27 \ 209

Items were going missing. Old things were showing up, and then disappearing again. Wherever something showed up, people would remember stories about that thing, which they had forgotten until just then. World-altering remembrances were being retold in a storm of strange occurrences.

Amid all the chaos of the mysterious windows – whose displayed images were starting to stir apprehensive confessions from retired professionals – a lot of people were deciding to seek these lost things that were very precious to them. Objects of cultural and ancestral significance, each rediscovery was itself worth finding a way around house arrest, by the reasoning of those who fully understood the value.

Given the motivation, a stranglehold can be broken. They found ways through their own guards, uncovering the weaknesses of martial authority. By and by, people did find their lost things, which can have a way of calling for reunion. Inevitably, they were with everyone else’s lost things, in piles so tall that they formed towers. People found what they were looking for, but they couldn’t retrieve it, because nothing would come unstuck. The towers couldn’t be damaged, because people would not harm these objects. They couldn’t bear to do that. The towers grew, and confounded seekers continued to be drawn to this mystery.

5x Rerun: (1) Fire Within, 10-13 + 2nd Sequence

– 10 –

The light grows dim through the trees,
the shadows dapple and rise.
Everyone inside, this is a huntress’ time.
When the sun sets, and the heat dies,
when the devils awake, but to their tragedy,
no greater devils than we!

Margeaux felt a strange hunger in her muscles and the music. Wriggling inside her skin, she saw herself crawling through growing darkness. The lyrics were sung in Old Indar, which meant Margeaux understood every fourth word, but she could hear it in the musicians, and Kamini’s voice. She had the urge to grin ferociously. The Queen was smiling, to her left. Soleil was expressionless.

In my tender childhood, when first my mothers
and sisters took me into the night,
I was blind. All shadow and shade a mystery,
and now it is the other side of me.

Soleil was feeling emotions she couldn’t name, surprised at their strength. She felt a similar response from her cousin next to her. Atop that, like graffiti scratched into a mirror, was a feeling that she was overhearing someone talk about her. Like an unfamiliar voice saying something personal, right in her ear. Despite wanting to really hear the music, Soleil kept her focus ready, senses pricked. She didn’t anticipate danger, necessarily. If she had described this sensation to Arkuda, her teacher, he would have told her this was a precursor to contact with some ethereal beings. As it was, she had no knowledge, and no warning. She was in the dark.

No home so wild and subtle as the shadow forest.
Herald the night-singing small ones,
the dusk orchids and their lover moths.
Let the cool hours envelop us and our
bodies set to the stalk and chase.

With daggers, claws and darts,
All our limbs, the scents and our calls –
only then, when we are risking everything
committing our muscle, our breath, our life –
this thrill is the soul of us!

Section 10

– 11 –

The data on Karma’s display turned green all at once, and collapsed into a single flashing dot. Her computer and the safe emitted a small beep. As she reached toward them, a hovercar dropped into view, and the window wall by the bed exploded in shards.

Derringer hit the floor and looked up. Karma, crouching, reached up and grabbed both devices from the desktop. “I thought you weren’t followed,” she shouted as she took cover. From her jacket she withdrew a custom automatic pistol.

Derringer lunged over to the portal and slapped the frame, calling the elevator. A few bullets struck the frame and the wall nearby. “Did you ask yourself that question?” He got himself behind a corner in time to hear her fire three shots.

Sticking his head out to look, he saw both men down, one conscious. “I saw it as an eventuality,” said Karma, reholstering her piece. She sent him a wink before crossing the room and withdrawing a rocket launcher from under the bed. Firing from her shoulder, the rocket plumed a white smoke trail to where it collided with the hovercar outside.

They felt the waves from the explosion as the flier fell from view. Karma dropped her weapon and headed for the elevator just as the frame illuminated and the door slipped open. Derringer launched himself after her and they were in together.

Through the elevator’s glass walls, he could see the wreckage thirty floors below amidst a growing crowd. The sound of sirens was approaching from a distance. Karma glanced over at him with her computer in hand. “Jacobs warned you, right? He should have.”

