Planet in Theory: Riverboat Without a Captain (Finale)

(back to part one)

(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 17 minutes)

November 7th


Our Nemesis

The artist’s retreat was over, and most of the last weren’t worth saying goodbye to. Long Odd Silver only sought out one of them, not meaning any offense to the rest of her band of course; it was just that none of them other than their lead singer had spoken a word the entire time. Perhaps she was the only one who could.

How the artists left was never actually witnessed, with the passengers assuming they vanished when there was nobody to observe them, as often happened with things in probable space that were either unsure of themselves or too sure of one aspect of themselves. Roxy Clink was likely the latter.

Silver met her in the greenhouse on a foggy morning, already knowing how it would go down. The clouds just past the door looked too much like the effects of a fog machine creeping around stages left and right. Roxy was about to take her bow, and would be swallowed up in the gray. It was too perfectly like her to ignore.

“You’re leaving now?” Long Odd Silver asked, the musician leaning and sniffing at various flowers. In her line of work most of the plants she came across were artificial, stuffed into vases to make a place look alive. “Can’t you see how imminent the danger is? I’ve got my armor on and everything.”

To those uninitiated in cardistry their clothing certainly wouldn’t look like armor. Pants with the legs rolled up almost to the knee. A compression top. No jewelry to be found, unless one counted the liquid gems forever rolling down their cheeks. But they were ready for battle, as there was nothing loose for cards to catch in and nothing weighing them down. The only item interrupting Silver’s sensual silhouette was a deck holster hanging off one hip by a belt, a style choice they’d picked up on Antichthon.

“I can’t see anything through this fog,” Roxy claimed, glancing past Silver and through the glass. “It’s so likely it’s like a concrete wall. We’re context artists; none of us are present enough in the moment for odds like this. Couldn’t stay much longer if I wanted to.”

“Why didn’t you warn me about Dry Burgundy? I would’ve liked to avoid that encounter and have her as long as circumstances allowed.”

“You wanted me to perform in the john?” she said, as close to offended as she’d ever been. “We’re a class act Silver. Nobody collapsing on the can has ever heard us in their ears. That’s not a swinging time; you don’t need musical accompaniment for that.”

“I’m running out of accompaniment, and it’s wearing me thin,” Silver admitted, tears surging in earnest. “I’ve never felt less ready to take on firm odds. We’re still without a captain, coursing dead ahead to a barrier… the barrier. Even if I claim what the others would call victory, and become made of something enough to see what I’m made of, I’ll be alone. Forever cut off from those I love in probable space.”

“You don’t think you can love real people?” Roxy tried to pluck a blossom, but her hand passed right through it. The materials made a sound, like a sigh, as they just missed each other on the existential spectrum, passengers spying each other as their trains went in opposite directions. Long Odd Silver felt it too, in their heart, which was now so likely that it didn’t bounce around at all. The feeling was right there on the left of their chest, stuck firm like a pounded stake.

“I’m not sure the ones in the 1to1 are real people,” Silver said, thoughts finally lining up. “A person is dynamic, unfixed. A person is the freedom to change, to feel something and then something completely different. In the 1to1 everything they do is permanent. They can’t change what they’ve done by misremembering or recontextualizing it. Others around them, wounded by them, will insist it happened one way and one way only.

How can enemies become lovers over there? How can people get confused about where they stop and where others begin? The skin is just skin over there, not the skin of bubbles that can join and forget their old shapes. How can there ever be forgiveness when their every act scars the world?

If I can’t forgive them how can I love them? I worry they live in a world of secret hate, everyone settling for the best they can get, scrambling for emotional scraps. They get the realness, the material, but they don’t understand that we in probable space get the real emotions. Everything felt is felt in theory. No 2 loves can become one, but 2 ideas of love can.”

Lost in the outpour, Long Odd Silver hadn’t noticed Roxy Clink’s approach. Her face was in the crook of their neck, breathing them in like another flower. They were thrown off kilter; never had another person gotten so close without them noticing. Their bubbles were touching, threatening to become one, the glide of their surface tensions intensely erotic, so much so that it was more like fear or adrenaline, like their train car teetered off a broken bridge.

“So, ultimately, you’re afraid of being alone,” Roxy whispered, making it clear it was not a fear she understood. Her band was part of her. She never sang solo.

“Yes, but I’m so confused as to how I got that way. I’ve been around people since I fell out of a book. I did things for them, with them. I loved them; I know I did. Where did they go, exactly, emotionally?”

“About their business,” the singer said. “And I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go about mine. I do wish you the best of luck during your danger… or the worst if you choose to stay here. I hope you’re cradled in crazy8 once again if that’s what you want.”

What Long Odd Silver wanted was a roll in the flora, useful as hay in a pinch. They wanted to take Roxy body and feeling, toss her around and reel her back in, find orgasms in the underbrush, as curated as each petal and stamen in that glass music box, but achieved with greater and dripping expediency. They wanted to water her and be watered in turn. To be 2 showers angled into each other, drops passing by perfectly, unified in the steam roiling overhead and heel.

They wanted sex and love and company for the both of them, but Roxy Clink knew it wasn’t happening. She demonstrated that knowledge by walking straight through Silver like they weren’t there, because they weren’t, not quite yet anyway. Silver sobbed as she did so, heart struck like the harsh ping of a pinball bell.

By the time they turned around Roxy had ignored the door and entered the fog, which swallowed her up like a haze of flash powder about a red carpet. Of course she wasn’t in the mood; she was about to head off to her next gig. All that sultry energy had to be saved up for the crowd. Every hip check had to hit the beat, not Long Odd Silver’s lonely lowdown downside. Roxy Clink was about her business, and the crazy8 vessel of crocodile tears was unemployable, now and for some time ever.

They had to take the door like it was really there, and the fog refused to send them anywhere else. Once they’d emerged into the open air they turned and saw the shape of it. The fog was a brick surrounding the greenhouse, as rigid a shape as any of the ice mountains they’d narrowly avoided.

With Roxy off to another somewhere that wasn’t there, the cloud also made its exit, rising like an elevator car until it placed itself among the others that now uniformly made up the sky. All the clouds were now stacked boxes under thin veils of cobweb, an unnaturally ordered site that solemnly spoke to Silver. It was time.

That morning they’d received a card slipped under their door, as Roman surely had as well. It was a polite invitation to meet Galatin Lime on deck, in full view of the Viper’s great glass eye, and get this all sorted out before it was too late. It didn’t take a genius, or even the little sibling of a genius looking up to them, to figure out what that meant. Lime and his employers were ready to reveal their gambit, and if they were lucky it would be as straightforward as the Oyle vs. Koch fight for the title of ‘still knocking about’.

Hence the cardistry armor and holster. Hence the boxing dice hanging around Roman’s neck when Silver found him standing right where he was supposed to stand. They shared a look, but the prince of Pluto was keeping his distance in every way. They hadn’t even spoken since Oyle was downed and outed, with Silver finding out when the Viper True stopped setting a place for the large man in yellow at his typical breakfast haunts.

Sonny had been the final passenger, aside from Silver, who would ever call themselves lover first and fighter 2nd. It was difficult for the gentler Plutonian to see the fatal fight as anything other than a rebuke of their relationship with him, and a vote of confidence in the process of their current ship.

The prince wore a padded vest often used in dice boxing sparring. Sports tape was wrapped about his forearms and ankles. His biceps bulged and chafed against the sleeveless vest like bulls testing the limits of their wooden pens. No matter what Lime threw at them, this was how he would’ve prepared for it. This was how he would’ve prepared for a game of jacks or marbles or competitive love note passing.

Lime wasn’t exactly late to his own party, but he did arrive last, and looked less like he was about to fight and more like he was about to treat his coworkers to a few rounds after his floor had wrapped up a big sale.

His tie was loose around his neck, as loose as it could go without looking more like a python draped over his shoulders than an article of clothing. A pair of something sportier than dress shoes was on his feet, and they squeaked across the polished deck as he made his way to a spot opposite the Plutonians by a fair distance, about as far as a card could be thrown with absolute certainty of its accuracy.

He smiled at them, tousled his already tousled hair, loosened his already loosened tie, and brought out his deck. He shuffled, occasionally glancing up at them and giving a little snort with a shake of his head, like he almost couldn’t believe how well he’d managed to work everything out over the course of an entire year.

“Are we doing this or what?” the prince of Pluto eventually growled, cracking his knuckles.

“Do you even know what we’re doing?” Lime asked with a tilt of his head. “Or why we’re doing it now?”

