Previous chapter: Prologue
30 years after the mysterious disappearance of the ANN Hermosa
It's my last day at work, for a while at least, and it's as hectic as usual. My lead, Magda, is running around as if her head was on fire, but this is her MO. She just enjoys being overwhelmed, double-booked, and pushed up against a hard deadline.
From Jaz To @WorkSocialGroup Congrats on the great job! I'll miss you all. Lukewarm Spiders Meme See you at the club!
I hand off the last touch-ups of my set of holos, the last updates we'd discussed just an hour earlier, send them on to my lead. Magda notices and shouts, from the other side of the large space we occupy, a thanks and a "have fun", and she's gone again, diving back into some work-fire.
From Minear to @WorkSocialGroup: Dragoons! Dragoons #19 meme
The rest of the group echoes back, memes start flying through my vision, great big hulking sumo wrestlers are toppling buildings over and over again.
Through the carnage I notice that Gabe is walking with determination to some point in front of me, between myself and the exit. There's a holo in his hand, but it looks strange, its colors have gone neon. Gabe is creating a Vatican art exhibit, so this is probably a "Gabe problem" that he's making a "Jaz problem". Gotta love the interns, their moves are so predictable.
I side-step just in time to avoid colliding with Gabe, then watch with mild amusement as he gets tangled in the furniture. "Looks like your colors are all off. Talk to Minear, he had a similar issue when...", I pause and dredge up the memory from a few months back, "he worked on the Caravaggio sets."
The team is all ragged smiles. We've delivered on the promised courses, even with the last-minute changes, and everyone's feeling nice and accomplished, but dead tired. We pushed ourselves for this one. I continue making my way out through the blizzard of farewells and memes and wave my goodbyes. Gabe beams and waves from the floor, then gets back to his struggle.
From Pearl to Jaz: Break a leg!
From Jaz To Pearl: Policeman flipping the crux at the photographer
I run for the closest outer shuttle, slump into an open seat by the window and wonder if I forgot to do anything. I'm sure I did, but it's not like I'm going into hibernation. I queue up something from my high-tempo collection and techno floods my head, the subdermal speakers thrum my skull. My heart-rate increases and I smile.
Playing: "Call me Ishmael" by Lukewarm Spiders
The shuttle is on its way, the acceleration gently pushes me into the seat, a small stream-propelled pod in a clear tube that winds its way around the mega-ship. Random buildings, plazas, artificial beaches and forests swing by on the inside curve of the transport tube, on my left, but I ignore these.
Messages keep flooding in from my response, I reply to Magda, Minear, the Civics Nerds. At exactly five, the messages disappear and I'm staring at Jupiter. So my vacation, my sabbatical, begins.
On my right, the shuttle's clear hull and the tempered diamond of the transport tube are all that stands before me and open space. No matter how many times I take this ride, it always amazes me.
Above the horizon, the lights of a hundred ships glimmer like big fat stars, red and blue and neon greens all on display, their various outboard lights blinking in varied tempos. They are too far away to make out any details, their tiny silhouettes are invisible against the dark backdrop of space. This is the non-stop traffic of ships coming in or leaving our mega-ship.
Below the horizon a smaller number of ships, maybe a few dozen, look like strobe-lit bugs crawling over Jupiter's clouds. Westward, I see the pimple of Nyle station, a single blemish on an otherwise perfect spherical silhouette.
From Kieran to Jaz: ETA?
Kieran's message breaks me out of my reverie.
From Jaz To Kieran: 20 minutes. Need to see Pops first.
From Kieran to Jaz: Ack. Send my love.
Playing: "Lo/Hi" by The Black Keys
I pull up my reading and come back to "22nd Century, the First Half: Stream Tech". My favorite textbook from uni, and it's not even my major. I start reading the introduction to the first book of my sabbatical.
I hop off the shuttle after a few stops and make my way down the lightly-packed hallways toward the entrance of the Meadow. It's one of the low-tech habitats, so I power off most of my augments, Music paused, reset my eyes and hair color to noModHuman. The light over the door changes from red to green and I enter.
I step over the threshold into a green forest. The door shuts behind me. If I turned around right now, I would only see a forest, dark and mysterious, its trees closer together, clearly dissuading visitors from exploring it. If I were to reach out my hand, I'd meet an invisible wall.
I walk out of the forest into a green summer meadow. The sun that shines here is not the same one that I saw earlier. It's four times as big. The sun of the Earth.
It's quiet here, just a faint chirp of some area-appropriate birds, a babbling brook not too far away. They based this habitat on classic stories and period-piece shows or movies.
