Planet in Theory: Riverboat Without a Captain (part one)

In 2006 poor Pluto suffered a demotion, from planet to dwarf planet, unwittingly causing a version of it to appear in probable space: the realm of planets that were only ever theorized and people who have to track their own likelihood as much as their food and water intake.  Pluto arrived with a full population of adults, suddenly responsible for their own lives, and thus began the Planet in Theory series.

In Pluto Takes the Stage we covered its crashing the party, and from there journeyed to the theorized counter-Earth Antichthon and dealt with its many ghosts in Funeral March to Gothic Rock.  Now we follow the wild 8to1 scoundrel Long Odd Silver and the former prince of Pluto as they crash-land on Vulcan, likeliest of theorized worlds, and right to the deck of an autonomous ship crewed by a handful of the shiftiest figures who all share the same goal.  They say the ship is headed to the 1to1, back to the reality Pluto dropped out of…

(estimated reading time for part one: 1 hour)

(estimated reading time for entire novel: 6 hours, 12 minutes)

Planet in Theory

Riverboat without a Captain

by

Blaine Arcade

November 7th

2007

Not Much Spit Left

Over 3,000,000,000 lonely miles separated Earth from Pluto. The dwarf planet was too far from the sun to have much of a bright side, but it hoped for one nonetheless when it was demoted, knocked out of the solar 9 like a back row billiard ball, held responsible for impacts several spheres away.

No longer a planet, but perhaps in a friendlier neighborhood? Only in the sense that it was emptier, so there were fewer threats to come screaming out of the darkness and smash into it. The people that had the privilege of existing went on, after an all too brief bout of complaining over Pluto’s loss, talking about all the other planets, how they were feeling, whether they were in retrograde, never to collectively turn their minds back to the downgrade.

Probable space, where Pluto dropped, always had odds of 2to1 or worse. It wasn’t real, not technically, but it felt plenty real to those stuck there. Probable people promptly populated Pluto with a plum pop, just to match the other theorized planets in the system. Those from other atmospheric shores wouldn’t get to meet them for 6 months however.

There was a Counter-Earth in probable space, orbiting the central fire just as Terra Confirma did the sun. It was called Antichthon, and despite its lower odds of 3to1 it was 3,000,000,000 miles from Pluto all the same.

6 months for Antichthonians to get there and impose their flat governmental thumbs on the Plutonians. 6 months for 2 Plutonians in particular to resist, get taken as symbolic prisoners, and get carted via instrument of space travel, a clarinet to be specific, all the way to the 3to1 planet, only to be thrown under a rock and forgotten as punishment.

They managed to crawl out with a little help from the locals, and were even gifted a small instrument to play as their own, a harmonica, for they couldn’t possibly stay on Antichthon without running afoul of its creaking laws once again. Instead they launched, in quite a hurry, toward the central fire, pursuing the higher odds near its heat.

Only one theorized planet was likelier than the Counter-Earth, and that was Vulcan. She, people often said she looked like a she, was a bubbly, bright, blue dot, so small that were she ever in actual space she would have been demoted to dwarf just like Pluto. She was the great and precise 2to1 hope, the doorstep to reality, the first raindrop of all the raindrops you felt. One of the 2 Plutonians in the harmonica, named Long Odd Silver, fell in a sort of love with her as soon as they saw her.

Silver was always doing that, falling in some sort of love with someone or something, never able to keep the precise nature of the love from squirming out of their grasp like an amoeba of blackberry jam. Love was in their breast like an infection so powerful it hitched a ride between generations in DNA.

Long Odd, whose gender was nowhere as easy to place as that of the wet pinprick of a planet they sped toward, was nearly fed up with their love for things not being real. Probable space was a relief at first, as their spirit had been in much darker places-between-places before, but now its artificiality and its arbitrary forgetful cruelty hung over them like a ceiling of cobwebs tenuously holding up sagging bowling balls. They held a deep growing hope that Vulcan had some kind of solution to the malaise under her tidal skirt.

Their companion of circumstance was one Roman Koch, the self-proclaimed prince of Pluto, now in exile, missed by approximately zero of his former loyal subjects. He too needed a dose of reality, but not to legitimize his affection for life. He wanted it to have it, to put it on his shelf behind glass and show it off. The man was beginning to think that his royal scheming wasn’t truly a desire to rule the fresh planet, but a desire to seize truth as a substance and bend it to his will.

But, and this was a but that could shove you out of an elevator between floors, they had to reach Vulcan first. It was a mere 127,000,000 miles from Antichthon, meaning a journey straight there, even in their weak instrument, would take but 8 days. The problem was the fuel. Instruments of space travel ran on a liquid fuel that was constantly in contest with itself, each molecule having a different likelihood to its neighbors. It was the tension between them that generated energy.

Technically any liquid demonstrating variance in its odds, which was most of them, could be used as a fuel. Even water would get you somewhere, but a full tank of it could hardly get you out of waving distance after you left home.

A highly variable liquid was much more potent, and there was nothing more variable than unidentifiable fluids in places people found most upsetting. Say you are in actual space, cozy under your actual blankets, when something drips onto your face and rouses you. Up come the lights and you are dismayed to see a stain on your ceiling producing droplets of something brown with an unpleasant sheen.

You have no idea what it is, but it can’t simply be water. Did a bathroom pipe burst? Is it fluid from rotting wood? Questions such as this assail you, convincing you the repairs will cost more the more arcane the stuff’s origin is.

Not in probable space. In probable space you’ve just struck oil, and you’ll pull out an electroglass card to ask the nearest computer bank for the contact number of a fuel foraging company. You’ll wait giddily by the door for their arrival, and the workers that arrive in their jumpsuits, as if they expected to be wading through waist-high levels of whatever-it-is, will be just as enthused to see you.

A collection station will be set up as unobtrusively as possible so you can still go about your day to day tasks. The flow of the mystery liquid cannot be hurried along or enhanced in any way, as that promotes understanding of its nature and thus greatly reduces its potency; it can only be taken as given.

As the canisters under it fill drop by drop, trickle by trickle, you grow wealthier, paid a portion of the eventual sale price by the fuel foraging company. Such streams of passive income lifted many out of poverty, in fact guaranteeing the presence of a middle class in any money-based society of probable space.

As living conditions worsened the likelihood of a mysterious rupture, leak, or puddle of worrying color and odor increased, and with it the chances of a payday. Deliberately letting a place go to the dogs was sometimes used as an investment strategy, often as respected as a savings account or stock portfolio.

From the moment the fluid was collected to the moment it was sucked into an engine it was hidden from direct eye contact in order to maintain the integrity of its variance. Fluids were temperamental when it came to their odds, as were various kinds of soil and sand. Here it is worth mentioning that living things were more united, more predictable, and more reliable, though fully capable of shifting in likelihood when hit by strong internal or external triggers.

