– 33 –
Fate betides thee in the crisp edge, as you and your friends have called it – where you have so often found and been found by each other – where it’s easy to meet and split – the place that is not nowhere, but near it. I know where that is, and where you go. I am the other one. I am the tide of the storm-brought flood, and your footing will have no purchase. Time betides thee, and the hurry of the moment.
– 13TH SEQUENCE –
– 34 –
Derringer had known many a season at the Oriya River Aerial Parkway, which is why he was given a ranger position for season closing without any real fuss. People had their own way of doing things in the Pioneerlands. In days of Derringer’s rambunctious youth, he won fleeting local fame for his between-stream tricks. Nothing like what the big stars today were doing, but enough to make people cheer.
There was a handful of people left working here that still knew him. They’d all taken higher up jobs except for Silas, who was still a season ranger. They mainly kept people out of danger zones and cleaned up, attending to the rare emergency. The gravitational engagement of these wondrous natural streams was nearly impossible to escape, regardless of trying.
When people looked up at the span-high, ten-long stretch of suspended branching waterways snaking through the air like crystal ropes studded with gemlike rocks – their faces turned silly. Derringer wore that face now as he watched people readying to bust onto the river together, in season closing style.
There was boarder Elgin Conully and his co-athlete wife Kalana Olpan, with their camera crew. There was no trophy competition on the aerial rivers, but it attracted champions from many sports. Derringer thought he spied his old boss four levels removed: Ravl Pliskin, Plexus founder and inventor, in a kneel-down ovoid.
Among the spectators he saw fashion models, travelers, and the Aristyd locals for whom this was the beginning of the season for silvers. In another month the waters would be chock full of the leather-shelled aquatics. The feasting on silvers would be followed by runs of the soft-skinned goldens and the plated coppers, prized shellskins for fabrication. Derringer continued to observe the people gathered.
He was near enough to discern faces at the starting line, but far enough out that his position wasn’t pressed. There were about thirty people in his shouting radius. Nearest him, a dark smallish man with a stretchy face displayed silly-look fascination. He met Derringer’s eye and opened his arms, clearly loving the event. Derringer tapped his ranger badge and tipped his hat in case he wanted to ask any questions.
After a beat, the man walked over. “This isn’t your first Oriya closing, is it,” he supposed out loud.
“No sir, I’ve seen a few.” Derringer let his silly-wild face show.
“Oh I’m not sir – I’m Gretz.” They shook hands warmly. “And this is my first closing, even though I have family on Aristyd. It’s the natural wonder everyone always asks about.” He pointed with his lips to one of the many eager starters. “My cousin is running it this year.” The two men were conversing right over the starting line pump-up speech.
“Welcome then,” said Derringer. “It’s a thrill no matter where you’re standing. I’m just here to make sure that’s not in the wrong spot.”
“Do you get plenty of your own time up there in the flow?”
“Not afterward, but I’ve gone up plenty during this past week-plus.” Derringer tilted his face to include the highest rivers in his gaze.
“What do people do afterward?” asked the guest named Gretz.
“Besides clean up?” Derringer shrugged. “There’s a ping-pong table in the 3rd Span Lounge.”
Derringer saw that he’d awakened an itch. He decided that he liked Gretz. “If you’re up for an epic match, you can find me there in the wee hours.”
“I’m a wee hours kinda fella. Be warned, I may take you up on that.” Gretz unleashed an impish look.
“Warning heeded.” The musical cue preceded the starting blast. Derringer spread his arms out as a standing area reminder. He half-closed his eyes as the distinctive and familiar twelve-string klaxon sounded, and cheers arose.
– 35 –
Inverting clearance is an operational maneuver similar to castling on the chaseboard. It’s often the best move and it happens all the time, an allowed exception. A recurring turning point, a strategic tradition carrying the weight of invisible sanction. Arcta sheltered her confidence within this behavioral blind spot. With a group in tow, Arcta walked as though none could stop her, knowing and not caring how easily the situation could turn, making their way to a dead man’s tomb.
Sturlusson’s verdict had been the worst that anybody anticipated. It was swift, quiet, and ugly. Stillfreezing procedures were costly and awful, reserved for those who would be on view of judgment for generations. What would they get when they broke Raev Sturlusson free? Arcta wouldn’t wait any longer.
The group with Arcta was more nervous, and knew even less. This place gave them the creeps, including Brave & Fearless herself. Don’t want to know any more, don’t want to know any more – the strange litany kept her focused as she followed her thread of information down the hall. They passed through the newest construction zone, and into the newest room.
