Review: Abyss Surrounding by Black Gate

An excellent review for the second book of this trilogy has come in from Alfie Award-winning fantasy literature periodical Black Gate.

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“Entirely as complex, multilayered, and compelling as the first, Abyss Surrounding offers daring new concepts along with enticing new situations holding familiar characters in their clutches.”

Reviewer Damien Moore picked out some personal highlights and used glowing words, such as “endlessly wondrous” and “read the book.”

You can read it here on this website in the linked originally serialized postings organized by title in the menu at the top, or obtain it via your favorite major channel, including your local bookstore.

This post brought to you by Tacoma Pirate Karaoke.

5x Rerun: Abyss Surrounding (2) 94.3-94.4, FIN

– 94.3 –

Uixtr addressed Soleil in his well-spoken interlingua. “I want to introduce someone, and we’d like to speak with you on a serious matter.” Without Uixtr changing focus, a second Vedani joined them at his side. Dragon Food remained, and looked on with interest. “This is Aelrn.” Ay-lur-en. She was as elongated and slender as Uixtr, a slightly different shade of blue-green.

Aelrn gazed directly into Soleil’s face in the manner that Vedani consider formally polite. “While you were on your excursion, after your training, you met someone, who told you about something that happened. ‘E has since spoken with us.”

“Acamar.” A momentary hush seemed to follow Soleil’s utterance of the name. “Yes.” Looking at the two, she felt on the brink of something she didn’t want to hear.

“This dragon knows the Vedani people through our workings, with er egg from before ‘e hatched.” Acamar’s moment of hatching had been the death of Soleil’s mother, Queen Ascendant Charlotte. Soleil pieced things together as Aelrn continued. “It’s hard to explain to someone who was not a part of it, but you have met Acamar, and we are giving you this knowledge now while you still face us.” This was happening in the midst of many discussions not a part of it, but Soleil knew that these folk all around her were habitually a part of multiple discussions.

“The formation of Acamar’s egg, and the nature of it, became known to us amidst a chain of critical juncture decisions regarding our own growing bad relationship with the Pan-Galactic Imperium. There was a new, yet already true, energy function of spacefield. The stillness which transmits and transforms, a transition so complex yet essential that it is everywhere as itself in a variety as deep as only a living being can possess… that’s one way to describe a dragon, this dragon. And while this description was as yet unembodied, we were one of the forces called to this egg, a part of the universe that told it what it was becoming.”

“We used the egg,” said Uixtr, “in agreement with its nature, and its first eight.” Soleil understood this phrase meant the dragons that nurtured a new dragon into existence via something called an egg.

“In this way, our means accomplished enough that we have moved our plans forward. As have they,” said Aelrn, referring to those first eight. “The Signalman has aligned us well.” Soleil also observed Dragon Food, solidly listening as though none of this was a surprise.

“This is the war,” said the Princess. The war that they had told her was coming. They had contacted her. She was recognizing them, though there were some as yet unknown. The Kao-Sidhe had spoken of friends they wished her to meet, unlike those she knew. Those who could manage war were at home. She was here. “Already, there are losses.”

“Already, there have been. But people agree,” continued Aelrn, “that the hatching event was unsettling. Even though many have been furiously incensed by the Magus regime – and human behavior in general – we do not see ourselves as being tolerant of cooperative egregious mass murder.” Aelrn mastered a struggle. “We have actually been concerned that was more a trait of your kind. This was the way before us that could accomplish everything. If you want to know why, you will have to wait for that explanation. That will take more time.”

Uixtr picked up the thread. “We were a part of Acamar’s formative phase, and now you know we were causative in the Photuris Vortex Slaughter. Only the most necessary mandates of existence, the truest requirements of the universe result in dragons. This was the way it all happened. While the event was strictly military, we’re still not entirely happy about it. You should know that as well. Retaliative anger is expected, and that does not make anything easier.”

Aelrn resumed. “We have not been entirely pleased to know you humans, and not all of us are convinced of your sapience.” A short distance away, Raev Sturlusson was speaking with the host in Vedani language. “But because we believe we are related, we do what we can in order not to simply kill. Though some of our friends would like to, and still may.”

Scion Princess Soleil had seen her grandmother, the Queen, receive unfavorable news with little more disturbance than a cool breeze, and then from the power of her office create inarguable change. The court of an Imperium was no fencer’s brawl, even when it was. The creation and maintenance of a stable reality was mainly a matter of underpinnings, regardless of any dramatic redecoration. Soleil breathed it all in like a scent on the wind, and as she’d seen the Queen do, moved onto a more favorable topic for the moment, briefly closing discussion on the previous. “Would you like to know what I thought of the Sea Voice?” Uixtr and Aelrn adjusted their postures to listen, and Dragon Food remained intent upon their exchange.

“Do you believe in mer people?” Toller asked Yykth and the other two Vedani youngsters speaking with him. Captain Wendel Harper remained at the lad’s side. He explained to their curiosity. “They look like me, or maybe like you, at the top. But instead of legs they have fins, and they live underwater, and they sing. That’s how I think they would sound.” He made finny motions with his hands as he told this. The Vedani youngsters, taller than him but not heavier, made finny motions as well.

Raev watched this exchange among youth from where he spoke with Oibhn Klnr. “I am actually a very good plumber. A talent I gained as an adolescent living in the Hirylien Remainder relocation blocks. I can switch things around – look as good as new – or even the same as before. And you are right, maintenance is not as fun as installation. I can do that here, and train a few to handle your basics. I can use the downtime. I thank you for integrating these human accommodations.”

“It continues to be an interesting learning experiment.”

“While I’m around for a moment, I’d like to have a tattoo adjusted.”

“I can get that started for you. Let me know what you want.”

“Do you have Node Frequency Vibration metal fluid available?”

“Ah – it will have to be the purest grade. Four day procurement.”

“I thank you, again. This time for indulging my own experiments.” Raev opened and dropped his hands, signaling his release of the conversation.

“It is of benefit to us as well. We make use of all learning.” Oibhn also opened and dropped his hands, the gesture flowing through his long fingers. Raev had a few more discussions on his way around the room as people started to filter out. He kept tabs on individuals, nudging them to stay or regroup.

