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Witches of the Pinspecked Void


She had in her the magnet, the maelstrom quality of drawing everything which came inside her circle of consciousness into her own being and making it one with herself. It was a capacity, he thought, which had very likely been a characteristic of the martyrs, and which may well have aggravated the Great Inquisitor, and even the Emperor Nero himself, to the brink of madness. The tortures, the stake, the lions, they made their own, and thereby conveyed to them a great harmonious beauty; but the torturer they left outside.

-Isak Dinesen, "The Monkey"

The inside of the Glimmer skimship, like their homeworlds, was cavelike, the main chambers rough-hewn and the small rooms smooth-molded out of simstone. The ceilings shed purple from shaggy lichens and the walls dripped green from ripply strata and glowed sepia from shelf fungus sconces.

Cataria folded back her helmet and faced the crew. Framing the airlock were two thick-muscled men shorter than her, and ducking under an arch came the lithe, lofty Captain.

"I'm curious." She looked down at Cataria. "You're the first arbjumper we've caught. How do you do it? Pick something physical out of pre-physical space?"

Cataria examined the Glimmer Captain's face, her spoonlike chin, her thin nose and big eyes, her defiant bearing of the default gravity. The question was a test, but she was not lying about being curious. Anyway, the answer was easy.

"The skill is not to reach with your hand. The eye reaches, the spirit reconciles, and then when your hand closes, it's there."

"Reconciles..." She pretended to consider. "Does the traveler alone move, to reconcile with the ship, or might the ship move to fit the traveler?"

"That's untestable," Cataria said, "because Fate happens but once. But I believe ships are moved."

"In what proportion to the movement of travelers?"

"In proportion to the power of their stories."

"And what gives a story power?" She floated the question like a ponderous balloon, and Cataria answered it like a dart.

"Rawness and precision."

The Captain stepped back so quickly that she almost bonked her head on the arch. "What? I'm sorry, I'm a level two intersubjective philosopher, and I've never heard of that. The standard answer is the mass of recursive Fate, the lives that will be changed resolving counter-timeward. Some say there is also the power of ancestors, and some say it's a matter of will, or charisma. Your answer is just strange.

"And yet you caught my ship, and now our stories are entwined." She held out her hand. "Captain Twix Limbus of the Glimmer skimship Moonbat."

"Cataria Meerschaum, eyeward sea Scroll." Their hands clasped briefly and their gazes locked.

"I have to think about this." She turned to the young man beside her. "Subcaptain Izzy Otranto will introduce you to the ship."

They walked down a sloping tunnel to the bridge, Izzy striding beside her, Twix turning spider-like down a side tunnel, and the stocky men bouncing. The wide upper bridge held websaucer chairs facing glowscreens of busy red lines on black.

As they descended, gravity lessened. Cataria and Izzy almost drifted into the cozy lower bridge whose concave ceiling simwindowed the warptube.

Izzy said, "Primeward or zedward, can you tell?"

Cataria plumbed the jitterbugging gleams for some signal in the noise. "Zedward?"

"Good guess. We are, but there's no way you could know."

"Primeward planets are usually more conservative, and the colors of the lights are growing slightly more diverse."

Izzy laughed. "That's not how it works. Individual lights may come and go, but they never change. Do you think a whole planet is suddenly more colorful?"

"Now the lights are getting more saturated. Can't you see it?"

He snorted. "Impossible."

"Subcaptain!" From the upper bridge, the voice of the Blip was like a great stone oboe. "I've detected an anomaly. Warptube spectra are varying in a pattern with probability against chance rising exponentially."

Izzy gaped at Cataria.

With a metallic shriek, the ship skewed and wheeled across the tube and thudded into some star-speckled field.

Still in her suit, Cataria had her helmet magged before the gust of venting air sucked them both toward the midship crack. Her hand snagged a webchair and her other hand secured her grip as Izzy flew past her and out into space.

Already the jagged walls of the breach were flinging wire and reeling shut. The hull groaned and the great wound oozed sealfoam as liquid cave air jetted and ballooned to fill the interior.

Cataria took off her helmet. Captain Limbus, half-uniformed, wobbled in and fell into the big chair.

"Subcaptain Otranto?"

Cataria pointed to the crack.

"The ship will reel him in. He'll survive, probably."

From the other side of the bridge came a click-clacking. A fist-sized white skull skittered out to announce, its jaw matching the syllables: "Remaining crew of the Moonbat, by the treaty of Faltramador we claim your flotsam, and by insertion of this token through a hullbreach, we claim the right of force against your ship. We await your surrender."

Twix hissed, "Thanans!"

"Did they crash us?"

"In-tube sabotage is not a known skill of the Thanans. Their skill is to use dark Flow Prognosticators to be present for near death."

The red glowscreen went full spectrum to show the Thanan ship, space-black with shiny white bones like the candy-carved skeleton of a dragon. The long wingbones were sinuous pickers now harvesting flotsam, and they watched as one of them snagged Izzy and popped him into the mouth.

"They don't know about you!" Emerging from the uptunnel, a grizzled man in a mossy robe pointed his long finger.

"Cataria Meerschaum," the Captain said, "meet Ming Findred, our ethertech."

"You don't exist to them. Not just in their thoughts, but in every way. Because you hopped in Arbspace, where info is blackbody, even their Progs are beclouded."

Cataria said, "Don't they have thruhull feelers?"

"All they see is a warm body." He fingered his wispy beard and appraised her like a treasure in the trash. "They don't see you. If you want to act against them, you will have perfect surprise."

"Are they so weak, that surprise is enough?"

"Surprise is their weakness. They are so confident knowing the future that they don't watch the present. Thanans are like worms, eyeless feeders. You could be a bird."

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