5x Rerun: Abyss Surrounding (2) 86-90

– 86 –

The three inhabitants of the spaceship Drift 9 all sat up front, each according to station – Wendel Harper in the pilot’s chair, Toller riding co-pilot, and Princess Soleil in the passenger fold-down. The passively engaged CD band registered an inclusive address, piping into the momentary quiet. “Advice request for Lowercase T, this is Buzzer Squad 1 calling Lowercase T, calling the great lightweight Lowercase T.”

Toller cleared his throat soberly. “Uh, Captain Wendel? That’s actually for me.”

The captain looked over at the young man warily. “You cooked up a handle? And people know it?”

“It’s mostly what I’ve been doing when I’m up here by myself.” Minding the presence of their passenger, he added, “You know, when we’re parked.”

“Do they know I let you sit pilot?” Slight emphasis on ‘sit’.

“No, and to them I sound like a giant burly man, which lends some comedy to the persona. I found the voice screening utility, and modded my own version of the Night Vigilante preset.”

“Buzzer Squad 1, still asking for Lowercase T to sock it to me.”

Despite his red-handedness, Toller was grinning a little. “Can I answer?”

Eye-checking their passenger, the captain gave a cagey affirmative. “I’d like to hear. Go ahead.”

The boy donned an earpiece microphone and twiddled to open and link his channel. “You’ve found the mighty but tiny Lowercase T, what do you got for me?” At the unexpected resonant gravelly timbre of Toller’s transmission voice, Wendel dissolved into subdued chortles. The Princess’ face wiggled with amusement.

“Hey-O, we lucked out! You gotta help us, Lowercase T. Buzzer Squad was en route to the big Palookatown Bash carrying their exhibition showpieces. We got inspected before getting there, and one of the showpieces, which we only picked up for the bash, held a squirrel stash of Zerite. Regulations have gone wacko on that, so now Squad 7 ship’s locked up, and we’re arguing with P-Town over who can pay to get it out. It’s been a really sucky day, Lowercase T. Can you give us some perspective?” The Princess was listening carefully to the grains of Pan-Galactic news that reached her ears.

“First, I want to tell you that everything is going to be okay! If you’ve done this for them every year, then they can help you with half to make sure you stay with the family. Remind them that there’s no squad like Buzzer Squad, and if they hire anyone else, the price hike and the hassle will cost more than the entire lock-up fee, which I’m surprised they didn’t pony up right away. But since you’ve been arguing, half will do fine. Just show them the way, like I’m showing you the way.” Toller’s offhand matter-of-fact way-of-wisdom voice had Wendel hovering in appreciative surprise.

“You’re the lightweight terror, Lowercase T. Tellin it like it is.”

“You know the truth when you feel it inside of you. Pulling no punches, getting the message across – Lowercase T on standby.”

Wendel broke the silence that followed his CD address. “I think I’m okay with… Lowercase T… being on particle. I’m only surprised I hadn’t found out till now.”

“I think I am too,” said Toller, “it just didn’t bear mentioning, I guess.” His focus remained on the rear longview screen for some time while they traveled. He turned to Wendel with an unconcerned remark. “I think there might be someone behind us.”

Wendel looked over to see what could be seen. “Yeah, there is somebody there. And I don’t recall them being there before. That’s weird.” She remained nonchalant, as she began to consider likelihoods. Sometimes, ships appear behind from nowhere if they were hanging out off-path. Out here though, off-path meant nearly lost and gone from civilization, away from easy safety. “Just coming in from the crisp edge.”

“What’s that?” asked Soleil, aware when new terminology was passing before her.

Captain Wendel and Toller shared a little smile as she began to explain. “It’s the area on the edge of nothing, past the reach of civilization’s tether. Not much of anything exists there, and if there is something, then the crisp edge is just beyond that. It’s odd running into other people out there, because it seems unlikely unless we have the same reasons.” Wendel was aware of the lurking presence in her life of uncertain dangerous elements, and so was Toller; if the film Zero-Clearance was an indicator, the Princess could currently be in similar territory as well. So an appearance on their tail from an unlikely area was a cue for conscientiousness.

As the captain was watching the display, presence indicators disappeared. Well, maybe that was okay – back they go. Then, they reappeared closer. And that was probably not okay, because it was also incongruent with currently known travel physics. “Toller, can you make sure all the mountings are secure on that equipment?” Wendel didn’t think he’d interpreted the data as profoundly as she had, which was fine for the moment. He checked and firmed all connections, and the reading image remained consistent. The equipment was fine.

Wendel set their path for a moment, and turned around with enunciated posture to silently and seriously examine the Princess. This gaze was knowingly returned with an expression of stoic unease. She had seen and understood the odd jump in readings, but also had nothing more yet to say about it. Wendel didn’t think anything would be achieved by abandoning her now, just as the Princess didn’t look sure that any particular action would help the situation for either of them.

Toller was flexing his permission on the CD bands. “Lowercase T, talkin to empties again. Breaking the silence with experience, I’ve got a new one for ya. Let me tell you about this time, it was flitter versus gatorwing. I don’t know what they were fighting for, but that flitter was going to be snack for sure – till a town hunter snagged the gatorwing right there out of the air. I followed the end of the rainbow to the grill where that was getting cooked up, and I toasted the victor of the quarrel with a piece of its enemy. Goes to show, sometimes the one with the upper hand turns out to be tastier pickins.”

– 87 –

Two blue-skinned, silver-haired humanoids sat on the floor facing each other with eyes closed. They were in a rounded corner nook not much taller than they could sit in. Others walked past their space, noticing but unconcerned. Their hands lay upturned, fingers waving gently; hair glowing slightly, one shade closer to their skin. They were interfacing in the aetherscape.

There, in the conceptual space that exists between people who call themselves Vedani, the two were negotiating entry into the private worklab of the woman Aelrn. She had taken the role of a botanist, and this was now a garden.

