Jeanette thought is was very weird and kind of wrong to be half-sitting, half-lying in her bunk, tied down with belts, watching Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone fighting his way through the alien starship alongside a bunch of ghosts.
Wynken, Blynken and Nod, the crew of the Paradox Swan, were similarly secured in their own bunks, and they were all watching a big 3D projection of the humanoid tiger in mirror armor mow his way through the enemy with his flashing longsword. He was being his usual amazing self, but to be treating a real-life battle like a sporting event really stopped her. There was even a thought in her head that she ought to be there, but that was stupid because she wouldn’t last two minutes. And she liked the three black girls her age, but when they started a pool--a pool!--On how many aliens he’d kill, she found it hard to even cheer his victories.
Jeanette was strapped into the bunk with the lynx Diotima Urantia Gearheart in her lap. Though Diotima had been a friend since the city of Avalon, she had never seen Lord Elphinstone in full battle mode, and she stared at the projection without saying anything.
“He’s made the transition to the Sprezzatura ships. Two of them strapped together like that is unusual, so they’re probably carrying something special,” said Blynken.
“Yeah, and the Bravura didn’t fall back to defensive positions when we attacked, so they’re probably not the ones holding,” Said Nod. “WOW! Did you see that?”
“You have such cool friends, Jeanette!” Said Blynken.
“Yeah,” Jeanette said, feeling pleased despite herself.
The ship rocked from side to side: it was good to remember that they were also in the midst of the battle. Fortunately they were too close to both hulls to have heavy weaponry turned on them.
Up in the Captain’s cabin, Ngozi Makena Odile sat with the rest of the companions, watching another version of the same telemetry. “That’s it--between Ex-Captain Pugh’s expertise and Silvertyger’s enthusiasm, they’re headed right for where the Sprezzatura shielded vaults should be,” the Pirate Queen of the Night said. “Damn! How does he do that based on the crap we give him for breakfast?”
“About how long can these AIs stay incarnate?” Senhor Capoeira Capybara asked.
“Four hours maximum--although they can gain a little more life when the ambient energy levels are this high,” said the Captain. ”Which is why we did a two-stutter boarding, even though it gets confusing for them.”
“I can imagine,” said the capybara.
“It’s too bad you can’t communicate with them,” said Dr. Ransom.
The captain shook her head. “This low-band vid signal is what we can get going out. Going in everything’s jammed solid. We just have to enjoy the show.”
Lord Elphinstone and the ghosts broke into a long chamber.
“Crap, there must be a hundred vaults in there.” Senhor Capoeira said.
The tiger loped down the chamber, but the ghosts sped past him. The avatar of Ex-Captain Pugh stopped before a vault that was surrounded with heavy equipment. He thrust his arm into the machinery, then pulled back--and he didn’t have the arm anymore. He nodded to the tiger, Who brought the longsword down. There was a flash, and the vault door was open.
The ghosts walked in, throwing off massive sparks as they did so, and brought out three handled containers, each about the size of a man’s head.
The Captain said, “Good God.”
A “what?” circulated around the cabin.
“I hope my armless ex-captain has the sense god gave a goat and comes right back here with that. ALL HANDS!” She said, touching a necklace. “Prepare for a maximum absquatulation!”
She turned to the others. “If those are what I think they are, not only does it change our financial futures drastically for the better, but it changes the way we go about our quest.”
Dr. Ransom said, “All right, having given you your moment, let me ask--what’s in them?”
“Space,” said the Pirate Queen.
By the time Lord Elphinstone reached the breach in the Bravura hull, not only were the glowing ghosts gone, but the two stutter versions of the Paradox Swan were as well. He leapt aboard with the containers hooked over his arm, the ship wheeled. By the time he reached the stairs below, the Orion Nebula was vanishing astern.
Everybody gathered in the mess, including the three daughters and the two crows, who hadn’t taken to starship travel at all. The three containers were on the table. At first glance they were ordinary canisters, but there were close to twenty slightly raised rings that were meant to be turned, and very tiny raised lettering in an unknown alphabet that seemed almost wntirely made of o’s.
Dr. Ransom asked, “So what do you mean by space?”
The Captain answered, “Are you at all informed about projective geometry physics?”
Ransom said, “explain it for Jeanette.”
The capybara looked over at Jeanette and did a slow clap.
Ngozi began, “Most civilizations that have progressed beyond the dropping-balls-off-buildings stage have discovered that empty space isn’t really empty. Space, without matter or energy zipping across it, will throw up electron pairs spontaneously that, just as spontaneously, annihilate each other. This is independent of anything else happening. There are some clever tricks used to harness the power of the continuum, as its called, but that’s neither here nor there.”
“When it gets discovered that alternate or parallel universes really exist--that is, are accessible--it seems to turn out that the power of the continuum is the same no matter where you go. Folks tend to come to the conclusion that it’s a multiversal constant.”
“But others point out that there’s no good reason that that should be so. There could be all sorts of universes: ones in which inflation never occurs, and the entire universe is a fraction of an inch across; others in which only neutrinos are resolved out of the big bang, and galaxies and civilizations arise without gravity or electromagnetism; and even wilder places. These very well could have a different--vastly different, even--continuum energy state--but it’s that difference that makes these universes completely and utterly inaccessible.”
“So if samples of empty space exist with different powers of the continuum, they could deliver literally infinite power--or if lower, could darken out all the stars and make matter impossible. Further theories say that such transformations could propagate at the speed of quantum entanglement--you don’t have to know what that is, Jeanette--and so could make a universe vanish in the blink of an eye.”
“Nobody’s ever seen any of these other spaces--but theoreticians are confident of what it would look like and how it could be contained if it does show up. And it would look like this. The most powerful, dangerous, and valuable non-substance substance in cosmic infinity. The treasure-hunter’s dream.”
Dr. Ransom said slowly, “I’m only a mediocre research chemist, but it sounds like all this might be tied into Deep Chaos.”
The Captain nodded. “Both Deep Chaos as a way of getting some of this non-stuff--and this stuff as a powerful way to trace Deep Chaos.”
She got up briskly. “And as a way of making ourselves rich beyond the dreams of avarice. What we are in the process of doing is circling the Orion Nebula and coming in from a different direction. It sounds pretty primitive, but it works a surprising percentage of the time. And we’ll be heading for one of the oldest Utruquist planets, and the biggest trading nexus in the nebula. If we can get a buyer, it’s there. The place has, of course, a lot of names--nobody can pronounce the Utruquist name, so it’s called Suq, or Agora, or God’s Wishing Well. Nut my old ghost, ex-Captain Ambivalence Pugh, likes to call it the Mall of Orion, and that appeals to me.”
“A place where there are probably shoot-on-sight orders for you,” Lord Elphinstone said.
“Worse than that,” Ngozi said with a smile. “Which is why I am not going to make planetfall and try to sell one of these--”
And the Pirate Queen of the Night looked directly into Jeanette Ransom’s face.