The stars burned with a lidless fixity and they drew nearer in the night until toward dawn he was stumbling among the whinstones of the uttermost ridge to heaven, a barren range of rock so enfolded in that gaudy house that stars lay awash at his feet and migratory spalls of burning matter crossed constantly about him on their chartless reckonings.
-Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
With hisses and pops like tiny fireworks, the Seed of Fire broke from the treestem and lifted from the ecliptic. When they were high enough to view the whole illumined oaktree unzoomed in the dome, the fiery ion drive sputtered to life and launched them at 10G toward the place high over the planet where the warptube zeroed to Gridspace.
Halfway there, the ship flipped to slow, and the dome's simwindow spin went full 180, the planet rising and growing like the green hull of a ripening walnut above the bronze blast of the engines.
They swung downward, and the planet fell away toward the back of the dome while below them rose the ridged white underbelly of a blue whale. The ferry was the same scale as the station, longer but not as fat, with a tiny tail and a cartoonish extended head whose jaw hinged perpendicular to expel and admit the diverse warpless craft of the masses.
"I hate these whale ferries," Torisa said. "They're both pompous and vulgar."
"Your feathers," said the raven from his bridge perch.
She looked down at her two layered dresses. "These are dignified and mysterious."
The Captain held his tongue and winked at the bird.
Under the whale's great left eye, the jalopy found a spot within the snug curve of a Chthon gatorfreighter. A few last ships dashed in as the mouth closed, and then the ferry shuddered into its massive minor gravdrives, which bouyed it up to the moonsized lightwobble of the warptube node. There, silent and invisible, the warp engine's astral sails caught the hum of the tube, and the whale blew away like a feather in the wind.
The Pitcairn spaceport was a colossal cooling tower from a geothermal steam plant which aeons past had powered the whole city. Now it channeled a lukewarm vent to a hotspring fountain by the southern gate, a round arch with a capstone the size of a house, below which the carts and carriages of the station's human cargo moved like bugs.
The smaller north gate wore its annular observation deck like a halo. Cataria stood on the outside, and leaning on a hand-lathed iron rail, she watched the great ingots roll down the firechute from the mines of the north. All up the edges, the ends of horseshoe magnets jutted from orange-glowing steam, and farther up a great boulevard spanned the chute on a single long arch.
Within the station's mountainous atrium, shuttles of many chains spiraled around the central elevator, where cables like limber treetrunks raised ingots counterweighted by space icebergs that cracked and rained and then broke off in the central reservoir that watered the city and washed its waste to the steamlands.
In a shop near the east gate, to a tiny merchant with bulbous Ladbroke bugeyes, Cataria traded three iridium seashells and her biggest piece of magcoral for a level three Glimmer spacesuit. Across its smooth chest, linking its sinuous arms, she painted her family crest, which could be two in-leaning purple waves, or a sunset-framed moon, or the upraised wings of a bird.
They both thought it was an incredible deal. At home, she could gather shells and coral of this quality in a lucky afternoon, and he knew a shop on G6-3-L4 where he could trade them for a gasplanet divesuit.
He eyed her with little gold dots, as alive as original eyes, moving in the inky hemispheres. She was clearly a Scroll elf on her way to space, and he knew she was high class from her proud bearing, eyeward from her cool focus, and sea-edge from her ability to distinguish the very shells that the ocean loved the most.
"For another shell," he ventured, "I can get you passage on a Ch-Kung shuttle to a luxcruise on the fourline."
"Thank you, but that's not how I play it."
He understood. "Spacejumping is strictly forbidden... but practically permitted, and only difficulty level one."
She tipped him a featherfish scale that at home they would scrape into the trash, and his pupils threw gold ripples.
After nightfall, timing her move to avoid the single lazy searchbeam, Cataria dove into the reservoir and grappled an ingot just as the elevator's segmented tentacles lifted it from the churn.
Up the belly of the tower it rose, and she sat on top and watched the great city unfurl over the rim, a zigzag maze of alleyways and courtyards under a crumbling stickpile of viaduct avenues. Patternless streetlights and chimney flames flashed reflections from half-exposed substreet canals, and solitary traincars rode raillines that threaded from the hub, bringing ingots of nonferrous metals and spreading the bounty of space to the old city, Altimbor on Pitcairn 5-4.
When Altimbor had shrunk to a glowing coalbed in a haze, she could see over the horizon the golden blaze of Neuimbor, riding the peak of its geothermal clockspring.
Raising her eyes, three ingots up she spotted a titanium, whose value would get it moved faster. Snatching the frays of the beanstalk cable, she shimmied up and mounted the precious express nugget.
Above, the orbital terminal took the cable's handoff and flung the ingots still higher, each velocity and vector targeting a particular boxcar in the non-geostationary trainyard.
