68.1 \ 250

Vanessa was in early varsity track, while school sports was in session. She’d been working at it, and she was good. Stretching and conditioning was important. She did that now, for this event similar in many ways to a track meet. She felt in top fourteen-year-old shape. She was already wearing the interface suit, thick with readable connectivity elements while still light and nimble. It covered her toe to fingertip, and over her head except her face. Like the usual Vedani piloting suits, it was also light impact armor. She finished her round of stretches and shook herself out.

It was her uncle that she’d convinced to come with her into purposeful danger, to reassure and look after her while she pursued her convictions. Vanessa Udar was brave, but not invincible, young though she was. These children of capable ages faced their call to action in seriousness, with the help of each other and their guardians.

67.2 \ 249

This building of a vessel was made to go where none else could go, and do what none else had done. Every corner of it was exciting. Danger added spice to thrills, sure, but Karma could see here why additional danger was unnecessary. This wasn’t made of proven concepts, this was proof of concept.

From the Arch a core crew was present for the welcoming, plus a scatter of other recipients. There was the Dragon Arkuda, looking gouged but healed, in scaly humanoid form. Arjun Woollibee, the customary knowledgable receiver, stood with an elbow on the shoulder of the Hoopoe, who mildly allowed it. Arys Steinman wore his formal touches for important business and old friends.

Recipients were called on an outward display, and people came forward in snappy fashion to retrieve their addressed items from the shipping capsule conveyor. The amazing visitors drew attention, but this had to be done. This was a high-stakes drop, even if some people were receiving mundane supplies, and there was tension in their movements.

Arys opened his package in that room in front of everyone, hoisting his gin and marveling at the cookies. He cradled these both as he went to strike up a merry conversation with Karma. His part in this orchestration was complete, he could just watch now. They each had a cookie and a capful while they watched. They hadn’t been expecting to be able to share that with each other in person.

Derringer and the Hoopoe pointed at each other like they were dangerous elements, yet smiling. It was the Hoopoe’s turn to go up for his box, which was a manageable armful. He hoisted it, weighed it, and sniffed it. He didn’t feel like defying unimpressed looks with justifiable explanation. None of them cared if the doohickey was pretty, they might not even think so. He was ready to glory in it, as he furtively absconded under watchful gazes without added delay. He’s going to make music like it’s the only thing that’ll fix this crazy world.

67.1 / 249

The oceanic location was secure, quiet but for the tossing waves surrounding the surface of the austere extended black building, floating level and still within the current using its tensile grip. They had their greater fields up to protect the upwards cargo bay opening. The mood was expectant.

Just outside of its direct airspace and elevated at the distance of safe approach, Drift X appeared in place. These jump transits made the ship appear looking somehow cleaner than before. It arrived looking shinier than it had in years for its top secret entrance debut. The expanded bay opening was large enough to welcome their ship. There was the subtle frisson as they slipped into fielded space, then a few breaths before being inside the hidden marvel that was The Arch. Drift X was swallowed, and settled. It first released the lozenge-shaped autonav supply drop capsule. The capsule opened its wide mouth and stuck out a conveyor belt tongue.

Everyone came forward from inside Drift X. The eight of them were a rare assortment: Captain Wendel Harper, Leiv Gruun, Gretz Manoukian, Toller, Derringer, Karma Ilacqua, General Alisandre Draig Claymore, and Princess Ascendant Soleil, Magus the 25th. Soleil figured that if everyone in this place was in special danger on her behalf, they may as well know who she is.

Toller was floored by Arkuda’s presence, unused to the gleam. Draig and Soleil both stepped forward to the Dragon. Arkuda nodded to them both, signaling the mudras for Much To Be Done and Here We Are. ‘E stood in trine with them.

66 \ 248

Arcta Hydraia in bed by herself, wearing nothing. It was a good Vedani bed, of variable shape and texture, solid plush bioplasmic. These were nice quarters, heart of the blocks.

In Arcta’s hand, a leaf of paper from a small notepad, crinkled from being in a pocket. The words on it:

angled arched
corridors
shivering elements
a dance of memory
deep within
somewhere
beyond the bottom
on the other side
of the wave
a sound transcending
time and space
I hear it

({something somewhere anchoring to this spaceless reel of wide-ranging presence. little if any control. there is this, and there is this. far. far. seeing. this will be hard to remember, or will it?})

She recalls the mysterious yet apt correspondent during her years at the Institute of Sphere Dynamics, whose dialogue sparked a couple theoretical breakthroughs. Nothing classified, just good erudite banter with a developed mind.

65 \ 247

“There might be something in our blind spot. I see the edge of something here, look.” Soleil, who had gained some experience with camera spotting, indicated a corner detail on two views. A thrill tingled across her scalp – the glint, the curve, felt familiar.

Draig recalculated the external viewing camera aiming parameters. There was a ship where there hadn’t been one before.

“That’s Drift X!” exclaimed Toller, pointing.

“That ship brought us back to Alisandre,” Soleil explained to her old friend. “I don’t believe them to be hostile. Can we comlink?”

“Let’s,” said Draig, establishing the channel for vocal exchange.

The linkup established with a chime. A woman’s voice came through, straightforward and urgent. “We were sent, by the people who need you, to pick you up and bring you to them.” At the sound of her voice, Derringer could not stop himself from smiling with an edge of incredulity, but he didn’t interrupt. “We should use this ship. Please consider coming aboard quickly. We are in danger.”

Toller requested, “Ask them if Wendel Harper is captain of that ship.”

Soleil looked at Draig and Toller, asking, “Which of us is least pursued by authorities right now?”

“That would be me, amazingly,” said Derringer. “I’ll talk.” He arranged his shirt and mustache a little before speaking when prompted. “Is Wendel Harper the captain of that ship?”

A pause. “Yes. She knows you.” The voice also sounded knowing.

“Let’s go!” said Toller. Soleil nodded to Draig. Derringer also nodded.

Draig took all this in and responded with a nod. “Okay, here we go.” He began to trade boarding details and equipment specs with Drift X. They had a hopper. He aligned their entrances. Before prepping everybody for the crossing, he informed them, “When we’re off, this ship is going to go home with no record of this voyage. I’m going forward with you; that way your information will be safe from my being questioned, and perhaps I can be of more assistance.”

“Okay,” replied Soleil, “Thank you.” His risk being with them was immense. They were lucky to have him.

The hopper took them over two at a time, gliding across the air between hatchways. Leiv Gruun and Gretz Manoukian did the receiving. Toller high-fived Leiv, and Derringer and Gretz played a volley of ghost ping-pong before embracing each other. Draig observed all the surprise familiarity with a touch of wariness, keeping an eye to their surroundings. Soleil patted the ship.

After the hacked government vehicle sped away on its own trajectory, they were joined momentarily by Captain Wendel Harper and Karma Ilacqua. Wendel recognized General Alisandre from news, and judged the unofficial nature of his presence by their circumstances, and his lack of baggage, uniform, or attendance. The rest, she knew. She had gotten accustomed to the talented street kid, the private investigator, and the Princess Ascendant.

Karma was smiling despite herself, with the private investigator eyeing her surreptitiously from within her field of vision. This was already serious business, but these were serious guests. That was General Alisandre. That was the Scion Princess. Both had missing persons alerts, the General’s fresh to the occasion. Plus a kid. She walked up to Derringer and stood six inches from him, looking up into his face. “What are you doing here?” she ended the question in a half chuckle.

“Being right where you want me, I hope.”