“When he hires me, it goes without saying.” A thin red beam stretched itself from her device to the middle of the elevator ceiling as she set another program in motion. “Who’s paying the bill for this? Cause it surely isn’t me.”

“Either my people, who booked the room, or their people, who blew it up. We’ll see!” The elevator detached itself from the building, but instead of going down its appointed route to the ground floor, they headed round to the other side of the building. Her computer chimed, the beam disappearing as she slipped it back into her jacket.

“Where is this going?” asked Derringer.

“Service entrance,” she replied. He relaxed, loosening his joints and smiling a little. This could be fun. He was empty-handed, only a minor disadvantage. When you need a weapon, there’s usually something at hand.

Karma turned to face him. “I can get us out. Stick with me till we’re clear, then you’re free as a bird.” Derringer nodded, though he intended to learn a little more about what he was just dodging bullets for.

The moment the door began to open, they squeezed through and took off down a hallway packed with cleaning carts, linen piles, open supply closet doors and people. Karma was nimble even in her boots, and Derringer enlarged her wake. One man attempted to get in their way, and Karma dodged past while Derringer lightly flipped him down.

Karma tapped a code into her computer. Ahead of them at the end of the hall, the door to the service elevator shaft slid open. “Going down?” Derringer yelled.

“Yes.”

“Is there a hook slider in there?”

She flashed him a look. “Yes.” Must have thought she was the only one here who’d ever planned an elevator escape. The sounds of confusion were rising behind them.

“I’ll take it, then, you hang onto me.”

After a pause, she nodded. “Okay. It’s on the right.” Derringer caught the edge of the opening, with his left hand finding the maintenance rappel device against the wall of the shaft. He hooked it up with the center of the cable, jamming the lever down to keep it steady. With one side, he hung onto the hook slider. Karma stepped into his other arm, hanging onto his shoulders and wrapping around his free leg. He could feel the pistol under her jacket against his side. He jammed the lever up, the door closing as they dropped out of sight.

Section 11

– 12 –

I seek the fire, the blue-green fire
of Oloa the snake dancer –
healer of our tribe, deliverer of daughters,
savior of lives, shaman of visions.

Spirit speaker Oloa, one of us and not one of us,
with us and always apart, we find her
by her fire when traces of dusk have vanished.
We follow the moon moth to Oloa’s fire.

Soleil broke into a sweat. She kept her breathing calm, but why sweating? The music was intense, but this wasn’t a usual reaction. Her life had been generally free of present danger; feeling it now, she didn’t understand it. Soleil couldn’t move or squeeze her hands, holding her grandmother’s and cousin’s. Her body was unresponsive to command. Tendrils of panic arose in her thoughts.

Something is wrong, nothing is cooking.
No song in her hut, no glamour of vines,
the beasts her friends all hide their faces
and make no sound.

An arrow! Our snake dancer
is no warrior, her weapons and power
are of another world, why does her
agate-tipped arrow wear blood?

Lysha begins calling the other warriors by name to join her. The music turns darker, urgency rising in tempo and timbre. Easing herself into a state of detachment, Soleil guessed she was having an adrenaline response with night terror paralysis. There was a distinct pulse in what felt like a physical place in her skull.

She would have spoken if she could, maybe to Margeaux, but she couldn’t manage even a quiet utterance. One by one, the other women singers were arriving in the piece. Together, they were discovering the scene of the crime. Finally, climbing a peak of terrific arpeggios, they screamed,

MURDER! She is slain. Fallen…

Soleil’s senses dimmed as though someone was squeezing her life in their fist. Her detached self understood that this wasn’t a mortal sensation – it had a distinctly neural quality, like the traces of iron in water. The animal core of her, however, was a rearing, frightened horse locked in and tied tight.

The dead shaman Oloa was carried out from backstage in the arms of Lysha and Neris. Soleil focused on her through pulses of blackness. It was a bright enough sight that it was something her mind could hold onto, even as it seemed somehow to be failing.