Here is a handy chart to let you know how a being’s odds affect its life in probable space:

                                Humans                                                       Shared                                                                    Animals

2to1

Visions of 1to1 space

Interacts with 2to1 and 3to1

Displays the number 2

3to1

Interacts with 2to1, 3to1, 4to1

Displays the number 3

4to1

Interacts with 3to1, 4to1, 5to1

Displays the number 4

5to1

doesn’t leave fingerprints

Interacts with 4to1, 5to1, 6to1

stomach doesn’t growl

infertile

Displays the number 5

6to1

Interacts with 5to1, 6to1, 7to1

hair and nails don’t grow

heartbeat inaudible

diving causes discomfort

no perspiration

Displays the number 6

may precipitate

7to1

can’t blow out candles

alcohol lowers likelihood

Interacts with 6to1, 7to1, 8to1

drifting of bruises

deceptively light weight

bodies hold dye permanently

minimal food required

Displays the number 7

may be liquid in form

8to1

Short term memory loss

absorbs items into identity

comprehends √Permillion

confusion

may forget own name

Interacts with 7to1, 8to1, 9to1

can’t raise voice

pale

light sensitivity

no hunger

no sensation of hot or cold

blood bubbles out and floats

enhanced jumping ability

hair moves as if underwater

Displays the number 8

may be gaseous in form

9to1

Hears 10to1 voices

nameless

can only whisper

face alters with emotions

Interacts with 8to1 and 9to1

transparent

controlled flight

no thirst

doesn’t bleed

survives out of atmosphere

Displays the number 9

silent

10to1

No sense of identity

parasitizes or ‘haunts’ 9to1

inaudible to the likely

Invisible

intangible

semiconscious

Barely detectable

When they set out from Antichthon both Long Odd Silver and Roman Koch were 4to1, but their dramatic escape coupled with the ensuring rays of the central fire to stabilize them, and both were brought in line with their destination: 2to1. It was the most stable either of them had ever been, and very much carried its own feeling.

Being 2to1 was like having a reservation, as one might have at a restaurant, but for all activities, even those done spontaneously. You felt expected, accommodated, and considered, like everyone in the next room was standing perfectly still and silent, just waiting for you to enter as catalyst and bring about activity.

Back on Pluto, where the average resident was 5to1, there was a good chance any object you picked up would be a little too likely or unlikely for you to interact with, and so would pass through your hands like a ghost. People of 5to1 and 6to1 felt clumsy, and 7to1 were such klutzes they could literally drop things like memories, instincts, and talents like change dropping out of holes in their pockets.

But 8to1 was the real doozy. Some called it the point of no return, but that was simply false; they just didn’t like the manner of the return. The sense of self was as pliable as marshmallow at crazy8, so it could be hardened with the addition of a foreign chunk of identity, most often a mask of some sort. The mask would integrate into the face permanently, also altering the wearer’s soul, but in the process forcing them to crash back to 5to1.

Silver was a crazy8, their life saved by their first love on Pluto, and the first person they met there: a librarian named Minty Julip. She applied a pair of crystal teardrops, mere jewelry, to Silver’s cheeks. They worked. Boy did they work. They worked like a mule pulling the plow while it mowed the grass in front with its teeth.

Tears now streamed down their face unceasingly as a stream of passion, sometimes characterized angrily, lovingly, sorrowfully, but never as mere biological watering of the eyes. They were the silver in Long Odd Silver, but their presence meant they couldn’t remember much of who they were before they were applied.

Roman, broad-shouldered, bald, dark-skinned, looked much more like someone who could hack it on Vulcan. He’d never been worse off than 4to1, not counting his dehumanizing stint in Gothic Rock penitentiary, where his odds had been split.

When the pair hit 2to1 they were keenly aware of the abilities they could potentially gain. 2to1 people sometimes had visions of 1to1 reality. These visions were in fact the primary export of Vulcan to Antichthon and the further Phaeton, hopefully not reaching as far as Nemesis.

Much entertainment, from books and plays to art and motion pictures, was loosely adapted from observations of the true world, probable people often attributing a quality of realness to it that may or may not have been a placebo effect.

What the Plutonians in the harmonica did not know, never having made a study of probability, was that such visions only occurred in 2to1 people who were within the atmosphere of Vulcan. Visions were possible outside it, in close proximity to the central fire, but they would not be of the 1to1. They were of Vulcan. Roman and Silver were about to learn that firsthand.

The harmonica hit a low note inside the cabin, which was felt as the slowing of the craft’s constant vibration. It became more jarring, and thus jarred Silver awake. They were naked under the sheets of the cot that was just off both the cockpit and the kitchenette with the swinging rope nets of food hanging from the ceiling.

Roman was under the blue sheets too, still fast asleep. They had celebrated 2to1 by making 2 into one for several hours. The pair didn’t have a relationship, at least not the effortless sort of thing Silver could consume like popcorn. He was of a singular mind, with no real room for another person even if he occasionally cleared a figurative place for them to sit while they visited in his life.

Sex was something they did have, in spades. There wasn’t much else to do aboard the harmonica. They had plenty of electroglass cards, but without a nearby computer bank to transmit entertainment they were limited to whatever was stored in the instrument’s computer, which was just a few long dry novels about Antichthonian wars.

The cabin smelled of garlic toast, which Long Odd had cooked up for them the previous night, being the more accomplished cook of the 2. The harmonica’s provisions included fresh fruit and canned goods, but everything that was 3to1 tasted a little off to them now, like eating paper that had soaked up a meal’s sauce rather than the meal itself.

Silver took a few steps out of bed, running one hand along the thin wood paneling of the wall. The craft was lined with small square windows that were much colder to the touch than the wood. Silver looked for the exact sensation that had roused them, and it wasn’t that, so they moved on toward the controls. There they found a blinking light and a positively fatalistic icon of a skull-shaped flagon with only a few drops pooled around the bottom of its teeth.

Roman, wake up,” they asked of him calmly. His eyes popped open, but he didn’t rise and join them for several seconds. When he did he saw that he really shouldn’t be wasting any of his seconds over petty matters like whether or not he came when called.

How long until we reach Vulcan?” he asked.

6 hours still. We’ve fuel enough for 3.” I know not many of you out there in the 1to1 are astronauts, but I’m sure you have a good enough understanding of space travel to question why they were being so grim over this issue. Could they not just ensure they were on the right path and wait, only using the remaining fuel for reentry? After all, you might say because you’re such a clever little existing person, space is a vacuum. There is not material to slow them down.

But this was probable space, with other forces at play, some of which deliberately move when nobody is looking. The number of firearms in the probable solar system was extremely low, and the number of bullets even lower. Such weapons could not be used effectively, as their projectiles moved too fast to be observed. A fired bullet landed wherever it damn well pleased, which was never the intended target.