Cataria scrabbled the suit's claws on the lump, but they found no purchase on the hard metal, nor, of course, could the magfingers. So, holding only with sticky foot and handpads, she judged the spin of the handoff-and-fling to stay topward in the G, and rode a high exosphere arc, balanced on the slippery tip of the bullet.
The pillbottle boxcar, catching up from planetward, angled its opening to snag the ingot, and Cataria found herself in a dazzling trashbin of silver and tungsten, platinum and pre-adamantine, stuck on the walls like gum from the spin-G. She shot to the rim and beheld the stars.
Space! On the planet her cosmoduodenum had gone hungry, and she had fed on the raw Divine only by foraging the most feral courtyards for sour apples, whose white fiber she spat up in husks. But now she could feed on the electromagnetic and transpolaric, the zero-point and null-spectrum, the astrae and aether of the fecund void.
The Scroll had its own spectrum, like the sweet air of the valley, but this was the cool resin scent of the high forest. She drank the waves and watched the stars, and wondered what mysteries hid in the noise of their twinkling.
An hour, a day, a week later she awakened from a brainwave spectral symphony to the first jolt of the car's motion as it maglatched to the trailing tail of the snaketrain.
Like riding a carnival scrambler, she spun on the inner curve of the rim as the train threw loops and spirals to string its load. Then it rose like a whipsnake from the orbital swarm and merged gently with the Pitcairn warptube.
The stars drizzled and spilled, and in their place rose a new light, shining down a tunnel-hall of mirrors: the smoky red-orange glow of all seventeen planets — counting both Prime and Zed — pinning the harmonic nodes of the Pitcairn fiveline.
Above, a brighter glow burst briefly as a ship with mirrorcrack tech dropped out of the fourline, and then burrowed dimly into the six. This close to the great junction at Pitcairn 2, she could see no reason to take such a shortcut except to avoid the law.
The light of the Heart Node grew like a rising sun, and finally there it was. The mirrors dissolved, the lines merged, and the train joined a parade of craft angling down into an orbital hurricane that dwarfed the little cloud of P5-4.
The planet, old and cool, now glowed with the light of commerce, its color more symbolic than functional, a tracery-carved pumpkin in the night.
A black iron spider, its legspan the size of a stadium, snatched Cataria's bottlecar, but before it could toss it to lower orbit for sorting, she was out and magrunning up its leg, past tireless hydraulics whose service drones buzzed her curiously and judged her harmless.
Up on the spider's back she could taste the radiation from its microfission reactor, acrid and nauseating. She sprinted down another leg, curling and uncurling her toes to grip and release the magfeet, and latched to an unboxed bundle of drillshafts just as the spider threw it to a new train.
As she hoped, the drillshafts were needed by some hot young planet, and the train entered the warptube on the sevenline. In that murky shatter she beheld the light of all 65 nodes of the Pitcairn chain, many of them dim and unpopulated — the high frontier.
The train passed 7-17 without exiting, and then, halfway to 6-9, at the antinode peak, it mingled with two other chains: the Glimmer Aqua Pitcairn convergence.
When the spacetrain hit the tubeflower, the mirrors exploded into shards and chips which resolved into craft, a glassy dance of baubles from every chain, but mostly natives: Aquan dinghys and liners, Glimmer skims and cavebats, Pitcairn pugs and freighters, that might have been here in the last few hours, or the next.
Releasing the suit's magnets and bracing on the cool cylinder of a shaft, Cataria jumped.
The train fell away like a toy, and as she left the nimbus of its stories, she passed into Arbitrary space.
Here, to further hijack the charm of indeterminacy, ships were de-invested of identity even past the point of being ships. Matter and mind were stripped down to skewed perspectives of the pre-Consensus multitude, bubbling about her like drowning breath.
A tourist would die here like a mountain child in a tidepool. The cause of death would not be thirst or exposure, but daze, following the light so close to the Space Mother that she reached out and seduced you into pre-existence.
Cataria reached out and caught a bubble, and her fingers grasped the finfoil of a Glimmer skimship. It was black, highlighted in cold purple-green of Krypton lamps, and shaped like a sleek bat whose folded wings seemed to add speed. In some rich nebula the wings would unfold to gossamer umbrellae, harvesting rare elements and humours for the Glimmer's phosphorescent alchemy.
Now the ship banked and skittered into the eerie tunnel of the Glimmer warptube, dim and glistening with the ghostly light of the planetary atria, boreholes as wide as cities and so deep as to cheat gravity.
Already the Blip was sending a tendril. Like a purple mushroom stretching its stem, it opened from umbo to trumpet and enfolded her, and then like a drying dewdrop withdrew into the ship.