The Paradox Swan was gliding through deep intergalactic space at a neutral velocity that was the speed of light combined by a complex process with the Hubble velocity--the rate of this universe’s expansion. Since this universe was made of antimatter, there would periodically be a loud ping as an atom annihilated itself against the damping field of the ship.
Captain Ngozi Makenda Odile sat at the mess table, leaning back with one booted foot raised high on its edge. It had been three days cruising at this velocity, and everyone was throwing their minds at the problem, with a strikingly similar lack of success.
“No, I hate to say it, but all the literature says two things about antimatter universes: 1) leave’ and 2) don’t come back,” the Captain said. “As long as we’re out here with nearly zero mass density we’re okay, but even at intra-galactic levels it would be like flying through the corona of a good-sized star, and inside a nebula would be like going through its center. No matter the shielding, no matter the tricks.”
“And if we try an end run?” Dr. Ransom asked.
“It might work if we’re extraordinarily lucky, but if we lose the Deep Chaos geodesic, we’d have to start all over from zero--and there’s no guarantee we wouldn’t run into this again,” the Captain scowled.
“Which may be why the Variant Space samples we have in the hold are so incredibly rare,” Senhor Capoeira Capybara said. “And nobody’s going to publish, ‘oh, by the way, be careful for antimatter universes,’ in order to make other treasure-hunters’ jobs easier.”
“Of course, if we only had the advantages of our companion, this would be simple,” Grandmère Hutan waved behind her.”
“Yes, if our ship were only made entirely of neutrinos, antimatter would be the same as matter. And just because such a thing is physically impossible seems the only flaw in that plan,” Capoeira said wearily.
Jeanette, Wynken, Blynken, and Nod had adjourned from the mess table after breakfast to the cabin they shared. They all shared, to a greater or lesser extent, a faith in the Captain and the others to solve the problem. The three daughters of the Pirate Queen of the Night had had the Tengu sticks extruded from their archive, which was a favorite except for the fact that all the fun drained out of it in zero-g. Jeanette continued to read her book, What’s Been Did And What’s Been Hid, which had turned out to be Iqbal Oryx Tløn (the author)’s adventures in saving rare and weird artifacts from destruction by an uncaring world, while managing to cheat people out of great deals of money. She had grown to love the book.
“Listen to this:” Jeanette said. “‘The Master of Antiquities was a sweaty if elaborately lavendered gentleman whose main attachment to the Grand Museum of the Hendecanese was that it was cool in the summer and whose main job skill was that he never needed to moisten his fingers to turn the great folio pages of the record books.’”
“Burn,” Nod said with a thumbs up sign as she continued to focus on the wooden tower.
“By the way,” Jeanette said with careful offhandedness. When we set out on this voyage, you leaned over to me, and said, ‘And with one hand raised high in the dark.’What was that about?”
“Just something Father used to say,” said Blynken.
The Tengu tower collapsed.
“Oh, now we’re really going to get it,” moaned Nod.
“Man oh man, you just stuck your foot in it but good,” lamented Wynken.
“What? What about your father?”
“Maybe she didn’t hear you,” Wynken half-whispered.
“I most certainly did,” Ngozi’s voice filled the air. “Jeanette, would you please come to my cabin?”
“Say good-bye to our snacks for forever,” Nod lamented.
When Jeanette walked into the captain’s cabin, Ngozi Makena Odile didn’t seem agitated. “I suppose it was inevitable, even though I threatened them within an inch of their lives. You managed to pry it loose anyway. I keep telling myself not to underestimate you--at least I proved myself right.”
“Sorry,” Jeanette said, even though she knew she had been complimented.
“So what was it? What led you to crowbar open business that has nothing to do with you?”
“There’s this old Pilgrim manuscript in this book.” (She had mainly brought Hid along because she didn’t have a bookmark handy so still had her thumb where it was reading.) After quickly glancing and repeating the page number to herself, she opened to the translation (which, once she had heated it, stayed visible.) It says, “And with one hand raised high in the dark.” One of them whispered that to me when you made that gesture at the beginning of our voyage.”
The Captain took the book and read the whole thing. When she gave it back to Jeanette, her eyes were distant. Jeanette decided to hold off with all the King of Ys stuff.
Ngozi’s tone was even, but more gentle than Jeanette had heard from her so far. “He called himself the King of the Moon of the Moon. There’s a solar system a few universes away that was so constructed that the system’s Big Planet--that was its name--had satellites that had satellites of their own. And one of them had a notorious spaceport.”
“He was big, and arrogant, with a broad face like a temple carving and a voice like a church. I fell in love with him and was ready to end my wanderings. He was a scoundrel and a liar, and he claimed to be all sorts of things--one of them being of Pilgrim blood. He told me of Cynosure, and Diaspar, and sailing the Ark of the Infinite. I believed none of it, and never sold the Swan, but leaned back into his lies and dreamed my own dreams.”
“Then one day men in drab uniforms delivered me his hand--not the one with the ring on it--and an eye that could have been anybody’s complete with dangling optic nerve, and when I was sitting there, also handed me a datasquare filled with the regulations of the new provisional authority. I though it was an awfully elaborate way of breaking up with me, and still do. I bundled Wynken Blynken and Nod on board the Swan along with a couple of billions in negotiated currencies, and resumed my trajectory.”
“I am not looking for him, child, and I would appreciate it mightily if you told no one this story. In return, I won’t punish your cabin mates beyond an extremely terrifying interview.” She looked steadily at Jeanette.
“I promise,” she said. “If,” she added hastily, “I can ask you other questions about his stories about the Pilgrims. In private.”
“Done,” said the Captain. “Now I just have to try to figure out how to get this ship out of this trap. Go. You have my permission to fan my crew’s anxiety as much as pleases you.” She handed Jeanette a small piece of flexible metal for a bookmark.
On the way back to the cabin, she found herself thinking about her own mother Caitlin, and felt guilty because it had seemed like months since she had. When she got to the cabin, six eyes looked anxiously at her.
“I think I got you off the hook,” she said.
They relaxed and went back to playing.
It was at breakfast two ship days later that suddenly a distortion-filled voice came into the room.
“AHOY THE PARADOX SWAN!”
Ngozi stood abruptly up straight, and created a multi-plane readout so everyone could see.
“If you want to continue your journey in safety, center yourself in your wake and follow me!”
Everyone sat there in stunned silence. Jeanette’s father’s gaze kept flipping back and forth from the readout to her.
It was Nod who actually said it out loud.
“It’s you,” she said.