Where windows, like mirrors, look out at the sky
And open to show you beyond time
-Rex Holman, "Come On Down"
The Captain and Torisa crossed the delicate petiole to the stem where she had parked her jalopy. Behind them, hummingbird buzzdrones were already stripping the empty temple. They were so far up in the tree that stars in the simwindows were dizzy in the sway.
They paused in the stem and stared each other down, the Priestess at first awkward, and then curious and amused as the Captain got flustered.
She burst out laughing. "I know you don't have a ship."
"I do, it's just in hock to the Ch-Kung, in a garage at K6-11-L3. A half million brakteats will get us free and stocked."
"Is that all?"
"Can't you use your cards to find money?"
"I could, but if the Flow gives you money, it's only to lift you up and then drop you like a sadistic child. Anyway the cards have spoken. Look." She waved the stemwall transparent, and on the hull of her tiny spaceship, underscored by a streaking meteor, was its name: Seed of Fire.
The stemtunnel shrunk to cuff the open airlock, and they emerged under an ovate dome like an iron spiderweb. The floor was a jumble of dark laundry, occult books, art supplies, esoteric musictech, and vintage teledildonics. In the green glint of the station's high leaves, it looked like the bottom of a tropical lagoon filled with trash.
The Captain shook his head. "The Moonwinnow's bridge is bigger than this. It's your whole ship."
She pointed to the four symmetric doors that flanked the entry. "There's a water room, a utility room where you can keep your tools, and you can have one of the bunks. I like to sleep out here."
Up front, where he would expect a handflight console, the Captain saw a droopy floor mattress heaped with blankets. It was overhung on one side by a crooked black iron treebranch, and spooked on the other by a lifesized sprightly graffito of a sullen doomchick.
"To travel Gridspace," he said, "let alone Primespace, we're going to need more crew. We don't need full info sync, but at the very least we need an ethertech who can send a distress call."
"I'm ethertech level zero."
"That works." He nodded. "And for batwarp we'll need a timepilot."
"You don't want to use grindwarp?"
"Too slow, especially in deep Primespace where there's hardly any paradox. Even level one batwarp will be faster."
"I agree." She nudged him. "Maybe the time elf will bunk with you."
"Dammit, don't tempt me."
"This is a model 3.6.5, the most bombproof Jalopy."
"That's true." His eyes traced the air. "And the second most customizable after the 3.6.8, which looked like shit."
"I think the Na-il have destroyed every last one."
"With those engine racks, we could mount two level three multidrives. That's a power-mass ratio that could dodge a bulletship."
"You can pilot a level three?"
"No, but I can strip and rebuild one. We'll need a better pilot."
Torisa pulled out her cards and whisked the clutter off a table. "Let's find him. Three attributes." She laid the first.
A stark line splits the card, an empty beach receding to infinity. One half is black and speckled with silver stars, the other half silver and speckled black with sand. In the foreground, a fox has dug the line into a puddle where it stares at its own reflection.
"The two of Ether," Torisa said. "This is actually one of the less creepy Ether cards. Our pilot likes to live at the edges of things, or maybe he's just introspective. As long as we don't get another silver and black." She laid the second.
On a blank mirror-like plane, twelve swords stand erect in a circle, their cross-hilts marking the hours of a giant clockface. In the center a rat battles a crow, and their shadows stretch into the two hands, 11:55, and the small hand is pushing the big hand back.
"Double Ether," Torisa whispered.
"What does it mean?"
"There are so many meanings. He could fear the passing of time. He could be very old. He might do a lot of timepack sims. He might actually be our timepilot and not our spacepilot. There's also a spiritual practice, 'Stop the big hand with the small one.' It means to prolong moments of the Divine."
"Good, let's see the third one."
Torisa snapped, "This is not a box of chocolates!" Her hand trembled. "I feel that the next card has consumed the deck. It now holds all potential positions. Shuffling will not help us."