Thus the preferred weapon was the deck of electroglass cards, whenever it wasn’t busy serving as communication or entertainment. I digress though. The point, which the Plutonian pair felt like a needle pressuring the taut surface of their beating hearts, was that instruments of space travel were like bullets.

From inside them it was possible to look out portholes and make observations, but not to observe everything, not with most of it being so far away. An instrument’s course, even with no air or wind, was always deviating by tiny amounts in random directions. Constant course correction, which required the burning of fuel, needed to be made. There was nothing Roman and Silver could do about the discrepancy between the 6 hours required and the 3 hours provided.

Unless! Unless they employed an emergency measure called eyeballing. The real know of it, but you likely wouldn’t call it reliable or helpful. This eyeballing is the same one employed when baking a cake and, incapable of finding where someone else put your tablespoon and measuring cup, deciding to estimate the measurement of sugar or baking powder.

It is hoped you will achieve about a tablespoon or near 1/8 of a cup. The end result is both dessert and verdict, and many find their measuring skills aren’t, well, up to measure. The actual mind convinces itself that an estimation is the appropriate amount, to lackluster results… but the probable mind is every bit as powerful intellectually while the substance is much less sure of itself.

As a result, eyeballing confidently can achieve an effect on probable substances, especially fluids. Silver and Roman were vaguely aware of the measure, but they found a safety booklet in a storage compartment that walked them through the most tested version of the process. First it told them that they would need to take turns, as involving different perspectives was akin to double-teaming the poor fuel supply.

2nd they needed to locate the fuel tank’s cabin access and get into position. It wasn’t obvious anywhere around them, so Silver checked the spot they were least likely to have noticed before: under the bed. Lifting the cot caused it to fold away into the wall, which in turn brought the fuel tank out from under the floor. Spherical, banded with steel like the keg Hephaestus might drink from, the tank had only one access point visible: a porthole on the front with a simple lever.

Is it safe to open?” Silver asked as Roman leafed through the booklet behind them.

Yes,” he said, only partway through the relevant sentence. “The instrument takes the fuel from the bottom. We fill it from the hatch there… and it can be refilled mid-composition.”

Alright, feed it to me darling. Word for word.”

Lower your body and support yourself on both knees, 2 feet away from the hatch. Stare straight ahead. Do not attempt to place your head inside the tank or angle it to see the sides. When prepared, turn the lever down and pull the hatch open. If needed, angle your head down until you can just see the surface of the remaining fuel.

Take no more than 5 seconds to estimate, and put minimal effort into the estimation. Then state, out loud, how much fuel you think is remaining, being careful to only overestimate based on console readings. Do not attempt to exaggerate it beyond reason. After proclaiming your estimation quickly shut the hatch and turn the handle back. Allow a response time of 30 seconds. Repeat as needed for as long as the remaining fuel pools.”

Alright. Here goes.” Long Odd Silver did as prescribed, pulling it open and glancing down. The booklet had spent a little too much time being an inanimate object placed in a cupboard, and hadn’t bothered to warn the living creatures that there was usually a smell when dealing with unidentified fluids that pooled in basement corners and dripped from attic beams.

It struck them with a knockout blow, but Silver managed to stay on their knees. The volume of tears flowing down their face doubled, their nose scrunched up, and they winced through it. An additional moment was needed to figure out how to speak while assaulted by such a stench, and in that moment it hit the prince of Pluto like an assassination attempt.

Lady Luck in heaven!” he gasped, fanning it away with the booklet as he bent over. “It smells like a gutter clogged with dead pigeons!”

It smells like enough fuel to get us to Vulcan,” Silver said, turning the intensity of the reek to their advantage. “No way only 3 hours of fuel could smell this awful. That’s got to be at least 4.”

Don’t say 4! We need 6 dammit!”

But that’s double,” Silver said, turning their head away and hissing it as if worried the tank would overhear. “It’s too greedy. Guesses like that won’t work.”

It doesn’t matter if they won’t work because that’s what we need. Hurry up and close it!” Silver pushed it shut and turned the lever, giving them both a chance to stand and breathe while the odor sank.

If we take different tactics it might confuse the stuff further,” Silver hoped out loud. “I’ll keep guessing between 3 and 6, you keep at 6. Agreed?” He nodded. “Good. I’m going to go again before you go. We don’t want it to think there’s a predictable pattern.” There was no argument from him, so they returned to their knees, and this time they held their breath.

It wasn’t as necessary the second time, as the smell wasn’t as aggressive, which struck them as the fuel’s counterargument. No, there wasn’t that much fuel left. It could hardly be smelled at all. The humans were such drama queens.

It looks like…” Long Odd Silver started to say, but they weren’t prepared to describe what they now saw. There was something other than mystery liquid in the darkness of the tank, drifting over the shrinking puddle like fog. Silver’s eyes couldn’t pierce it, but the image itself could grab them and pull them in, drown them like sailors bucked overboard.

Making an estimation became impossible, all of their focus captured by this new phenomenon. The shadow in the tank became an entire sky, and a bright one at that, vibrantly blue and full of fluffy galloping clouds like bison on the move. Below them stood an amusement park on a boardwalk. Water, emerald but clear, lapped at wooden pillars devoid of barnacles but not thick hairy algae hiked high like woolen socks.

It looked like an ocean beneath, but the water was fresh. Silver wanted to smell the air, to know what that much water was like without a salty bite to it, but all they could smell was the fuel’s stink. This wasn’t a portal, just a vision. It couldn’t be the 1to1; it still had the thinness of probable space. There was still the feeling that a ray of factual light could shine through it at any moment.

Vulcan. This was Vulcan, but some small part and scene. Long Odd Silver tried to look at a few of the people in the park, but their identities were obscured. All they were able to discern was color and voice. The central figure was running with something clutched close to their chest like a babe. All Silver saw of them was their color:

~vision of shimmering blue~

The first complaints came off the Ferris wheel one by one, but only after the culprit had already moved on. The poor patrons had to take off their hats and jackets and brush them clean, at least unaware of the exact nature of the gray-brown powder that had been dumped on them by one of the higher cars about halfway up their ascent.

I’m sorry sir.”

I’m sorry ma’am.”

Yessir.”

It is atrocious, I agree. We’ll get somebody right on it.”

The staff have been informed. Somebody is already after her I assure you.” When the ride attendant was done taking a line full of complaints the guilty party was already back at it, but this time on the carousel. She laughed manically, reaching into her urn and throwing out handfuls of ash like glitter from the back of an aluminum walrus. Some of it got in the eyes of children simply waiting for their turn.

The ride was stopped, but when they got to the walrus’s saddle it had already been abandoned. Whoever she was, she couldn’t linger like the ashes. There were lots of orders to fulfill, and she would keep her word. Really, the park made for the most efficient workday she’d ever had in her custom-built profession.

Someone wanted their dog spread around on the beach where he used to play fetch with a bleached whale bone. That was taken care of before she even had to buy a ticket. After that it was mostly rides. The Ferris wheel where a first date happened. The carousel animal that had to be ridden at least 3 times each visit because the walrus was their absolute favorite. You could see yourself in his polished tusks you see.

