I met her in a forest glade
Where starbeams grew like trees
It was in a trashy fantasy sim in the Quercus 6-11-L5 station that Captain Quintillion Furlong heard of the bounty. He was hanging by his fingertips from Princess Fellaetia's window after hearing her father storm up the stairs.
"Who is it?" the King bellowed. "Who is the man who has defiled my house and my family? The Queen won't tell me either, but now you shall. His name, or I throw you in the dungeon!"
The Princess, stricken, glanced at the window and then beckoned the King over. "I would sooner the rats sharpen their teeth on my bones than reveal his name. I love him!" And then she leaned and whispered his name in her father's ear.
"Let it be proclaimed!" The King walked to the window under which the Captain's avatar was hanging, and leaning out he shouted, in his impossibly loud voice, "Let it be proclaimed to the kingdom, a bounty of one million pieces of gold, for-"
Then he looked down, right into the Captain's perspective, and his voice changed to something less like a great bell and more like a swarm of mechlocusts. "META: The Sifrexan planetary chain has declared a bounty of one trillion cogs for the lost colony ship Go Long Be Still."
The naked adventurer looked up. "META: Exit."
"Are you sure? This is getting good."
"Pull me out."
The King reached down and grabbed his hair, and the tug became the fiberoptic cabletips withdrawing, the glowing mane condensing to a snake and coiling back into the simworld console.
The man who sat up from the tub was half-grey and long-jawed, with an impish spark that shone through his weariness. He wore sturdy steel grey and rust fatigues, his captain's patch nearly hidden by a pocket flap.
As the seediest station in the clean-green Quercan chain, Q6-11-L5 was the Captain's favorite place in Chainspace, and whenever his money ran out, he came here to sample experimental cannabinoids and ogle streetwise dryads. Shaped like a mature white oak, the station balanced on the Lagrange point, trailing the planet by 60 degrees on the ecliptic, and slowly rotated, its great green glass leaves lazily waving in the solar wind and harvesting the light or reflecting it in dappled shards that graced the translucent skins of the stems and branches.
The stemtunnel outside the simworld pod was barely over the Captain's head, but it widened out into a branch node like a crossing of tunnel paths in a dense wood, lit green and gold by shifting lightshafts beckoning trunkward. He scanned up the other stems for a particular color, not expecting to find it, and followed the fractal bramble four nodes down to a mossy junction busy with the errands of stationfolk: a stocky surface Glimmer shouldering a barrel, a sauntering pack of Caxiletan teens, a dour Brumvolzin courier, a pair of Aquans regal in blue robes, a daydreaming Scroll elf time pilot, a flamboyant Na-il mercenary, and everywhere the Quercans in their layered outfits like unraveling quilts.
Then he saw it, barely registering in his cheap spectrum-sense eyemod: the flickering purple of a Flow temple far skyward.
Seven levels up he followed the light to a stark node on the verge of space, where erratic simgrav painted ripples of dust and made the flat floor feel like a saddle. The five stems held only a derelict jalopy and the temple stempod.
From space, the little pod was a mere bud on a branch whose lower span was laden with acorns. The Captain ducked under the near-ultraviolet spiral icon and descended the stem to a dim round room, its ceiling a bizarre cartoon of local constellations, its walls a wraparound tapestry of filigree hieroglyphs.
The priestess sat sleeping at the table, her head leaning sideways on a pillow dampened by a trickle of drool. At the Captain's entrance, she roused.
She was the creepiest woman he had ever seen. Most Flow initiates looked like they had never bathed, but she looked like she had bathed too much and then suddenly stopped. She wore two dresses layered, one trashy and one insipid, and her dirt colored hair hung limp over a pasty freckled face with archaic zoom-glasses that seemed to sprout from a nose like a bent dagger. Tiny sharp teeth ventured from thin lips as she spoke, in a jittery voice like a cobblestone race, the standard line: "What brings you deeper?"
"Priestess," the Captain bowed his head, "I've just had a level four synchronicity."
She looked skeptical. "Go on."