When the final access barriers were lifted, their wire-frame figures translated to a new setting. They were surrounded by many strong living presences, which existed here as distinctly-formed treelike structures pulsing with light. Treelike, because they were trees, as surely as any living – here, alive, in the aetherscape.

This was still a strange and puzzling idea to Uixtr, and most Vedani. Yet it was also the basis on which they had co-engineered a destabilizing attack on an empire that had exhibited increasing callous aggression toward their appearances, even doing horrific things to its own people in preventing possible liaisons. Wherever the power lay in the Pan-Galactic Imperium, the Vedani had finally concluded it to be in the wrong hands, which put them in danger as well.

These trees… they were the first other living beings ever found that naturally inhabited the aetherscape, which Vedani had believed unique to them. A significant and recent surprise. Some including Aelrn, began studying them. They learned that, like them, the trees had bodies in physical locations which were not necessarily propinquitous. They also became aware that these were connected to people who made intergalactic travel commonly possible – for the empire that continued to shun their contact, suppressing knowledge of theirs and others’ existence while disrupting their presence.

Vedani also discovered that these trees had life phases. There were individuals that existed solely in the aetherscape without a physical correlate, until they experienced a particular set of triggers that would create a body somewhere.

So it was that Aelrn was keeping a secret garden of thriving Symbias trees in the aetherscape. These trees had no physical bodies, yet. But they were alive, and she was one of a number of Vedani learning from them, about them.

“I can show you how I learned to hear them,” Aelrn said to her friend, stirring the leaf patterns extending from branch patterns.

“Hear them,” mused Uixtr in quiet awe, “…do they talk?”

“Actually,” she replied, “they sing. I laid down like this.” She sat at the base of one, extending her figure along the floorplane and nestling her head between two gnarling root projections. She gestured for Uixtr to do the same. “You don’t have to believe me. Connect yourself as I’m doing, your crown betwixt a fork, and ravel a thread of your form to theirs.”

He entwined one of his glowing lines with one from the tree, and at that moment, Uixtr began to hear things. “Whoah, wow, what?” he exclaimed. “Where am I? I mean, where is this tree? That is…” He let go in mild alarm, then reconnected and listened further. “Aelrn, are we hearing the same thing?”

She smiled, in connection with the same tree. “Well, I can’t really pronounce it. It goes kind of like…” and she made a set of chimey tinkling noises, indicating their scale differences with an upraised hand.

Holding with his connection, Uixtr approximated the sounds he was receiving and made a set of awkward but similar chimey tinkles. The sounds from the two of them differed slightly, but they differed with a particular degree of harmony. Uixtr felt responses from his physical body. “Who are they?”

“You’re hearing their version of the Aquari native language.”

After a while of simply listening, Uixtr said, “I think I’m beginning to understand.” Whether that meant he understood Aelrn’s fascination with these trees, or was starting to understand the meaning of the sounds, or the relationship between the trees and their people, Aelrn didn’t ask him to clarify; it could mean a little of all of those, as it did for her.

“It feels like knowing something already. You can just… drift out with them until you stir.” She smiled at the thought of her own suggestion.

Where the two Vedani sat in the nook, they shifted their torsos and opened their eyes at the same time. Uixtr brushed himself off, giving Aelrn a deep gesture of acknowledgment, and said, “Thank you for showing me your garden.”

– 88 –

Somehow, again, the ship behind them had come even closer. It wasn’t an equipment malfunction, or paranoid trick of the mind. They approached at an inconceivable rate – not within ten years of development, possibly not humanly allowable. Might someone be hacking their system to deceive them, and why? A thought that made more sense to Wendel, in context, was that someone might be trying to kill them with never-before-seen weapons and equipment. That wasn’t the first thing she’d never seen before, today, signifying different waters; a new ocean of possibility. The leaps forward defied velocity, killing the rear longview pathing. The ship never fell back or changed track. Ship database info wasn’t available yet at this distance, but Wendel was guessing it wouldn’t be helpful.

What could be bigger than the trouble that’s after me? Maybe the trouble that’s after her.

Wendel Harper freed her chair to swing around, and engaged Princess Soleil in a staring contest. She had to try not to ask about Zero-Clearance particulars, though it was hard to wrangle a question away from that topic. She tried her best with a little readiness testing, a good idea in situations involving untried adults. “Without inquiring into your situation, can you tell me if this might probably be something that involves you? I ask for the sake of decision making with regards to our welfare.”

Wearing the same face as when she’d first noticed the pursuant craft’s maneuvers, the Princess replied, “Perhaps. Without inquiring into your situation, do you think that this might have something to do with your affairs?”

“Possibly,” replied the captain. “How dangerous is your situation?”

Princess Soleil cleared her throat and indicated the rear longview screen. “How dangerous does that look? At the current moment, this is our situation.”

Even if splitting up would make a difference, Wendel wasn’t sure that she would want to. The captain didn’t necessarily think of herself as an authoritarian or one of great fealty, but there was something inspiring about this young woman. Wendel felt honored to have her aboard; she wanted to help her, somehow. “Yes, as of now we are in this together.” She was unaware that the Princess felt the same way.

They both turned their heads back to the screen in time to observe another disturbing leap in pursuit. “Do you think I should say something?” Toller asked, looking at the screen but pointing to the CD band unit. Oh – he did already understand that they were in danger. That saved Wendel an awkward pep talk. Now they were a team.

“No, don’t bother,” Captain Harper replied. “Do not extend the situation. You can keep talking, in case we can catch anything pertinent – and that way someone might remember when you stopped.” Toller handled the morbid suggestion of that statement very well.

“Lowercase T, the lightweight terror, with another shot to the gut – and by that I mean a morsel of wisdom that feels real inside when it lands. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but your best. Try to hide it, try to deny it, and forces might drive you all the way to the edge till that best comes right out of you, by golly it will. So do your best, or they’ll make you. Another square hit from Lowercase T, fightin for ya till the knockout.”