I glance around, look for Pops. He's sitting underneath a great oak, a book in his hands, a bottle of rose-colored water on the ground next to him.
I come closer and he finally notices me. "Jaz!", he waves his book back and forth in a hello. He puts it down and slowly gets to his feet. We embrace.
"Hi Pops. What are you reading?"
"Huckleberry Finn!", he beams. I recall fond memories of sitting under a similar tree, him reading the book to me decades back. He may not.
"That's a good one. Pops." I catch his eyes, look into them deeply for a moment, try to see how he's doing today. "I'm going on my trip soon. Remember?"
"Sure, sure, sweet girl, I remember. Sur- sur... surfing," he finally manages to dredge it up. I nod.
"Kieran is going to visit you while I'm away. OK?" He nods, smiles. He likes Kieran. He remembers Kieran. They can spend a whole day talking about fishing and boating down the Mississippi. Kieran has never done either, but Pops can't tell.
We chat a bit, longer than I expected, but pops is having a good day. "It's your presence," he says. I kiss him goodbye, then through tear-filled eyes I find the hidden door in the forest and get back into the alien-seeming hallways of molded plastic and hidden light sources.
Resuming: "Lo/Hi" by The Black Keys
From Sis to Jaz: Everyone's waiting for you! Love you sis, already miss you!
From Jaz To Sis: Promise I'll be back for the holidays, hugs!
The club is pretty close to the Meadow, but a few floors down, so I zig-zag through the growing crowds to an elevator, then slink into a corner and finish my replies.
To Sis: Saw pops. He's doing good. Reading Huck Finn.
From Sis: I'm sorry I can't visit.
Everyone's wishing me a good performance, they're all in my corner. So why do I feel so shitty?
To Sis: I'm having second thoughts, about leaving him alone.
From Sis: You're allowed a vacation! He'll be fine. Kieran's around.
Kieran is waiting right outside the elevator as the doors slide open: "You're late!" He's pretending to be exasperated. Mostly pretending.
I have barely enough time to get my exosuit on before Kieran starts calling out our roster.
My team, the Orange Dragoons, half a dozen orange-clad dancers, lines up on the north, wide side of the club. Our opponents, the Good News Bears, similarly line up on the opposite, south side. The active audience is on our left, east, and right, west. The rest of the audience is pushed back against the walls of the club.
Today the Bears' roster has the Morbin Twins, David the geography teacher, Hera the PM, and the newcomer Alonzo. We say our hellos, a few of them congratulate me on the holos I was just working on, but everyone is staying on their half. A strange kind of milling around, as if there is an invisible but impenetrable barrier right down the middle of the club.
Alonzo is a Suiter, he wears a dark mask all the time. His get-up is a sealed dark black suit, and the exosuit on top of that. Red letters run across his face.
"Hey. Do you speak?"
I smile and try to see beyond the darkness of the mask. He shakes his head.
"Fascinating! Let's get a drink after the game?" I can't help but smile. A newcomer.
I say hellos to the others, then get into game mode.
I see a few coworkers in the active audience, they're good dancers, may be helpful.
The club is called the Invisible Room, but for a variety of reasons this is not true right now. The audience occupies booths and lengths of bar, beanbags, hammocks strung up to the ceiling, large lounges, even a random recliner.
From Pearl: Mess 'em up!
The lights blink three slow times, then again but faster. Then they turn off entirely and the Invisible Room comes into being.
The floor and the walls fade away and the gas giant below comes into view. In a matter of seconds the club changes. Everything except the people fades away into invisibility. The ceiling is gone as well. We do not see the mega-ship around us, or any of the arriving and departing smaller ships. We are alone in our position over the gas giant. All the occupants of the Invisible Room look like we are floating in space over Jupiter.
"22nd Century, the First Half: Stream Tech - Chapter 1"
Imagine a society of intelligent two-dimensional beings who exist on a plane, for instance the surface of a table. Shapes such as squares and circles are moving around in the plane. They can move around each other, but not through each other, and certainly they cannot move on top of one another like stacked coasters. Hell, they can't even conceptualize an "up" direction, since their world is two-dimensional.
Their world actually exists in the plane that separate water from atmosphere, like the surface of a calm lake. That is a two-dimensional plane, after all.
Eventually, after quite a lot of navel-gazing, debate, and experimentation, some of them have started to raise sticks into the air or lower sticks into the water. These sticks can be influenced, can be pushed by forces that exist entirely outside of the two-dimensional, planar world.
The two-dimensional beings, the circle, the square, the triangle, and so on will play two-dimensional characters. Make sure to memorize them.
