Jeanette held the book, face down on the comforter, which she normally wouldn’t do. There were weird parts of the beginning, sure, but she’d encountered mighty weird stuff in real life. And she was of course ready for a book that starts after the end, with the main story all in flashback. That happened all the time. But the King--King Eadward--killing Captain Odile? That didn’t make sense--it was at odds with what she’d told her. What was going on?
Was this going to be one of those books?
But the Scotties hadn’t sent her this book with a note saying, “Hi, we thought you might enjoy this weird artsy book that isn’t supposed to make sense.” They gave it to her as a reward for giving them factual help with their research. They had to believe this book was literally true.
Now was the time for one of those chocolates.
She moved her hand over the box, paused, and dove in. She put it in her mouth. The only danger would be of there would be a hard toffee, or a Brazil nut, and they were only bad if you were expecting something soft. But it was fine: it was a softer chocolate with an orange taste.
The box shut itself and reopened, and a completely new selection presented itself. She liked Storisende.
She went back to the book.
(That, at least, was reassuring. A beginning to shake you up. Let’s hope things calm down.)
The community of worlds orbiting Big Planet was unusual in more ways than one. (The original name of it was a jumble of sounds meaning Half The Sky, but it was in a language one needed two larynxes to speak, so Big Planet it became.) It was a big enough gas giant to almost a brown dwarf star, and so emitted a fair amount of heat--but more importantly a torrent of magnetic flux that would melt an inner moon in the course of a thousand years or so, to be replaced by incoming comets. The resulting plasma shielded the immense outer moons, but still drove a magnetic storm that made any surveillance of ships in the area impossible.
As a result, the trading entrepôt on the Moon of the Moon was nearly the perfect place for smuggling and surreptitious trading in much of the spiral arm of the galaxy.
(What was an entrepôt? Was there a link? No, dummy, it’s a physical book, and your father is busy. Keep going.)
He called himself the Emperor Lear, and ran his business, as did his rivals, out of a bar. It was a big gaudy thing, of iridescent metal and iridescent bubbles that a patron could drag out of the air and convert to communication or entertainment. It was very loud.
He sat at a table that was neither prominent nor secluded, and the only truly remarkable thing was that there was a full-sized bottle of 307 ale on it--and that he wore a torn tabard that he claimed was that of an officer of the Ark Of The Infinite. The latter impressed no o ne, because they either had never heard of it, or they did and considered it absurdly impossible. They were more impressed by the bottle.
(Tabard? Some kind of clothing. Don’t let it stop you.)
They came to him in a steady stream. The energy requirements and technological sophistication required for star travel made most commodities impractical for trade. So outside of the truly exotic materials--Bose-Einstein condensate, metallic muonium, soliton jewels--most of the trade was in services. That tended to run into concubines, catamites, foundlings, and slaves, and that required sensitivity and brutality in complementary measure.
Up to the table one day came a black woman, her skin the same chocolate color as his, her hair a mess, her clothes an artless mix of scarves and pressure-suit flanges, tall and beautiful and aware of all of it.
“Are you the Emperor Lear?”
“Aye, every inch,” he drawled in a reference she did not get. “And you?”
“I am Captain Ngozi Makena Odile, owner of the Paradox Swan, and now that I see you, I’m wondering if I came to the right place.”
“I’d say your attitude was refreshing, except for the fact that it isn’t. What, beside too long a time in hyperspace, makes you say that?”
She shrugged. “For my current business, I’d pick someone more prosperous and less pretty.”
“For that I thank you. But there are few deals I cannot close, if I find it--or you--amusing.”
He looked at her in contemplation for a long second, then put a hand to his throat and turned off his translator. “Tell me where you’re from, flower in my sight.”
She started at the untranslated accents: they were, though strangely stretched, nearly her own. She switched her translator off as well. “I came into the light in the city of Seminole in the Haitian Protectorate, on Earth.”
“One Earth, and not mine, since I was born in the Ville des Trois Crapauds, in the New World Dauphinate of Louis the Spider, on an Earth where you would fit right in.”
“All of which makes me less confident, not more, having had my fill of Men of the New World. So tell me why I should approach a man in a cheap saloon with an unmended shirt on a truly large deal?”
“Little Black Swan, I came to the Moon of the Moon with a treasure so great it has taken me an appreciable part of my life finding traders rich enough to take small parts of it. Were I to show a tenth of it, empires would descend and smash this snowball to shivers to get it.”
“Even prettier, I have to say--and I can’t scoff at it. Whence comes this perilous treasure?”
Lear touched the tabard. “I sailed on the Ark of Infinity, where we reached out, touched the face of God, and stole her necklace.”
“Never heard of it, this Ark. Was it as pretty as your talk?”
“It was a huge ship, breathtaking to the sight, if you only had the eyes. For she was built entirely of neutrinos, and could go without hindrance where no other ship could. Time and space up to the twentieth and beyond. My treasure exists. What use would you put it to? What do you have to sell?”
“Ghosts?” Lear’s eyes widened and danced at the same time.
“In the Swan’s hold, a chest with 120,000 ghosts, all unquiet AI’s with minds on mayhem.”
Jeanette shut the book, her mouth dry.
Neutrinos! The Ghost Ship! She thought. She knew! She knew what it was!
She put the book down, then pulled the soft comforter up to her chin, then over her head, feeling as betrayed as she ever had been.