Seeing another positional jump in the rear longview, Wendel and Soleil groaned. The readings would lose their senses for a moment, then regain them with a shrug as though there were nothing strange about the ship simply being much, much closer. Wendel abruptly left her seat to put her own hands on the peripheral device and check it herself. Toller’s hands darted up towards the copilot control yoke, but stopped, hovering innocently two inches from it. Princess Soleil, having put the pieces of that particular puzzle together, looked directly at the boy and said, “It’s fine, you can go ahead.”

Speaking out of her side awareness, Wendel backed them up. “She says it’s fine, Toller. Special case right now.” Wendel resignedly patted the peripheral screen, still faithfully transmitting. “This thing is fine, too. But that -“ she jabbed her finger toward the icon now resolving into parts of an image, “- is not fine.”

Toller let his hands rest lightly on the controller for just a moment before peacefully withdrawing them to his lap as the captain took her seat again. Harper rambled as she reported her moment-to-moment cogitation. “I’ll run this last time period through the onboard path analyst, see if it sees what we see.” Nobody asked her to elaborate as she made commands and read output. “So, it reads correctly – that is, the unusual data translates between machines, visual and formula.” She flashed the chart onto the central screen, if anyone should so desire to corroborate her assessment. “The ship is approaching. They’re not entirely close enough to bounce off of, but they soon could be. It’s like they scoot up with a sort of cloaked leap. The period appears to decreasing.”

“You have very good longview devices equipped,” remarked Princess Soleil. “Standard anticipation measures?”

“A kind of professional’s insurance,” Wendel stated calmly, “cuts down likelihood of avoidable accidents. And hey, there it goes again. Yeah, both the time between leaps is decreasing, and the amount of space covered. By the rate of decrease, we could determine their target along this road, but I don’t think we need to bother. There’s nothing else out here. It’s probably us. What do you think, Princess?”

“Infinite approach. They’re utilizing an infinite approach formula.” Aside from this bit of insight, Soleil just gave a serious affirmative nod.

“Did you say Princess? Princess of what?” This time it was Toller’s turn to rotate his seat to face her. “THE Princess? Like, all the Princesses ever?”

“A bit like all of the Princesses in my line, that of the Magus Dynasty.” She nodded kindly. “Do you not take in the news very often?”

“Almost never,” he said, looking down at his clothes as though they should tell her something; though, this was a fairly new set. The Princess just smiled, and he smoothly rotated his seat back around to the controls.

“Okay, that was another slide forward just now,” announced Wendel. “Now they’re in bounce range for visual. Gripes, but that’s a fast ship. Littler than us, but definitely faster. From there, they could catch up with us the old-fashioned way in about twenty minutes. Also I apologize, I truly thought I had mentioned your grace – I probably had a hard time registering that someone could not know. Then again, you introduced yourself to him as Soleil, and maybe I just didn’t want to give any more information than you gave… even though I thought your grace was obvious and easily known. Zero-Clearance is weird and scary.”

“Darnit, the CD bands are going wonky. They’re still there, it’s just wonkytown.” The boy’s twiddling took on the dire focus of last-minute testing.

“Right now our pathway is full forward, nothing blocking…” The captain swiveled to face the others. “There’s a defense system on this ship, and currently I’m the only one who can engage it. Are you prepared for the possibilities of me using it?” This last question was directed mainly toward the Princess.

Soleil felt concern for Moonshadow. “Do I need to move my vehicle?”

“No, it’s not in the way,” replied Wendel.

“Yes, I’m prepared,” stated Soleil convincingly. Then, an unusual sensation returned in her thoughts. A funny feeling she’d almost forgotten but which had a name: Raev Sturlusson. Wasn’t he imprisoned? It didn’t feel like he was in prison. He felt nearly as close as during her approach to the hospice room in the Spear where she’d snuck a word with him before his sentencing. With the same approaching feeling. “Someone very dangerous could be on board that ship,” she warned.

Captain Harper spoke as she rose up. “We already have some idea. We’ll do what we need to do. Toller, take the chair and maintain full forward along the speedway line.”

He finally pushed something through his broadcasting struggle. “Good night, and good luck. Lowercase T wishes you peace, out.” Then he let go, making it clear there was nothing more worth trying with it. He then transferred chairs immediately. Toller wiped and patted his palms on his lap, then turned to give Princess Soleil a bravado wink as the captain disappeared. “Want to sit co-chair?” he asked. “Maybe you’ll get to push a button.”

Giving the lad her best huntress smile, Soleil dashed up and strapped in. “I’m not familiar with these controls,” she admitted, “but I’ll take commands.”

“Okay!” announced Toller with convicted readiness.

Wendel’s voice chimed in over the com. “No point trying to contact them when we’re cut off. Skyfather warming up, ready in 3. I hope you are, too.”

“Okay!” Toller repeated his confidence back to the captain.

Soleil reported in, using the current operating term. “Okay!” She then addressed Toller. “What’s the Skyfather?”

“It’s a giant, excuse me, gigantic beam cannon.”

Soleil had only seen diagram documents, but she was aware of their capabilities. “Well, then. I suppose we’ll see what they’ve got, and what they want.”

– 89 –

The spaceship pursuing Drift 9 took another jump – tiny in comparison to previous distances crossed, but giant in that this one finally overtook them. Young Toller in the pilot’s chair brought Drift 9 to an emergency halt, now faced with a ship directly in front of them. He looked at the dash clock and tried to remember exactly when Wendel said their cannon was three minutes to ready. It felt like two and half minutes ago. As seconds passed, he was able to see two figures in the front of their ship, as well as signs that they were also probably charging a weapon. His alarm reflex rose, and to Soleil he yelled, “Get down and hold on!”

There was a cross of blinding flashes. The two of them felt a bad shudder, though their compartment was intact. After a couple breaths under cover, Captain Wendel Harper clambered in from the back. “Our propulsion engine is slashed. Pinpoint beam. They were just a little faster, it was so close!” Her fury of failure under duress emerged in those last two words as she obscured Toller at his controls, reaching in to test other systems. “They’ve got us. Their ship is the only way out of here.” For a moment, she melted onto the control board and kissed the CD band unit. “I love you,” she whispered, unclear whether to her ship or to someone else, possibly Leiv.

