93 \ 181

“With what we have on board, we can manage a linkthrough at one of the remaining polygons, and that’s where we’re going. This is one of the last few, and our only option without having to dawdle about with sensitive cargo. Let’s look ahead to these coordinates.” Sturlusson fed them in, and his pilot Trosper interfaced them to the ship’s advanced viewers. An unexpected sight met them on the display.

Sturlusson cursed quietly and left the chamber. He returned leading the Princess to the cockpit ahead of him. “Can you identify that ship?” he asked, pointing. A very beefy vessel was floating next to a bizarre space object.

After Trosper obliged her better views of a few identifying areas, Princess Soleil replied, “It’s an official Vanguard vehicle.”

“Yes, it is,” Raev Sturlusson replied. “Anything more specific?” She shook her head no. His expression turned dark, yet he chuckled a bit through his glower. “Really, this is exactly what they should be doing.”

“Were you expecting this, Raev?”

“No, Verne – despite my eminent capabilities, I am not up to the minute on every corner of the universe. But in this case, we’ve caught up to the cutting edge of news; in fact, we’re making the next headline. I’m used to this. Aren’t you?” The last he directed to the Princess, still studying the data.

Soleil turned to face him directly. “Yes, but not as often in such a manner.” She again felt that the benefit of her position within the opposition would amount to little if interrupted at this point. Though she admired the valiance of the Vanguard, she did not wish them this situational victory.

“Well, it’s like this much of the time in my world. Then again, we give them every reason. They’ve got every reason right now. Secure everyone in the back,” said Sturlusson, dismissing Princess Soleil. “Verne, choose your path of approach.”

Derringer had been hustling along a clear (to him) trail, observing their speed as being inconspicuously reasonable. That was something he could keep up with, even catch up with a little. He stayed on target with light-intensity mini-readings, until he noticed a sudden tack that looked responsive. Gauging from experience, his prey was near an objective, and from the angle of the tack from the initial path, he guessed how near and in what direction. He took an opposite tack to complete a pincer movement. Chasing people down was a lot like cooperating with them. Thinking of it that way, he was actually quite the team player.

The view resolved, and Derringer moved up to a standoff. A government vehicle nicer than his was flashing a Stop-and-Search at a ship nicer than the government vehicle. There was no road here; nothing except for the giant dreamcatcher twice the size of its government neighbor.

This was a strange tableau. Anyone who could add would know that it didn’t add up. He was right on time to catch these two buckaroos twitching at each other, whoever they were. Things seemed on the verge of confrontational, and what but he should be right here, as though he were supposed to be.

The private investigator (did a secret government employer make him a detective?) ran another math problem. The fact that he’s been gambling on trouble, plus observing a fake wreck, plus tracking someone to a random point, plus this fast and expensive sport ship, plus a highly-equipped official, plus having powerful silent protection, plus having some of the best gear he’s ever been allowed to carry, plus that weird strategy-sized thingy… He absolutely simply had to get involved. Even if he didn’t have all the details.

If the Princess were on the government vehicle, his contract would already be over. So he knew which side to take, in case there was a Princess in the other one. A half-moment gear-up, and he dove in to grab the attention of the… was that a Vanguard?

“Is he one of ours? Yours?” Verne Trosper asked his friend of many years about the new arrival.

“You know, I’m not sure. I’m not in charge of everything,” replied Sturlusson, expressing an edge of exasperated humility.

Trosper nodded coolly. “Then let’s brunch first.” With rapid-stage multi-hold aiming, Trosper’s foil-beam salvo ended successfully as soon as it started. “Invitation sent. Accepted!” Vanguard totaled, peppy observer hobbled.

“Let’s pick them up,” said Raev Sturlusson, examining their new friend. “Hey, that ship’s government too, isn’t it.”

“It is, isn’t it. They weren’t acting like buddies.”

“I don’t think they are.” After a clearly understandable adoption procedure, Derringer stood inside of Trosper’s ship facing Sturlusson, who commented. “You’re an interesting person to have that kind of ship.”

“I’m a really interesting guy.” Soleil heard this as she appeared in the hatchway to the compartment where the greeting was happening, compelled to assess this transition herself. Derringer’s eyes caught her presence immediately. “Who’s looking for a really interesting gal.”

