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

(back to part one)

(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 34 minutes)

September 22nd


Tell the Ice Floes to Hold that Pose

The chill in the air had less to do with the time of year and more to do with the waters they had entered: Rivulet M14. At times across the year they had seen other ships passing, many of whom signaled them with flashing lights and flares, their crews and passengers practically hanging over the side as they waved. There were likely radio broadcasts as well, but the Viper True made sure no machine aboard received them.

Sometimes someone on another vessel saw it as their only chance to interact with the legendary ship, jumping overboard and attempting to swim the distance. They never made it, and thought the Viper True’s pace was too swift to tell, Silver doubted they all made it back to their original vessels either.

None of that had happened in months. They were well outside regular shipping lanes now. No freight, no explorers, and not even so much as a ghost ship. Birds were shockingly absent as well, the only life pods of whales and porpoises that sometimes kept pace with the ship. They were remarkably intelligent and acted as if they were familiar with the Viper True, some of them ‘docking’ in the slats of the paddle-wheels to ride them up and around like it was a floating amusement park.

The lowest point of the ship that the passengers could access was what could only be called a pre-maintenance tunnel, as while it contained some pipes and valves it was clear the Viper True wouldn’t allow them further access to the much messier private plumbing. Down there was partly flooded, in a sense, as only the unlikely portions of the water passed through the hull, and they did so without enough substance to wet your leg hair even if you stood in them.

Long Odd Silver rarely wanted to be alone, but if they found themselves in such a state unwillingly they often visited that low area for 2 reasons. The first was that it suited the mood; it just looked and felt like the sort of place where you might get lost and hear the long low thoughts of mankind’s many machines.

2nd was the little bit of company that did appear at certain times of the day, only if you were standing knee deep in water that couldn’t wet. A pair of unlikely dolphins, with dorsal fins in the shape of a 4 and a 5 as an indication of their odds, would pass through the 2to1 hull and let their blowholes get a taste of the stuffy air people hoarded for themselves.

Both would have allowed Silver to stroke their backs, but only the 4to1 was close enough to the Plutonian’s current odds to allow contact. The animals tittered and squeaked when they saw their visitor, occasionally showing off a flip that had the tips of their tails passing through the copper pipes overhead.

The creatures were perfectly willing to listen to Silver venting their problems, but the passenger often lamented that there wasn’t much to report in specific detail. Every time they had passed through a door and found 2 or more of their fellows engaged in conversation it had almost instantly broken up, the pieces drifting away.

Still, the dolphins heard about the few facts and patterns that had been firmly established. Unless hiding a past as a champion of the child’s game Hide and Seek, Zola Gorgon was certainly deceased. Her belongings were removed from the suites she’d taken up residence in, presumably tossed into an industrial furnace behind a wall by the Viper True to help keep the lights on.

Everyone else had their routines. Sonny spent many evenings on the bridge, in close with the shade of the captain, sometimes talking to it, which Silver had overheard. It was daring of him to stand so close to it, even whispering in its ear, as anyone could have snuck up behind and pushed him into a promotion. It seemed he counted on his formidable size, doubting anyone could move him an inch even with a flying kick.

Motley Tart had found where the ship kept physical copies of many films that it liked to show in the screening rooms. These were actual reels, which hadn’t been in use since the advent of electroglass across the planets. He kept himself busy archiving each and every frame in his cards, musing about the movies, glitz, its drunken sister glamour, and the city of Hollycould, which took the place of the 1to1 Hollywood in probable space, filtering all the entertainment from the real world and deciding what to release and how to edit it, exercising intoxicating godlike power over the world of stories.

It was all surprisingly romantic of the short and unpleasant man who had previously seemed more interested in sticking his camera into mouse holes in order to snap a rodent affair and blackmail them out of some table scraps. I’ve been out here so long even he’s becoming interesting. Strange that, with that camera always hanging around his neck, he never takes pictures of any of us. Surely this voyage is worth recording. Every one the Viper takes is one for the ages.

Nobody would allow him to use that flash of his, but that should hardly be enough to stop him. He’s a nervous fella, but not without some grit. If he set his mind to something it could do more than his body looks capable of.

Roman was still Roman, doing little but making sure his body was capable of everything his mind could do and then some. He still acted as if all of this would come down to a boxing match at some point, and practiced ducking so he could keep his head low until that happened.

Dry was at least willing to have dinner with Silver these days, as she seemed to have finally grown bored of exploring the ship and wasting away in the luxury of her cabin. Whatever her plan was she already had it drawn up, and was simply waiting for its trigger or a variable that would require it to be redrafted.

She could also be counted on for friendly card games or cardistry sparring, with dulled edges of course. She threw in the Cat Steps style, which kept cards near the floor to send foes off balance, but she liked to throw in a lot of high bounces that could strike the neck and chin if you weren’t careful.

That left Galatin Lime, who roundly left himself out of Silver’s observations. The man was seen only when he wanted to be seen, and only doing the most harmless things: fishing off a low balcony without ever landing anything, reading books without visible titles or authors, trying on clothes from the seemingly endless racks that could feed out of the ship’s walls, and playing variants of solitaire that none of the others had ever heard of with rules that could not be discerned.

Who was he talking to in that vision I had of him? Clearly it was about the Viper True, and I suspect this very voyage. He’s not here for himself; the man has clients. He mentioned that nothing regarding their interests could happen until… what was it? Until after ‘gridlock’ and ‘the painting’.

What do you suppose gridlock is?” they asked the dolphins one day, unaware the answer was forthcoming. Something felt off that afternoon, a sensation they could only place when they shivered. Even though it was too unlikely to ruin their footwear, Silver could feel the intense chill in the water as it lapped at their ankles.

The dolphins felt it as well, numbered fins going rigid. They complained in their upbeat language and then abandoned ship by diving back through it. An abrupt exit was not very much like them; they usually stuck around long enough for Silver to feed the 4to1 a tin of tuna they had smuggled from the galley. Now it sat heavy in their pants pocket with nowhere to go.

Investigation would be prudent, and also one of the few available activities they hadn’t worn out anyway, so Silver started making their way to the upper deck to see if there was anything that could account for the shift in temperature. They emerged to heavy uniform cloud cover, like muslin pulled across the sky. It was the sort of view where the color looked expertly tucked into the horizon: the turndown service provided by some indentured repressed demigod expressing herself with concerningly tight military corners.

Under the gray a biting breeze blew, ripping silver tears off their face, streaking the light makeup they rarely tried wearing for that very reason. I only painted this face on to have something to do. Suppose now I could do it again. But hang on… what’s he painting? Looks a good deal better at it than I am.

At first they assumed they were looking at the back of Galatin Lime, for the man on deck, very near the railing, was too small to be Sonny and too large to be Motley. Roman wouldn’t be caught dead that near any form of artistic expression, even a mostly blank canvas like the man had on an easel, secured against the wind by several fur-lined clips. He was seated on a black wooden stool which also had furry feet, presumably to keep it from scratching.

Not Lime either. Not with that equipment. Long Odd Silver had never seen him use such objects before, and there was no way they were provided by the Viper True. Everything the ship sent them on railings or unveiled by popping open surprise compartments, sometimes startling them, had the same sort of character.

The items were always polished to a shine, made of the same materials, and often etched or embossed with the ship’s name in some way. The man’s easel and stool had seen their first use and many beyond, coated as they were in scratches and green patches of oxidation. So where had these things come from, how had they gotten aboard, and for that matter how did their owner?

With plenty of wind to throw caution to, Silver didn’t introduce themselves with words, instead waltzing over and leaning their back on the railing just past the canvas so that any effort to paint the seas beyond would be enhanced with the scoundrel’s smug image.

Before either of them spoke Silver noticed a few things. The canvas was not canvas at all, but a large panel of electroglass; the artist was at work with his hands rather than a brush. He painted Rivulet M14 by sweeping his palm across the bottom while his fingertips handled the details almost as if he banged away on a typewriter.

Through its transparent edge they saw the man himself, and to their surprise he looked vaguely familiar. People often did to them, but they assumed it was the result of having at least one past life before being dragged out of the aether and pressed into a book by the powers that thought Pluto shouldn’t be. The artist’s visage came across as much more recent and concrete, the sensation that they recognized him less of a whisper in the ear and more of a pebble in the shoe.

With eyebrows like lounging polar bears and a nose big enough to be the glacier they slept on, he looked old and distinguished enough to spend his time wearing top hats and cutting ribbons, but his clothing was humble, even a touch thin for the weather, stained with paint even though he wasn’t using the traditional medium at that moment. Thick square spectacles had an impressive run down his Olympic ski slope nose, stopping dangerously close to a fall in a trick that would’ve been given a perfect score had there been any judges, and all just to angle his face and examine Long Odd Silver in turn.

Am I ruining the view?” they asked him, smirking.

On the contrary.” He smiled, but it was a polite old man smile: a figurative pat on the head. “It’s nice to see a friendly face, but you’re not sneaking into this painting. I don’t snap people.” Silver looked puzzled. “Ah, sorry. Not snapping anymore hah. Used to be a photographer, worked in black and white. Past few years I’ve moved onto this though. Makes me feel more involved in the whole process. A lot of people probably go from button-pusher to brush-stroker as they slow down.”

I assume you know where you are?”

The deck of the PS Viper True as it heads for 1to1 waters. Right where I’m supposed to be. Are you?” Silver shuffled away a little, just in case they actually were blocking his efforts. The digital finger painting continued as they spoke.

I slip in where I fit. I don’t mean to interrupt, but I’m just very curious about you. Who are you? How did you get here? I had to crash an instrument to do it, and the poor thing is now playing the blues at the bottom of these waters.”

Heh,” he laughed, or perhaps it was meant as a full response. Eventually he added to it when Silver didn’t stop staring. “I came here because I’m under contract with Probable Geographic. They need no less than 10 images from me of the most majestic and harrowing landscapes I can find, all having to do with odds disasters. It’s for a new coffee table book.”

You boarded the impossible-to-board ship headed out of this world and into the one that made it big… for a coffee table book?”

They have coffee table books over there in the real world too you know. Nobody’s too good to flip through one.”

That’s it!” Silver placed aloud, snapping their fingers. “Aleatory Books! I saw a picture of you on the back cover of a book, in the library shop owned by an old flame of mine on Pluto.”

Pluto? That flame must’ve died if you’ve come this far and they haven’t.”

Oh no, all my flames are pilot lights. You must be Plutonian yourself then.”