Drift 9 shuddered again as their attacker grab-connected the hold entrance. The captain picked herself up again and aimed a camera to inspect the other craft. “HA!” she yelled, pointing to the image of one of their antennas, slashed in half. She snapped her jaws together, teeth bared.

They heard the resonant pong of the hold door’s locking mechanisms unlatching. Harper abruptly left the cockpit and disappeared. Toller and Soleil got up, readying for hostilities. Soleil did not attempt to alter her appearance. The ship was quiet as steps approached unhurriedly.

Two men appeared in the corridor, and Harper dropped down onto the one in front, a glinting bowie knife in her fist. The large man moved with surprising grace, dancing her into an arm lock that resembled a dramatic dip. Extended, the knife fell from Harper’s squeezed grip. They remained in this embrace while the one behind stepped around them.

“Hello, everybody,” said Raev Sturlusson with a note of cool surprise.

“Hello,” replied Princess Soleil with an expectant undertone. She and Toller remained crouched in ready stances.

“You’re going to come with us.” Sturlusson lifted his one hand, a crackling ball of bronze lightning appearing above his palm. A thread-slim bolt precisely struck the cockpit’s lighting fixture, leaving the chamber dark but for the energy still crackling in the invader’s hand. “Don’t resist.” Drift 9’s original occupants respectfully relaxed.

All went from the hold door through the tube chute with Sturlusson escorting from behind. The three captured were brought to seats in a passenger niche and fitted with captivity harnesses. “Fancy meeting you here,” Sturlusson said to Soleil as he carefully set her straps. “This is certainly making the most of a visit. Verne doesn’t even have to report on his objective. Which was you,” he said turning to Wendel where she sat securely. She bared her teeth at him. “After your little tango, I think you get to know his first name. The notoriously curious Captain Wendel Harper, of the Starweavers. And…” he narrowed his eyes at the boy, “is that Lowercase T?”

“I know who you are,” said Toller with defiant nonchalance.

“You know who he is?” Soleil asked, sounding slightly offended.

“Just so that everyone is certain,” said the dark-haired man as he exited to join his pilot, “my name is Raev Sturlusson, of Hirylien.”

The captives listened silently to the conversation up front. “What to do with this?” Trosper asked Sturlusson.

“We have to leave it.”

“I’m going to make it look natural. It’ll be simple enough.” Wendel let out a rising growl of frustrated hostility. They felt a weapon charge and release. “What a shame,” called Trosper back to his captive, “it looks like your engine exploded. That’s a rare type of failure, but it happens. At least someone must have come to pick you up. That’s very lucky.” Wendel lowered her head to hang down as far as it could.

Sturlusson called back to them as well, echoing words from a happy time. “Road trip, everyone!”

– 90 –

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.

5x Rerun: Abyss Surrounding (2) 82-84, 20th Sequence, 85

– 82 –

“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.

– 83 –

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.

– 84 –

This stash-dump of overstock toilets quietly occupied half a small valley of construction site ruins. Toledo Vadr addressed them. “There’s something bodily about a toilet that makes it seem like a personal extension. Each of those could be up against someone’s ass, and excretion passes through it like another organ, which it resembles. This looks like a very large assembly of individual organs.”

“We’re taking as many as we can carry.” Random Arriba turned to scrutinize the cargo trailer that their little-but-mighty tech ship would tow to a location they hadn’t yet received. “I wonder if these are for the aliens we just met.”

“Aliens?” Toledo asked. That was an archaic word that had fallen out of favor. Other sentient people hadn’t been commonly called aliens since longer than fifteen generations ago, but that was also the last time that the Imperium had met and integrated another sentient, the Aquarii.

“You know… sentients we don’t know yet. We’ve only just met, and wisdom is a deep lesson to demonstrate. Okay, they’re obviously people, who look astoundingly similar to us Humans. And they were actually as easy to work with as anybody who doesn’t say a word to you.” They had a tread-sled, which went with them from loading point to loading point. It wasn’t the fastest work, but they made a difference as time passed.

“Do you think they use toilets?” Toledo wondered aloud.

Random half-smirked. “If they did, they wouldn’t need to lift some from us, would they? They could get their own.”

“I really hope we’re not furnishing our own prison cells.” Toledo continued peppering this conversation through the gradual filling of the cargo load.

“And… what if we are?” Random selected the next toilet she hoisted with a little more care.

“Then, maybe we’d have to do something about it. For now, second life ain’t too bad. Besides – apparently they’d have enough courtesy to provide toilets. Even though this is a lot of toilets to people like us, I think we’re only taking about as much capacity as a middle school or a medium hotel. Prisons are either smaller or bigger.”

Random snickered. “Maybe they’ve just now discovered our amazing technology, and it’s the new art fashion sensation. Just to have one. Could be. They’re like push-to-operate fountains.” The link module Arriba was carrying brought up a transmission. “We’ve got our location,” she announced. “It’s totally different, and also nowhere near anything.”

“Alright,” said Vadr, opening his hands wide towards their unusual carry load, “Big delivery on its way.”

– 20TH SEQUENCE –

– 85 –

“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.”

 

5x Rerun: Abyss Surrounding (2) 73-77

– 73 –

The thirteen-year-old boy had thought that sitting in the pilot’s seat of Drift 9 would feel less dramatic, but with the captain on his right, feeling the pedal sliders under his own feet gave him a case of the wide-eyes. For her part sitting co-pilot, Wendel Harper understood completely. “Go ahead,” she said.

He did. Drift 9 sailed toward and through the flotsam terrain ahead, which had enough space between for a fulfilling sense of dimension and speed. They promptly brushed a slowing factor.

“Okay,” said Wendel with a collected manner as she gestured toward his main navigational screen, “read your routes. Under our own impetus, even small gravitational fields engage atmospheric immersion controls, which I am not yet teaching you.”