They were all lovely stories, but they made her giggle, which wasn’t the reaction most of her clients wanted out of her. Still, they ended up handing over the goods. There wasn’t another soul on Vulcan offering the same service.

In practice the recollections weren’t heartwarming stories; they were stops on a map. They determined her route through the park, and the speed at which she had to take it, in order to make sure all her obligations were fulfilled before she was forcibly ejected and banned for life. Technically she would be banned for death, the shimmering blue figure realized, which made her giggle again.

As much fun as she was having, her mind wandered to the most pressing issue of her business: supply. She needed the right ashes to make it work, and they came from but one place, and but one time, with both aspects randomly dotted across the map and calendar. After this batch she would have only a few pinches left, not enough to convince people to hand over both their powdered loved ones and thousands of Vulcanoe floes.

Floes were the planetary currency. A floe was an attractive paper note, red and blue, though not quite as blue as the figure, that was wider on one side than the other. They were easy to spread in the hand and fan yourself with, a common flaunting gesture. It was happening at that very moment next to one of the carnival games, but the blue figure bumped into the man as she hurried along and sent his paycheck advance flying in all directions.

An apology might have disarmed the situation, but she didn’t bother since there were already 2 security people on her tail. There was still one more delivery to be made, past all the rides, where there was nothing but a view of the river’s border.

Yes, you read me right. The river. This place was a beach, and a shore, and a tide even, but not an ocean. A river. All of Vulcan’s blue and occasionally green surface was river. Rivers to be more specific, just without land to separate them. Imagine dropping a colander of hot noodles on the floor and they get all tangled and piled up. Those are Vulcan rivers.

Even though they touch their currents are remarkably separate, even moving in completely opposite directions from their neighbors mere feet away. Their course was determined by the probabilities of their water molecules, and not wider planetary forces like on other worlds. They were not static either, for if a 3to1 current found itself adjacent to a 2to1, they would often fuse. Similarly separation, like the spawning of a hydra, might occur when water molecules of mixed probability started ‘shaking out’ into groups.

From the surface river boundaries looked like strong separating lines, often with a slight difference in color. The amusement park frequently advertised its view from the end of the pier, where the border of one river had existed consistently for over 100 years: an impressive natural feat.

That was the view that had been requested for the last pinch of ashes, so the blue figure didn’t scrape them out of the bottom of the urn until she collided with the railing at the absolute edge of the park.

Stop right there!” one of the security personnel ordered even though their quarry could go no further. He pointed an electroglass card at her, though he had no intention of using it as a weapon. It was still playing a film he had been watching on his break before being called into action.

What are you getting at?” the other employee asked her, not even bothering to draw from her deck. “Pouring sand on all these nice people just trying to enjoy the park. For shame.”

Does this look like sand to you?” the figure asked them, her voice slick with slight madness, like the utterances of someone slipping off a wet roof. She grabbed the last handful and tossed it into the wind over her shoulder. It sparkled. Sand wasn’t supposed to sparkle like that, but neither was ash. Those glittering dots were what needed replenished. As for the rest of it, people died all the time. Every minute another customer died, entering her potential profit pool.

See you on the other side!” she cackled at the drifting sparkles as her arm was grabbed and she was dragged away from the railing. Whatever they charged her with would be a misdemeanor, and a heck of a lot less than she charged the bereaved that sought her services. All she had to do was post bail before the most likely date of arrival of her resupply vessel.

Then it could start all over again. Every single sparkle in the wind could be a glimpse of the 1to1.

~

You’re supposed to say it aloud,” Roman chastised Silver, bending over to shut the hatch for his distracted companion. “Come on, get up. My turn.” Silver rolled backward and sprung to their feet, one hand rubbing their chin the whole way, trying to puzzle out what they just saw.

I think I had one of those famous visions,” they said, forcing Roman to look away from his eyeballing. “Nothing real. It was definitely Vulcan; I saw floes.”

Was it of us crashing?”

No. There was a person. I couldn’t make them out. They were doing something naughty with cremated ashes. Nothing to do with us.”

Well that’s because there’s nothing of any interest happening on this harmonica,” the prince insisted. “We’ve got a 6 hour trip and what appears to be 6 hours of fuel for it. Humdrum. Run of the mill.” He went to close the hatch, but faltered. He too saw something above the fuel, like a thought bubble in a comic strip brought to unsettling photorealism. Instinctively he squinted, and it had him.

~vision of powdered yellow~

It was easy to tell that the smudge of earthen yellow was a man, even though his details could not be discerned. It was all in the smug way he held himself in bed. The blur’s angular top portion could only be the result of whoever-he-was lying with his hands behind his head and his elbows out to the side.

Men who rested like that referred to their partners as conquests, and his latest conquest was in bed next to him. Roman found her easy enough to see, and was thankful she had the sheets pulled up over her naked body so he didn’t feel too much like a creep. She wasn’t entirely naked; a captain’s hat sat on her head.

He thought it unusual attire until the vision pulled back, allowing him to see a window and the waters beyond. This pair was on a ship, but if she was the captain why was she not at the helm? Perhaps it was just role play. Some people needed such things to spice up the experience. Not the prince. What use did royalty have for any other role? And whatever Silver was, it was not something that could be made more dramatic or scandalous than it already was.

The strangest detail in the scene came into focus. The interior of the luxury cabin, especially the bed, was coated in layers and mounds of a dark yellow powder like dried mustard. It dusted the lampshade, piled in the window frame, and coated the comforter. Yet the lovers lounged in it like it was down, ignoring it, at least until the man thought he needed it.

His conquered captain wrapped herself in a sheet and got out of bed, moving for the door with a smile on her face. He jumped up as if stung and told her to wait, sweeping his arm across the bedspread until he had a pile of the dust held close to his chest. Dancing in front of her intended path, he sprinkled it in a line with the intention she would follow it.

You can’t keep me here forever,” she warned him, the satisfaction on her face showing no sign of waning. She took a first step into what he had spread out for her, short bright toes wiggling in it playfully.

Only time will tell,” he told her, rubbing what was left of the stuff on his own chest. Roman finally understood what it was: some kind of grounding powder. There were many formulas for such a thing, some made with sawdust of trees that hadn’t changed their odds in centuries and others with the bones of animals that had been a single probability their entire lives.

Its purpose was to help prevent the degradation of a person’s likelihood, and various juries common and scientific were still out regarding its effectiveness. What struck Roman as odd, and why he didn’t recognize the stuff immediately, was how collected the woman was. Her partner’s behavior suggested that she was the one in danger, and the amount they’d acquired suggested she was on the doorstep of crazy8, but by Roman’s estimation, much more accurate than his estimate of their remaining fuel, she couldn’t be worse off than 3to1.

