94.3 \ 182

Uixtr addressed Soleil in his well-spoken interlingua. “I want to introduce someone, and we’d like to speak with you on a serious matter.” Without Uixtr changing focus, a second Vedani joined them at his side. Dragon Food remained, and looked on with interest. “This is Aelrn.” Ay-lur-en. She was as elongated and slender as Uixtr, a slightly different shade of blue-green.

Aelrn gazed directly into Soleil’s face in the manner that Vedani consider formally polite. “While you were on your excursion, after your training, you met someone, who told you about something that happened. ‘E has since spoken with us.”

“Acamar.” A momentary hush seemed to follow Soleil’s utterance of the name. “Yes.” Looking at the two, she felt on the brink of something she didn’t want to hear.

“This dragon knows the Vedani people through our workings, with er egg from before ‘e hatched.” Acamar’s moment of hatching had been the death of Soleil’s mother, Queen Ascendant Charlotte. Soleil pieced things together as Aelrn continued. “It’s hard to explain to someone who was not a part of it, but you have met Acamar, and we are giving you this knowledge now while you still face us.” This was happening in the midst of many discussions not a part of it, but Soleil knew that these folk all around her were habitually a part of multiple discussions.

“The formation of Acamar’s egg, and the nature of it, became known to us amidst a chain of critical juncture decisions regarding our own growing bad relationship with the Pan-Galactic Imperium. There was a new, yet already true, energy function of spacefield. The stillness which transmits and transforms, a transition so complex yet essential that it is everywhere as itself in a variety as deep as only a living being can possess… that’s one way to describe a dragon, this dragon. And while this description was as yet unembodied, we were one of the forces called to this egg, a part of the universe that told it what it was becoming.”

“We used the egg,” said Uixtr, “in agreement with its nature, and its first eight.” Soleil understood this phrase meant the dragons that nurtured a new dragon into existence via something called an egg.

“In this way, our means accomplished enough that we have moved our plans forward. As have they,” said Aelrn, referring to those first eight. “The Signalman has aligned us well.” Soleil also observed Dragon Food, solidly listening as though none of this was a surprise.

“This is the war,” said the Princess. The war that they had told her was coming. They had contacted her. She was recognizing them, though there were some as yet unknown. The Kao-Sidhe had spoken of friends they wished her to meet, unlike those she knew. Those who could manage war were at home. She was here. “Already, there are losses.”

“Already, there have been. But people agree,” continued Aelrn, “that the hatching event was unsettling. Even though many have been furiously incensed by the Magus regime – and human behavior in general – we do not see ourselves as being tolerant of cooperative egregious mass murder.” Aelrn mastered a struggle. “We have actually been concerned that was more a trait of your kind. This was the way before us that could accomplish everything. If you want to know why, you will have to wait for that explanation. That will take more time.”

Uixtr picked up the thread. “We were a part of Acamar’s formative phase, and now you know we were causative in the Photuris Vortex Slaughter. Only the most necessary mandates of existence, the truest requirements of the universe result in dragons. This was the way it all happened. While the event was strictly military, we’re still not entirely happy about it. You should know that as well. Retaliative anger is expected, and that does not make anything easier.”

Aelrn resumed. “We have not been entirely pleased to know you humans, and not all of us are convinced of your sapience.” A short distance away, Raev Sturlusson was speaking with the host in Vedani language. “But because we believe we are related, we do what we can in order not to simply kill. Though some of our friends would like to, and still may.”

Scion Princess Soleil had seen her grandmother, the Queen, receive unfavorable news with little more disturbance than a cool breeze, and then from the power of her office create inarguable change. The court of an Imperium was no fencer’s brawl, even when it was. The creation and maintenance of a stable reality was mainly a matter of underpinnings, regardless of any dramatic redecoration. Soleil breathed it all in like a scent on the wind, and as she’d seen the Queen do, moved onto a more favorable topic for the moment, briefly closing discussion on the previous. “Would you like to know what I thought of the Sea Voice?” Uixtr and Aelrn adjusted their postures to listen, and Dragon Food remained intent upon their exchange.