"Then let me draw it."
"No! We're playing Brumvolz roulette with a four-shooter. It has to be my hand that tips the spark."
She could already feel what it was as it separated from the deck, not only it's ominous meaning, but its texture on her fingers, the slippery metallic and matte black paints. It seemed to burn her hand as it tugged and flipped itself into the magnetic logic of the spread.
In a black void, a child stands at a warped mirror, the entire bowl filled with the image that fascinates him: his own enormous eye.
"It's the Ace of Ether." She threw her head back and laughed. "Unholy mother devour us all."
"That other one is also looking at its reflection."
"Yeah, those two cards together, that's too creepy to ever happen."
"He's probably just a solo-sim addict."
Torisa's eye was drawn into the eye of the card. "Or it could refer to our mission, the lost colony ship."
"So how do we find this guy?"
"Trixie! Have you been listening?"
The wall painting now revealed herself as the 2-D avatar of the ship's simbrain Blip.
"Yeah," she said in a bored contralto, "I know who he is."
"You've got a correlator." He looked skeptical. "But how does it know."
"She's level four."
The Captain looked like he had swallowed a bug. "That's overkill! Only a Sifrexan dreadnought would have a level four linkBlip. How could you possibly need that many cogs?"
"Such are the depths at which we work. It's what brought me to this rabid squirrel's nest to run into you. Trixie, who is he?"
"Age 54, born on a wretched farm on Lodi 7-26, orphaned at-"
"Not the Captain, silly. The pilot!"
"His name is Foxle Spindrift, midscroll sea elf. I don't know how old he is, but his records go back at least a hundred years. Last seen entering a fivefold simworld at Brumvolz 5-7-L4. Oh man, that is so twelve of Ether."
"Wait," the Captain said. "How can she be so sure? Correlators always say something like eighteen percent this, seven percent that."
Torisa shrugged teasingly. "I don't like numbers."
"But what's your algorithm? Don't tell me you're just taking the highest number. That would be throwing away a whole level. We could trade down for a level three and buy back my ship."
"Orphaned at thirteen, enlisted on a dead chain wastepicker, the Moonwinnow. Became captain by default in an accident that still haunts his every microexpression."
"Trixie! Be nice. We're not going to sell you." She patted the Captain's hand. "I'm sorry. And you're right, rounding off would be crass. Probability is the shadow of ignorance, and we'd just be jumping into the larger shadow. Don't worry, I have a method."
"As a Priestess, I'd expect you to settle the numbers by rolling percentile dice and drawing the Flow from chance."
"I've sort of fixed that."
"But a Blip can't channel the Flow, only a full biological person." He eyed the second bunk.
"I'm sorry, Captain. I should have told you sooner." Sheepishly she turned the next card. It was an Earth trump, the Raven. The style was thick conterminous outlines and bright colors, like a stained glass window, and the bird was huge on the card, perched on a half-seen branch, yellow and orange leaves blowing about him.
Over at the bunk, she opened the door, and the fourth crew member stared down at them from an ancient railroad tie still wafting creosote. On one end was a shiny nest of broken clocksprings, fiberoptics, and pillowfill. On the other end was a level two foodfab bearing a tray of dead mice and succulent spiders, under the peckmarked ten-key where he assisted Trixie.
"Captain Furlong, meet Nimrod."
The raven's bright eyes studied the Captain and it squawked at Torisa, "New man, for what?"
"You probably say that about all the guys you bring back here."
She laughed. "'Game' is much more serious."
"What are his mods?"
"Luck, we need. Brain, she wants."
"Funny bird," Torisa said. "Brain, luck needs."
"I've never heard of a luck mod."
"It's... kind of my own experimental thing."
The Captain knotted his brow. "Confirm me, you've uphacked a level four divinatory correlator by training a lucky bird?"
From Nimrod's ass, a sticky brown-white turd dropped and was worried over by an erratic cleaning drone.