They can harness the force of the wind above or the water currents below, pick up speed, drop the sticks, and float on. It would appear to other two-dimensional beings that their circular friend just learned to magically fly. Since they can only see in the plane, they wouldn't be able to see the sticks that are pushed by outside forces.
"What if we don't drop the sticks?" Kieran asks.
I prop my head up on my hand, shake my head to wake up. "What are you talking about?"
It's last week and Kieran wakes me up with his strange monologuing. I think he's going to miss me. I'm certainly going to miss him. But not this, being awoken so early in the day.
"The question that opened up surfing was: what if we never let go of the sticks? Edison Fisk was forced to keep holding on, after losing control like he did. But then we started wondering and began going on trips. And you're going on one very soon. And I'm going to miss you. And I worry about you. Fisk could have just as easily have joined the thousands of ships that we've lost to the Stream. You're going out into the Lawless voids, for fuck's sake."
"I'll be OK. I need to do this, you know." He nods. We've talked about it, I need the long time away, from the job, from the mega-ship, even him. And pops, of course.
Stream tech is how the mega-ship, Childish Abandon, stays close to Jupiter. Loops of charged superconducting wire are woven deep into the bones of the ship to capture the wind of the neighboring dimension that we can never visit.
At the altitude of our strange orbit, a few thousand miles above Jupiter's clouds, the planet's gravitational attraction is over two gravities. Electricity flows over the superconducting wire and an inter-dimensional force of about one gravity pushes the ship "up", into the bottoms of our feet and away from Jupiter.
Our orbit around Jupiter is an odd one. Thanks to the inter-dimensional forces, the ship doesn't have to maintain a conventional orbit and is able to move more freely. We use the Stream to endlessly sail the mega-ship across the sun-lit face of the gas giant. The cruise is already in its second century. Millions have been born aboard it, millions call it home.
Similar superconducting wire is woven into our exosuits, so the suits can provide a constant acceleration away from the planet. If we tune the suits to produce a force of one gravity, that will counteract the ships's gravitational force, and parts of us experience zero gravity. We can float.
Or, we can turn up the frequency of the current, put more energy into the suits, and they push us farther, 1.5 or even 2 gravities, straight up.
The two teams and the participating audience are floating in space with the help of our exosuits.
I time the activations, the exosuit turns off to allow me to fall, to gather kinetic energy, and kicks in when I need to jump.
The competition is a dance and a fight, and a communal sport: the judges are part of the active audience. We dance in four periods, fifteen minutes each. Plus time-outs. Graceful movements of tango crossed with the swinging motions of capoeira, organized like a soccer match, with audience participation.
I fly into an invisible wall, turn myself around, trigger the exosuit and leap upwards. Kieran catches me as I come down and swings me into our third, Louise. We repeat, again, opposite direction, roles reversed. Our opponents are performing a similar sequence, Alonzo, David, and Hera, dancing like a drunken musical. We are able to counter them and score points for our team. First period, we're at fourteen, they have three.
From Sis: Have fun out there. Be safe. kisses
I'm floating in the Invisible Room, and it itself is hanging over Jupiter. To me, half the universe is the gas giant, while the other is the vacuum of space. There's no way to detect movement. If I move a foot, or move a mile, it's all the same. I have to watch everyone else in this room in order to orient myself.
We're flying and dancing and swinging and falling. I make a foul, our opponents use this opportunity to gain some points. It's a good dance, they've trained for this, but we are better. I am better. I float like a butterfly.
The competition is done and we win! The Invisible Room is no more, the reality fades back in, now it is just a club. We drink and dance, our opponents and us. "I love my friends", we toast and yell, and it is true.
Alonzo finds me eventually, and we peel off from the rest of the group.
We talk. I eventually tell Alonzo that I am leaving on vacation slash sabbatical tonight, after this party.
Where will you go?
"Nowhere in particular. I go in search of Stream storms. The unparalleled inter-dimensional mega-storms that can get you to a hundred gees, or more. They can destroy a ship, tear the bones right out of her, if things go bad. But if you can harness that energy..."
Alonzo is nodding along, the face the mask quickly showing abstract imagery in shades of blue.
Like Edison Fisk? The words crawl across the mask and I try to find the eyes behind them.
"Yeah. Fisk saved a lot of people. Because of the power issues, Fisk was forced to ride out the Stream with the coils at close to full blast, and he did so amazingly. The first space surfer. He caught and navigated the waves and arrived at their destination, Neptune, a whole two days earlier than expected!"