Toller leaned in to focus on the navigation screen, which reminded him again of a multi-rotational sports diagram. “So, don’t bump the edges like that.”

“Correct. Move between the shapes.” Settling back in, Wendel raised her hand to offer him the road. He took a very conservative elongated sinusoid path through a wide, soft corridor into another vast ‘meadow’ (pilot lingo for a clear space). Once in the open, Toller whirled the ship around before stopping it, as he’d seen Wendel do a few times already.

Her laughs echoed beyond the stillpoint. He was good! He would not be baggage. “That was really well done. Since you’ve been reviewing your orientation calls, angles, degrees, and rates, I’d like to hear how you’d announce that maneuver to your crew and teammates.”

“You didn’t announce it…” Toller tried to pinpoint a specific instance.

“We can’t always, but do it now.”

“180-to-fullstop, tilt negative-60, minus rate 7.”

Wendel approved the boy’s announcement with a nod. “Everyone has different protocols. Learn how to be understood in as many or through as few protocols as possible. Sometimes Leiv and I will just use poetry to announce to each other.”

“How do you do that?” A little winded from his own boldness, Toller leaned back to relax in his chair with the ship at peace.

The captain-copilot also took a moment to relax. “Mostly, we understand each other’s language; we like each other’s taste; and we use embedded pointers from our years of horsing around together.”

Leiv appeared in the hatch. “I hear the call of poetry,” he smoldered to his lady love.

“You heard right,” she replied in an exaggerated purr.

He began. “D’Orann: Ask me where I dance, and I’ll say up.”

“Orak’x: Reaching a conclusion offers no conclusion.” Her reply was ready as soon as he completed his initiatory line.

“Srevz: Long winds carry scent of a treetop reaching toward me.”

Rotating from the co-chair and reaching over to Toller’s side to shift control command, Wendel remarked, “These are all Jennian poets.”

Striding across the cockpit with added flair, Leiv reached in to romantically cradle Wendel’s head. “Then let us tango in Jennian style.” She succumbed to a complementing swoon, then winked at Toller as she came out of it. “Straps,” was all she said next. Toller clipped himself in, Leiv scrambled into the fold-down, and Wendel proceeded to demonstrate their style of tango with her ship.

She mused to her companions while guiding them through a graceful corkscrew-vertical-bust-vertical. “Understandable to each other, unpredictable to others – inspired movement can be lifesaving. It somehow slices through chaos fractals; nature likes poetry too, it’s less likely to hit you with rocks. This kind of concerted unpredictability is our friend if for some reason something is out to get us.”

– 74 –

She cupped the sight of the planet in her two hands and kissed it. Though she didn’t know what difficulties might be hers to overcome in the moments after this, she simply blew a double handful of heart-shaped wishes towards Alisandre. As they fluttered fondly towards the atmosphere, her vehicle platform adjusted slightly as though someone else had stepped onto it.

Soleil hadn’t felt that since before being enfolded in deep space; since before she learned she was without a mother, making her the missing Princess Ascendant; since before she’d been changed forever by her split-second choice to forgive the killer. The platform motion was subtle, but she still noticed it. This trusty vehicle had read her motions clearly, and seemingly without parallax, the whole time – no misreadings had jarred or interrupted her hyper-tuned mindstate. When the jumps occurred, they were distinctly a result of her actions, whatever they’d been. So it was with some suspicion that Soleil reached out her gloved arms to comb the field of motion for an errant response.

A somewhat familiar image flickered and disappeared as her hand passed through it. Moving again through that space, it reappeared. The image took on a greater degree of realism: a smallish and incredibly strange person hovering at the height of her shoulder. He smiled and said, “Do you recognize me?”

The previous woodcut version of Dragon Food hadn’t quite communicated his posture of dashing bravado and mischievous derring-do. “That certainly sounds like Dragon Food,” she replied. His physicality was more colorful and detailed, including a dragonish set of horns. “And you look even more like yourself now, in some ways. Tell me, please, what was on that piece of paper you gave me?”

“It was something with the word ‘movements’ in the title, like you asked. That was the thing we could find that seemed most like what you needed.”

“Was there a program or code in it?”

Dragon Food subtly bobbed and jigged around in midair as he addressed the Princess. “Was there a program in the way you drove this ship? You must mean the special ingredient! We Kao-Sidhe don’t generally know what that actually is. Kao-Sidhe interact with a lot of different people, and at times we are helpful. If we bring something to someone, people find it in there, so they think we put it there. But, no. We have a sense of when something is relevant without specifically knowing why, something about our relationship with the nature of ‘time’, as you refer to it, and ‘matter’. It’s just more special, especially special. So, you found it then? The key, the special ingredient.”

“Time and again. There were these clusters of invisible vibrating windowpanes, as I was able to record on instruments while examining them with the Vedani. The new movements I learned seemed to fit some spatial arcs in the clusters, so I used them. Combined with this sled, it must have triggered a spatial loophole programming combination that sent me jumping farther through the cluster system, whatever was generating that. Each jump was like an instant gateway transfer. I don’t think any Vedani can even do that, though it’s their vehicle – none of them learned the moves with me, and you said they don’t dance.”

“What a unique set of circumstances! I suppose that explains how you got here, along with the dragon who you somehow ran into on the way. Probability leveraging via the dragon, working with the inertia of your jump procedure, abetting your favorable chances according to its own mechanics, signature matching and vector averaging to your most reachable and situationally capable ally – me, who is also a Kao-Sidhe, possessing particular likelihood modifiers. Yes, if ‘e brought you to me, then ‘e was helping you.” This last part Dragon Food murmured partly to himself.

Suddenly feeling her legs, Soleil sat down gracefully on the sled platform. Dragon Food hovered down to likewise sit, in a companionable space, midair at shoulder level. He continued his rambling assessment. “Do you know, I just happened to be taking in the view when a roiling spiral of mystically dark scales deposited you here? I thought ‘e was there for me, actually. I am so desirable that at times, dragons pop out of nowhere to ingest me. What can I say? It’s like they can smell me two dimensions over… Rosy Glow claims that’s occasionally true.

