(estimated reading time: 51 minutes)
The window’s getting tight now. Not much year left in our year long voyage. It’s clear what Dry and Roman want: the 1to1. They’re still looking forward to the regularly scheduled programming. But what about Sonny? He’s still here even though his vengeance is complete and there’s nobody to wed.
He has plenty of artists to choose from still, but says they’re not his type. That means they’re not our type, that they won’t fill the captain’s shoes unless they trip into them. That’s not their purpose here, so it still belongs to a passenger.
And what of Lime? Like Tart he’s just a mercenary, but if the motive is money I’m a banana daiquiri. If he’s trying to earn the 1to1 for someone else, how is he going to get them here to claim it? No other ship on Vulcan knows which hole the Viper True slithers into. Could there have been an additional passenger this entire time, hiding from us?
Not likely. They’d still have to take meals, which means a tray full of evidence gliding by me on the rails. The ship wouldn’t lie for them either, and she shows which cabins are occupied on all her maps. Which isn’t to say Lime doesn’t have a plan. Don’t know as I’ve ever met anyone in this life who more clearly has one stuck to him like a wet suit.
Other people are entitled to their mysteries, but I’m not. I should understand what the hell I’m still doing on this boat. There are lifeboats. Sonny says it’s only too late to use them when the clouds square up like the ice did. I could be on land in no time, strolling down a pier, waiting for somebody to need me.
I don’t need myself; that’s the problem. What is there to do with this life that isn’t a full one? Pluto’s hot on the heels of history. I turn my back for one measly adventure and they have a full bore revolution! It doesn’t need me to spark anything, probably never did. Minty could’ve handled it all on her own.
So I’m here because I think somebody needs me. Roman. That’s a dead end. No matter who he needs he won’t accept them as anything other than subject. I’d think I was supposed to stop him once he gets to the true Earth and tries to take it over, but only one of us could ever get through.
He could be stopped here, for his own good and everyone else’s. One of the portrait artists hanging around should take up the task, give me a rendition of that scenario so I can see if it feels right. When I try to picture us at odds, him with his hands shoved in a pair of boxing dice and me with an asteroid belt of platinum cards, the image doesn’t stick. It melts.
Having slept with him is one end of the spectrum. Knocking him out is the other. Are we, together, capable of going that distance? Some might say there has to be a legend around the prince, and the storybook did spit me out in his direction.
Long Odd Silver’s mind was getting the best of them, for the first time in probable space. The Viper True felt more like a cage every day, the sort where the air holes were too small to slip love notes through. To calm themselves they returned to their cabin after an early dinner with some stationary enthusiasts who had been arguing about passenger place card penmanship. Silver brought out the brazen head, told it about their day, and then proceeded with many questions even though there was only one: Does anybody need me?
“Is Minty well?”
“Right. I suppose I don’t need to make you repeat yourself. What about Peachy? And Drizzle?” The head rolled its eyes. They were all the same question, seeing as those 3 beings were sandwiched so close together it was practically the same life. They might as well have asked how good the weather was directly above Minty’s coordinates. “She isn’t the only connection we’ve made on this mortalish plane. What about Antichthon? Is Likely still alive?”
“Safely out of range of crazy8?”
“Still attached to all his fingers and toes?”
“…eating enough?” The brazen head did not dignify that with an answer, even as Long Odd Silver smirked. They stared at each other, lively live music bleeding through the walls. That’s not Roxy’s sound. I hope she hasn’t left already. She goes where she’s needed, so maybe I should hitch a ride with her. There’s always plenty of need to go around.
The head couldn’t make a throat-clearing sound, but there was an audible click whenever its eyes went as far as they could in one direction. The chosen direction was out the wall leaking the dance tune. 4 clicks it took for Silver to actually notice that it was trying to communicate.
“There’s something out there you think I should know about?” they guessed.
“Does it have to do with one of the other passengers?”
“Then I don’t want to know. If I’m sticking around I should at least try and play fair. They can have their plots. I’ll gasp in the theater like everybody else.”
“No,” the head said, shaking itself side to side, which Silver hadn’t known it could do. Mechanical facets and wooden veneers made the object close to expressionless, yet it was clearly distressed.
“My dear brazen head… are you trying to argue with me?”
“You’ve never done that before. What could upset you so? We’ve been in the grip of peril before and you’ve stopped us to pick up spare change on the sidewalk.” The head rocked, staring, waiting for them to continue so it could have something to respond to. “I won’t bite much, only enough to protect you. Are you experiencing the name of Roxy Clink’s band?”
“No,” it dismissed as if Silver had just asked if babies hatched from hardluck stork eggs.
“So you’re probably concerned for my well-being.”
“Then I’m sorry, but we have nothing more to say to each other.” Silver’s eyes wandered to the wall as they tried to expand their senses, imagining a wide open field in the brazen head, stars falling out of the sky, shadows already visible on what would soon be craters. They stood, eyes drifting to the door. They hadn’t changed out of their day clothes yet; what was one more little excursion?
“No,” the head said, though what Silver heard was more along the lines of ‘don’t you dare’. Silver twisted the knob, looked at the item with a shrug, as if the simple fact that the door didn’t explode proved it was overreacting. They pulled it open.
“No, no, no, no…” the head practically stuttered, falling over in the direction of the dresser, atop which sat Silver’s platinum-coated deck.
“You’re insisting I take my cards?”
“I’m sorry, but I feel like having a little faith in the world tonight. I’ll let it ravish me as it pleases.”
“No,” it tried one last time, but the tone made it clear it had given up before the door clicked closed once more. Disobeying reason was enough to electrify the air; Silver felt a tingle as they slowly walked away from their cabin, the where undecided. In trying to feel the current of the rivulet far below them, their feet subtly chose directions.