They would never let someone who was slipping be a captain. He listened to the groans of the ship; it sounded very large. There was little chance they were the only ones aboard. She took another step.

I have duties,” she cooed.

We made it official. Your primary duty is to me,” he argued, holding up his hand. Roman couldn’t see his skin, or even how many fingers he had, but it had to be at least one, because a golden wedding band sat around it very clearly. “Until death do us part.”

But it was never going to be death,” she reminded him, “and you knew that.” She pulled her captain’s hat lower, over her eyes, letting her tight-lipped smile do some of the talking. With so much else to take in, Roman hadn’t noticed that she wasn’t the youngest woman. Her energy was youthful, rippling with abandon despite whatever these ‘duties’ were, but her blonde hair was fading and her shoulders had the weight of at least 5 decades in them.

You’ve made more round trips than anybody else on record,” the man said. “There’s no reason to think you haven’t got another one in you, as long as you step in this stuff.”

And sleep in it, and make love in it, and choke on it a little when I’m eating because it’s even in the air…”

I had a bad feeling is all. I felt like if you stepped out that door today you wouldn’t come back tonight. I’m not ready for it to happen that way again.”

Then stop setting yourself up for it. It’s no good for anyone. You have your ring, and it’s not going anywhere. It’s the only thing that can keep that sort of promise. Now if you’ll excuse me, my love.” She pushed on his chest gently and he practically swung out of her way like a saloon door. He leaned back to her, kissing her and then saluting her.

Aye aye captain.” With a smirk she turned the powder-coated knob of her quarters and went off down the hall to the closet and bathroom. He stood there, watching the door, afraid to lean into the hall and look both ways for her. Some of the grounding grit got under his ring, so he adjusted it back and forth until it slipped out.

He felt it, a single grain, slip away.

~

You saw something too,” Long Odd Silver said, not needing him to confirm it. He’d been staring too long for it to be anything else.

Yes, but it doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with us getting there. Ignore them. Focus on fudging.” He got up so they could take his place and make another estimation.

However much is left, it’s at least several hours,” they assured him. A typical person doing what they then did would’ve produced a most repulsive sound, but Long Odd Silver was too existentially suave to come off so biological. It instead sounded like they were swishing a fine vintage around in their mouth during a wine tasting while they were honestly just preparing to spit. With all the spirit of someone who had a lifelong sunflower seed habit, they expectorated a contribution to the tank’s dwindling supply.

What did you do that for?”

I heard it helps. There’s more fuel in there now after all, and while we know it’s saliva I’ve already lost track of it. I’ve positively no clue how much of it is saliva now. Did I spit twice already? Can’t recall. Better give it another just to be safe.” And they did, but it passed straight through the fog of another vision.

~vision of shadowy purple~

Just as before, the central figure was just wisps of interacting color, but Silver doubted they would’ve been able to see his face anyway, as this was definitely a darkroom intended for the developing of photographs.

In most urban centers there were enough public computer banks for citizens to take pictures with their electroglass cards and bank them electronically, so there was no need for physical copies. Anyone who bothered to set up a darkroom was either making a photo album or, as was likely the case here given the man’s hunched posture and muttering bites of laughter, ensuring that copies of sensitive images existed even if the electronic version were destroyed, seized, or tampered with.

He had an electroglass deck, but 51 cards were sitting idle while the remaining one was in the purple blur’s hand. Its transparent screen tracked incoming payments to a bank account from several different sources. The card was in his left hand, for the dominant right was busy with the more classical implements: a stack of photos and what Silver guessed was a bulb-based camera flash.

The pictures were not yet developed, and they never would be, not if the associated payments came in. Each one was labeled in the corner with pencil: initials and a date. When a payment came in he matched the details, pulled out the correct photo, and went to work with the flash.

It made no sense to fire it in the darkroom, lest he ruin them all, but the flash was custom made for varied and clandestine work. It had less of a cover behind the bulb and more of a maw, like the jaws of a pelican eel. It was adjustable, and could even create a seal against a flat surface. The bulb itself was blown to look like a dancing flame.

He pressed the cover down on his desk so that it swallowed the separated photo alone, and then clicked the button on the back of the flash’s handle. Only a dull thud of light could be seen escaping the edges, with a sound like a giant carnivorous plant snapping shut on a fragile lobster. The man pulled it away, examined the square to make sure it was thoroughly destroyed, and then tossed it into a wastebasket beside him. Long Odd Silver understood, and only understood more as he systematically attacked the others.

This was blackmail. Once his demands were met he destroyed the evidence. Silver didn’t need the photos to develop to know what they were: men with their mistresses, respectable members of society clad in the gear of unorthodox sexual predilections, felons violating the conditions of their release, and anything else Vulcan didn’t permit either legally or socially.

Silver’s own morals could be as ambiguous as a fortune cookie, but they were nonetheless impressed by the blackmailer keeping to his word. There were many criminals out there that would’ve kept the evidence regardless of payment, just in case their funds ran below the desperation line.

Perhaps Vulcan offered a higher class of criminal overall, and it did have to be Vulcan once more that they were witnessing, as the blackmailer brought out a parcel from under the desk once his work was complete, and its contents were 4to1, which he was unable to touch, making him comfortably 2to1. Most of Antichthon was 3, Phaeton 4, and distant Pluto 5. If Nemesis or anything else was out past that, no one knew their odds or wanted to know.

But I’m getting ahead of the vision. The pace of such things is frightfully slow; I much prefer a traditional narrative, don’t you? Anyway, our mysterious purple blackmailer who was most likely a Vulcanoe was very suspicious of his parcel. It was still wrapped, in dull brown paper, and showed no return address.

One look at the tag attached to the twine confirmed the sender’s ill intent. It read: exactly what you deserve. The man had no illusions about what kind of man he was, so he got up from the desk and backed away slowly. Once he thought he had a safe enough distance he snatched a rod with a clamp on the end of it from off the wall, which he often used to mount his camera on and take photos from around corners and over ledges.

Using the clamp as a claw, he held it out and painstakingly undid the twine and ripped away the paper. Inside was an ordinary box, made of the thinnest wood he’d ever seen. If it was an explosive inside it would surely be triggered by opening it, so he worked to catch the lid with the clamp. When he got it he squeezed his eyes shut and looked away, lifting.

Something exploded out of it alright, but not what the blackmailer or Silver expected. The box became a fountain of winged green cockroaches, their flapping altogether as noisy as a blender. In seconds they were crawling all over the walls, into every crevice, and under all the furniture. And as I mentioned they were 4to1, so he couldn’t even discourage them with swatting.

Keeping a cloud of insects at consistent odds is no easy task, especially while leaving them in a dark box for several hours at least, that would even threaten the exact number of the insects, but whoever the blackmailer had angered had put in the effort.