"I received a bounty notice while in a simworld, and it came from a character who just at that moment was announcing a bounty."
Sounds like a level three, she thought. "Who was the character?"
"Who was the subject of the simworld bounty?"
"And what was the bounty in our own world?"
"From the Sifrexan chain, one trillion cogs for the lost colony ship Go Long Be Still."
Somehow her face got even more pale. She hurried to the door in her ratty slippers and closed it and darkened the sign. "That's pushing level five. Do you know what planet the Go Long Be Still left from?"
"I have no idea."
"You've spent some time in the dead chains, haven't you?"
"How could you tell?"
"I read your aura."
"If I insisted in knowing how I know, I would be as cog-hobbled as an Aristan philosoph. Have you ever heard of a chain called Atolia?"
"That's how old that ship is. It left Atolia Prime when its only name was Earth. The gravity drive hadn't been invented yet, let alone the counter-clock drive."
"So it's not even in Gridspace." The Captain boggled at the difficulty of the mission. "It's in Atolian Primespace. You'd have to go way into the dead chains to even find the planet, and then with Primespace physics, all the gaps are stretched."
She said, "The Sifrexans might not even want the ship. This could be a tactical play to move wildcard craft out of Chainspace, or to raise the commodity value of crew and engines that can ply the starlit deep."
"But that won't work unless there's a reasonable belief that the ship is out there, and worth the bounty. How could that be?"
She peered over her glasses and muttered, "Deus Ex Kathreftis."
"...God from the...?"
"Atolians were late discovering warptube tech. They went a long way into their own space, with slow colony ships and no headfreeze. So they needed simworld tech that could reliably keep people dreaming, but not going mad, for a thousand years... or possibly much longer."
The Captain shook his head. "There's no way..."
"Kathreftis means mirror. It's a fanciful theology that you might expect from the Glimmer or the Scroll, although edge-tube Sifrexans can get crazy faeward. The idea is, if consciousness reflects itself long enough, under the right conditions, you get a new universe."
"A universe inside a ship. A trillion cogs is not enough."
She leaned closer, "What are you going to do?"
"Go get it."
"Yes!" She balled her hands into fists, showing blood-colored knuckle tattoos of the eight phases of the moon. "My name is Torisa Rosaluna, level three priestess of the Flow."
"Quint Furlong, Captain of the freeminer Moonwinnow."
"You'd have to winnow a million oceans to find that ship, but I can gauge your chances, and tilt your odds, by dredging the ocean beneath space."
She drew out a deck, the standard 96 card Flow Tarot, and swept the dampened pillow to the floor. The backs of the cards flashed starlight mandalas as she shuffled and hovered a card face down.
"I'll start with a three-card reading: situation, action, result. This is your situation."
Torisa's handmade illustration was saturated watercolor outlined with fine calligraphy. Under a starry sky, an old man drifts in a battered boat down a slow reedy river. He looks sick and yet curious, and one finger trails in the water.
"This is the Nine of Space," she said, "and the number nine is not obvious. It's his other nine fingers, the ones not in the water. He looks weak but his strength is hidden. This is actually hopeful."
She laid the second card and gasped. From a rosy pile of coals, a white-hot spark jumps a dark gulf toward the card's edge. The dense oilpaint showed every brushstroke. "A fire trump," she said, "the Seed of Fire."
"What does it mean?"
"Risk," she muttered. "Opportunity... It depends on the third card."
It fell like an explosion on the table, and the Captain knew it. "The Supernova!" he said. "Catastrophe and renewal, revelation and genesis."
He continued staring until Torisa covered it with her hand and then slid it under the other cards. "Revere and then retreat. Of this card, the memory is enough. Or did we dream it? We are the dream of the night, and we tarry in its debt until we have dreamed a star."
He bowed his head. "I'm greatly in your debt for this reading. What do I owe you?"
She reached out and took his two hands in hers, and her fingers, which looked like two nests of ice worms, were soft and warm. "Captain, you owe me a place in your crew, and then I owe you everything."