In a sense, but I’ve never been there.” Silver expressed puzzlement once more; the artist rolled his eyes, sending his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “Don’t be offended. I’m thinking of taking a trip there soon. My own work informs me that it’s lovely.”

I’ll like you even better if you start making sense,” Silver offered.

You remember the swing of things,” he said, hands faltering briefly. “Tons of people on Pluto were born in the midst of their lives, in cribs filled with all sorts of context, and that stuff doesn’t grow on trees. A civilization has libraries, those libraries have books, ergo those books must have authors and those authors must have done the work to produce them.

So here I am. Pluto made me to fill out some of its context, but that context was photos from other worlds in addition to Pluto. In order for me to have taken those other photos I had to have been on those other worlds.”

But no instrument of space travel reached Pluto until 6 months after its demotion,” Silver recollected, with no doubt at all considering they had quickly been locked up on one of those ships.

Pluto allows me to cut those corners to make sure the work gets done, so it could slap the name K.J. Seaborg on little pieces of its counterfeit history to make it feel lived-in.”

That was the name I saw! Tell me, what’s the K and what’s the J? And also how do you travel through space without knowing an instrument?”

Kieran Julip Seaborg is the name.”

Julip!? That was my Minty’s family name. Could there be any relation?”

I suppose so, that or Pluto was running out of ideas. Never met a Minty though, sure as I’ve never stepped foot on the little guy post-planethood. As for travel, it just happens when it needs to happen. They couldn’t have me mucking up the established histories of Antichthon and the others, so I supposedly popped in when nobody was looking and snapped my pictures.”

And you’re still working?” He nodded, the question serving as a reminder that he needed to get back to it. A new color came into the composition, and a lot of it. Mr. Seaborg painted it on with his entire forearm, like he was wiping grime off a window to peer through.

What did you say you were here to paint?”

See for yourself.” He threw out a hand without looking away from his electroglass. Long Odd Silver didn’t need to look, for the sight quickly overtook them, and the entirety of the Viper True, as it cleanly divided the gray sky.

Colossal walls of ice, higher than their vessel even if the Viper had built her own decks 10 stories higher, were suddenly there on both sides. A corridor of cold air descended, and while it killed the wind Silver could now see their breath billow out in front of them. Mr. Seaborg must’ve set the sensitivity of his canvas extremely high, for he was able to apply a misty layer to his composition just by breathing the correct texture onto it. The walls were so overwhelming that Silver could hear them simply being, groaning like an old philosophy buckling under new schools.

Ginny Tonic that’s high!” Silver declared, so startled that they didn’t even know where the blurted name had come from. Maybe old Ginny was 2 worlds away, enjoying brunch, her ear tickling because someone said her name, and all because there was a name that needed to be thrown in front of surprises.

Over 300 feet,” Seaborg said, the source of the information unclear. His painting didn’t even include the top, just chronicled the different textures in the great walls as they drifted through the crevice.

Their vessel came to a crossroads, Silver seeing an arrangement of ice so straight and orderly it could’ve been a downtown intersection; all it was missing was the traffic lights. Seaborg claimed he was there to chronicle a disaster, but the monoliths of sea ice were entirely in order, and unless the sections under the surface were much more jagged, they were all perfect cubes, at least on the order of magnitude above Long Odd Silver’s.

You can’t call these icebergs,” they said, whirling around, hoping to see something a little less arranged and a little more natural. Nothing but more walls, corners, and straightaway canals in every direction.

Technically that’s still what they are,” Seaborg said. “The Viper True is entering higher odds, places where nature becomes more orderly to compensate. In the 1to1 everything is a right angle, never a wrong angle.”

We’re not in actual space are we?”

No, not yet. I don’t think so anyway, never talked to the captain. This is just probable space’s attempt to be like its big brother: a silly unconvincing imitation. Gorgeous view though.”

I agree, but it makes me uneasy. I should hope we don’t have to turn anywhere in this maze. These corners look too tight for even the snakiest viper to take.”

She won’t even try it,” the artist informed.

What do you mean?”

She can’t. As long as we’re in this orderly patch probable computers won’t work. Trinary code doesn’t function in this air, only boring old binary.” Stricken with panic, Silver whipped out their deck and tried to turn on one of their cards:

no signal

They flipped to another:

cannot configure

Remembering there would be an even better indicator, Silver turned to Viper True’s shiny topper: the signaling glass. Its usual rotation had ceased, no light collected in its lens, which was now grayer than the sky, and the bird footage it often contained had died and fallen out of view. The Viper True was equally dead in the water.

Yet they surged through the canals at high speed, partly from the current and partly from momentum. Her slumber could be felt underfoot as a new stillness free from engine pounding, heat venting, and pipe vibrations. If anything beneath Silver moved it was the other rats that had snuck aboard, scurrying around in confusion, wondering if they missed their opportunity to abandon a sinking ship.

You said you were commissioned to paint disasters?” Silver asked.

Yes, and here it comes.” Seaborg pointed past the bow without looking away from the walls in his work, which were merely to be the background rather than the eyes’ main course. That was reserved for something much spicier: a raging red fireball and its gooey black scorch marks splattered across something as impenetrable as a 1to1 planetary crust.

The rows of ice blocks were shifting, maintaining perfect parallels, but not perpendiculars. One of the blocks was now squarely in the Viper’s path, and though it was far ahead there was nothing to slow them down or motivate a turn. Their voyage was about to end, with 6 deaths instead of the one true life they were after.

We can’t be doomed,” Silver said in disbelief. We can’t. The Viper True does this every year and it has never crashed before. And it can’t be the first time this obstacle has come up. So previous passengers have beaten it. How? How do we get her to stop her fat steel bottom before she paints us across that wall?

Ginny Tonic!” a new voice gasped, faltering to ponder where the name had come from. Apparently Ginny hung around in probable space just so people could react to these politely queuing ice cubes. This time her name came out of a Dry mouth. Silver ran to her, just in time for the rest of the passengers to come up the stairs behind her, all having either sensed the cold, noticed the Viper’s unresponsiveness, or seen ice age slabs out a porthole.

The Viper’s computers don’t work in this ice and we’re going to crash,” Silver told them as succinctly as possible. The others still had to confirm it for themselves, rushing past only to immediately see it was all plainly obvious. Signaling glass down. Crushing walls on both sides. Another growing in front of them. The knowledge was so traumatic and immediate that none of them even queried about the complacent old man painting their desperation on the starboard side.

You know this ship somehow!” Roman barked at Galatin. “How do we get it to stop?” For once the man in green did not look entirely composed, rubbing his jaw with one hand aggressively, mulling over ideas even as they formed an avalanche out his ears.

We can’t kill each other if the ice kills us first!” Dry stressed to further convince him to speak up, but nothing could rush the process of accepting faulty elements of a desperate plan. Eventually the man got there on his own.

There are 2 manual overrides, one for each paddle, meant to stall them in case a chain snaps and they turn out of control. We have to get down there and pull them.” He took out a card and frantically tapped on it, pulling up stored data that didn’t require communication with the Viper True. He had a map of the ship’s layout, like the one Silver had copied on their first day there.

Lime zoomed in and marked the paths necessary to reach each override, then copied them onto other cards and handed them out.

Sonny and Roman take the port side,” he instructed.

I’ll go with Silver,” Roman blurted, but he couldn’t have his way for a variety of reasons just then.

No you won’t damn it!” Lime snapped, more agitated than they’d ever seen him. “You 2 are the strongest, so the other team needs 3 people.”

What about you?” Sonny asked.

I’ll stay up here and watch our course. Without computers our cards can’t call each other, so I have to deliver instructions manually too.”

And just how are you going to do that?” Tart asked, already wiping sweat off his forehead with his hat even though he hadn’t had to exert himself yet.

When you get to the overrides open the access hatches on the walls; they’ll let you see the paddles as they turn. Orders will come through there, now move if you want to live!” He turned and rushed toward the bow, throwing off his outer jacket to free up his arms, then aggressively shuffling his cards to limber up his fingers and wrists.

The other passengers obeyed, but naturally Roman couldn’t do so perfectly. He broke away from Sonny on the stairs to grab Silver’s shoulder, pull them down to his level, and snarl in their ear.

No computers means nobody watching. They’ll try to take you out.”

I wish somebody would take me out,” they answered back, letting him know that nothing, be it fire, ice, metal, or the catastrophic collision of all 3, could cause them to drop their roguish charm. The Plutonians split up and disappeared into different halves of the ship’s innards.

Despite their suave response, Silver knew full well that the prince was absolutely correct. The signaling glass couldn’t fry any of them while it didn’t turn, but they judged treachery to be of no concern while they were still barreling toward their demise. Oddly enough Lime was the one who all but ensured that by insisting everyone’s strength would be needed in full.

His directions couldn’t have been clearer, but they were slowed by the fact that they had to pass through doors they’d never noticed before, ones that the Viper True had tried to draw their attention away from at all times. They were set deep in corners of narrow passages, handles flush with the rest of the door, hinges invisible as they merged with molding. They stuck and squealed when forced open, the wood wobbling loud when it had to give way.

The area Silver, Dry, and Tart found was much like the pre-maintenance tunnels that led Silver down to the dolphins’ foyer, free from dust and grime despite its disuse. Pipes wider around than a hippopotamus formed floor to ceiling columns, cinched together with rivets the size of bowling balls.

Navigating through a miniature orchard of them got the group to the override, which couldn’t be mistaken for anything else thanks to the access hatch on the wall next to it, which was made mostly of glass and showed the great paddles turning through it, tossing icy water at it with disrespectful slapping sounds.

The override itself was a wide black bar bereft of good places to grip, connected to another great wheel with blunt iron teeth. Motley made a run for it, nearly threw himself on the bar, simply assuming that down was the correct direction to push.

Wait you idiot!” Dry shouted at him.

For what!?”

We need a signal,” she explained, running past him and grabbing the lever of the access hatch. Silver joined her, right up against her back, arms weaving through hers. Together they tried to force it open, but it was even more stubborn than the tucked-away door. “If we stop our paddle before the other one we’ll turn and smash into one of the walls!”

With a mutual grunt they finally forced it. The lever’s screech was their only warning as the panel flew open, knocking them over. Water immediately sprayed in and spread across the floor. There went all the traction they might’ve needed to force the override down. The spray was continuous, and loud, so Tart had to scream in order to keep whining.

