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

(back to part one)

(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 30 minutes)

November 7th


Big Shoes to Fill

And just what do you think you’re doing here!?” a woman in a scarlet coat asked. Her thin gloves were just as red, and so were her painted lips. Her heavy coat had a hood lined with what looked the fur of a snow leopard, each spot the number 2. If it actually came from an animal that meant its odds at the time of death had been 2to1, and people like her wouldn’t dare wear anything more likely than themselves, so she must have been that close to reality as well.

She had dark darting eyes like panicking tadpoles and a stance that suggested she would try to repel a mudslide with pure indignation rather than flee from it. Her glossy brown hair was done up in a frazzle like an electrical cable chewed on by a raccoon. Roman recognized her voice, and by the slight chill in her pallor he guessed she had been on that iceberg no more than 3 hours ago.

The woman in white would have been with her, but there was no evidence on her face, for it looked like she had lived an entirely bloodless life until that moment, only enriched with the substance for it to pound in her temples and express her dissatisfaction with the new arrivals.

The Viper True did not welcome you aboard,” she said. “You have to go.” She was older than the scarlet woman, with a bowl cut of black hair like a dead and wet raven hanging in a tree branch after a downpour. Her coat was even thicker, prompting both Silver and Roman to recognize that it wasn’t actually cold on deck, and the place could even be called balmy. Perhaps it had something to do with that towering magnifying glass, which had turned to face them all, and which splashed them with bright focused sunlight even as the heron footage kept playing out across it.

Go where?” Roman coughed at her, wringing out his shirt. His boxing dice hung around his neck, salvaged from the waters inside the harmonica at the last second. They clacked against each other as he regained his composure, drawing stares.

Into the river,” the woman in white said plainly.

There are lifeboats you can use,” the man in green clarified to soften the sentiment. He was tall, blond like a sponge cake, and wearing thick glasses with translucent emerald frames. He was in an equally green suit, with the only indication that he was supposed to be on a relaxing riverboat trip being the looseness of his hideous cross-hatched tie.

The man had a face like a bystander waiting for his coffee in a painting of a diner. His features were a little strange viewed directly instead of in profile, like he was an ungulate dealing with the sudden shift of its eyes from the sides to the center. He didn’t like making eye contact, so he turned his face away from the 2 sopping saps dropped into their lap.

The fellow in purple, who had likely ditched his own suit jacket just a few minutes ago given how he shifted weight on his shoulders that wasn’t there, had matching suspenders and a balding head that was very much in need of a matching hat. He chewed gum with one side of his mouth open, but spoke out of the other side, and not to Roman or Silver. Instead the short round man twisted where he stood and shouted at the magnifying glass.

Hey, can we get a boat for them down here!?” He sounded like a rat that had just been elected mayor and was impatiently demanding the key to the city. There was no answer, and when he twisted back he had to adjust the heavy camera hanging by a strap around his neck.

Don’t be so demanding,” the eldest and yellowest of the bunch warned the purple wart with the flashbulb. Rusty color still clung to his thick mustache. He was tall, wide, and soft like an inflatable pool raft held vertically, wearing the sort of vacation clothes one might wear on a pool raft if they’d forgotten to pack their swimming clothes.

If not for him the oldest would have been the woman in blue, but she was probably only pushing 50, and pushing it away with a sustained grunting effort consisting of cosmetic surgery, iridescent hair dye, and tight revealing clothing that may as well have had the brand name Unflattering. Under her aggressively large sunhat was a puckered face with crazy piercing eyes, looking both like a person who’d spent her life sucking lemons and one complaining that the lemons weren’t getting to her fast enough.

None of you have any room to talk,” she scolded the others, “since I’m the only one who actually has an invitation.”

I already told you, you dumb broad, the boat doesn’t give out invitations,” Purple said with a curled lip. He lifted his camera and snapped a picture of Roman and Silver. They felt it like someone had thrown freshly ground black pepper into their corneas.

It was a crash landing,” Silver said, turning the brazen head so it wasn’t facing them. Introducing it was always complicated, and there was plenty that needed clearing up first. “We have no intention of interrupting… whatever is going on between all of you.”

There’s nothing going on between us,” White insisted. “Everyone’s journey here is parallel. In fact, it’s best if we all interact as little as possible.” Several looks from others indicated they didn’t agree, but the prince of Pluto was the first to speak his mind.

Where is this damn boat puffing off to?” Before anyone could answer there came the tinkle of a bell, prompting the 2 newest passengers to turn around and see some objects coming toward them, draped over the ship’s brass deck railing. They were clean towels, and when Silver snatched them they felt the pop of static electricity transfer. There must have been computers aboard the ship that wanted them to be comfortable, and it looked like there was some sort of transport system built into the rails to facilitate it.

There’s an answer, but it’s vague,” Yellow told them as they began drying off. “The Viper True’s destination is reality, the 1to1.” He clearly expected a start of out of them, at least a flummoxed blink, but they were unmoved. Though neither had set out with such an explicit goal, their circumstances had driven them, ironically in an unlikely fashion, toward likelihood. Or perhaps the platinum cards were being driven there and they just acted as the beasts of burdens. Either way, 1to1 just seemed logical at that point.

She was originally an exploratory vessel,” Yellow continued once he shoveled more coal into his train of thought, “set out in search of passage into actual 1to1 space, along with a fleet of others. Most were unsuccessful. Some disappeared without a trace… but the Viper True returned without a crew.”

With the assumption that anyone aboard had ascended into true being, and no longer had to fear the shifting of their odds,” White added on. “The natural next step was to refurbish her with another crew and send her out again, this time with more advanced recording equipment. The result was the same, with the ship pulling into harbor under its own computer power a year later, sans crew, but also sans any definitive records of what actually happened.”

So on and so forth,” Green said, looking to the great magnifying glass rather than any of their faces, “year after year, until people started realizing the boat wasn’t actually coming back exactly the same. We think every glimpse of the 1to1 changes its computer banks, and eventually it started making decisions on its own.

It no longer makes port at all, so getting yourself aboard is a bit of an esoteric procedure. I believe all of us used different methods, though some are refusing to share, but the end result is the same. As of…” he lifted a card out of his shirt pocket to check the time “…3:45, just 30 minutes ago, this year’s voyage has begun. There will be no stops, at least we don’t think.”

You’re telling me we’re stuck on this thing for the next year?” Roman asked, surveying the deck as if he’d been bamboozled into purchasing a landfill.

No, because we’re going to put you in a lifeboat and send you on whatever way is yours,” White argued. “As he said, the voyage already began, and you 2 weren’t on time. You’re stowaways.”

I must be missing something,” Long Odd Silver said, though actually they were the most confident human aboard at that moment in time. “If the Viper True makes her own decisions,” they winked at the magnifying glass, “then it wouldn’t have offered us these towels just to toss us over the side. Plus, she’s still chugging along, so she isn’t refusing to progress simply because of us. I’d say we’re allowed just as much as any of you.”

If not more,” Roman added simply to antagonize them.

We’ll take this to the captain and see what they think,” Red asserted, to eventual unanimous nods from the original set of passengers.

You said there was no crew,” Silver pointed out.

Obviously there has to be a captain,” Blue answered. “Go on, scoot. We’ll all go. I want this sorted out before dinner time. I bet this boat can cook.” Once Silver and Roman were nearly dry they agreed, and followed behind the other 6 as they moved away from the main deck and toward an outer set of stairs that led, as directly as possible on such a massive vessel, to the bridge. The magnifying glass slowly spun to follow them, its unusual focused light succeeding in getting the last lingering drops of oceanic river water off the back of Silver’s neck.

On their way the Viper True extended another kindness to all of them, with tall glasses of tropical beverages brought up alongside their walking pace, set on brushed brass trays that connected to the railings via metal rings wrapped around them, and seemingly powered by the same static hover that delivered the towels.

Both the Plutonians took them and drank with gusto, having given up as much saliva as they could physically muster back on the harmonica. They had known all the flavors previously: pineapple, mango, coconut, mint. Yet it was also like the first time, which reminded them their odds had climbed to the peak of 2to1, if not from entering Vulcan’s 2to1 atmosphere then from landing on a ship with such an explicit purpose, perhaps fueled by unleaded determination.

On this new echelon their drinks were more experience than sustenance, like purchasing a pet that would be with them for the next 20 years. Comparing these masterpieces of crushed ice and fresh fruit to the offerings of Antichthon made the other planet’s drinks taste like licking an artificially flavored powder off a freshly printed sheet of notebook paper.

And to go further, it made Pluto’s 5to1 drinks taste like that same powder, but swept up off the floor after a thorough contamination of dust and pressed between decidedly dingy sheets of notebook paper and thrown into an attic for ½ of a generation. Silver was so enamored with the taste that they hardly heard Blue hang back from the others and ask them a question.

Are you a crazy8?”

Yes,” Long Odd Silver answered honestly, catching a few darting looks from everyone who overheard. They could hardly blame the Vulcanoes, as they may have never even seen one before. To become a crazy8 required your odds to become so low that you risked phasing out of probable space and into something purely speculative lacking all identity, a state of depravity difficult to achieve on a 2to1 planet, as even being 4to1 there was likely to see you sinking under the Rivulets and disappearing, lost somewhere inside the rocky core of the world.

Your mask is lovely,” Blue said, but not as a compliment, merely as an observation, so Silver didn’t bother to thank her just as she didn’t bother to stick around for a reply. Yes, those crystal tears would fall down Silver’s face over and over, again and again, just as the Rivulets never paused to make way for their neighbors. It didn’t matter how happy the drink, or the Viper True, made them.

This did send them down a trail of thoughts, one I’m happy to share with you. I told you what Minty Julip thought, and I told you what Linus Hood thought, but I never shared the inner waterwheel of Long Odd up to this point. That’s because those were their stories, and Silver was merely a sidekick, even though they tend to steal the spotlight.

They also tend to wear their heart on their sleeve, and on their fly, and on their puckered lips, and on a cocked out hip, but there is more to them than passion. I would call their mind complex, except I know they don’t particularly see it that way themselves. To them, all the complexity, all those schemes that mostly get discarded if they’re anything more sinister than a quip, is residual, left over from past lives they can’t remember, from before they were brought to probable space.

