91 \ 179

Just as Derringer was starting to think about reaching the outer boundaries of more populated space, he turned to go back the way he came. He had plenty of resources for more cruising, and felt whimsical after passing those last two nice ships. Wild card play – he didn’t feel like seeing anyone else, yet.

It didn’t seem like long again before approaching the sidespace where he’d seen the Bluebird Mark 7. And it was actually still there. Except that… oh no! Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Derringer looked closer at the new sidespace capture pic, where something looked wrong with the ship. It had suffered a combustion beneath on one side. But, it had already been parked there when he passed it. That kind of propulsion combustion happened when a ship was moving, not peacefully resting in place. Startup blowups didn’t tend to look that bad. If he hadn’t already seen it there in perfect shape as he was going the other direction, he would think it had been towed and abandoned. So, in the time between his crossings, they’d left, blown up, towed and abandoned? Hmmm.

He liked that ship. He was also in the business of people at each other’s throats, and he knew this was something that could be done by someone with ill intent. Oooh, right away it made him mad, because he liked that ship! And now look at it. No… look at it. Really look at it.

Derringer opened up some advanced analytics, which he’d made sure were onboard. There was also a laser pointer so good, it was illegal to have unless onboard a top-class government vehicle. So now he had one, legally. He employed it to a track-nearest and record program, with very small physical parameters, to track objects for a full second in the vicinity of the abandoned Bluebird. This very good program particularized the laser to as many simultaneous readings as possible, because simultaneity would give Derringer the truest reading.

There was always flotsam in space, trailing from one point to the next in the wake of moving objects. A well-taught program could highlight these motions, and finally the heuristic touch of an astute observer could yield directions of recent motion in a relatively uncluttered field. Many patterns of motion in a given space remained simple in a one-second span, though creating the full-second reading took longer than a second. More like five minutes for a really good one, once set to run. That could be five valuable minutes, but when that’s all he’s got to go on, it’ll have to happen.

Why did he immediately want to figure this one out? He examined his motivations while the video was building. This was the first trouble he’d run into in a while that was weird enough for him to notice. He was looking for trouble, special trouble. By now, he was a little hungry for it. He could depart from bored distraction and pursue a petty vendetta against a hypothetical someone who would harm his newly beloved someone else’s ship. If it were an innocuous event, he would encounter an innocuous resolution. If things got too interesting, he could uninvolve himself. Unless it did involve him, in which case, he should be there.

Derringer patched all the laser readings into the same one-second frame, and watched carefully. There was the trail, like a tunnel through spreading particles. That one looked like a chicken bone, which made him think of getting hungry. The trail went at a tangent to the path of the Brave Crossing. He’d follow it a little way and see if he could ascertain their navigation anchors. He was amazing at keeping his bearings, and he’d better be; Lurin, well, that had been an unusual case.

90 \ 178

OIBHN CLNR: They’ve started to find and dismantle our tuning polygons.

AELRN LKCD: The polygons are cheap enough, right? Essentially an office machine and some of that spool material?

OIBHN: Fairly disposable, yes. The main benefit is gained from initialization. The longer they stay up, the deeper we can harvest and the stronger our relationals will grow. Surveying and point establishment starts sufficient, and gains to maximal facility. But the moment they’re placed, they can be sacrificed. No one’s been quite that fast – they’re well located.

AELRN: What do you think the Imperium will make of them?

OIBHN: They won’t trace back to us. The Imperium doesn’t have the logics to ascertain how we gained our locations, or to extrapolate further. It may be just an office machine, but we already know they can’t figure those out. If they do somehow manage to turn it on, they certainly don’t have aetherscape interfacing.

AELRN: What do you think of the resale potential in their markets, whole or part?

OIBHN: Middling. The spool scrap could be reformed. The inert junk of an unusable office machine contains nothing they don’t already have – though it does contain a tiny amount of a rare resource for them, moreso now: namely, Zerite.

AELRN: That should cause the usual unpredictable behavior around restricted material that we’ve seen them exhibit. Either coverup and illicit use or trade, or investigatory curiosity.

OIBHN: It would serve well to have them spend resources on this puzzle and clear the polygons away for us themselves.

AELRN: Do you think this could be enough basis to stimulate a government information contract?

OIBHN: If it registers as anything more than a curiosity of their private sector, it would still fall far below many other priorities we’ve helped to create. Attempts at getting value from the information would probably be misleading – other than the question of the Zerite’s source, which may create additional beneficial internal turmoil. They don’t know we have an abundance of that particular scarcity, though very select individuals are aware that we use it. Their customary limitations on sharing information will work to our timing advantage.

AELRN: Then they can raid the crops all they like, whilst we reap riches.

OIBHN: The yield has indeed been fruitful. There is so much detail! Have you witnessed the culture wave of human poetry?

AELRN: It was mentioned, and since then I’ve occasionally joined in on the search to broadcast the obscure. It’s such an unusual volume of low-exposure information going to rot – but not now that we’ve found it! Everything everywhere. I just picked one that I could share with you right now, if you like.

OIBHN: Certainly, let’s take a moment for it.

AELRN: This is titled, “Star Matter Scarabs”.

scarabs cycling star matter from the abyssal ceiling
light from beneath recognized from above
a finely spread spectrum, stewarded into continuance
by appointed go-betweens of above below around outside

To arch, overarch, and cross every path, one can orient
by trajectory, windspread, ruffles, and currential sweeps.
The feeling approaches at times, suddenly into your clothes,
changing temperatures, opening channels in floods.

reaching sideways on convivial levels
stacking layers of warmth in joyous combustion
a population’s voices ever arising, staying
with each other, unfading

OIBHN: Compelling and unique, though I don’t completely understand…

AELRN: I don’t either! But I want to. Which is how I feel about them!

OIBHN: Humans have been dastardly, Aelrn. Untrustworthy. Vicious. Horrifying.

AELRN: I know, which is what makes their cultural discoveries the more intriguing. Their minds have an ability to transition between boundaries, a quality they’ve described as liminality. Fascinating in a way unique from our kind.

OIBHN: It’s true that these delectable bonbons of poetry have generated some excellent power torrents. I’m still not sure it’s safe to want to understand them.

AELRN: Signalman – he’s earned our understanding. He found us on his own, after his father did, even exhibiting etiquette, which he’d taken care to study.

OIBHN: We have formed a firm alliance with that one and his kinfolk, we’ve gone that far. On the topic of understanding, I heard from a Sea Voice.

AELRN: Oh, are you going to throw a party?

OIBHN: Yes – there’s a good opportunity in three days.

AELRN: I will come.

OIBHN: Good! We can open the invitation. I got a toilet too, and plumbing. Wasn’t that fun?

AELRN: From the explanations, I don’t think doing plumbing will ever be as fun as the first time. I wonder how gross it can get.

OIBHN: Let’s not think about that.

AELRN: Maybe we can hire a ‘plumb-er’.

OIBHN: We might already know one among the Hirylienites. They could continue to perform other duties.

20th Sequence; 85 \ 173

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

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

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

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

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

83 \ 171

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Is your mixer working?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A day and a half, in this ship.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll help you,” she said to Soleil.

 

82 \ 170

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

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

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

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