In the center of a platform in the middle of the room, Raev Sturlusson’s body stood as though he were chained. Intersecting his body were twenty-four spectral plates operating from their opposing pillars. The chains and braces that held him for the freezing process were gone, no longer necessary. Head bowed, his hair hung down either side. Not alive, not dead… unreal and too real. Arcta took half a second to master her own revulsion.
“Break it open.” The edifice was intimidating, as though they too might freeze if they looked for too long. The forty-eight slim pillars stood around the edge, no greater than saplings yet menacingly horrible. The technician with them gibbered in distress.
Hydraia took a Multi-Tool from a companion’s hands, and with a reckless sneer dragged her suit mask over her face. Her voice cut through the mask amplifier. “This is Raev Sturlusson. Break it open.” They’ve never known what they were doing anyway, using this ghoulish thing.
The Multi-Tool’s armlength blade glowed to cutting heat, and Hydraia applied it indiscriminately to the nearest pillar. At this the others took action, pillar after pillar toppling in elegant atrocity. Arcta handed the Multi-Tool back and stepped away. She withdrew her firearm and shot the platform console computers, shot them to slag.
They all stared at the man in the center, dropping or setting down their tools in silence. He teetered, and hands sprang out in the distance around him. He took a step, and stayed standing. He lifted his one hand slowly, palm toward his face, and gathered the sides of his hair behind his head. Arcta Hydraia brought a hairband out of her pocket and stepped around him to tie it back. The surrounding hands lowered and relaxed, and Hydraia faced Sturlusson from one side.
His mouth worked as he accustomed his eyes. Then a word, barely audible. “Cozy… as a frog in the frozen ground.” He shored himself up, and barely wobbled. Members of the group shivered repeatedly. Raev turned to face all the unspoken questions. “Maybe I’ll write some poetry about it.”
Arcta pursed her lips and pointed her chin. “I’ll read it.”
Raev Sturlusson gathered them all in one look and dropped a loose nod. Together they exited.
– 36 –
The rookie human sled pilot examined her gloves. The dark, vacuum-to-fit plasleather was thick and flexible with its embedded and overlaid tech circuits. The material itself was a matrix that delivered highest response from the fingertips and palms.
In Soleil’s spaceflight sessions with Vedani teams, she learned the movement orders for their one-person standing sleds, reconnaissance vehicles. The gloves recorded and sent information, and kept the vehicle positioned to its user. Soleil had been told that as a human she lacked at least one communicative interface between the Vedani and their tools. They set those levels for her into a cooperative subroutine. She listened to the drumming sound of the gloves on the handlebar podium.
The Princess hadn’t expected to be included on a mission. She’d attained proficiency but not expertise. Her thinking shifted, wondering if they were now intentionally placing her in a tragic situation.
The intense learning had changed the tone of her captivity, and at this moment that she was keenly aware of being a prisoner. She was willing to go, but she wondered what would happen if she refused. They wouldn’t have brought her into service without a reason, and it wasn’t graduation day.
Uixtr (pronounced “eks-ter”) was the Vedani man who’d been nominated to keep her clearly informed. He was quite familiar from around the environment, enough so that it dawned on the Princess he might also have been in charge of keeping track of her. He projected an air of ambivalent acquaintance, and spoke well in her human language.
“We have ways throughout space, established in certain places, that lead to certain other places. That concept is familiar to you. Our pathways are utilized in various and different manners. Some of our waypoints, to use a familiar word, or transanchors to be more accurate, have been newly established with the help of our current alliance.
But now we’re finding a mysterious vulnerability that threatens the placement of the ship where we now reside. This intrigues us, and it could concern you. It may be coming from… your side.” When Uixtr said that, Soleil thought about where she was now, where she came from, and what she was doing. That opened a deep well of inquiry with invisible depths, into which she avoided staring.
“What is your current alliance?” she asked. As the question left her, Soleil recognized how bold it was. It was her puzzle solving reflex; she had actually been curious from a technical standpoint.
Uixtr blinked at her and curled his lips to smile. “This type of transanchor is created in concert between our technologies, the work of certain dragons, and some unusual little people who can be difficult to define.”
Soleil wondered if Uixtr was hinting at knowledge of her recently gained acquaintanceship, and decided to give-for-give. “Do you mean the Kao-Sidhe?”
Uixtr nodded a dawning acknowledgment. “Yes, theirs is a critical contribution. We don’t know what you may see in this situation. That’s why we’re bringing you.”
With that, it was time. Soleil geared up as in usual exercise, in familiar team configuration including Uixtr. There was an addition of reserve experts, with whom she hadn’t practiced. Together they exited from a different part of the ship, through a gate new to her.