There were many lives, of that they were sure, when most Plutonians brought forth by the downgrade were on their first. Throughout many talks with the brazen head, despite it only knowing facts regarding probable space, they were able to narrow down their core identity somewhat. Silver knew they were always something of a pirate, a scoundrel, a thief, no matter what memories or form they inhabited.

So in their private mind, when having their deepest contemplations, they sometimes called themselves the Freebooter instead of Silver. I digress… I’m telling you this to prepare you for their unfiltered thoughts, since this is now their story, and not, as one might guess given the progress of almost-events so far, that of Roman Koch. I would apologize to him for that, but I didn’t write how any of this goes; I just give you the skinny on it.

If I hit 1to1 will I remember all the other times I lived? Silver thought. I can’t be crazy8 over there, because there is no 8to1. It’s all one, singular, unified. But without these tears the Freebooter is not Long Odd Silver. Do I care if I stop being this person? I love them so, but I think I love others more.

And that’s because of the tears. Nobody cries this much over themselves; you need inspiration to cry. Hitting the 1to1 might make me overwhelmingly selfish, but I don’t think I can turn back. The platinum cards won’t be turning back, and they’ll pass through my flesh if I get in their way.

Roman won’t stop either. If he can’t have Pluto he’ll only settle for Earth, the proper Earth. He might execute every scientist who voted to demote Pluto in the first place. Which isn’t to say he won’t try to commandeer this sh- oh we’re here.

Yes, they were stood right at the threshold of the bridge. There was no door, but at some point there had been, for there were hinges in the frame. They looked partly melted, but not dragged down by gravity. Is this what they meant by changes? Does the Viper True get modified by shifting odds rather than internally controlled devices?

Even though the others had paused, they were all inside before Silver could theorize anything more. The bridge and its many system consoles, which resembled tilted card tables down to the felt, were spotless. The dark wood paneling on everything alone likely cost more than the instrument of space travel they’d just sunk.

As for the ship’s instruments, they were adjusting themselves perfectly well without technicians. Dials turned on their own, switches flipped spontaneously like click beetles launching into the air, and lights moved across the panels like a shimmer along the side of a shoal of shifting fish.

At the front of it all stood the helm, brass and sturdy, moving gently back and forth without a sound. The wheel was ringed with rounded handles, each with the head of a snake arcing back over its body to form a loop. Actually only half had heads, as those directly across from them terminated in tails instead, with the bodies of the serpents forming the spokes.

Ornate and fascinating as the object was, the figure standing before it drew the attention of Silver and Roman the most. The captain, surely, for there was nobody else there touching any part of the bridge, but not the sort of person you just start talking to, at least not if you expect a reply.

Whoever they were they were even more poorly defined than the blobs of color seen in the Plutonians’ visions when they were huffing existential engine vapors. No feature masculine or feminine could be discerned. Within the human silhouette the air warbled, like that just above an overtaxed radiator. The transparent figure’s arms were on the helm, but it was equally believable the ship was actually doing the steering given how insubstantial the captain was.

The only thing solid about them was the pair of boots standing at attention that their legs disappeared into. They were clean, laced up tightly, and plumped across every inch the way only filled footwear can be.

Those are big shoes to fill,” Red said. Suddenly they could hear all 6 of the others breathing through their noses behind them. “Why don’t you try them on?” There were hands on Silver’s back and shoulders, pushing them toward the captain’s empty shape. Instinctively Long Odd resisted, bracing their long lanky arms between the helm and the waist-high wall beyond it, just below the glass looking out onto the bow.

Thus the brazen head was dropped onto the floor, where it rolled on top of the foot of Purple, who was part of the shoving force, and asserted itself with a bite on his ankle. The man yowled and flailed, breaking up their coordinated push and allowing Silver to slip behind the wheel and eye them all through the captain’s rippling air.

Let me go you bastards!” Roman barked as he struggled against Yellow on one side and Green on the other, each having wrapped themselves around one of his arms. The women and Purple were all poised to attack again, but the captain’s shape held them back. They’re afraid to touch it, but they need someone to. They pulled out electroglass decks. Silver was able to judge their cardistry styles by stance alone.

Blue and Purple liked Cheater’s Welcome. Red was Cat Steps. White was an Express Mail sort of person. It wasn’t enough to intimidate Long Odd Silver, whose own peculiar style was equal parts Over the Moon and Cheater’s Welcome. They brought out their deck with silver trim, which had come all the way from Pluto with them, and let it stretch its legs for the first time in a long while.

Forced to use cardstock for much of their partial imprisonment on Antichthon, switching back to intuitive electroglass felt like taking shackles off a swimmer. With a swipe of their thumb’s middle joint across one card’s edge, Silver told an entire stack exactly what they were supposed to do when tossed. The cards sailed around the entire bridge, never hitting a wall, slowly closing in with each revolution.

Before they knew it the passengers were trapped in a pewter whirlpool of pain, forced to squish tightly together to avoid getting cut. The way out was to throw some cards of their own and disrupt Silver’s orbital pattern, but that required looking away from our dear long-odd lover, something both difficult and dangerous to do.

As soon as most of their assailants were distracted, Silver whipped out another card for each of them, and the weapons took baffling scenic routes to their destinations. One guess paid off when a card instructed to orbit once around any human body did in fact designate the captain-shape as one, spinning around its forehead before launching into Purple’s shoulder as he went for his camera.

By the time the last one landed the situation had been turned on its head. Long Odd Silver had mounted the lip between wall and glass and leapt clean over the captain’s head with 12 cards orbiting in a shield around them, fulls fans in each hand. A card had sliced a tuft of hair from the back of Yellow’s head, scaring him into releasing Roman, who now had both hands buried in his boxing dice.

That didn’t work, so I suggest we all stand down,” Green said, pocketing his own cards before he’d even fully pulled them from his jacket. The others followed suit, but Silver kept the whirlpool going until things were sufficiently explained, instructing cards not to tighten the grip any further with elegant taps as they passed by.

What is that thing?” Roman demanded, pointing an entire arm at the silhouette at the helm.

Those are the big shoes to fill,” Yellow explained, “and one of us will have to fill them if we’re actually going to get anywhere.” He approached it, closer than the others were comfortable with, and stared into the space where eyes should’ve been. There was a sigh in his expression, but he didn’t release it. “Obviously we were hoping one of you 2, since you insisted on staying, could fill the position.”

The only thing obvious here is that nothing is obvious,” Roman retorted. “What the hell are you lunatics talking about? Start making some sense or I’m going to knock you into the next universe, no fancy ship needed.”

The Viper True never came back with a crew, but it always came back with that,” White said of the captain-shape, “and those.” Her eyes sank to the boots. “The prevailing theory is that it takes ambition to reach the 1to1, which the computer banks of the ship are not capable of. So a person has to be at the helm, at the crucial moment one year from now, to guide us.”

But since they’re busy leading the way, they don’t get to go,” Red added venomously. “Instead they get turned into whatever that is. A placeholder. The role of captain. You touch it, you become it.”

And you thought I was a perfect fit for the position,” Silver said. “Can’t say I blame you, but look again.” They backed up, showing they were quite a bit taller than the last captain, and much longer in the limb. “Round peg, square hole.”

The actual shape is of no consequence,” Green said, “but that’s neither here nor there. What matters is that, we believe, the passengers also require ambition… here meaning that only one gets to achieve the 1to1. In the end the best chance of success is one captain, and one passenger that has proven themselves by removing the other obstacles.

I think it’s time we adjourn to the dining hall for an early supper. It’ll be the best way to discuss all the specifics now that we’re stuck together. There is one more thing you 2 should know before we leave the bridge.”

The others whipped toward him, faces covered in betrayal. There was nothing resembling a consensus in the sharing of whatever this information was, but Green defended himself with more vigor than any of them had seen out of him thus far.

We’ve only tried 2-timing them and look where that got us! They deserve to know everything now.” He turned to Silver and Roman, who had drifted back to each other. “The Viper True considers the leisurely nature of this journey sacrosanct. It does not allow anything that significantly disrupts its hospitality, primarily meaning violence.

If it observes you harming another passenger, or in clear preparation of doing so, it will kill you itself, by any number of modified mechanisms in its confines.”

But what all of you just tried wasn’t exactly a handshake,” Roman pointed out.

The bridge,” Green elaborated, “as the domain of the captain, is the only exception to the rule. This place is the Viper True’s only blind spot, so if we tried this anywhere other than this room we’d be dead already.”

Now that you’ve given away the entire game,” Red scolded, “I am hungry.” She strutted off the bridge without another word, finding a perfect window between Silver’s whirlpool cards to slip through. Purple, knowing that he could not do the same with his much stumpier shape and lack of grace, rudely asked Silver to take the trap down.

They did so, catching the cards one by one as they came by. Roman and Silver insisted on leaving last, allowing them to keep their weapons drawn until all the others were over the threshold and back on the deck. When Silver did finally tuck their cards away they ran back to scoop up the brazen head, thanking it for the timely bite that turned the fight. The sheer scale of the ship only started hitting them moments later, as the walk to the dining hall was an extended one.

Silver ended up asking Green where exactly the Viper True was headed in terms of the Rivulets, but he couldn’t provide an answer. Nobody knew the physical location of its gateway to the 1to1.

The doors leading into the bowels of the ship opened automatically, almost gleefully, as if delighted to overwhelm them with the thick swank of the place, like a musk of perfume and rug fibers and polishing oil.

As spacious as any mansion’s halls, the group almost immediately lost the sense that they were on a ship. The motion they thought they’d detected on the deck was solely from having the waters in sight, but with them gone, and with the paddles helping them along a smooth current rather than fighting waves, there was nothing but bedrock under their feet.

There was so much hardwood that the narrow strip of land on Vulcan didn’t seem capable of growing all the trees needed to supply it. Artwork of wildly varied subject matter hung all over the walls, but some themes echoed across them strangely, with a portrait of a woman petting a breaching sea cow somehow feeling like the sibling of the work next to it: a landscape of sandbars and unlikely corals that didn’t know they were growing out of the water.