“We’re almost there,” Silver answered, gesturing to the sky and its storage shed clouds. “Everything is in order. On this day a full year has passed, and there’s still nobody driving the Viper True.” All 3 of them felt the truth of it in their feet. The waves were too calm to rock the boat. The rivulets beyond were flat as a mirror too bored to reflect anything. The dull gray of reality had set in like film grain, all the minute events too small for life to concern itself with that nonetheless were the final truth of everything that was. Much smaller than ideas. Ittier and bittier than any choice. Yet making all of them up in the 1to1.

“Before we proceed, have either of you decided to fill the big shoes?” Lime asked, cutting his deck to one very particular card, the most particular card he’d ever possessed.

“I think you’re the perfect man for the job,” Roman snarled at him. “We’re all counting you.”

“Don’t ask me why, but I won’t do it either,” Silver said resolutely, thrilled to be sure of at least that part of this whole affair.

“To be expected,” Lime said with another dip of his head. He took off his glasses, always nothing more than a comfortable part of his milquetoast disguise, and tossed them overshoulder and overboard. “There was a clause built into my contract that if one of you did fill the shoes there was nothing more to be done about it on my end. Lots of liability to cover in my line of work.”

“What crazy line is that?” the prince asked. “The world is telling us it’s time to straighten all these things out.”

“Who are your employers?” Long Odd Silver asked him more directly. They could play a straight-laced game as well, albeit uncomfortably.

“You are,” he answered with a wry grin. Off the top of his deck’s fresh cut came a slab of monumental metal, big in implications if not dimensions. He held up his platinum ace of kisses, planting it on their psyches. It had lips in its corners, but that was just the design of the suit. Parts of other faces flitted about in its gleam by the hundreds, the thousands, the uncountable -ands. But in them, even from that distance, both Long Odd Silver and Roman Koch recognized reflections.

“My clientele is not of the world Vulcan,” Lime claimed grandly, already louder than they’d ever heard him. A breeze straight as a clothes line pulled his hair and his tie to one side. “Nor are they of Antichthon.” The wind took him back the other way, but his body didn’t lean, only his leanings. “Nor Phaeton.” Back again. “And they wouldn’t be caught dead or buried in frozen Pluto soil.” The wind died and let him drape in glorious open directionless intention.

“My clients hail from Nemesis.”

If Long Odd Silver and Roman had been gaspers they would’ve gasped, panickers panicking, fliers taking off from the handle. Nemesis. A planet they now saw as red despite no one they’d known ever seeing it, despite context artists never filling it out definitively.

Legend and curse and spite had it that Nemesis was the bad luck in the universe that was nothing but luck. It was a molten core of broken mirrors, each tectonic plate a ladder rung walked under by billions, its topsoil salt futilely tossed over one particular shoulder, never mind which because there was no agreement on that binary.

Nemesis was where evil came from. It rained misfortune on other worlds as it passed by at a great obscuring distance, and when struck you were thwarted in all your endeavors. It took the blame for everything, but now Mr. Lime laid claim to some of the blame, told them Nemesis truly was the force behind some of it. The force behind him, backing his place as passenger.

“It’s a place as much as the other theorized planets?” Silver asked with dark and hot curiosity making their voice throaty.

“It’s enough of a planet to be seen, but only through the right kind of lens,” Lime explained, shaking the ace of kisses in a way most of the population of probable space would consider blasphemous. “The platinum deck, and its pieces, are one such lens. I use my ace here to talk with my clients and arrange jobs.”

“What do they pay you with?” Roman asked.

“Mostly a good time, but other things too, and none of them are money. I jumped at the chance to get on the Viper True and watch it cruise to its destination, jumping off at the last moment of course; there’s nobody less suicidal than me.”

“How do you plan on doing that?”

“You’re about to find out, but first you need to be introduced to yourselves.” Lime aimed the ace of kisses at the prince. All its reflections became his. “These are all the Roman Kochs that live on Nemesis. They’re all the ones that almost got to be in your place. But they were less likely. So they got to be tinned on Nemesis like sardines, forced to sense through you what opportunities they could have had. Every day they argue about which of them could have done a better job, but they all stopped and swallowed when they saw in the aether of chance which way your dice were falling.”

Lime whipped the card to his right with such power that it practically sounded like a circular saw as it shredded the air. Such was its speed that the ace of kisses left an afterimage every few feet, but not of itself. Of Roman. 30 or so appeared, those closest to Lime taking up a 3to1 sort of space while those further away looked 4to1.

There are a lot more, still on Nemesis. These are just the ones likely enough to stand on this deck, and who fought the throngs enough to fit inside the tiny rectangle window of the platinum card. They’re his nearest regrets, the ones he’s felt breathing down his neck. Every last one of them thinks they would be king of Pluto at this moment had it been them steering the most present version of Roman Koch.

Each one displayed slight variations: more haphazard tape, additional scars, a full head of hair, darker and lighter skin tones, 8-sided boxing dice instead of 6… What they all had in common, aside from their Roman noses and the Koch faces surrounding them, was a platinum outline lacquered onto their near-being, diving suits which allowed those accustomed to the stress-sauna atmosphere of Nemesis to take a dive toward the bright bottom of the solar system.

Next, after it had curved and returned to Lime, the ace of kisses was turned toward Long Odd Silver and its reflections changed to match. I would’ve said I had no significant regrets right up until this moment. It would be cruel to deny them; there they are. He whipped the card again, to his left, and 30 or so Silvers lined up behind it, their tears even brighter than the realest of them, outlined as they were in platinum.

Silver even recognized some of them, as they wore the other outfits they’d been contemplating in front of their extensive closet that last few days. Each variation was a significantly greater deviation from the base than any of Roman’s, implying his being was altogether more focused and concentrated than Silver’s. All he wants is his crown, and it has made him so dense he’s nearly become a singularity. His vibrations are being compressed to stillness, which means if all of them don’t get what they want there’ll be an explosion.

The rogue looked into the eyes of their other roguish elements to see if this was all a misunderstanding, if perhaps they were there to help. After all, Long Odd Silver was sure they didn’t despise themselves, but no. The other Silvers didn’t have the same rage in their eyes as the other Romans, but they looked cunning and determined, like tigers that had been stalking the same prey nearly to starvation, but had always reserved the energy for one last pounce.

“Don’t tell me you wouldn’t gladly put this aside and go have a drink with me,” Silver challenged their doppelgangers, but they didn’t take the bait despite only ever seeing drinks on the only channel their platinum television was tuned to.

“They won’t speak,” Lime informed, catching his ace on its return trip and swirling it across and through his fingers as if scalding hot. “Everything they would say you’ve already heard in the back of your mind. This is where those voices act, at the crucial superposition. Whoever among them lands the killing blow on you will get to take your place.”

“And be the 1to1,” Roman growled, shoving his fists into his dice and priming them to the probabilities he wanted to use for his opening salvo.

“That’s absurd,” Silver countered. Their understudies had to see the futility. Even if they could win, they would still have to capture Lime or Roman and force them to be the captain, which all the other Romans would surely object to as well. The Silvers did see this, but it was Lime who gave their rebuttal.

“Yes it’s all very messy, but the slimmest chance is still the best chance they’ll ever have. Only here, where the odds are so straightened out it feels like a cage, can they even take form. Normally when I work on behalf of Nemesis it’s all to give them a mere glimpse of an alternate possibility.

I force people to do things they wouldn’t normally, to vindicate the overpopulated vapors of Nemesis, to momentarily and minutely quiet its howl in the void.” For a second Lime looked very tired. His feet seemed to shrink a little, infant toes wriggling in big shoes they retreated from filling. Silver caught it, but it was fleeting, overshadowed by a sudden surge of silence.

It was as if the PS Viper True had come to a stop… but not quite, the Plutonians realized. The waters were now so still that there was no way to discern motion, and the Rivulets made not a sound. All wind but their breath had frozen. Silver turned to look at the signaling glass just in time to see its idle footage of herons fade away.

The glass retracted to a lower position as it went inert, taking with it all sound and vibration from the myriad mechanisms below. She was now a ghost ship, doomed to a derelict drift as long as the person behind the helm was just a shimmer that could only catch the corner of an uncertain eye.

“The Viper True’s computers run on trinary data,” Lime reminded them. “Here, so close to the truth, it is just ones and zeroes. She can’t think, she can’t guide. Now, to finish the final leg of the journey, we need a captain… and that’s something you must work out amongst yourselves.”

With that Galatin Lime held up his platinum ace of kisses and stared into it, seeing no reflection but his singular own. In the service of Nemesis no regret haunted him, and its many paths, ruinous and bountiful alike, were open to him. The man in green vanished. The card dropped to the deck.

