Hornswoop me bungo pony, a dogsled on ice
-Blue Oyster Cult, "The Red and The Black"
The Seed of Fire rode the Quercan sixline ferry zedward to the QBC convergence, the locus in Arbspace where the Quercus, Brumvolz, and Chthon chains came together — according to mathematicians — like a soap-bubble tetrahedron whose fourth bubble was Consensus.
The great whale sprung its mouth, and the Captain and Torisa stood on the bridge and watched as Trixie guided them out into the discoball jungle. The Quercan and Chthon craft were of similar green hues, but the Quercans were pastel leaftips and windstream crests, while the Chthons were saturated slithers and lumps. The Brumvolzins, brutalist and chrome, slashed through the foliage like machetes.
"Shiny want!" Nimrod squawked.
Torisa opened her hand. "Shiny eye, shiny have."
"He tests my faith, Captain."
When the three colors were in balance, she said "Trixie, pull over."
The ship fell from Blipmax to Arbitrary drift, and where they had been flowing with the other craft like windblown seeds, now they hovered at the center of a paddleball hailstorm as the story-stripped motes tumbled over themselves at the doorstep to spacetime.
Torisa tilted her head back and took off her glasses.
"Chill! I'm reading." She drew a mosquito stim and plinked her arm.
"What are you using?"
"Eleven Hydroxy." Already she was starting to sway, and she handed the Captain a packet labeled "Space Candy concentrate, half off." He stuck one through his sleeve.
Gradually, it made sense. Gimcrack opals trailed tracers that zigzagged as he turned his head, revealing an iridescent runic cursive that beckoned madness.
Torisa said, "Someone in the dead chains is buying cogs. Aristo is fortifying the serious-fun boundary. Thanans are moving into Gridspace. There's an eruption coming in threeline Chthon."
"Are you just being annoying," the Captain said, "or are you doing your job?"
"Torisa." He nudged her out of her trance. "Your lucky bird says we have to hurry."
"How fast can you drive?"
"It depends. Do you have a scrub?"
She gave him another packet. He set his teeth and plinked the same spot on his arm, and fell to his knees screaming.
Torisa, still cogmodded, fumbled the handflight upface as the Captain raged through hyperacute stimslash.
"The world was made of pillows," he said, "and now it's made of knives."
"Dammit, crow." He staggered to where Torisa was raising the little chair, and slumped over the wheel. She plugged in a cablesnake that meandered over the floor to the console, and he tested the wing and thrust. She threw another snake on his head and the tiny cables squirmed into place.
The view shifted back to tubeflower standard, and then the Captain launched, grimacing, into the dizzy rush of raw pilotry.
Torisa touched his shoulder. "It's supposed to be fun."
"You want to drive?"
"Oh, no. In this condition I'd get so many discreds for near hits that they'd take away my interface."
With a hard bank, the Captain followed the direction light on the dome, a permitted Blip assistance, as it flashed to high left and he shifted to a stream more silvery.
The stream widened, his mind rose sober from the scrub, and he thrilled at the little ship's agility as he throttled past slower pilots and under the closing garbage can lid of the Brumvolz ferry.
Inside the ferry was a zero-G beehive. Great slabs thrust from the floor, the ceiling, the walls, all dirty white and divided on both sides into hexagonal docks for ships of every size. Trixie backed them into a 20 meter hex in a remote corner. Torisa gazed through the dome as they settled.
The Captain paused guzzling his water bottle and looked up. Opposite them, a vacant 40 meter cell was now being taken by a wasplike light warship of the Na-il.
"That ship doesn't need a ferry," he said. "They must have marked us outside."
"We are so busted." She reached for her pocket. "I'd better take that scrub."
He held up his hand. "You should stay zonked. The Na-il will take it as a show of submission."
Already the warship was opening its foreports. Official Na-il colors were black and red, but as aesthetic overlords they decorated their ships however they chose from their own inscrutable tastes. This one was porcelain white with a symmetrical pattern of red spray crosses and black caltrops.
Four shock troops in xenon blue armor jetted from one port, and from the other, crossing the gap slowly on legspring, came two officers in their personal avant-garde uniforms, the larger in front. As he approached the airlock, even through his suit, they could see him shudder.
Na-il commander Barouk Lumbago had to crouch to follow his soldiers through the ass-tube of this loathsome jalopy. In terror of the toxic decor, he focused his gaze on the muddled dweeb-goth owner and her mechanic, but they were hardly better.
"The aesthetics of this craft are so bad," he announced, "that it's almost like you are a design genius who perversely does the opposite. You have debased a classic frame into a wingèd nightmare of discordant kitsch. The neo-Minoan struts of your engine and the fruity curves of your feelers are strangling each other across the universe. Your colors are so timid that I can't even identify your chain reg, your font is like Aristan poetry, and your logo is a projectile turd.
"And the inside, if it were not a private space, would be enough to have you shot."
Nimrod flew from his perch and dropped on Torisa's shoulder. "Your suit." He glared at the Commander's fuzz-edged orange lines and white stone fittings. "Cat toilet."
"Your bird," Lumbago said, "is the one thing I like. I declare him your aesthetic second in command, should something happen to the first."
"Commander..." The officer behind him, smaller and thinner than the others, was still as big as the Captain. Her suit was clean slanted stripes of pink and grey, like a Ladbroke glampunk. "You wouldn't."
"The official penalty," he continued, "for style level minus three, is confiscation. I think it will be best for everyone if we call it a minus two."
The other officer shook her head. "Please sir, not this ship."
"The penalty for style level minus two is aesthetic commandeering by a Na-il officer. Step forward."
Stunned, she stood next to him and removed her full helmet. Her puckish brown face sported a finger dreadlock bowlcut with subtle zirconium sparkles.
"Take off your suit."
Fumbling the magrivets, she shook her suit to the floor, revealing pointy-toed high-laced boots, a seven-pocket black leather kilt, and a grey and purple checkered jersey from some obscure 2-D hockey team.
"Your dissonance," the Commander said, "continues to exceed your perception, despite repeated warnings, by an ever wider margin. You knew this was coming."
He turned to Torisa. "Crew of the Fart Catapult, I present your aesthetics officer, Captain Desdenova Solarin. She has full control of all elements of style inside and out, which by the Treaty of Menkalinan may be backed by force up to the edge of tempdeath."
He turned to Desdenova. "Your term will last until this ship, inside and out, achieves style level plus three."
She reeled as if punched in the face. "Sir, the customary threshold is level zero. Six levels..."
"Is unprecedented, but within my authority."
Suddenly she understood. This was not a tragic injustice but a calculated assassination. "You see me as a threat."
Barouk Lumbago bellowed with laughter.