46 \ 228

Approaching Drift X across the parking lot, there were three people sitting on the ground by the rear hatch. Even from here, they appeared strange, bright and motley. A couple more steps and she recognized Rosy Glow, human-sized but still enrobed in flowing colors of the sunset too diaphanous and effulgent to be mere cloth. The other two were unfamiliar, and neither looked like Dragon Food. One appeared to be wearing extraordinarily greasy coveralls, a thick layer of fine particles stuck to them, a respirator over the face, and a ballcap that read ‘Give It A Little Mo.’ The third was wearing the fluffiest harlequin outfit Wendel had ever seen, which also looked very smooth and was constantly wiggling in the breeze. The three had the impression of being both tall and short, very large but not that large, and they rose unsteadily but exuberantly as she neared them.

“Hi!!!” Rosy Glow beamed. “We figured you’d be back soon.”

“You figured right,” replied Wendel with warmth. “What can I do for you folks?”

“It’s really a matter of what we can do for you,” said the harlequin, face patch makeup wiggling with expression. “Rosy Glow informed us that you and this fine ship have recently been of great service, and it is not our way to let people go unrewarded. We don’t work well with human forms of currency, though our exchanges are ironclad, or better, of golden weave. You are a Starweaver, are you not? I have heard of you lot, you’re clever, quick, and kind.” This entity paused for a moment, hands clasped with a look of rapt interest. “Please excuse my lack of introduction! I’m the one who jiggles things to make them all fit, so call me The Jiggler.” The Jiggler curtseyed courteously, in a way that looked like they weren’t entirely sure how.

“And I’m GreezMo. I’d shake your hand, but I live inside of an engine.” The gravelly respirator-voiced person waved a grimy glove. “This is a nice ship.”

“Its name is Drift X.”

“Drift X,” intoned all three, nodding with appreciation.

“So, you’re here to return a favor?”

“Yes, maybe we can help you accomplish something. These two were the most interested in coming along. Is there something you would particularly like?”

“You know… I actually can think of something.” Wendel glanced to see someone staring from next to his vehicle, and waved. He waved back and turned to his own business. “I wonder if you could help. It’s difficult getting around the PGI these days, and it’s also a little hard getting in touch with people. I’d like to find one or two.” It was an easy answer. “First, Leiv Gruun.”

The three Kao-Sidhe in human-approximate form looked back and forth at each other, exchanging nods. “We’ll help you,” said GreezMo.

“We want to help,” said Rosy Glow.

“We believe that we can,” concluded the Jiggler. “Unusual routes are possible, via byways. But when I say unusual, we really mean it – you might not be the same again, though you,” in particular, “would be okay.”

“Probably very okay,” Rosy Glow said encouragingly.

“Those are the odds for many of the jobs I’ve taken,” said the captain, considering but nodding.

“In usual human chronology, it might not ‘take’ more time than your normal travel,” the Jiggler continued.

“We could actually make really good time,” added GreezMo eagerly.

“Seems like you know how,” Wendel responded, looking convinced. This uniquely capricious moment was seizing her, and she didn’t mind right now. “So, what do I/we do?”

“Can you think of a place where your ship can inconspicuously shrink out of existence into alternate dimensions?”

Captain Wendel furrowed her brow and looked into the corners of her mind for a moment. “I think here’s fine,” she said. “People see a lot of things happen in this parking lot. Want to come inside?”

“Honored,” chorused the Kao-Sidhe. In they all went, and if anyone noticed shortly afterward when the hot rod cargo carrier shivered and shrank out of sight standing place, then the story was theirs to tell.

45.2 \ 227

“That sounds perfect. Okay if I ride in the back till we get there?” The lad punched a pretend sequence into the dash between the buttons.

“No problem. Won’t be very long, I know a place in Betacort,” replied the Captain. Toller poked his way to the hold, mussing his short black hair with a hand. A moment where looking presentable was not required. He took a seat on the floor against the wall, as he felt the smooth action of the ship’s low-altitude scoot. He dug into his pocket and brought out the slip of paper with thirteen words written on it in three lines.

parboiled generous diverticulated immediate
crystalline veracity conjugation aorta sphinx
keratinaceous quorum zenith wander

Maybe someone could make sense of it, but he didn’t want to try. She said he could bring this seal to the management to run it through their system, if he wanted, and they would let him in. He’d have a place to stay, and get to receive the finest schooling the Pan-Galactic Imperium had to offer. Tell them, full ride with dorm. She said her younger brothers would be in school with him, and that Cristobal was very close to his age. She said it all carefully, without commanding him in any way, only that this was possible and that he may go if he liked. Her even, careful tone communicated trust in whatsoever he felt he should do or say, and her penetrating gaze gave him her opinion that this may be something that he, or she, or they, would very much like to happen. Toller worked on memorizing the words in order, in case he lost the slip of paper. Sometimes even pants get left behind.

Wendel spoke over the com, “I’m parking now at Diner Vertris. Serious comfort food, order whatever you want. I know I will!”

The diner had simple booths, and the walls were muraled with vertrisian foliage. They shared an appetizer, took their time over an entree each, and then got dessert. Chuckles between comfortable silences, and gazing through the window onto a sunny afternoon. Halfway through dessert, Toller put down his fork and said, “Hey, I’m going to split and walk around for a while. Be just myself again.”

