39

And then, respite; an eminence of quietude overtakes.

Her energy collects itself, piece by piece, certain that she isn’t put together the same.

The fire surrounds, remaining. She breathes for an indefinite while. Soon she feels a current of expectation underlying the calm, and reaches out halfway to meet it.

She feels herself transforming. Gently, so as not to alarm. The transformation is a means of understanding.

She opens into the fire. Combustion becomes a means of existence, the world exploding in consumptive and radiant energy signatures connecting corners of the universe. As she grasps the torrential motions that form this structure, she feels herself approached by the people who live here. Their contact to her is like flame rushing up against a glass window. An invisible pane mutes the force into a warm touch, fingertips against fingertips.

The contact is cordially scrutinizing; unimpressed. She is in their house because they brought her here. This is their self communication. She is reminded of the Huntress’ Aria, again feels herself hearing it for the first time. She nods, acknowledging the initial contact. An emissary furls forward from the fire, and she looks it in the eyes. A wave of recognition putting her to mind of her dragon teacher, though she’d never seen dragons like this before. The tendrils of fire fold back on themselves, the emissary receding, and she returns to the familiar shape of humanity.

Another change commences, now unspooling into connected strands of idea. This form feels closer to her own. The strands of idea like connected pieces of knowledge about herself, a braid of lightning awareness.

The connection sucks her through into a room of sorts, completely herself and surrounded by people. They turn to her, strongly curious. She is stunned; they’re human. She skims her mental file of human peoples of the Imperium, and these are not any of those. Their likenesses flow via portals fueled by constant babble. An unheard language in laughs and whispers, from irrelevance to secret truths. All faces are unclear, and there are more voices than could possibly come from those around her. They are convivial, and critical.

39

One steps forward and lifts a staff, the top of it a shifting, spinning polyhedron. Looking into it, she is pulled again through those thought channels into the between.

38

“What he meant, Mr. Dremel, is that Lurin has a masked planetwide network or three, and he wants you to connect to one of them. They connect and control all sorts of Can You Even Imagine. Either you’re more skilled than I gave you credit for, or he really is that desperate.”

“Probably both, Ms. Ilacqua.” He typed as he spoke, the displays above him changing views. Karma Ilacqua’s face was on none of them – voice calls seemed to be a habit of hers. Considered rude, but she’d let you know it wasn’t personal.

“I’m disappointed to hear his contact was awol, though not surprised. Derringer, I figured, could improvise. How he got himself lost is what I want to know.” Her smirk was audible. “He said he knew what he was getting into.”

“Well, you’ve heard the stories, haven’t you?”

“About what?”

“Lurin.”

A sigh came over the channel. “Mr. Dremel, I’ve heard them. I even have a couple of my own.” The two men raised their eyebrows at each other. “I was simply hoping for the best.”

“Do you need someone on the ground? Do you want me to go? Because I’ll go.”

38

DeWalt lunged over from his seat on the couch. “We’ll both go. Dremel and DeWalt, I bet you’ll need us both there.”

“I don’t need either of you there.” DeWalt sat, disgruntled. “Just do what Derringer asked of you.”

“We started when he asked me an hour ago. I detect the presence of a network like you mentioned. You say it exists, right? Then that’s about where we’re at.”

She chuckled. “That’s actually pretty good, champ. Keep going.” The line beeped as she disconnected.

Dremel sat back and crossed his arms. He took off his shades and pressed the back of his hand to his eyes. “Keep going, huh.”

“Yeah.” DeWalt lifted his hands and looked at the office – empty when they’d arrived, now well littered with food boxes, snack wrappers, and bottles. “Keep going.”

37

Soleil glazes over. Her emotions are beyond their extremes, deadening under the force of this litany of wrongs. Then, at last, a face she dreaded to see this way.

Her grandmother Celeste might know her better than any other, and Soleil holds her opinion highest. The Princess learned the world in hand with her grandmother since the dawn of time, and her wisdom helped Soleil build a shining future.

37

Now the girl sees that this future is built on bones, and worse. That her grandmother knew, even as she was building it, what it meant for her descendant. A castle of blood debt requiring death to enter, sin after sin against spirit.

Seeing this, Soleil feels that somehow, she’d known.

36

“So, we’re not that smart; but we’re not dumb, either. They figured things out enough to get there, but not to get what they were after. I figure we’ve got even chances. That’s good odds, quit moaning.” The screens surrounding Chad Dremel were covered in pictures and files. The one he was working on showed a progress bar titled Unencrypt, which stood at just over sixty-five percent. To one side, Fred DeWalt slumped back on a bench, resting the back of his head against a desk.

“This just isn’t simple, Dremel. It isn’t simple. I’m not cut out for detective work. Devious people hiding everything. I just knew when Derringer called…”

Dremel adjusted his screen shades. “Relax. I’m taking care of the research. If we need to chase anybody down, you can drive the Griffin, you can hold the gun.”

“You can hold your own.”

“I do, but it’s not as big as yours.” One of the five com relays lit up and began to buzz. “Speaking of your mother.” DeWalt covered his face with his hands. Dremel sent the call to his lower right hand screen. “Big D. What’s happening.”

36

In the picture, people in all manner of bizarre dress were passing across, behind, and around him. They wore every color of the spectrum, and most sported feathers large and small, including the many Aquarii in the crowd. “–at the Ileus Peak festival on Lurin. I’m A) Lost, and B) Lost. Two different kinds of lost, maybe three. You gotta help me with at least one.”

DeWalt sat up at the mention of the notorious planet. “How, in all the galaxies, did you get to Lurin?”

“Same way you got yourselves a free Griffin. You know, I wonder who it is we’re really working for.”

“That occurred to me,” said Dremel. “And I want to look into it.”

“Kay. And back to our point.”

“You’re Lost, how can we help?”

Derringer looked around at the crowds passing through a wide, forested thoroughfare. “So, Lurin has no street signs, and I lost my landmarks. On top of that, I don’t speak Lurinese.” Dremel and DeWalt were already laughing at him. Derringer showed expression of aggrieved forbearance.

“Well – where are you trying to get to?” asked Dremel, getting things under control.

“That’s the other part. I’m looking for someone. They were not where they were supposed to be, and this is how I reached the current situation.” The screen picture started to change color. Dremel attempted to modulate, with no luck. The image was being captured with wavelength refraction via ambient moisture, transmitted from a pin on his lapel. There could be someone nearby emitting interference; you never knew who was under the aqua feathers and body paint.

The screen image was now fully tinted in gold and black. “Your signal’s bad,” said Dremel, chin in hand. “What are we supposed to do?”

Derringer started walking, the landscape behind him changing as he went his way. “Establish a connection with the planet.” He was looking around as the screen picture finally roughed out and cut off.

Dremel stared at the blank call screen. “What’s that supposed to mean?”