“You may ask what I was doing floating out here in the vacuum all by myself. Exactly what a hungry dragon would say. I always make them hungry. Good for you ‘e didn’t take full notice of me, or I’d be off and away.

“This place is not exactly random. We sit at the point between one thing, another thing, and yet a third thing, which you see in front of you.” With both tiny hands, he indicated the lovely planet. “And while I don’t know everything about where you just came from or how, I know that a dragon dropped you off. Which dragon was that?”

Soleil neither hid nor lied about a dragon. “Acamar,” she stated, trying out the sound of er name.

“Well, I don’t know that one. And I know more than many can claim, in what you could call an intimate fashion. Acamar, you say.” Dragon Food paused with a dreamy, wondering look. Soleil let her attention drift soberly to the planet facing her, and the distance between. “I have an idea!” declared Dragon Food. “Would you like to step foot on the planet you see before you?”

Mastering a surge of desire, the Princess faced her company with a silent look that demanded to know more. Dragon Food continued. “I believe there is a way we can talk with this standride. With help from Garlic on the ground, you can direct our location to somewhere familiar, yet sufficiently secluded. Our help means you will pick the right place, if you understand our inherent influential tendencies.”

“Garlic is already there?”

“Yes, somewhere. Garlic is emphatically positive about its presence on that planet. Myself and Rosy Glow have already been there as well.” This partially answered Soleil’s question as to whether she would be allowing them strategic entry. This was as the case may be. It would be a trusting, a trade. Did she want to set foot on the planet before her?

“What leads you to believe it’s possible for me to get there?” Soleil moved to the podium to tap through her main readings. “There’s no cluster here, which is how I was moving around. The distance may be too great for direct locomotion.”

Dragon Food sat his small figure atop the handlebar podium and considered the machine beneath him, patting it. “It may have learned the jump by now, and written it into capability.”

She looked at the vehicle for the first time as though looking into it, asking, “It may have learned?”

“Yes! Let’s ask it and see.” Dragon Food licked his finger and stuck it into an outlet. His image stuttered into static a couple times before he unplugged himself. “Well uh… Rosy Glow is better at this than I am. We should call her.”

“How?”

“Could you perhaps… exert yourself until you’re flushed?”

Assessing him carefully, Soleil asked, “Would push-ups be okay?” In response to his blank look, she explained, “Exercising.”

“Perfectly fine, I think. Have a good workout while I meditate, and thusly together we can summon her.”

“You don’t have to do anything?”

“I just have to think about her. I’m more practiced at that than anybody. I’m also going to watch for the witnessable phenomenon you create – indeed, I’m watching for Rosy Glow. Go ahead, whenever you’re ready.”

Game to try, the young woman shook her frame and dropped down to do push-ups. She didn’t bother counting, since number probably wouldn’t matter. Maybe she’d have to break her personal best, or just break a sweat. Push-ups till the lady shows up, or a new epiphany was achieved. The thought that Rosy Glow might show up just to view this amusement crossed her mind.

“Okay, she’s here.”

“I’m here, to what?” Rosy Glow shimmered warmly inside the bubble of the standride’s field.

“We want to talk to this,” Dragon Food said gesturing to the vehicle, “to try to help her reach terra firma.”

“You want to communicate? Well, I can certainly help. These, I know. They respond to me.” Rosy Glow lay fondly upon the controls, appearing ready to take a nap though she mumbled coherently through closed eyes. Her sunny complexion and rosy cheeks were framed with curly waves of copper hair, which along with streaming wings and dress of sunsets and nebulae, leaked its colors into the machine’s outlets. When she opened her eyes, they were as if made of flower petals. “What a good model, so new and strong. How, where… ah! Access to Vedani human language learning modules. Okay! So, it should understand you better the more you talk to it.”

“I’ve never needed to talk to it before.”

“Now, you can. And this one already likes you!”

The implications of this effort to communicate were dawning on the Princess. “They said I lacked certain degrees of interface… is this one of them?”

“Yes,” replied Rosy Glow from her laying-spot. “Though unlike a Vedani, you’ll actually need to speak to each other out loud, or visually. It should be addressed with proper syntax, as I understand.”

“How do I use the proper syntax?” asked Soleil, smoothing her hair and calming her heart rate.

“It sounds like you should… speak to it like a person. You’ll be working through translation. It’s done some rapid acquisition, and is ready to speak to you now. I helped a little.” Rosy Glow’s voice was trancelike with just a touch of focus. “I gave it our variables…” And then she appeared to doze off.

“Hello?” said a brand new human-approximated voice. It was not Rosy Glow, but had a little bit of her accent.

“Hello?” replied Soleil quickly, as though surprised that would be the first thing it would say.

“Hello Hello Hell0 Hell0 Hello.” It examined a range of tones with each iteration of the word.

Rosy Glow sat up, saying, “It’s very pleased to speak with you! Seems it’s never had so much fun in its life.” Dragon Food sat down next to her and held her hand.

Greetings out of the way, the vehicle went directly to core matters, displaying words in Soleil’s language on the readout screen. [To achieve desired relocation, please perform the following.] At the bottom an additional line blinked: [Do you understand? Y/N]

Soleil tapped the Y to mean yes, and the display switched to a new motion diagram. It looked less like the usual Vedani control displays, and more like the movements that Soleil had been using while jumping between places in far space. Dragon Food followed her intent gaze to read the display, then shrugged and nodded to her.

Weighing her doubts and taking deep breaths, the Princess slowly read and practiced the patterns of motion on the screen. This was different from the reverse, where data was extrapolated from her errant (or intuitive) tries. After a little smoothing out, she gave it a spin.

The display image blinked twice and the vehicle said, “Almost. Adjusting.” The tone of its voice sounded character neutral and a tinge mechanical. Then the screen displayed the diagram again.