His only job was to get the ace here, to this place and time, so our regrets could come through and challenge us for our thrones. Everything he did this year was whittling, shaving off those who weren’t Plutonian to make sure we were the only 2 left. How long have I been planning this? What parts of me had the aerial view and knew where these paths led? Some of them had to, or they couldn’t have given Lime directions and he couldn’t have beaten us to our crash site.

None of the regrets bothered to arm themselves with the abandoned ace. Such flimsy things as them knew better. Perhaps after they were in control of the realest body there, but not before. Before it was more of a landmark, a road, and to wield a road was to be crushed by it. Instead they used the tools they knew 2nd best, since Silver and Roman knew them first.

30 odd Kochs put their fists in dice and rolled them to suitable orientations, clacking them together in threat. Numbers lit up across them, too many for their target to track, especially since his opponents were nigh indistinguishable from each other. Despite this, it could still be argued that he would have an easier time than Silver.

The reason? 30 or so complete decks of electroglass cards. That’s why. Multiply by 52, exempting any surprise jokers, and that’s 1,560 potential projectiles, and only a small portion of them would be used as daggers at any given time. Most would be headed Silver’s way as missiles.

To prepare they set their own deck to work swiftly, turning more than half of it into multiple belts of orbitals: their true suit of armor. 2 of these belts moved diagonally and crossed over their chest. Another around the waist. Then 3 cards spinning around their scalp as a defensive crown. Their remaining 18 cards were fanned out in their hands, 9 each. Long Odd Silver did not have a dominant hand, but they noticed some of their duplicates did. How much better could my life have been if I was right-handed? How much more interesting on the left? Quiet. All this speculation just makes them stronger.

Being the same sort of ideas, the regrets had the same sort of ideas. Out came their own decks and their own arrangements of orbiting cards. Again they revealed their higher variance, for some of them weren’t using either of the constituent styles that made up Long Odd Silver’s hybrid technique. Some were clearly in Big Fan, Cat Steps, and Express Mail stances.

The most daring of the regrets took a single step forward, which was by far the most impactful thing any of them had ever done. After that it was a deluge of the same. The small army of Nemesists, as I’ve just decided to call natives of that most dangerous and insufficiently distant world, surged toward their prey.

“Roman! We can still do this together! We each can compensate for the other’s faults! Back to back! 2 hemispheres of Pluto!” Silver shouted to him, desperately trying to lay bare their earnest feelings. Even in his tight shoulders, they saw a sulk. He had already made up his mind, so that none of the other Kochs could take it.

“A royal keeps his own house in order,” was his answer as he turned to face his charging regrets, “and he stomachs no usurper.”

There was no time left to argue with him, as the battle of the Silvers started sooner. A cone of thrown cards shot toward the realest Long Odd, and they had to reach out and slice with their fans to keep the objects from disrupting the orbital armor prematurely. Sight of the assailants was lost in the face of their tossed onslaught, so Silver backpedaled and turned toward the stairs that would lead to the bridge, where the captain’s silhouette waited.

If they were going to out-card 30 regrets Silver needed to force a bottleneck, give themselves the ability to fight one at a time, and the confines of the bridge might achieve that, so they kept walking backward, checking the reflections in the orbiting cards as they whizzed by rather than take the risk of looking over a shoulder.

Already they’d sliced enough cards from their corners to deplete the regrets’ expendable ammunition, so there was a momentary respite where they closed the distance, slipping and sliding on the remnants, some of them doing so with intentional grace that brought them to the forefront.

They’re me, but individually none is close to as strong. That’s why they had to team up, share the spotlight, and strike together. This is just like when Minty saw herself in the platinum bookmark that came with me. It unlocked her cardistry skills because that was part of another Minty that had taken a different path, one that lived on Nemesis instead of Pluto.

But it couldn’t change her much. That wasn’t anywhere near the 1to1. These Nemesists can get all of me now, but each one is still just one different decision. They aren’t close to being whole. Thieving should be for what won’t be missed, not someone’s everything. We’ll show these things what it is to live, not to fight, wholehearted.

Long Odd Silver’s foot hit the first step up. Through the slats, just 15 feet further, there was a mad huddle of dice boxers all vying for the title fight of prince of Pluto. Our Roman put Silver’s theory regarding the regrets’ weakness to the test right away, smashing his right die right into an unsuspecting face, breaking a nose and that regret’s resolve at the same time. He dropped to the deck; one down.

A couple blows hit his shoulders as he slid to keep his back to a metal wall. They were mere shadows of his punches, but they could not be withstood for long. He needed to have the momentum, not brace inside the bunker of raised dice, so he swung wide with both arms, pushing the regrets back as he spun his wrists and set his dice to their lowest probability: 6to1. That all but insured they wouldn’t contact any of the 3to1 and 4to1 invaders, allowing him to get his hidden hands on them.

Pushing off from the wall, Roman grabbed the waistband of the regret in front of him through his unlikely dice and shoved, using the lesser man as a battering ram to plow through the others. All the way to the safety rail, which he promptly transformed into a hazard by flicking his dice to better odds and clocking the regret so many times that he bent over it backward. The Nemesist lost consciousness, only held to the deck by the pressure Roman applied, so when the others grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back their cohort flopped limply over the side and fell in the Rivulets.

The splash was a single square ripple that died quickly, but the disturbance triggered something else in the waters by breaking their serenity just enough for ice suspended beneath the surface to rise. It did so silently in an eerie show that all but encircled the drifting Viper True. These were not the colossal cubes from before, but towering prisms far longer and taller than they were wide, topped with natural formations like staircases, every angle a perfect 90 degrees.

Not that either of our Plutonians could take the time to see the rising skyline. Long Odd Silver was indoors on the bridge, having fought their way to an intriguing stalemate. In the momentary calm regrets sidled along the walls, plucking lodged cards from them to add back to their dwindling decks.

Purest Silver had lost a few, but they were nothing compared to the losses of the Nemesists. The Plutonian’s platinum ace of wheels and 8 of drinks were responsible, each taking up a primary position in Silver’s fanned hands. It was the utmost hubris to wield platinum like that, treating them like personal sabers, but Silver didn’t see many other options if they were to get out of this intact.

So far the cards had tolerated their presumption, and been wielded most effectively. Utilizing a compressed thumb technique, that would most certainly lead to a pulled muscle after sustained use, Long Odd was able to flick platinum cards out of the fan, have them spin like saws briefly, and have them glide back into position, without so much as a nick to their own digits.

Striking electroglass and regret alike, the pack of assailants had been thinned down to 23, with a trail of bodies all the way up the stairs. Each faded away at its own rate, a reverse correlation to their determination that day.

Vicious platinum fangs were not the cause of the stalemate however; that was Silver’s proximity to the captain’s silhouette. One heel practically kissed the big shoes to fill. A single peck would be enough to hire the Plutonian and force them to charter a course for whichever Roman survived.

“You don’t know if I’ll actually do it,” Silver noted as the regrets silently picked the best positions to stand in, “which means I don’t know either. It might be better to put all this behind us, steer this boat somewhere nice for the prince, for the memory of our other friends who didn’t get to finish this cruise.” The regrets’ expressions begged Silver not to. No Nemesist even had the privilege of starting the cruise.

“Are any of you a Long Odd Silver that stayed on Pluto?” One of them stepped forward: 3to1, more collected than the others, wearing glitzier armor, and orbited by cards lusciously marked with black rose and aquamarine lipsticks. They bowed with one arm across their waist, holding up a stack of 3 that looked all too ready to fly and chop a head from its neck.

“Wow, look at you,” our Silver said, genuinely in awe. The regret smirked in thanks, but in that expression was a sadness, felt in all of them, fleshed out by our Silver’s thoughts. And just whose lips were pressed against those cards? Minty’s? Peachy’s? Somebody new? They could belong to Mr. Seaborg or Ms. Clink for all I know. They could be celebratory kisses after a revolution.

We could’ve kicked Antichthon off Pluto, maybe. We could’ve been heroes. Statues. Mayor of Atrium City. Wait…

“You weren’t elected mayor of Atrium City were you?” they asked the glitzy and kissed Nemesist. They smirked again, but wobbled their head about, which their sibling in theory understood to mean ‘more or less, but definitely not properly elected’. “Congratulations then. Are you seeing anyone?” Finally the smiling stopped. “Are any of you?” Not a grin in the bunch. “That’s the rub then. We have to go to the 1to1, otherwise we wind up alone. There’s just no chance for love here… but I thought there was none there…”

Their heel slipped the last little distance toward the captain’s before it would be all over but the hard day’s work behind the helm. All of a sudden the waiting game didn’t feel like much of a game anymore to the Nemesists. Several of them threw curving cards that would wind up between the captain’s head and Silver’s, forcing them to take a step forward.