Wendel slowed her chewing as she read his look, quirking her mouth in a smile. “Going to enjoy terra firma? I can understand that. We had a long and distant voyage.” The Captain pulled out her cash folio and slapped a stack of bills on his side of the table, which the boy pocketed. “It’s enough for a backpack, supplies, and a fare. You know my CD signal.” She also produced one each of four different contact cards. “You can use any of these to get in touch, depending on your area and your order of business. Anytime, whatever I’m doing, I’ll get back to you ASAP.”

Toller chased together one more pile of jungleberry cobbler. “I believe you. Thanks.” Delivering the bite to his mouth, he tapped the table with his hands as he stood, scooting out of the booth. He walked through the door and past the windows, meeting glances with Wendel as he headed away. Smiling, she quietly finished her dessert, and then finished the rest of his.

44.2 \ 226

There was frequent traffic through the back loading bay, since it was still pre-banquet and pre-fashion show. The pair was waved in when they flashed their obviously relevant item; the important checkpoints were internal, so door security acted mainly as helpers and emergency watch.

As the two walked purposefully through the hotel map, Derringer eyed the perceivable form of Yrenn Tiche, pinched her practical outfit, and poked her soft arm. “Wow, that’s convincing,” he muttered to one side. “I could forget that you’re the Princess. But I won’t.”

44.1 \ 226

“Do you have a chip I can borrow forever?” Soleil asked the Captain. “Something from Drift X that it can already read.” They were in unobtrusive inner orbit around Alisandre.

“Sure,” replied Wendel, “you can have one from the stack.” She took Soleil to the hold, leaving Toller at copilot. Accessing the additional banks there, Wendel picked one out the size of her pinkie nail and handed it to the Princess. Wendel returned to her post while Soleil accessed Drift X’s text-based aetherscape interface, communicating quickly and briefly.

She returned to Wendel holding the chip in one hand. “I also need a way to hide it, inside a fashion item. I saw some hollow tin charms hanging in a corner of the hold. They look sentimental, but could I possibly use one?”

Wendel smiled. “Pick the one you want to use, and show me.”

Soleil returned with a diamond-shaped mini ornament, repoussed with stamped cutouts around the edge. Wendel nodded at it. “You have tweezers in your tools, right?” asked the Princess.

Wendel told her to wait a moment, and returned with them and a mini spray bottle labeled Sticky Gunk. “Looks like you might want some of this.” Understanding, Soleil accepted the suggestion, and Wendel peered over while the Princess maneuvered a sticky-backed chip inside the ornament. “Know what I have that would make that wearable?” said the Captain, who again forayed into her supplies. She returned with some ultralight cable, and showed the Princess how she tied a sliding knot clasp and finished it with clamps. They wove the pendant onto the line and recreated the clasp. It was an item! Wendel stated her assessment, “Theoretically haute couture. Will that get you in?”

“I think I could see Margeaux wearing it, so that much passes. This is giving me more than one way in, and giving this more than one way to find its recipient.”

Wendel bit her lip. “Final touch,” she said. She came out with a clamshell necklace box, and removed a sparkling, multi-tiered, unusually glamorous affair which she lovingly zipped into a different pouch. “You can use this box for presentation.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m giving you your best shot where there may not be extra chances. Looks bona fide now, doesn’t it?” Soleil agreed.

They set a regular heading toward Betacort, a city just outside the central Capital, semi-industrial site of some large stadiums and venues. Once Captain Wendel had the address, she pulled up the maps and found the loading docks. “I’ve done event dropoff before. What’s the name of this lady’s fashion label?”

“Look Out World,” said Princess Soleil, “but she’s thinking of changing it. Or starting a new one. But that’s still what it’s called, and they have a new line out – they’re going for ‘edgy’ this season, so I think the cable chain will really fit. Not that it’s actually going out on the runway, or not that it couldn’t, but it just has to be convincing as an addition.”

Captain Wendel drove Drift X up to the loading dock parking guides. She said she didn’t have a booth number, but that Yrenn was an official volunteer, and this was only a dropoff. Soleil, as Yrenn, leaned over to address the parking guide and said she didn’t have her badge yet, but that she would get it and opened the jewel box to show him the new necklace. She came across as a comfortable but well-made-up and sensible woman with a bob haircut, about Margeaux’s age. The yellow-jacketed venue employee gave a convention chaos shrug, deciding to let the next people verify them, and waved them in to a loading spot.

“You don’t need any more backup than this?” said Wendel with a pang as Yrenn-Soleil and Derringer shuffled to deboard. She couldn’t say she’d always been loyal to the royals, but Soleil was crew now, their champ who did her damnedest. Wendel carried a dear feeling like this Princess was really going to try to make the best of things.

“No. You’re a free agent again. Thanks for everything. Really. All of it.” They stood there, not being too awkward. “I’m sorry you got kidnapped for helping me, and had your ship blown up.”

“Couldn’t get a refit like this anywhere else. Stuff happens. I’m calling it even.”

Soleil gave Toller a long look followed by a small smile, which the boy returned. Derringer twitched his mustache and took off his fedora, tossing it to the kid. They left.