So where’s this signal? How the hell does Lime get it to us huh!? We’ll drown before we hear a peep out of him! He’s probably in a lifeboat already!” There was more to his fictitious account of the exploits of Galatin Lime, but they were cut off by another new visitor to the override room. A single electroglass card cut through the pounding spray around the wheel, traveled between 2 turning slats, and found the center of the access hatch. It embedded itself in the side of the override’s wheel with a piercing metallic note.

Stop the paddles now!” Lime’s voice emanated from the card: a recording. It could only play once, as the wheel it was stuck in kept spinning and quickly turned the card’s glass to glittering powder as it got crushed in the jamb, powder that rained down on the 3 bodies that had by then flung their full weight onto the override bar.

It didn’t budge, not until Long Odd Silver employed their impeccable balance to stand on top of it. A few angry jumping stomps dislodged it, dropping the bar several feet. The connected wheel ground to a halt, which in turn slowed the paddles out the access hatch. It took the giant wheel much longer, but it did come to a full stop. The same could not be said for the Viper True, caught as it was in the current of the Rivulets. The spray had ceased, so the trio could bend their necks uncomfortably and see the ice wall beyond, see that it was still gliding by at a brisk pace.

We’re screwed! We’ve got to abandon ship!” Motley sputtered.

Just wait!” Dry ordered, clinging to the bar like a chameleon to a branch in the middle of a typhoon. “If Lime can make a throw like that he knows what he’s doing!” She wasn’t wrong, and not just because she bitterly wanted to keep all compliments regarding her rivals to herself. The facts of Lime’s feat weren’t lost on Silver either.

A throw like that, without a platinum card, is barely possible. Could I do it? Maybe, but I might need better motivation than saving my own non-life. Not only did he have to throw it halfway across the ship, but also down, also strong enough to break through the spray, also timed to pass through the slats, also aimed precisely at the access hatch. Then he had to do it again, one second later, on the other side.

He must have, since we’re not turning. All without computer assistance. Where’s a man like that going with his cardistry? It would be an outright shame if he made it to the 1to1. They don’t bother with the art over there, just spraying each other with pesky obnoxious bullets instead. All Lime’s talent will vanish the moment he crosses over.

Except he probably isn’t. Remember he’s not here for himself. His mysterious clients want the 1to1 prize. He’s just facilitating. He knew this was going to happen… at least part of it. Seaborg has to be the painter he was talking about! All this crisscrossing ice has to be ‘gridlock’. We’re here. If we make it through this his plan goes into motion.

Lime made the absurd throw again, but this time slipped slightly into the margin of error, as the card nearly sliced into Dry’s neck. Silver caught it between 2 fingers, undoubtedly saving her life. The woman’s eyes were alive with 10,000 conflicting emotions, but they crested and broke when the card spoke up.

We’ll still crash,” the recording of Lime informed them. “Have to release the bar on your side, but wait for signal!”

Now we want to turn!?” Motley cried, nearly rolling off the bar in his slippery agitation. “It’s too tight a corner!”

A scrape is easier to survive than a crash,” Silver told him. “Just think of it as a close shave.” There was an agonizing amount of time to think of it that way, to accidentally imagine the razor slipping into the skin and producing a genuine rivulet of blood. Where was that signal? The ice still flew by, welcomed them deeper.

Maybe we don’t have to turn after all. If the line in front of us kept moving there was likely another gap between blocks. We could slow down just enough to pass into it, then speed up. Are we in it now?

A tiny sound interrupted their thoughts, like a songbird landing on a single wind chime. Silver looked at the others who shared the same expression, meaning they’d heard it too… from right outside the hatch.

Was that the signal?” Tart asked, lips contorted in terrified confusion. If it was then Lime had slipped further into error, missed the throw by inches, and the card had bounced uselessly off the side of the Viper True.

Making that throw 3 times in a row would be a miracle,” Dry said, but didn’t convince herself to act.

It’s a safe bet,” Silver said through gritted teeth, leaping off the bar and pulling the other 2 by their clothes to cut down on arguing. With the bar freed of their weight the wheels turned once more, and seconds later the Viper True did as well.

Frigid air blasted into the override compartment, made the chill in their bones compete with the tremble of adrenaline. The ice got closer, to the point where Mr. Seaborg could’ve just inked its surface and used it as a stamp instead of bothering to interpret it.

We have to get back on right? To stop the turn? When?” Tart asked, and this time he was asking Silver directly, having made up his mind about the captain’s identity even without their shoes filled. For their part Silver waited, breathed, and watched the wall curve toward them.

Now!” they shouted, throwing their weight back onto the bar. When the other 2 joined it moved much more easily than before, the paddle ceasing its rotation and its spray all over again. Relative peace swept in, but not more orders from their navigator.

We didn’t crash… but now we’re going sideways!” Dry pointed out. “The ship had us going straight. We need to turn into another lane going our original direction. If we don’t get where she wanted us to go her computers might never switch back on.”

Long Odd Silver was in agreement, and so made another executive decision, this time involving their own deck. A platinum card could make the journey, but one didn’t present itself at the top of the pile, so Silver didn’t dare appoint them to the task. The scoundrel’s own card and skill would have to get the job done. They hit record on a jack of wheels.

Have to course correct. Do we turn again?” Silver had to give Jack every advantage in preparation of a throw like that, which meant hopping off the bar and hanging out the hatch as far as possible. They did so without asking permission, leaving Tart and Dry struggling to keep the bar down, feet slipping and sliding on the wet floor.

Do hurry back!” Miss Burgundy spat sarcastically, but Silver committed what was a cardinal sin to them, ignoring a beautiful woman, all to save her life of course. The air out the hatch wasn’t salty, but the cold was plenty to irritate their eyes as they tried to line up the throw across half the flank of the gigantic ship.

This is a bind for someone who knows how to throw Express Mail style. What I wouldn’t give to have that Goldie Cider woman from the Survivor Function here; she could poke a hole in the heart of the central fire. Think about all that power, put that in your arm. No getting out of it this time. I have to use raw power, that greedy corrupting stuff that grows walls between people and then grows them thicker.

Silver grunted in a fashion that was almost alien to them, a sound they might list as a symptom the next time they visited a physician, and hurled the jack of wheels with the message tucked in his cap between the paddle and the hull. The card tore through the air with a determined spin, made it up to the deck, and was spotted several seconds later by Galatin’s backward glance.

Spotting it was not catching it however, and even Silver’s best throw went wide. The man saw the missed connection coming, ran toward the bow to catch it. Halfway there the railing blocked him from going overboard, but he had to lean and roll onto his back to snag Jack. Pinwheeling arms saved him, just barely. He listened to the card’s cargo.

It didn’t take long for him to agree with the starboard side’s assessment; they needed their original heading. That meant more throwing, and his arm already felt like a rope of melting licorice. His right shoulder ached in a protest that was about to become a full blown strike. None of that changed that he had to make the throw at least 3 more times.

First Silver and their sidekicks needed to know that their work was, hopefully, done. The fastest way to get back to their original path was to have Sonny and Roman do some work for a change, but only at the right moment, when another lane presented itself.

2nd was the card telling those boys to let up, and 3rd would order them back on, an order that might also have to be issued to Mr. Lime’s limbs when this was all over. He went to work recording quick messages for both parties, watching the icebergs go by with one eye all the while. They were uniform in size, and he’d found enough of a rhythm to know another lane between them was coming up swiftly.

There wasn’t time to consider the aftermath, wherein the passengers below might find themselves no longer in troubled waters and still unsupervised. They could tear each other apart, which didn’t work for Lime, not if certain passengers got themselves torn before their time that is.

With a deep breath he reared back, sending Silver’s jack of wheels on a return path. Before he could feel the strain hit he bolted across the deck, spun around like he was about to pitch in the 11th inning, and sent a 3 of drinks rocketing down to Roman and Sonny.

Silver was no slouch, lucky considering they had to meet the cards halfway at this point. Lime was obviously too fatigued to throw as accurately, so the Plutonian was watching with kestrel eyes for the reply, calculating its lacking trajectory as soon as they caught sight of it. They had to exit the Viper True, leaping into one of the slots between paddle sections.

Though free of biofouling, the surface was slicker than the belly of a Casanova penguin. Staying upright was quite a task, one that terminated in Silver violently striking the edge of the wheel. Even so they still had to keep one arm free to reach out and catch the card, which they did.

Roman Koch wasn’t to be outdone by anybody, even unaware of the competition, and he proved himself yet again when Lime’s second throw headed for his side. The man was already mirroring his fellow Plutonian, hanging out the hatch on watch while Sonny, who had almost twice the raw mass, struggled to keep the override pressed.

I can’t hold this forever!” the large man stressed, the red in his face making the argument much more effectively. Across his life he was always the one expected to hold back any nearby drunken brawlers, as he just had that look to him. He was an ‘alright settle down now’ and a ‘you’re embarrassing yourself’ kind of man, but the ship’s guts weren’t interested in any of those platitudes.

The prince of Pluto didn’t respond, busy as he was watching a glinting speck spin its way closer and closer, but not close enough. Roman growled as he realized it wasn’t going to make it all the way, then did something significantly more useful by leaping out of the hatch and latching onto one of the paddle’s spokes. One arm broke away and made the catch; the card responded to his grip by spilling its guts: an order to release the override immediately. Sonny was too far to hear it, so Roman had to shout it.

We need to turn! Let go!”

Aye aye captain,” Sonny hissed, breaking away from the bar to catch his breath.

No, wait for-” Roman started, but it was too late. The riverboat’s giant paddle was turning again, this time with him attached. “Ginny give me strength. Wait, who the hell is Gi-” Water, and lots of it, swallowed up the prince of Pluto, challenged him to hang on through an entire revolution, a steep ask for royalty.

The water had a different character than he was used to in such anti-chaotic odds. The surface didn’t break when he submerged so much as integrate. Every molecule of it felt as if it was politely waiting in line next to his skin rather than wetting it, like he was packed shoulder to shoulder with water in an elevator and all its incarnations were too considerate to drown him.

Still, he didn’t risk opening his mouth. Bubbles escaping his nose quickly morphed into perfect cubes and ascended at rigidly equal intervals. There was no need to look down since the rotation of the wheel aimed his head that direction regardless, so when he glanced into the depths he saw a school of silvery fish traveling in a rectangular prism. Beneath them there was nothing, but presumably at some point there was a river floor swept so clean that it more resembled a Buddhistish sand garden.

Roman’s own zen was broken when he came out the other side and gasped. The feel of the water had brought the air’s traits into clarity as well. A full deep breath of it was like swallowing a bag of ice, feeling the individual pieces adjust their positions in his lungs as they conformed to their shape.