Traditionally, the shaman is a role of honor, the silent star of this piece. She emerges only this once in her full regalia, and she is already dead. This costume, not bound by any enduring or definite character, is often an homage to an ancestor or elder. On this stage, Oloa’s skin was black as night, her hair a voluminous dark fall including many strands of pulsating, soft rainbow light. This was bound in uncountable loose sections by loops glowing with the same light, as did the stripes down the sides of her fitted black bodysuit. Their dead shaman was a glowing, alien anachronism, lit up and supine as a martyr in neon; pitiful as a firefly’s last dance.

This assembly of glowing swoops and halos anchored Soleil’s vision. When she became certain that she could either cry out, or that her mind would cave to whatever was attacking it – the sensations fled, leaving the barest trace on her memory. As though she had eaten spicy food.

The four women onstage were now singing the memorial verse, setting the shaman onto a bier, covering her, and raising her up. Soleil’s mind was reflexively healing its trauma, covering its tracks, but she took note before it could erase them completely. Should mention this later, though to whom? Very unusual. The entire ensemble switched to percussion, beginning the battle verse.

We are a storm, the lightning suddenly
cleaving a tree in twain, the sudden fire
springing forth from its body, the fire that
takes the mountainside, the winds that
spread it and the driving rain that ends it.

Soleil rose to her feet with the rest of the front row. She was clapping. With bewildered sarcasm, she noted that her hands and feet were now working just fine. She smiled, and all the cameras looked at her.

Section 12

– 13 –

She was finally nearing the end of guest reception. Members of the family stood in different areas, having informal words with those leaving. On Soleil’s left, her younger sister Mireille was bowing to an Aquari Councillor. Brown-haired and still wearing baby fat at eighteen, she took more after their father, sharing his inclination to follow stories and gossip. Soleil understood politics, and Mireille understood politicians. They weren’t the closest of friends – Margeaux knew more of her heart – but they spoke often about matters of state.

Soleil could feel composure slipping, and knew she needed to get out. She put a hand on her sister’s shoulder, who leaned an ear to her. “I need to go for now,” she spoke quietly. “I’ll be back if I can.”

Mireille curved her lips in a smile, speaking back with equal warmth. “Be well, Soleil. I can take it from here.” Turning in a way that kept the shape of her skirts, Soleil went through the double doors behind them that led to the outer balcony. This open-air walk stretched around the outside curve of the Auditorium building, ending in Imperial offices and apartments. There was a dressing room there where she could take a moment.

The night air was cool. Soleil sighed, tilting her face to the sky. It was on this balcony that her mother had taught her the Alisandrian constellations. Though the Pan-Galactic Imperium spanned dozens of planets acquired over more than twenty generations, the royal seat had been on Alisandre since the beginning of expansion. It was this sky, her mother said, that had shaped the dynasty – no matter how many skies she would see over her lifetime, these stars would tell her she was home.

Her formal shoes clicked along the flagstone expanse. The balcony was mostly empty, but for a scattering of strolling pairs, who bowed as she passed. Rounding the final curve, she slowed her pace when she saw the figure leaning against the rail. Hearing an approach, he stood, and smiled.

The high-dress uniform in colors of black, red, gold and white struck a crisp outline to his caramel brown hair and weathered complexion. He made a bow, his eyes crinkling at hers. “An honor, Princess Soleil.”

She acknowledged him, her face opening into a weary smile. “General Draig Claymore.” Though the sight of her childhood friend cheered her, she was still dragging, and was sure that it must show. This was the first she’d seen of him since her return, and she was loathe to make the time short; but she had to admit she felt ready to collapse. “I’m glad you could attend.” Her head felt light and detached, her voice far away. “Please excuse me -”

He rushed forward when he saw her drop.

Suddenly Soleil looked up, felt the pavers beneath her hands, and realized she was no longer standing. She was supported on Draig’s arm, and he was shouting to someone. Soleil began to laugh at herself, but when she opened her mouth it was only the jabber of flames, and everything was lost in the sunfire.