92 \ 180

Material gain reports of unusual interest had been the informative basis for the Vanguard’s presence at this nodal structure. Plexus Corporation had reported findings of untraceable materials of unusual but simple and innocuous assembly. These were marked down as material intake, a common occurrence distinguishable by its makeup. It had caught the notice of one especially inquisitive Vanguard agent with an assignment.

Agent Weathers had been theorizing, and placing himself in the path of his theories. This one had to do with exploring possible avenues of collusion. If the Princess was alive, and still hidden, she may have someone hiding her with or without cooperation. Remaining hidden for this long meant expertly avoiding the gaze of innocent eyes. Among the best at that were corporations, including and especially the large ones with their labyrinths of departments, high acumen and familiarity with transport, and deep resource pools. Yesterday, Vanguard John Weathers scanned a few different kinds of corporate-government reports. He decided to take advantage of this timely location alert, which followed an untraceable materials lump that included Zerite. A suspect, a question, and a clue; indications of powerful players.

His ship was in correlative drift with this giant party decoration – some wide spacefoam ribbon held in an irregular shape, attached to what looked like a copier. Unlikely spot for an art installation. Doesn’t work like any known equipment, could easily be discarded research in this removed area. Corporations sniping each others’ secrets was nothing new, and they were happy to report their gains to reinforce their winning reputations. Delving into their mysteries was for the few, the brave. Agent Weathers was just dipping his toe in at this particular point, with his own aims in mind. He’d rest and formulate here until the next action took precedence.

91 \ 179

Just as Derringer was starting to think about reaching the outer boundaries of more populated space, he turned to go back the way he came. He had plenty of resources for more cruising, and felt whimsical after passing those last two nice ships. Wild card play – he didn’t feel like seeing anyone else, yet.

It didn’t seem like long again before approaching the sidespace where he’d seen the Bluebird Mark 7. And it was actually still there. Except that… oh no! Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Derringer looked closer at the new sidespace capture pic, where something looked wrong with the ship. It had suffered a combustion beneath on one side. But, it had already been parked there when he passed it. That kind of propulsion combustion happened when a ship was moving, not peacefully resting in place. Startup blowups didn’t tend to look that bad. If he hadn’t already seen it there in perfect shape as he was going the other direction, he would think it had been towed and abandoned. So, in the time between his crossings, they’d left, blown up, towed and abandoned? Hmmm.

He liked that ship. He was also in the business of people at each other’s throats, and he knew this was something that could be done by someone with ill intent. Oooh, right away it made him mad, because he liked that ship! And now look at it. No… look at it. Really look at it.

Derringer opened up some advanced analytics, which he’d made sure were onboard. There was also a laser pointer so good, it was illegal to have unless onboard a top-class government vehicle. So now he had one, legally. He employed it to a track-nearest and record program, with very small physical parameters, to track objects for a full second in the vicinity of the abandoned Bluebird. This very good program particularized the laser to as many simultaneous readings as possible, because simultaneity would give Derringer the truest reading.

There was always flotsam in space, trailing from one point to the next in the wake of moving objects. A well-taught program could highlight these motions, and finally the heuristic touch of an astute observer could yield directions of recent motion in a relatively uncluttered field. Many patterns of motion in a given space remained simple in a one-second span, though creating the full-second reading took longer than a second. More like five minutes for a really good one, once set to run. That could be five valuable minutes, but when that’s all he’s got to go on, it’ll have to happen.

Why did he immediately want to figure this one out? He examined his motivations while the video was building. This was the first trouble he’d run into in a while that was weird enough for him to notice. He was looking for trouble, special trouble. By now, he was a little hungry for it. He could depart from bored distraction and pursue a petty vendetta against a hypothetical someone who would harm his newly beloved someone else’s ship. If it were an innocuous event, he would encounter an innocuous resolution. If things got too interesting, he could uninvolve himself. Unless it did involve him, in which case, he should be there.

