33.1 \ 215

“First, we want to show you this thing we worked on together. Before we talk about anything else important. Because none of it will make sense unless you see this.” Vanessa Udar had been appointed elder (teenager) spokesperson of the kids group on this walk with all guardians present. They were gathered at the mouth of a Vedani-style bent opening which obscured the chamber beyond without requiring a barrier. “We had some help, and our idea works really well now. So, here we go.” Like many of the kids, Bassel took his mother Mirya’s hand and the group went forward through the wide, right-angled curved hall to obtain a platform view of a gigantic hold.

They were received by a bunch of the familiar young Vedani at the edge of the view. A population of personnel was scattered beyond that, and around the project. Literally standing multiple stories high in the center was a mechanical humanoid form with powerful limbs, topped by an empty dome. It gleamed, and the place smelled of new manufacture. Mirya’s default-level response to one of her son’s creations tumbled out of her haltingly. “Wow, you… made this?”

32 \ 214

People discovered that the only way to get a treasure back was to tell its true story. The many who loitered around the mysterious towers of missing items were the ones who would listen. These were the kind of stories people didn’t tell, in fear of being disbelieved – but when told truthfully, the item would come free. It was a spun-glass structure of the lost and found, each item a treasure greatly desired back in possession. The truth would typically be stranger than any fabrication trying to pass as truth.

Anyone who earned their item back was then able to see the beings atop the towers. They could be seen changing guard, or affixing a new item to the collection. Everyone would come around to it soon enough. Though having just been rewarded for truth-telling, people at first remained quietly observant of this revelation. It was a lot to sink in.

How did this all add up? People couldn’t deny their own possessions, not such as these; not the strange phenomena they went through to get their things back, or the stories they learned from each other. There were reverberations of radical honesty that stemmed from the retrieval clause in effect. Each tower was outside security zones, so everyone had already broken a rule to find it; they could break the guidelines of acceptable assumption. It was possible for a growing many to see those beautiful, strange, ethereal, dangerous ones on planets throughout the Imperium, including Alisandre.

31 \ 213

Mirya brought the chair from their room into the common area, setting it near another guardian who’d done the same. They sat off to one side, watching over the transformation of Blanket Fort Central. They nodded and smiled to each other before returning their attention to the group. It was an idyllic moment in a very strange time, so none of the adults could entirely relax, though the children created a spell of levity.

Most of these kids got along really well, like – right, like they already knew each other. The details of that no doubt contained a saga that could hardly even be retold. This was just the next part, which actually included them.

“My name’s Daniel,” said the nearby guardian, offering a handshake. They exchanged some pleasantries of acquaintance before their attention drifted back again. Bassel actually was very good at puzzles, which Mirya was simply accustomed to as a characteristic. He understood the pieces needed to make the blanket shapes they were trying to achieve. Chrysanthe was a high-energy runner, dashing back and forth across the room to get those pieces into place.

Mirya broke their mild reverie with a question. “Daniel, are you also a survivor of the affliction? I am, in case you’re wondering.”

“I am also, yes. So, I know why they feel so certain about whatever it is they’ve been doing with the Vedani youngsters.”

“Then you must also be familiar with the feeling of honesty – what we learned in recovery, and their interaction with us so far. I’ve known the difference before. When someone was lying to me for a very long time, and the lies finally ended, I began to remember what it was like to have conversations that weren’t filled with them. It feels just like that. Nearly our whole lives, we’ve been lied to about this, and the Vedani aren’t lying. Don’t you think so?”

Daniel considered, and nodded a just a little. “I haven’t entirely shared your same experience, but I know part of what you’re saying. An inner awakening, like I can see and breathe when I hear the truth. Though we experienced that literally, I don’t think it’s a trick of programming. They don’t speak like people who are just triggering loyalty. They’re like coworkers on a project. Maybe it’s even something about their entire mindset. All of us had to trust them at least this far.”