Every door passed by opened regardless of their intent to enter, letting them see that the Viper True contained every kind of leisure facility known to probable man: swimming pools, running tracks, lounges, concert halls, dance floors, rock climbing walls, movie theaters, and even a runway for fashion shows.

The major commonality everywhere they delved was the railing system, connected to the ones out on deck that had brought them their towels and drinks. When they’d first gone indoors they were bare, but the deeper they went the more traffic there was as amenities and gifts raced back and forth on magnetically propelled trays.

Purple and Blue attacked these offerings most aggressively, plucking hot hand towels just to wipe their faces once and toss them haphazardly over their shoulders. The Viper True did not object to their littering, and Silver got the sense that when they passed back through later the items would be cleaned away, but by what mechanism they had no idea.

Next to catch their attention was a map of the ship’s interior mounted on the wall, with a small symbol underneath it: a card being pushed into a slot. That marker was universal across every theoretical planet, meaning that touching the associated object with a card would automatically transfer relevant data onto it.

Silver wasn’t sure if brandishing their cards in any fashion would get them marked as violent, but that symbol wouldn’t be there if they weren’t permitted to use the many non-lethal functions of electroglass, so they pulled a loose card from their sleeve and tapped it against the map as they passed by.

The card lit up with a smaller version of the image, helpfully displaying their group’s location as they moved through the halls. Long Odd was about to put the item away when they noticed something unusual in the lowest layers: warping. Some of the chambers seemed to be irregular shapes, like masses of bubbles clinging to the side of a mug.

That’s what they were saying about this old girl. She learns a few lessons every year, flies too close to the central fire. Those rooms are distorted. It might be best to steer clear, but I doubt what happens is just limited to their dimensions.

The computer banks will have gotten glimpses of the real world too. She’s got a personality now, and since we’re shacking up for a year we need to learn what she likes. Buy her flowers, but substitute buy for the appropriate action and flowers for her sentimental trifles. Roman won’t like it. I’m a little surprised he didn’t jump in those shoes just to take the title and be done with all this bickering.

Finally they reached the double doors to the dining hall, but these didn’t open automatically. It was a checkpoint of sorts, with a mechanical shuffler installed beside the door. The Viper True knew each and every one of them was carrying cards, and those cards kept data records of everything they’d recently done.

When the ship shuffled through each stack it checked for violent infractions. Barring any hits, the deck was returned and the doors opened to let one person through. White had to give up all her decks, including several hidden on her person, for inspection before she was given passage, which brought up a concern for both of our Plutonians.

Roman carried a platinum card, and Silver 2. The Viper True wasn’t much for words, but in one form or another it would surely have something to say about those stowaways, and so too would the other people aboard if it was immediately revealed. Still, they saw no other way to proceed, not in the backs of their imaginations or in each other’s eyes, so the platinum was handed over with the rest, shuffled in like they were nothing special.

Luckily they were the last ones through, so none of those finding a proper table and taking their seats noticed each time the shuffler stopped dead as it hit platinum. Roman cringed, bracing for an alarm, but none came. If anything the boat was quieter than its already hushed state.

In the end its only response was to flash a message on the tiny readout of the shuffler: Your accommodations include a combination safe and key card options.

Everyone took their seats around a single table. Automated instruments, stood as a band in one corner, began to play light music. Sounds of a much busier eatery were also piped in: the clinking of silverware, chatter, popping corks, and wine pouring. Perhaps those on previous voyages had felt lonely without them.

The menu scrolled by on a single electroglass card placed in a folded napkin on each plate, like a feather tucked into a cap. There was no need to direct their orders anywhere in particular; as long as it was said aloud the Viper True would overhear.

Being from the most distant dot in the solar system, Silver and Roman had never even seen what cuisine was like on a 2to1 world; the menu confused them by listing 2 entrees hyphenated together. What exactly was a Cobb salad-pasta al forno combination? Stuffed bell pepper-coconut lemongrass chicken soup? Mango fried rice-garlic butter steak? Already deeply disadvantaged in the department of information, the Plutonians didn’t ask questions, instead following by example when the others told the charged air their orders.

Answers came quickly enough, in the form of platters speeding down the nearest wall railing, trailing steam the entire way. With no staff to finish delivery, the passengers stood and retrieved their own meals. Silver had ended up choosing the first item they saw: Cobb salad-pasta al forno.

After returning to their seat they examined it, and its scent, closely to determine what exactly had gone on in the Viper True’s kitchen. At first glance it was just the salad, but quicker than a 2nd glance, more like one and ¼ glances, they saw the pasta and its dark sauce sticking out here and there.

Simply mixing it in would’ve created a terrible hodgepodge of flavors, textures, and temperatures, but the pasta was laid over top of the salad. A 2to1 salad and a 9to1 pasta dish, served together on the same plate, able to occupy the same exact space thanks to the vast difference in their likelihood.

They tried an experimental bite. Stupendous. The single best bite of their brief life, though it was soon to be followed by many just as good. Yes, both dishes could be tasted, but only in a previously unimaginable complementary way. Silver realized the conflict between the dish’s profiles was entirely intentional, meant to evoke the wholeness of positive sensation on the palate.

Whatever weaknesses the salad had, too cold here, too wet there, a little too much vinegar in that bite, had the lacking elements bolstered by an opposite quality from the warm, crusty, cheesy pasta. The unlikely dish was just the caulking covering any unsightly seams in the primary one. Once ½ was gone they understood the full effect as a perfect Cobb salad, but any memories of the dish would carry the scent of pasta al forno, and the warmth of it sitting in the stomach.

On Pluto unlikely food, say 7 or 8to1, was extremely cheap, as it was insufficiently filling and nourishing if one was at healthier odds. The majority of people, comfortable enough at 4 or 5to1, couldn’t even ingest it without it passing straight through. Here on Vulcan it must have been difficult to produce, and thus significantly more expensive.

Even the forks and spoons they ate with had multicolored edges, indicating they were alloyed to interact with varying odds. There are at least 2 ways to make food less likely. They could store it away, forget about it, let them naturally decay in the shadows as they do in the mind. Or they could force it by scraping off ingredient lists, expiration dates, names. Sometimes they probably open a can and find something never put in it.

Most of their meal passed quietly, but they did each find the time to share their names and snippets of life story with each other. Finally Roman and Silver were able to toss out the colors, though they lingered in their minds as imaginary middle names for their would-be captors.

Blue was Zola Gorgon. She claimed to be in the business of funeral arrangements and grief counseling, and that she had made her way to the Viper True because she had seen countless times how probable people wound up and wanted none of it for herself.

Red was Dry Burgundy, and a floor waitress at a casino back on the main-and-only-land. Such work was not trivial, as the profit margins for gambling on Vulcan were razor thin. The likeliest people in probable space were also the luckiest, which was reflected every time they threw the dice or told the croupier to deal another.

Even drink servers needed to prove themselves exceptionally talented in the art of manipulation, employing every minute trick in a memorized handbook the size of a dictionary to get patrons to let their guard down a touch, to order more loss-recouping beverages, and to try their hand at a game a little more likely to cut it off.

White was Char Sauvign, who supposedly worked in public utilities computing. Her code told floodgates when to open and close down to the correct drop, according to her. There were several stories she only shared pieces of, but all of them clearly ended in the narrow aversion of all Vulcan’s land becoming inundated in an apocalyptic ocean surge.

Purple was ‘Motley’ Tart, which I put in quotation because it is almost certainly a self-appointed nickname, though he did his best to say it like a legal one present since birth. His profession was the one the Plutonians believed most since he claimed to be nothing more than a photographer for hire, and was willing to shoot anyone if the price was right, or even if it was headed vaguely in the right direction, or even if it was milling about and seemed open to looking at some photographs to pass the time.

Yellow was Sunnyflower Oyle, but all were welcome to call him Sonny instead. Sonny managed financial estates, including those of several people who had vanished into the 1to1 aboard the Viper True instead of dying. As such, he lived the life of a much wealthier man since he spent so much time holding vast fortunes in his cupped hands, waiting for their proper owners to return.

Last, and without a doubt the least honest, was Green. The name given was Galatin Lime, and it came with no profession at all. There were a few references to some sort of work, but they made it sound like he did whatever task happened to be in front of him at that moment. Not that I could judge. Since birth I’ve been only a socialite, a boxer, a thief, a prisoner, and a hijacker. Recently missed the position of captain by a hair.

Lime’s most extensive comments had to do with an unfriendly offer, though delivered in the friendliest tone. It came after dinner and dessert, after they had cleared away the last sundae-baclava glasses and placed everything onto provided railing trays that dashed off into a wall. The man brought out his deck, shuffling it a bit, letting everyone’s eyes find it. Then he spoke.

Now that everyone’s calmed down and squared away… I propose a little game of takebaxi.” Just the name was enough to make everyone’s meals shift inside them and cause discomfort despite the great lengths the automated chef had taken to prevent that from happening.

Takebaxi, or the game of flying fates as it was sometimes dramatically called during broadcasts, was the most popular card game in probable space, with the Antichthon born Aunty Up not too far behind. It was a game of bluffing and trading, and of throwing your cards, not in frustration, but strategically, and sometimes with burgeoning bloodlust.

Each player would work to assemble all the face cards in a suit in their hand, declaring victory once they had done so, with the round nullified if they should happen to start with a winning hand. There was a central pile to draw from each turn, with a host of special rules, depending on the variant, for when a draw couldn’t happen. Rather than a draw, a player was free to show another player a card, and if they had the next highest card in that suit they had to hand it over.

None of this would upset even the most milquetoast of players, but we haven’t gotten to the part where the throwing starts. For various reasons throughout the game a player may want to ditch a card from their hand, and the only way to do so is throw it at another player, with a legal throw defined as one that would strike their person.

If the targeted player catches the card it goes back to the thrower’s hand and they are forced to discard a different card back to the draw pile. If it is not caught, the struck player must add that card to their hand and be the one to discard something else.

Now there are countless variants of the game, but they are divided into 2 primary categories: fun and injurious intent. Sometimes not all players around the table are in agreement about which exactly is being played. Many a life has been lost from this confusion, and in the injurious version where everyone was caught up to speed but couldn’t catch up to every card.