The strange sensation would’ve been enough for most people to forget themselves, peel off the paddle, and be lost to the Rivulets, but not the prince of Pluto, who recognized these as signs that the 1to1, his true throne, was at hand. All he had to do was play stowaway a while longer, and skip the link in ascending the chain of command that would have his name tag say ‘captain’.

Another card tested him, flying in from the bow. Roman caught it midleap as he broke away from the paddle and tossed himself back through the hatch, impacting in a puddle that was now so deep he nearly had to hold his breath again.

Stop now!” the card ordered as it was held one gasp above the water. Sunnyflower didn’t have his breath back fully despite not being the one who had just gone for a jaunty dive, so it took him longer than was optimal to get back on the override bar. Even then it didn’t bring the wheels to a full stop until Roman floundered his way over and joined him.

The Viper True criticized their sloppy technique with an ear-rending shriek. The side of the bow struck ice, slid across it. Chunks big enough to knock off a man’s head and replace it pelted the deck, tried to do the same to Mr. Lime. The last of his flinging energy was spent on the hail, his electroglass cleaving the chunks into 2 or more pieces deflected to harmless paths.

Such a fine, upstanding, lawfully ordered atmosphere couldn’t tolerate such chaos, so the wound in the iceberg’s side cracked further, the lines straightening out until they formed a grid. The injured section broke away, as many pieces as possible falling as ice cubes straight into the drink.

The horrible grind knocked all but the nimblest passengers off their feet, and also overturned every drink and toiletries cart within the ship, proof that the computers that would keep them balanced were still offline.

Having successfully realigned, the ship’s guidance wasn’t actually needed at the moment. Lime looked straight on, saw light far at the end of their latest frozen alley. The current could be counted on to take them straight through and out now, but having just shot down a barrage of deadly projectiles, he absolutely lacked the energy to get another card to either party. They would have to figure it out for themselves.

Roman and Sonny waited for more orders as they held the bar in submission. Both men breathed like they were emptying barrels over the side, but they got quieter and quieter the longer they went without a card flying in to interrupt. Implications started to cut through the raw masculine energy of their exertions. Juices of the devious mind flowed once more, straight and fast as the current underneath.

The prince would accept nothing less than the 1to1, and Mr. Oyle was presumably the same way even without a throne to his name. The Viper True couldn’t see them or lift a clockwork finger to stop them. Roman had a deck of cards tucked away. Suddenly they couldn’t hear each other breathing.

It might look li-” Sonny tried to say, but Roman opted for blows instead of words. He whipped out a small stack of cards, fanning them at the end of his reach and then slicing at Sonny’s bicep. The biggest problem was that they weren’t clear of the ice yet; releasing the paddle would send them veering straight into the wall.

That was what Mr. Oyle was trying to argue, that they didn’t have the opportunity to fight that it looked like they had, but Roman was already far past that. A fight could happen anywhere, even glued to the override bar. If he won and took Sonny’s life he would just have to make sure the big lug’s corpse wound up draped helpfully over the bar.

His first slash successfully drew blood, but Sonny slid to the end to minimize the cut’s depth. Roman pursued the short distance and tried striking with the arm that wasn’t wrapped around the bar a 2nd time. His opponent didn’t go for a deck, mostly because he didn’t actually have one on his person at that moment. The Viper True’s nap had caught him very off guard.

So Sonny was forced to block with nothing but a forearm, and to grab at Roman’s wrist whenever the opportunity came. He had all the strength necessary to twist it and force him to drop his cards, but he was too worn out from their efforts, and Roman’s arm was too wet and slippery from his little dip.

The big man fought a losing battle for an admirably long time, taking cuts to each wall of flesh he presented as defense, losing an entire sleeve off his shirt as well as all its buttons. Perhaps a truly desperate play could be made for the one card abandoned on the floor, the one containing Lime’s last instructions, but he judged that only a platinum card could hold off 52 others all on its own.

Wait!” he bellowed like an irate foghorn, the opening blow of his new tactic. “Don’t kill me! I’ve got information!” Roman sealed his advantage before giving the slightest indication he’d heard the man, squishing him into the corner of the bar, pressing the full hand of cards against the jowls that barely protected his throat.

Not sure I need any tips at this juncture,” Roman said, trying to sound like he wasn’t pushing with all his might to keep the large man crumpled in the corner. It was a good thing Sonny didn’t look down and see him on his tiptoes. “I know plenty about coming out on top.”

If you want to win you can’t just win,” Sonny reminded. “You have to get someone to fill the captain’s boots. Until then I can tell you it’s prudent to listen to everything, especially what I have to say.”

Convince me before that wall of ice outside starts being the horizon again.”

Promise me you won’t kill me if you find this of use.”

What’s a prince without his word?”

That’s not quite a promise your highness.”

You have my word, should I find it of use. Now spill your guts before I do it.”

There’s someone aboard this ship that you thought dead, but they are in fact alive. Release me and I will tell you not only who they are, but make sure they’re on your side in this whole mess… and I will explain myself completely, including why I’m really no threat to you.”

The world of Vulcan opened up again, sky replacing ice, though it still had its ominous oppressive color. Mr. Seaborg was hopefully done with his work by then, but there was no telling if his employers would accept a rendition of a disaster that only nearly occurred. Sonny and Roman felt it the moment they were free of the tidy floes, and so did their counterparts on the other side.

Roman wasn’t there to start it, but there was plenty of fight in both Mr. Tart and Ms. Burgundy. The moment the ice was gone, and they very much did not hear the ship’s inner workings spin back to life, they abandoned the override bar so the Viper True could drift wherever it pleased.

Long Odd Silver had clearly hoped saving Dry’s life mere minutes ago would count for something in this battle, and it did, but not very much when counted against the fact that she considered them to be a much stiffer opponent than Motley.

Dry threw herself across the floor into a slide, flicking out cards from both sides in a Cat Steps maneuver called Hangover Rhetoric. Silver avoided having any tendons sliced by hopping up on the now-spinning wheel, careful to jump away before they got pulled into the gears. Motley was the target of Dry’s other stream, and after stomping a few of the cards down like roaches he backed up and wrapped around one of the pipe-pillars.

He couldn’t hide there for long, as even a child cardist with only a training deck and 10 minutes practice could convince a projectile to round a corner. Once Dry had found cover of her own, hiding more from Silver, she prepared one such beginner’s toss, stalling only when there was the sound of a flashbulb and the flash to go along with it from behind the pipe.

Mr. Tart had the tool of his trade with him: a light with the power to instantaneously alter odds. Getting a person from 3to1 to 4to1 in one blast was a tall order, would likely require the source of the light to be mere inches from the skin, but if he succeeded the victim would fall straight through the floor, either dying on impact with an odds-reinforced hull or drowning in the Rivulets.

His opponents learned why he hadn’t aimed his first blast as a surprise when a card came curving out from behind his pipe, its surface bright white. It could be heard priming as it reached the center of the chamber, so Dry and Silver ducked behind objects as if a grenade were about to explode.

In a sense that was how the card functioned, unleashing all the light it had stored from Mr. Tart’s flash. His deck was somehow compatible with the device, and for every flash they heard they had to prepare to avoid another bomb that would strike everywhere but the shadows.

Tart’s flash happened again, but there would be no waiting for the throw. Both Silver and Dry had some choice cards for him and sent them his way. Naturally Dry’s Cat Steps training sent hers low while Silver’s went for the shoulder. The stubby little man wasn’t the fastest, but when he felt threatened he had the reflexes of a rat that had just bet its life on a shell game.

Treating himself like a card, he hopped and spun sideways in the air so each throw would miss him. What he failed to take into account was Silver’s Over the Moon technique, which convinced their card to orbit any body it got too close to. Before he could regain his footing the electroglass missile had already circled him twice, tighter each time, and taken a bite out of his elbow.

Screaming bloody murder, despite only shedding a few drops of the stuff, he rolled out from behind his cover, exposing himself and his camera flash to direct attack. In the end he didn’t suffer the consequences, as both Dry and Silver tried to emerge and strike at the same time, with Ms. Burgundy changing her mind part of the way, now seeing Silver’s vulnerability as more important to exploit.

It turned into a duel, with Motley too concerned with fashioning an impromptu tourniquet, for an injury no worse than a single peck from a determined woodpecker, to take advantage. Silver knew Cat Steps all too well, with it being the preferred style of Minty Julip, who just so happened to be the most adept at the style in the entire city where she was born.

The Plutonian was practically floating as they jump-roped over everything Dry threw at them. All the while cards snuck out of the flaps and corners of their clothing, joining orbiting belts about their waist and chest. Their paths were predictable, but there were so many of them that Dry had to slip into a defensive position, only thrusting with card stacks to try and interrupt the orbitals and send the cards twirling to the floor.

You’re off-book,” the woman commented while maintaining her focus, referring to Silver’s chimeric style of cardistry.

Always have been,” was their reply, but they knew it wasn’t exactly true. Sure, Long Odd Silver came to be out of the book, thanks to Minty and her crystal tears, but I wasn’t always this dashing. I used to be something else, trapped between potentialities, intended as nothing more than a character in a universe that can’t even get up the nerve to exist. What would happen if I did take this situation into my own hands as much as these stuffy physics will allow?

While Silver silently pontificated Dry adapted, made an orbital sash of cards all her own, going in the opposite direction of Silver’s. Their clash created chaos, cards falling everywhere, Motley rolling to avoid them. The man rolled straight into the leg of Sunnyflower Oyle, who interrupted their battle by clearing his throat.

Cease fire!” he requested, but even at his intimidating size it took the throat-clear of something much bigger to get their attention and respect. The Viper True’s hum rose in their ears, back to its fullest. The hatch slammed shut as the door flew open. Pleasant music tickled the air, coaxing them out of the restricted areas so they could be sealed off and ignored once again.

I was just defending myself!” Mr. Tart insisted, telling it to the rafters as he scrambled back to his feet and collected his cards.

There’s no need now,” Sonny told him, clapping a hand on his shoulder, making it all but disappear. “We’re finished with our little charade.”

Oh it’s about damn time!” Motley somehow shouted and sighed at the same time. “I’ve never been so eager to catch a picture in my whole life.” Dry and Silver had no idea what he referred to, but Roman did; he stepped out from behind Sonny.

You’re going to want to see this,” was all he said to Silver, and he said it coldly.

Everybody is,” Motley added, digging one card in particular out of his deck. There was footage playing on it which clearly showed a giddy Zola Gorgon fleeing the greenhouse.

