70

“Due to energy pattern expansion rates, we need to widen flight paths beyond the C sphere, here.” With her laser pen she colored the zone orange.

“Except for you people,” Arcta indicated the technical instrument pilots, “because you’re carrying the Dyson probes and photon sounders. You’re in two teams, each covering a hemisphere. There is a set rotation plan, in case communication equipment is affected. We already have some signal bandwidth workarounds.”

The door opened, and General Iparia stepped in. Dr. Hydraia straightened.

“Now for those of you shadow marking – priority observations are signal strength, signal length, placement, and finally type.”

“Don’t you think the subject of what we see might be more important than the quantified signatures?”

Arcta looked down and let half a smile emerge. “Those of you who’ve examined the list of signal types have found, I’m sure, that the list keeps growing longer and is already too long to memorize. Type recognition is last priority because attempting it would keep attention from every other reading. The data is being pored over at Loramer. If they find a useful pattern in it, then we might shift our focus there. Until then, let’s concern ourselves with the possible effects and direction of the energy output, and how to handle and defend ourselves from it.”

Iparia leaned against the wall, arms crossed.

70

“And we’ll detach one team – that’s you – to array themselves between here and Photuris. You’ll have a more sensitive set of instruments. We want you to sit there, and read. I’m sorry we can’t just deploy satellites for this – we want people there live reading, and able to respond.”

“That’s all you need to hear from me. Your officers will give you the nitty gritty.” She watched the pilots exit, saluting the General as they passed. Hydraia cleared her data display.

The General took a step forward. “We’re going to assign two shadow markers to type cataloguing.”

“That would leave holes in our coverage. We’ve already thinned out in order to create a buffer zone.”

“I think the greater hole in our knowledge would be to ignore this information. We can spare that much, so that’s what we’ll do.”

“Do you realize that the energy dynamic in that sphere is over twenty times that of any known anomaly? And we still have no reason, or insight other than confusion. Diverting resources from safety on something practically pointless is reckless. I hope you understand that.”

“That’s what we’ll do until or unless we can bring out another Alpha base.”

At this point Hydraia nodded, turning around to put things in her bag. “I’m heading to Alpha 1, and back in three days.” On her way out she stopped to salute. “General.”

She crossed the corridors of the Alpha base to where the Drift 9 was docked. Arcta entered straight to the cockpit where Wendel Harper lounged in the captain’s chair. She chucked her stuff into a bin and flopped down next to her, heaving a sigh. “Fools. They really have no idea.”

Wendel straightened and began powering the ship. “That kind of day today?”

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61

Though their passenger insisted she didn’t require special consideration, they picked the finest pub in Dalmeera – plenty of chairs, intact windows, no fleas, full meal service. Toller looked across the table at her, indifferently curious.

Arcta Hydraia’s long green hair was braided, and she gazed through spectacles at the menu, a mess of chalk writing on the opposing wall. She murmured and nodded, then blinked and looked elsewhere as she noticed the boy’s attention on her.

“So you’re a scientist?” he asked again.

“Yes, in massive sphere dynamics.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“A relatively new discipline. We’ve only really been able to explore sphere dynamics since the appearance of non-solid anomalies.” She paused. “And from there it gets complicated.”

“Why are you going to the capital?”

She drew her breath in slowly. “Sorry, classified. It’s important enough that I don’t want to look for a different ship. Not here in Dalmeera, anyway.”

A blond figure detached from the crowd to stand square in front of their booth. “What do you guys want? I’m going to fetch it from the bar.” Wendel’s short hair was in disarray, a lingering smile on her face.

“Did Leiv go?” Toller asked, using his first name as requested.

“Yeah, we found a buddy headed out to join the second round of the refugee shuffle. They left, he’s going to look to his ship. Did you want anything to eat or drink?”

“How about a fried honklizard steak?”

Wendel raised her eyebrows. “Hungry boy. I’ll finish it if you don’t. What about you, Ms. Hydraia?”

“Arcta, please,” she replied, her eyes glancing at distant corners. “I’m not hungry right now, thanks.”

Wendel peered at her. “How about some hot silver?”

“Hot silver?”

“You can’t leave Dalmeera without trying hot silver, no ma’am.” She patted the table. “Back in a minute. Don’t leave, don’t get in trouble.” She turned to weave through the thick crowd toward the counters. Toller shrugged across the table.

The pilot was back shortly with food. She unburdened herself of the steak and kept a mug for herself, handing the other to Arcta, who looked curiously at the iridescence in her cup. Harper took a hearty sip. “Moonlighty caffeinated nourishment. They don’t make it properly outside Dalmeera, they really don’t.” Harper watched the passenger’s tentative reaction.