That step was a favor to the glitzy regret, who was physically closest. They dove and tackled Silver from the side, with several others joining them. Silver was thrown against the observation glass, and then through it with a shatter. Armed only with an educated guess against the force of gravity, Silver grabbed the regret right back and turned, letting them absorb most of the impact when they struck the deck together and regrets piled up on top.

A short distance away, about to become a longer distance in a similarly painful process, Roman was also pushed by the collective strength of his assailants… right over the railing. What would’ve happened if he hit such orderly Rivulets would not have been pretty, something like drowning inside a dumbwaiter, but he struck ice instead, as one of the stair-wrapped towers had risen to fill that space.

The Viper True still drifted forward, but the tower had caught on the front of a paddle that no longer turned and become lodged. Nemesists leapt down into the new venue, as they didn’t want Roman escaping into the bowels of the ship through the hatch they’d used to receive Lime’s orders the first time an icy hazard had come around.

He expected the floor to be slippery, but instead there was grit, granting him enough traction to throw loaded punches without falling on his face. The Nemesists were less likely, and didn’t interact with the grit at all, so they were stuck gliding at him as if in an ice skating rink. Briefly it was as easy as shooting plywood ducks in a carnival game.

One would come gliding in only to take a 4to1 corner to the cheek and fly off the side into a drink that had gone very flat. The only problem was that he didn’t see how they were coordinating; each time he avoided one to clock another he was forced back into the recesses of the tower’s top. before he knew it there were walls of ice on every side and several man-thick pillars providing cover for his enemies.

17. Still 17 of his personal bastards left. Roman locked a deep breath in his chest and threw away the key. He let his muscles burn, sure he could punch his way out of this with logs of pure black charcoal. And he proved it too, with the best damn dice boxing probable space had ever seen.

I don’t say that because I’m biased in his favor, having traveled with him all this way. I say it because it was his own 1to1, a reality that he made through determination alone. They closed in from all sides, and found the grace of a ballerina stuffed inside the rage of a rhinoceros that had just suffered a squirt of hot sauce to the nostrils. Every blow of Roman’s was a different probability, and the best one for the target it struck. He crushed a head between one die and a pillar. He shattered a jaw with an uppercut, its owner landing atop a pillar with limbs hanging like wet rags. He locked die faces with the Nemesists so perfectly that they didn’t grasp how he managed to deflect them and wound up staring at their own weapons in confusion, as if they’d rolled new irrational numbers that had never been painted on.

Yet the best damn dice boxing probable space had ever seen was only enough to turn 17 regrets into 8. And it was the craziest 8 who were left. They threw every one of their own punches like it was the last, like they’d bet the whole farm, like they were kicking the bucket and hoping it would land on their foe’s head and blind them.

One had taken off his dice and started pelting Roman with bricks of ice, which the prince admirably disintegrated by striking them as they flew in, but it was too successful a distraction. He took a 3to1 die to the ear, then a 2to1 fist between the eyes. Then he was reeling. All the grit seemed to vanish beneath his shoes as he slid into a wall, and was then battered away from it until colliding with a pillar.

They were on his back. The composition of the ring changed moment to moment as bricks were pulled free and flung. The Plutonian prince felt the revolution coming for his neck; there was a rope of desperation tightening around it. If it wasn’t him… then it wouldn’t be any of them. That was his truth from the moment he crawled out of an Atrium City dumpster on the scrappiest and most embarrassing-to-justify planet in the theorized universe.

Pluto was a planet, until it wasn’t, and Roman Koch was a prince, until he wasn’t. Then they were proud to be nothing, and the best at that too. He let the dice slip off his hands and tossed them away to create his own distraction, but it only gave him enough room for one maneuver: the pulling of a card from his sleeve.

The only card he had on him was the platinum 8 of lights. The Nemesists had plenty of their lights punched out, and now it was his turn. A scarred regret lunged and was quickly dispatched when the platinum card was dragged across his throat. The resulting spray of blood ran down an ice wall in perfectly straight lines that all turned at right angles to join each other, like a circuit diagram until it was just one flat line disappearing into a crevice.

“No coming back from that,” Roman sighed, but he referred to his most immediate self and not the one he’d just sliced open. Already his arm was numb, his fingers stiff, all because he’d wielded a platinum card as his sole weapon, as if it was Excalibur, and as if he was the king. That’s not what you did with platinum cards, not if you wanted to keep living. They made you history, to be sure, but they made you history in all the ways you could be. The prince of Pluto knew, with cold penetrating his boiling brain, that he was done for. It was time to fold, to take a walk in the cool night air outside the party, to see what was happening in the rest of the world and feel humbled and shrunk until there were no feelings at all.

The deep breath he’d locked away wasn’t used up yet, and he had to force himself open to let it out and make different use of it. All his regrets paused, as it looked like their target was about to speak, perhaps throw in the towel in the face of the unblinking planet Nemesis.

“Silver!” the prince of Pluto bellowed as loud as he ever did, knowing full well his fellow Plutonian would hear him in these still waters no matter how big the Viper True was. Expecting an answer was absurd, as Silver surely had their hands full of themselves, but it was meant only as a warning that a mixed bag of gifts was headed their way.

Roman cocked his arm back and fired off the platinum 8 like a cannon. It sailed through the bridge of a Nemesist’s nose, dropping them, through a wall of ice as if it were marshmallow, and back up to the deck of the cruising riverboat. Right to them.

Long Odd Silver caught it, fingers snapping on it with all the might of a predatory turtle; if they didn’t want to release it they wouldn’t, even long after death. Blowtorches would have to crumble their fingers away to get at it. Silver’s regrets too a step back, all 12 that remained. That was when our dear Long Odd Silver caught their lessers sneaking a glance down at the deck.

So the Plutonian looked at their own boots and saw what concerned them: Lime’s platinum ace of kisses. It was right under their toe, the fight having made its way back to the spot where it fell. Such a thing was not a coincidence in any of the 13 iterations of Silver’s mind present. The cards themselves had made it so; the hand was to be completed.

With a daring backward sweep they kicked the ace up behind them, twirled and grabbed it. Their thumbs flicked out every electroglass card in their hand that wasn’t that most vital and dangerous color, into the orbitals.

They thrust the 4 cards forward and fanned them out, letting probable space see what had been achieved, if not by whom. Ace of kisses. Ace of wheels. 8 of drinks. 8 of lights. The Dead Man’s Hand. The ill omen with the platinum lining.

All doubt has kissed me goodbye. It doesn’t matter if there’s no love for me here or no love for me in the 1to1. I have to leave. If I don’t I won’t have my own story anymore. Long Odd Silver will be nothing but the latest body to fall holding the Dead Man’s Hand. Either I use this to make the impossible possible or I go right back in a book never meant to be read.

The very act of completing the hand, of proclaiming it, released a shock wave that had regrets skidding across the deck. It traveled through them, through air and metal hull, through ice, to the receptive follicles and ears of Roman Koch, teetering on the edge of his towering arena.

“And here’s the dead man,” he told himself and his other selves. The prince leaned forward, wrapping both his muscular arms about the necks of his nearest regrets, then put all his weight and then some into leaning back. Over the side. Making the wind that tugged his skin. Mind finally cooling like an anvil at the dusk of the longest wartime day.

Without him the Nemesists were nothing, so they all dived over the side after him, grasping at even the concept of straws. Roman silently hoped Long Odd Silver would forgive him for not sticking around to fill those shoes and be their captain, but even now he was a prince and wouldn’t let another title take its place.

3 square ripples was all their splash earned, and they were followed by a quick sinking, the forces of probability in the water rearranging them into the neatest stacks it could. The men boxed themselves up, knees up, arms holding them in place, eyes buried in their laps. Deep darkness and deeper hardluck consumed them whole.

The throne of Pluto sat at the bottom of the Rivulets, ready for nature to take its time turning it into a reef.

“You’re not going back to Nemesis,” Long Odd Silver declared, voice too rough for them to recognize as their own. “You’re falling here, and I’m going on. Just as I always have. Just as you always haven’t. Even gone, that prince, my prince, knew the swing of things better than you lot.”

The dead man’s hand shined even in the dim of the endless warehouse clouds. Its formation had nearly destabilized Silver’s various orbitals, sending some cards fluttering away like nervous birds, but they’d all been pulled back and were ready as ever to obey their master’s marching orders: kings, queens, and jacks all. It was spectacular, it was worrying, to see this creature alight in a moment both desperate and calm. They were all the life there was for nautical mile after nautical mile. The nearest life that could match their radiance was in the 1to1, and that drew nearer with every second.

Nemesists had no reason to give in, even with no soul left to be captain. This was their shot, even if it was a misfire, even if it was Russianish roulette. No being could face down the platinum deck in any capacity without rallying their courage, but after a few seconds of doing so they moved in again, still armed with enough electroglass to make things almost happen.