Away from the music. Back toward it. All the while the prospects grew more enticing. What’s with all these questions about purpose and need? I could just die today, easy as that. Or all these problems could solve themselves. It would be foolish to leave out the possibility that my death is part of those solutions.
Silver’s feet dropped them into the swing of the artist’s retreat. Then they followed a conga line of artists, but instead of dancing they were all seated before canvas, painting all the other artists ahead and their paintings. Some worked in traditional and others electroglass. Their trail ended up on deck, where the wind was just strong enough to show how long everyone’s hair was.
A hazy sky of dimming blue was partly lit by someone else’s creation, something wholly new to Silver: electroglass lanterns. They floated above the heads of the milling artists, rectangular prisms that may or may not have had a glowing flame inside, depending on whether or not the electroglass was projecting.
The stuff was light enough for fire to lift it like traditional paper lanterns, they realized. The material’s purposes were many, but spending so much of their life as a rogue had them defaulting to its violent ones.
One passed over Silver’s head, so they looked up into it. An actual flame, on a wick. The Viper True did not appreciate any fire that did not come from her own kitchen torches and fireplaces, but there was little she could do about it at this juncture. There wasn’t enough light to focus through the signaling glass and melt the lanterns, and they were all a little too high for any of her mechanical maintenance arms to reach.
“It looks like a holiday, but I don’t care quite enough to ask which one,” Dry Burgundy said, suddenly beside Long Odd Silver. Her red dress sparkled in the lantern light, transitioning gently into the glitter of sweat on her skin. She’d either been dancing or hauling something heavy, and Silver guessed the former. Dry was the type to trick someone else into lugging things around.
“Is this a 1to1 holiday or one of ours?” Silver asked.
“Has to be one of ours.”
“Because I feel like celebrating,” Dry said, slipping her fingers into Silver’s. “Join me?” She pulled gently, which was the pull of 100 yoked oxen to Silver, who had moments ago altered course after being struck by a drifting dust bunny.
This is certainly suspicious, but I wonder what she could even do to me. The Viper True is always watching. Tart’s flash is destroyed, so she can’t take me to the movies and push me in. And that dress of hers is so sleek there doesn’t look to be anywhere on her where a deck might be hidden. An ace up her slip, sure, but she thinks I’ve got platinum to more than match.
She took them just below decks, to a door they weren’t familiar with, as there was nothing behind it but sinks and toilet stalls. Hardly the place to celebrate, but Dry acted as if there was no place better, checking to see that they were alone before grabbing Silver by the collar and dragging them into a kiss. Together they leaned on the row of black sinks as they edged closer and closer to needing to wash their hands.
Long Odd Silver knew, at least at first, that something was amiss, but a gift horse wasn’t Trojan until investigated or sprung. As long as they were locked together it was just a gift, just 2 people who knew they could get away with some pleasure in that particular sidewalk crack before having to get on with their day.
Technically this breaks the longest drought of my life. Gothic Rock hardly counts, split as my odds were. To think I went almost an entire year without being this close to someone. How do the lonesome and the brokenhearted manage to do it so much longer? I guess there are those of us who are sprinters and those who run marathons.
But she doesn’t need me. I can feel that plain as day. The woman kisses like she’s proofreading something. Each tooth a box to check off. The brazen head might be more of a natural. She’s had to work at it to get to this point… and her efforts weren’t for naught.
Dry pulled away when she needed air. The shared breath between them pulled apart like bread still doughy in the center, like stringy mozzarella telling them they couldn’t finish the bite without leaning forward and trying a little harder. Her dark eyes followed a shimmer down Silver’s cheek.
“These don’t stop even when you’re enjoying yourself?” She asked of their crazy8 tears.
“They get stronger.” She tested the statement, peeling off Silver’s top and casting it into one of the furthest sinks. It was no lie; 2 silver streams now ran all the way down their neck, across their chest, hurdled the abdominal muscles, and disappeared into the clothes that remained. Presumably they stopped somewhere in those catacombs, as there was no puddle at the Plutonian’s feet.
Dry ran her hand through one of them, tried to press hard enough to get it to flow over her knuckles, but it refused. Instead it pooled like mercury in the delicate fan of skin between her fingers. Slightly afraid of it bursting, she pulled back only for it to immediately split into 10 tributaries, each taking a baffling route down Silver’s cliff side and into their ravine.
“That’s beautifully strange,” she whispered. Silver acknowledged it by running 2 fingers down the sides of the stream, collapsing back to a single one without spilling a drop of themselves. Then, with the same hand, the same fingers, they ran through Dry’s hair expertly, and to her it suddenly felt much longer than it was. She embraced them, hands gliding up and down the flawless skin of their back, smooth as electroglass, warm as a whiskey someone forgot to finish.
Again they kissed, and she thought Silver tasted like too many fascinating combinations: aluminum and mint, copper and basil, tin and cocoa powder. It wasn’t the first time she’d been with a crazy8, but Long Odd Silver was the first one who actually seemed to have returned to sanity.
One haunting instance came to mind, only flashing through, overpowered as it was by Silver’s social potency. In the course of wooing a big spender on behalf of her employers, Dry had taken the crazy8 woman into a private room. The emergency mask she’d donned looked like a censer, and now that it was part of her flesh her forehead endlessly issued incense smoke the color of her passion.
Together they’d blown through the woman’s inhibitions over spending more at the tables that evening, but they’d done it too well, almost blowing her smoke out completely. She’d had a relapse of bad odds as she lost herself in climax, and was forced to paw, gasping and moaning, at her handbag until she found a way to open it and extract another emergency mask: this time one that looked like a cathedral exterior. She threw it on without thinking, before Dry could even lift her head and see what was happening.