“It’s… pretty far!” said Mirya, looking around at their current space station home and laughing at the incredulity of the situation.

“It actually is,” Daniel said, laughing with her. The children were laughing about something else. This felt like the most fun she’d had since getting better. “Yet,” he continued, “this may be the most important thing I’ve ever done. Along the lines of supporting the ingenuity of my child, but also as something I’m able to do at a pivotal point in time. Giving permission for the possibility of a better world, and letting the people of tomorrow lead the way.”

“Isn’t parenting a trip?” Mirya laughed some more, this time because she knew how he felt.

30 \ 212

“They’ll be meeting us at the third predetermined alternative placement, if you happen to remember which one that is.” Alisandrian latitude instruments were not good over the waters of Foshan; this planet of endless seas had its own beaconing triangulation system. The tides of Foshan were like the planet changing shape. Some offworlders experience a stronger disconnect between their memory of a place, where they think it should be, and where it is. Woollibee was very good at uncalculated estimation and recognition; it wasn’t the clouds or the waves, but it was something else which included both.

“Whether I recall where that is, I hope they can find it.” The Hoopoe was in to see Arjun Woollibee about timetable expectations, since the First AIDD was the staff liaison in closest communication with the two dragons who were keeping them in safe seclusion. “It’s already ready? The lead time was two weeks for a custom deluxe order.”

“The developers were compensated appropriately for their prototype off the desk, and there’s a custom deluxe model on the way.”

This sank in for a moment – the prototype in hand. “Did they get the notes?”

Woollibee smiled. “They got a copy of the notes.”

“Oh, I can hardly wait.”

“Barely any of us can. We want you making your best music as soon as possible.”

“Best is relative. It’s going to be experimental, let’s say, and not like anything anyone has heard on a channel. And my music has been on many channels.”

“Right. We want exactly what you know you need to make. It doesn’t even have to resemble anything anyone remotely calls music. We just want it to work. Then, then it will be beautiful.”

29 \ 211

“More of us have arrived,” reported the Medical Charity (& Other) Sites Research Coordinator, “and everyone’s surly.” Karma Ilacqua spoke from the passenger seat of a helicopter pointed toward the noses of a dozen others. The call was coming from her old friend, Arch contact Arys Steinman. “Your annoyers are stalemated against the strong presence of six competing companies who want to protect and acquire your information. None of us can overpower the rest of us, and none of us are willing to let anyone hurt you, either. But luckily for you, you’re not even where the Enemies of Progress think you’re supposed to be.”

“No. We’re somewhere else beautiful and quiet, just as we hoped. Thank you for taking the risk.”

“That’s my specialty. I may not be here personally the entire time. Most likely, others are on relief rotation, as we’ve planned. Tension could get ugly at any moment, but those of us who want you alive and well have a lot more ‘collective bargaining’ here than those who want to damage you. The long term risk is yours, allowing all these major players to negotiate over your IPs. Opening up is a big deal for any project, especially the top private mystery research unit housed inside of high-currency proprietary advancements. When it comes to risks, you also might want to wonder how the Foundationals got your triangulation in the first place.”

“That thought has occurred to many. Others refuse to worry about it. Active suspicion is just as likely a waste of time, and such is not the inclination of those who’ve been brought to work here. We’re not the department of spying. We are on the edge now, Karma. The absolute edge of the world, and peering off into something else.” Arys sounded haggard, and inspired.

“Please, do not tell me any more. But I’m proud of you. I hope you make it. Have your liaison inform us of any surprise positioning strategy. We’ll all play off each other in order to maintain the lowest possible threat. The Foundationals here won’t be going anywhere without an escort.” The helicopter pilot opened the console hot box and pulled out a mini burrito, scarfing it while projecting a steely stinkeye. “I hope you don’t run out of safe spots.”

“This goes a long way to ensuring that we won’t. We might have to be doing this for days and days while we… wait for something.”

Karma smiled softly. “Augh, what a week this is going to be. It’s okay. I’m here for you.”