We speak of space-surfing, the surfer culture, and the stars of the sport. Alonzo some knows this stuff as well as I do, but he's terrible with names.
He was born on Catalina Island, moved off-planet due to a health condition, now wears the suit to sustain a very specific atmosphere. Lives in Capistrano, an asteroid-belt city. They sail through the belt and consume smaller asteroids using Stream tugs. Each tug is a large nuclear reactor, connected to the asteroids by nets and webs. They pull the asteroids to the nearby cities. Alonzo is a pilot on the asteroid-hunting crew.
He learned to dance in space, wearing his own suit, kicking against inter-dimensional winds.
I show him "22nd Century, the First Half: Stream Tech", my current section. He's read the same volume.
I am, once again, sorry to leave so soon, but I need my independence, need to "find myself". And, if I don't go now, I probably wouldn't ever go.
I say goodbye to Alonzo, first.
ULTIMATE RUSH He bids me farewell.
I say more goodbyes to my friends and leave. I'm tired. I'll miss them, but this is how I want to remember everyone. Drunk in the former Invisible Room after a breathtaking game.
I slink to the closest roamer, crash into the ultra-wide seat.
Playing: "Magnificient Style" by Chimere Fabuleuse
I zone out while the roamer winds through the mega-ship and brings me to my home base, Bay 32.
The roamer floats in, past four rows of ships, to my Pearl. I stumble out, thank the inanimate piece of tech, and go inside my ship.
The Midnight Pearl
The Midnight Pearl is a dark elongated shape possessing some spherical qualities. There are two tinted hemispherical viewports - one on the top of the ship, one underneath it - and in between these is a somewhat squished and elongated body, like a carrot. Long telescoping legs keep the whole thing a meter off the ground. It resembles a vintage space-ship design more than a pearl, of course, but I'm not renaming her.
Anyway, I call her Pearl.
"Pearl, wake up, we're heading out!"
Playing: "Conquistador" by Procol Harum
I get inside by way of a small ramp that descended from the thick end when I approached. I still have the exosuit on, so I trigger it and float through the dual open doors of the airlock, into the ship and down to the lower viewport. The ship seals up behind me, I hear her waking up.
In the old days, a viewport was a piece of glass about a foot across or so, bolted in place over a hole in the ship's hull. The viewport I climb into is a hemisphere large enough to hold two occupants, or four close friends. A layer of clear soft material lines the inner spherical boundary and I slump into this, turn off the exosuit, and relax. It's like lying on a curved see-through water-bed.
"Sending the flight plan to Control. Congratulations on the win tonight. How was the after-party?"
"Great. There... was this guy. I think it was a guy. He was one of those Suiters, always had his mask on, talked with text on his helmet!"
"I saw the broadcast. He's quite the dancer, too. Jaz, Control wants to talk with you. Should I patch them through?"
"Sure. Audio-only, please." A holo pops up, identifying the caller, but there is no video.
"Great game, Jaz." Rehnquist's voice booms out, then Pearl quickly turns him down a notch, and my buzzed brain is grateful.
"Be careful out there, Jaz, and remember to write."
"Always, Rhen." He's one of my oldest friends in this place. I'll write. "How's the weather out there? Any stream activity I should be aware of?"
Rhen takes a bit to reply, which means he's looking up the latest forecasts.
In Stream terminology: The planar beings need to be aware of storms above or waves below, and just the same for us humans, we must watch the neighboring dimensions for strong gusts or powerful fronts. Space weather, in other words.
Sometimes ships are caught up in the storms and are twisted inside-out by the powerful forces. We've lost thousands of ships to the inter-dimensional weather.
"Mild for the next couple of days, at least. From here out to Saturn it's clear sailing. Have a good one, Jaz." Rhen signs off.
I'm sad about the weather, but also relieved. The storms are what I'm looking for, but some calm sailing will be a good way to kick off my vacation.
I'm also sad to be leaving my friends behind.
"Jaz, you were going to tell me about that boy," Pearly pipes up.
"When we're underway," I reply.
I take a few minutes and sift through the messages I got since the party. The Suiter hasn't texted me yet.
Pearl pops up another holo, a control panel that's awaiting my command. I tap at the holographic Launch button and the platform underneath the ship starts to move. We swing out of our mooring bay and slowly maneuver toward the great elevator at the end of the launch bay.
Civilian ships aren't allowed to fly through the bay on their own power, so the pad that we park on is a freight mover. It moves us in and out of the mega-ship. I watch the passing shapes of other ships. My ship is a strange anomaly next to these bulky and angled giants.