Crouching into her focus, Soleil slowed her breath, feeling the correct positioning of all her parts as she swung them through the field. She registered, launched, spun…

Winking out, they were gone.

– 75 –

Wendel and Leiv were laying together on the inflated-sponge bed from underneath the Skyfather cannon. The custom-fit mattress took up half the gunnery, big enough for them to spoon. “You’re letting Toller sit in the captain’s chair alone?” His hands traveled over her front, with hers on top of them.

“Yes. He’s staying there till I get back, except for trips to the toilet. He’s learning how to wait sitting. He can also study the controls, which he can name all of while I’m watching, and just after I pointed them out. We’ll see how many he remembers when I get back.” Wendel spoke in a dreamy, amused tone. “He knows how to call us for emergencies.”

“I think you’re a good teacher with a good student, and this is a great idea.”

“Just like it’s a great idea to spoon first,” Wendel said as she turned over to kiss him.

“You never know what might happen,” they said together.

– 76 –

UIXTR XKCD: What do you think of the rolls of grey foam?

AELRN LKCD: They’re a great combination of budget and performance. We can utilize this effectively.

UIXTR: Do you have enough of it?

AELRN: Enough of it for a while; a little goes a long way when we’re using it in strips. By the time it’s all been incorporated, we’d better have progressed our stratagem.

UIXTR: Sounds groovy and feasible in every way.

AELRN: Yes, doesn’t it? Speaking of groovy and feasible, what did the two humans think of the Palace?

UIXTR: From my perspective, the omni-point projection was seamlessly crisp. They found it hypnotizingly beautiful, if I listened to their tone expressions correctly – struck dumb, but not senseless.

AELRN: That sounds just right. I’ll relay your feedback to the technical crew.

UIXTR: What are you doing next right now?

AELRN: I’m going into my Garden.

UIXTR: How is your Garden doing?

AELRN: It’s becoming incredible, but I don’t want others to come in yet.

UIXTR: Sounds exciting.

AELRN: It is unbelievably so.

– 77 –

Toller awoke to the sound of footfalls in the hold. He’d used cargo straps to secure his blanket-wrapped self into a niche for a nap. Leiv, source of the noise, switched on the lights. The boy loosed the strap hitches and stretched. “Where are we?” he asked.

The tall man came over to sit next to the boy’s sleeping spot. “We’re back in Expansion 6 by Genoe, where I can pick up my ship. Do you feel like going back to Joe’s in Dalmeera? You’re welcome back at your old job, and I can bring you there. Wendel also said she can keep you on if you want, but it’s more dangerous and harder living.”

“Like, flying out of a volcanic eruption dangerous, or escaping from a violent kidnapping kind of dangerous? Hard living like… fighting other street kids for bets until you have to leave a city when the betting kids start to turn on you?”

Leiv nodded and shook his head at the same time, making a garbled sigh. “If you’ve had enough of that, then you’re welcome to take your leave of it. Any which way is fine to us. Do you know what you want to do?” His smile was frank and kind.

Toller undid his blanket burrito and stood up, folding his blanket for stowage. “I’ll stay on board with Wendel and continue the piloting lessons.”

“Okay, go join her in the co-chair when you’re ready. I’m going to manage the linkup.”

5x Rerun: Abyss Surrounding (2) 69-71, 18th Sequence, 72

– 69 –

I behold thee no longer. Perhaps surprisingly, you are missed. You were nice; you were not afraid. It’s good to meet people of your kind like you, which we sometimes do, if rarely. We learned to be more careful; we learned who not to trust. Learning who to trust is harder; some did earn that over time. But thee, no longer do I behold; may the eyes of others now behold thee.

– 70 –

Betide thee thine errors, your mystified inquisition, your missteps. Betide thee thine forbidden glimpses. The circles of the target have not yet aligned to provide the clear shot. Till then, I spin the dials of the mekani, taking the shifting tunnel to my destination at your doorway. The winds of change betide thee, the plasticity of space, and the shooting star at dawn’s arrival.

– 71 –

Beware thee that known element loosed to unknown ends. That once bound to a purpose, now free to its own. Beware the turncoat turned, the greater danger when wounded. Beware thee pursuit, furthest reaches within reach, the unexpected recovery. Beware the unstoppable force, reflected toward what direction? Glancing from golden shields to blind the vision, beware thee.

– 18TH SEQUENCE –

– 72 –

The old pin-and-tumbler lock snapped open when they used the key they’d been given. Together, the two of them elevated the roll door with an upwards shove. One end of a roller conveyor met them at the front, and at the other end in the back stood stacks of wrapped spools. The soft, flat material beneath shone matte silver.

“How exciting,” said R. Arriba to T. Vadr.

“Just what we’ve always wanted,” he replied. He walked in and began loading the conveyor, spools dancing toward the entrance. Without damaging them, his partner chucked them through the entry lock, into the currently vacant tech room of their ship. They whistled while they worked. Soon, the room was crammed with silver rolls except for a squeezethrough passage.

A fraction of the spool stock remained. They closed the door and left the key in the lock as requested, and with no one else still in sight, they took off. “So Vadr, what’s next on the list for the Homeboy Shopping Network?”

Looking over from the pilot’s seat where he was taking his turn, he didn’t need to check a list. “First, we’re going to another planet. And, maybe we could start calling each other by first names now that we’re not in the military.”

“The words ‘not in the military’ give me a cringe from my military parents, who still might not kill me on sight. You know – I’d be dead, and they might prefer it.” Out of the copilot’s chair, she patted one of the soft spools as she paced around. She spoke towards the front, her amplified voice feeding to the pilot through the ship’s auditories. “Since you’re used to calling me something different anyway, forget about what the R used to stand for. Call me Random.”

“You’re Random, that you are. You can call me Toledo, same as it ever was.”

“Understood. So Toledo, what planet are we supposed to go to?”

“Doesn’t matter. Just any other planet.”

“Let’s go to Florin. We were never sent or allowed there. What follows?”

“More suprises.”