One mask mingled with another, creating golden towers that parted locks of her hair. Stained glass eyes bent open, letting out a draft of grayer less expressive smoke. Other things changed too, subtle body proportions like fingernail thickness and the bunching of inner ear ridges.
Dry panicked and slipped out from under her when she felt the woman’s thighs grow a little closer together. Now a different person, it was unclear whether or not consent was still ongoing, to both parties no less. The waitress who was hardly just a waitress threw her clothes back on haphazardly, watching out of the corner of her eye as her mark figured herself out.
A 2nd mask wasn’t as good as the first, not in the sense of helping one get back to themselves. Though it appeared the pair of masks had hybridized perfectly on her face, the effect was only surface level. The first time someone crashed back to 5to1 the new piece of identity was mostly an anchor, preventing the bulk of the person from drifting away, but it had to take the place of what already had.
The new mask didn’t squeeze itself into the same space; it had to carve out more of the original person and toss it away. The odds were right again, sure, but now the person wasn’t right. One mask and 2 was the pretty clear difference between someone changing and someone changing into someone else.
Within that body the artificial now outnumbered the natural, which now lost every vote. Those who had masked up twice cared a lot less about their odds and lives, now that they were majority object. From then on it would be all the easier to slip back to 8to1, 9to1, 10… For many it was a chain reaction once they started counting, or once they stopped.
The woman who had done herself the disservice of getting out of her own way laughed before she spoke to Dry, shaking her head with a smirk as she did up her shirt buttons, muttering something: ‘If Father Teetotal could see me now he’d make me say 100 Hail-any-old-Mary’s.’
As Dry stared into Silver’s eyes, which led so compellingly into their streaming tears, she sensed something twice-masked within them, but she couldn’t put her finger on it, even with all 10 of them splayed across their collarbone, ready to grip it like she was dangling from a gutter. Could Silver have done it twice? Not likely, she answered herself, seeing as the crystal tears probably barely qualified as a mask at all. If there were any other influences they should’ve been plainly obvious.
“Looking for something?” they asked her.
“Looking for whatever makes you say you’re not after the prize.”
“I’m not one for competition, too gracious a loser they tell me.”
“And who is they?”
“The people who want a straightforward win. I like slanted ones, that way some of the experience slides down to everyone else.”
“It’s a real shame you know. If I had some more time to work you over I could’ve had you on my side in this. Maybe not trying on the captain’s boots for me, but certainly in getting it down to just the 2 of us.”
“You had all year and I barely had the pleasure of your company! An error in judgment?”
“No, even a year wouldn’t be enough, not since you crashed here with that lunatic calling himself the prince of Pluto. You’re on his side, even though it’s plain he isn’t on yours. I don’t know what you experienced together that bonded you, but it’s definitely a shame I’m not the one who gets to use you up and cast you aside. I’d be gentler, and you’d enjoy it more.”
“Roman is rather like you I think, so it’s not becoming of you to insult him.”
“Oh? I’m rather like the prince?” she asked with pinched lips, pulling away and fanning herself with a sarcastic hand. “If I’m royalty we should handle all of this in a more romantic bygone fashion.” She looked around, found an implement with which to further her jest in the form of a redheaded plunger stowed under the sinks.
Dry took up a fencing pose and held its handle out, waving her false rapier about as if to challenge them to a duel.
“I’m unarmed,” Silver protested, hands in the air.
“Then this win won’t be slanted at all,” the woman warned, flicking her wrist and tapping Silver’s flank with the wooden sword. “That’s one point for me and a minor wound for you.” Silver playfully grabbed at it, but Dry was startlingly swift in whipping it away. “You’re not much of a competitor, remember? There’s nothing to stop me from-“
She lunged forward, weapon tip swiveling, dancing like a dragonfly on her wedding night. At some point in Dry’s past there actually were fencing lessons. Not surprising really. In takebaxi she revealed a card sharpener, so she’s always valued the edge if not what it’s attached to. Plus there’s plenty of footwork in fencing, and Cat Steps is the cardistry style where it most comes into play.
“2 points, and now you’re bleeding heavily,” she warned after tapping Silver’s other side.
“I’m lightheaded,” Silver said flirtatiously, with innuendo being their only available retaliation, “you’d better put me out of my misery. Go ahead, finish me off.” They closed their eyes and tilted their head back, presenting a crucified body on the crest of a crashing wave, solar plexus thrust so far forward that they resembled a hood ornament.
“You asked for it. Whatever I want, I always get someone to ask me for it. Here’s looking at your 8 of hearts.” With another flick of the wrist the plunger twirled, but this time it left her hand, spinning in the air like a juggler’s tossed torch. She caught the narrow end, then thrust the suction cup onto Silver’s chest, where it stuck.
But it wasn’t just the suction. Silver was stuck alright, pierced by something hidden under the plunger’s rubber bell. They staggered back, suddenly short of breath, and that which was stolen away in their kissing couldn’t account for the whole of it. The Plutonian’s back hit the door; they fumbled for the handle without taking their eyes off her.
“I did have all year to do this, but I didn’t figure it out until the artist’s retreat,” she said, scolding herself for being slow to the idea. As she did so she reached into her cleavage with 2 fingers and delicately extracted a slim stack of 10 cards that became 2 fans of 5, one used to fan herself in earnest this time, drive away the lusty heat of their encounter so the heat of battle could replace it.
“Lenh,” Silver sputtered, blinking away spots, grabbing at the plunger’s handle. It was firm, and each minute jiggle further clarified what had gotten under the scoundrel’s skin. A card. Had to be. Dry had arranged this trap beforehand, sharpening one of her cards to its maximum, perhaps even to the point of instability where removing it all at once would cause it to shatter and worsen the wound, and then she had stuck one corner under the plunger’s umbrella to lodge it in place and hide it.