Derringer patched all the laser readings into the same one-second frame, and watched carefully. There was the trail, like a tunnel through spreading particles. That one looked like a chicken bone, which made him think of getting hungry. The trail went at a tangent to the path of the Brave Crossing. He’d follow it a little way and see if he could ascertain their navigation anchors. He was amazing at keeping his bearings, and he’d better be; Lurin, well, that had been an unusual case.

90 \ 178

OIBHN CLNR: They’ve started to find and dismantle our tuning polygons.

AELRN LKCD: The polygons are cheap enough, right? Essentially an office machine and some of that spool material?

OIBHN: Fairly disposable, yes. The main benefit is gained from initialization. The longer they stay up, the deeper we can harvest and the stronger our relationals will grow. Surveying and point establishment starts sufficient, and gains to maximal facility. But the moment they’re placed, they can be sacrificed. No one’s been quite that fast – they’re well located.

AELRN: What do you think the Imperium will make of them?

OIBHN: They won’t trace back to us. The Imperium doesn’t have the logics to ascertain how we gained our locations, or to extrapolate further. It may be just an office machine, but we already know they can’t figure those out. If they do somehow manage to turn it on, they certainly don’t have aetherscape interfacing.

AELRN: What do you think of the resale potential in their markets, whole or part?

OIBHN: Middling. The spool scrap could be reformed. The inert junk of an unusable office machine contains nothing they don’t already have – though it does contain a tiny amount of a rare resource for them, moreso now: namely, Zerite.

AELRN: That should cause the usual unpredictable behavior around restricted material that we’ve seen them exhibit. Either coverup and illicit use or trade, or investigatory curiosity.

OIBHN: It would serve well to have them spend resources on this puzzle and clear the polygons away for us themselves.

AELRN: Do you think this could be enough basis to stimulate a government information contract?

OIBHN: If it registers as anything more than a curiosity of their private sector, it would still fall far below many other priorities we’ve helped to create. Attempts at getting value from the information would probably be misleading – other than the question of the Zerite’s source, which may create additional beneficial internal turmoil. They don’t know we have an abundance of that particular scarcity, though very select individuals are aware that we use it. Their customary limitations on sharing information will work to our timing advantage.

AELRN: Then they can raid the crops all they like, whilst we reap riches.

OIBHN: The yield has indeed been fruitful. There is so much detail! Have you witnessed the culture wave of human poetry?

AELRN: It was mentioned, and since then I’ve occasionally joined in on the search to broadcast the obscure. It’s such an unusual volume of low-exposure information going to rot – but not now that we’ve found it! Everything everywhere. I just picked one that I could share with you right now, if you like.

OIBHN: Certainly, let’s take a moment for it.

AELRN: This is titled, “Star Matter Scarabs”.

scarabs cycling star matter from the abyssal ceiling
light from beneath recognized from above
a finely spread spectrum, stewarded into continuance
by appointed go-betweens of above below around outside

To arch, overarch, and cross every path, one can orient
by trajectory, windspread, ruffles, and currential sweeps.
The feeling approaches at times, suddenly into your clothes,
changing temperatures, opening channels in floods.

reaching sideways on convivial levels
stacking layers of warmth in joyous combustion
a population’s voices ever arising, staying
with each other, unfading

OIBHN: Compelling and unique, though I don’t completely understand…

AELRN: I don’t either! But I want to. Which is how I feel about them!

OIBHN: Humans have been dastardly, Aelrn. Untrustworthy. Vicious. Horrifying.

AELRN: I know, which is what makes their cultural discoveries the more intriguing. Their minds have an ability to transition between boundaries, a quality they’ve described as liminality. Fascinating in a way unique from our kind.

OIBHN: It’s true that these delectable bonbons of poetry have generated some excellent power torrents. I’m still not sure it’s safe to want to understand them.

AELRN: Signalman – he’s earned our understanding. He found us on his own, after his father did, even exhibiting etiquette, which he’d taken care to study.

OIBHN: We have formed a firm alliance with that one and his kinfolk, we’ve gone that far. On the topic of understanding, I heard from a Sea Voice.

AELRN: Oh, are you going to throw a party?

OIBHN: Yes – there’s a good opportunity in three days.

AELRN: I will come.

OIBHN: Good! We can open the invitation. I got a toilet too, and plumbing. Wasn’t that fun?