“Do you believe in mer people?” Toller asked Yykth and the other two Vedani youngsters speaking with him. Captain Wendel Harper remained at the lad’s side. He explained to their curiosity. “They look like me, or maybe like you, at the top. But instead of legs they have fins, and they live underwater, and they sing. That’s how I think they would sound.” He made finny motions with his hands as he told this. The Vedani youngsters, taller than him but not heavier, made finny motions as well.

Raev watched this exchange among youth from where he spoke with Oibhn Klnr. “I am actually a very good plumber. A talent I gained as an adolescent living in the Hirylien Remainder relocation blocks. I can switch things around – look as good as new – or even the same as before. And you are right, maintenance is not as fun as installation. I can do that here, and train a few to handle your basics. I can use the downtime. I thank you for integrating these human accommodations.”

“It continues to be an interesting learning experiment.”

“While I’m around for a moment, I’d like to have a tattoo adjusted.”

“I can get that started for you. Let me know what you want.”

“Do you have Node Frequency Vibration metal fluid available?”

“Ah – it will have to be the purest grade. Four day procurement.”

“I thank you, again. This time for indulging my own experiments.” Raev opened and dropped his hands, signaling his release of the conversation.

“It is of benefit to us as well. We make use of all learning.” Oibhn opened and dropped his hands as well, the gesture flowing through his long fingers. Raev had a few more discussions on his way around the room as people started to filter out. He kept tabs on individuals, nudging them to stay or regroup.

He came back around to join the group including the captain, the investigator, the Princess, and the boy. “Princess Soleil, Magus. I am informed by your sometime Kao-Sidhe associate, Dragon Food, that you have a quest toward an intended destination. I will not obstruct you in this, and I am giving you the means to accomplish it with sureness, including sufficient company. You four can come with me now.” Raev Sturlusson proceeded them to a nearby open passage.

94.1 \ 182

“Thanks for the toilets,” said the indistinguishable Vedani to the delivery humans: Arriba and Vadr, old combat partners. They’d survived a lethal situation to find themselves in automatic employ, but as ex-military, that was not out of the question. They knew how to go along to get along. “Are either of you plumbers?” asked their guard. They returned silence after looking at each other. “No, then.”

They were joined by another Vedani, taller-than-tall, and more masculine. “Socializing will begin soon,” he said in very passable Imperial interlingua. “You can join us. It will be beneficial.” The invitation seemed voluntary, but there was little other option, and an invitation was better treatment than confinement. Arriba and Vadr accepted with a gracious murmur, seemingly abashed not to be speaking the other language in turn.

They were led into a small room furnished with small, curvy mountains. They were given a gesture to be at ease. They settled together on a couch-like plateau, with a dramatically reclined slope that put them in a strangely casual posture. They accepted it.

The room was quiet yet, but the light had ambience. A tray setup was brought in with what were possibly snacks; the two were figuring this situation out little by little. It didn’t seem menacing, nor the snacks. Random craned her neck to observe powders in different hues of green. Mmmmm!

After enough time to want to doze, more humans came in, led by the two familiar Vedani. The room felt temporarily more comfortable. They knew two and recognized one. “Oh wow,” Random couldn’t help saying when she noted the Princess. Toledo caught Random’s eye contact and quietly acted as normal as possible.

For the first time, Princess Soleil observed a human speaking Vedani, or approximating it. Raev’s Sturlusson’s pronunciation made the linguistic properties seem more identifiable. It was semi-syllabic, semi-tonal, and partially gestural; quick and chopped, spread across fine frequencies. Throughout a detailed conversation, it was clear where Raev’s speech did not completely match theirs, but remained effective, certainly with greater facility than any human present. A third Vedani joined them in conversation, showing up and rolling forth as though he’d already been part of it. They all appeared particularly congenial upon this occasion, voices riding together with anticipation.

Another came in, wheeling a keg-like contraption. She positioned it, unfolding the setup and laying out hand tools of artistic fashion. One conversant left, another went to recline on one of the curvy hills, and the last finished speaking with Raev before exiting. The newly-arrived humans stuck together. Aside from the Princess, there was a shifty-looking man, one tough lady, and a boy.