"His name's Alonzo. The Suiter. He just arrived from Capistrano."
Ship after ship march past us, in this one of dozens of bays. I think of all the millions of people on this mega-ship and what a coincidence that Alonzo found me in the Invisible Room.
"You don't want to stay just another day? Get to know him a bit, maybe?" Pearl asks, half-heartedly.
"Nah. I'm not changing any more plans for a guy."
"Are you sure it was a man? I'm not finding any listings of a dancing Alonzo who could have been at the club tonight. Not in any public directories."
"Ultimate anonymizer, that mask and suit. That's why I'm not going back. It could have been anyone. I'm done with people for a while."
Great metal doors with diamond screens shut off the elevator from the rest of the ship, then the atmosphere is pumped out. The roof opens. If I was in the top viewport, I'd be looking up at a star-filled sky.
The huge elevator platform brings us up. From my position underneath the Pearl, I look out onto the boring landscape of the mega-ship's launch platform. We're in the sunlight now, one of the highest points on the ship. The vast plane of white mega-ship material reminds me of the sterile surface of the moon.
There's an almost-imperceptible shift as stream tech pushes the ship up. The telescoping legs fold in.
The freight-mover platform starts to recede and more of the mega-ship comes into view as Pearl pushes current through her stream coils. The see-through foam below me deforms as my body is pushed into it by the ship's acceleration.
We are off. I smile and wave back to Childish Abandon, my friends, pops. Tears begin to flow, and I let them.
Soon, the mega-ship is a dark speck against the gas giant's stormy surface. I drift off to sleep as we sail away from Jupiter on inter-dimensional winds.
During the first few days of the trip I experientially understand how far I am from home as the pauses in my chats get longer and longer, the narrow-beam laser comm succumbing to its luminal limitations. On the third day, I mark myself as Away in chat and reduce the notification frequency to once a day for everything. Only weather reports are passed up to me in real time.
Pearl not withstanding, I am now truly alone.
From Childish Abandon (CA) to Midnight Pearl (MP): Be safe out there. You don't have to follow insane orders, remember that.
From MP to CA: Easy for you to say, no one's going to pull your plug. But I'll keep it in mind.
"22nd Century, the First Half: Stream Tech - Chapter 2"
Let's continue with the society of intelligent being who dwell in the planar world of the surface of a lake. They are the lily pad-like circles and squares and triangles who occupy and only perceive within the plane of their existence, within the flat world between water and air. They have learned to push sticks "up" into the air to gather wind or "down" into the water to be propelled by underwater currents.
What, then, is a tornado to these beings? It is a traumatic event that may result in unexplainable changes to the beings' reality. The extreme wind can temporarily tear holes in their world and has the potential to pick up the planar beings.
Imagine a lily pad being flicked into the air by a particularly strong gust of wind. What if the little flat thing ends up on the other side of the pond? It would have passed from point A to point B, without needing to move through the planar world. Does this sound like a wormhole to you? Or perhaps the lily pad finds itself on the strange ground? Or maybe the pad lands upside down in the water and must now perceive a sort of backwards or mirror world?
Humans are certainly not lily pads, but where does the analogy meaningfully diverge?
The planar beings have two axes of motion: north-south, and west-east. They do not have the concept of "up" or "down", but that is where the gust of wind may take them.
Humans, similarly, are not able to picture the "up" and "down" of the Stream directions. But we have terms that we can use to discuss these concepts, even if we are usually unable to experience them firsthand. Ana and kata are the terms we'll be using to discuss the concepts as alien to us as "up" and "down" are to our planar cousins.
Day 8 of the trip
We've found the first storm of the season! It's a big bastard, and slow. It's been named Bandit by the Stream Consortium. We come up behind it, pick up speed on its long curving back, accelerate at a steady rate up through five gees, then eventually ten.
I'm in the middle of the storm now. If my power falters, if the coils stop pulling on that other dimension, then the acceleration goes from ten gees to zero. Similarly, the coils ramp up slowly when we start using the Stream. Human bodies don't do "sudden" all that well.
The Stream is weaker closer to planets and stars. In the empty Lawless voids of the Solar System, within the temporarily-large swaths of emptiness between Jupiter and Saturn that are created by the periodic dance of the two gas giants, the Stream is powerful enough to fold reality on itself.
That's where this storm is taking me. I accelerate towards the strange horizon.
We're pushing ten gees, an insane acceleration that would have liquified my predecessors but one that spares me. The crash couch does what it can, the suit pressurizes my body, the calcium in my bones has been replaced with nanite-spun structures, artificial blood cells are working overtime to service the farthest reaches of my circulatory system, and a complex cocktail of chemicals keeps me sane. At times, I see myself as some human-shaped inhuman machine specifically designed to surf the vast voids.