“I’ll tell you,” Dry assured, correctly interpreting Silver’s single wet syllable as a request for an explanation. She had time, especially after she bounced one of her 10 across the tile and it stuck itself in the seam about the door’s lock, preventing it from swinging open if Silver could flip themselves over and find the strength without tearing open a vital vein. “You’ve seen the Viper True getting rid of all the artists’ work, right? As much as she can anyway. There’s a bathroom on the lower decks that’s chock full of the stuff. I stumbled over a stack of novels just trying to get in there.”
Despite thoroughly enjoying the new harsher intimacy of the moment, she worked while she savored it, setting up a 2nd trap just in case Silver found a way to slip out of the first like their tears splitting into so many tributaries. With 3 of her 9 remaining cards she set up a barrier, casting them to the floor and then sliding them underfoot, with a powerful kick.
The 3 cards bounced, at slightly different rates, back and forth across the entirely of the bathroom floor in perfect lines: a moat of razors that would be happy to swallow Silver’s feet if they took so much as a step forward.
“So why didn’t the ship clear the obstructions? It hit me like a gold brick: privacy. She changes every voyage, but she never loses the original intent engineered into her bones. This is a luxury liner, and she makes sure we have all the amenities: comfort, safety, and privacy.
We’re not allowed to invade each other’s cabins, and none of them contain cameras or microphones. After thorough examination I concluded the bathrooms were the same way. Right now the Viper True can’t see us or hear us. I can do whatever I want to you Silver, and I wish that was our situation, but here and now I’m doing what I have to do.”
Long Odd Silver had plenty of arguments, more than she had cards at her disposal, but none could properly percolate with blood bubbling up in their throat. Back on Pluto, back at 5to1, the injury would’ve been much less of a problem. Those lesser odds meant that the exact position of internal organs, or their very existence at any given moment, was not guaranteed. So the card’s cut could’ve easily missed what couldn’t be observed to be behind… but not at 3to1.
At 3to1 it was too real, too close to a heart that was sure enough of itself and its place in the world to never move, even to its own detriment. A Vulcanoe medical professional would’ve warned Silver not to extract the card because of the risk of worsening the bleed, but if the Plutonian was going to fight back at all they needed its threat out of their mind first and their chest 2nd.
Once they had the confidence to control their shaking hands they went to work on the plunger’s seal against their bare skin, hoping its pop would loose the card all at once. Dry saw what they were doing and moved in, having no fear of her own moat, perfectly capable of hopping over each card the exact moment it passed underneath.
She tossed all her cards to her left hand and grabbed the end of the plunger with her right, trying to wiggle it wildly as if stirring a massive cauldron. Silver mostly stopped her by reaching higher on the shaft and using their superior strength to stifle the motion. Successful, but still painful beyond anything they’d felt in probable space.
Keeping hold of consciousness proved difficult, so Silver shifted focus to something easier to handle: the card stuck in the door. Trusting one arm to best both of Dry’s in the battle of Plunger Hill, Long Odd reached with their right and extracted electroglass from jamb. A throw could miss and put them right back where they started, but not an orbit that would make multiple passes.
With their back to the door they couldn’t get it to orbit their torso diagonally, the default move of the Over the Moon style, but the right technique could get it to orbit anything it was close to at a certain point in its flight, so they slid their left hand to the base of the plunger, giving the card some real estate to work with.
The card spiraled up the handle toward Dry’s face, finally forcing her to disengage so she could snatch it out of the air and add it back to her hand. While that happened Silver finally broke the seal with a Pwop! The weapon fell to the tile, where it was promptly broken up into 5 little rolling logs by the moat of cards.
All it left behind was the card with its corner coated in blood: an 8 of kisses. Silver had but one hand to claim it with, since the other was plastered over their chest to stem the bleeding. Their opponent had no intention to honor the handicap for the rest of the duel, in fact she made herself all the more effective by bouncing a card off the tile and back into her hand, which sliced through her dress on the way up and greatly increased the range of motion of her legs.
Remaining the aggressor was her intent, but she was caught off guard by the color leeching into Silver’s weeping. Some of what she had spilled internally had made its way to whatever metaphysical faculties ran their crazy8 mask, caused the tears to emerge red. In them Dry saw stigmata, couldn’t help but flash back to the double-masked woman with the probable Catholicish history. There was one twang of guilt that almost felt external, as if she’d been shot with it by a distant sniper, and it cost her the advantage.
Orbital techniques were most effective with large numbers of cards, so the Plutonian fell back on the other set from their hybrid style: Cheater’s Welcome. Focused primarily on sleight of hand, on cards popping out of palms they shouldn’t and emerging from between fingers like bread from the toaster, it allowed Silver’s single card to act more like 3 on their hand as they swung at a backpedaling Dry.
In counterattack the woman tossed 2 cards backward, letting them bounce up and down under the sink, to emerge on their own a few seconds later, crossing paths right where she estimated Silver’s pelvis would be. The body part missed its appointment however, as Long Odd Silver was done being predictable with Dry. She had abused the privilege.
The actual location of the Plutonian pelvis was atop the sinks: a place free of all her Cat Steps tomfoolery. Silver had thrown themselves up onto the counter to sit, giving their injured side a moment to rest while the other continued to duel. Never cross cards with Cheater’s Welcome if you can’t match the technique. Dry forgot that fundamental rule of cardistry, which meant the shielding bend of her fanned cards was like fighting scissors with a bouquet of flowers.
Cut corners and stripes of electroglass tumbled, flickering, out of her hand. Nothing at her disposal was in one piece, so she would have to go back to her moat and stomp each card back to a viable form, but she didn’t make it one step away. Silver’s next move was so sudden that she couldn’t respond in time, and it could only be pulled off because Silver hadn’t expected it either.