He came back around to join the group including the captain, the investigator, the Princess, and the boy. “Princess Soleil, Magus. I am informed by your sometime Kao-Sidhe associate, Dragon Food, that you have a quest toward an intended destination. I will not obstruct you in this, and I am giving you the means to accomplish it with sureness, including sufficient company. You four can come with me now.” Raev Sturlusson proceeded them to a nearby open passage.

– 94.4 –

As they negotiated the transitions of Vedani passageways in this ship connected to different starscapes, Sturlusson addressed Derringer next. “You, I believe, wish to travel with the Princess.”

Pleased that this option was proferred, Derringer replied, “Yes.”

“Good. You shall.” He turned to Captain Harper. “We interrupted your endeavor of aiding the Princess to her next destination. You are allowed to continue doing that, to her intended destination.”

Wendel’s expression was distrustful and confused, not knowing how or why she was of use to that. She again accounted quickly for Toller. “And him, he’s coming with me.”

The lad confirmed. “I’ll go with her.”

Raev nodded at this expectation. “Fine.” They covered more distance until they reached a closed bay door. He stopped them, and pointed to each in turn. “Okay: group.” They all examined each other, and he opened the door.

“My darling, O valiant!” exclaimed Wendel. The Drift 9 was in. Next to it, little Moonshadow blinked its light at them three times, making Soleil smile despite the situation’s gravity. Drift 9 was being repaired where the ship was injured, with some advanced modifications. “What are you doing to it?” the captain asked.

“Vedani engineering has some amazing applications for human technologies, including and especially transportation. The Imperium actually already has a fair amount of integrated Vedani tech, which has been part of the brewing of this conflict. This ship will have some things the Imperium does not.”

“If you’re bringing me to my ship, I’m assuming you’re willing to have me captain it,” said Wendel with an edge that suggested trouble if this were not so, “but how am I to use these modifications? It would take me some time and practice to discover.”

“I will help with that as I accompany you,” said Uixtr Xkcd, appearing from the doorway to join them. The rest of the group quietly regarded this development. Soleil inclined her chin with a complicated respect.

“Rosy Glow and I will continue to lead you along the way, as we were before this fortunate interruption. We’ll be much better prepared.” Becoming visible from behind Uixtr, their large person-sized forms still appeared made of projection light.

“Well, there’s room for everybody,” spoke Wendel, then glancing at the sections being rebuilt and modified, and added, “I think.”

“You can also bring your mount,” elaborated Sturlusson to the Princess, “who is permitted to leave and appears willing to go with the one who most recently named it.” Moonshadow’s front light blinked on five times.

Soleil cleared her throat and asked Wendel, “Room for everybody?” Her outstretched hand indicated Moonshadow as though introducing them for the first time.

Nodding ponderingly and receiving this information with eye contact, Wendel replied, “Everybody, yes.”

Princess Soleil turned to Raev Sturlusson. “Can you tell me the current Imperial Synchrony?”

He faced her directly. “Four-fifths Sigma Nine.” In her head, the Princess reckoned Alisandrian days since she departed from the calendar, counting ahead to the day that fell inside this synchrony. Yes… it was her birthday. She was now of twenty-five Alisandrian years. She decided not to bring any attention to that at this time.

“At the start of the trail,” said Derringer with a pause, to no one in particular, “I looked ahead.”

“I looked ahead,” said Soleil, recognizing a Duo.

“At the start of the trail,” confirmed Derringer, his expression warming. This erudite form of poetry was not known or appreciated by all. It was nice to find someone who would exchange lines. It gave Soleil a small smile as well. She used to exchange Duos with Arkuda. Draig found them annoying, and Mireille let them slip right past.

Despite the immense situation, Wendel chuckled. Duos were one of the maneuvering calls she used with Leiv when they went ship dancing out in the crisp edge. She hoped he was moving in tandem with her, somehow. In the quiet moment following a poem, they all looked ahead.

– FIN 2 –

5x Rerun: Abyss Surrounding (2) 91-94.2

– 91 –

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.

– 92 –

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.

– 93 –

“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.”

– 94.1 –

“Thanks for the toilets,” said the indistinguishable Vedani to the delivery humans: Arriba and Vadr, old combat partners. They’d survived a lethal situation to find themselves in automatic employ, but as ex-military, that was not out of the question. They knew how to go along to get along. “Are either of you plumbers?” asked their guard. They returned silence after looking at each other. “No, then.”

They were joined by another Vedani, taller-than-tall, and more masculine. “Socializing will begin soon,” he said in very passable Imperial interlingua. “You can join us. It will be beneficial.” The invitation seemed voluntary, but there was little other option, and an invitation was better treatment than confinement. Arriba and Vadr accepted with a gracious murmur, seemingly abashed not to be speaking the other language in turn.

They were led into a small room furnished with small, curvy mountains. They were given a gesture to be at ease. They settled together on a couch-like plateau, with a dramatically reclined slope that put them in a strangely casual posture. They accepted it.

The room was quiet yet, but the light had ambience. A tray setup was brought in with what were possibly snacks; the two were figuring this situation out little by little. It didn’t seem menacing, nor the snacks. Random craned her neck to observe powders in different hues of green. Mmmmm!

After enough time to want to doze, more humans came in, led by the two familiar Vedani. The room felt temporarily more comfortable. They knew two and recognized one. “Oh wow,” Random couldn’t help saying when she noted the Princess. Toledo caught Random’s eye contact and quietly acted as normal as possible.

For the first time, Princess Soleil observed a human speaking Vedani, or approximating it. Raev’s Sturlusson’s pronunciation made the linguistic properties seem more identifiable. It was semi-syllabic, semi-tonal, and partially gestural; quick and chopped, spread across fine frequencies. Throughout a detailed conversation, it was clear where Raev’s speech did not completely match theirs, but remained effective, certainly with greater facility than any human present. A third Vedani joined them in conversation, showing up and rolling forth as though he’d already been part of it. They all appeared particularly congenial upon this occasion, voices riding together with anticipation.

