of last-minute testing.

“Right now our pathway is full forward, nothing blocking…” The captain swiveled to face the others. “There’s a defense system on this ship, and currently I’m the only one who can engage it. Are you prepared for the possibilities of me using it?” This last question was directed mainly toward the Princess.

Soleil felt concern for Moonshadow. “Do I need to move my vehicle?”

“No, it’s not in the way,” replied Wendel.

“Yes, I’m prepared,” stated Soleil convincingly. Then, an unusual sensation returned in her thoughts. A funny feeling she’d almost forgotten but which had a name: Raev Sturlusson. Wasn’t he imprisoned? It didn’t feel like he was in prison. He felt nearly as close as during her approach to the hospice room in the Spear where she’d snuck a word with him before his sentencing. With the same approaching feeling. “Someone very dangerous could be on board that ship,” she warned.

Captain Harper spoke as she rose up. “We already have some idea. We’ll do what we need to do. Toller, take the chair and maintain full forward along the speedway line.”

He finally pushed something through his broadcasting struggle. “Good night, and good luck. Lowercase T wishes you peace, out.” Then he let go, making it clear there was nothing more worth trying with it. He then transferred chairs immediately. Toller wiped and patted his palms on his lap, then turned to give Princess Soleil a bravado wink as the captain disappeared. “Want to sit co-chair?” he asked. “Maybe you’ll get to push a button.”

Giving the lad her best huntress smile, Soleil dashed up and strapped in. “I’m not familiar with these controls,” she admitted, “but I’ll take commands.”

“Okay!” announced Toller with convicted readiness.

Wendel’s voice chimed in over the com. “No point trying to contact them when we’re cut off. Skyfather warming up, ready in 3. I hope you are, too.”

“Okay!” Toller repeated his confidence back to the captain.

Soleil reported in, using the current operating term. “Okay!” She then addressed Toller. “What’s the Skyfather?”

“It’s a giant, excuse me, gigantic beam cannon.”

Soleil had only seen diagram documents, but she was aware of their capabilities. “Well, then. I suppose we’ll see what they’ve got, and what they want.”

87 \ 175

Two blue-skinned, silver-haired humanoids sat on the floor facing each other with eyes closed. They were in a rounded corner nook not much taller than they could sit in. Others walked past their space, noticing but unconcerned. Their hands lay upturned, fingers waving gently; hair glowing slightly, one shade closer to their skin. They were interfacing in the aetherscape.

There, in the conceptual space that exists between people who call themselves Vedani, the two were negotiating entry into the private worklab of the woman Aelrn. She had taken the role of a botanist, and this was now a garden.

When the final access barriers were lifted, their wire-frame figures translated to a new setting. They were surrounded by many strong living presences, which existed here as distinctly-formed treelike structures pulsing with light. Treelike, because they were trees, as surely as any living – here, alive, in the aetherscape.

This was still a strange and puzzling idea to Uixtr, and most Vedani. Yet it was also the basis on which they had co-engineered a destabilizing attack on an empire that had exhibited increasing callous aggression toward their appearances, even doing horrific things to its own people in preventing possible liaisons. Wherever the power lay in the Pan-Galactic Imperium, the Vedani had finally concluded it to be in the wrong hands, which put them in danger as well.

These trees… they were the first other living beings ever found that naturally inhabited the aetherscape, which Vedani had believed unique to them. A significant and recent surprise. Some including Aelrn, began studying them. They learned that, like them, the trees had bodies in physical locations which were not necessarily propinquitous. They also became aware that these were connected to people who made intergalactic travel commonly possible – for the empire that continued to shun their contact, suppressing knowledge of theirs and others’ existence while disrupting their presence.

Vedani also discovered that these trees had life phases. There were individuals that existed solely in the aetherscape without a physical correlate, until they experienced a particular set of triggers that would create a body somewhere.

So it was that Aelrn was keeping a secret garden of thriving Symbias trees in the aetherscape. These trees had no physical bodies, yet. But they were alive, and she was one of a number of Vedani learning from them, about them.

“I can show you how I learned to hear them,” Aelrn said to her friend, stirring the leaf patterns extending from branch patterns.

“Hear them,” mused Uixtr in quiet awe, “…do they talk?”

“Actually,” she replied, “they sing. I laid down like this.” She sat at the base of one, extending her figure along the floorplane and nestling her head between two gnarling root projections. She gestured for Uixtr to do the same. “You don’t have to believe me. Connect yourself as I’m doing, your crown betwixt a fork, and ravel a thread of your form to theirs.”

He entwined one of his glowing lines with one from the tree, and at that moment, Uixtr began to hear things. “Whoah, wow, what?” he exclaimed. “Where am I? I mean, where is this tree? That is…” He let go in mild alarm, then reconnected and listened further. “Aelrn, are we hearing the same thing?”

She smiled, in connection with the same tree. “Well, I can’t really pronounce it. It goes kind of like…” and she made a set of chimey tinkling noises, indicating their scale differences with an upraised hand.

Holding with his connection, Uixtr approximated the sounds he was receiving and made a set of awkward but similar chimey tinkles. The sounds from the two of them differed slightly, but they differed with a particular degree of harmony. Uixtr felt responses from his physical body. “Who are they?”

“You’re hearing their version of the Aquari native language.”

After a while of simply listening, Uixtr said, “I think I’m beginning to understand.” Whether that meant he understood Aelrn’s fascination with these trees, or was starting to understand the meaning of the sounds, or the relationship between the trees and their people, Aelrn didn’t ask him to clarify; it could mean a little of all of those, as it did for her.

