The spindrift raveled wind-ripped from the crest of the wave
-Sylvia Plath, "Suicide off Egg Rock"
The orbital shuttle was a rigid prehensile airship colored chartreuse below and turquoise above, matching the glossy ocean and glass balloon walls of the floating city on Aqua 5-5.
It strained against its mooring at city center, a conical tower of weather-greened copper sculpted into curlicued kelp. Released, the craft swelled and shot hyperbuoyant, stirring clouds in its rise to the crest of the troposphere. There its shell shrunk to streamline its thrust, and it accelerated to arc the stratosphere and then skipped like a rock to the belly of the orbital station.
The station looked like a bloated sanddollar, half as thick as it was wide, holding the entire bottom bell and the clipped top bell of a squat hourglass gravity engine. The flat planetside, now rippling with the passage of the shuttle, was a mirror membrane of cryptomercury, which reflected the world below in perfect resolution, but with key details changed.
In ancient legend, when the planet was young and small, the station hovered in geosync over the capital city, so close that the King commissioned a great telescope to watch his kingdom in unreliable reflection.
One day, snooping on the Queen out in the city, he saw her meet a lover! But zeroing on the man's face, he saw his own. The whole next day, up in his tower, he followed her every move — and again she met a lover, differently clothed in a different quarter, but again with the King's face.
On the third day, when the damnable mirror taunted him with his own face on a third scoundrel, the King called the Queen to the tower, and she revealed that the man out there was the actual King, playing at being a secret lover for his and the Queen's pleasure, and the King who watched from the tower was a membot. The lesson: sometimes when the gaze seems to show most false is just when it shows most true.
After the shuttle, the next ship to pierce the mirror was a chrome-edged steel blue gem with seaspray highlights, squidlike feelers, and no engine. Flying only on surplus simgrav, it had taken a full day to come down from the ferry, and inside the station it flipped awkwardly and fell upward to settle on the concave floor of the port, so near the edge that the low mirror blurred its likeness. Its name, in parentheses promising a change, was the Seed Of Fire.
Dez lay on a couch centered under the dome, examining the shifty image. "It looks like something in the trashbin of a spaceport gift shop."
"I think you did a great job." Torisa was standing on an upright harmonium, hand-brushing poppyseed paint on the crescent crawlspace balcony that now gave the ship's only real room a toy upper deck. On a table, a tray of sequins awaited placement.
"I just never thought I'd be designing Aqua."
"I never thought I'd register Aqua, but if the Captain hadn't found those nautilus feelers, we'd still be going up and down Brumvolz."
The Captain pulled the last strut from the fabricator and snapped it home in the balcony structure. "The junk tug had it tagged 'dead Gridspace locator', as if the Consensus triangulator was bismotered, when all it needed was a time belt."
Trixie said, "Here comes the inspector."
Out on the deck, they followed him around the ship. "Level two!" He beamed at the Na-il. "You show deep knowledge of our style."
"Thank you," she said. "Aquan aesthetics are... welcoming."
"The scanBlip reports integrity level two, cog level, that must be a mistake, and outfit level minus one. I'm sorry." With a pained expression he turned to the mechanic. "We can't let you leave here with no engine."
The Captain nodded solemnly. "I have warned my crew of that probable judgment."
"We welcome you to Aqua registry. Your style-size ratio qualifies you to park on the flight deck indefinitely, if you remain in the outer circle."
"If we're only here a month," the Captain said, "could we-"
Torisa cut him off. "The Flow remains always in the outer circle."
The Captain and Desdenova were deckwalking to the gravbell ringwell, and the upcurve eyetricked a climb, when really it was up-G flatwalking.
"A month? In this conch-infested kiddie pool?"
"You'll love it," the Captain said, setting his bones against the rising gravity.
"The inspector said I have deep knowledge. Aquan aesthetics are not even shallow."
"We'll be out in a week and you'll want to stay."
"You'll probably be getting us arrested."
At the ring of the hourglass, the floor fell away like cresting a tiny saddle ridge, and at nearly 2G, they bore the double weight of themselves through the angel's corset to topside.
The upper station was a hotel tower turned inside out, rooms and balconies ringing an epic atrium rising twenty stories to a true window on space. In the upper cathedral, gravity was so close to freefall that silhouette jumpers crossed under the stars.
"They have cushions," Dez said, pointing at the pillowy balcony facings, "and a net!" The black threads were barely visible between floors three and two. "In Na-il gravbells, you just look where you're going or crack your head."
"On my planet they retired a station and left it out in the dead fields of the high plains. You could see it for a hundred miles. The top was open, and the bottom was full of water. We would climb to the top and freedive, and the gravbell residue would lighten us before the splash." The Captain gestured from the high window to the mirror in the hole.
Torisa lounged under the dome and watched their reflection as they came to the ring and through, and a minute later as they emerged on their balcony and waved to her. The alignment was not coincidence but station design, old enough to have spawned a parable: "The longer the walk, the shorter the climb; the longer the climb, the lighter the walk."
"Trixie," she said, "let's talk about that pilot we're chasing, Foxle Spindrift."
"I don't remember any Foxle Spindrift."
Torisa sat up. "Back in Quercus, we read the cards, triple Ether, remember?"
"I don't remember any triple Ether. In a location spread, you drew the Jack of Space with the Jack of Fire, which has to mean a Brumvolz Jackstar. Nimrod pecked a five and a seven, so we headed for the cluster at B5-7-L4."
"Trixie, are you in the Captain's room?"
"Open sound. Captain!"
"Here. Open vid." He was in a massage tank with blue foam rollers on octopus tentacles working his back.
"Our story has become split."
"Who from who?"
"Do you remember the cards we drew, looking for our pilot?"
"The scary silver and black ones?"
"You're with me. Trixie remembers differently. Nimrod?"
Torisa said, "So the Blip is split."
"But isn't she synced to Consensus?"
"Yes. That means our memories, eyewise, are no longer true. We rode a spur faeward."
"But we were in Quercus. Even on a six node, that's too weird."
"I know," she said. "Something is afoot. Trixie, show me a 2-D chart of anticonsensus density, centered on Aristo 2."
The screen turned to a white square with an exploded birdsnest of thread-thin black, and green fuzz at the edges.
Up in the room the screen showed the same thing and Dez, steaming in a scallop shell bathtub, flung soap bubbles. "Those colors burn my eyes! Purple-black background, gold filament chainmap, and red to yellow topographic influx."
Now they saw a clockwork in a pool of ink in a fire, and Torisa said, "Show change over the last month."
Into the ink, the fire was throwing a pinwheel. Torisa gasped.
The Captain squinted. "That's not normal?"
"That's a level four Fae hurricane. Trixie, amp the lines and give me two slash three D. I'll hand-spin."
From the ink rose a straw moon turning in purple space, its stray stalks kinked and frayed, getting hammered by an asteroid. Torisa rotated it to judge its angle and strength.
"Mother of Space, it's headed straight for the center."
"Who else knows about this?"
"Probably no one. Trixie's two levels above any other correlator following anticonsensus destiny."
Trixie said, "You mean density."
"That's what I said."