Section 13

– 2ND SEQUENCE –

Second Sequence

5x Rerun: (1) Fire Within, 5-9

5

“Was just thinking about you the other day, D.” Jacobs leaned over the phronium, examining each through a multi-lens in his hand. “Business has been picking up. All different kinds.” He went from capsule to capsule, his head bobbing like a poult pecking rocks. Finally he straightened up and directed a satisfied gaze toward Derringer. “I could put you to work if you’ve got the time.”

For a moment the only sound came from Derringer’s index finger tapping the tabletop. He was smirking as he drew in a breath. “Little or big?”

“I’ve got both. What do you want?”

“I’ve had action lately… but I’ll take something on, so long as it doesn’t send me to the shipping docks.”

“Easy breezy, D. I’ve got just the thing for a man of your talents.”

Section 5

6

From her place at the table of honor, Soleil could see nearly everyone attending, both extended family and intimate court. Many of these found reasons to stop by during dinner to exchange oblique words of opinion. There were warm reunions as well, enough to add genuine pleasure to the evening. As these weren’t official court visits, no weighty matters were brought to her plate, so to speak. Those went to the Queen. People came to the Princess to talk about the future, show loyalty, and express hopes.

She ate enough between courtesies so that she wasn’t hungry, though they had taken the game hen away from her untouched. She’d watched it go regretfully. But while dinner was over and the plates were still being cleared, she had a moment to breathe.

Soleil looked from face to face, gauging what moods had changed since the beginning of the night. She met eyes with Arkuda, the Dragon Councillor. He wore his courtly form, slightly larger than the size of a man, sunrise-golden scales gleaming on his torso and head. Soleil nodded to him, showing a trace of a smile. He lifted his scale-clad hand in greeting before continuing his conversation with the Orconian natural resources director seated next to him. She would see her teacher and friend again in a few days to resume their study.

She wouldn’t presume about Dragon friendship, but Arkuda had been her steady mentor for over ten years, and probably knew more of her mind than anyone besides her grandmother. As the sole ambassador of his people to the court, and special advisor in a great many matters, that he chose to have her as a student was a blessing not lost on her.

Maybe it was all the time recently spent in tiny hill villages, but there was a strange current running through the room. It felt like someone she couldn’t see was trying to find her.

Section 6

7

The front gate of Jacobs’ house buzzed for a few long seconds, and Derringer eased out of the doorway into the morning light. His feet fell onto the pavement and turned him north, toward the residential blocks past the market streets. The business day had already begun, with transport cars and service rigs filling the aerial roadways. There were a few clouds in the sky, but it was going to be another gorgeous day.

Despite his preference, he stuck to the main walkways. Gentlemen who look as sharp as he did are always headed somewhere in a hurry. Jacobs had a tailor fit him into a new suit last night, just the thing to wear under high-profile security in the financial district.

It was part of the deal that his cargo not get aboard any vehicles or vessels on the way. No taxis. The simplest systems contain the fewest errors. It was a fine day for a walk anyhow, and he took his time through the mostly empty neighborhoods.

The facades got fancier as he came into the money part of town. The buildings doubled and tripled in height, and now he shared the walkways with steady streams of office goers. Derringer cut through a multi-level car park. Shunning the elevator, he took two flights of stairs up to the next street.

Iljen Square. He stopped in front of an azure-tinted window to check the time on his borrowed wristwatch. The square was the size of a city block, and the Monument seemed to fill it all, a great calculating dome of information rising from its center. They’d unveiled it four years ago, and it was a huge deal, big breakthrough accomplishment for Aquariid-human engineering. Derringer had only seen it once before. The weather was still friendly, and he was running early. He sat himself on a nearby bench to take it in.

It was like a great fountain, but instead of water, in the air hung a three-dimensional constellation of information. Within its visual hemispheres spun layers of data. There were projections for every planet of the Pan-Galaxy, with tickertape lines threading everywhere between, showing shipping and trade data, stocks, politics, even jokes.  This was all changing position according to a logic that Derringer could see but not understand. He just let his mind wander from one tidbit to the next. A little girl, parents in tow, screamed amusement as she passed her hand through a seemingly solid planet. His watch beeped at him. Monument Synchronize? He tapped its corner. No, thank you. But it was time to go.