Now I know none of you have ever seen a battle where platinum cards, let alone 4, let alone 4 making up a very distinct and disreputable hand, have been used unrestrained in combat. We were there for Pluto’s genesis, for an Antichthon jailbreak with roots so deep that it broke spirits out of the afterlife, and for a year-long murder cruise, but none of these adventures were the kind to fill the history books.

If not for their proximity to existential truth I’m sure hundreds of context artists would’ve been there to record just Silver’s battle across the Viper True’s deck, without even considering the horror that came after.

Electroglass flew like it was going extinct and out of style. Spinning discs of platinum didn’t just cut those regretful missiles out of the air; they shattered them. Powdered the devils. Whenever Silver sent out one of their mightiest aces or 8s they allowed it to pick its own target, join an orbital on return, and only jump back into their hand when it damn well felt like it.

Long Odd Silver had somewhere they wanted to be. Their destination was part of a plan to demoralize the regrets, to show them that the closer they came to reality the closer they were to suffering and death. They really weren’t living the Long Odd Silver way of loving the idea of someone, of loving that idea fully and physically, and for that they would pay the price by trudging through a horror show.

The stage for that show was below decks, and as Silver battled their heart out they didn’t know if there was any way to get down there before they ran out of hot blood to fight with. Then another one of those ice pillars went gliding by, and it was so massive, like a skyscraper, that Silver was able to discern that it was close enough to leap to.

First they had to get to the opposite side of the deck, which the regrets had something to say about. They repeated themselves in doing so, trying to throw cards straight into Silver’s heart whenever they thought the platinum wasn’t watching. All were deflected, or blown off course by Silver’s nimble spinning on the tips of their toes. The Nemesists only managed to drain the last of their cards that they were comfortable expending.

10 remained. All 10 chased after Silver, moved within dueling distance. The haggard scoundrel was forced to clash cards with multiple opponents at once, and getting bogged down in any single duel could mean missing their window with the ice tower. One solution came to mind, seemed to pop out between the cards as they fanned them.

No wind at all meant the Nemesists weren’t throwing to compensate or account for it. Their cards were vulnerable to the slightest disturbances in the air, so Long Odd Silver made some of their own from scratch. Each time a duelist swung toward them with a complex multi-pronged dagger of a hand Silver used a simple fan, flapping it once near theirs to send their preparations tumbling to the deck.

Card count was now so low they had no choice but drop to all 4s and scramble to pick them up before they could pursue again. Between these juvenile tricks Silver threw a few platinum cards on extra long paths, knowing nervous regrets would have to check every angle for their inevitable return, thus slowing them further. The strategy would’ve made Minty, Roman, and Likely Hood proud. Silver could almost hear cheering as they made it to the other end of the deck, only for the cold air emanating from the tower to rob them of all warmth.

Its surface was riddled with stairways. Only one was both in safe jumping distance and had steps of the correct length and angle, but none of that mattered if the Plutonian’s hunch was incorrect. Leaning over the railing might have given them a good enough look to tell, but only if the paddles had still been turning. As it stood now they blocked sight of the relevant section of the Viper True’s hull.

A more in depth investigation then. Their regrets seemed eager to join them on this investigation, most arriving at the railing all at once and trying to start duels a 2nd time, which failed since Silver had already hopped up on the rail and then off, dropping a stomach-lurching distance to a narrow stair of ice.

The dead man’s hand was a fair ice ax, its embedded corners holding Silver in place so they could reorient. As soon as their eyes were aimed down the flight they took flight, stalled briefly when whistling cards embedded in the ice at eye level in front of them. An attempt to duck under accidentally turned into a bumpy slide down the steps, platinum scraping across the wall just enough to keep their feet from catapulting out from under them.

Nemesists took the leap to the ice tower’s stairs, but again many were forced to pry the cards they’d just thrown from the wall, lest they get wherever our Silver was going and find themselves unarmed.

Our Plutonian’s slide moved all the faster thanks to the Viper True’s and the tower’s opposed drifts. The window of transfer would be small, assuming it was viable at all. It needed to be open. Silver’s intuition said it would be, but that particular faculty was darkly colored by and splattered with desperation.

The only real hint that it would be was the state of the ship once they entered the orderly waters near the 1to1. The signal glass had retracted, while all inner workings had ceased. No attentive trays zipped across the railings, and none were left out to sit idly either. Silver hoped they were all bunched up together in hidden compartments like beads on an abacus.

If they were it was because that was the Viper True’s default configuration: tools tucked away with all access hatches and doors open so maintenance workers, back when they were necessary, could move freely for systems checks, repairs, and upgrades.

Silver neared the edge of the giant paddle. Found it. Passed it. Intuition won the day again. A large section of the hull had lifted like an awning, with an industrial ramp partly extended. It was the portal that had lured in all those poor deer on the island they passed not long ago, to be slaughtered, butchered, and served as medallions draped in Germanish mushroom sauce.

There was no better reflection of the world Long Odd Silver and their regrets might achieve than that place. Countless transmissions from the real world had been received, just as many observations made. Even though their lives were definitive, binary, they still took to altering carefully cultivated states with ruthless efficiency.

The alive were made dead when plugged into vast systems with that purpose, but never the other way around as could happen in probable space. Things that went from functional to broken were rarely repaired, despite their resources being so perilously limited, again unlike probable space where Silver and Roman had stretched their fuel supply with nothing more than cotton-headed and mouthed obfuscation.

But to show them Long Odd Silver had to first get there, and let me tell you that it was one tight jump. The ramp had not extended all the way, perhaps the result of a safety backup should the bay accidentally open while the ship was cruising. If not for the completely flat Rivulets water would already be splashing inside, perhaps drawing out nauseating patterns of machine oil and deer blood that would sit stagnant atop the waters for a time impossible to guess.

Silver’s lonely stroke of luck was that there was no time to dread missing the leap. They just took it as seamlessly and gracefully as they took everything else, from insults to invitations. Plutonians were not meant to fly at odds better than 9to1, but you wouldn’t have known it looking at them sailing through the air, making slight adjustments to their glide with the platinum pairs in each hand as if they were flaps of much larger wings.

You would have known it on landing; Silver crashed. If they had been an airplane with passengers all aboard would have perished, but the body managed to stay intact, just collecting bruises and scrapes as it rolled across densely ridged metal designed to given the cloven hooves of deer a good grip as they climbed.

Once again the Nemesists had no choice but to follow, their lower odds meaning they had to exert that much more effort to push through what was to them thicker air. A couple slammed against the edge of the ramp and did not manage to get a grip, dropping into the drink and leaving their single square ripple.

Those that did land quickly caught up, their lower odds meaning bruises obscured by clothing might not have been there at all. Silver was forced to drag themselves to their feet, and what followed was a series of protests in their limbs and lungs that they’d never felt before. This was very close to the limit. Not between probable and reality. Between ability and destruction.

“I feel I can be honest with you,” Silver groaned as they dragged their more stunned foot backward into the darkness of the butchery bay. “I’m feeling a little down and out. I feel struck out in the dugout. Like nobody’s cheering for me anymore. If they are I’m breathing too hard to make it out.” The regrets did not slow; all that remained were under the shadow of the door now. “I feel it… and I don’t like it.”

With that final snarl Long Odd Silver receded into the shadows, now as mysterious and dangerous as whatever hidden machines so efficiently disarticulated hide, flesh, and bone. The Plutonian welcomed their doubters into the dark, and even I was slavering for it. Yes, you fools. You nothings. In. In. All the way in to what Long Odd Silver can do to you in the dark, and not in the bedroom eyes sense.

There was no light beyond what the bay doors allowed in, which rapidly became insufficient and forced the regrets to tap their electroglass cards, turning all of them into lights of various colors. Even with ammo count quite low, one of them decided to risk an exploratory toss, sending out a card in a wide arc that hopefully wouldn’t have its return path interrupted by a wall within the bay’s unknown dimensions.

On its journey they saw several mechanical arm stalactites, with claws both open and closed. Many of the closed ones gripped incompletely stripped deer carcasses, drained of blood but not the traumatizing hollows of their lifeless black eyes. In the artificial cavern the only fleeting spots of softness were the animals’ limp broken necks.

No sign of the soft skin of Long Odd Silver. No dazzle from the perpetual crystal cry of the former crazy8. Nemesists spent their non-lives under the atmospheric blanket of Nemesis squished together, thousands per square inch, always hot, always distracted, always shouting at a distant self that refused to listen, and in that time there were infinite opportunities to plot and scheme.