The bloody card in their hand, strained to its limit by excessive sharpening, exploded outward when Silver tried to whip it back into their palm. Shards so fine as to be dangerous powder rocketed into Dry’s face and neck, peppering her visage with spots of fresh blood. Spared a deep wound, it nonetheless had her reeling, only realizing she was about to step into her moat at the last moment.
Dry had to hop with both feet to keep them safe, but landing safely was not in the cards. The hop turned into an aggressive backward lean, causing her to strike her head on the door and slump against it. Instincts kicking back against her botched plan, Dry was about to peel away and build an entirely new strategy around the stalls, but she saw what Long Odd Silver already had in store.
They’d hopped down from the sinks and claimed 2 of the most even strips from her minced cards, had one tucked into their index knuckle and middle knuckle. She recognized their shapes were regular enough to throw with effective force, not that her recognition mattered once they whizzed by on her left side like fastballs and blew both hinges off the door. Dry was leaning again, accompanied by the creak of wood that never expected to move in that direction again.
“No, no, no!” she yelped, hands scrambling for purchase as she fell with the door, slamming on the floor of the hall outside. Like a click beetle she flipped herself over, so erratically that she couldn’t get her limbs under her and wound up as flat as before. Her darting eyes caught on Long Odd Silver, who was just standing inside the restroom, concern mounting on their face. They looked as if they expected their heart to suddenly spray blood like a hydrant.
In the ensuing silence and stillness the reality washed over Dry Burgundy, like a low tide of dirty laundry. The door was all that ensured their privacy, and it had fallen down on the job, witnessed in full by the PS Viper True. From exactly which angles it now saw the scene was impossible to know, and so too was how they were interpreted.
Perhaps Silver could have won the fight with a shout, tattling on the woman’s attack and getting the riverboat to drag her out onto the deck and fry her to golden brown and then charcoal black and then ash gray. But they didn’t.
Which gave Dry a chance to counter with the same tactic, claiming it was all in self-defense, but she didn’t either, too afraid of the Viper True’s intellect. If it could see more than a few inches onto the tile it could see the moat of her cards shooting back and forth. It could see the grievous wound on Silver’s chest. And it could see that the only cards in use belonged to her deck.
But nothing was happening. Gradually, with a pallet of invisible bricks on her back, Dry pushed herself off the door. Her arms shook; hyperventilation worsened. If she could stand and walk away then the Viper True had misinterpreted events, not seen her homicidal intentions. 5 steps down the hall and she’d be safe to scheme again, to sweep this attempt at the 1to1 under the rug with one swipe of her foot.
17 degrees away from Dry standing fully erect they both heard a clunk in the floor. The woman breathed in sharply, turning her head like she’d just caught a bullet in her teeth, but no faux outrage or indignation could change anything now. Seams appeared on either side of her and the door she surfed on, immediately becoming chasms when a trapdoor opened on one side as a ramp leading into the bowels of the vessel.
Dry collapsed with the shift, landing on her stomach again. She reached a clawing hand toward the Plutonian as the door slid down into the darkness.
“Silver!” she screamed, her intent swallowed up as quickly as her. The trapdoor didn’t stick around, popping back up so the Viper True wouldn’t have to suffer the blemish of its shadows for a moment more than was necessary. By the time Silver stepped out onto the carpet they’d already lost the spots where the seams were, and only then did they realize that they now stood where the Viper True could do something about them as well.
“I didn’t want to fight her,” the Plutonian told the ship honestly, hand already over their heart in oath, swearing blood issuing from between their fingers. Long Odd Silver felt like collapsing, but something other than fear kept them upright. Acknowledge me. Tell me you understand what kind of person I am. Somebody out here has to, or I’m more stranded than I ever thought possible.
Something was coming down one of the railings, at high enough speed to be audible. Silver braced themselves for a bludgeoning, for something heavy to go flying once the railing tray ground to a halt and loosed an unsecured load. Instead it slowed gracefully and stopped just within their reach, topped daintily with a pristine white first aid kit. Silver smiled weakly, touched it, and then collapsed against the wall.
She’s dead. The Viper True didn’t want me to see it, such a sight is not conducive to the cruise experience, but Dry is dead, same as Zola. She didn’t get the 1to1 because I refused to get out of the way. I could’ve left this boat any time, but I made sure I was an obstacle to her.
And I’m still in Lime’s way. Still in Sonny’s way. Still in Roman’s. Long Odd Silver isn’t greasing wheels anymore. Just feeling greasy.
Even though he was living like clockwork, Roman Koch was keenly aware of how his life would soon change. Up at 6: breakfast alone, 2 eggs, one hard-boiled 2to1 and one soft-boiled 3to1, with fruit wedge medley and a stiff black coffee. Come 7: run laps around the deck, 20. By 8 he was in a gymnasium, hands buried in boxing dice, boxing dice buried in punching bags and training dummies.
That might get him as far as 12: lunch alone, ham sandwich, carrot sticks, yogurt, ice water. Sometimes it took him an hour to eat, stopping between bites to stare at the wall for 10 minutes. The Viper True would try to entertain him, start projecting a film right where he was looking, only for him to turn away.
He didn’t want distractions. Distractions got him betrayed back on Pluto, when he thought he could indulge in Saturnalia and trust his acolytes to keep the Eudaemons moving. The prince himself only needed to make the big strategies, show up to lead the charge against the Survivor Function.
Now he had another shot to get it right, to trust only himself and his abilities. That was where his head was around one: practice cardistry. Sure he hated it, but Lime would be using it solely if they ended up fighting to the death. So would Silver. So he threw cards at the wall until he could stick them in the same divots over and over again. Until his wrists smarted and begged for 3: reading in the library.
The Viper True wasn’t forthcoming with information about the rapidly approaching end of their voyage, so he searched for it in the volumes on offer. Mostly it was fiction and reference texts, but every so often he found notes scribbled in the margins, and even entire diary entries on previously blank pages from former passengers.