Those who perish forfeit, if that wasn’t obvious. Their cards go back to the draw pile and are shuffled away, as if their whole life is erased. In broadcast versions of the game, unless you knew that one terribly secretive frequency, blunted electroglass was always used so no harm could be done. If the others took up Mr. Lime on his offer it would be with an audience, and they would expect a bloodless affair.

But if they couldn’t kill each other and better their odds of being the one to hit 1to1, what was the point?

We’re all liars,” Galatin said as he shuffled his deck through several flourishes, some eerily similar to the waves outside. None objected to the statement. “And we all want to know the truth of what we’re up against.

That truth lies in the items we carry on our person. None of us would leave these items in our room, not so early in the voyage. We need to keep our eye on them, our fingertips on them inside our pockets. No doubt some of them are hidden. So the special rule is this:

Whenever a player discards they must take a non-clothing item off their person, present it to the table, and explain what it is thoroughly. This must be done with every discard, until there are no items left to reveal. This way we will get to know each other, unless some of us are just too skilled to reveal anything.”

And what happens when someone wins?” Zola asked, tweezed eyebrows practically hitting the ceiling.

Then the game is over, and the winner may claim any one of the revealed items as their own, permanently.”

So if we’re lousy at takebaxi we’ve got no reason to agree to this,” Motley pointed out.

No, you wouldn’t,” Lime conceded. “Are you lousy?”

I’m incredible.” Lime smirked, then went around the table asking everyone else if they were lousy. Not a bum player among them, and none who left the table. Silver played life like a game, and so did Roman, though he didn’t consider it as much of a victory when a friend won as Silver did. Both saw no reason to back down from a chance to gain ground out there in the Rivulets where there wasn’t any.

They’re bound to figure out we’ve got at least one platinum card… but they’d find out anyway. Platinum doesn’t hide. If we don’t introduce them they’ll introduce themselves, even if they have to fall out of a dead person’s pocket to do so.

Plus we have the head. Mustn’t lose our head.

The brazen head was tucked away under the table, between Silver’s thighs. Confidence aside, there wasn’t much between the Plutonians and the uncovering of their assets; they hadn’t been able to bring much with them when scrambling out of their crashed and waterlogged instrument. Roman had only his boxing dice and a deck with the platinum 8 of lights tucked neatly in the middle. Long Odd Silver had but their deck, enriched with the platinum ace of wheels and 8 of drinks, and the brazen head.

The music changed as the game began, shifting to something quieter but much more stressful. The Viper True was manufacturing the mood more than mimicking it, but at least it wasn’t taking sides. Not yet.

Galatin dealt the cards from his own deck, allowing everyone to use their cards to scan his, ensuring there was no cheater’s code hidden away that might change their values, pass information to his hand, or put the brakes on his opponents’ attempted throws midair. Last they checked to make sure the edges were blunted, as electroglass only cut like a razor when the right current passed between its corners.

Roman started without a single face card, which was perfectly fine by him. Pluto had started him with nothing and he’d made himself the prince of the planet in a week’s time. Even with nothing he would start aggressively, shoving his 5 and his 6 in his neighbor’s faces and daring them to say they didn’t have the 6 and the 7 he was after. They did, but those hand-offs weren’t discards, so their pockets were safe for the moment.

Lime made an early move as well, opening his mouth to ask a question, only it was a card that flung, practically by itself, out of his hand instead. It curved midair and struck Dry on the chin.

Bastard!” she spat at him, regaining composure by having her cards fan her loose strands of hair back behind her ears. “I just need to get back into my working mood. This is just another floor, and you’re all just another set of whales.” A flick of her wrist threatened to throw all of her cards at once, each targeting a different person, which was a legal maneuver, but it was just a feint that made the table collectively flinch.

Silver made note of her confidence, as missed throws were punishable several ways, primarily by a forced discard for each individual miss. Ms. Burgundy revealed her mundane deck of cards, then her turn passed twice more before they even had their 2nd discard, which didn’t come from her. The incredible Mr. Tart was the unlucky fellow, and had to offer up a belonging for inspection.

Unsurprisingly it was his camera. It seemed no loss at all to show it, as they’d all seen it already, and would of course think it nothing but the tool of his trade. Except the Plutonians had witnessed it in action in their fuel tank vision, and knew it hid a dark secret. Questions sat ready in their scabbards for the moment he was done giving his mundane description of it.

But that’s not all,” Roman accused, catching the little man by surprise. “I see that flash unscrews. You’ve got some others in your luggage I bet. They do more than take pictures, don’t they?”

Do I have to answer?” Motley asked the table, to which the answer was a collective and resounding yes. “Yeah alright, I’ve got some others. They use light of different odds and they can mildly affect the odds of what I snap. Makes for interesting effects on the pictures is all.”

And I’m sure you ask for your subjects’ consent before you mildly affect their odds,” Sonny said.

He doesn’t need to,” Ms. Gorgon defended out of, and in, the blue. “You can’t expect an artist to ignore the pursuit of his work just because somebody is in the way. That’s a world with no art at all. We all became part of somebody’s tapestry at some point, and there’s no good story without the prick of a thorn here and there. And if you ask me-” She threw a card and hit Mr. Tart, almost flirtatiously by the sound of her giggle. “-the attention is flattering.” Her flair didn’t earn her much, as Mr. Tart only revealed a notepad from his pocket, the only note technically being a doodle of a figure, presumably himself even with the stick-figure he did not possess, riding a boat into a shining portal, the whole scene surrounded by the number one a dozen times of course.

With Motley attacked twice he wouldn’t be letting his guard down again anytime soon, so the card sharks had to search for blood elsewhere in the treacherous waters. Roman successfully struck Mr. Oyle, the tall and wide man nowhere near slick enough to twist out of the way. Silver and Lime followed his lead, tossing cards of their own before the prince’s had even passed them.

All 3 found their mark, and their new owner chuckled at himself, shaking his head as he made his discards. Then out came a tiny tower from his pocket that he placed upon the table like a stack of poker chips: 3 golden wedding bands. Each had more patina than the last, with the bottom one in such sore need of cleaning that it looked like the stack was being absorbed into the wood of the table.

These are my old wedding rings,” he explained, mulling every word over before it came out of his mouth. It looked as if he was deciding which stories to tell, but ended up telling none of them on account of a 3-way draw.

Those count as clothing,” Char argued to get more out of him. “They are worn.”

But not anymore,” was Sonny’s wistful answer as he twisted the hand that held his cards, showing his ring finger was currently occupied by another band.

She approves of you taking such a dangerous voyage?” Silver asked, their voice as soft as ever despite their slight distaste for the little gilded shackles. To them a person’s physical presence was always a better promise of loyalty and affection than any trinket.

She would have.”

So you’re a widower. Is there a divorce in there or are you a widower 4 times over?” It didn’t matter who actually asked him if he was a murderer, as they were all considering it.

I don’t believe that’s a question I have to answer. That information has nothing to do with the form or function of these items. All I’ll tell you is that each of these 3 was a promise made and a promise kept.”

I’m sure, ‘til death do you part,” Zola tittered.

Or in sickness and in health,” Silver suggested more charitably.

These rings can’t hurt you,” Sonny concluded. “They don’t change your odds when you put them on, unless we’re talking your odds of picking somebody up at the bar.”

Is there a bar?” Motley asked, turning in his seat to look even though it created a perfect window for others to strike. His answer would come a minute later when a tray of assorted spirits arrived, which he helped himself to, keeping to the unlikely stuff so as not to lose the edge he was already lacking.

Miss Sauvign was all edges it seemed, catching every throw sent her way between the same 2 fingers, sometimes 2 in the same moment. They were 45 minutes into the game, and all but her, Lime, and Silver had given something up for the pot. Roman had already described his boxing dice, and would have to show his platinum card next.

Miss Burgundy and Miss Gorgon had buffer items with no value to sacrifice: a lipstick, a coin purse, and a wad of floes. The roll of money was tossed casually, now one of the least valuable things aboard the Viper True, as every charge moving forward would be paid in blood.

Tired of the attempts on her person, Char finally went on the offensive without any warning whatsoever, sneaking a 3 of kisses past Long Odd Silver’s defenses and striking them on the elbow. Oh my, seems I have her attention. I do wonder why she thinks I’m the greater threat than Roman, but then again I am sitting that much closer, so less reaction time could be the long and short of it. But what’s the long and short of my belongings? Platinum or the head? Which platinum?

Silver brought out their own deck and split it, instantly revealing one of the only 2 cards in it that anyone would care about: the platinum ace of wheels.

Mary, motherish to god,” Sonny uttered, drawing out the handkerchief he was most likely going to reveal as his next belonging to dab at his forehead and cheeks. A few of the others were more alarmed, hopping out of their chairs and using them as cover for a blast that never came.

Should that thing be let anywhere near the 1to1!?!” Motley asked, suddenly concerned with exposure to dangerous auras.

10 years in the pits and I never even laid eyes on one, let alone an ace,” Dry hissed through a tight throat, knuckles white as they crushed the back of her chair. “That’s just great! They’ve got one of the 52 most powerful weapons in the system, and we’re stuck on the same ship with it for a whole year.”

There’s no cause for concern,” Char claimed, “at least not yet.” Her expression was icy and piercing as ever. “The Viper True won’t tolerate its violent use, no matter what it’s made of. The platinum deck also has a will of its own. Whatever it wants it will get, and with us being powerless against that, anxiety over it is just self-harm.”

I didn’t know I hated myself so much,” Mr. Tart said, searching about his feet for a breath that didn’t feel so spiny in his chest. None of their reactions were of interest to Silver, except for that of Galatin Lime. The man looked just as calm as Miss Sauvign, but with the tiniest tilt of a smile. If I didn’t know better I’d say he was already aware of the ace. My scoundrel sense tells me that confirming it was the whole purpose of this entire game. He may not be after the 1to1. Platinum hunters do exist, doomed as they all have been. Some people can’t help themselves. He should just ask me; I’d be happy to help.

Once they recovered from the shock the game moved on, without a winner in sight. Altogether the group was very skilled at discerning anyone getting close. They formed and broke truces in the flow of single turns, epic battlefields cleaned away with the sweep of an arm every few minutes.