“I’m starting to like surprises.” Their masked priority codes meant they endured no delay going inter-federet. At Florin, they did a swoop-through for new coordinates. Both of them stepped out to plant feet on dirt. This was their resistance to a creeping feeling they discovered as newly dark agents: an inclination to stay aboard the ship, in safe haven, and only aboard the ship. Despite overcoming a barrier, it made them glad to step upon a planet. The time of day was morning. There were birds in this parking lot, and Toledo Vadr imitated their whistle very well.

Spools still aboard, they received a relay notice to some truly unremarkable, unforgiving corner. Random Arriba and Toledo Vadr went along their way with efficiency. As they neared range, they got flight control instructions through a strange signal with a scrambler codekey. They aligned to a specific plane with precise orientation, and moved forward through time at a certain rate. At a particular distance, a piece of space folded inward and widened panel by panel, revealing a landing room. They glibly negotiated the entrance with raised eyebrows.

The technology inside was impossible to read. The military technician duo had never flown into a room within a patch of empty space. Nor had they seen a ship interior, if a ship this was, that contained this many glowing and moving elements. Everything in sight emanated with vibration, including the beings approaching to greet them.

The pair kept their cool, though Random’s face looked as though she were fully encountering the afterlife. They were met by some humans, accompanying another kind of people they had never before seen! This much could be discerned in the moving light. The other kind were amazingly similar and amazingly different, assumably the architects of this space. The two ex-military personnel felt an unexplainable guilty nervousness upon encountering these non-humans – as if they may have known all along, or ought to have.

Random and Toledo were very open to whatever they were allowed to safely learn from this experience. They caught each other barely suppressing giggles of astonishment. This was all made easier by the presence of humans in the receiving group. All together, they transferred the shipment into a moving cube, which also appeared to move in many other dimensions. It was just a cube, yet so much more. Visual information seemed to come from sources that were everywhere.

Random dared to speak to her friend. “Toledo, have you ever been to an Aquari spectropera?”

“Yes, actually,” he dared to reply. Their voices carried with surprising clarity despite an amount of background noise. They were not interrupted, but they felt observed.

“Is this like a spectropera?”

“Not at all.” They watched some crew secure and send the load in tow, gesturing with many layers of indicative moving light.

“So that’s not what I’m looking at right here?”

“Pretty sure no.” The secured cube floated serenely away.

“There is a lot of stuff going on here,” Random stated calmly. One of the elongated humanoids turned and nodded at her. The group led Random and Toledo back to their ship, which was now positioned to leave.

A human spoke. “What you have seen is real. You have no reason to be afraid. See you next time.” Random Arriba was handed an info chip, and they were clearly expected to get onboard and leave.

Once comfortably seated, Toledo Vadr turned to his friend now at her turn in the pilot’s seat, already interpreting the chip readout. “What are the orders?”

“Aww, man,” she moaned, “we’re going to toiletsville.”

“What place is that?” he asked, trying not to feel alarmed.

“Well, the official name is not toiletsville, but it’s where they make toilets. We’re going to pick up some toilets!” She made a noise of faint enthusiasm.

5x Rerun: Abyss Surrounding (2) 65-66, 17th Sequence, 67-68

– 65 –

EXTANT/PRESENT

sibling scions:
Mireille – ambitious, structured
Cristobal – reserved, considerate
Carlo – tempestuous, decisive

ascendant, son-in-line:
Grant Vario – distinguished, worthy

regent:
myself, Celeste – steadfast, unrelenting

DECEASED/MISSING

ascendant:
Charlotte – ferocious, efficient

scion, absent:
Soleil – piercing, valorous

[from the Annals of Celeste, Magus the 24th]

– 66 –

A human skull with fine chain threaded through the eyeholes, around the jaw and through the nose. It’s my skull, hanging from an invisible ceiling. Light comes from inside it. The air around it is filled with mist and incense smoke, upon which the light forms symbols, letters perhaps. The skull rotates to face me directly, and the light goes out. That’s not the end of my dream. I reach forward in the dark to find it – since after all, it is my skull – but instead I find a stone, whose weight falls into my hands. It feels at first like one of the large round cobbles from the old wall of the royal court. I hold it against my chest as though it’s protecting me, and the shape in my hands changes to feel more like the lodestone: smaller, smooth and crystalline variegated, yet still heavy. Then the stone breaks in my hands! I fall apart in that moment, as well. As it crumbles, so do I, and through the cracks shows a new, green light. I can see through my hands. I try to pick up the broken pieces, but my body has become spectral and I can’t touch anything. The new light grows, pieces of the stone crumbling away into nothing, and a strange dawn reveals a world I cannot see.

I woke up yearning, both missing and wishing, gently cradled in detachment like under a blanket of soft frost.

[From the Annals of Celeste, Magus the 24th]

– 17TH SEQUENCE –

– 67 –

Beloved, thou hast survived thine own experience; now you understand that which unjustly murdered many. Now you can see, and if you should find a grain of truth, then beloved, thou may join it to the others to form a picture they can know. They will not doubt thee, their dearest who remains. They may feel the indignation as to what brought this trial to you, that this may never again be so long as they breathe. Beloved, thou art the doorstep on which falls the words that they will hear. The key to opening their hearts will fall from your lips, to move their blood to their hands, that they may join and bar the way of destruction.

– 68 –

I believe thee thine intentions: that you wish to progress and further. I believe everyone in this group to be important, that each holds a part of the key. That which displays itself before our eyes, and instruments, shapes my belief in its undeniable elegance. I believe thee thine results, far-reaching and widely implicated, applicable everywhere and replicable in all corners. I believe we’ve figured out what we’re looking at! I believe of thee a true beginning, and that it will link you to your earnest allies by the extent of your effect. I believe thee deserving of a path both clear and guarded from attack. I believe you needn’t be worried by details other than that which can bring us to the threshold. Though I wasn’t sure until now what this is, I believe we may be the ones who will do this. I believe of thee the moment of impact.