“It feels like knowing something already. You can just… drift out with them until you stir.” She smiled at the thought of her own suggestion.

Where the two Vedani sat in the nook, they shifted their torsos and opened their eyes at the same time. Uixtr brushed himself off, giving Aelrn a deep gesture of acknowledgment, and said, “Thank you for showing me your garden.”

86 \ 174

The three inhabitants of the spaceship Drift 9 all sat up front, each according to station – Wendel Harper in the pilot’s chair, Toller riding co-pilot, and Princess Soleil in the passenger fold-down. The passively engaged CD band registered an inclusive address, piping into the momentary quiet. “Advice request for Lowercase T, this is Buzzer Squad 1 calling Lowercase T, calling the great lightweight Lowercase T.”

Toller cleared his throat soberly. “Uh, Captain Wendel? That’s actually for me.”

The captain looked over at the young man warily. “You cooked up a handle? And people know it?”

“It’s mostly what I’ve been doing when I’m up here by myself.” Minding the presence of their passenger, he added, “You know, when we’re parked.”

“Do they know I let you sit pilot?” Slight emphasis on ‘sit’.

“No, and to them I sound like a giant burly man, which lends some comedy to the persona. I found the voice screening utility, and modded my own version of the Night Vigilante preset.”

“Buzzer Squad 1, still asking for Lowercase T to sock it to me.”

Despite his red-handedness, Toller was grinning a little. “Can I answer?”

Eye-checking their passenger, the captain gave a cagey affirmative. “I’d like to hear. Go ahead.”

The boy donned an earpiece microphone and twiddled to open and link his channel. “You’ve found the mighty but tiny Lowercase T, what do you got for me?” At the unexpected resonant gravelly timbre of Toller’s transmission voice, Wendel dissolved into subdued chortles. The Princess’ face wiggled with amusement.

“Hey-O, we lucked out! You gotta help us, Lowercase T. Buzzer Squad was en route to the big Palookatown Bash carrying their exhibition showpieces. We got inspected before getting there, and one of the showpieces, which we only picked up for the bash, held a squirrel stash of Zerite. Regulations have gone wacko on that, so now Squad 7 ship’s locked up, and we’re arguing with P-Town over who can pay to get it out. It’s been a really sucky day, Lowercase T. Can you give us some perspective?” The Princess was listening carefully to the grains of Pan-Galactic news that reached her ears.

“First, I want to tell you that everything is going to be okay! If you’ve done this for them every year, then they can help you with half to make sure you stay with the family. Remind them that there’s no squad like Buzzer Squad, and if they hire anyone else, the price hike and the hassle will cost more than the entire lock-up fee, which I’m surprised they didn’t pony up right away. But since you’ve been arguing, half will do fine. Just show them the way, like I’m showing you the way.” Toller’s offhand matter-of-fact way-of-wisdom voice had Wendel hovering in appreciative surprise.

“You’re the lightweight terror, Lowercase T. Tellin it like it is.”

“You know the truth when you feel it inside of you. Pulling no punches, getting the message across – Lowercase T on standby.”

Wendel broke the silence that followed his CD address. “I think I’m okay with… Lowercase T… being on particle. I’m only surprised I hadn’t found out till now.”

“I think I am too,” said Toller, “it just didn’t bear mentioning, I guess.” His focus remained on the rear longview screen for some time while they traveled. He turned to Wendel with an unconcerned remark. “I think there might be someone behind us.”

Wendel looked over to see what could be seen. “Yeah, there is somebody there. And I don’t recall them being there before. That’s weird.” She remained nonchalant, as she began to consider likelihoods. Sometimes, ships appear behind from nowhere if they were hanging out off-path. Out here though, off-path meant nearly lost and gone from civilization, away from easy safety. “Just coming in from the crisp edge.”

“What’s that?” asked Soleil, aware when new terminology was passing before her.

Captain Wendel and Toller shared a little smile as she began to explain. “It’s the area on the edge of nothing, past the reach of civilization’s tether. Not much of anything exists there, and if there is something, then the crisp edge is just beyond that. It’s odd running into other people out there, because it seems unlikely unless we have the same reasons.” Wendel was aware of the lurking presence in her life of uncertain dangerous elements, and so was Toller; if the film Zero-Clearance was an indicator, the Princess could currently be in similar territory as well. So an appearance on their tail from an unlikely area was a cue for conscientiousness.

As the captain was watching the display, presence indicators disappeared. Well, maybe that was okay – back they go. Then, they reappeared closer. And that was probably not okay, because it was also incongruent with currently known travel physics. “Toller, can you make sure all the mountings are secure on that equipment?” Wendel didn’t think he’d interpreted the data as profoundly as she had, which was fine for the moment. He checked and firmed all connections, and the reading image remained consistent. The equipment was fine.

Wendel set their path for a moment, and turned around with enunciated posture to silently and seriously examine the Princess. This gaze was knowingly returned with an expression of stoic unease. She had seen and understood the odd jump in readings, but also had nothing more yet to say about it. Wendel didn’t think anything would be achieved by abandoning her now, just as the Princess didn’t look sure that any particular action would help the situation for either of them.

Toller was flexing his permission on the CD bands. “Lowercase T, talkin to empties again. Breaking the silence with experience, I’ve got a new one for ya. Let me tell you about this time, it was flitter versus gatorwing. I don’t know what they were fighting for, but that flitter was going to be snack for sure – till a town hunter snagged the gatorwing right there out of the air. I followed the end of the rainbow to the grill where that was getting cooked up, and I toasted the victor of the quarrel with a piece of its enemy. Goes to show, sometimes the one with the upper hand turns out to be tastier pickins.”