137 \ 329

Raev had asked to be left behind on Hirylien, and for all Verne knew, he might not even be there anymore. The others had gone on their way, minus their coins, via that other shuttle. Verne Trosper had been given leave to be a free agent for now, available to Raev’s call or other pressing need.

Trosper floated leisurely along a tertiary byway some distance from the dark planet, a known but low-usage dead-end route. Out of curious habit, he was doing some long-range scanning. Trosper’s own ship was attuned to a few specific ID alerts with multiple decryptions, enemies of the enemies of the state. One of these showed up in his outer vicinity. This guy. Oh, this guy. Showing up on the trail like usual.

Verne rolled his eyes, and checked his weapons systems. He could actually do this right now, equipped and in a mood to tangle. He wasn’t a popular person; there weren’t many people or things he cared about, anymore. On the special occasions when he did care about something, he did so from a deep, hidden place that could determine everything, and which he didn’t question. Right now, he cared enough to halt this foe. This was it – he’d had enough.

This General had proclaimed loud and long that all who fought for the vindication of Hirylien were vermin, and his minklike malice in pursuit of revenge for his sister and his pride had earned him no tolerance. Whether Hirylien was actually empty now or not, this close brush with a lone pursuant ship carrying General Iparia might be the best opportunity anyone could get for a simple shootout. Verne could use all his Vedani party tricks out here.

He commandeered a comm line in signature style, while still invisible to human readout. “Boy, do I have a bone to pick with you,” he said, reflecting and reversing the expected dynamic between them.

Trosper’s voice was also recognizable to Iparia, and the military man didn’t hesitate to respond. “Perhaps you can do it with the rats while you die like one.”

Verne shook his head. “Nothing’s changed, I see.”

“Nothing that could change my opinion of you.”

“You will not be able to complete your objective along this route, Iparia.”

“Yes, I will.”

“No, you won’t.” Systems ready; target in view.

136 \ 328

The officer-in-waiting who stepped inside wore a red ribbon around the wrist, rare signifier of family communications. It was the first time in a little while that anyone had been inside the remote space bunker besides the family, so this intrusion already carried an air of importance. They recognized the meaning of the red ribbon, and there was only one family member unaccounted for. The young ones felt a inexplicable thrill as a missive was handed over to their father. The ceremonial air lent the moment additional gravitas, though it was an almost welcome break in the tension. Between a brooding parent and suspended fortunes at the edge of world collapse, something at least was happening.

There had been some forewarning, of this precipitating, though the communique was its own occasion. King Proxem Grant Vario had remained observant of current events from his vantage point – reading up, staying apprised, and strategizing in a chamber to himself. As a family, they did their best to uphold something like civility and normalcy for the sake of close-quarters survival. They occupied themselves individually with a method of coping: Mireille read, Cristobal wrote and drew, while Carlo completed puzzle game after puzzle game.

Word going around had been noted by observant people as something sensational was stirring. This had been noted by the King Proxem as well, half-blinded by denial though he was. So when he read the scroll, by himself in privacy, it made a kind of sense. Consistency of his previous standpoints would call for opposition, but what if that were ultimately the problem?

The message of the scroll came with a personal challenge from his daughter, behind a fully encoded seal. Such challenges were rare, and couldn’t ultimately be avoided. It was one of the family’s dark secrets, one way the lineage had kept power in forms of service. There was a method by which they would oppose and oust each other. It didn’t happen once in a generation, maybe not once in five. The family maintained an almost never-explained tradition of blade training under different masters, and the oath to face each other under necessary conditions. There were times, it was said, when one tried to flee a reckoning, but it never worked. This one came from Princess Ascendant Soleil, Magus to King Proxem Grant Vario.

He would accept. Composing himself, he brought the virtualized copy of the scroll out to the family. “This is going to take a little time, but I want you to understand the contents of this document.” Hearing his tone, they put away what they were doing, and listened with the seriousness of lives at stake. They went over the different items; they went over the language; they went over the peoples involved, discussed within the context of public history contrasted with revealed information. There was some people’s insight that Vario refrained from relating because he hadn’t yet acknowledged these societal changes, though some inklings of it may have reached Mireille and Cristobal. Then the King said, “I’m going to meet with your sister in the court at the Capital.”

Mireille knew what this meant, and wondered who would survive the result. Cristobal suspected. Carlo intuited. Together, they established a new order of responsibility in the ship during their father’s absence.

135 \ 327

“I’m really excited about this, been a while since a redcomm request. Paying whatever it takes, whatever it takes, whatever it takes. I can figure out what it takes.” Casper Jacobs was on a roll, muttering to himself the way he does when running multiple processes smoothly in high gear. He was gathering his resources and rearranging his workspace. “This thing is coming straight from the top, and it’s so cool, this could really blow people’s minds. As for me, I’m getting it out there, putting it into the right sets of claws – cause the Dragons, they haven’t been allowed to talk to each other, beyond problematic, and we want it fixed, along with everything else. Fix everything! Now that I’ve seen it, I know where I’ve seen people talking about it. And when I say people, I mean the kind of people I ain’t never seen but I’d sure like to meet. It’s not exactly hush, it’s just moving fast. And I’ll get it moving faster, from their heads to our heads without any untoward detours. Now I get to talk to the pigeon guy, who likes being left alone most of the time, but I love him and his brave fluffy dragonspies. Tiny scrolls, tiny scrolls. Time to make the teeniest tiny holo-key scrolls.” He let out a long exhale. “This moment is feeling very… vivid. Like things haven’t felt in a kind of while. Something is really happening.”

134 \ 326

The Planks was a commonly used name for the interconnected floating platforms that made up the large craft fueling station for this subquadrant of Foshan. It was a famous fueling station, and some of the more unusual vessels in and on Foshan’s waters made it a destination. There were well-connected people at The Planks who could solve unique problems. News also flew fast from there.