He made sure the door was as secure as possible by shoving a rag underneath it. Any of the bright bugs escaping into the hallway might draw questions, as he was renting the darkroom space. Clearly angry by the growling behind what Silver assumed was a mouth full of gritted teeth, he was nonetheless composed enough to go on the offensive, and with his greatest weapon, which was not the deck of cards, but the flash.

Pushing through them, protecting his face with one arm, he grabbed all the vulnerable photos in the room, shoved them in the box, and closed the lid. Thus he was safe to blast the pests with light, which had the most unexpected effect of turning them into tiny puffs of green smoke.

This was, once again and in a wholly different way, no ordinary flash. Its light must’ve had probability-altering power, which meant its bulb was designed to closely mimic the light of the central fire itself. One flash was like a sunburn on the broadside of your physical reality, and the tiny dark-loving vermin were not equipped to handle it.

Lower probability animals sometimes changed the state of their matter, something much more common on Pluto, where it literally rained cats and dogs, than on Vulcan. In fact Silver’s dear friend Minty the librarian was the owner of a liquid cat by the name of Drizzle. That was a natural process though, and this was war. By forcing the roaches into a gaseous form so suddenly and rapidly, they were exterminated.

It was highly doubtful that the device had been designed for such a purpose, which meant the harm it could do was probably to be directed at organisms with much more backbone. Silver watched in disgust, both at his ruthless efficiency and the rising cloud of green roaches that soon covered the darkroom’s ceiling.

They didn’t stick around to find out how he was going to clean that out.

~

Roman wasn’t at all interested in what they had seen, as evidenced by the efforts taken while Silver had their head in the clouds. He’d scoured the kitchen and pulled out every remaining can and carton with liquid contents, even stopping by the shower to grab shampoos, bubble bath, and conditioner.

This will work a lot better than spitting,” he explained. Together they popped open tomato soup, chicken stock, apple vinegar, seltzer, and a dozen other things they chose not to read the labels on so as to increase the uncertainty. Everything went into the tank, giving the concoction a trifecta of nasty odor, color, and consistency.

The worse it looks the more potent it is,” Long Odd Silver tried to convince the fuel as they stood back to clean up the empty containers and give Roman another go at guesstimation. He made sure to spit too, hoping the tiny artillery round would break up any other distracting visions, but it failed to do so. Another unwanted theater ticket was dropped straight into his lap.

~vision of throbbing red and scouring white~

Rolling your eyes at a vision doesn’t make it go away; it isn’t even offended. It was Roman’s natural reaction though, once he saw that he had to keep track of 2 blobs of bright color this time around: one red like glowing charcoal and the other white like a sheet of notebook paper with a few coats of eggshell shellac.

There were no ordinary people about to contrast them, and no animals or plants either. Both of them stood, just a few feet apart, on an iceberg in the middle of Vulcan’s sea of rivers, which I should mention is collectively called the Rivulets. Each river within it has its own name, though there’s hardly a way to accurately signpost the one you’re in without very technical nautical expertise.

The blurs and their berg were in a tributary called J6, as only the ones close to land had more affectionate names to go with their scientific designations. They knew it was J6. They were absolutely certain, at least when they stepped foot on the passing iceberg, that they had entered J6.

Both had done so separately, and on separate sides of the ice chunk, flabbergasted to climb to the top and find another person doing the exact same thing. Red and White had luggage with them, on wheels that didn’t know what to do with steep and uneven ice. Red had already lost her smallest bag, which slipped off her shoulder and took a short but delightful slide into the Rivulets. It just wasn’t as intent on staying in J6, all the way to the projected rendezvous point.

I can’t believe somebody else figured it out,” Red grumbled, pose so standoffish that it was clear when her totality was a blur. “All the fools who thought they had it are riding a giant ice cube down M14 into likely oblivion right now.”

Yet I would say the fact that both of us are here increases the chance that we were correct,” White argued, staring out at the horizon. A few more bergs, all moving speedily along on separate swirling assembly lines, but nothing else, not yet. “If a crowd is doing something it is right to assume that thing is foolish. Crowds pass along all information without verifying. The more people that are in a crowd, the lower the intellect of the collective organism.”

But you don’t think 2’s a crowd?” Red asked, barely bothering to follow what White said. She too had her eyes glued to the distance.

An individual going off on their own is often the victim of insufficient information, or of unchecked delusion. So, when 2 people, and just 2 people, independently come to the same conclusion, there’s reason to be hopeful.”

You don’t seem the hopeful type, more the if-you-cut-in-line-I’ll-silently-garrote-you from-what-should-have-been-your-spot-in-line type.”

You’re reaching all sorts of accurate conclusions today,” White congratulated Red. “But we won’t be the only 2. I imagine a few others are already onboard. They would’ve found some other way, likely by studying history rather than trajectory, or by personal connections to previous passengers.”

Lucky bastards and bastardesses.”

The only lucky ones will be the ones who last the entire voyage. Getting aboard is the easiest part.”

And I’ve already suffered a casualty!” Red moaned. “It contained all my make-up and 300 cash.”

You won’t need any money.”

Not for the boat, but for everybody on it? I certainly might! They know not all of them will make it, and that some could get tossed back to dry land. Taking some cash here and there is hedging your bets.”

To hedge your bets is to accept the possibility of failure, which is tantamount to poison in the mission we apparently share. You will need certainty if you are to be certain, assuming you catch my meaning since you caught the same ride.” Red took a silent moment, and then acknowledged that White was correct. She didn’t need any of those floes, but she was going to miss the cosmetics. She just didn’t feel herself without a little rouge.

When they stopped talking, but the vision didn’t, Roman found himself, to his irritation, deducing a few things about them. Both seemed to be women, and to think highly of themselves, but White was definitely the more prepared of the 2. When the white blur shuffled her feet Roman didn’t hear much of anything, but when the red one did so he heard clicking. High heels, on an iceberg of all things. It was a miracle the blur was upright enough to see their goal come into focus.

He saw it too. A ship. Even from that distance he knew it was the largest ship he’d ever seen in person, if seeing it in the fumes of a fuel tank could count as ‘in person’. Its hull glinted even in the sparse sunlight as 2 great paddle wheels on its sides chewed up the adjacent J7. Red was ecstatic, tempting fate all the more by jumping up and down on the ice in her most impractical footwear.

She shouted and whistled, hooted and howled, danced and snickered at her own cleverness. White said nothing, but she did perform a gesture with one hand that Roman knew how to interpret, even without seeing her skin. She was wiping a few beads of nervous sweat from her forehead.

The prince quickly guessed where her nerves originated. All they had was luggage, no grappling hook, no rope, no gangplank. The blurs weren’t going to toss themselves off the ice all the way up to the deck. Wits and determination could do nothing any longer. The boat had to stop for them, and of all the things White was sure about, this was the least of them.