Somewhere around eleven gees Pearl can break out of our dimension and cross over into the higher dimensions around us. The lily pad being picked up by the tornado, as my textbook would say.
When that happens, navigation gets weird and we no longer feel the multi-gee pull, even as we push enough current through the coils to make the ship's bones glow. We traverse the multi-dimensional nature of the storm at impossible speeds and accelerations, and take strange routes that shorten our trip.
It's a weird feeling when the ship is pulling at the Stream, its engines dangerously close to red-lining, and yet we just float there.
We're moving ana through the currents, a direction that doesn't exist in our own universe but one that is present within the inter-dimensional structure of the storm.
We're climbing the strange higher-dimensional storm just as the flat lily pad is curved in strange ways by the tornado. And just as the 3D concepts of waves are entirely foreign to the lily pad, the strange fractal and multi-dimensional nature of the storm defies human explanation.
The lily pads leave a shadow upon their world, a strange projection that at times does or does not resemble a planar being. The Midnight Pearl similarly casts a shadow. While we are outside the universe with the Solar System, we cast a faded shadow to where we otherwise would be.
The pull of the storm is at right angles to every direction in the Solar System, so seen as a faded ghost, The Midnight Pearl is shrinking and growing, disappearing into its own "navel" and then "unfolding" out of nothingness. We flit around impossibly, through solid matter and past impassable barriers.
I'm in the dark core of the ship. There are no portholes to the outside, so I pull up a surveillance holo and scan through the outside cameras. Some are showing Jupiter, now a small but recognizable speck.
Some cameras are on opposite sides of the ship, yet they show a similar view. Two side-by-side cameras cannot agree on what they are seeing. One is trained on the sun and is used to orient us. Its neighbor looks in the same direction, but sees darkness.
Then the ship shakes, we pass over a turbulent spot in the storm, and the views on every single camera changes, as if each is using a kaleidoscope as a lens. The sun appears and disappears. For a moment Jupiter appears on one camera, but it's not the same planet I left, as it lacks the Great Red Spot.
I increase the potency of the drug cocktail and switch off the trippy camera views.
A hologram of the storm hangs in front of me. It is a sponge-like solid, and with the slight scrolling motion of my fingers, the material shifts over the entire storm. I scroll back and forth, back and forth, the hologram shows the shape a bit ana and a bit kata, ana and kata, ana and kata, over and over again.
With time, I learned to read the holograms and anticipate dangers in multiple dimensions. It even helps during our competitions. But it's akin to trying to picture a human when all you've got are a couple thousand x-ray scans from the side.
We climb the break side at 20, 30, 40 gees, but I do not feel it. We are moving ana and kata through a multi-dimensional storm, so our rules of acceleration do not apply. I am no longer bound to some of the physics of the universe of my birth, so the ship is weightless within these strange confines of the storm. Ana from my world.
We reach the "top" of the swell and start to coast over its strange planar crest and for a moment find ourselves in a disorienting state of tranquility.
I punch at the controls, current flows through the Stream coils, and we begin our rapid descent kata through the storm. I let the storm currents carry us, adjust the trim a bit early or too late and turbulence shakes the ship. I'm still a bit rusty at this. But we live. We are not torn asunder by the violent stirrings of the storm.
The currents carry us ana and kata along the face of the storm, like a surfer carving their way up and down a wave. Waves of confusing emotions rise and fall within me, in tune with our movements through the storm. I've long believed that the Stream may have an emotional component, though that's not a very popular view, a bit fringe at the moment.
After two hours, we make the final kata drop and come back to the familiar reality of our solar system. And just like that, we are now about a day closer to Saturn.
The lily pad falls away from the tornado back to the surface of the lake.
Day 9 of the trip
Yesterday's surfing has had quite an effect on my body, I feel pulverized. But my spirits are high! So I'm taking it easy today: writing letters to friends, journaling, looking over weather forecasts and coming up with routes, etc.
Day 10 of the trip
I get tired of music. Suddenly, I want quiet. It's strange. Perhaps I've overdosed on Floyd? Is that even possible?
Day 12 of the trip
I hear of a storm brewing about six hours away. Its designation is Barium. I can take an eight-hour approach to this storm, swinging partially around it and coming up from the back, and this would place me directly in the middle of the action.
After eight hours, the storm is still four hours away. The storm is building momentum and to keep up I'm pushing 7 gees, 8, trying for 9. Everything hurts, but we need to go faster in order to get to the crest.