AELRN: From the explanations, I don’t think doing plumbing will ever be as fun as the first time. I wonder how gross it can get.

OIBHN: Let’s not think about that.

AELRN: Maybe we can hire a ‘plumb-er’.

OIBHN: We might already know one among the Hirylienites. They could continue to perform other duties.

89 \ 177

The spaceship pursuing Drift 9 took another jump – tiny in comparison to previous distances crossed, but giant in that this one finally overtook them. Young Toller in the pilot’s chair brought Drift 9 to an emergency halt, now faced with a ship directly in front of them. He looked at the dash clock and tried to remember exactly when Wendel said their cannon was three minutes to ready. It felt like two and half minutes ago. As seconds passed, he was able to see two figures in the front of their ship, as well as signs that they were also probably charging a weapon. His alarm reflex rose, and to Soleil he yelled, “Get down and hold on!”

There was a cross of blinding flashes. The two of them felt a bad shudder, though their compartment was intact. After a couple breaths under cover, Captain Wendel Harper clambered in from the back. “Our propulsion engine is slashed. Pinpoint beam. They were just a little faster, it was so close!” Her fury of failure under duress emerged in those last two words as she obscured Toller at his controls, reaching in to test other systems. “They’ve got us. Their ship is the only way out of here.” For a moment, she melted onto the control board and kissed the CD band unit. “I love you,” she whispered, unclear whether to her ship or to someone else, possibly Leiv.

Drift 9 shuddered again as their attacker grab-connected the hold entrance. The captain picked herself up again and aimed a camera to inspect the other craft. “HA!” she yelled, pointing to the image of one of their antennas, slashed in half. She snapped her jaws together, teeth bared.

They heard the resonant pong of the hold door’s locking mechanisms unlatching. Harper abruptly left the cockpit and disappeared. Toller and Soleil got up, readying for hostilities. Soleil did not attempt to alter her appearance. The ship was quiet as steps approached unhurriedly.

Two men appeared in the corridor, and Harper dropped down onto the one in front, a glinting bowie knife in her fist. The large man moved with surprising grace, dancing her into an arm lock that resembled a dramatic dip. Extended, the knife fell from Harper’s squeezed grip. They remained in this embrace while the one behind stepped around them.

“Hello, everybody,” said Raev Sturlusson with a note of cool surprise.

“Hello,” replied Princess Soleil with an expectant undertone. She and Toller remained crouched in ready stances.

“You’re going to come with us.” Sturlusson lifted his one hand, a crackling ball of bronze lightning appearing above his palm. A thread-slim bolt precisely struck the cockpit’s lighting fixture, leaving the chamber dark but for the energy still crackling in the invader’s hand. “Don’t resist.” Drift 9’s original occupants respectfully relaxed.

All went from the hold door through the tube chute with Sturlusson escorting from behind. The three captured were brought to seats in a passenger niche and fitted with captivity harnesses. “Fancy meeting you here,” Sturlusson said to Soleil as he carefully set her straps. “This is certainly making the most of a visit. Verne doesn’t even have to report on his objective. Which was you,” he said turning to Wendel where she sat securely. She bared her teeth at him. “After your little tango, I think you get to know his first name. The notoriously curious Captain Wendel Harper, of the Starweavers. And…” he narrowed his eyes at the boy, “is that Lowercase T?”

“I know who you are,” said Toller with defiant nonchalance.

“You know who he is?” Soleil asked, sounding slightly offended.

“Just so that everyone is certain,” said the dark-haired man as he exited to join his pilot, “my name is Raev Sturlusson, of Hirylien.”

The captives listened silently to the conversation up front. “What to do with this?” Trosper asked Sturlusson.

“We have to leave it.”

“I’m going to make it look natural. It’ll be simple enough.” Wendel let out a rising growl of frustrated hostility. They felt a weapon charge and release. “What a shame,” called Trosper back to his captive, “it looks like your engine exploded. That’s a rare type of failure, but it happens. At least someone must have come to pick you up. That’s very lucky.” Wendel lowered her head to hang down as far as it could.

Sturlusson called back to them as well, echoing words from a happy time. “Road trip, everyone!”