Red’s celebrating died down as she figured it out. It was still approaching, still on the course they hoped for. White raised one arm as high as it could go. Red matched a split second later, adding a frantic wave. Roman even turned his eyes away from the fuel, aiming his ear into the tank to see if he could hear a distant foghorn or bell acknowledging them. Nothing, and by the time he turned back the vision had dissolved.

~

Vulcan’s close enough to say hello,” Silver assured him, pointing out a rectangular porthole. The planet loomed, but its surface still lacked all detail. It also wasn’t centered dead ahead, testifying to the imperfect paths of instruments of space travel. If only probable space was the real deal, where a straight line was a straight line. The prince was tired of all his straight lines being uncooked spaghetti, going limp and screwy any time the heat was on.

Long Odd Silver saw the flagging hopes in his expression, responding by sliding their hands around his shoulders and gently maneuvering him out of the way. He mumbled something about there being almost too much fuel, how they might ram straight through to the planet’s core if they weren’t careful.

Yes I know,” they reinforced. “We’re just spitting for good luck.” They made another liquid deposit and felt a sting when they heard it impact bare metal. Then the bottom of the tank made a sound like a half-clogged drain sucking down soap scum. Another vision would be a welcome distraction from the skin of remaining liquid that was probably just a cuticle deep… but perhaps not! I always find myself trying to retroactively help them here. After all, I never knew exactly how much was left myself; it’s not particularly relevant to the story despite being particularly relevant to them.

There was another vision, and it was to be the last, for its cloud had gone just as thin as the fuel reserve. There weren’t enough fumes of inexactness to sustain them any longer. Silver covered their mouth so their breath wouldn’t blow the wisps away.

~vision of boundless green~

By now it was routine. The green blob was a person, and he was unknowable beyond the pronoun I just used, so all Silver cared about gathering was context. They didn’t believe these were mere hallucinations from huffing existential exhaust. Visions had a purpose, which was the universe’s version of a will, and there was always a way to use them.

Still, the shape in green wasn’t giving the scoundrel very much to work with; he stood in a cube of a room. Its only feature was a projector with 5 lenses standing on a pole at the exact center of the chamber. It was running, covering all the walls and ceiling in footage of pouring rain. The one on the ceiling even looked as if you were staring up at the storm clouds through a transparent umbrella. Appropriate sounds accompanied the dreary film, nothing but pitter-patter until the green creature spoke.

Yes, I have done this before,” he assured the absolutely nobody else in the enclosed room. Silver didn’t even see a door. “Many times in fact. Yes, it has worked.” A pause. “No, not frequently, but the issue has never been my performance. You know I can’t do everything. I can only get you there.” If he was insane it was at least polite insanity, as it waited quite a while for any and all invisible entities to respond.

I’m afraid opportunity will be very limited, hence the price, as setting something like this up eats months of my time. It will have to be aboard, and it will have to be after both gridlock and the painting. All of them are crucial. I’ll do what I can to keep irrelevant parties out of the way, but beyond cardistry there’s little I can do to stop any interference. You’ll have to live with that as well.

I do enjoy his work! It’s just good luck that his art is also extremely useful. In fact, I’ll show you some of my favorites from some other joint ventures I’ve been involved in.” The green blur dug an electroglass deck out of what Silver assumed was a jacket pocket. He tapped around on the top card-screen until it and several below it filled with an assortment of colors. They also became very bright, much brighter than Silver was accustomed to, with the exception of offensively thrown cards flashing in order to blind opponents.

The green blur did toss them, and expertly, but he put no spin on them as he sent them circling around the room largely parallel to the walls. He was giving his imaginary friends a chance to glimpse the pictures on them before he caught them at the end of their trip. Silver squinted, tried to get a clear look, but they could only get a sense. Landscapes, probably.

They were definitely varied in the extreme, some created from the observation decks of instruments of space travel, some underwater, some within the lips of volcanoes both hot and icy. Despite having memories of only 2 planets, Silver was a very old soul, and thus sensed that there was no way this artist, if it was just one artist, had found all of those vistas on and around one world.

It was the gallery of a traveler, a wider traveler than Silver had ever heard tell of beyond urban legends. Pluto was the furthest place from the central fire that could be reached, and the reaching of it was almost as new as the downgraded planet itself. Was there someone out there who had painted Vulcan, Antichthon, Phaeton, Pluto, and many of the prettiest spaces in between?

And what did any of that have to do with this clandestine meeting and/or instance of performative madness? Silver couldn’t figure it out, but Green wasn’t done conversing yet, and neither were his mute associates.

I’ve never been aboard before. I’ve heard it rarely sees repeat passengers. The stories say it’s a suspicious boat. It starts thinking you’re playing some game other than its own if it sees you too often, looks to buck you off into the water if you give it the chance. You don’t need to worry about that, as you’ll only get this one shot.

-is there a captain?”

~

No!” Silver practically fell backward when they heard the clatter and shout from behind them. The brazen head had exploded with such spirit that it had knocked itself off the shelf and rolled onto the carpet.

We didn’t ask you!” Roman yelled back at it. “And we obviously didn’t on purpose you numbskull!” He might’ve kicked it if Silver hadn’t beaten him there and gently picked it up. While Roman had left it out of their shenanigans purposefully, Silver was ashamed to realize they’d simply forgotten all about it.

Only someone like Silver could forget they were in possession of an item that had nearly all the answers, and only because they didn’t have that many questions in their soul where the answers weren’t obvious.

The brazen head had been with them since Pluto, first in the prince’s possession before being burgled by his current lover-of-circumstance. An anomalous semi-being, a possibility not fully realized in Pluto’s genesis, like a flower bud that knew everything by default since it couldn’t know itself, the head took the form of a copper and wood cranium with light-up eyes in possession of just 2 words: yes and no.

With those 2 words it could answer any question pertaining to the past and present of probable space, and was incapable of lying. Though it sometimes tried to withhold an answer, it wouldn’t do so long in the face of physical damage, despite showing no signs of experiencing pain.

Now was possibly the worst time for it to speak, as they were looking to elevate the questions in the room, turn the question marks in the air into powerful constricting pythons with severed but very alive hissing heads, and the brazen one’s absolute certainty could only dampen their efforts.

Is what you just said important?” Silver asked the head, holding its face up to theirs with both hands. The device thought a moment, eyes dimming and resurging.

No.”

You just got carried away with a thought?”

Yes,” it admitted, sullen.

Don’t we all.”

Not much spit left,” Roman said dryly after he failed to add to the tank, thinking himself free to moan about the dwindling supply as long as he wasn’t referring to the fuel.

Close it up; we’ve done all we can,” Silver opined, getting no response except the clunk of the tank’s latch. The trio went to the window with the best view of Vulcan and stood before it, keeping an eye on their path to minimize its ability to deviate. Neither of them knew how to fly the thing manually, and the onboard instructions didn’t even include a section on water landings, which would most likely be their fate since Vulcan only had a scar of land across its visage.