September 27th


The Imminent Danger of a Big Break

Sonny had a lot of explaining to do, and even though they were all incredibly worn out from their ordeal in the solar system’s largest ice cube tray, they expected him to get to it. Things did occasionally change aboard the Viper True however, try as the outside odds did to keep things neat.

New developments below decks required a delay in the explanation of several days, which Sonny was able to negotiate by turning over the single largest element he had promised the prince of Pluto in exchange for his life: an old employee of his.

Imagine the Plutonians’ surprise when the man retreated to his suite and returned with the brazen head. Long Odd Silver was overjoyed, immediately taking it from him and dancing around with it, hoisting it into the air, tossing and catching it, and even giving it a kiss without learning where exactly it had been the entire time.

Sonny was able to explain that before the passengers became too involved with the Viper True’s latest… let’s call it an atmospheric shift. It had become plain from their interaction at the override that Mr. Oyle and Mr. Tart were in cahoots, deep in the thick pudding of a scheme, and all he revealed at first was how the brazen head had tumbled into it.

How it survived the blast from the ship’s signal-glass was anyone’s guess, but the most likely explanation was that, since the intended target had been Char Sauvign, its effect on the head’s odds had only been momentary. It must have fallen into the ship’s hull before becoming too likely to pass through any more layers. Then it waited.

Silver correctly assumed it had wanted to be found by them, and would’ve called out if it recognized the sound of their footsteps, but unfortunately Silver was so graceful as to make less sound than an 8to1 cat most of the time.

Happenstance put it in the hands of Motley Tart, who had been wandering the ship’s corridors searching for staging locations, the significance of which was not known to the Plutonians until the full explanation came. Mr. Tart, in truth being nothing more than a contractor in the employ of Mr. Oyle on this voyage, immediately took the head to his boss to receive instructions regarding its potential uses.

Uses it had, but none that proved hazardous to any unintended targets. If the goal of the 2 men had been to genuinely ‘win’ their yearly expedition they likely would have done so, opportunistically neutralizing all other candidates and foisting one of them into captainship with the information provided them by the head.

Instead it had served mostly to fulfill their one goal, and partly to answer their own frivolous questions about their personal lives and hobbies, a use that Long Odd Silver and even Roman would never begrudge them.

With the one goal completed, the brazen head was free to be used as anything else, which in the end turned out to be a bargaining chip, saving Sonny’s life from the clever tactics of the vicious prince. The 2 co-conspirators weren’t too sad to see it go, as they no longer trusted it to be of service.

Over time its answers had grown different. They were no less direct, still just yer or no, but the aim of its inflection had changed. Both men sensed that it was irritable, that it very much wanted to be returned to its original owners, and was perfectly willing to mislead them into dangerous situations with the implications of a pause or an impregnated question mark.

Rather than keep it and fall victim to a planted misinterpretation, it was returned to the Plutonians, which in effect meant returning it to Long Odd Silver alone. Roman knew the quirks and uncooperative side of the head already, from his early time with it in Pluto’s demoted infancy.

Ever the tactician, he knew he was subject to the same sort of risks that Sonny and Motley sensed. The brazen head was not his friend, and would stab him in the back even without having any hands to wield a knife. So he turned it over to Silver, figuring it was best in the hands of the person least likely to harm him even if it came down to a final climactic confrontation between the 2.

As far as the head’s testimony of its time away, there was very little to add. It had been kept in Oyle’s quarters, in a drawer, and even when left out was unable to make any sort of request the Viper True could understand, and likely wouldn’t have responded to regardless given the object’s nature being only vaguely human. The ship would hear more nuance from a kettle whistle than any yes or no from its artificial lips.

Now, the delay between the set of explanations. Artists. It was all the fault of artists: a swarm of them. Mr. Seaborg wasn’t included, which Silver learned when they went looking and found he had indeed vanished, but the painter turned out to be the harbinger of many others, of a unique celebration the likes of which the Plutonians hadn’t seen since Saturnalia.

There was a profound connection between the 2 festivals, with most of the artists that showed up being Plutonian. They weren’t regular citizens like Roman, or irregular in the same fashion as Silver. Of Seaborg’s stripe they were, mostly context artists who did not live consistently, only appearing when and where they were needed to absorb some inspiration or create an adaptation of something in their preferred medium.

It was the Viper True’s passage into likelier waters, past the organized ice floes, that caused them to materialize. The phenomenon had happened aboard the vessel many times before, but never with more than a handful until Pluto had appeared and created an entire generation of them all at once.

No art form was overlooked either, so suddenly the few true passengers, who thought their numbers would only shrink until year’s end, found themselves rubbing elbows with poets, sculptors, painters, musicians, actors, comedians, novelists, glassblowers, potters, directors, composers, and some who worked in esoteric mediums that couldn’t be fully explained to anyone but the creator. One even called himself a space-time artist, with the passengers, and his peers, choosing to give him a wide berth given how much his attempts to describe his work just sounded like recollections of crime scenes and mass graves.

Most of the rest were a good deal friendlier. They were there to drink in the story of the riverboat, and flocked to those who had actually struggled to get aboard. The Viper True seemed almost flustered with the sudden influx, all her trays and carts racing around constantly at top speed, sometimes with nothing on them because she couldn’t keep supply up in the stratosphere with the demand.

For while these were context artists, not whole in any sense, they drank like entire artists, maybe even entirely-too-much artists. They ate again like artists, which is to say like people who couldn’t afford their own food most of the time. They also made sure every leisure facility was constantly at full capacity, to the point that the Viper True even had to replace a few dance floors so their swinging moves didn’t cut too much rug and drop them on the heads of those dining in the restaurants below.

Despite these challenges, the Viper True managed to maintain the absolute privacy her real guests had come to expect. No artist was able to manifest in an occupied room, and could only enter if invited. Silver felt safe leaving the brazen head to its thoughts on the decorative pillows while they went out and sized up the party, which quickly transitioned into joining it, which quickly transitioned into becoming the life of it.

Like a parched desert bird, too hot to fly, Long Odd Silver had felt themselves dying without company for months, and now they had it in droves. For the first day or so it was perfection, but even without our scoundrel being a picky person, a problem still arose like a snag in the carpet.

They all wanted the silver siren as their muse. Dropped out of an unwillingly opened book, streaming shimmering tears at all hours of the day, and stuffed to the gills with swashbuckling stories seasoned and spiced with romantic trysts, cloak, and more than a pinch of dagger, Long Odd Silver was every artist’s dream, was the very creature they struggled to interpret perfectly on the page, or in the case of one of the artists that cornered them, the gelatin mold.

Silver’s tears were the focal point, and how could they not be? Here was a person who appeared to overflow with emotion, to feel everything for everyone, and to somehow be at peace with the endless storm surge of it. Silver lived in the eye of the human condition maelstrom and yet never so much as spilled their drink.

So while they were very glad of the company, glad to step into one of the Viper True’s largest rooms to a shocking wave of welcoming enthusiastic hoots, howls, and whistles as if tripping the mechanism on a surprise birthday party, the center of attention was not exactly their favorite coordinates in the social circle.

Long a creature of companionship, Silver strove for love rather than admiration. To them there was no greater display of love, no truer expression of it, than quiet comfort: forgetting the other person is there, but noticing immediately when they depart. Love is taking doses of someone instinctively, like taking meals. Love is including them in lists of necessities. Let’s see, for this morning’s shower I’ll need soap, shampoo, the loofah, my lover, shower cap…

The slavering affection of the artists definitely wasn’t that. They didn’t allow Silver to slip between them like mercury, which then prevented the frustrated Plutonian from inserting themselves into new friendships and flirtations organically, like an alley cat hopping up onto what it has sensed as a hospitable lap.

One evening, after having explained their journey to crazy8 and back 8 times already, Silver finally found not a quiet moment, but one where all the conversation was elsewhere. It was an unintended gift from Motley Tart of all people, who actually took the 2nd prize for having the most fun with the torrent of artistic talent.

But for a lack of charisma, Mr. Tart could’ve wound up in show business instead of funny business. The man was an embarrassment of a film buff, the sort who had watched every significant release and now spent his time predicting what movies would eventually get made and with which actors to sate his cravings, like a general perched over a wartime map pushing troop and vehicle figurines back and forth.

As such he was able to reflect some of the context artists’ enthusiasm back at them, because of course he’d seen the work of the filmmakers, screenwriters, and actors present, and he had a lot to say about them too. He gave to them the context they were supposed to supply to the worlds, filled them in on their own legacies and how their influence shook out in the gold pans of Hollycould.

Once he had their full attention he brought out an electroglass card and showed them a snippet of footage, the same one the true passengers had seen and still not gotten an explanation for: a bug-eyed Zola Gorgon. The little man in purple claimed it was probably as close as he would ever come to getting to direct his own production, and that he had chosen to employ several filmmaking techniques in the process despite it being completely unnecessary.

The artists gathered around to witness his short film in total, having to cluster in tightly because Mr. Tart was not yet willing to show it on anything larger than a card, or perhaps had been instructed not to until given the go-ahead by his boss Sonny.

While the partygoers were so distracted Long Odd Silver was able to sit behind their backs unbothered, at one of the larger bars aboard the Viper True. The hubbub in the room finally soothed them now that they were comfortably in the background, just a moth wheeling around the spotlight, feeling it out for the perfect moment to dart across the beam and shine briefly, and perhaps be mistaken for something everyone had imagined.

So large that it required a bartender, but aboard the staffless Viper True, the bar where Silver now sat was instead manned by a complicated machine made of brass levers and glass vats, wearing an automated belt of liquor bottles. Slices of lemon and lime floated in tubs of seltzer, next door neighbor to bobbing cherries, their stems swirling in a waltz to the machine’s rhythm of pressurized pours and centrifugal shakes.

Altogether Silver thought it looked like a cross between a jazz drum set and the grouped collection of an eclectic aquarium enthusiast, but they didn’t judge it on its appearance since it could take their order of a Plutonian rod with a twist and pour it just as well as any human.

I’ll have the same, but on the rocks,” a woman told the machine behind the counter, sitting down next to Silver. Of all the qualities of her voice, and they were many, she spoke like a soothing mister applying dew to delicate potted orchids, it was its familiarity that intrigued Long Odd Silver, who looked over to see what sort of elegantly crafted vessel made such beautiful sounds when tipped and poured.

She was the same age as Silver, in the sense that it was difficult to judge her age at all, as long as you were in the bounds of ‘obviously not old’. Her skin was the color of toasted coconut and her hair the gloss of something just purchased from a high end department store that would, within minutes, never have that gloss again.