Any of them could’ve observed something that might’ve been helpful in his quest for a throne of reality. I certainly found a few of them enlightening, and entertaining to boot. If you’ll allow me a selection, one I believe enhanced by its overall lack of context and attribution:
‘To whom it may concern… do not attempt to dress up the captain’s shimmer. You won’t get the clothing back and you also won’t get much of a captain. What you’ll get is VT stuffing your closet full of replacements. She’ll overflow it and you’ll wake up under a pile. I think she was trying to make a point.’
‘The ship won’t let me vandalize it even though that’s what I came here to do, leave my art all over its skin for generations of truth-seekers to see. These pages are the only place she can’t clean or dispose of, so here are some nuggets of wisdom (check around the shelf for more): all cherrytops lack sweetness, the icy curve ball of Mephitis is coming, Vulcan theater is better than Antichthon’s if you discount ticket price…’
‘This was Moira’s favorite book. To think I’ll never see her again… but only in the process of seeing things for the first time. I’m even excited to see my first real shit. I think about a real, true, honest, more-than-theorized seagull flying overhead and dumping a load of reality all over my actual clothes and I grow a grin that Moira would’ve rowed her canoe off a waterfall to see. Love you baby, but not the way the real people can. Not yet.
6: early dinner alone composed of fish over rice or venison with mushrooms. Where the Viper True got its metal hands on a deer carcass he had no idea, until one day the ship came to a halt right next to an island.
With a pair of binoculars he was able to see well enough the tree thickets spanning the small place, as well as the animals watching right back from their shade. There were plenty of deer, the males bearing strange antlers growing solely at right angles, sometimes into a cube prism. He imagined it was a side effect of living so close to such good and orderly odds, just like the ice they’d narrowly navigated.
Such grazers would obviously strip an island of that size bare and die off from overpopulation, unless there was a very small population of some predator above them in the food chain. Then it hit him, first in the stomach, as that was the part most experienced with the matter.
Roman was that predator, but only indirectly. He tried to lean over the edge with his binoculars, but there was a large bay door open on the Viper True, opened up as an awning precisely to block his view, but he already knew what he was missing. Under that obscuring sheet some callous calculating mechanism was stretching out onto the island and herding the fearless deer, which couldn’t even recognize a man, aboard. He moved on rather than watch until it closed, as Silver had appeared on deck to observe it as well.
Whether the animals were swiftly slaughtered or kept fresh with some artificially maintained meadow to feed them was anyone’s guess, and as far as Roman’s guess he thought both possibilities equally likely. That island didn’t have too many deer because the Viper True had a surprisingly extensive menu. It was a roaming mountain lion, striding across the sea, plucking meals out of land buckets that had no route of escape.
None of that would’ve been on the itinerary on her maiden voyage. Barrels of lemon and lime juice with preservatives, in the name of preventing scurvy, slowly replaced with extending mechanical arms that clipped fruit off trees as they sailed by. She had learned to forage, now that she was without crew.
The Viper True was a part of nature, same as any fleshy beast or leafy plant or slimy microscopic decomposer. That was how she succeeded in finding the way to the 1to1. What she’d found was not a place, not exactly, but a rhythm, a harmony that tuned her into the frequency that actually showed up on the dial instead of all the others that begged for the chance in probable space.
She was a machine that settled into being a creature, and thus transcended in much the way the remaining passengers hoped to. From the idea of a man, the theory of a man, to a man who was full of what they once were, a colossus shooting off invisibly small possibilities in all directions as if radiating them. The very basis of an ecosystem of eventualities that died and rotted when they didn’t come to pass. To be one’s own central fire, one’s own sun.
7: spy on the others. Sunnyflower Oyle was drinking most nights, at a bar with lots of the artists, who were finally starting to thin out. The ones left were more cynical, those who would be smoking all the time if the Viper True had allowed it. They were writers with one novel to their name, convinced they were doomed to never be understood again, never thinking that one lump of insight was all they were every going to have to offer.
They made sense as company for the large man, for Oyle too seemed defeated by something. Roman wasn’t the best spy, but he did notice the Vulcanoe had taken to wearing all his wedding rings at once, tapping them up the side of his glass before he took each sip.
Galatin Lime wasn’t so easy to place. In fact he was impossible much of the time, giving the prince the distinct sense he couldn’t find the man because he was somewhere behind him doing counter-spying, a theory he was never able to confirm by whipping around and seeing the man skitter away.
And when he saw Long Odd Silver he knew he wasn’t spying. There wasn’t any information to take for one. They were as open a book as a poster folded in half once and left to slowly return to its original shape, or perhaps a napkin, any twists and turns quickly undone before being placed immediately in the lap.
The prince of Pluto, even after all this time, still didn’t know what they were. It vexed him to a small degree, but that was still far more than anything else confused him. Sometimes he brought out his platinum card when watching the other Plutonian, held it out to see if it would budge, try and get itself closer to the much more chaotic being.
Yet it never did. Somehow, whatever it wanted, Roman was the best way to facilitate that, which was worrying. When platinum was the cargo the destination mattered greatly, but not the condition of the delivering vessel when it arrived. Still, he didn’t dare abandon it, lest he offend whatever silversmith from whatever reality cast it then cast it his way.
Silver had 2 of their own, and Galatin had the one that completed the dead man’s hand. As they rapidly approached order it became more and more apparent that would be of great significance. Who was the dead man in this scenario? Would holding the hand doom them or protect them?
The odd man out was Sonny, none of his rings platinum and none of his cards either.
9: fall back to his rooms. Think. Play solitaire. Wait out the frustration until an acceptable time to turn in. Usually 10.