“The other end of this delivery is at the Massey-Sonnes Hotel at Iljen Square, in a suite accessible only by private elevator. You’re the guest of Ms. Karma Ilacqua, tell the front desk she’s expecting you. They’ll send you up. She’s the only one supposed to be there, as much for their good as ours. She’s gonna plug it in, read and verify the data, and when she says thank you, you go. That’s all that needs to happen.” With that, Casper Jacobs had shut the metal case with the data key in it and slipped it into Derringer’s breast pocket.

There was a lot that could go wrong. The contingencies were so numerous that they couldn’t be planned. No wonder Jacobs had saved this gig for him.

They stopped in front of reflective metal portals. The bellhop, a young guy who looked like a card shark, faced them as he spoke. “You’re going to Ambassador’s Suite 7. Ms. Ilacqua has not informed us that you require guest access, so once you leave the suite you cannot return without authorization.” Derringer flicked his eyes over to the bellhop, who wasn’t looking at him, and nodded.

His reflection gleamed back at him, framed in one of the portal doorways. At a little taller than average, he stood sturdy, on a well-used frame. His face was friendly, no-nonsense, with a full mustache and curling brown hair. In this suit, he looked like he’d stepped off his own stellar yacht.

The frame he was gazing into lit up, and the panel slid open with a slight vacuum suck. At the bellhop’s gesture, Derringer stepped inside. “Enjoy your time at the Massey-Sonnes Hotel, sir. Let us know if we can be of any assistance.” He looked over his shoulder, meeting the bellhop’s eyes. The ovoid elevator opening slid shut, and the chamber detached out from the building with a barely noticeable vibration. As it lifted out and up, Derringer turned to the glass walls to watch the square disappear below.

Section 7

8

The last few attendees were ushered to their seats in the Auditorium Salon. It was a small, fully-fitted theater with royal accoutrements. A 16-piece orchestra sat at the foot of the velvet-curtained stage. Princess Soleil sat midway to the left in the front row, with her cousin Margeaux on one side and her grandmother the Queen on the other. The musicians continued tuning while people settled in their seats.

Margeaux leaned towards her cousin. “Did you get enough to eat?”

“Only just,” Soleil spoke in a stage whisper. “Did you try the teriyaki fish thing?”

“That was pretty good. But I liked the game hen.”

A hush descended through the room. The lights dimmed, and the curtains opened to reveal the performer at center stage. She wore primitive but graceful lizard buckskin dress armor, her hair a bushy black mane over copper skin.

The Huntresses’ Aria begins with a soloist who plays Lysha, amazon of ancient Iza. She sings of her tribe and the night hunt. When a terrible murder is discovered, the song turns into a bloodthirsty battle cry. Soleil knew the piece, part of the larger Erris of Rahm. It was one of her favorites. She turned her head to smile at her grandmother. Queen Celeste returned it warmly before pinning her eyes on the stage.

Mara Kamini joked that she had performed for half the Pan-Galaxy, and the other half didn’t like opera. When she was invited to perform at an Imperial event, she cancelled other scheduled shows, pouring herself into the Huntresses’ Aria. She took pains in finding the other singers, for the piece was notorious for falling apart in the transition from solo to chorale. Three months later, she found herself twenty-five feet from the attention of Her Vast Eminence and the royal family. She could not remember how to begin. The Queen and the Princess shared a smile, and the court began to focus on her. Kamini felt a wave of helplessness and desperation rise larger than she could overcome. She met eyes with the Queen, opened her mouth, and let it out.

Section 8

9

The private elevator door, the only way into and out of the suite, slid open. A slight figure of a woman in a grey wool suit stood at the desk, her fingers on its surface while her face was turned looking out the window. Immediately Derringer recognized something about her body that made him narrow his eyes. When she turned her face to greet him, he realized where he’d seen her.

Like him, she was much better dressed than before. Her eyes registered a shadow of surprise, and she quirked her lip. She studied him, poised, for a moment longer. “You have something for me,” she stated.