Big green eyes glanced back at Silver, their owner clearly recognizing them as well, but not surprised. Her lips soft as pastel slid open into a smile which slid open into words, an echo from planets and years away.

Someone who thinks they don’t need a ruler,” she said. “Someone who likes the land better lawless. A surprise challenger. The sultry somebody with the sparkling sadness. Gorge your eyes on Long thih” her breath hissed between her teeth, “Odd thih Silver.”

By the stars, that was a time,” Silver said, only 90% of the way through placing the memory and scouring it for this woman’s face and voice. The bar machine slid her her drink, dropped several rocks in. Clink, clink, clink! “Roxy Clink. That’s your name. You were the songstress at our boxing match. You introduced me to Roman.”

And the audience to you,” Roxy added with a nod. She swallowed half her drink in one swig.

Things went to hell in a hand basket right after that. The Survivor Function dropped in and attacked us… you and your band kept playing.”

When you pay for Roxy Clink and the Imminent Danger, you get Roxy Clink and the imminent danger.”

You mean to say you were always one of these context artists? You were there to flesh out our newborn world, and then you were somewhere else?”

That somewhere else was Phaeton. Ever been?” Silver shook their head. “Nice planet, calm. We were stuck there for a while though. Probable space decided our whole deal was that we were the musical accompaniment to unsafe situations. So after we had our first gig on Phaeton it was a long time before we got moved again, concerned as they are with safety procedures over there. When we did play shows it was mostly fires caused by overheating computer banks.

About 5 months ago we got a big break, thrown back to Pluto for the revolution.”


You haven’t heard?”

We get no news on the Viper True. She’s too busy preparing us for the next world I think, doesn’t want to distract us with the perils of the last one.”

Well you’ll remember that the Antichthonians barged into the joint and shut down Saturnalia. I saw in the cards that you were among those arrested and taken offworld when the encore went back to Antichthon.” Silver nodded while she finished her drink. The cluster around Mr. Tart gave the bartender enough breathing room to have her next one ready and slide it to her before the first glass was back on the wood.

So the Aunties installed their government puppets,” Roxy went on, “and the strings got in the way right out of the gate. They tied the simillion to their own currency, passed blasphemy laws more suited to the ghosts on their planet that wound up making giant headaches for everyone since Pluto has such a high 9 and 10to1 population that they technically got lumped in and regulated out of the last chances they had to come back down.”

Did they put on emergency masks?”

Some did, but the Aunties made carrying them criminal. They have a real hatred for crazy8s, would rather people die or fade than change.”

But you all revolted?”

Me and the boys were there, but I don’t want to take credit for any of it. If I did it would be one credit in one jukebox, and no more. You and I both know we Plutonians prefer chaos to democracy, but an election started looking like a wedding cake to us, one with another tier added every time an Aunty opened their mouth to take a bite out of the idea.

So we held one. Not exactly fair mind you. Nobody bothered to install rules against intimidation, or outright buying somebody’s vote. A woman named Tequila Sunrise wound up mayor of Atrium City.”

Oh I remember that name as well.” The automated bartender realized the tequila sunrise it was preparing was not actually requested, turning the involved vessels away from its patrons. “She was a Eudaemon. She betrayed our fair prince.”

And now it looks like she double-crossed Antichthon too. Her first act was to seize all instruments docked, and then use them to seize all the ones in orbit. All the Antichthonians got corralled out of the city, down south where it’s much colder.

They’re living in a shanty town called Bottom Dollar, and now a lot of them are getting so hardluck they need emergency masks themselves. Getting to be some real nasty crazy8s coming out of there, shooting out like cannonballs.

And now Antichthon is sending another force to get back all their property, instruments and people alike. Their en route, but when they get there it might be Pluto’s first real war.”

You haven’t heard anything about a person named Minty Julip have you?” Silver asked, as close to nervous as they could get. “Or that shop Aleatory Books?”

Shop? I thought it was a library,” Roxy said, “but no. I think that place is still open, and I don’t know anything about a Minty Julip… oh, no thank you,” she had to tell the bartender when it started to mix a mint julip. The crushed mint leaves disappeared into a tube and were sucked down to the garbage. “But hey,” Roxy added when she saw Silver’s downcast expression, “that’s a good thing. If I haven’t seen them then there’s a decent chance they weren’t in any imminent danger.”

That is a relief,” Silver said. “So how long are you here for?”

Not sure. A while yet, so keep on your toes.” With that Roxy Clink got up from her stool and took her drink with her. In a surprise move she leaned over and kissed Silver on the cheek, but the heat generated by it evaporated instantly. Not a flirt. Just wishing me good luck, one Plutonian to another.

Long Odd Silver wanted to stay and enjoy the periphery longer while they mulled over everything Ms. Clink had said, but another attendee dropped in to bother them. It was the space-time artist, babbling about a possible collaboration, but Silver knew a creep when they saw one, and could even feel them around corners as a bristle in the follicles atop their wrist, so they departed without a word and left him there to talk murder and mayhem with the mute bartender.

The artist’s retreat, as the true passengers started calling it, had no end in sight, even as it visibly wore on the Viper True’s nerves. After a few days the materialized stowaways began posting and publishing projects all over the ship, often clashing with the meticulously maintained décor.

Massive portraits went up on the walls, only for a mechanical broom attached to one of the many rails to emerge and whack it repeatedly until it fell over and could be swallowed up by the implements that kept the floor clean and free of debris. The ship had a harder time with the marble statues, and with figuring out where they’d even acquired the stone.

Such a massive influx of artistic materials from parts unknown and silly was not without actual consequences as well, the additional weight forcing the Viper True to drop surplus parts and goods into the Rivulets in order to maintain a reasonable load. If her computers hadn’t acted they would’ve capsized less than 2 days out of the neat rocks that had nearly claimed the honor.

During one of these dumps many of the artists flocked to the stern to bear witness, as like moths to a flame they were always where anything bright or strange was happening. This provided the ideal opportunity for Mr. Tart to give his first screening of his masterpiece, and for Sunnyflower Oyle to deliver on his promise of explaining himself.

Mr. Tart picked out a screening room, a dark one with a low ceiling and charcoal carpet, before inviting all the true passengers to join them for the 9:00 premiere. Morbidly, he even provided buckets of popcorn and bottles of soda. Our curious little director even dressed himself to the 9s, greeting them at the door in a purple 3 piece suit, head oiled now that he wasn’t wearing a hat.

Come in, come in, take a seat, just over there,” he bubbled as each invitee arrived: Sonny, Dry, Roman, Silver, and Galatin. A full house. But another shoe slipped in the door and stopped Motley from closing it. When he pulled back not one person came through, but 6. “This one’s a private show.”

We know,” Roxy Clink said, leading her band toward the blank wall the film would soon be projected onto. She snapped her fingers, the members of the Imminent Danger responding by setting up their instruments off to the side. It was a most curious process, since several of them were too large to carry into the room and instead came out from behind corners and curtains that shouldn’t have been able to conceal such things.

While the saxophone, guitar, and trumpet player had no trouble, the pianist and the drummer had to employ this technique in order to wheel out their tools of the trade. In minutes they were all set for a performance, save for some squeaks here and there as the saxophonist tuned up.

You… you can’t play during my show,” Motley complained, more bashful than angry. “It won’t match the mood.”

Yes it will,” Roxy told him, whipping out an electroglass card and flicking it. Its screen transitioned to a crosshatch pattern, indicating she was about to use it as a microphone, which was made all the clearer when she pulled a microphone stand out from under a table and affixed the card to its top.


It’ll be like the silent film era,” Silver said from across the room to cajole him. “They often had live musicians providing the accompaniment, did they not?” Motley’s satisfaction did matter to them, in the sense that everyone’s passion has some value, as all coal does in fact burn, but Silver spoke primarily in the interest of keeping Roxy there. They had a feeling she was there as a warning of an unscheduled intermission of sorts.

They did,” Mr. Tart conceded, but it took the piano player demonstrating his skill to convince him, in the form of a jaunty tune that sounded like the theme of a spinning barber pole. The cadence changed slightly when Motley walked back to his projector setup, matching his footsteps.

A piece of curved electroglass, big as the visor on a fighter pilot’s helmet, sat on a tablecloth in the back, smelling of polishing oil and the current that had run through it when Tart tested it earlier. The man brought out a 4 of lights, a still closeup of Zola’s screaming face taking up all of it, then loaded the card into a slot behind the curved projector. Last he installed his camera flash in the assembly’s side, which powered the whole thing in some cordless fashion.

White went the wall, illuminating all the dust in the air between the 2 points, but the specks vanished an instant later, scoured to nothingness by the passive light of the flashbulb. The piano got quieter, much less jaunty, now sounding like icicles slowly freezing their way down a spiral staircase.

Mr. Oyle, if you’d be so kind as to give the preamble,” Motley said, bowing to his employer, his sudden politeness seeming to put a bad taste in the much larger man’s mouth. 5 steps forward put Sonny in front of the others, though he was careful not to stand in the projector beam.

I can’t call you friends, but I’m also not comfortable with acquaintances,” he started, already uncomfortable. “We’ve been through too much for that. Let’s say peers… and I’ll call you peers because you have to have a word that’s for you, that’s separate from all the ones I would use on the nasty spiteful gorgon that was my entire reason for joining this voyage in this, the year of something lordish, 2008.”

You followed her aboard?” Dry asked, not offended so much as curious if latching herself onto someone who was likely to board the Viper True would’ve been easier than her own method for ascertaining its location.

Quite the opposite actually. It was I who lured her here, leaving her anonymous messages, pretending to be one of her clients with a hot tip that would help her resupply.”

Supply with what?” Lime asked.

Ashes,” the man answered sadly. That cloud Zola left in the pool. “Let me rein this fat burro in a little… I have been a passenger aboard the PS Viper True many times, though not entirely consecutively.

When I first came to her as a young man I sought the 1to1 as many of you do now, but I was pulled off that path magnetically, by the beautiful woman who became our captain. I should say… the women who became our beautiful captain.

Within the year we were in love, and the bridge became our bedroom, as she couldn’t stray far from it thanks to her role. I can’t tell you how strange it is for me every time I wind up there on a fresh voyage, sometimes in standoffs like the one we had earlier this year, and see it in that sanitized state.

Before, as my home, it had curtains up, a king size bed dragged across deck and pushed against the wall, our clothes strewn about on the floor, photographs hanging… And that shimmer stands there in those shoes that need filling and I think to myself, there’s what’s left of my beloved in this world.”