Another came in, wheeling a keg-like contraption. She positioned it, unfolding the setup and laying out hand tools of artistic fashion. One conversant left, another went to recline on one of the curvy hills, and the last finished speaking with Raev before exiting. The newly-arrived humans stuck together. Aside from the Princess, there was a shifty-looking man, one tough lady, and a boy.

Raev went over to Random and Toledo. “Perhaps you’d like to join us,” he said, using his one left hand to show them the way to the other group. The pair were going to roll with accepting invitations. Interaction was a little awkward, as there were clearly a variety of tensions at play in this party setting. They didn’t bother with friendly introductions, just visual acknowledgment.

More Vedani people began to arrive in small numbers. Random observed as some approached the snack bar, spooning their choice of ingredients into palm bowls and then bringing them to the person at the keg contraption. After a short dialogue of choices, she put the bowl into the contraption. It came out transformed into something liquidy and ostensibly appetizing to specifications. The hand tools, which glowed, were selectively applied to the mixture with unique stirring motions.

They sipped and mingled. Random checked to see who else among the humans might be curious enough to try this. Raev caught her eye, recognizing the inquisitive spark. He stood and made another gentlemanly invitation, and they traveled over together. “None of the ingredients will hurt you. They have different flavors, and are more or less food.”

Random began to mix an arbitrary palette, and decided to broach a topic casually. “So… I’ve heard that you’re evil.”

“So have I.” Raev was making his culinary choices with a little more knowledge.

“You let us live.”

“You didn’t have to die. I don’t kill people just to kill people. That,” he paused after this emphasis, “would be crazy.” They completed their choices and brought their cute little bowls to the Vedani bartender.

When it came to the dialogue of choices, Arriba said, “Tell her she can make mine ‘classic’.” It returned to her warm and aromatic. Her gaze was drawn to a platter of something familiar-looking. “Are those cucumber sandwiches?”

Raev looked a little closer. “Approximately, yes.”

“They eat that too?”

“Vedani actually can eat most human foods, though for them it’s sub-optimal. It’s become a trend to experiment with human-style cuisine, and they get curious about trying it on actual humans. They’ve been learning about us for a while already, so they make some achievements.” Random picked up a couple in her hand, noting the similar-but-different texture of the bread. She went back to where she’d been sitting and handed one to Toledo, who inspected, bit, and nodded.

Wendel Harper, possibly the most upset to be captive, gave Sturlusson a dead stare as he sipped his green drink with them. “What’s going on here?” she asked succinctly.

Plainly, he replied, “We’re going to receive a Sea Voice transmission. It’s a special occasion, and we are fortunate enough in our timing to be included. I myself have never before been in attendance, and I’ve known them longer than most. I was a child when my father first introduced me to a Vedani person, a little more than thirty years ago.” He let that sink in.

“Then that was not long before Hirylien suffered the Affliction,” stated Soleil, her voice sounding louder than she intended.

“Princess, you are correct.” With a long sip, he drained his bowl and went to join a group of Vedani in conversation.

Random Arriba also finished her bowl. “If anybody’s hungry, this doesn’t hurt. I’m going for seconds and I’ll show you how to do it if you want to go with me.” She stood half-expectantly. “Plus, sandwiches.”

“I’ll try it,” said Soleil, getting up.

“Sandwiches,” said Toller. Wendel remained unmoved, and Trosper remained unruffled.

Soleil had just handed her bowl of ingredients to the woman at the mixer when she heard a young, accented voice behind her say, “Potato… potato…”

Wonderingly, she lifted a fist, replying as she turned, “Potato…” Calmly they walked their fists across the room to each other, the Scion Princess of the Pan-Galactic Imperium and a Vedani lass. Standing face to face, they bumped their knuckles and then spread their fingers apart, wiggling them as they withdrew their hands in the air. “…Fries!” they said in unison.

“Krinkle Kut,” said the girl. The rest of the pack of youngsters waved their arms at her from the doorway.

“What are you doing here?”

“We were invited. Our scapework had been garnering enough attention that we’ve recently been able to speak with the Voice of Authority – which can come from anybody, but only if they’ve earned it.” She appeared as though she’d never had to explain this to anyone. “It happens when someone has achieved the genuine authority of knowledge, and factors and cords in the aetherscape support the voice of the person or people who have the authority. We can hear it. People become interested in what is said and done with voices of authority.” The youths stood proudly. “Some of what we did with you is part of it. Listening to the live performance of a Sea Voice is an honor for people advancing the edges of innovation. But, what are you doing here? You disappeared.”

“I’m back because your associates, Sturlusson and Trosper, happened to find me and my friends and take us with them. After they disabled our ship.” The Vedani girl looked over at the clump of humans, who were all watching them and listening.

Returning their attention, Trosper lifted his arm and pointed at Wendel. “I was looking for her.”

Wendel let her face sink into her hand. “And I had just decided to help the stranded Princess along to her next destination.” She sounded tired and resigned.

“Okay,” said the speaker of the young group, “I can see that this is a long story… welcome back?” Her friends had approached and were now clustered near the both of them. “Now that we’re meeting in person, how about a formal exchange of names. I’m Yykth.”

“Kate?” There were little sounds on either side of this, but that was the main phoneme landing in Soleil’s ears.

“Sure.”

“And I’m Soleil.” Raev Sturlusson raised his eyebrows at the socially-appropriate lack of honorific. He wondered if she had consciously noted that Vedani do not use them, or if it was an accidentally-fitting diplomatic tact, or if she was setting her title aside out of personal taste.

“So-lay?”

“Yes, just so.” As she looked around, the room was filling up. Two other humans in Hirylienite garb entered with more Vedani, till the remaining reclining spaces had filled. It seemed like time, and it was.

People quieted when Uixtr began to address the room from a central point. “I will speak first of what we are doing to the humans present. What is a Sea Voice? We have known of them for a very long time, yet their true essence is enigmatic. They contact us, and we contact them in return. Only at such times, one will communicate with us at length. This is in a medium we cannot entirely understand, both like words and like music, dissimilar from our own and still never quite translated… in a manner of perspective.

“What we have learned through this occasional relationship is that after we have listened to a Sea Voice, which occurs only fleetingly, we achieve advances, innovation, and excellence that we had not before. We also, quite simply, find the sound of the Sea Voice to be very beautiful, though it is not hard to appreciate something so beneficial.