Thus ran the days of the prince of Pluto, until the 25th of October when his 8 o’clock appointment in the gym had a special guest star, complete with plenty of adoring fans. Roman was blindsided by flashes from several cards, all of them originating outside the boxing ring he’d been dancing crosshatches in for months now.
The people behind the cards were artists, but they were dressed more like reporters at the moment, an image furthered by all the photos they snapped of the approaching champion, who already had his shirt off and his 6 sided boxing dice hanging from a cord about his neck. The photographers got every angle of him as he strode closer, and Roman got the same on them.
The group was unpleasant to witness. Most were men, and one of the women snapping pictures had a face that had taken so many beatings and swellings that it had been reshaped into one much more like a man’s.
“I didn’t invite them,” Sunnyflower Oyle insisted from inside the ring, where he was resting with his back to one of the corners. “I think they just sensed my proposition for you.” The large man was in a yellow tank top and shorts, arms like brined hams hanging out, appearing to eat up a little more of the ring every time he shifted. He had a solemn look about him, his second chin protruding in an implication of overthinking, like he’d been stealing glances at cue cards sticking out of his pocket.
“What proposition is that?” Roman asked, not waiting for an answer to swing his leg over the ring and enter it.
“I’m going after the 1to1 this time.”
“You’re done getting hitched?”
“Yes, I’m now aware that my wives were more than I deserved. I don’t know if I only deserved one, or 2, but it certainly wasn’t 4. It’s time for me to move on from this world, 1to1 way or another.”
“And you want to settle some of that here in the ring?” Roman asked. He took off his dice and spun them, managing to do it silently even though each one was bigger than his head.
“Yes. I thought you’d appreciate a straightforward challenge after all this subterfuge business we’ve been in this past year. Also I’d like another crack at you after our little scuffle by the paddles: a fair shake this time. 2 men enter… and one man leaves. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so dramatic, since it likely attracted these gadflies.” He gestured to the artists, some of whom he’d been drinking with the past week and had no qualms about scavenging the great Americanish short story from the beached remains of their bar buddy.
“There’s no chance you’d rather be our captain?” Roman fished, trying out some rhetorical left hooks before he brought in the real one that could hit like steel and reel Sonny in like a perch. “You’d be joining your brides in some fashion.”
“Putting myself in a wedding dress,” Sonny muttered, shaking his big lilting head. “I wanted to be with them, not of them, of that I’m certain. I want to be right here, with my new dance partner, if you don’t mind the role.”
“That’s good; I gotta get that down,” one of the writers said, puffing on a cigarette, unlikely smoke pouring out of his ears as he jotted on a yellow pad with a pencil. “Role like roll of the dice. Like a rolling head.”
“Mom’s not going to let her kids duke it out to the death,” Roman reminded.
“No, the Viper True won’t impede us. I have seen something like this on one of my other trips. This is a duel, an accepted challenge to both parties. Death has always been a risk in dice boxing. As long as we stay in the ring and follow our own rules she won’t interfere at all… until she has to wipe one of us up that is.”
“If you don’t have any experience rolling the bones I’ll make mince out of you,” Roman assured him. “I like fair fights.” In response Sonny bent over the ropes, bending them far more than someone of less bear-like proportions would have, and produced from beside the ring a pair of boxing dice. He started putting them on, notching them into different probabilities with lightning-quick flicks of the wrist that seemed better suited to a featherweight than such a well-oyled locomotive.
His pair was different from Roman’s, bearing 8 faces rather than 6, capable of 2 additional probabilities: 2to1 all the way to 8to1. With Roman’s maximum sitting at 6to1 that might seem like an advantage, but it was all in technique. Sonny had more options for each blow, but it meant he had to take that much more time and be that much more precise when making split second decisions about how real each punch should be.
All regulation boxing dice had light-up numbers, keeping attentive fighters aware of what every die would collide with and what it would pass through. If you wanted to block an opponent’s strike you’d better make sure your dice were within one interval. If the dice came in very unlikely they could often sneak by, meaning the materials wouldn’t make contact, but the fist inside would.
Though they appeared much blunter than the implements of cardistry they required no less skill, and so Roman was correct to ask if Mr. Oyle was up to snuff. If he wasn’t the bout would be little more than an animal sacrifice, Sonny shown less decorum than the wide-eyed deer gently corralled into the invisible slaughterhouse below decks.
“You’re looking at a 3-time collegiate champion,” Sonny claimed, rolling his head around his massive shoulders to limber up. “I felled Jimmy Leadsweater in the 2nd round, took Marble Veronique to the judges’ cards, and socked Fat Lip Lucius right over the ropes. Some people got rich betting on me, so this time I’m betting on myself. You don’t mind that I’m running 8 faces?”
“No skin off my nose… but all of it off yours. I don’t need any of these mooks to ref; I think we can trust each other to keep it above the belt. I don’t need no bell either. One never-ending round… no breaks except bones… until the brutal end. Last chance to back out and try card tricks later.”
“Ding ding my friend,” Sonny said with a dark smile, clacking his raised dice together.
And there it began. Now here I must admit my distaste for what followed. I’ve been your humble narrator for 2 and 3/4 volumes now and together we’ve seen some hard men and the hard times they caused each other. All the while I did my best to dispassionately describe most of it as it very-nearly-happened, but this time is different.
When the Plutonians assailed Nth Degree Hall they were mostly roped into it and their foes had been driven at least partially insane by their crazy8 status. When Roman fed stolen zoo animals into Minty’s shop to spur her into cardistry no one was seriously injured, and the same happened when Silver and Roman were stuck in the extensive shadows of that Antichthon bear trap.
I even recounted, down to the last cicada, the terrible fate that befell Nathan ‘Neighbor’ Hood when he reemerged from the Gothic bedrock, but there was a lot more legal tape involved there and a lot less pigheadedness.