As the captain your wife was doomed,” Lime summarized; it seemed someone was eager to get to the film and what was surely a more concrete record of what happened. “She guided the Viper True the last leg of the way, saw one passenger depart in victory, and then lost what identity she had to the scattered odds between reality and the next best thing. Only the role, the captainship, remained, like a husk.”

Like an opalescent conch shell,” Sonny corrected, making sure there was enough reverence for his tale, “that now waited for a new hermit crab to move in. I could not see her depart herself, a thing for which I am both glad and sad. She wouldn’t have wanted me to see her that way, I know that much.

I’d known no greater pleasure than her embrace, and no surer thing either, so the 1to1 had stopped mattering to me. We said our farewells, passed them in marital congress, and I took my leave in a lifeboat before it was too late. So that I could live with her memory.

Hmph,” Roman’s nostrils said, closer to a laugh than he was most of the time.

Something’s funny your highness?” Sonny asked, suddenly containing much more bluster and dignity than he’d had with a card to his throat.

Yeah, she was the captain right? So she officiated her own marriage. Is that even legal?” Oyle deflated with a more full-bodied chuckle of his own.

Very astute. Yes, she did perform the ceremony in which she also costarred. As for the marriage being legal, it could not have mattered to either of us less out on the Rivulets. We exchanged rings, and with them ourselves. Sometimes I swear I can see the flicker of the ring’s shape on her finger when I look at that silhouette poised at the helm.”

I think I’m going to cry,” Silver joked, dabbing at their endless tear trails with a napkin.

So which wife was this?” Dry asked cynically, drawing stares. “What? Have you all forgotten our game of strip takebaxi? Tall, yellow, and handsome here had 3 wedding bands in his pocket, and another one on his hand.”

Looks like we all took our astute pills this morning,” Roman quipped. He’s having fun. I suppose he would. This screening is his reward for besting Sonny in a desperate situation. What kind of prince would he be if he didn’t lounge about in his victories. But he doesn’t understand the man he beat. Sonny has things he’d die for that aren’t victory. He can’t love like that, no matter how many times I tell him he’d be the best at that too.

She was the first of 4,” Sonny admitted, “and the other 3 were all captains of the Viper True as well.” Dry dribbled some soda all over herself, only just catching the stream with a napkin before it hit her dress. Lime just sat there, shuffling his cards like he hardly paid attention. “Each time I come aboard I am on the lookout for the sort of woman who can enrich my life.

I don’t always succeed. Sometimes a man becomes the captain, sometimes these brave women have no interest in a walrus like me, which is completely fair. That said, my success rate seems remarkably high. When things work out and the shoes are filled, we have a whirlwind romance with what’s left of the year. I’ve been head over heels so many times now, but those heels are always on my sea legs, so by the time I’ve made it back to shore all the memories are good and the sorrow of loss has washed away with the tide.

You must think me tawdry, a man with a type and nothing more. To me it is much more than a proclivity for a brave and authoritative woman. These are Valkyries: warriors who escort others to a deserving afterlife. They know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they will never make it there themselves, and yet they still charge forward, still hold and caress with love, still live while there is time. All 4 have been magnificent, and while it may be a weakness that I only see their splendor when they are fully clad in the armor of the captain, the union of the 2 is what ignites my heart. I am happy to be borne with them most of the way as a torch, and gently set aside when the true darkness that cannot be challenged is dead ahead.”

I’ve been crying retroactively for my entire life because of this story,” Long Odd Silver said honestly this time, allowing themselves an unpleasant sniffle the likes of which had never been heard from them. What a reason to be here. I’ve got to get myself one of those.

How does Zola fit into all of this?” Dry asked.

She broke this fulfilling cycle, with desecration and disrespect,” the widower explained without explaining, as if first paying a toll of reverent words. “Zola, the least fair of the fairer sex, had her small mind focused to a pinprick, allowing it to temporarily mimic the output of one more magnanimous.

A schemer through and through, she ran a ratty rotten dishcloth of a business that trafficked in cremated ashes. The service she offered, daring to joke and call it the service after the service, was to take the ashes of her clients or their loved ones and spread them in prohibited places. Often there are ordinances preventing people from improperly disposing of human remains, so that they can’t be dumped just anywhere.

Sometimes, in their grief, a person will decide to damn the consequences and dump the ashes where they would’ve wanted to be dumped, be it over a restricted bluff in a nature preserve or thrown directly in the face of an old boss.

Zola did this for them, incurring the fines and arrests in exchange for a large fee that more than outweighed the meager measures meant to stop such infrequent, unusual, and irritating offenses. She had found herself a lovely little niche, a place on the hide of society where she could suck blood safely, for no limb could reach to squash.

It would have done her good to stay there, but she was a greedy woman, hardly deserving of that title of her sex that my wives wore with honor. With all the wits she could muster, she searched not for the Viper True, but for its dumping grounds.

Even I was not aware that the ship frequently jettisons waste in buoyant waterproof tanks; it was my most recent wife who informed me that such a trail was her means of locating the ship in order to board it.

Zola, upon successfully finding the viper droppings, scooped them up and ran off cackling back to shore to work her evils. She had started cutting the ashes of her clients with those who died and were cremated aboard the Viper True. Her pitch to the grieving was that such ashes had been in close contact with the 1to1, and this could give the spirits of the dead a much better chance of finding an ultimate fate closer to existence. The higher the percentage of viper ashes in the mixture, the higher the price.”

The ship cremates part of the captain when the voyage ends,” Motley said when Sonny dropped into silence for a few seconds. This was getting a bit morose, affecting everyone’s enthusiasm for his premiere.

Something I was not witness to, as I had already departed,” Sonny said. “But the information eventually came to me, and all of it coalesced into the greatest rage I have ever felt. My Valkyries are not confetti for a huckster. She made that mistake, and so she had to perish.

It was I who fed her the ship’s optimal boarding spots for this year’s voyage, to lure her on deck where I could take my revenge without the law of Vulcan ever taking note. To them she would be just another foolhardy mariner succumbing to the siren song of the 1to1.

Her goal in following my breadcrumbs, I deduced, was to secure a much larger supply of the ashes than usual, and perhaps snatch the 1to1 if it looked like all the passengers were going to kill each other. Time was not on my side, as any death could give her the supplies she needed, thus allowing her to abandon ship, but I couldn’t simply walk up and throttle that awful head off her shoulders.”

The Viper True would smite you where you stood,” Lime commented idly, building a house of cards diagonally between his hands, a feat of boredom that could only be achieved by the greatest cardists who didn’t quite exist.

Quite. So I needed a plan to end her without getting myself ended shortly after. Enter Mr. Motley Tart and his magical camera flash.” He held out his hand, allowing Motley to take a bow before he’d even performed. “Motley here is aboard solely in my employ. I have paid him handsomely for his assistance.

Our plan was to construct an illusion using electroglass trickery and techniques from the film business. Its purpose was to fool Zola into thinking she had witnessed a murder, to which there would be only one response for a conniving creature such as herself: tattling.

I believe you know what happened from there. Zola fell for it like an airdropped 2to1 whale. The moment she made her false accusation she was blasted out of her life, turned into the ashes she so avariciously sought. My vengeance was complete, and ½ as satisfying as any of my marriages to the captain of this fine ship, which is to say, extremely so.”

She said she saw you killing me,” Roman reminded. Obviously any information regarding the prince had to be handed over if their bargain was to be fulfilled.

I took footage of you when you were practicing in the ring,” Motley explained. “Combed through hours of it to find you leaning back on one of the corners. I said to myself, now there’s a choking pose. And lucky for us you always look so assailed. I didn’t even have to give you a cue.”

And as for your killer, Motley recorded me pretending to choke you,” Sonny elaborated. “Then the 2 images were layered in software. The result was still flat, obviously, but not so when doubly projected through the walls of the greenhouse on deck. That converted it into a sort of hologram, one whose weaknesses were covered by the surrounding foliage and interior dew.”

The Viper True didn’t realize what you were getting at, waiting on deck to spring this on her?” the prince asked. “It doesn’t realize even now, as we sit here talking about it under its nose?”

I imagine she does,” Sonny said, “but I’ve been at this game a long time. You forget that while my eyes were solely focused on courtship and then marital bliss, peripheral vision still existed. I saw every trick employed by every passenger seeking 1to1. Their trials and errors were my lessons, though I never thought I’d have to make use of so many of the grim things.

Over time it was made clear that while the Viper True views false accusations as murder attempts, her ability to reason, or her willingness to extend her reasoning beyond a 2 step process, ceases past that. I know that this admission will have no consequences, for we were exactly as indirect as we needed to be to escape her judgment.”

Hearing it that way made Motley not so sure of his position, and the others caught him staring at the ceiling as if there was a fly buzzing about, but no blazing beam broke through the decks and contradicted the pair.

And it all looked something like this!” Motley declared, flicking a switch on the side of the projector mechanism with a satisfying click. Their snuff film came to life on the wall, with Roxy Clink and the Imminent Danger providing the perfect musical backing without delay. For all his excitement to set the picture in motion, Motley was strangely willing to slightly mar the experience by standing too close to the projector beam. A slight shadow of his ear and shoulder chewed on the side as they watched Zola Gorgon casually stroll to the upper deck, followed by someone unbeknownst to her, recording.

“I wasn’t actually this close,” the shrew-like man narrated. “That’s just the accounting zoom feature on the director’s suite I use in my cards. Great for wildlife footage where you don’t actually want to get close to the 3to1 wolf that can smell the odds of your sweat.”

Quickly it became apparent that his little film was much longer than it needed to be, as it included the drawn out stalking that led to their snare. Zola was seen having breakfast on deck, taking one or 2 bites of something before abandoning that dish and ordering another. They piled up on the railing next to her: a tremendous waste of food. When she was finished she swept her arms across the platters, spilling food, napkins, and silverware into the rivulet, apparently just to watch them fall.

“You see? This creature just loved discarding things,” Sonny justified. What sympathy did exist for the woman had drained away at evidence of her behavior, but it came right back when she transitioned out of her rude breakfast by taking a steel thermos out of the shoulder bag she carried.

Motley’s steady camerawork didn’t do the 2 men any favors when it kept Zola’s face focused in sharp detail, allowing the audience sight of the tear rolling down her cheek and the expression on her face: the sadness of someone seeing their vintage wine cellar shatter and flood. She opened the thermos and, carefully, respectfully, removed a handful of ashes.

