38 \ 126

Facing conversationally inward, three ships anchored to each other moved together through space like a slowly twirling lily.  They were the only gleaming thing in sight.

The actual conversation was occurring aboard the ship displaying greatest authority, an instrument-bearing member of an Imperial Alpha fleet.  It would be very, very hard to tell that its identifiers had been altered.

Five people fit snugly in the equipment chamber.  Leanders, grizzled, stood silently, contemplating middle management while others drove their bargains.  He looked across at the one he called boss, repeatedly surprised by his presence.  Not just the unlikelihood of it; the man could turn nearly invisible unless he spoke, and he hadn’t spoken for a while.  Sturlusson was looking around the interior of the craft with an ear following the discussion.  It wasn’t the newest of Imperial ships – looked like it was made of routine repairs.  Nevertheless, it had squeaked over to this rendezvous with a bit of shine left on it.

Leanders was feeling relieved and even lighthearted after a series of simple stash drops.  Raev’s one fist was held clutched, like it was holding the strings tying everything together.

37 \ 125

Soleil had not a single reference point in this universe-sky… not one!  She was good at making sure she had some, which is how she noticed that she had none.  She kept her individual sled with the group, but with part of her attention she continued to search for her location.

Soleil mused on Uixtr’s word for their waypoint technology, a transanchor.  What words did they combine from her language, and why?  ‘Anchor’ has a clear meaning: it holds something in place.  A transanchor could be something that holds something in place to a different place, both anchor and transport.  This really did look like a totally different place from their usual exit.  How would a ship be so big that it had different stars on another side?  Behind her, the ship with its doors closed was invisible to sight as usual, and in her glance she marked three star shapes that framed its location from this direction.

The team paced, weaving in a kind of search pattern.  Soleil made sure to keep her return flags identified in view.  Since she didn’t know what they were searching for, she tried interpreting their pattern.  She wasn’t entirely sure they knew, either.

Ah!  There was something on her readings.  What was it?  Soleil tapped her console to alert the mission leader of the detection.  He returned a clear message: go find it, and figure it out.  A nervous chill washed over her, suspicions of a brewing situation not entirely wrong.  The others now monitored her instrument readings.

Faced with an open-ended quandary, the Princess decided to have some fun with this puzzle.  Freed from the constraints of flying formation, she did some strategic wheeling and whizzing – justifiable maneuvers with a dash of grace and whimsy.  She was chasing blips, after all.  When going back to the same coordinates didn’t work, she switched to disorganized logic.  Her freeform trajectories encountered two more instances of blips, which they pondered.  “Continue combing,” was the order given.

Carefully courting danger, the Princess decided to experiment further.  The glove control movements for her sled reminded her of the moves on the page given her by the three Kao-Sidhe.  Observing the approximate precision preferred by the vehicle interface, Soleil tried moving with increased gesture arcs and an adjusted speed differential.  With her moves, she could enact what to one part of the field was an unnoticeable torque, while in another part creating a visible and calculated rotation, and she could link these gestures smoothly from one to the next.  As she followed her readings, the motion reminded her of a giant invisible geochronmechane, the toy of sliding dials that only came apart after seemingly endless flipping, spinning, and switching towards a solution.

Soleil adjusted her base settings a little, just four of the obvious ones that she knew well enough.  This would skew the workings into different but still understandable directional sensitivity and scale.  Her Vedani teammates made no comment to interrupt her, though she knew they were monitoring her decisions.  Soleil knew there was no proof yet for what she was trying, and her included factors would probably fill a chalkboard, if the Vedani had chalkboards.  At least there were people nearby if something went wrong.

Her new settings acted stable, so she launched into a chain of movements.  The sled field could now read a sizable 75% of her kinetic input, and her movement allowances let her respond more dramatically to the unknowns when they appeared on her readings.  The team let her continue unremarked, and their silent, intense focus boosted her concentration.  Soleil moved her sled along the edges of the problem.  She hoped they were recording on all layers, as she appeared to be tracing something.

The Princess was mapping the shape in her mind as she moved around it.  It was a structural, locational convergence point made of sound or vibration, exhibiting edges and angular crossings – like a cluster of intersecting, emitting windowpanes.  It was able to hold together in the vacuum, throwing off the disturbances that clashed with the Vedani’s new alliance technology.  Parts of the cluster shook with varying degrees of difference, and she noted their frequencies against her own contrastingly reliable and consistent biological movements.  Going from this fast part to that slow part, she worked transitions between minor degrees of difference, linking similar resonances along her unified spatial path.  She pursued a definition of each glimpsed factor.  Directional multiplicities in magnitudes: the Princess tied them together in the moment with her presence of mind, motions, and timing.

Soleil thought it possible that the directionality of each windowpane worked like a signal dish, but she couldn’t divert the attention to study that with a handy detection.  Instead, as the order of this thing became clearer, she matched her movements to directionalities, and her rhythms to frequencies – finding what she could link most smoothly with her own body, the sled an extension thereof.

Soleil’s breath slowed, and time seemed to slow with it, as she examined the differences with greater fineness.  With her understanding, she glimpsed a path through the panes, like an eye opening directly in the swing of her rhythm.  With a burst of urgency, she surged into it – and then, she was somewhere else.

36 \ 124

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.

35 \ 123

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.

34 \ 122

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.”

“Ping-pong… really?”

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.