Next to falter was Dry, who had run out of innocuous things to show off. Out came a slim item like a metal wallet that they all recognized as an electroglass sharpener. Its purpose was to give cards an extra jolt of temporary sharpening energy. One swipe through it could make a standard slab of the stuff pass through a stone column without losing any inertia.

She struck back however, and got the prince of Pluto. Instead of blood he spilled the platinum 8 of lights out of his deck, sneering as another cluster bomb of miniature heart attacks went off around the table.

2 platinum cards! 2! A pair! With my own pair of eyes I’ve seen a platinum pair!” Sonny exclaimed. His handkerchief became too drenched to be of any use. He leaned his immense chest over the table and shuffled his cards into the central pile. “I fold, and wholeheartedly forfeit my chance to claim any of these items. None of these headaches are needed one ounce! No ma’am!”

The others considered joining him, but none did, at least not until Char struck again, catching Silver a second time with a toss that spun down into their lap and hit a thigh. Have to give the people what they don’t want. Out came the platinum 8 of drinks. Motley Tart folded. Dry Burgundy folded. Zola Gorgon… spoke.

How exciting! Does everyone see what I see? You might need the vulture’s eye to see it, but it’s right there, bleached as bones. Between the 2 of them they almost have the dead man’s hand!”

Wow, have I ever needed another drink this much?” Motley asked, hurrying over to the railing. He banged on it, demanding fresh service. Sonny stepped away from the table, seconding his opinion by rapping a knuckle on the wall and waiting more patiently.

They almost have it,” Galatin said, the statement hitting Long Odd Silver like a javelin. They shared a look across the table. The daring Mr. Lime had said little since the game began, yet he chose that moment to say nothing in particular? That was a challenge. Silver casually flicked a card at him, which he made no attempt to dodge.

It tumbled down the front of his shirt and into his lap. Before it was fully settled he had taken a single card from his jacket pocket and placed it flat on the table. Finally the Plutonians were shocked, by the brilliant sheen of the platinum ace of kisses. The dead man’s hand was complete on the table, in the one color that could actually move it beyond superstition.

None had asked how the Plutonians had acquired their cards, for the answers would have been pointless. It was the cards that had arranged it, and so too had the ace of kisses arranged Galatin Lime as its escort that evening. Nobody asked him either. Char was the only one who had anything to say, her mind already several steps ahead of most of the other players’.

This hand would not have been assembled without purpose. Even among the Viper True’s voyages, this one will not be typical. There’s also no way for us to comprehend what their purpose is, until it’s too late. So in the end, as far as agency over our own fates, these 4 cards are nothing but a distraction.”

Don’t call them that; they can hear you!” Dry warned her partner from the iceberg.

All that matters is determining what they are distracting us from,” Char continued. By the time Silver looked back at her it was too late. The card the woman in white had tossed was behind the Plutonian rogue’s neck, curving into their nape. They were hit a 3rd time, with only one item left to show.

The brazen head was brought into view and set gently upon the table, balanced upright. Its glowing eyes examined the other passengers, who had not gotten a close look at it until that point.

Hey, that’s the thing that bit me,” Motley pointed out without anger, as his drinks had already arrived. Obliterating the tension caused by the platinum cards was far more important than seeking revenge against some kind of animated pinata of polished wood and metal. Sonny watched it with greater curiosity, but there was a bottle tipped into his mouth at the same time.

What is that?” Char asked before Silver had a chance to open their mouth. The calculating woman was aghast, more fear in her voice than any other emotion at any other time since their meeting. She understood people. This wasn’t people. She knew computers. This wasn’t computers. Familiar and foreign at the same time, the brazen head’s appearance and accursed demeanor was as disturbing to her as the undead head of an ex-lover.

This is a friend of mine,” Silver said respectfully. “On Pluto where he was born he was called a brazen head, like the old legend. Ask and he shall answer. Any question, every response correct, limited to the totality of probable space and the woeful binary of yes and no.”

So it has to be a yes or no question?” Mr. Tart asked.

Yes,” the brazen head demonstrated. Sonny and Tart shared a glance, then a shrug before returning to their drinks.

Am I a natural redhead?” Dry asked.

Yes.” Proof enough for her.

Am I going to die on this voyage?” Zola blurted next, clearly invested in the answer, though it wasn’t clear which way. The head clamped its mouth shut audibly, the closest thing it had to a 3rd answer.

It doesn’t do the future,” Roman said. “I wouldn’t be anywhere near this boat if it did.”

But it is aware of both the past and the present?” Char asked pointedly, with the tone of someone who had just been impaled asking about the foundry the bayonet had come from.

Yes,” the head answered for itself.

And whoever wins this round of takebaxi gets to keep it,” Sonny reminded. “I think I might have been hasty in folding… but-” he sipped “-how is one to know?”

Whoever has custody of that thing will be able to make new realities aboard this vessel,” Char said, staring at it, no longer acknowledging other living things. “Every other passenger’s schemes will be revealed through a simple string of narrowing questions. No plots can happen but through it, no alliances, no ambushes, no rhetorical conquering. All avenues close at its iron gate. The hinges creak.” Her voice changed to a grating squeak, like a narrator trying to speak for an imp in a Gothic tale. “Yes. No.”

So what, are you actually going to try your hardest now?” Roman asked her.

It would make no difference,” she answered without taking her eyes from the head’s. Their glow was reflected in hers. “I’ve already reached the conclusion that Mr. Lime will win this game. He is hiding that he is the most skilled cardist among us. With a flick of his motivation he can end this. Which means that he will take the brazen head, and we will all be powerless against him.”

The glasses stopped clinking. The platinum cards were ignored, which could have turned disastrous if it lasted much longer. An immense invisible pressure fell on Galatin, urging him to defend himself against such an accusation of competency. His grin didn’t flag, and all he could offer was a shrug. Proof enough for him.

With the same cunning and speed she had used to hit Long Odd Silver 3 times in a row, but this time expressed with her arms rather than her wrists, Char lunged out of her seat and grabbed the brazen head. Silver stuck out a long leg to trip her, but she had foreseen the possible reaction and hopped over it. The woman was damn close to the prescience the brazen head lacked, yet she needed it out of other hands.

They’d needed to have their cards checked at the door, but Char had dropped hers so that the Viper True would automatically clear her path. Impressive distance was put between her and the rest, who were barred from following until they had shaken every loose card from their clothing.

Silver and Roman led the pack, as the head was still their property without anyone having declared takebaxi. As far as they were concerned a hostage had just been taken. Strictly limited to its twin answers, but capable of imbuing each one with a full range of emotions exclusive to man, ape, and some particularly talkative parrots, Silver knew it to be a fantastic companion, but even as they chased after it they did not truly know its capacity to suffer within such a shell.

He can’t die, not like we can. He has no fear without a beating heart, but he knows he wants to be here and see how it all turns out. I want him to be here. Why didn’t I see that this woman was a cheat!? I’m a cheat! It should’ve taken one to know one!

The rest of the passengers were following mostly to be the audience. Wherever that chip wound up could change each of their plans greatly, but there wasn’t much they could do. Any attempt to physically wrench the head away from Char’s grasp could be construed as an attack, which might get them tossed overboard by the board itself.

Char’s plan had developed at the speed of light, and she’d carried it out almost as quickly, and yet she stalled at the final step. Silver and Roman slid to a stop on the deck, right where they’d first spilled onto it, the slats of the ship’s gigantic paddles passing by just beyond the railing. The pair didn’t dare take another step, as Char held the brazen head out over the side, a hair from dropping it.

It isn’t fair… it can’t be allowed!” she shouted without looking at them just as all the others arrived. “Years of planning, taking into account every variable, running countless simulations in computer banks nearly as large as the Viper True itself. All of that is reduced to ash in the face of this… face.”

No?” the head squeaked, free to respond to figurative speech however it deemed fit.

Don’t you drop it,” Silver warned, unsure what they could possibly do in retaliation. A thought formed. “What if I promise not to seek the 1to1 while I’m aboard? You return the head and your goal will face no hurdles from me.” Is that something I can promise? Who knows what all I might do in this strange place… certainly not me.

A promise that cannot be verified,” Char countered, voice quivering. “And I can’t keep it for myself. Even with the truth it could mislead me, and I would be the primary target of all of you. No. The only way to even things is to commit it to the Rivulets.” The head slipped through her fingers a little.

No,” it pleaded. It slipped a little more.

You’ll kill it!” Roman barked. A little more. But Roman’s choice of words had an effect, not on Char Sauvign but on the Viper True. Above the bridge the great device like a magnifying glass spun. The birds in the footage playing across it scattered, panicked. Once it faced the passengers light rapidly swelled within it.

Unbearably bright, the others were spared the horror of seeing what exactly happened to the woman who had never calculated something like that. With the flash came her scream, which was cut short with a sound like a toaster atomizing a piece of bread out of pure electrical rage. The other passengers rubbed the spots out of their eyes only to see what looked like a pile of said spots smoking in front of them.

She had been reduced to a fine powder, much of it so unlikely that even the slight breeze on deck didn’t pick it up. Instead it slowly sank through the wood and disappeared, like an hourglass where half of each hour was a timeless void.

All of her experience with trinary computers couldn’t prepare her for how the mind of the Viper True ticked and tocked. It had seen the other world, the real one, and learned things that exist only between data points. Wisdom. In that wisdom it had come to value life in all its forms, including those who technically didn’t exist, and among them those who were trying their hardest to rise to even that low bar.

The brazen head was alive enough to deserve its protection, and Char’s actions could only be construed as violent threats. The glass, a piece of re-adapted equipment entirely unique to the Viper True, was originally intended to signal other ships with reflected light, but through its trials it had grown and its function was wholly new.

Now it could examine most of the deck, and the seas just beyond, and subject any spot to an amplified ray of natural 2to1 scouring light. In essence it was the flash of Motley Tart’s camera, but scaled up and given a brain of its own. In one blast it had made all the chemical bonds in Char’s cells so unlikely that they broke away: order one microsecond and chaos the next. It was a clean shot that didn’t leave so much as a scorch mark anywhere around her, nor had a speck of anything that wasn’t connected to her suffered a drop of even one increment in their odds… with one tragic exception.

