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Witches of the Pinspecked Void


how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

-E.E. Cummings

From the eye of the dragon, its bubble lens so fine as to taunt space, Cataria looked out on the wreckage of the warptube. This pixel of Gridspace was now a boneyard of broken stories picked over by Thanan carrionbirds, dreadvermin, and drone bottomfeeders. The Paisley Bonedrake had shouldered into the feast on a Devonian gene ark, richer pickings than the Moonbat, now finishing refit off the port wing.

Izzy sat down beside her, fresh in his Thanan podbody and plain-boned uniform.

"Why didn't you save me?"

"You were tagged as flotsam. The others were still ambiguous in third death."

"You could have bargained for me."

Cataria shrugged.

"Why didn't you save me before?"

"What, you mean when you sneak double-tested me, when you derided my keener eye, and when you failed to get a handgrip in your own ship?"

He looked at the floor. "I know you're better than me."

She studied him, until finally he raised his head.

"You're better looking," she said.

"What's your point?"

"Your strength is the fulcrum to raise your weakness."

Up the optic nerve from the bridge came Captain Angst, her whole body mummy-bandaged and spotted brown with leaked blood. Her face glowed as she took Cataria's hand.

"I seem to have become another kind of corpse, but where mummies preserve the dead, these bandages are a chrysalis for my metamorphosis from dead to alive. You have reversed time! I only wish you could loop it so I could relive our hours together, forever."

Over Kunigunda's shoulder, Cataria continued to gaze out at space. "Someone probably already did that," she muttered, and then looked in her eyes.

"You will be lonely here. As your people refresh their bodies without you, you will be weaving a tapestry of tight-spun memories, while all around you is blowing lint."

Suddenly the Captain laughed, and then squeaked out, "We have a crewman named Lint." She snorted. "Lint Johnson."

"When you laugh," Cataria said, "you are half as beautiful as the stars."

The Captain beamed and drew out a bundle the size of Cataria's forearm, wrapped in black silk. "A gift for you."

"A blade," she said, not accepting it yet. "Surely not the one..."

"No. That one is part of my story now. And it's only a level three. This is a five."

Cataria took it. Under the silk it was like looking through a broken window into the night. "This is worth more than your ship."

"It's worth more than my planet. One cannot set out to make a level five blade. They only happen when an attempt to turn a three into a four goes wrong in just the right way. The Reaper has given us only seven, and none in the last ten thousand years.

"Its name," she said, "is the Edge of Space."

"Of course. What else could it be?"

"Its edge is so fine that a thousand years ago, when one of our scientists tried to view it through a microscope, he went blind. It is thought that in the right hands, it can cut the zero-point weave without leaving a mark.

"You understand, I'm not giving it out of mere gratitude, but because the blade yearns to be in the right hands."

Cataria closed her fingers on the hilt, and the normally invisible force-scabbard flared electric blue and climbed her arm.

"Ooooh, it likes you."

"My gratitude is beyond words. May it not be beyond action." She stowed the blade and took the Captain's hand. "But back to your story, I have a thought. To relieve your loneliness, you need companions who have taken the same journey."

"But how? The way you did it? I could never."

"I think you can. It's only a matter of running your mind over it enough times. You have hard memories now, but not so hard that you can't imagine it even better than it was."

Cataria turned. "Ex-subcaptain Isandro Otranto has volunteered to be your subject."

"What? No!"

"His reluctance," she continued, "is precisely his value. You are learning to coax pleasure out of pain, and the highest level teacher is the one who most fears pain."

"Can I make no mistakes?"

"You surely will." Cataria grinned. "But there is always tomorrow."

The Princess-Captain leaned in to examine Izzy's grav-trained military body, his quivery poise, his face like a decorative axeblade.

Cataria said, "You must promise me one thing. Do not break him. At least leave him... better."

Kunigunda tickled a bandaged finger along Izzy's cheekbone. "I accept."

Baffled and horrified, he gaped at Cataria. "Why?"

"I just saved you."

On the crossing from the Bonedrake to the Moonbat, Cataria caught a glimpse, through a rift in an Aquan freighter hull, of a blue dream, a tiny ship whose wavy feelers tickled her eyes to its sleek widening, its radial grid bubbledome and trident-barbed stabilizers. The freighter's drifting spin closed the crack to an azure crescent and then it was gone. Thumbing her gravbelt, she shot across the space and commed back, "Don't wait for me."

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