Raev went over to Random and Toledo. “Perhaps you’d like to join us,” he said, using his one left hand to show them the way to the other group. The pair were going to roll with accepting invitations. Interaction was a little awkward, as there were clearly a variety of tensions at play in this party setting. They didn’t bother with friendly introductions, just visual acknowledgment.

More Vedani people began to arrive in small numbers. Random observed as some approached the snack bar, spooning their choice of ingredients into palm bowls and then bringing them to the person at the keg contraption. After a short dialogue of choices, she put the bowl into the contraption. It came out transformed into something liquidy and ostensibly appetizing to specifications. The hand tools, which glowed, were selectively applied to the mixture with unique stirring motions.

They sipped and mingled. Random checked to see who else among the humans might be curious enough to try this. Raev caught her eye, recognizing the inquisitive spark. He stood and made another gentlemanly invitation, and they traveled over together. “None of the ingredients will hurt you. They have different flavors, and are more or less food.”

Random began to mix an arbitrary palette, and decided to broach a topic casually. “So… I’ve heard that you’re evil.”

“So have I.” Raev was making his culinary choices with a little more knowledge.

“You let us live.”

“You didn’t have to die. I don’t kill people just to kill people. That,” he paused after this emphasis, “would be crazy.” They completed their choices and brought their cute little bowls to the Vedani bartender.

When it came to the dialogue of choices, Arriba said, “Tell her she can make mine ‘classic’.” It returned to her warm and aromatic. Her gaze was drawn to a platter of something familiar-looking. “Are those cucumber sandwiches?”

Raev looked a little closer. “Approximately, yes.”

“They eat that too?”

“Vedani actually can eat most human foods, though for them it’s sub-optimal. It’s become a trend to experiment with human-style cuisine, and they get curious about trying it on actual humans. They’ve been learning about us for a while already, so they make some achievements.” Random picked up a couple in her hand, noting the similar-but-different texture of the bread. She went back to where she’d been sitting and handed one to Toledo, who inspected, bit, and nodded.

Wendel Harper, possibly the most upset to be captive, gave Sturlusson a dead stare as he sipped his green drink with them. “What’s going on here?” she asked succinctly.

Plainly, he replied, “We’re going to receive a Sea Voice transmission. It’s a special occasion, and we are fortunate enough in our timing to be included. I myself have never before been in attendance, and I’ve known them longer than most. I was a child when my father first introduced me to a Vedani person, a little more than thirty years ago.” He let that sink in.

“Then that was not long before Hirylien suffered the Affliction,” stated Soleil, her voice sounding louder than she intended.

“Princess, you are correct.” With a long sip, he drained his bowl and went to join a group of Vedani in conversation.

Random Arriba also finished her bowl. “If anybody’s hungry, this doesn’t hurt. I’m going for seconds and I’ll show you how to do it if you want to go with me.” She stood half-expectantly. “Plus, sandwiches.”

“I’ll try it,” said Soleil, getting up.

“Sandwiches,” said Toller. Wendel remained unmoved, and Trosper remained unruffled.

Soleil had just handed her bowl of ingredients to the woman at the mixer when she heard a young, accented voice behind her say, “Potato… potato…”

Wonderingly, she lifted a fist, replying as she turned, “Potato…” Calmly they walked their fists across the room to each other, the Scion Princess of the Pan-Galactic Imperium and a Vedani lass. Standing face to face, they bumped their knuckles and then spread their fingers apart, wiggling them as they withdrew their hands in the air. “…Fries!” they said in unison.

“Krinkle Kut,” said the girl. The rest of the pack of youngsters waved their arms at her from the doorway.

“What are you doing here?”

“We were invited. Our scapework had been garnering enough attention that we’ve recently been able to speak with the Voice of Authority – which can come from anybody, but only if they’ve earned it.” She appeared as though she’d never had to explain this to anyone. “It happens when someone has achieved the genuine authority of knowledge, and factors and cords in the aetherscape support the voice of the person or people who have the authority. We can hear it. People become interested in what is said and done with voices of authority.” The youths stood proudly. “Some of what we did with you is part of it. Listening to the live performance of a Sea Voice is an honor for people advancing the edges of innovation. But, what are you doing here? You disappeared.”