So each of the remaining regrets was already well-versed in possible tactics and strategies should they find themselves in that specific situation: on something of a team, with low card count, in a wide, dark, hazardous space, against a single enemy using a hybrid of Cheater’s Welcome and Over the Moon in addition to multiple platinum cards.

It was just one of 2,000,000,000,000,000,000 possibilities they’d pored over with their fellows, and they remembered it just as well as the rest, so all the Nemesists fanned out in a systematic search pattern without having to speak to each other.

Even if they could have, Silver would not have simply dematerialized. There was only one way out now, as the Plutonian did not have the cooperation of the Nemesists necessary to use a reflection in the platinum deck as a method of travel the way Galatin Lime had. No, it was the 1to1 or nothing. And to have it they had to be better than every last regret. Only the sure of themselves could exist.

Something howled through the air above the Nemesists. To the left. To the right. Over the bins on the level below containing piles of bleached bone. Long Odd Silver had tossed 4 somethings, and 4 was the magic platinum number carried with them, so the Nemesists assumed their rival had sent their strongest weapons out so they might act as guided missiles on return.

It was the most dangerous of distractions, but still primarily that, so the regrets ignored the sounds in the dark and tried to focus on the spot they’d all originated from. That spot was Long Odd Silver, and they couldn’t hide in it for long. The Nemesists bolted for it, one fanned hand of cards as shield and another as lance.

Fully aware they’d been ferreted out, Silver exploded from out of the darkness and into the light of their cards. The Plutonian’s plan had never been to surprise them with positioning, but with weapon choice. An orbital crown of 3 cards still circled their head, but otherwise all their effort was poured into the large object held in both their arms: the cubic prism prongs of a highly-ordered stag antler.

At full speed it had plenty of penetrating power, aggressively demonstrated on the spearheading regret by turning them into a more literal spearhead. They dropped all their cards, littering the grate floor with lights, some slipping through the cracks and illuminating the binned graveyard below.

No time left for ceremony or apology, Long Odd Silver grunted with the effort of tossing them aside to join the other bodies. There was no love lost between regrets, and the others resumed their attack immediately, which prompted Silver to break their cards out once more. Their 4 platinum cards. So they’d never left their side after all.

Once out of the Plutonian pocket the dead man’s hand illuminated the bay strongly and starkly. It was bigger than they’d all thought, with so many bones and antlers stored away and mounted on the walls that they realized the Viper True had been collecting them for years with little idea how to use them up since her esteemed guests would never be served a skull or hoof on one of her silver platters.

Had any of them the presence of mind to look a little closer, they might’ve seen that some of these jigsaw bones did not fit into the puzzle of a deer. A particular 206 piece puzzle they called home, and the source of those was likely all the passengers that had worked so hard to board that particular riverboat but not achieved their even more particular goal of the 1to1.

At the risk, nay the certainty, of sounding like a broken record, that was when I witnessed the best damn cardistry that probable space had ever seen. They wanted to make their prince proud, and all the others that had helped them get there whether they’d intended to or not, whether Silver wanted to be there at all.

They cast cards like they were culminating, certain that the certainty was the only way to finish getting where they were going. Long Odd sent a platinum ace into orbit where it accelerated to a speed that could saw through a redwood in 10 seconds flat. It made mincemeat of the orbiting defense of the next nearest regret while Silver’s hands used the rest of their platinum to strike them down in a 5 second duel where the Nemesist spent all 5 seconds losing shamefully.

A platinum wound dropped them, but another took their place like one frame of animation leaping seamlessly to the next. They tried to confuse our Silver by tossing cards out that spun in place, but the Plutonian snatched them out of the air as soon as they were placed and turned them against their owner, burying 10 cards corner deep in every facet of their rib cage. They too fell like the nasty gnarly nothing they were.

Yet another stepped up, with another new strategy. This one had more cards left than any of the others and thus came stomping forward with 2 bandoleers of orbitals and 2 full hands. A moment from clashing with the Plutonian 4 howls turned into whistles and converged. The ordinary electroglass Silver had thrown wide at the start of the fight had returned, and all lodged themselves in the back of the Nemesist that had come so close to impressing the watching odds.

This brings us not to the 1to1, not yet, but to the 1on1. Only a single Nemesist remained, one final regret holding Long Odd Silver back. And for that the Plutonian deemed them worthy of close examination, which they stepped forward placidly to receive, 1/3 of a deck squared away in one hand.

Earlier, the glitzy regret now flattened on deck and perforated with enough glass to be all the more dazzling had presented a potential Silver that had done everything right, at least from the perspective of acquiring love and influence on Pluto. They tried to sting our Silver with their very appearance, to shine as a trophy.

What remained in front of them now was radically different. This Nemesist instead took the approach that they had nothing to offer probable space at all. Humble clothing. Discount but reliable cards. Tears with no sparkle that fell mundanely, in despair rather than sympathy or emotional overflow.

Here was a Silver that stayed out of everyone’s way, that improved the lives of their loved ones by disappearing into the background rather than loving them, fighting with them, or drawing so close as to be in the same illustration. By their very presence they claimed our Silver had only ever hurt those they had interacted with, and all their charm and charisma ever did was disguise shrapnel and blood spatter as confetti.

Even in nonexistence they were a curse. A bad idea passed like malady between minds in bad places. A theory meant to be cast aside, for its best possible product in action would be an all-consuming and nothing-producing obsession. According to this sad and quietly hostile Nemesist Long Odd Silver was a shot in the dark that still took a victim.

“If you’re so sure, bring that confidence over here. I want to see what I can carve out of it,” our Silver said with steely eyes and a solid stance. Their foe did not disappoint, closing the gap for a heart to heart where one might wind up beating its last on a metal grate.

Before, Silver was fighting the swarming voices, all a person’s regrets at once: the cloud of gnats that make you step off the path of your truest and most loyal self. This humble, quiet, gagging regret was instead like a pickax to a fissure in the soul. By virtue of being the last one standing they were the big one, the fatal flaw, the reason things could never really work out.

Our Silver attacked them as such, equally intent on obliteration though they were a spirit of fostering growth. It wasn’t over quickly. The Nemesist kept grabbing Silver’s wrists, preventing the platinum cards from clashing with the electroglass they would easily best. The Plutonian started to feel powerless, drained by the knowledge that the less they did the better off the worlds could be.

More ethereal regrets, the old insidious enemies inside the head, started to rapidly breed in the midst of the duel. One never slept with Minty back in Aleatory Books, never sent her odds crashing through the mattress and to the floor. Silver claimed to love her, and love her specially, for she had welcomed them into probable space and given them form with teardrop jewelry, yet her only recompense was being driven to the edge of crazy8.

Did I secretly want her to be as hardluck as I was? When she tried to throw away the platinum card that came with me I stopped her. Why? They’re dangerous, of course, inevitably if you try to ignore them, but there might have been another reason. The card gave her Cat Steps cardistry as nimble as a 1to1 feline on its first of 9 lives.

Maybe over time it would’ve changed more about her. Maybe the Minty I wanted had just enough Nemesists squeeze through the platinum duct and into her system to love me completely. I don’t settle down because then I would learn all the ways in which they are not the people I’ve dreamed of. And I would have to change them. Because I know what’s best, as surely as the brazen head knows what isn’t-quite.

And if I’m so sure what am I doing here? I need to get out of everyone’s way, enter the space where people can’t help but do that, build their lives around it. Reality.

And Roman. Could he have made it somewhere better if I wasn’t glued to him from the moment that instrument played us off Pluto? We needed precisely what we got to reach the Viper True, so he wouldn’t have if not for me. Maybe the Survivor Function would’ve killed him and at least spared him a frustrating time.

A card slashed Silver’s ear, instinct alone saving their mind. They’d let the Nemesist’s strategy work; the cloud of doubt was meant to do nothing more than gum up the Plutonian’s reflexes. But that had been the foe’s best shot, and it wasn’t a kill shot. Taking the wound was all the proof Silver needed that doubt could not help them, nor achieve any kind of justice from there, deep in the bowels of an unmanned ship about to cross, or smash into, the barrier between planes of existence.

“A near miss,” they said, “and a runaway result.” The Plutonian went on the offensive, but remembered to deny the regret opportunities to grab their wrist. Instead they attacked by wielding platinum in a series of advanced Cheater’s Welcome maneuvers. Initially it was a reflection of what one of the last regrets had tried, just a card spinning idly in the air, but this time it was platinum and used as a wall for a second card to ricochet against.

The Nemesist was caught off guard, and they had no way to block or deflect the platinum deck. To even try might make a fate worse than a trip back to their home planet. With a deadly 8 in their shoulder acting as a more powerful distraction than any doubt, they could do little in the face of the righteous blazing certainty of Long Odd Silver.