The computer would have to handle it, and they hoped it would do so without any obnoxious alarms. It would be tough enough to die even while clearly think their final thoughts.

And they were some lovely poetic thoughts, mostly due to the beauty of Vulcan as it came into focus. The coloration of its labyrinthine rivers varied slightly between them, just enough to notice that each was a bit greener, a bit bluer, a bit lighter, a bit darker than its neighbor. A few shimmered from extra minerals like rivulets of sweat down the chest of a Greekish marble statue that had gone out for the first jog of its new year’s resolution.

Clouds moved in massive circular storm systems, but none of them were dark, just idle spoon-swirls in the creamy foam atop a coffee. Aside from its harmonic engine, the cabin of their instrument was silent, but they knew that with a flick of a radio switch they could reveal the overwhelming chatter that was emanating from the planet at any given moment.

Vulcanoes constantly transmitted entertainment gleaned from the 1to1 Earth out into the rest of the central fire’s system: television, film, music, radio serials, stage plays, books read aloud. If there were any parties trying to hail them, warn them about their crashing trajectory, there was little chance they would hear them over the voices of all those players. Besides, they preferred the quiet.

The instrument provided even more when the melodic engine gave out, the last of the fuel and its questionable additives drained. The blackness of space was fully replaced by the sky of Vulcan as they began their inevitable descent. Silver grabbed Roman’s hand, their fingers interlocking. The brazen head was under their other arm, stiffening its upper lip.

Reentry was a rotten tune to play on a harmonica. Atmospheric friction fire got caught in its vents, screamed its way out. The whole vehicle entered a state of vibration, occasionally bucking like a candy bar resisting being bitten in half.

Entering a cloud layer did little to cool them down, but some of the resulting steam did make it between layers in the windows and fog them up completely. When it cleared there was nothing but the Rivulets. No land. No suggestions that any of the water had ever let a rock lift its head long enough to breathe. The bodies of water both had places to be and were already there. The planet was not concerned with one more piece of detritus falling like a leaf onto its thousandfold currents.

The computer could only open and close flaps to turn their meteor fall into a sloped glide, which it managed to do after a few more bucks and some cracks in the corners of the outer porthole layers. One flap gave up and broke off, sinking into K11. If only it had waited to cross over into K10, which was the most happening river for countless nautical miles.

Of course all that happening was occurring on the deck of a single vessel, and the harmonica’s chance of crossing its path was 1,000,000to1, but this was the forced-up-against-an-alley-wall, mugged, and kissed-on-the-cheek combination luck of Long Odd Silver and Roman Koch, so cross their paths did.

Didn’t expect to see you again so soon,” the prince of Pluto spat at the rapidly approaching vessel, for it was none other than the great riverboat he had witnessed approaching the 2 blurs that stranded themselves on the ice.

The vessel more than rivaled the mightiest cruise ship in size, and instead of one paddle it had 2, one on each side of its midsection like a woman holding tambourines against her hips, waiting for her cue. White-hulled, blue-roofed, and with golden planks filling up its paddles. There were enough wrapping decks for it to wear a different festival on each one like a sash, but there were no people to act them out.

A tower, roughly between the paddles, stood wreathed in the ruin of a metal spiral staircase. Whoever was supposed to access its peak couldn’t do so anymore. Atop it, spinning with the same speed of the paddles, was something resembling a gigantic magnifying glass, no doubt made from electroglass, as footage of flying herons played out across its fish-eye lens.

There were so many strange baubles that neither person caught the name of the ship written across the bow in expanding fanged letters like sabers, with the last of them dipping into the waters of K10:

PS Viper True

They were practically on top of it when the harmonica’s flaps finally banded together and asserted themselves, if only to prove that one that had abandoned ship wrong. Thoroughly blackened by reentry, the instrument slowed to a comparative halt looking like a brick of cut coal, but not for long, as it lodged itself between 2 golden slats of an enormous paddle wheel and was promptly dunked into the fresh waters of Vulcan.

The craft’s structural integrity gave out the moment it stopped, so with the unexpected inversion that tossed Long Odd, Koch, and the head to the ceiling came a rush of water through all the cracks and crevices as well as a few popped rivets. Though fresh, Roman still tasted salt when he got a mouth full of it, quickly realizing it came from his own blood, brought forth when the flip had him accidentally bite the inside of his lip.

The wheels didn’t stop turning for them, and one more trip under would fill the instrument enough to drown them, so Silver thought quickly, putting those thoughts on a spit so they would rotate with their sputtering coffin.

While an electroglass card was normally too flimsy to attack even a cracked instrument window effectively, Silver had in their possession 3 cards that would only be described as flimsy by those with a gilded death wish.

For you see there was one deck of cards with no known maker, perhaps present before even a single near-person in probable space. A platinum deck that made its own luck, sometimes out of the remains of those who dared pick up any of its 52. Those who held them could win or lose by them, but the cards themselves could only win.

Lately, some of them had practically been gluing themselves to Lond Odd Silver and Roman. The platinum ace of wheels was picked up on Pluto, after it helped destroy the group called the Survivor Function. The other 2, the 8 of lights and the 8 of drinks, had been gained in rapid succession during their attempted jailbreak of themselves on Antichthon.

It was a temporary friend of that venture that pointed out to them they nearly had the platinum dead man’s hand. What a famous collection that would be, and what an ill omen, but they were still missing a second platinum ace from it.

The platinum deck had never been fully assembled in recorded history, with some thinking its shuffling would mark the end of probable space in its entirety, with its order determining either their oblivion or their ascension into a rival 1to1. With this in mind, Silver guessed the 3 cards in their possession would not have assembled lightly, and that they had no interest in sinking to the bottom of a river with the extremely dull name K10.

Surely they wanted out of there just as much, so Silver arranged them into a triangular throwing grip in one hand and, forcing their arm above the water, threw them at the solitary window that would face the deck of the Probable Ship Viper True in just a few seconds’ time. Their ricocheting impacts against the frame were somehow louder than the loss of any of the rivets.

With the last of the water streaming off the harmonica’s exterior, those aboard the riverboat saw, as it rose to their level, that it had washed away the black coat of smithereens to reveal the brassy hull, now stripped of paint. The window facing them exploded outward along with a deluge of water thickened with carpet fibers and 2 drenched people that made it across the gap and smacked on the deck.

The paddle wheel dunked their instrument again, where it slipped out and quickly sank into the depths like a gold bar tossed into a wishing well. Both its former occupants sputtered as they tried to expel swallowed water, succeeding in standing before breathing properly. It took even longer for their vision to clear, so for a moment they saw exactly what they had seen in the visions of the fuel tank: blurs. Blurs with a matching set of colors.

They were in fact people, their outfits predominantly of one hue each: yellow, white, red, blue, purple, and green. This time they watched Roman and Silver back.

(Continued in Part Two)

5 thoughts on “Planet in Theory: Riverboat Without a Captain (part one)

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