Playing: "Safari Song" by Greta Van Fleet
I am in the cockpit. It's in the core of the ship and there are no windows. Radar-powered holos are my eyes to the outside. We're pushing 8 gees in our attempt to catch up to and ride the inter-dimensional storm.
From Alonzo The Suiter: incoming audio on narrow-beam
"Alonzo The Suiter is calling," Pearl announces with a flourish over the PA.
Yeah. And he wants to talk with me, directly. I punch the holo-button floating in front of me which reads "Accept".
"Jaz, I need help," a worried voice says. It sounds familiar, as well.
"You speak now? What's going on?" I ask.
"That's a bit complicated. But I will explain. After you pick me up. My ship is losing oxygen, I'm going to die soon."
Pearl tosses up some photos and a running analysis of the caller's voice. There's also a holographic map of the solar system that seems to fit a huge map inside my ship. The map looks about twenty feet on each side, and shows about a day's travel in the Solar System. Travel times are marked off in hours with black circles that emanate from our position.
The caller is following us, both of us on a path from Childish Abandon to the large storm.
Alonzo's ship is a basic 4-person transport unit, a conventional shuttle that is common around the mega-ship. But it's accelerating toward me - and away from Childish Abandon - at an incredible 43 gees. He's going to be right on top of us in a minute. He could have just left the mega-ship. How is he doing this?
"What the hell are you riding? How are you not dead from the acceleration?"
"Bucket of bolts I borrowed from SecForces, it's falling apart on me. No time for caution. I need your help." The voice is synthesized, I'm sure, no vocal chords in the verse can move like that under 43 gees. But there's something strangely familiar about the synthesized voice.
Shitshitshit. Microphone muted "Pearl, thoughts?"
"Dangerous. He lied to you already. But he's asking for help, so listen to his story?"
I watch our trajectories on the holographic map. Ours is a relatively slow-moving sloth, while Alonzo's ship is a Mach 20 ICBM. It's going to impact in less than a minute.
"Jaz, please." His voice is pleading. And it still feels familiar, but I can't quite pin it down.
I tap at a spot on the map and send the coordinates to Alonzo. Microphone unmuted "Decelerate. We'll pick you up here." Microphone muted "Pearl, do a hard burn in three... two... one... now!"
Current flows through Pearl's coils and I am pushed deeper into the couch as we momentarily pull 9.5 gees. Alonzo's ship flies by us and I'm worried whether we'll accidentally jump out of this dimension.
The map blinks and I see a small expanding circle of red where Alonzo's shuttle was. The radar is showing a rapidly moving and growing cloud of debris.
"Pearl! What happened?"
"The shuttle started to decelerate, then exploded. It began to wobble in the last microseconds. The shuttle wasn't designed for such accelerations."
"What about Alonzo?"
"Nothing yet. But, realistically, a noModHuman wouldn't have survived-"
From Alonzo the Suiter: incoming omnidirectional radio transmission "Shit. Too close."
The map zooms in on our ship and the source of the transmission. Pearl sweeps radar and lidar over the area and slowly resolves a small, human-sized object.
"Alonzo, what the hell happened?"
"The shuttle was breaking up, I ejected. Jaz, I'm running out of air."
"Right, right, we're on our way. Hang in there!" The ship continues to accelerate toward Alonzo. We're pushing 8 gees again, but it feels dreadfully slow as we catch up to him.
I watch the map and after a minute realize I've been holding my breath this entire time. How much air does he have? I push myself out of the crash couch and fly to the upper viewport, the one closer to Alonzo.
We roughly match velocities and the Pearl sidles up to the dark form. Alonzo is wearing the same suit he wore in the Invisible Room. Guess the thing is rated for EVAs.
There is a small but consistent gas leak from Alonzo's torso, a constantly growing cloud of jetting fumes. Perhaps the suit isn't designed for EVAs.
We get closer and Alonzo floats toward the back of the ship, towards the airlock. He appears to be using Stream tech, as I see no propulsion exhaust. I fly to the airlock.
"Pearl, open the outside door." I feel and hear the ship opening up the outer airlock seal. Alonzo floats in through the open door. He looks just like he did that night in the Invisible Room. The gas leak is on his left side, about halfway up his torso. There's also a sheen of dark red blood.
Alonzo turns toward the inner airlock and we are finally face to face. His is still a black slab of plastic covered in moving abstract digital art. His breathing is ragged, his body convulsing slightly. The airlock is still open.