“There will also be a light show, by us. The Sea Voice often responds to this, and we believe it is somehow also transmitted via the open channel we create together. We call it a Sea Voice because our research tells us the audial waveform carries disturbances typical of transmission through large amounts of water. Theoretical testing continues to confirm this supposition. Please tell us what you thought of the transmission during the discussion to follow.”

The host of the space, Oibhn (‘oven’?) then gave a Vedani speech that sounded more like formal ritual. Some of them raised their bowls at one point, and the lights dimmed to near-darkness.

– 94.2 –

A humming sound began, one by one from the people in the room who knew what they were doing. Those Vedani who didn’t yet, listened carefully. After a time, Raev Sturlusson closed his eyes to listen. The collective hum rose and fell in susurrus, until the oscillation rested around a consistent central zone.

Quietly, a wailing overtone introduced itself to the sounds. This didn’t appear to come from anyone in the room. It existed somewhere between recognizable emotions and tones of conversation, thereof encompassing many. It possessed a pulsing rhythm, cadences holding suspense and release.

Light began to respond with diffraction patterns on the curved ceiling, seeking similar visual tones. This had its own language of artistry, such as could be transmitted by people who innately visualize information. The aggregate appearance expanded the dimensions of the ceiling to those of an intimate, small sky. There were counterpoints of transformation between vision and sound.

People relaxed into their parts in this ceremony of communication, and the contoured mountain slope furniture made more sense for this event. Eventually, after a long expression, the Sea Voice receded. People dropped out of the supporting hum one by one.

As the light show released the last few artful flickers, four figures formed from them, flickering in the air. They were surprising, yet familiar; and they were cheering. Oibhn arose to welcome the Kao-Sidhe, giving them a customary compliment on their timing. They chorused appreciation, particularly on the lightwork from which they appeared. The audience began to rise and make social discussion, as mentioned.

The luminous forms of the Kao-Sidhe, as though projected from the light show, were of a humanoid-sociable appearance and size. One of these departed from his companions and glided over to Scion Princess Soleil. Dragon Food made one of his bravo presentations. She nodded and smiled in recognition. He said, “You may be pleased to know that Moonshadow was rescued from the Brave Crossing.”

“I don’t know how you managed it, but I am very glad to hear that, yes.” Soleil’s path had taken her into some strange corridors, and she wondered where else she may soon be. There was Derringer over there, watching this encounter from an angle, and Soleil realized she’d lost track of him since before the Sea Voice had begun. It was a large room, but there weren’t that many humans present. They hadn’t discussed any details of his pursuit, but the Princess guessed he had power behind him, and guessed further where it could come from. He wasn’t as ragged and random as he was able to appear.

Dragon Food acknowledged the company of Uixtr, now joining them. Uixtr made a special motion of greeting to the Kao-Sidhe, splaying the fingers of one hand and passing them upwards over one eye. Dragon Food’s form pulsed once with brightness.

 

5x Rerun: Abyss Surrounding (2) 86-90

– 86 –

The three inhabitants of the spaceship Drift 9 all sat up front, each according to station – Wendel Harper in the pilot’s chair, Toller riding co-pilot, and Princess Soleil in the passenger fold-down. The passively engaged CD band registered an inclusive address, piping into the momentary quiet. “Advice request for Lowercase T, this is Buzzer Squad 1 calling Lowercase T, calling the great lightweight Lowercase T.”

Toller cleared his throat soberly. “Uh, Captain Wendel? That’s actually for me.”

The captain looked over at the young man warily. “You cooked up a handle? And people know it?”

“It’s mostly what I’ve been doing when I’m up here by myself.” Minding the presence of their passenger, he added, “You know, when we’re parked.”

“Do they know I let you sit pilot?” Slight emphasis on ‘sit’.

“No, and to them I sound like a giant burly man, which lends some comedy to the persona. I found the voice screening utility, and modded my own version of the Night Vigilante preset.”

“Buzzer Squad 1, still asking for Lowercase T to sock it to me.”

Despite his red-handedness, Toller was grinning a little. “Can I answer?”

Eye-checking their passenger, the captain gave a cagey affirmative. “I’d like to hear. Go ahead.”

The boy donned an earpiece microphone and twiddled to open and link his channel. “You’ve found the mighty but tiny Lowercase T, what do you got for me?” At the unexpected resonant gravelly timbre of Toller’s transmission voice, Wendel dissolved into subdued chortles. The Princess’ face wiggled with amusement.

“Hey-O, we lucked out! You gotta help us, Lowercase T. Buzzer Squad was en route to the big Palookatown Bash carrying their exhibition showpieces. We got inspected before getting there, and one of the showpieces, which we only picked up for the bash, held a squirrel stash of Zerite. Regulations have gone wacko on that, so now Squad 7 ship’s locked up, and we’re arguing with P-Town over who can pay to get it out. It’s been a really sucky day, Lowercase T. Can you give us some perspective?” The Princess was listening carefully to the grains of Pan-Galactic news that reached her ears.

“First, I want to tell you that everything is going to be okay! If you’ve done this for them every year, then they can help you with half to make sure you stay with the family. Remind them that there’s no squad like Buzzer Squad, and if they hire anyone else, the price hike and the hassle will cost more than the entire lock-up fee, which I’m surprised they didn’t pony up right away. But since you’ve been arguing, half will do fine. Just show them the way, like I’m showing you the way.” Toller’s offhand matter-of-fact way-of-wisdom voice had Wendel hovering in appreciative surprise.

“You’re the lightweight terror, Lowercase T. Tellin it like it is.”

“You know the truth when you feel it inside of you. Pulling no punches, getting the message across – Lowercase T on standby.”

Wendel broke the silence that followed his CD address. “I think I’m okay with… Lowercase T… being on particle. I’m only surprised I hadn’t found out till now.”

“I think I am too,” said Toller, “it just didn’t bear mentioning, I guess.” His focus remained on the rear longview screen for some time while they traveled. He turned to Wendel with an unconcerned remark. “I think there might be someone behind us.”