Being in Char’s hands, though by the most tenuous of grasps, was enough to cost the brazen head some of its likelihood. It dropped from 3to1 to 6to1, which was less important than the fact that the hands holding it were now dust in its decorative sinuses.

By the time Long Odd Silver reached the railing it had fallen too far to recover, and they saw it pass through one of the likelier paddles. They called out to it, listening for a relieved yes or a desperate no, but even if it shouted there would be no hearing it over the churn of the riverboat’s mechanisms. Cold spray mixed with their permanent glittering tears, and they found themselves trying to wipe away what they couldn’t.

The brazen head was lost to the depths. Everyone took it as a sign that Vulcan had won the game of takebaxi and claimed its prize from their belongings. Each returned to the table only to get what was theirs.

January 11th


A Monkey’s Uncle if it was just the Wind

Fighting each other was the express goal, but they couldn’t just have it out in the ring as Roman Koch would have preferred. Presumably the Viper True didn’t allow it. The prince couldn’t see why. A year long voyage could be cut to a day if they didn’t have to beat around several bushes, like how they could do each other in, or who would eventually serve as the captain.

Worse, the first real fight he had was with Silver. The ship had hundreds of luxury cabins to choose from, including a few that must have originally been separate but were fused together by trips back and forth between reality and probable space. They could be identified by doors that had multiple room numbers on them.

Cabin 114,115,116 was easily spacious enough for 2 people, featuring 3 bedrooms, a sitting room, a waterfall shower that turned into a small wading pool, and a kitchenette that produced gourmet food within minutes of request all on its own. It would’ve been the perfect place for the Plutonians to relax and collaborate, entirely protected from intrusion by the ship’s robust privacy enforcement.

Except the prince wasn’t in the mood for collaboration, and he wouldn’t be all year long. He told Silver as much in the most painful conversation they’d ever had. Worse, they had to have it standing just outside the triple cabin, awkwardly in its threshold like they couldn’t decide exactly how many steps they could take together.

Things had started antagonistic back on Pluto, with Silver stealing the brazen head from him, Silver helping Minty Julip stay out of his employ back when he was running half a city, and Silver interfering with his raid on his rivals the Survivor Function.

Then they went and intentionally got themselves arrested by the colonizing forces of Antichthon, which resulted in the 2 Plutonians sharing a cell for 6 months. The prince came to respect them as merely a troublemaker and not a usurper. Just the grease on a greased palm. Just a musician trying to provide the perfect bass line for what the real players were getting up to.

But the cabin was not that cell. They had months ahead of them again, but it wasn’t idle time to fill with sex and storytelling and card tricks. This time was supposed to be dense with ambition, rippling with plot.

But I’m not plotting anything,” Long Odd Silver had insisted, leaning on the triple cabin’s door, looking at him, almost pouting. “Of everyone aboard I want to live in the 1to1 the least. Here, there. Places are places. I’m more of a people person.”

You’d take that final step if it was right in front of you,” Roman argued. He turned the knob and let the door sail open, forcing Silver to stand at attention, perhaps not the best idea for his position, seeing as they were several inches taller. “Don’t deny it.”

I won’t. Sure, you got me. Sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me, and sometimes the best. So what? If you want to be the one to step out of probability and into existence, I won’t get in your way.”

A scenario for you Silver. Everyone else aboard the Viper True is dead. The pair of us are left. The prince is ready to ascend to his throne… but there’s no captain steering the ship.” Silver stared, waiting for him to finish. If he wanted to put a threat between them he would have to actually set it down. “I would be forced to give you a promotion.”

All the more reason for us to work together,” Silver reasoned. “We should convince someone else to fill those shoes. After all, someone has every time this ship has set off. There’s no way that shadowy shimmer at the helm is anything other than cumulative. Someone will find a reason to step into the role.”

But they’ll never step out of it. You heard the others. The captain is the captain, and I’m the prince.”

If it’s just the 2 of us you won’t be prince of anything. That position is defined by the ability to give orders, and since I don’t have the ability to take them it would never work out.” Roman took that as returned fire on his threat, which Silver saw in his face. Sadly, and disgusted at the waste of the closeness they’d shared, they gave him what he wanted by walking away.

Roman entered his new palace, breathed a sigh bereft of the relief he hoped for. Meanwhile Long Odd Silver ended up situating themselves all the way on the other side of the ship, in the cozier dual cabin 288,289. The rest of the passengers were similarly scattered about, each having chosen what they deemed to be the most strategic homestead for the coming year.

Nothing stopped them from hunkering down, only taking meals in their rooms, and biding their time until the final days of the voyage, but none of them opted for such a strategy. There had to be a captain, and though they couldn’t fathom the consequences of not having one, they knew hiring someone at the last minute was not ideal.

So they went recruiting. Often several people took lunch at the same time and in the same place, just conversing, waiting for someone to let slip key information. Hardly a week went by where the entire group didn’t get together for a large dinner and some automatically generated music.

The Viper True encouraged this behavior, both subtly and unsubtly nudging them to socialize and make use of all the recreational facilities. It went ahead and filled their calendars, which were screens embedded in the cabin walls that could not be removed, with scheduled events.

Motion pictures were screened, and everything on offer was taken from the visions of the 1to1 that were Vulcan’s most valuable export. Seeing how genuine people lived their lives, never once thinking about their odds, only having to concern themselves with the moon since their rockets couldn’t take them much further, and utterly without the specter of crazy8 forever changing who they were served to motivate all of the passengers to seize that reality for themselves.

Aside from films there were concerts, meteor shower observations on deck, dance lessons, wine tastings, and a host of other things to keep them busy. It was impossible to get carried away, as any damage to the ship wound up repaired the next day by yet more machines hidden away, ones that none of them wanted to witness as they suspected they might be horrifying assemblages of insect-like limbs and flashing lights.

The prince of Pluto indulged the least, at least the others thought so, as he spent much of his free time in one of the gymnasiums, training against dummies with his boxing dice. Other pairs were on offer among the equipment, including the 8-sided variety capable of switching to even more increments of likelihood, but he preferred the 6-sided ones he’d cut his teeth on before the swing of things.

In truth it was an indulgence rather than training, as he loved nothing more than taking a swipe at an opponent, at trying to guess at their angle and tactic. In dice boxing you couldn’t just flail on your foe, as being locked into the wrong probability could mean zero damage dealt. The enemy had to be understood to be beaten.

That’s what gave Roman a lot of the rage he tried to work out with the dice. In his mind he’d done everything right from step one. Figuring out Pluto was a cinch, because everyone started at the same moment, and from the same position mentally if not in terms of their societal station.

Pluto was chaos hanging onto itself, suckling the rewards of its effortless formation, desperate to keep its absurd state as long as possible. That was the heap he certainly would have ruled, if only he’d gotten things done a little faster. If only the Survivor Function hadn’t fought him every step of the way thinking they could fill his shoes.

Then the Antichthonians showed their ugly mugs and tossed him in jail. Even then he’d found his way out, made the right friends, said the right things to get off that haunted lump of coal.

Now it was onto Vulcan, and there was actually a chance it was all leading somewhere. He still walked the path of royalty, and perhaps he had been thinking far too small when he wanted to rule one city on little old puttering Pluto.

After all, in the 1to1 Pluto’s very reputation was so powerfully undone by a single decision that a version of it appeared in probable space. The Pluto where he awoke was nothing but an embarrassing downgrade from planet to planetoid. If he was the one to step off the Viper True and into reality he also could unmake worlds with nothing but words. Imagine what he could do with his fists then.

One chilly cloudless morning, where every aggressive sunbeam gave him a start because he thought it might be the Viper True’s glass eye honing in on him, Roman was on one of the upper decks, staring out at the Rivulets, when he noticed a door open far to his left.

Galatin Lime stepped out. To put it another way that so happened to be the way Roman was putting it to himself, the biggest and most dangerous mystery aboard the ship was what stepped out. Lime talked plenty at meal time, but in an infuriating manner that never revealed anything about himself.

The man was knowledgeable about cards, about sailing, about dice boxing, about fishing, about every single little thing that came up, but he never used so much jargon as to appear an expert in any one of them. If there was any subject that did stand out it was history, for he was quick to remind them all of the exact dates of various historical events before any of them could consult the ship’s computer banks through their cards.

Much of probable space history had a platinum lining, and the man held the ace of kisses, so no one even bothered to double check what he said when he recalled their doings across time. Of course the earliest factoids had Antichthonian provenance, as that was the oldest probable planet by far.

Yet even in its most distant recorded past the platinum deck was noted as crashing into their lives from the stars, landing as meteorites in random locations before making their way to palaces and thrones, and then to the rubble of those same spaces.

Lime taught them that the platinum 5 of drinks was once used as a coaster in 1655, and that act had supposedly transferred an incredible power to the glass. Drinking anything from it would change your odds to 5to1, no matter what. Anyone one the verge of crazy8 could be instantly restored with one sip. That made it the probable space equivalent of the holy grail, and no less than 3 wars had been fought over it before it was shattered in a final battle, all without any historical proof that it could actually do what it was purported to.

He taught fellow passengers that the platinum 10 of lights was around in 1831 when a young Phaeton was struggling in its attempts to communicate with Antichthon. They didn’t have radios back then, and certainly not instruments of space travel, but they knew Antichthon harbored life since Phaetonians were rolled out as adults with all the knowledge they might need to finish out the in situ first generation.

It could only be done with acts on a colossal scale, visible on continents with the most powerful telescopes of the time. The Phaetonians devoted an entire desert to the effort, seeding it with countless millions of card-sized strips of wood, all connected by threads. Each person assigned an end to one of these thread webs could, with one pull, flip a field of strips from their light side to the one with much darker paint.

Entire careers were made out of being a card-flipper, all to switch the desert between a light and dark binary, to signal to Antichthon that there was intelligent life. There was a long wait as Antichthon searched for an ideal mechanism to answer back, difficult considering that planet’s obsession with land ownership.