“You know what chum? I’m a gas, and that’s good enough for the real world!” Silver sent most of their cards into orbit and rushed forward, the speed preventing their foe from disassembling the spinning cyclone one card at a time. “I’m a friend to the needy and indifferent alike, and that’s good enough too!” Twirling at the exact speed of their cards, Silver somehow snatched their entire cyclone out of the air in a single rotation, leapt, and brought them all down in an explosive hammer-fall of electroglass rain and platinum hail.

It was a miracle the Nemesist stayed in one piece, what with so many pieces embedded in them.

“I’m better than you. I’m good enough for me. And those out there in the 1to1… they’ll take what they can get.” Long Odd Silver reached out, with a hand this time instead of a weapon. Their finger stroked the bottom of the Nemesist’s lurching chin as if trying to strike a match. Then they leaned in and blew gently.

The last of the fuming hellish planet of Nemesis tipped and fell backward, off the grate and into a bin of clattering bones. All light but platinum faded out of the bay as cards blinked off. Now that the furnace of determination was no longer needed it died down, let the quiet in, but Silver knew the tranquility was deceptive.

I’m barreling toward my last chance and my big break. We made our prince proud and worked the body, now it’s time to work the mind. There’s no one left to captain this good vessel, so how do we get there?

If there was even a single deer left alive they could’ve tried coaxing the animal up to the bridge, but it probably required more than a heartbeat. The silhouette of a person was left behind, and only something that would fit properly inside would work.

“My brazen head will know if there’s anything I can use,” they said aloud, just to stop the judgmental expectant stares from carcasses human and cervid alike. The Plutonian started limping toward the back, praying there was a maintenance door or shaft back into the main corridors of the Viper True. A platinum card of an idea sailed into the back of their skull, stopping them dead.

“My brazen head knows everything a captain would need to.” They held up the remains of their deck. By the end of the fight they’d lost track of which cards were where, but of course the dead man’s hand was right on top. “And I have a steady hand for the helm.”

I’ll spare you the anxious drudgery from the bowels of the ship to its crown jewels, but there was indeed an unlocked hatch that freed Long Odd Silver. They made their way painfully up several flights of stairs, since all the elevators were as frozen in sleep as the other machines aboard.

The cumulative impact of their injuries increased, almost exponentially, but they still needed to make a stop at their cabin to pick up their only friend left on Vulcan. It was all too happy to be picked up. It was clear from its expression, stiff and artificial as it was, that its abilities let it watch the battle on deck as it was happening, cursed as the head was to know everything going on and going gone in probable space.

“Yes,” it told Silver, with them understanding it was expressing its joy that they had survived.

“Don’t be so supportive just yet,” they crooned to it, holding it like an infant, stroking its cheek. “I’ve got a big request, and one more yes might be your last.”

“Yes.” Anything. Anything for them. Perhaps not elsewhere, but definitely there, aboard the PS Viper True. There was some more pain, all Silver’s, as they made their way to the bridge, to the side of the big shoes to fill and the silhouette above them.

Looking past it, through the cracked and broken glass, Silver saw just how close they were to existing. Attic box clouds had descended over the waters, become them. The Viper True now sailed a fog without boundaries, but where every particle of water was perfectly aligned with its neighbors. Rows and columns could be seen in it, but only after staring for a duration that felt like an age.

The color deepened, radiated, until it was suddenly the purple of distant slumbering nebulae. Each aligned droplet was now a star, shooting glitter like artillery, all into the eyes of Long Odd Silver. This was some kind of under-substance, an underpinning of the 1to1. They were less on the planet Vulcan, and more on the tip of the tongue of the person who first theorized it.

“It’s so beautiful, but I can’t say it’s more beautiful than theory,” Silver told the brazen head. “I want to go, because I want to go on, and it’s the only path forward I see.”


“I need a captain. I know you and I have history, you most brazen head you, but I’m not just asking a lot. I’m asking for all of it. Will you captain the Viper True for me?”

“Yes,” the head said without hesitation. No one had ever stammered less.

“You don’t mind giving up what life you have now?”

“No,” it said carefully, fully aware Silver was playfully testing whether it could still say no.

“If we had the time I would play 1,000 questions with you to explore every feeling you have regarding this imposition, but we don’t.” Long Odd Silver held the head up, eye to eye, soul to soul, and asked one final binary question of their most trusted compass. “Do you want to be my captain?”

“Yes.” Silver heard so much, so many declarations of love and lust and fascination and fixation.

Puntudoo fin*ko@ tarazoop konpro&zoo zadoop, no*n hurren^go eterniat aurkop p@ro doot,” they said in √Permillion, the language intrinsically known to those crazy8 and lower, known to the brazen head as well. For those of you who haven’t lost your minds and come back with something else, it translates thusly:

I commit you to this fixed point, where I hope to find you next eternity.

Delicate as the coronation of a child emperor, Long Odd Silver turned the brazen head and lowered it into the silhouette of the captain. As soon as it was aligned there was a pulse from which the Plutonian recoiled. Briefly it had felt like their hands were in someone else’s mind, so of course they had to cease the trespass.

The head hovered there, perfectly in tune with the silhouette, but nothing else happened. Just a head and shoes weren’t enough. There needed to be a hand on the helm. As respectfully as they could, Silver drew all 4 platinum cards from their deck and fanned them out. Platinum ace, platinum ace, platinum 8, platinum 8. The dead man’s hand risen again, connected to all the regrets of every captain that had ever learned how not to sink a ship a little too late. Finally the knowledge could be put to use.

Again, and with even more care, though they thought they had used all they had with the head, Silver stepped around the silhouette to where its ethereal hand rested on the wheel. With slow precision they brought the dead man’s hand closer, and closer, until platinum touched ghost. The cards leapt out of their hand, slithered around inside the empty palm, and then bent, stretched, and conformed to the shape of a solid human hand.

Finally the rest of the captain showed up for duty, after a year’s dereliction. He did so by extending his existing pieces. The copper and wood of the brazen head shot down and filled out into a riveted oak collar and neck somewhere between flesh and a dock post. Lacquered platinum cards layered themselves, like the reverse of a tornado ripping tiles from a roof, shingling the captain’s arm all the way up to where it merged with the wooden collar.

The big shoes to fill, having done this since the beginning, expanded the most elegantly, first into knee-highs, then thigh-high waders, and then into the overalls of a crab fisherman. Then this crab fisherman prepared for his daughter’s wedding, as the overalls grew wings that folded around the shoulders before shooting down the arms as sleeves, rolled up to the elbow. When the process was finished the boots had become a full captain’s coat as well, with buttons of platinum, etched with aces and 8s.

On squeaky heel the captain turned, breaking away from the helm to look at his creator. At sight of his face Silver’s heart swelled with joy and pain, renewing the flow of their crystal tears. Don’t flood my face now darlings, I absolutely need to see him, almost as much as I need to hear him.

The face on the brazen head was still familiar, but now wholly alive. Cheeks still composed of wood were nonetheless allowed to move by the powers of the regularly reinforced captain role. Now they had a wear to them, the tan of floorboards scraped by friendly boots day in and day out for decades.

His mechanical eyes were now lit like fireplaces, crackling with emotion, little lenses within expanding and contracting as he tried to measure exactly what he felt about Silver, and exactly what he could now say with unlocked lungs and expanded heart. Reaching out with his platinum hand, he interlaced his fresh fingers with Silver’s, who extended their hand to meet. Though they cruised on the edge of existence, countless theories erupted into each of them from their coupled wrists. A love across worlds, times, allegiances, and dilapidated spiral staircases of blind creaky luck.

“I’ve said it so many times, but I’d say it so many times more. Yes. Yes to you, Silver,” the brazen captain said, if you’ll allow me the indulgence I’d take even if you didn’t, brazenly. Always his voice had been familiar to them, clear and brilliant, but now it was so much more, every new and different word out of him a different view of him. “I’m finally free.” There came his first smile, every bit the revelation his every word was.

“Free to say what you want it seems, but not free to act. I’ve chained you to that wheel… what is it I should call you?”

“A name is nothing, to either of us really,” he answered, drawing closer, finding the rest of the scoundrel’s fingers and getting to know them down to the skin between. “We’ve been so much more than what a name can hold, and those are just the things we’ve been together.”

“I’m sorry, I remember so little, and you know it all. This reunion of ours must be such a disappointment. Everything before that improperly calculated book on Pluto is a distant streaking blur to me. You told me something once before, or confirmed it rather. One word about me: Freebooter.”

“Yes, and if you had one name that would be it,” he said, savoring on his lips a yes that was totally optional, just a classic on the menu now. “I had weird odds too, and they let me see every way probable space shook things out, but I also saw the pieces that fell through the sieve, the forms and events so unlikely they’re not strong enough for the realm of theory.