Wendel looked over to see what could be seen. “Yeah, there is somebody there. And I don’t recall them being there before. That’s weird.” She remained nonchalant, as she began to consider likelihoods. Sometimes, ships appear behind from nowhere if they were hanging out off-path. Out here though, off-path meant nearly lost and gone from civilization, away from easy safety. “Just coming in from the crisp edge.”

“What’s that?” asked Soleil, aware when new terminology was passing before her.

Captain Wendel and Toller shared a little smile as she began to explain. “It’s the area on the edge of nothing, past the reach of civilization’s tether. Not much of anything exists there, and if there is something, then the crisp edge is just beyond that. It’s odd running into other people out there, because it seems unlikely unless we have the same reasons.” Wendel was aware of the lurking presence in her life of uncertain dangerous elements, and so was Toller; if the film Zero-Clearance was an indicator, the Princess could currently be in similar territory as well. So an appearance on their tail from an unlikely area was a cue for conscientiousness.

As the captain was watching the display, presence indicators disappeared. Well, maybe that was okay – back they go. Then, they reappeared closer. And that was probably not okay, because it was also incongruent with currently known travel physics. “Toller, can you make sure all the mountings are secure on that equipment?” Wendel didn’t think he’d interpreted the data as profoundly as she had, which was fine for the moment. He checked and firmed all connections, and the reading image remained consistent. The equipment was fine.

Wendel set their path for a moment, and turned around with enunciated posture to silently and seriously examine the Princess. This gaze was knowingly returned with an expression of stoic unease. She had seen and understood the odd jump in readings, but also had nothing more yet to say about it. Wendel didn’t think anything would be achieved by abandoning her now, just as the Princess didn’t look sure that any particular action would help the situation for either of them.

Toller was flexing his permission on the CD bands. “Lowercase T, talkin to empties again. Breaking the silence with experience, I’ve got a new one for ya. Let me tell you about this time, it was flitter versus gatorwing. I don’t know what they were fighting for, but that flitter was going to be snack for sure – till a town hunter snagged the gatorwing right there out of the air. I followed the end of the rainbow to the grill where that was getting cooked up, and I toasted the victor of the quarrel with a piece of its enemy. Goes to show, sometimes the one with the upper hand turns out to be tastier pickins.”

– 87 –

Two blue-skinned, silver-haired humanoids sat on the floor facing each other with eyes closed. They were in a rounded corner nook not much taller than they could sit in. Others walked past their space, noticing but unconcerned. Their hands lay upturned, fingers waving gently; hair glowing slightly, one shade closer to their skin. They were interfacing in the aetherscape.

There, in the conceptual space that exists between people who call themselves Vedani, the two were negotiating entry into the private worklab of the woman Aelrn. She had taken the role of a botanist, and this was now a garden.

When the final access barriers were lifted, their wire-frame figures translated to a new setting. They were surrounded by many strong living presences, which existed here as distinctly-formed treelike structures pulsing with light. Treelike, because they were trees, as surely as any living – here, alive, in the aetherscape.

This was still a strange and puzzling idea to Uixtr, and most Vedani. Yet it was also the basis on which they had co-engineered a destabilizing attack on an empire that had exhibited increasing callous aggression toward their appearances, even doing horrific things to its own people in preventing possible liaisons. Wherever the power lay in the Pan-Galactic Imperium, the Vedani had finally concluded it to be in the wrong hands, which put them in danger as well.

These trees… they were the first other living beings ever found that naturally inhabited the aetherscape, which Vedani had believed unique to them. A significant and recent surprise. Some including Aelrn, began studying them. They learned that, like them, the trees had bodies in physical locations which were not necessarily propinquitous. They also became aware that these were connected to people who made intergalactic travel commonly possible – for the empire that continued to shun their contact, suppressing knowledge of theirs and others’ existence while disrupting their presence.

Vedani also discovered that these trees had life phases. There were individuals that existed solely in the aetherscape without a physical correlate, until they experienced a particular set of triggers that would create a body somewhere.

So it was that Aelrn was keeping a secret garden of thriving Symbias trees in the aetherscape. These trees had no physical bodies, yet. But they were alive, and she was one of a number of Vedani learning from them, about them.

“I can show you how I learned to hear them,” Aelrn said to her friend, stirring the leaf patterns extending from branch patterns.

“Hear them,” mused Uixtr in quiet awe, “…do they talk?”

“Actually,” she replied, “they sing. I laid down like this.” She sat at the base of one, extending her figure along the floorplane and nestling her head between two gnarling root projections. She gestured for Uixtr to do the same. “You don’t have to believe me. Connect yourself as I’m doing, your crown betwixt a fork, and ravel a thread of your form to theirs.”

He entwined one of his glowing lines with one from the tree, and at that moment, Uixtr began to hear things. “Whoah, wow, what?” he exclaimed. “Where am I? I mean, where is this tree? That is…” He let go in mild alarm, then reconnected and listened further. “Aelrn, are we hearing the same thing?”

She smiled, in connection with the same tree. “Well, I can’t really pronounce it. It goes kind of like…” and she made a set of chimey tinkling noises, indicating their scale differences with an upraised hand.

Holding with his connection, Uixtr approximated the sounds he was receiving and made a set of awkward but similar chimey tinkles. The sounds from the two of them differed slightly, but they differed with a particular degree of harmony. Uixtr felt responses from his physical body. “Who are they?”

“You’re hearing their version of the Aquari native language.”

After a while of simply listening, Uixtr said, “I think I’m beginning to understand.” Whether that meant he understood Aelrn’s fascination with these trees, or was starting to understand the meaning of the sounds, or the relationship between the trees and their people, Aelrn didn’t ask him to clarify; it could mean a little of all of those, as it did for her.

“It feels like knowing something already. You can just… drift out with them until you stir.” She smiled at the thought of her own suggestion.

Where the two Vedani sat in the nook, they shifted their torsos and opened their eyes at the same time. Uixtr brushed himself off, giving Aelrn a deep gesture of acknowledgment, and said, “Thank you for showing me your garden.”