“How long are we to wait here, do you think?” Arcta asked her pilot without impatience. “I trust your reasoning is good, I am just curious.”

“There are lots of people I haven’t seen here, which is good,” said Wendel, continuing to sip. “It means parts of the world are in working order. I just sense a simmer in the direction of the capital, and I’m waiting for it to die down. It’s so central a place, and also a busy time. I’m not too apprehensive to go there, that’s our next wise step fare aside. I’m aiming for a completely uneventful trip.” Harper was draining her cup quickly, almost as fast as Toller was demolishing his steak. Arcta noticed their pace and followed suit.

“It’s fair to tell you now that we’re hiding in plain sight. We’re likely surrounded by people who would aid in our capture if they knew who they were looking at. But they don’t, which helps me find the safe route.” Harper put out a hand. “I wasn’t placing you at any great risk. This town is dangerous, but also safe.”

The three finished their food and drink without much extra talk. Murmurs rose and fell, deals, meetings, uproar and upset – the place as usual.

When at the sound of a shot, chaos erupted. Wendel pulled the other two under the table, and dragging them by their shirts like ducklings, crawled along the wall below people’s legs, shielding the three of them with well aimed blows. The other two kept quiet and stayed close. They squeezed out of a door into a less crowded chamber.

Harper yelled briefly to the others. “This,” she pointed, “has nothing to do with us. Not our problem. We’re going now.” Her words were clearly enunciated. Toller and Arcta looked at each other, and both nodded tersely, agreeing that they would just like to get out.

61

Outside the bar, the noise was surprisingly minimal. It was a localized event. Harper put a hand on their backs and walked them away briskly. “Nothing to worry about,” were her only words until they boarded the Drift 9 at the airlot.

59

From within the two women watched the nearby dogfight between Harper’s Drift 9 and their attacker. There wasn’t much debris nearby, so Harper used the Entropy 8 as a maneuvering focus. Rosh watched shots fire past the hull of her ship with clenching fists. “Where’s that gun of yours. Quit dancing.”

The attacking fighter popped in from a blind angle, straight toward the window of the pod. There was a split second to grab hold before the blow sent them careening.

“I think it fair, perhaps, to discount your trip fee,” Rosh breathed as the pod slowed.

“It’s my rotten luck.” The passenger, a lovely woman though currently disheveled, shot her a fey look. “Listen, if we get through this, I will pay double.” She sighed and muttered.

The window drifted round in time to see the fighter release a beam that stretched into a razor-thin plane. Drift 9 dove out of the way, but Rosh’s ship was helpless in its path. “No stop – why -” She watched the beam fatally interrupt both of her engines. “ENTROPY,” Rosh wailed as her machinery crumbled.

A wide white flash suddenly cut across their field of vision. The fighter wobbled past, now missing part of a scorpion wing. Another gigantic beam flashed out of the Drift 9, making a square hit before anyone could blink. The fighter just drifted now, leaking fuel into space, the rear of it shredded.

The two looked at each other, holding their breaths. Drift 9 popped up in front of them, hatch open, pulling them in.

59

After steadying the pod, Leiv Gruun opened the door. The passenger exited, staggering over to sit on a nearby cargo case. As Rosh stepped out, she clapped Gruun on the shoulder. “SkyFather?”

Leiv nodded and grinned. He was a crack shot with that beast of a thing, from the time they went asteroid shooting. Emira felt the ship beneath her on its way into the next neighborhood.

The green-haired passenger looked up from where she sat. “Where are we headed right now?”

“Out of here, first,” Emira Rosh replied. “After that,” she looked at Gruun, “we’ll talk it over.”

“I’d like to discuss it before we go very much further.” She stood and approached them. “My errand is urgent.”

Leiv and Emira gave each other a look. “We’ll take it to the captain,” he said, gesturing for them to follow.

Toller vacated the copilot’s chair when the three of them entered. Leiv touched Wendel on the shoulder before he took the seat. She unbuckled and embraced Emira. “I’m sorry about your ship.”

Emira began the laughter, but they both carried it for a moment. “Ah. I’ve caught up with you. Now we’ll both have nines.”

“Great number. Badge of pride.” Wendel wiped her eye.

Emira indicated her passenger. “This is Arcta Hydraia. She’s looking to contract a private transport.”

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Hydraia. You’ve found the best ship round these parts.” The two of them enjoyed the joke. “Well, where is it you’re headed?”

She drew herself up, smoothing her hair. “To Alisandre Capital, with haste.”