I’ve seen every radiation of Long Odd Silver, just as I’ve seen every radiation of everyone else, but you’re different. When I look at some of your possible forms, your other lives, I see that some of them are… true. There’s no other way I can put it. I have all the words now, but I’m still falling at least one short.

You and I have been together in some of the possibilities that got sifted out before we both got caught up when Pluto took the stage in most unorthodox fashion. Me? I was just there, certain place, certain time, but you, you were there because you’ve been everywhere. You’re a reincarnation of something that transcends all the forces of our universe. And you are alone in that, I’m sorry.

I will grasp at every moment with you, Freebooter, because mine are limited. And I know now that I’m the captain that we still have a few left before you must depart. Please, will you dance with me? For old time’s sake? I know you can’t carry the memory with you, but you’ll take the nudge, which is more than most can aspire to.”

Silver’s yes was implied when they leaned into his chest. It was tough, all authority. He was his post, and wouldn’t be able to abandon it no matter what they might try.

“We don’t have any music,” they whispered.

“Don’t we?” he replied with a smirk. Silver listened. Like the fluttering of doves, a sound reached their ears, but it was just the beats and breaths between notes that rose and surpassed them. A song. Something Roxy Clink and the Imminent Danger might play as the evening was winding down, as someone iced a bruise and a sore ego.

“Where’s it coming from?”

“The 1to1,” the brazen captain said. “They’re always playing music somewhere, and we’re in their waters now, pulling into port. And we’re celebrating our arrival.” The pair began to dance, artfully spinning about the helm without ever leaving its vicinity. It feels like we’re between stars, slung by their gravity. I’d be happiest here I think, dancing on the best of both worlds, ignoring the shouts that I have to come down on one side or the other. And I could, if not for the bastard of deep time.

“I remember the color green, from my most recent past life I think,” Silver said as they waltzed on the final legs of their journey. They rested their cheek on his chest, listened to him creak as he nearly laughed.

“Oh yes, I saw that one. Very green that one. Selfish, intelligent, prone to infrequent but cataclysmic blunders. I like this silver one better, but they’re all wonderful in their own way. And not to worry, you’ll still be yourself when you cross over. I know you can’t be anything else.”

The song came to an end, and the Viper True settled in place. They’d stopped moving entirely, not journeying, just moving. Silver couldn’t yet bear to separate; they embraced the brazen captain tightly.

“We’re not there yet, are we?”

“I’m afraid we are,” he told them. “The tide will pull us back out into theory before too long, so you must go. Now is the time when the worst happens, for those who were aboard without a captain. They were spiraled out of comprehension by the riptide, destroyed beyond my sight. I refuse to ever see that happen to you. I love you Silver… and this is probably our last goodbye.”

“We’ll defy the odds,” they assured him, finally managing to peel away. To step away. To turn away… slightly.

“You’ll defy more than that.” His voice groaned like an old oak barrel begging its owner not to tap its contents. “Go to the signaling glass. It’s glass no more.” The brazen captain marched back to the helm and took it up, held it steady. Only he could see it, but there was steadying to be done still.

Rather than seal their open relationship with a goodbye, Long Odd Silver chose to walk out silently. Let him focus. We can distract him later. Maybe at the least opportune time. He’ll like that.

Never having wanted to approach the deadly gaze of the glass before, the Plutonian only now saw that the ruined stairway on its base had at some point repaired itself. As their feet hit the deck heading toward it they realized it would be their final stroll across their generous host on the Rivulets. Perhaps it was best to leave as much behind as possible, since only the person of Silver had earned the right to exist.

They flicked out their remaining electroglass, card by card, without concern or target. Each one drifted to the deck and powered down, fading to dead screens. Silver was unarmed by the time they reached the bottom step. Gravity climbed as they did. Their twin streams of tears rushed, became rivulets themselves rather than individual droplets.

“Hello world,” they said as soon as they reached the top. The glass was already aimed their way, its portal standing 20 feet high. Once again there were birds inside, but they didn’t stay that way. Several flew out, honking and screeching, circling Silver once and then finding spots on deck to hide and settle in.

They must have been real, and very eager to flee that reality. Silver didn’t find such an impulse difficult to understand. Nature was famously indifferent everywhere, but that indifference was easier to ignore in probable space. Something tells me the combined weight of those birds is equal to mine. What the world lost it will quickly regain, so that none on that end are the wiser. But the birds knew. I wonder how long the line to leave is.

With the final wing out of the way they saw the passage into reality. It was a hall of mirrors, with not a single reflection on offer. Reflections and regrets had no weight or substance in the 1to1, only on the spirit. The floors and ceilings within looked warped, like they would be stepping into a sphere, but that was just the totality of it. From possibility to all-around finality. From ambiguous ellipses to punctilio periods.

“Now you’ll have to do more than ponder me,” they told the gateway as they felt a wall of missed opportunity rushing up behind them, taller than the ice, lower than the clouds. “You’ll have me firmly in your arms, and you won’t have a choice in the matter once I am the matter. I’ll make you love me. I now force myself on you as you force yourself on your people. I don’t care if you’re ready.”

They stepped.

Everything we’ve been through has been theoretical, but Long Odd Silver no longer was. They didn’t live in the solar system with the central fire, with mistaken Vulcan, postulated Antichthon, theorized Phaeton, and downgraded Pluto any longer. They went somewhere fuller, of consequences and planets alike, so they are no longer the purview of the hardluck realm, the just-missed-it universe.

You won’t find their story on the shelves of Aleatory Books, even if you go to the back where things are disorganized and blow off some dust. The closest you would find is a hole, as if chewed by moths, where there once was an idea, now too busy being to be written down.

Farewell Long Odd Silver. We’ll miss you by just this much.

Afterword for You,

Afterward for Me

And that was everything I wanted to tell you. The tales were practically bursting from my heart, so it was good that you showed up to listen. And hey, you gorgeous audience you, you really came through for me. I’ll never forget that. We should have dinner sometime, and then have dessert, and then get truly decadent after that. It’ll have to be at your place, as I’m kind of between lodging at present.

Why? Thank you for asking. It does something for me when you ask, and I like the way you do it.

The why is because I don’t exist enough to have a place of my own. I’m still stuck between the pages, in a sense. Yes love, still. Don’t tell me the thought didn’t at least occur to you. It’s not like I can hide my personality. The powers that be can tell me I’m supposed to be impartial all they like, but they’re still just the powers that be. I’m, at heart, always going to be a power that could be.

Yes, it is I, Long Odd Silver, you’re too-brash-to-be-humble narrator. I told these stories beginning to end, Pluto to Vulcan, my friends and lovers to me alone. I apologize for the deception of the 3rd person, as a 3rd person getting between the 2 of us is the last thing I want, but my naturally strong voice would be overwhelmingly arrogant if I presented these affairs as autobiographical.

Besides, making myself look less than omniscient reflects the way I was at the time, makes the events all the more authentic despite their non-occurrence in probable space.

Next you might be wondering why I chose to spend my time in the 1to1 narrating when I could be out taking over downtown or making scenes rather than reporting them. It’s the same reason I don’t have a home to take you back to after our spectacular night out. I wasn’t permitted to join reality fully.

I thought I’d step through the signal glass with the bounty of a flesh and blood body, but instead I remained in the pseudo-realm of entertainment. I didn’t even get to taste anything, not even the air. There isn’t a person among you that I can rub up against.

I’m the Freebooter, whatever that means, whatever that is, and apparently I’m just a little too much for most worlds to handle. So I’m kept chained to fiction. Minty did pull me out of a book after all. So now I’m a narrator… and that’s all that I am. Technically nobody lied, as I am interacting with the 1to1 now.

It’s not a bad deal, for real, for now, so don’t waste any pity on me. If I’m going to tell a story I get to know everything about the people involved, which means there’s no false idea of them, and no temptation to reshape either. I get to love you for exactly what you are, whether you’re a librarian, a hood, a dumpster prince, an artificial head, or something you wrongly think to be smaller or less important.

Your story will be told, and I’ll make sure it’s by me, someone who loves you. I’m there for every second, and I don’t judge, just stage a little. If I could be there to love you physically I would, because the switch between audience and protagonist just needs a flick. Trust me, you’d know a flick from me, and you know right where I’d put it.

Anyway, I’m losing the plot a little, which is very frowned upon when it comes to narrators. I can’t linger, for the story is over, and this afterword indulgence is already a faux pas, but you know me, at least you do now. Rules are made so I can break them. Don’t tell anyone; that’s my job.

All I’ve withheld is 2 last words, but I intend to give you everything I’ve got love. I’d love it if you’d return the favor.

The End

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

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