"Nice to see you again, Alonzo. Start talking."
"I'm running out of oxygen."
"Pearl, close the door and pressurize the airlock," I turn and speak to the ship, then turn back to Alonzo. "On the wall there's a med pack, looks like you need it."
The outer door closes and the airlock fills with an atmosphere. Alonzo floats over to the box with the red plus. He gets out some tools that cut flesh or melt it. I don't want to watch this part, so I focus on his mask. "Start. Talking."
"Damn it, Jaz. Can you..." He shakes his head, in disbelief or whatever emotion, I cannot tell.
Alonzo is dealing with the damage to his side. He also plugged in his backpack into the gas and water ports in the airlock. Regulation, one of the very first laws humans passed in space, we must provide the bare necessities to any and all travelers.
"Do you still need my help?" I ask through clenched teeth. I'm furious with this guy. "Or can you get home from here?"
"If I could... No, you're right, I need your help getting home. We need to catch up to that storm."
"Barium? You want to go surfing?"
Alonzo just shakes his head. Then he throws it back, as if out screaming in pain, but there is only silence. Thick white smoke comes up from Alonzo's torso where the med-tools cauterized his wound. "Way. Home." Alonzo sounds muffled, the words are monosyllabic volleys which require all of his will and concentration to lob them my way.
"That's... where you're from?" I tilt my head and consider the strangeness of the situation. Is Alonzo truly from another dimension? A higher-dimensional being?
"No, just the closest route back there. The storm is a complex creature, it will take me back to my world."
"Who the hell are you?" There, the real question. I hold on to two of the airlock handles, hang there in space and watch through the diamond viewport the strange shape of Alonzo's Suiter presence.
Alonzo lifts a hand to his helmet, touches a control, and the black surface turns translucent.
I gaze out onto a face that both is and isn't Kieran's. Kieran, the last man to be in this ship, has a scar below his left eye, but the face in front of me is missing that feature.
From Pearl: We just received an urgent message from Childish Abandon. Your Eyes Only.
"I'll be back," I tell Alonzo/alterKieran and float toward the upper viewport, seal it closed behind me. The view is boring, just the usual multitude of pinprick lights. We're in the vast voids of the system. That familiar orange gas giant is but a fleeting memory and a pinprick of light somewhere... I don't know where.
A holo pops up, it's an article from one of the news sources, forwarded to me by Childish Abandon. "Suspect sought in connection with Meadow habitat death." The accompanying photo is of the Suiter, Alonzo. I can see just a bit of the habitat around him, but instantly I can tell that he is by my father's favorite oak.
A second holo pops up. This one is a video message, paused at the very beginning. There's a large ornate crest obscured partially by the words "Childish Abandon". The mega-ship's masthead. This is an official communique, Pearl informs me.
I touch the video and it starts playing. The masthead disappears and is replaced by a video of Rhen and Kieran. Rhen's in disheveled work attire, they're in Kieran's home.
"Jaz," Kieran begins, but has trouble continuing. He has a few more abortive starts before getting into it. "Jaz, I'm so sorry. Your father passed away." He keeps talking, but I'm not hearing it. I can't hear much more than the pounding in my ears.
The tears come and for a while my world is just pain and tears. I'm still wearing the acceleration suit, so can't even bring my hands to my face to wipe them away.
The suit separates and slides off me, Pearl pulling the pieces away with small stream drones.
My throat hurts from crying, and yet all I can think to do is to scream.
In the video, Kieran shuts up and Rhen starts to talk. I focus on the screen once again.
"Alonzo escaped when we tried to question him. Our officers fired, supposedly in self defense. Ahem. You should consider Alonzo to be dangerous. We've reached out to the colonial government. We're in strange woods here, Jaz."
"Turn it off, Pearl."
The video disappears and the sound fades. I'm dead inside.
"I'm going to kill him," I mutter as I head for the exit.
The red light over the door does not change to green when I reach my hand out.
"Pearl, open the door!" I'm irritated.
"No, Jaz. You need to take a moment. In your grief, you missed part of the message. You need to rewatch it."
That freezes me.
When am I not reasonable? When I am angry. Or hungry. Or sleepy. Or over-caffeinated. Or under-caffeinated. Or after I ate. Or...
I've thought myself a pretty reasonable person, but just the same, in this situation I see how reason is sometimes a last resort for me.
I go back and rewatch the video. Actually see the part that I missed originally, the part that Pearl needed me to hear and internalize.
I descend down to the hallway outside the airlock. Alonzo/alterKieran is watching me.
"Tell me your story," I say.
Next chapter: Alonzo