“I’m back because your associates, Sturlusson and Trosper, happened to find me and my friends and take us with them. After they disabled our ship.” The Vedani girl looked over at the clump of humans, who were all watching them and listening.

Returning their attention, Trosper lifted his arm and pointed at Wendel. “I was looking for her.”

Wendel let her face sink into her hand. “And I had just decided to help the stranded Princess along to her next destination.” She sounded tired and resigned.

“Okay,” said the speaker of the young group, “I can see that this is a long story… welcome back?” Her friends had approached and were now clustered near the both of them. “Now that we’re meeting in person, how about a formal exchange of names. I’m Yykth.”

“Kate?” There were little sounds on either side of this, but that was the main phoneme landing in Soleil’s ears.

“Sure.”

“And I’m Soleil.” Raev Sturlusson raised his eyebrows at the socially-appropriate lack of honorific. He wondered if she had consciously noted that Vedani do not use them, or if it was an accidentally-fitting diplomatic tact, or if she was setting her title aside out of personal taste.

“So-lay?”

“Yes, just so.” As she looked around, the room was filling up. Two other humans in Hirylienite garb entered with more Vedani, till the remaining reclining spaces had filled. It seemed like time, and it was.

People quieted when Uixtr began to address the room from a central point. “I will speak first of what we are doing to the humans present. What is a Sea Voice? We have known of them for a very long time, yet their true essence is enigmatic. They contact us, and we contact them in return. Only at such times, one will communicate with us at length. This is in a medium we cannot entirely understand, both like words and like music, dissimilar from our own and still never quite translated… in a manner of perspective.

“What we have learned through this occasional relationship is that after we have listened to a Sea Voice, which occurs only fleetingly, we achieve advances, innovation, and excellence that we had not before. We also, quite simply, find the sound of the Sea Voice to be very beautiful, though it is not hard to appreciate something so beneficial.

“There will also be a light show, by us. The Sea Voice often responds to this, and we believe it is somehow also transmitted via the open channel we create together. We call it a Sea Voice because our research tells us the audial waveform carries disturbances typical of transmission through large amounts of water. Theoretical testing continues to confirm this supposition. Please tell us what you thought of the transmission during the discussion to follow.”

The host of the space, Oibhn (‘oven’?) then gave a Vedani speech that sounded more like formal ritual. Some of them raised their bowls at one point, and the lights dimmed to near-darkness.

93 \ 181

“With what we have on board, we can manage a linkthrough at one of the remaining polygons, and that’s where we’re going. This is one of the last few, and our only option without having to dawdle about with sensitive cargo. Let’s look ahead to these coordinates.” Sturlusson fed them in, and his pilot Trosper interfaced them to the ship’s advanced viewers. An unexpected sight met them on the display.

Sturlusson cursed quietly and left the chamber. He returned leading the Princess to the cockpit ahead of him. “Can you identify that ship?” he asked, pointing. A very beefy vessel was floating next to a bizarre space object.

After Trosper obliged her better views of a few identifying areas, Princess Soleil replied, “It’s an official Vanguard vehicle.”

“Yes, it is,” Raev Sturlusson replied. “Anything more specific?” She shook her head no. His expression turned dark, yet he chuckled a bit through his glower. “Really, this is exactly what they should be doing.”

“Were you expecting this, Raev?”

“No, Verne – despite my eminent capabilities, I am not up to the minute on every corner of the universe. But in this case, we’ve caught up to the cutting edge of news; in fact, we’re making the next headline. I’m used to this. Aren’t you?” The last he directed to the Princess, still studying the data.

Soleil turned to face him directly. “Yes, but not as often in such a manner.” She again felt that the benefit of her position within the opposition would amount to little if interrupted at this point. Though she admired the valiance of the Vanguard, she did not wish them this situational victory.

“Well, it’s like this much of the time in my world. Then again, we give them every reason. They’ve got every reason right now. Secure everyone in the back,” said Sturlusson, dismissing Princess Soleil. “Verne, choose your path of approach.”