– 88 –

Somehow, again, the ship behind them had come even closer. It wasn’t an equipment malfunction, or paranoid trick of the mind. They approached at an inconceivable rate – not within ten years of development, possibly not humanly allowable. Might someone be hacking their system to deceive them, and why? A thought that made more sense to Wendel, in context, was that someone might be trying to kill them with never-before-seen weapons and equipment. That wasn’t the first thing she’d never seen before, today, signifying different waters; a new ocean of possibility. The leaps forward defied velocity, killing the rear longview pathing. The ship never fell back or changed track. Ship database info wasn’t available yet at this distance, but Wendel was guessing it wouldn’t be helpful.

What could be bigger than the trouble that’s after me? Maybe the trouble that’s after her.

Wendel Harper freed her chair to swing around, and engaged Princess Soleil in a staring contest. She had to try not to ask about Zero-Clearance particulars, though it was hard to wrangle a question away from that topic. She tried her best with a little readiness testing, a good idea in situations involving untried adults. “Without inquiring into your situation, can you tell me if this might probably be something that involves you? I ask for the sake of decision making with regards to our welfare.”

Wearing the same face as when she’d first noticed the pursuant craft’s maneuvers, the Princess replied, “Perhaps. Without inquiring into your situation, do you think that this might have something to do with your affairs?”

“Possibly,” replied the captain. “How dangerous is your situation?”

Princess Soleil cleared her throat and indicated the rear longview screen. “How dangerous does that look? At the current moment, this is our situation.”

Even if splitting up would make a difference, Wendel wasn’t sure that she would want to. The captain didn’t necessarily think of herself as an authoritarian or one of great fealty, but there was something inspiring about this young woman. Wendel felt honored to have her aboard; she wanted to help her, somehow. “Yes, as of now we are in this together.” She was unaware that the Princess felt the same way.

They both turned their heads back to the screen in time to observe another disturbing leap in pursuit. “Do you think I should say something?” Toller asked, looking at the screen but pointing to the CD band unit. Oh – he did already understand that they were in danger. That saved Wendel an awkward pep talk. Now they were a team.

“No, don’t bother,” Captain Harper replied. “Do not extend the situation. You can keep talking, in case we can catch anything pertinent – and that way someone might remember when you stopped.” Toller handled the morbid suggestion of that statement very well.

“Lowercase T, the lightweight terror, with another shot to the gut – and by that I mean a morsel of wisdom that feels real inside when it lands. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but your best. Try to hide it, try to deny it, and forces might drive you all the way to the edge till that best comes right out of you, by golly it will. So do your best, or they’ll make you. Another square hit from Lowercase T, fightin for ya till the knockout.”

Seeing another positional jump in the rear longview, Wendel and Soleil groaned. The readings would lose their senses for a moment, then regain them with a shrug as though there were nothing strange about the ship simply being much, much closer. Wendel abruptly left her seat to put her own hands on the peripheral device and check it herself. Toller’s hands darted up towards the copilot control yoke, but stopped, hovering innocently two inches from it. Princess Soleil, having put the pieces of that particular puzzle together, looked directly at the boy and said, “It’s fine, you can go ahead.”

Speaking out of her side awareness, Wendel backed them up. “She says it’s fine, Toller. Special case right now.” Wendel resignedly patted the peripheral screen, still faithfully transmitting. “This thing is fine, too. But that -“ she jabbed her finger toward the icon now resolving into parts of an image, “- is not fine.”

Toller let his hands rest lightly on the controller for just a moment before peacefully withdrawing them to his lap as the captain took her seat again. Harper rambled as she reported her moment-to-moment cogitation. “I’ll run this last time period through the onboard path analyst, see if it sees what we see.” Nobody asked her to elaborate as she made commands and read output. “So, it reads correctly – that is, the unusual data translates between machines, visual and formula.” She flashed the chart onto the central screen, if anyone should so desire to corroborate her assessment. “The ship is approaching. They’re not entirely close enough to bounce off of, but they soon could be. It’s like they scoot up with a sort of cloaked leap. The period appears to decreasing.”

“You have very good longview devices equipped,” remarked Princess Soleil. “Standard anticipation measures?”

“A kind of professional’s insurance,” Wendel stated calmly, “cuts down likelihood of avoidable accidents. And hey, there it goes again. Yeah, both the time between leaps is decreasing, and the amount of space covered. By the rate of decrease, we could determine their target along this road, but I don’t think we need to bother. There’s nothing else out here. It’s probably us. What do you think, Princess?”

“Infinite approach. They’re utilizing an infinite approach formula.” Aside from this bit of insight, Soleil just gave a serious affirmative nod.

“Did you say Princess? Princess of what?” This time it was Toller’s turn to rotate his seat to face her. “THE Princess? Like, all the Princesses ever?”

“A bit like all of the Princesses in my line, that of the Magus Dynasty.” She nodded kindly. “Do you not take in the news very often?”

“Almost never,” he said, looking down at his clothes as though they should tell her something; though, this was a fairly new set. The Princess just smiled, and he smoothly rotated his seat back around to the controls.

“Okay, that was another slide forward just now,” announced Wendel. “Now they’re in bounce range for visual. Gripes, but that’s a fast ship. Littler than us, but definitely faster. From there, they could catch up with us the old-fashioned way in about twenty minutes. Also I apologize, I truly thought I had mentioned your grace – I probably had a hard time registering that someone could not know. Then again, you introduced yourself to him as Soleil, and maybe I just didn’t want to give any more information than you gave… even though I thought your grace was obvious and easily known. Zero-Clearance is weird and scary.”

“Darnit, the CD bands are going wonky. They’re still there, it’s just wonkytown.” The boy’s twiddling took on the dire focus of last-minute testing.

“Right now our pathway is full forward, nothing blocking…” The captain swiveled to face the others. “There’s a defense system on this ship, and currently I’m the only one who can engage it. Are you prepared for the possibilities of me using it?” This last question was directed mainly toward the Princess.

Soleil felt concern for Moonshadow. “Do I need to move my vehicle?”

“No, it’s not in the way,” replied Wendel.

“Yes, I’m prepared,” stated Soleil convincingly. Then, an unusual sensation returned in her thoughts. A funny feeling she’d almost forgotten but which had a name: Raev Sturlusson. Wasn’t he imprisoned? It didn’t feel like he was in prison. He felt nearly as close as during her approach to the hospice room in the Spear where she’d snuck a word with him before his sentencing. With the same approaching feeling. “Someone very dangerous could be on board that ship,” she warned.