Eventually though a code was worked out, and information could be shared across the vast emptiness. Trade was still more than a century away, so it was all the interplanetary equivalent of light conversation: discussions of interstellar weather and the sporting performance of the local asteroids as of late. Perhaps this was their year to make a big impact.

But the tenor of the discourse soured, and at some point the first cross-world insult was hurled with greater force than any meteorite. It was answered in kind. They started mocking each other, and it could not be said to be in good nature. If it was kept up, space travel would be only a prelude to war, the starting pistol of a feud that had previously consisted only of angry letters crumpled into their envelopes.

It was unclear how things had turned so rotten, but one Phaetonian investigator journeyed into the desert and, at its exact center, found the platinum 10 of lights in the place of the original card the whole web had sprung from. She guessed the first insult had come from it, been copied by everything around it even without any initiating human tugs.

The card wouldn’t have done so out of malice, Lime theorized when talking about it. In all likelihood it was just trying to stoke anger as a motivator, to get them to throw rockets at each other faster, so that it could set up a mode of transportation from one planet to another and further its own goals that were so beyond the ken of men.

In one instance Galatin’s fellows told him to pipe down and finish his food, after he tried to bring up the 1913 incident where the platinum jack of wheels washed up on a Vulcan shore, stoppered in a glass bottle, covered in both live but shucked hermit crabs and a thick coating of fresh human blood.

All of that, yet he never mentioned how he came into possession of the platinum ace of kisses himself. That was how everyone aboard learned that the man was actually loudest when he wasn’t speaking at all, which roused Roman’s suspicion as Lime stepped out onto the deck and walked away without greeting him or waving.

Surely, were this a more typical day aboard, he would’ve strutted over and babbled something about the platinum deck mysteriously gaining all the functions of electroglass cards and computer banks at the same time such technologies were invented elsewhere. He was up to something alright, and the prince of Pluto was ready to be proactive in his pursuit of the prize.

So he followed. Not too close. Quiet as he could. He figured the behavior was largely risk-free, for as long as they were outdoors they were in full view of the Viper True’s signaling glass. Any act of aggression would be swiftly punished.

What he didn’t take into account was that the outdoors itself might be the aggressor, and there was little the Viper True could do to quell it when the wind kicked up. Lime didn’t let it slow his stride, jaunty with his hands in his pockets. Koch wasn’t quite sure how he was doing it, with his own shoes squeaking against the deck as the wind stalled him.

The sound didn’t appear to reveal his position, so he pressed on, holding up a hand to keep the gust out of his eyes. It worked so well that it also kept something else from striking his right retina: a card. A queen of kisses to be exact: the flirtation card, often thrown in mockery or provocation. Instead of his eye its corner struck and stuck in the back of his hand.

Koch suppressed a pained hiss and ripped it out. Any cardist worth their salt would’ve kept it, added it to their own deck as extra ammunition, but while Roman could hold his own in an electroglass duel he was never one for advanced tactics, responding reflexively like he was dodging or throwing punches.

The Plutonian didn’t even adhere to any of the major styles, opting to instead perform basic maneuvers faster and more aggressively than his opponent. A side effect of that was that he couldn’t easily categorize his enemy’s school of cardistry either, but whether Lime had loosed that queen’s lips in the fashion of Express Mail or Over the Moon hardly seemed to matter when it was clearly done so as an attack.

Yet he wasn’t a mound of chalk dust upon the deck yet, still confidently strutting away against the wind. Roman whipped his head back and was nearly blinded by the reflection in the signaling glass. It could definitely still spy them, but it hadn’t responded. Why?

When he turned back he saw another card headed his way haphazardly, taken up by the wind. This time he was able to act in his own defense, ripping a deck out of his vest pocket, which at that moment was topped with his own platinum card, making the entire pile an excellent shield.

The first successful deflection saw him glancing back again, not that it would have done him any good had the signaling glass decided to boil his blood and leech his flesh to jerky. Still it was unmoved, so at least it was treating his self-defense as non-hostile as well.

But the stream of cards was still coming. Roman focused in, blocking each one as it spun in the wind, practically seeking out the furthest reaches of his body as if to catch him overextended in a different direction.

While the wind did the aiming, Lime had to be facilitating the release. In the brief gasps between blocks Roman saw cards fed over the man’s shoulder profusely, like some desperate salesman pouring buckets of incriminating documents out an open window.

That was when Roman figured it out. Lime didn’t talk about what he knew best, and he didn’t talk about the Viper True much at all. Therefore he knew everything there was to know. Perhaps he had talked to its original builders, to people who had abandoned ship on previous voyages, to chroniclers watching for those who crossed over in visions of the 1to1.

He would’ve known her down to the rings of grime built up around her nuts and bolts if she didn’t keep herself so immaculately groomed. Lime had an in, and within it he had learned exactly what the ship would consider to be an assault. Even though his cards, caught as they were in the wind, were a great danger to another guest, he didn’t appear to be tossing them in malice.

No, he just wasn’t paying attention is all. Entirely the fault of the wind, grabbing at his loose cards and trying to start a war. Shame on it. What did it think it was, some kind of platinum gale? Roman was almost too angry to see the solution, almost.

Hey Lime!” he shouted. “Better secure your cards!” Just as expected, the man turned around slowly, sluggish speed imitating someone with a much emptier head. His mouth popped open in embarrassed shock as he patted his clothes to determine where the cards now strewn across the deck and flying into the Rivulets possibly could have slipped out.

Oh, I’m sorry! What a vicious wind we’re having today. Are you alright Mr. Koch?”

Couldn’t be better,” he growled back, stashing his deck away. “Better be more careful next time.”

Of course, of course.”

So where are you off to?”

The same place as everyone else,” he said with a smirk. “Good day Mr. Koch, and here’s to many more.” Galatin picked up right where he left off, without actually picking up any of his cards. He left it to the automated brushes of the Viper True, which would only unfold from the walls when none were around to see.

I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if that was just the wind,” Roman muttered. “Here’s to as many more as I’ll tolerate. By Nemesis, you don’t get one damn day after that.”

June 30th


You’ve been Murdered

Most people who met Long Odd Silver initially responded as if they were seeing some luxury item in a window with a remarkably low sale price, so low that it had to be a mistake. They sometimes tripped over themselves to take advantage of such a turn of events.

After knowing them for a while one would assume Silver was just one of those people who didn’t have misfortune. Even when they showed up in lesser lives it was a stroke of luck for those lesser, and not a lapse in grace or judgment from the crazy8 themselves. Since everything they did was so effortless it was easy to think of them as without flaw, just that one diamond on that one engagement ring that you can’t stop picturing no matter what’s on your own finger or who you’re married to.

Silver didn’t realize they had fallen victim to their own reputation. Yes, they had suffered plenty, but it was always in the course of something, in the current of current events. They suffered when Minty suffered, when Likely suffered, when Roman suffered, but now that months had gone by full of distinct pains that could not be pinned to any other passenger, they had to acknowledge the fault was in themselves.

I’m lonely. There’s a decent handful here, but none of them will let me in. Plus I’ve lost my head. All after this distant place that doesn’t want them the way I do. I’ve half a mind to take it from them just for passing up what’s right in front of their faces.

Loneliness can’t happen in the 1to1. Not like this anyway. All those people have more threads connecting them. Everyone’s got a mother and a father, all the way back to cave sweet cave. Not Minty. Not me. Ripped from the aether just to splatter-paint the surface of Pluto with civilization.

Like bee stings to what they now recognized as their delicate soul, Silver sought ways to alleviate the isolation as best they could. They were always the one offering to join on a walk, or in a screening, or for a meal, but the others often avoided them or turned them down outright. Silver did not share their goal of trading barbs until useful blood was spilled, so there was no use in their company.

That day was a rare bright spot however, for in bored exploration of the vessel Silver had stumbled across something unique in the small dance studio far below decks. A literal stumble it was, as there was a seam across the middle of the floor. When Silver inquired to the Viper True what it was, the ship responded by opening the seam.

They almost fell in what was quickly revealed to be a hidden swimming pool, water already heated to steaming even though it hadn’t been in use and not a biological soul had been aware of its presence.

As far as Silver knew there were only 2 other opportunities for swimming, excluding the option of throwing oneself over the side: the oval shaped lap pool that was monopolized by Mr. Oyle’s oddly-timed exercise and what was little more than a heated tub out on the deck. The latter was heated by the signaling glass itself, thus making the passengers too nervous to even use it.

Silver hoped this discovery would be too great a temptation, and they were correct when they told the first person they found: Dry Burgundy. The woman asked if it was a trick, but she could see the enthusiasm sparkling in Silver’s eyes, so without waiting for an actual answer she said she would fetch her bathing suit.

Not 20 minutes later they were both lounging in waters so disarming that melting into them seemed a greater risk than each other. Tendrils of steam crawled up the walls, softened the corners of the room. Inflatable leather rafts popped up from the depths for them to rest on, each with a shaker of chilled juice cocktail stuck into the armrest.

Dry couldn’t help but unwind, but falling asleep became too big a danger, so she initiated conversation to keep herself awake. It started with the first time she’d seen people try to board the Viper True, several years before she started trying.

Hundreds of people waiting, all over one rumor shared around. They thought it was a real hot tip: the Viper True would be docking briefly at Withatwist Point. It’s a good thing it didn’t actually show up. They would’ve lost their minds scrabbling to get on when it extended a solitary ramp only one person wide. There would’ve been trampling deaths. There have been actually, over this old gal, just not there and then.”

Their rafts bumped into each other, giving Dry a start, but she saw that Silver didn’t even raise their head. What an odd duck, but it made sense that such a creature knew where the best hidden swimming hole was. She relaxed, let her radiant hair drink in the steam and do some relaxing of its own.

What are you dreaming about?” Silver asked her. “Before you wake up and realize you’re not in the 1to1?”

A penthouse,” she said plainly. “One that I earned. I’ve done a lot with a little here. Somehow I make good money at a shit job. And I still look this good after doing it for the same number of years that turn a mason’s hands to bear-chewed leather. But something’s holding me back, and that something is that we’re all nothing. Just possibilities. I want realities. Guarantees. Gorgeous gilded guarantees shining in the sun for all time, rudely refusing to become ruin.”