“Yes I do. Delivered on foot, as requested.” Derringer continued to stare at the small capitol woman with red hair. Three days ago when she’d passed him in the Diplomat’s Quarter, she resembled a housewife on her errands. But she was in fact the contact for the other end of this delivery. He waited for her to say something. She could be drawing conclusions, just as he was.

She opened a soft briefcase sitting on the desk chair, withdrawing a computer the size of her hand. “Bring it here, lay it on the desk.” Derringer fished the mini safe from inside his breast pocket. He came close enough to leave it on the corner. His nerves were jangling. An alarm was going off, and he couldn’t pin it on this lady, or the situation. She looked a little on edge herself.

She aligned the devices and switched them on. A hemisphere of floating words and icons sprang into the air a foot tall above the desk, a tiny replica of the Iljen Monument. Jacobs said the data storage had program locks and tamper checks, and these had to green light at the other end in order to complete the delivery. She manipulated these elements into place, going through programs and items that Derringer couldn’t guess, never mind that he’d never seen a computer like that before.

“What do you have there? Is that hooked into the Monument?”

She glanced at him sidelong while she continued arranging data. “It can be. Just like that watch you’re wearing. It isn’t, right now.” She continued arranging and relating programs. “It’s its own system. Prototype model, not on the market yet. It has… its points and kinks, but I’d say the development is useful. I keep finding new things I can do with it.” She stopped herself. “How was your walk?”

“Good weather and nothing but strangers.”

“That’s good to hear.” She tapped a few things into place and straightened, turning to him and leaning against the chair. “This will be a few minutes.” She looked him in the eyes for a breath, sizing him up. “Would you like a drink?” She pointed toward a bottle of golden-brown spirit, two glasses next to it.

The brandy was a good label, he’d had it before on remarkable occasions. Derringer nodded and stood at ease. “Yes, thanks.” He watched her pour. Her nails were electroplated, with glowing phronium tips.

He took the glass when she held it out to him at arm’s length. She really was petite, disarmingly so, like a fairy woman. But she held an immense and dangerous electricity. He took a sip and licked his lips. This stuff was old-fashioned, but he liked it.

“I’m assuming deliveries aren’t your main line of work.”

“What makes you assume that?”

“You look like a man who does a great many things,” she said, pacing a half-circle around him with her drink in hand. “Usually alone. Though never without help.” Derringer didn’t bother to reply. She cracked a smile. “Sorry if I’m teasing you. It just… I know the type.” She looked bemused, sipping from her glass.

He rose to the bait. “You can call me Derringer.” He stuck out his hand. She stepped forward and took it with a ladylike grip.

“Karma,” she said with a smile.

Section 9

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.”

80 \ 168

“This is disheartening,” said Soleil finally, with none but Garlic to listen. Dragon Food and Rosy Glow had departed on their own matters, possibly helpful to the situation. From where she sat on Moonshadow’s platform, she looked around the designated sidespace where she’d ceased arguing with a machine being that didn’t seem to entirely understand. It hadn’t been so hard in the midst of their trial of deep space survival. Now they sat parked in a place where they could officially or unofficially be found. At this level of frustration the novice pilot barely cared, though their potential visibility made it urgent that she learn how to use the new trick up her sleeve. Returning to that realization, she addressed Garlic again where it floated next to her at the level of her head.

“I need to ask you how I look,” said Soleil. “I’m trying something, though I don’t want to explain completely. Will you just watch me?” Garlic turned another side toward her, which she took to mean that she had its attention.

She looked down at her reflection in the mirror-shiny floor of the platform. “Okay, now I’m doing something.” She felt an aural rush flow outward through her. “And, now I’m not.” The rush dissipated. Throughout this, her reflection as she saw it in the floor mirror hadn’t changed. She knew what it was she was doing; she was changing how she looked, how she was perceived. She knew her chosen parameters, but she couldn’t see the results, so she kept it simple. Maybe Garlic would be able to tell her.