Captain Harper spoke as she rose up. “We already have some idea. We’ll do what we need to do. Toller, take the chair and maintain full forward along the speedway line.”

He finally pushed something through his broadcasting struggle. “Good night, and good luck. Lowercase T wishes you peace, out.” Then he let go, making it clear there was nothing more worth trying with it. He then transferred chairs immediately. Toller wiped and patted his palms on his lap, then turned to give Princess Soleil a bravado wink as the captain disappeared. “Want to sit co-chair?” he asked. “Maybe you’ll get to push a button.”

Giving the lad her best huntress smile, Soleil dashed up and strapped in. “I’m not familiar with these controls,” she admitted, “but I’ll take commands.”

“Okay!” announced Toller with convicted readiness.

Wendel’s voice chimed in over the com. “No point trying to contact them when we’re cut off. Skyfather warming up, ready in 3. I hope you are, too.”

“Okay!” Toller repeated his confidence back to the captain.

Soleil reported in, using the current operating term. “Okay!” She then addressed Toller. “What’s the Skyfather?”

“It’s a giant, excuse me, gigantic beam cannon.”

Soleil had only seen diagram documents, but she was aware of their capabilities. “Well, then. I suppose we’ll see what they’ve got, and what they want.”

– 89 –

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!”

– 90 –

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.

5x Rerun: Abyss Surrounding (2) 82-84, 20th Sequence, 85

– 82 –

“Easy cruisin, constant movin.” Derringer coined this phrase a while ago for certain recurring job phases – times when he was supposed to come up with something out of thin air with no clue. Well, the air gets thinner when he leans into the wind. Inspiration was free to arrive, so long as he kept attention on his main motivation.

He chose the Brave Crossing to pass his time, one of the longest and least traveled interplanetary causeways. Few went that way anymore since gates became an option on that route, and it was no less risky than ever. Hence, the name. One has to really enjoy the wilderness to go that way. Derringer did occasionally enjoy a little time in the wild.

He knew this way well already. Getting lost wouldn’t be a distraction. He could meditate, and let things percolate. He had supplies. He knew how long it would take, and where he could stop and drift.

Speaking of drifts, he was passing one now on the opposite directional path. A Bluebird Mark 7! Those were so useful. This one came from the years they were built with maximum function and pride, rather than the subsequent popularity. Derringer slowed enough to grab a capture so he could admire it. Yup – personal battleship, industrial enough for deliveries. As he scooted around in an undesignated premium government vehicle, he allowed himself a moment of envy for the owner of that fine model, kept fairly classic.

– 83 –

Princess Soleil stepped forward off the platform, one hand held up for credential activation with a genteel smile.

Wendel Harper, the ship’s captain, instantly understood what she was looking at, from the possible credential encounters section of her training. Zero-Clearance means that no one has authorization to question this matter. There was a film named Zero-Clearance. She’d never seen it in person before, but nothing else looked like it. The instant display was sharp and high-definition. The captain clearly recognized the Princess, with a special-model ship. “Greetings, Princess Soleil. I understand that you are on undisclosable matters. My name is Wendel Harper, captain of this ship. May we be of assistance?” The Princess nodded, looking relieved. She put away her credential, standing at ease to face the captain.

Before anything evolved, Wendel divulged. “I have one other shipmate. Would you like to meet him up front? He’s temporarily keeping my seat.” Her arms gestured toward their causeway. She had no idea about proper forms of address, so she just cut the crap. Whatever needed to happen, she wanted Toller’s presence to be accounted for.

“Yes, okay,” was the young woman’s reply. Wendel led her to the cockpit, where the teenaged boy appeared patient and passive in the pilot’s chair. The whole happenstance felt more weighty than a quibble over having someone young minding the controls, so Wendel made no issue over presentation. “Toller, our passenger wants to meet you.”

“Hello, my name is Soleil.” She didn’t bother with title or credential, allowing a simple encounter.

To the boy she was strangely familiar, though he was unsure how. He replied with frank and open glibness. “Okay. I’m Toller. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said with an easy nod.

The captain instructed him. “Hold the seat while I help her out, alright?”

“Sure.” As he assumed the responsibility, Soleil connected her previous maneuvering observation with the boy in the chair, novice pilot recognizing novice pilot. She inwardly approved more of this captain, having been a learning prodigy allowed exception to age restrictions. It made sense that they were on one of the longest and least populated thruways of the Pan-Galaxy. Wanting no inquiry, she too inquired as little as possible, following the captain back toward Moonshadow.

Wendel addressed her in the hold. “Your message read that you need fuels and charges?”

“Exactly,” said Soleil. Though they had not been parked in totally dire circumstance, she’d asked Moonshadow what it might need if they could get it. She was given some manageable requests, and decided that if it were possible to use authority loyalty or service in lieu of currency, she should obtain things at soonest opportunity. “I’d also like to fill my drinking reservoir,” she said as it additionally occurred to her; vapor collection had been reliable, but this was the time for wise considerations to surface. “I’ll show you the details on my display so you can see what you might be able to spare me. I appreciate your time and effort.”

As they walked toward the vehicle, Wendel zipped up any questions, just letting herself behold this never-before-seen tiny marvel. This alone might be one of the reasons the Princess was wearing Zero-Clearance. She wondered if there were any more of these out there. Was the Princess still reported missing? And, as she hadn’t used her title, did Toller even know who he’d just talked to?

Soleil brought Wendel to face the outer front display, showing a clear language-and-symbol list. “I can use any of these seven reagent powders, some deionized water, and perhaps drinking water.”

“I have both kinds of water to share. Will it help if I can supply a handful of each of these three?” Wendel touched the screen to indicate, and each item highlighted itself, the combination registering a positive sign in an upper corner.

“Yes. Is your mixer working?”

“It is, I’ll get them mixed up for you. I only have a standard spouted feeder bowl…”

Soleil nodded that this would be fine. “While you do that, can I use your air brush?”

“Sure. It’s a little big for that.” The smallest spacecraft anyone expected to service was at least twice the size of this funny sled.