Sounds like peace of mind. Do you really need a penthouse for that?”

I want the proof to be comfortable.”

What a world that would be,” Silver commented, finding it impossible to imagine such a place. “Though I do miss the comfort of consulting my brazen head. He did put a lot to rest, fears included.”

I didn’t know Char long, but it surprised me how rabid she got over that thing. Still, the Viper True making an example of her was incredibly helpful information. If not her it might’ve been me.”

You think you would’ve been the first to attack someone on our little cruise?”

My employer described me as a proactive personality.”

In response to?”

Kicking him in the shin when he tried to get off a train before me; we were both on the way to my interview.”

If you’re that good at making your own reality you’re hardly in need of the 1to1.”

Maybe so, but I’m irritated beyond decency that someone got there before me. I would’ve been first in line if I had the opportunity. Nobody sidelines Dry Burgundy and calls it circumstance.” Neither of them were aware that their positions in the pool reflected her statement. Dry had drifted to the middle and stuck while Silver’s raft orbited around her.

This could be her story, Silver thought when they opened one eye and saw her, ravishingly determined, curtain of crimson hair splashed across the surface like licks of flame snaking their way up a trellis. I can stop worrying about me and start worrying about her. She wants it so badly that it hurts, and I can’t think of a single good reason she should be in pain.

Long Odd Silver would have kept orbiting, spiraling down their idealized portrait of the woman, if a meteor hadn’t come streaking into their gravitational dynamic and forced Dry out of her position as the center of attention. It started with a loud ungainly splash like a barrel accidentally knocked from a dock.

Both swimmers lifted their heads in time to see Zola lift hers above the steamy waters, spitting them up and hacking. Eyes unfocused, wet hair blocking them anyway, she still tried to swim forward. Her sputtering became panicked speech.

The prince! Euch- He’s de-dead!” Silver slipped off their raft and sank, eyes wide open, to look at the woman beneath the surface. There was no blood on her dress, none spreading in the water, but there was a cloud of something coming off her, gray and ominous. With silky precision, Silver bobbed back up to make sure they could hear anything else Zola had to sputter.

Sonny killed ptuh- him! I saw it! I saw it Viper!”

Did he really?” Dry asked, by far the least alarmed of the 3, though her feathers were ruffled when Zola reached her raft and flailed to push her off to the side. By then it was easy to see the gray trail she had left, its plume now nearly as wide as the pool itself where she had dropped in.

Out of my way!” was Zola’s answer. “Where did this stupid pool come from!?”

What’s coming off of you!?” Dry asked in turn, now scrambling to paddle out of the way of the gray substance.

How did Sonny kill the prince?” Silver asked, simply letting the stuff break around their form so they could stay close enough to hear any answer over her flailing.

He strangled him! In the greenhouse! With his massive mitts! It was so lurid! Oh, Viper you should have seen it!” She reached the other end of the pool and put in an incredible effort hauling herself and her dress out of the water. Briefly she rolled onto her back to catch her breath, but was on her bare feet in moments, having abandoned her footwear to Davy Jones’s spa.

Neither of them chased after her as she vanished around a corner, more concerned with the copious dandruff she had left in her wake. They quickly exited the pool; the similarly nonchalant Viper True brought them some fresh towels hung on the railing. There was some discussion as they dried themselves off.

That silly bird hasn’t noticed that the ship can hear us everywhere, not just on deck,” Dry noted. “It already knows everything she’s screaming.”

He’s almost certainly still alive,” Silver added. They dried off quickly, but didn’t bother to put on their top, instead resting their elbows on the railing bare-chested. “The greenhouse would be one of the worst places to try and break the rules, would it not?”

Truly. The walls are glass and it’s on deck. That death-ray has easy access, might even be amplified through another layer. The walls are electroglass, so it can fog them up if the plants are getting too much sun, but the idea that the ship doesn’t have at least one camera eye spying the interior is ludicrous.”

What does she think her tattling will earn her? If she wants another cabin she can just annex one.”

Who knows!” Dry declared, throwing up her hands, her towel slipping some. She barely, precisely, caught it, only flashing a smile at Silver. “Gorgon’s wattage is low if you catch my meaning. I’ll be gladder to be rid of her than any of you others.”

Rid of her?”

Surely you don’t think she’ll last! I’m certain she’s next on the chopping block. Work a casino floor for a 14 hour shift and you’ll get a sense of these things. A person determined to stay is not the same as a person determined to keep it together. She has all the drive, none of the driver, and her final destination is snapped in half against a telephone pole.”

The way you talk about it makes me wonder if someone is betting on all this,” Silver postulated, “watching broadcasts of all the Viper True’s cameras. Maybe the 1to1 goes to one of them, whoever bets on the winner. They would be the ones who called the odds most accurately.”

If such a place existed I’d be working there,” Dry assured them. “Besides, I don’t think it takes an orchestra conductor to see which seahorse will be crossing the finish line here.” They heard footsteps, so Dry finished dressing quickly while Silver picked up their top, let it hang off their fingers like a coat rack, and considered putting it on.

It was Roman who came through the same door that had produced Zola, and there was nothing on Silver he hadn’t seen countless times before. Despite the partial nudity of the beautiful people present, he easily avoided plunging into the unexpected pool.

What’s this?” he asked through a veil of sweat, which wasn’t from the steam. His sleeveless shirt further indicated he had just come from some exercise. “And what was all that shouting about?”

Apparently you’ve been murdered,” Long Odd informed him.

I have?”

Yes, most blatantly. It was during a sojourn you took in the greenhouse; flowers help you collect your thoughts.”

But a hulking shadowy figure came up behind you, darkening the begonias!” Dry cackled as she picked up the line. “Before you could turn around there was a pair of hands about your neck, every finger as thick as a bratwurst. You tried to move, but a vice had you locked in place.”

As you struggled to peel the fingers away you remember that there’s only one person aboard with the sheer size to overpower the might prince of Pluto,” Silver added.

It could be none other than…” Sunnyflower Oyle walked in behind Roman, eyes popping when he saw the pool. He was in extremely casual attire, holding a tall glass of lemonade full of crushed ice that was the same shade of yellow as his shorts. “Oh no, he’s right behind you!” Dry and Silver broke down in laughter, much to the confusion of the 2 men.

Have I missed something?” Sonny asked. “I thought I heard Ms. Gorgon shouting at the ship.”

She just stopped in to accuse you of murdering Mr. Koch,” Silver informed as the last of their laughing tears flowed away, replaced by the regular shimmering streams of their crazy8 face.

I’ve done no such thing!”

Yet,” Roman tacked on.

Wait a moment, Ms. Gorgon came through here? As in, swam through?” He examined the gray cloud that had covered most of the surface. “Did she do that?”

Yes, she had… some sort of accident,” Dry guessed. “Spilled that stuff everywhere; it’s quite the mess.” The Viper True demonstrated that it was always listening, having clearly taken offense now that the word ‘mess’ had been tossed in. The floor vibrated, accompanied by a deep machine rumble. Pockets of bubbles appeared at every corner of the pool.

Dry’s and Silver’s rafts deflated on their own and sank, their progress visible thanks to the thinning of the gray substance in the water. The ship must have been aggressively filtering it out, a process which concerned Mr. Oyle greatly. He pushed past Roman and dropped to his hands and knees at the pool’s edge.

Viper True!?” he addressed it. “Is there any way you could keep this material and have it sent to my cabin? I believe it… I believe it could hold great sentimental value to me.” The bubbles stopped for a moment, then resumed. Since something had been altered the large man assumed it had granted his request.

What on Vulcan is it then?” Dry asked him, but he was quick to change the subject, something very simple to achieve given that a raving mad woman had just passed through, giddily talking to a giant riverboat.

I think we’d better see where this false accusation leads first,” he said, struggling to get his chest, nearly the size of a washing machine, up off the ceramic tile. “Shall we,” he huffed. They were all in agreement, and followed Zola’s gray dripping trail out of the bowels of the ship, up several staircases and out onto the deck, where there was absolutely no sign of her.

They split up and searched, with Dry and Silver taking special care in examining the greenhouse, which showed no signs of a struggle. The begonias looked even more cheery than usual. The group reunited several minutes later, under the signaling glass, with a new addition. Mr. Lime had joined.

I take it someone is missing?” he said, hands in his pockets.

Zola practically ran us over below decks,” Ms. Burgundy explained, “ranting that she’d seen Sonny murder Roman. She was coming up here to tell the Viper True.”

Oh! A horrible miscalculation on her part, seeing that she was wrong,” he analyzed, pointing at the supposed murderer and his perturbed victim who very much did not like being characterized as such.

What do you mean?” Silver asked.

Because she’ll have gotten herself killed.” Everyone’s head tilted. “Think through her actions. She made a false accusation of murder, knowing full well what the ship would do to a murderer. In essence, she was trying to get the Viper True to kill someone else. Since we can’t find her, our vessel must have seen through her ruse and obliterated her. That could be her.” He pointed at and followed a speck of dust rolling across the deck.

She…” Dry suddenly couldn’t find the words, like she had dropped them and was too afraid to look around in the fear she might pick up a piece of the possibly-departed passenger instead. “She was no factory-fresh computer, but she couldn’t have been that foolish. She must’ve seen something.”

If she doesn’t reappear in the next few days I would say it’s safe to assume she’s dust in the wind,” Lime claimed, leaving the group seconds later. The rest of them stood about, waiting for her to pop out from behind a corner and explain herself.

I don’t think I need to wait the few days,” Sonny commented, ambling away as well.

Another one down,” Dry noted. “And I haven’t had to lift a finger. You 2 are the real killers.” Silver and Roman shared a glance. Char was dead over the brazen head, and now Zola at the mere sight of Roman. Maybe we’re bad luck; we do come from way out in the sticks. Pluto is a distant shadow compared to Vulcan.

When Silver emerged from their thoughts they were once again alone, except for the heat of the Viper True’s signaling glass curiously warming the back of their neck. 6 months to go. Still no captain. Still no idea where they were actually headed.

(continued in part three)

One thought on “Planet in Theory: Riverboat Without a Captain (part two)

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