“I can understand it like it’s always been a part of me, but I still need to figure out how it works.” Soleil touched her lips as she concentrated on this puzzle, remembering the way the dragon’s gift had sunk into her skin. She accustomed herself to turning the glammer (‘glamr’) on and off by engaging it with her intentions of appearance. To herself, she looked the same. But what did someone else see? How deeply could she trust it, how extreme would the illusion go, with what nature would it manifest?

This matter of concentration safeguarded her from the disappointment that their next travel effort had gone awry almost instantly. She and Moonshadow just couldn’t seem to understand each other right now, or Moonshadow couldn’t figure out how to get there with the information it was being given. Soleil had ridden equinax when she was younger, and the psychology of this mount (as it had referred to itself) felt somewhat similar; but this being was also verbal, could understand code, mathematics, signals and power, and she didn’t know how many other differences there might be to this type of mind.

“If you would please hold up with me and observe – tell me, if you can, how I’m doing or what you see. On… off. …on… off.” She was looking between her reflection and Garlic, which was doing something strange. There was now another garlic next to Garlic. At this moment, when not engaging the glammer (‘glamr’), the garlic next to Garlic looked exactly the same.

With thought, Soleil consciously shifted some traits to those of a different person; and the garlic next to Garlic looked like a different kind of garlic! The second garlic was about as different from Garlic as the intended personage was different from Soleil. She examined different extremes of alteration, and Garlic demonstrated the effectiveness back to her. All the while, the reflection in the floor remained the same to her.

When she inquired, Garlic demonstrated to her that her apparent reflection also matched the given illusion, with a head of garlic under the different garlic that matched the different garlic, not today’s original Garlic.

A new thought occurred to her while she held an unusual glammer, one of an easily welcomed ally that should soon go on their own business. “Garlic, if you touch me, do you feel that you touch the form that you see, or my usual form?”

The two different garlics hovered before her. Gently, they both approached to touch either of her cheeks. One drifted back, while remaining was the garlic of altered appearance. So then, Garlic felt that it was touching what it could see. The altered garlic then moved back, and floated in again to gently bop her on the nose, then rested once more against the tip of her nose. So, the illusion was thorough.

Soleil wondered if the camouflaging panels of her Vedani gearsuit were superfluous, then figured it didn’t hurt to have extra layers of reliance, in case holding a glammer was tiring. Her dragon gift whispered about itself in a specifically coded inner language; any question about it, she could check and be informed. But she had to ask correctly or at all, except for those times it would volunteer itself to a specific demand. It was like using a new, yet innate sense.

There is an abyss, infinitesimal or gulflike, between any two understandings in the communication of an impression. What one is, and what the other perceives. Now, she could intentionally influence this space. Now she could decide how she was perceived. Though in a sense duplicitous, there was an honesty to it; she could honestly effect what she honestly decided. She must hone her intention in order to use it well.

“Tell me how this goes. Can I appear as something other than a different person?” With a little difficulty, as she wasn’t entirely sure how to project the right set of traits, she attempted something like a pard cat. The second garlic flickered rapidly between looking like Garlic and looking like some kind of large pod. So it may be successful but she wasn’t good at it yet, or garlic wasn’t good at imitating anything other than garlic, or it was only semi-successful. Okay.

They needed a catalyst. She decided to activate the sidespace flag for assistance signaling, and filled out the list of possibly helpful things. Soleil continued to focus on practicing her new ability while bothering Garlic as little as possible. She could keep on doing this for the rest of the time in her active day.

There was a passerby ship, the first in this out-of-the-way location. Soleil watched it reappear as it doubled back around, lucky day. The maneuvering looked inexpert but careful. It was returning her flag with a wave.

Looking at Garlic, she remembered she was hungry. On a slim hope, she asked, “Hey can you make food, something I can eat?”

A clove of garlic fell to the floor, and upon hitting it turned into a garlic chicken wing. “I guess it’s a good thing I like garlic,” she said as she picked it up. Garlic rolled around in midair. Soleil scarfed the food before she had to face the incomer, placing the bones in an ejection vesicle. She watched the vesicle pop its contents out of the field, releasing them to the vacuum. She turned her concentration inward to identify what she needed to be in this situation, and she answered the ship’s reply.