“That’s okay,” replied the Princess. Harper went to detach the airbrushing unit from the hold’s inner wall, and rolled it over.

“Enjoy. There’s a com over there you can use if you need to call someone in the next ten minutes,” said the captain, pointing toward the corner by the entry bay.

The airbrushing unit was the size and weight of a large greatsword, nearly the length of Moonshadow itself with nozzles along one side. Soleil gained her balance with it, orienting toward the field curvature, and turned on the machine. Legs braced wide, she hosed the activated field with high-pressure streams. The field bubble sparkled under the airflow. Moonshadow played a little light around its platform, expressing enjoyment. Though it hadn’t made a sound, Soleil hissed, “shhhh.” She wasn’t sure how people would react to evidence of its consciousness. Moonshadow went back to being surreptitiously unresponsive.

Wendel returned, feeder bowl in hands, containing mixed fuel powders. She approached once Princess Soleil finished the last of the airbrushing. Soleil extended a finger-width retractable hose that initiated intake when brought close enough to the powders. Wendel pointed to the spout, which would fit the hose inside, and Soleil nodded. Placing the hose through the spout, Soleil let Wendel steadily shake the powders toward the intake, while she gestured that she would be checking around the rest of the vehicle.

After peering at a reading and looking under a flap, Soleil overcame a hesitation. “I don’t want to hold you up here any longer than I should. May I know where it is you’re going?”

“Sure, no issue. The planet we’re heading towards at the other end of the Brave Crossing is Primatris.”

Soleil attempted approximation. “That’s about a day from here?”

“A day and a half, in this ship.”

“It would serve me well to stay on board with you, if you feel comfortable continuing involvement for no assured reward. I could then also use a flushing canister, some Mist 5, and your power radiator for a while.”

Wendel took in a breath. “During your occupancy, would we be under aegis of your Zero-Clearance?”

If this credential were legitimate, the answer would be yes, so Soleil replied, “Yes.”

The captain nodded with consideration. “Can I bring Toller in here to give you our decision?”

“Certainly,” replied the Princess. “Can I have half a bucket of DI water to feed up while you deliberate and return?” Wendel agreed, and carried that over before exiting.

In the time it took for Moonshadow to drain the bucket, Captain Harper returned with young Toller. With a shy smirk and the same no-nonsense attitude as his captain, the boy asked, “Before I give my decision, can I look at that?” His eyes were pointed toward the curious vehicle in the corner.

From a closed smile, the Princess said, “Yes, but I’m not answering any questions about it.”

With an assumed scholar’s air led by glittering eyes, Toller approached with hands clasped behind him, bending his benign scrutiny towards Moonshadow. “Hmmmm… Hmm.” After twice around, he nodded soberly to Wendel.

“We’ll help you,” she said to Soleil.

– 84 –

This stash-dump of overstock toilets quietly occupied half a small valley of construction site ruins. Toledo Vadr addressed them. “There’s something bodily about a toilet that makes it seem like a personal extension. Each of those could be up against someone’s ass, and excretion passes through it like another organ, which it resembles. This looks like a very large assembly of individual organs.”

“We’re taking as many as we can carry.” Random Arriba turned to scrutinize the cargo trailer that their little-but-mighty tech ship would tow to a location they hadn’t yet received. “I wonder if these are for the aliens we just met.”

“Aliens?” Toledo asked. That was an archaic word that had fallen out of favor. Other sentient people hadn’t been commonly called aliens since longer than fifteen generations ago, but that was also the last time that the Imperium had met and integrated another sentient, the Aquarii.

“You know… sentients we don’t know yet. We’ve only just met, and wisdom is a deep lesson to demonstrate. Okay, they’re obviously people, who look astoundingly similar to us Humans. And they were actually as easy to work with as anybody who doesn’t say a word to you.” They had a tread-sled, which went with them from loading point to loading point. It wasn’t the fastest work, but they made a difference as time passed.

“Do you think they use toilets?” Toledo wondered aloud.

Random half-smirked. “If they did, they wouldn’t need to lift some from us, would they? They could get their own.”

“I really hope we’re not furnishing our own prison cells.” Toledo continued peppering this conversation through the gradual filling of the cargo load.

“And… what if we are?” Random selected the next toilet she hoisted with a little more care.

“Then, maybe we’d have to do something about it. For now, second life ain’t too bad. Besides – apparently they’d have enough courtesy to provide toilets. Even though this is a lot of toilets to people like us, I think we’re only taking about as much capacity as a middle school or a medium hotel. Prisons are either smaller or bigger.”

Random snickered. “Maybe they’ve just now discovered our amazing technology, and it’s the new art fashion sensation. Just to have one. Could be. They’re like push-to-operate fountains.” The link module Arriba was carrying brought up a transmission. “We’ve got our location,” she announced. “It’s totally different, and also nowhere near anything.”

“Alright,” said Vadr, opening his hands wide towards their unusual carry load, “Big delivery on its way.”

– 20TH SEQUENCE –

– 85 –

“I see my objective through access views,” said the smartly dressed gentleman piloting the speedcraft, to his long-haired one-armed passenger. He was focusing on a peripheral photostrip display to one side of the frontwards view.

Sitting very still, Raev Sturlusson smirked and raised an eyebrow. “Your objective is ahead of us?” He looked up at the ceiling, and seemingly through it, for a moment of consideration. His brown skin had gained a shade of health. “Permission to capture with me onboard,” he declared, “Phi Protocol.”

Verne ‘Bobcat’ Trosper understood this indicated the golden opportunity escalating spiral for chase-capture-kill, each action attributed to a dependently sequential growing activation energy. “Permission wholeheartedly taken.” He wiggled himself further into the pilot’s seat. “I might bend disclosure rules.” They would have better chances if he used onboard ally technology in this uncontrolled area. “The last ship within observation range will pass us soon, going in the other direction. It’s an undercover, so I intend to take notice as we cross.”

“Your discretion is impeccable to the utmost. I might not even notice, smooth operator that you are.”

“It’s possible that no one of consequence will.” Trosper began turning dials, and unusual harmonics filled the sonic spaces between words. “As to who might, woe betide thee.”