The Arch approached underwater. Saer the cleaner had convinced Bux and Arjun that the escape pod with her and Draig Claymore was their best choice in this maneuver. The twin brothers solemnly enacted rituals meaningful to them before they left their greatest-yet achievement to an uncertain fate.

Draig was the last on the bridge, executing final command. The parting was a little sentimental – he may not have had the Arch for long, but what a magnificent and momentous thing it was. But one must molt when it is time, one of those crablike wisdoms that occasionally floated up ever since meeting the Eldest Davyjones.

Navigating to the very edge of flotsam moorage, they acted like any other partially submarine vessel, albeit a strikingly unmissable behemoth that was probably already creating a stir over the station’s readings. The Arch surfaced within approved tolerances, its light-absorbent black surface doing the opposite of gleaming. Calmly, Draig disengaged systems on a timer and walked to the emergency flyer containing the others.

At the surface, the Arch was straightened, resting oblong and unusually still atop the waves. It was large enough that it took small boats time to travel its length. The escape vehicle jettisoned underwater, and the image of the floating Abyssal Inverse Dwelling receded from them. Buckminster piloted the pod; Arjun had been worried that he’d be too emotional. In her seat, Saer looked glad to be moving on. Draig had already had himself strapped to a gurney with eyemask, earplugs, and blankets – the basic sensory deprivation protocol. He’d told them he would hum, and he used a throaty tone that focused him and allowed his mind to float.

Behind his closed eyes and screened behind the sound of his hum, Draig searched for and found a familiar parting of the veil. This was an access granted him by his role in organizing the Viridian Phasing, the dragonroad scrambling that kept Red Nexus dragons and the unaffiliated from being able to navigate Imperial space. Touching dragonroads as a human, even with just the mind, can be extremely unsettling; but Draig just took off, his hum tethering him to his body.

He was looking for a way to be heard, and figure out how to say what he needed to say. There was also the question of his current authority. While he may not have his human rank (which Dragons have learned to mind to an extent), he was still the most inextricable human to the Viridian Phasing synergy, having actually met many involved beings in its initiation. They might, he hoped, hear him with the most inclination to agree. Allowing in potentially destructive forces, but also many who can be instrumental, and freeing the resources of the closest allies – this was the shift being called for by this moment, if they would listen. He himself didn’t bother raising any quibbles as to his standing, and if they wished they could take it up with someone else later. They might, with their own powers of reason, agree with him enough to cooperate.

As he raced around the sonically fragmented byways with codekey clarity, he sounded the knell in as many ways as he possibly could, with the energy signatures read by Dragons:

time for this to end / time / for / this / to / end / t/i/m/e/f/o/r/t/h/i/s/t/o/e/n/d
now is the time / now / is / the / time / n/o/w/i/s/t/h/e/t/i/m/e

133 \ 325

Toledo and Random ambled unhurriedly down a long interspace hallway, observing archway markings. They wore a pair of loose robes that were a contrast to their fitted work gear. From the presented options, they’d selected these for some time-off clothes, without inquiring or wondering much to their usual purpose – they looked comfortable. The two agreed with each other on recognizing the marking, and navigated through the doorless curving entryway.

Inside a clear room with sunglow polyhedral walls and a soft mat floor, Arcta Hydraia knelt with three spheroid physical models. She played with them like puzzles, adjusting a piece here, a piece there. Though they were separate models, she also superimposed them with one in each hand, momentarily interchanging some of the interlocking dynamic indicators. Toledo and Random let her do this while they stood there, without interrupting. Having registered a pleasing triangulation, a smile arrived on Arcta’s face. She put her objects down and looked up at the pair.

“Welcome. I’m pleased to have you in my playroom. Now is a great time for some human companionship.” Arcta patted the comfortable surface and stood to acknowledge them. “Random Arriba and Toledo Vadr… you don’t hate me too much, it seems. Maybe I can do something for you. Exactly what, I’m not sure; sometimes, my expertise affords me privilege, though I’m continually amazed by the different world we now live in. The behavioral flexibility here, I still find it refreshing.” Her imprint of a smile grew a little. “So, you’re interested in possible new directions.”

“Right. The party host, Oven. He reminded us to try you. And yeah no, I don’t hate you too much,” said Random with an amiable shrug. Then, turning to their partner, “Do you?”

Toledo shrugged and shook his head no.

“I really appreciate that,” said Arcta. “Well, as far as what I’ve got going on, if I had people like you to enable my schemes, I’d start tracking down my own ripple effect.” Toledo motioned to take a seat, and they all took it easy on the mat. “I’ve had enough impact on various forefronts to know that advances, even in theory, create ripples. Some are less stable, while others are golden. It’s actually not a bad idea to engage in further generations of my own science. Learn what’s new from those who took my work a step forward, and give them my refreshed originator’s insight, when welcome. Sometimes, I feel like it’s even a little bit of a duty. On occasion, I can fix that wheel and set things rolling in the right direction. To what extent I can do that amongst the Vedani, or even in the Imperium somehow, will be a matter of discovery. It all results in what I call a career, which has been an interesting thought to navigate from here.” Arcta trailed off, gazing into a corner. “So, maybe you could come with me on some kind of road trip. It is not my predilection to render my shipmates unconscious; that was context-specific. I hope you wouldn’t expect that regularly.”

“I like sleeping,” Random put forth, “mainly when that’s what I intend to do. My main expectation is to work for reward.”

“Noted. I don’t think I would drive you too hard, but it’s worth mention that the field can be volatile.”

“Hmm,” Toledo uttered, looking around him.

“We’re out of the military now,” Random said, scritching their back, “but we still signed up. This wouldn’t be our first such reckless decision.”