Rather than toss them she let the wind take them layer by layer, feet steady under her even as she took to sobbing. Someone she knew personally? Or was she just this devoted to her clients, providing the grieving that their absence would typically prevent? Either way it was a more vulnerable state than any of them expected, and it struck like a cold wet towel draping itself over the passengers’ necks and shoulders.

Sonny was not immune, and was seen running his hand down his face, perhaps stealing away tears of his own before they could fall naturally. Tart didn’t show him this part. It’s not part of the payoff, even though this is what it cost. Only Motley was without sympathy. The man practically licked his lips as he watched, blinked less than a bust of himself would have. Zola was just a film now. He had turned her into one, given her a break so big that her life crumbled under its impact. In his mind he’d done her a favor, evidenced by the jealousy in his silhouette as it encroached further into the projector beam. The man was now a skulking shadow in his own creation, some creature watching a syndicated taping of fate, claw on its finger ground flat from remaining poised on the replay button.

Dry Burgundy pulled her chair a little closer to the projector when the scene transitioned to Zola craning her neck, spying something in the distant greenhouse. The camera followed as if it was right over her shoulder, caught her shoulders’ tense just as she stopped outside the glass and comprehended what she saw.

“The projecting card is in a seam on one of the angled top panels of the greenhouse,” Motley explained as if someone had asked. “It’s projecting down, so that even if she entered she couldn’t easily get in the way of its image.” Through the recording, through the glass, the passengers now saw the full effect of the illusion.

It very much appeared to be Sunnyflower Oyle assassinating the prince of Pluto. All the rage present in the larger man’s face wasn’t acting, for as he’d pantomimed strangling what they all assumed to be a balustrade ball or coat rack he had been feeling it for Ms. Gorgon instead. His frustration was orange-red in his flesh, an anger that was struggling to keep its head above water, as the moment it stopped treading it would drown and become sorrow.

Mr. Oyle collapsed into a chair as he watched himself experience it. The slump in his shoulders didn’t quite look like regret. More like he’s watching himself have 2 left feet on the dance floor. The one in the motion picture is a younger man, which I suppose is always true. But he probably felt quite the opposite, getting hitched the same way 4 times, all while never having any of the 4 grow older with him. Love is an investment, and he’s now seeing he never got any of the returns.

“When she tossed herself babbling into the pool she was below decks,” Dry said. “Why didn’t she just march across the deck and tell the signal glass as soon as she saw?”

“Take another look at her,” Tart answered with a sneer. They all did, and noticed she was wearing different clothing from what had nearly sunk her in the pool. “She wanted to get all dolled up for the public execution. Can you imagine,” he started laughing in the middle of his words, “standing in front of the mirror, frantically putting on your 2nd face, terrified you won’t look your best when you condemn a man to death? What an image. Wish I’d gotten that one, but she was in her cabin.”

The film cut off when Zola scampered away down some stairs, but the projector didn’t stop playing. It transitioned into a much more traditional film, a scene of someone’s going-away party. It took place in a field, with balloons tied to all 4 corners of the picnic tables in the background.

“Oh this,” Motley snorted, putting his hands on his hips, making his shadow on the wall look like a loaded crossbow. “Forgot to edit this off the tail end. It’s here for reference. I employed the same zoom technique on Zola that they used in this scene.”

When he took a few steps closer to the old film Dry made her move, silently standing and positioning herself behind the projector. She placed her hand on a knob on the side of the camera flash, but didn’t twist it, not until she’d gauged the reactions of all the other passengers that might swarm and stop her.

Sonny was obscured by a fog of inner turmoil; it wasn’t clear how aware he was of his surroundings. Roman’s arms were crossed in the clear statement that he would not lift a finger to help anyone in the room, either because he wanted them eliminated or he thought they could fend for themselves.

Lime’s arms were even more occupied with his floating diamond-shaped house of cards. It was so close to finished that he was now putting finishing touches on the interior decorating, leaning this way and that to get a card to flip through each room to the one it belonged in.

That only left Silver, as it was already abundantly clear that the band would keep playing even if the room was ablaze, even if their instruments were ablaze, even if they were ablaze. Long Odd watched her with the deepest eyes they could muster, and if she was to try to parse the wild weekend-long conversation the Plutonian was trying to silently have with her she would lose her opportunity, and perhaps her nerve.

But she sees what I hoped she wouldn’t. She sees that I’m not getting up. Nobody does themselves a favor when they make a new murderer where there wasn’t one before. It’s like dropping the big one. That background radiation never goes away, and it puts holes in all of us. but she sees that it’s not my place to pick for her. This voyage does have to shake out somehow, and I won’t make that shaking violent just to stop her being clever.

“This picture’s an absolute classic,” Motley prattled on, taking a step closer. “It’s called Don’t Leave it Unsaid. Really a revolution this one, came out of Hollycould in ’78. Look at the way he plays with the negative space. That way when he zooms it feels like you’re losing something, like you’re getting trapped. Somebody’s cutting floorboards out from under you one by one.

You’re stuck in this remodel that everyone else knows about. This film created a new fear in people, like that shark one with all those empty beaches afterwards. It’s this fear that you’re going to turn around and see you’ve been boxed in, sealed off in some kind of storage space that wasn’t meant to be opened again.

Of course, we don’t really get into that until the third act…”

Dry twisted the knob minutely, with no immediate change. Motley kept going. If anything he seemed slightly more fascinated with the film he’d seen 100 times. So she gave it another twist, bigger this time, and the light of the projection grew noticeably brighter. Roman shielded his eyes. The glare ruined Galatin’s view of the house of cards in his lap, causing it to collapse, but he was able to bring his hands together so swiftly and so expertly that there was no clapping sound, and not one card escaped. A moment later it was a neat and tidy deck, stashed away in his pocket.

Motley was practically kissing the wall now, and wouldn’t hear the mechanical ticks of the turning knob even if he stopped lecturing. Dry cranked it all the way around. Up to its highest setting. Down to its lowest odds. The light grew so quickly so as to constitute a flash, momentarily blinding everyone. The drummer of the Imminent Danger smacked a cymbal, the vibration ringing back to silence as the screening room reformed around them.

“It’s possible the director’s here, at the artist’s retreat,” Motley considered, rubbing his chin, but forgot why he said that particular thing once he felt the tickle of grass against his shin. Grass, out in the river-sea, how absurd. Except, why was he thinking about the river-sea? That wasn’t where he was. This was the big going-away party. The sea came later. “What was I saying-“

He turned around to get opinions, but none of the passengers of the Viper True could hear him. Following the silent picture that was the exit of Zola Gorgon, the volume had not been raised for the reference scene that came after. There was only the sounds of the Imminent Danger.

The knob was cranked back to the minimum, but all the passengers steered clear of the projection as they stood and tried to make sense of what exactly Ms. Burgundy had achieved. They saw Motley Tart, but now he was in fewer dimensions than his greenhouse hologram, flattened into the motion picture and knitted together from its film grain.

Other guests at the going-away party reacted to him, bringing him into the festivities, shaking his hand, perhaps congratulating him on his upcoming voyage. Motley looked wistfully off into the sky, but he couldn’t find even the idea of what he searched for. He shook off the feeling, suddenly sure it was somewhere in the near future.

“You lowered his odds so much that the storyline of the film was more likely than he was… so it absorbed him,” Galatin postulated. “Did you know that would work?”

“I’ve seen people go from winning streaks to rock bottom in a single night,” Dry said, alluding to her work at the casino. “They’ve put on masks and gone crazy8, but if there’s no mask around your essence reaches for anything more stable than itself. If it’s fiction… then congratulations on your big break.”

“The Viper True doesn’t object,” Sonny noted, now the one to stare at every little spot on the ceiling for a glowing crack.

“Because he’s not dead,” Dry insisted. “See, he’s right there, and out of our hair.” Nobody knew better how to push their luck without ripping it, so she pushed by stopping the projector. Motley Tart disappeared along with his party, but he must have been safe, stored away until the next viewing, as none of the riverboat’s machinery moved to stop her.

Breaking the card the file was stored in felt like too much, so instead she unscrewed the camera flash. One last glance at the others confirmed they felt the same way, that the flash was unpredictable, but would still be fought over given its power. It was a wild card, and its cardist was off gallivanting across the silver screen, so better to just be rid of it.

With a grunt she bashed the flash against the back wall, shattering the bulb. After that she demanded the Viper True produce a trash chute, which popped out of the very spot where flash powder stained the wall. The remains of the device were disposed of while Long Odd Silver considered what they’d just witnessed.

I shouldn’t be so surprised, being the one that fell out of a book. Everyone in probable space is just fiction that nobody bothered to think of, extras to fill out dream crowds. Those in the 1to1 can be grabbed by a good story, and those less lucky can be kept by it. I saw some things like this in Nth Degree Hall, and Roxy looks like this is just another job.

Indeed the band was packing up, for the danger had passed, but they didn’t disappear like K.J. Seaborg had. Instead they just quietly acknowledged the passengers as they passed by and went to rejoin the artist’s retreat.

“He might’ve just left,” Lime suggested when the passengers were alone. “He was never here to take the prize. Or we could’ve tossed him into the captain’s chair. Why’d you give him the star treatment?” If Lime had truly cared he could’ve intervened, so the question was for the purposes of fact-finding only.

“Zola was obnoxious,” Dry’s argument opened, “like a feather jammed in the corner of your eye… but she should’ve had a chance to fight for it. I know the Viper True encourages trickery,” she looked at Oyle, but his mind was elsewhere as he leaned against the wall, like he wanted another larger garbage chute to open and collect him, “but when we get close she’s going to shut down, like in that giant ice tray.

Zola could’ve been there, flinging cards like whoever is left. I feel like I might’ve had a better chance with her present to draw attention. I was mad about it, and I never liked Tart. So that’s that.”

“I don’t suppose any among us are feeling so attracted to Sonny that they want to hop into the captain’s shoes to then hop into his bed?” There were no takers, with the exception of Mr. Oyle himself, who took himself out of the room and then remained unseen for many days.

A notion, flitting between the passengers, contended that he had perhaps put himself in a lifeboat as was his habit and left them with only 4 candidates for the 2 empty staff positions, but it died in their minds when they realized not one of the swarming artists posted or published a photograph or painting of his departure, something they surely would’ve done when seeing the strange image of the very large man wearing his canary yellow clothes and rowing a boat meant for a starved wretch 1/3 his size.

At the very least a goofy limerick would’ve come out of the whole thing.

(continued in part four)

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