5x Rerun: Fire Within (1) 33-35, 4th Sequence, 36

– 33 –

Outside the hospice room door, two guards were posted in dressed-down black and white smocks. One read a paper stating the business of the five Aquarii awaiting entry. He bowed to the smallish one at the front. Bright Wave bowed back. The bipedal, tentacle-crowned Aquari body is eloquent at displays of courtesy. He opened the door, and the guests entered.

They were greeted by Queen Celeste, and the King and Queen Ascendants. By their differing sizes, and patterns on their thoraxes, it appeared none of these Aquarii were of the same tribe. Unusual for such a tribal people.

Soleil’s bed was at the center of the room. Her parents and grandmother stood at the foot of the bed, while the five Aquarii arrayed themselves around her. Two more Imperial guards were posted inside the door.

All discussed what had been agreed on. “We are not intruding on her mind in the least, not gaining any sort of access. Merely interpreting surface expressions,” said Sharp Talon, the brown-and-gold. His two main tentacles were clasped before him.

“All of us are versed in human-spectrum expression,” said Dark Zephyr, the one mostly black with a few green accents, “so we should be able to translate what we feel from her into something you can understand.” All five of them carried a barely audible harmonizing undertone.

“But we have no guarantees,” said Bright Wave, “about anything. We can do this for, perhaps–” Her octopuslike eyes narrowed, the fine tentacles around her face waving in thought. “–an hour. With some resting time in between.”

“You three are most able to understand the meaning of the song. You are all human. We will do our best to act as appropriate media.”

“Will it interfere with your work to have a camera recording?” asked the King Ascendant Vario.

“No. But your senses will give you the complete picture as it will never occur again. Your Graces, please pay attention. At best, cameras will provide you with a reminder of the song as it transpired. They are not good with subtlety.”

The family nodded to each other before again nodding to their guests. “Yes, we understand. Thank you,” said Queen Celeste on the left. She nodded to the guards inside the door, who brought chairs to the foot of the bed. The three sat.

The Aquarii bowed. All their facial tendrils became busy with motion as they reached out to grasp each other’s left and right tentacles.

Instantly the air above Soleil turned luminous, as though sunlight were shining in from some forested place. A choirlike frequency emanated from the sides of the room. Columns of dark shadow appeared, and moved about as though marching in formation. Out of the choirlike humming, music began to rise.

True Aquari music is almost never like human instruments – instead, frequencies bend, sounding like one thing and then another, produced from the majority of their finer tentacles.

This song began with a sound like wind and travel, transforming into a rough beat. It permutated, volume rising and lowering. It put Celeste in mind of the musicians tuning before the opera, a week ago now.

A metallic melody began to weave itself over the picture, fierce and feral. Queen Ascendant Charlotte almost smiled. It sounded like her daughter when she was angry. Around the melody ran a cathedral echo of awe. The columns of shadow split and reformed, until suddenly they dwindled into the distance and vanished.

Layers of pearly haze drifted within the Aquari circle. This gave way, condensing into bright points of light. What does that spell out? thought Vario, King Ascendant, Soleil’s father. What picture do those dots draw? What constellation, in what voidy corner of the Pan-Galaxy? Where is her mind?

Then, a stillness with distinct presence. As though they had been spotted. The music stuttered to a stop and held its breath. The stillness seemed to smile as the corners of the room folded in. The Aquari humming resumed quietly, cautiously. Again the song clipped off as though muted. Something was wrong. The Aquari voices broke forcefully into a great, swooping finale in symphonic meter. Promptly they disentangled, and each sagged or sank to the floor.

Dark Zephyr spoke quickly, distractedly, her speech garbled as through a patchy radio signal. “Not like any Aquari we know. Not human, not dragon, and too alive to be a machine. Something or someone is interfacing with the Princess’ mind. Not resident, but more than just in contact.”