2 men thinking they can solve their problem by punching the ghosts out of each other, and pretending there’s a dignity to it by limiting it to the interior of a geometric shape of their choice is just… well it’s just not on. There was nothing to fight over, not in the next 10 minutes anyway. Still, I am expected to do my job, and this isn’t a position I’ve figured out how to slither free from quite yet. Let’s test the limits shall we? I will supply one detail and one lackluster example of poetic language at a time, and when it’s clear the threshold has been met we’ll skip ahead to the final blow… if that is indeed what happens. My apologies; there’s no excuse for giving away the ending regardless of my feelings on the matter.
1. Roman opened the fight with a hail of blows that Sonny did not attempt to dodge, letting his stomach absorb most of them. With his dice both set at 3to1, the 3 upon them glowing hot white like lamps about to blow their bulbs, it was a good way to gauge how the larger man would react to a less powerful and less likely strike.
Anything? No, no indication that was close to enough. Oh well, a somebody can dream. Let’s continue.
2. Sonny surprised him, flicking his dice while still under assault, both of them spinning and landing precisely on 8to1, out of range of Roman’s dice entirely. With arms raised like an iron drawbridge, he brought them down with confidence that flesh alone would deal the damage needed.
3. Roman blocked, but the strike stung and stunned, sending him reeling backward as the artists hissed and jeered to fill out their own background sounds for when they did what I’m forced to do now. Oh, something figurative…. Roman wobbled like a top on an active dance floor.
4. His head was screwed back on correctly by the time Sonny’s 3 forward strides closed the gap. Then the real fight started, both men swapping odds on each die independently of the other. Dice glided through each other like arguments across a table as often as they clashed and clacked.
5. Sonny’s side to side sliding was swift, but not his rotation, so Roman spun around him. The 2 body orrery drifted across the ring, never too close to the scratching pens of the artists taking notes, like a fence of thirsty spears. Some of the cards flashed as they snapped photos, so Roman tried to work the lights in, switching his probabilities in the tiny moments where everything was too white to see.
Another check? We’re closer, but it’s still just a small slide in the narrative. We’re not yet shifting under our own weight. Once we get there I won’t even have to say anything else, the implications would be enough for an ending.
6. Sonny switched odds on his left as the die was passing through Roman’s right, catching in its material and causing a powerful rebound. With more weight to absorb it, the larger man countered quicker, brought in a 5to1 uppercut to the sternum that bruised the bone with all the conviction of an executioner’s swing.
7. Being in the air didn’t stop Roman from fighting back, landing 3 hits to the ears before he landed himself. With Sonny dazed he went in again and boxed the man’s ears to rattle the rivets of the determined battering ram between them.
Come on now, that last sentence was flawlessly minted, at least when you account for the usual numeral on my grammatical karat. A couple more. If we’re not done by then I may have to abandon this project entirely. I don’t know what the consequences of that would be, but I’m more curious there than I am here regarding which blood droplets will land where on the canvas.
8. Bruises close to black rose up underneath Sonny’s eyes, the lids swelling, looking to him like something was about to bust through the floor and interrupt the bout. He needed to end this quickly or he’d become too blind to do anything other than flail, across the space as well as the odds.
9. One bastard hit another. Some dice did the same. And for our required bit of metaphor… Sonny saw lights. The lights of heaven, making it to him from between the flashes in divine ropes. His tears climbed as his lids swelled, and in their water he saw backlit golden portraits of his angelic wives.
God damn it. Damn this 3rd person omniscience. Who even wants to know these things? Not me, I can tell you that much. Somebody above my station, with even less respect for the little people dragged across these toy stages like there are magnets under the floor.
10. Sunnyflower Oyle went down, to his knees. He could be heard breathing, each iteration wheezing out of his great chest like some whale that had forgotten how to dive and was slowly starving as it tread water. Words were not beyond him, swollen and clogged as they were somewhere in his broken nose and lurching tongue, but he kept them to himself, having already said everything he needed to say to the prince of Pluto.
11. “Say hello to whatever’s next for me.” That’s what Roman said as he wound up to a final punch, clicked the odds on his right die down to 2to1. Never the most respectful man, it really was the best he could do, and he couldn’t be blamed for the situation any more or any less than his victim.
Anyway, I’ve met my quota. You know what happens next. Roman made it as quick as he could, and put all his frustrations over the past year into it. At some point he lost his composure, which he only noticed when he freed his hands from his dice and saw they were shaking. I would’ve shouted at him when he realized it if I could have, not that it would’ve done any good. The fight was one of those burr ideas that sticks only in a man’s head. When it comes out it brings blood with it, and they won’t understand where they picked it up in the first place.
The prince had to free his hands so he could check the pulse in the neck of a slumped Mr. Oyle, his body already a coffin as the brain within swelled beyond the capacity of his skull to safely hold. Roman kept his fingers there until he couldn’t feel anything. He’d killed a man, his first of the voyage.
When his finger left Sonny’s cooling throat he saw that all the vultures had stopped circling, interested as they were in the struggle and not the outcome. Apparently corpses didn’t have stories to tell, not even the dead passengers of the PS Viper True.
Roman didn’t want to see her eat the scraps, so he left quickly, throwing himself in the first shower he found, ignoring the possibility that he could be ambushed by Lime since it wasn’t in one of his typical cabins. It wasn’t easy to wash off; all the water was fresh from the Rivulets below. As such he could feel how it was closer to 1to1 than the waters they’d sailed a few months ago. It felt like zippers closing all down his skin, like he was being vacuum sealed in a plastic bag in preparation of being thrown into a dark instrument and shipped across space to a kind of void that would appreciate his flavor more.
What a thing to be the prince of… but what else was left for him at the end of this liquid line?