Derringer had been hustling along a clear (to him) trail, observing their speed as being inconspicuously reasonable. That was something he could keep up with, even catch up with a little. He stayed on target with light-intensity mini-readings, until he noticed a sudden tack that looked responsive. Gauging from experience, his prey was near an objective, and from the angle of the tack from the initial path, he guessed how near and in what direction. He took an opposite tack to complete a pincer movement. Chasing people down was a lot like cooperating with them. Thinking of it that way, he was actually quite the team player.

The view resolved, and Derringer moved up to a standoff. A government vehicle nicer than his was flashing a Stop-and-Search at a ship nicer than the government vehicle. There was no road here; nothing except for the giant dreamcatcher twice the size of its government neighbor.

This was a strange tableau. Anyone who could add would know that it didn’t add up. He was right on time to catch these two buckaroos twitching at each other, whoever they were. Things seemed on the verge of confrontational, and what but he should be right here, as though he were supposed to be.

The private investigator (did a secret government employer make him a detective?) ran another math problem. The fact that he’s been gambling on trouble, plus observing a fake wreck, plus tracking someone to a random point, plus this fast and expensive sport ship, plus a highly-equipped official, plus having powerful silent protection, plus having some of the best gear he’s ever been allowed to carry, plus that weird strategy-sized thingy… He absolutely simply had to get involved. Even if he didn’t have all the details.

If the Princess were on the government vehicle, his contract would already be over. So he knew which side to take, in case there was a Princess in the other one. A half-moment gear-up, and he dove in to grab the attention of the… was that a Vanguard?

“Is he one of ours? Yours?” Verne Trosper asked his friend of many years about the new arrival.

“You know, I’m not sure. I’m not in charge of everything,” replied Sturlusson, expressing an edge of exasperated humility.

Trosper nodded coolly. “Then let’s brunch first.” With rapid-stage multi-hold aiming, Trosper’s foil-beam salvo ended successfully as soon as it started. “Invitation sent. Accepted!” Vanguard totaled, peppy observer hobbled.

“Let’s pick them up,” said Raev Sturlusson, examining their new friend. “Hey, that ship’s government too, isn’t it.”

“It is, isn’t it. They weren’t acting like buddies.”

“I don’t think they are.” After a clearly understandable adoption procedure, Derringer stood inside of Trosper’s ship facing Sturlusson, who commented. “You’re an interesting person to have that kind of ship.”

“I’m a really interesting guy.” Soleil heard this as she appeared in the hatchway to the compartment where the greeting was happening, compelled to assess this transition herself. Derringer’s eyes caught her presence immediately. “Who’s looking for a really interesting gal.”

92 \ 180

Material gain reports of unusual interest had been the informative basis for the Vanguard’s presence at this nodal structure. Plexus Corporation had reported findings of untraceable materials of unusual but simple and innocuous assembly. These were marked down as material intake, a common occurrence distinguishable by its makeup. It had caught the notice of one especially inquisitive Vanguard agent with an assignment.

Agent Weathers had been theorizing, and placing himself in the path of his theories. This one had to do with exploring possible avenues of collusion. If the Princess was alive, and still hidden, she may have someone hiding her with or without cooperation. Remaining hidden for this long meant expertly avoiding the gaze of innocent eyes. Among the best at that were corporations, including and especially the large ones with their labyrinths of departments, high acumen and familiarity with transport, and deep resource pools. Yesterday, Vanguard John Weathers scanned a few different kinds of corporate-government reports. He decided to take advantage of this timely location alert, which followed an untraceable materials lump that included Zerite. A suspect, a question, and a clue; indications of powerful players.

His ship was in correlative drift with this giant party decoration – some wide spacefoam ribbon held in an irregular shape, attached to what looked like a copier. Unlikely spot for an art installation. Doesn’t work like any known equipment, could easily be discarded research in this removed area. Corporations sniping each others’ secrets was nothing new, and they were happy to report their gains to reinforce their winning reputations. Delving into their mysteries was for the few, the brave. Agent Weathers was just dipping his toe in at this particular point, with his own aims in mind. He’d rest and formulate here until the next action took precedence.

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.