The brown-shelled Aquari Sharp Talon was on one knee. “Other than that, she is dreaming some orderly dream. We can’t say how much of her mind is affected, but she is mostly herself.”

“Can we locate or identify the intruder?” asked the Queen.

“In a short while, we can try again.” Bright Wave gestured soothingly. “No guarantee of learning anything new.”

“We understand. Whatever service you can render the Imperium will be rewarded,” replied King Ascendant Vario. “We can offer you quarters where you may rest until you are ready to return at the soonest opportunity.”

The five Aquarii rose from their weary positions while giving courtesy. “We accept,” they replied in a voice that projected from above their heads. The Queen nodded to a guard, who opened the door and led them out.

The remaining three stood looking at each other silently for many breaths. The King Ascendant bowed his head and said, “I am going to lay down for a spell.” He left without requiring assent.

The Queen and Queen Ascendant gazed down at the face of their scion.

33

– 34 –

The multi-tiered breakfast service was a series of concentric platters hovering over each other in a stack. On three sides of a square table sat Mireille, Cristobal, and Carlo, the younger Magus children, Princes and Princessa. The bottom plate had sardines, radishes, roasted peppers, and bread. Above that was cheese, jam, yogurt and toasted grains. The third plate held sausage and thin-sliced cured meat. The three of them were each pulling different platters toward them and sampling onto their plates, chatting.

“Maybe she was into something she shouldn’t have been, maybe she had secrets. We don’t even know who it could be.” Cristobal pulled down the sausage platter and helped himself to a sizable pile.

“Soleil’s too busy overachieving for deep dark secrets. That’s how I see it. Speaking of overachieving, how was your presentation the other day?” Mireille stuffed her mouth with a spoonful of yogurt and grains.

“It went alright. I’m not the greatest presenter, but the screen animators made up for it.” Cristobal ate piece after piece of sausage.

“You’re not great, but you’re not bad. You’re just young and you need more practice.”

“I like doing the research. The presentation part I can take it or leave it.”

“It doesn’t take much effort to improve on that. Something for your to-do list.”

Cristobal wrinkled his face. “Thanks, sister. I really have plenty to do, but at some point I will… I may as well. Carlo, what do you want?”

The younger brother, still small in his chair, was reaching across the table. “The cheese.” Cristobal brought the second plate down to Carlo, who picked up a white palm-sized wheel. “Thank you brother.”

Mireille bit into a radish. “Carlo, I heard you lost your temper at a student who was teaching you the other day.”

“Yes, but I only hit the table. I’m sorry and I said so.” He tore a morsel off the wheel and nibbled it.

“You’re given plenty of leniency because you’re still a child. What you did was forgivable. But you’re on camera now with your brother.”

“I know I know I know.” He stuck his fork in a radish before looking up at his sister with puppy eyes. “It’s fine, I won’t do that the next time I get frustrated.” Mireille kissed her hand and patted his cheek. He rolled his eyes and smiled.

“It’s Pyrean Midsummer soon,” said Cristobal, referring to the holiday on which Alisandre and four other far-flung planets shared the same solstice, once every seven years. “Soleil is supposed to lead the ceremonies.”

“That’s a long way from now, Cristobal.” Mireille was preparing to stand in, though she expected her sister to be awake by then. They ate without speaking for a minute.

A knock sounded. “Let’s get going,” said Cristobal to his younger brother. “Astrography today, with Lector Una Ixa in the projection dome,” this partially spoken to Mireille.

“That’ll be enjoyable. Carlo, you haven’t been yet, have you?”

“To the projection dome? No.”

“Well, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t get motion sickness.”

“I won’t,” he said sounding offended. “I don’t.”

“We’ll see.” His brown eyes glared into her grey-eyed smirk. “Go on, your brother’s leaving.” Carlo stuck his tongue out at her before following Cristobal out the door.

As it closed, Mireille slumped with her hands before her lips.

34

– 35 –

The planet’s atmosphere flashed pale light against a dark night sky. The magnetic aurora was strong as ever, at some points bright as daylight, or brighter. This lit the craggy mountainside. A peculiar fire was burning halfway up the slope.

A large stand of trees was aflame, but this was no uncontrolled wildfire. Rather, the flames buttressed from tree to tree in forms of energetic architecture. The fuel was barely consumed. Loud harmonic frequency distortions filled the air. In the center of these, untouched and protected, were eight beings, each marked in the darkness by a fiery halo interfacing with the greater structure.

One, appearing to be a human man, was ensconced in a temperamental blaze. Ripples of conversation moved through the thick, ornate flame, forming a filigree both friendly and aggressive. It acted like a separate entity, which it was.

The man floating within this sphere of tumult was large, well-muscled, bronze-skinned. His long dark hair crackled with heat and electricity, moving in Aquari-like gestures. Barefoot, in pants and a coat, he floated cross-legged, eyes closed, face tilted softly upwards.

The structure of the entire fire was massive. In the air high above it burned a piercing central beacon, tiny but star-bright. A light like that would be visible from orbit. Even the aurora couldn’t outshine it.

35

– 4TH SEQUENCE –

Fourth Sequence

– 36 –

“So, we’re not that smart; but we’re not dumb, either. They figured things out enough to get there, but not to get what they were after. I figure we’ve got even chances. That’s good odds, quit moaning.” The screens surrounding Chad Dremel were covered in pictures and files. The one he was working on showed a progress bar titled Unencrypt, which stood at just over sixty-five percent. To one side, Fred DeWalt slumped back on a bench, resting the back of his head against a desk.

“This just isn’t simple, Dremel. It isn’t simple. I’m not cut out for detective work. Devious people hiding everything. I just knew when Derringer called…”

Dremel adjusted his screen shades. “Relax. I’m taking care of the research. If we need to chase anybody down, you can drive the Griffin, you can hold the gun.”

“You can hold your own.”

“I do, but it’s not as big as yours.” One of the five com relays lit up and began to buzz. “Speaking of your mother.” DeWalt covered his face with his hands. Dremel sent the call to his lower right hand screen. “Big D. What’s happening.”

In the picture, people in all manner of bizarre dress were passing across, behind, and around him. They wore every color of the spectrum, and most sported feathers large and small, including the many Aquarii in the crowd. “–at the Ileus Peak festival on Lurin. I’m A) Lost, and B) Lost. Two different kinds of lost, maybe three. You gotta help me with at least one.”

DeWalt sat up at the mention of the notorious planet. “How, in all the galaxies, did you get to Lurin?”

“Same way you got yourselves a free Griffin. You know, I wonder who it is we’re really working for.”

“That occurred to me,” said Dremel. “And I want to look into it.”

“Kay. And back to our point.”

“You’re Lost, how can we help?”

Derringer looked around at the crowds passing through a wide, forested thoroughfare. “So, Lurin has no street signs, and I lost my landmarks. On top of that, I don’t speak Lurinese.” Dremel and DeWalt were already laughing at him. Derringer showed expression of aggrieved forbearance.

“Well – where are you trying to get to?” asked Dremel, getting things under control.

“That’s the other part. I’m looking for someone. They were not where they were supposed to be, and this is how I reached the current situation.” The screen picture started to change color. Dremel attempted to modulate, with no luck. The image was being captured with wavelength refraction via ambient moisture, transmitted from a pin on his lapel. There could be someone nearby emitting interference; you never knew who was under the aqua feathers and body paint.

The screen image was now fully tinted in gold and black. “Your signal’s bad,” said Dremel, chin in hand. “What are we supposed to do?”

Derringer started walking, the landscape behind him changing as he went his way. “Establish a connection with the planet.” He was looking around as the screen picture finally roughed out and cut off.

Dremel stared at the blank call screen. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

36

94.4 \ 182

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.

94.2 \ 182

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.

94.1 \ 182

“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.

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.”