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"Where?" I asked.
"Speak into the microphone, chief," said Shipman Eva.
"Oh right, ahem." CRRRRK "@Rose Nomenclature, can you repeat your destination? Over."
The Egregore had shot off like a rocket, and I didn't have any better ideas on what to do but follow her.
"Over Les Diablerets. And beyond Schokoladenland."
"Whoa whoa whoa. What, we're going to need phrasebooks now? Language lessons?"
Then, finally, "Try to keep up if you want to stay alive. And stay off the radio. OVER."
Shipman Eva looks at me.
"Try to keep up," I say. "Ha!"
Shipman Eva keeps looking at me.
"Yes, yes, ok. Wherever she goes. Keep her in view. Not too close, like we're following her. But just..."
"Fly casual, sir?"
"Yes! That's it. Casual!"
"The Piercing of the Spires?"
@Rose Nomenclature looked at me incredulously.
"It's a perfectly reputable place, Lots of rare and unique items end---"
"It's an accelerated pocket dimension. Inhabited by... time vampires! How much did you give up?"
"Well, see we had these old haunted pinball machines in trade, and--"
"Of your TIME. How much TIME did you give up?"
".... about a month? Objective time. I was only gone for a few--"
"At least you weren't dumb enough to make your whole crew go along."
I didn't tell her how my relationship with the crew wasn't like that. It didn't seem like a time to argue.
"And the bookseller? He was just some rando too?"
"Well, I spent a lot of time choosing a bookseller, but no, I'd never met him before. And he was a good find. He's the one who supplied the glasses."
"Yes, he didn't even charge me."
Ooooops. I guess I should have realized that was a red flag myself. @Rose Nomenclature went to town on me on that, made me tell her about the second pair of glasses, and the job the bookseller gave me, and Le Bullfrog, and the Fossilized Fish Skeleton and the King of the Fishmen, I even told her about the little barnacle encrusted box, something only Shipman Eva knew about besides me. I guess it just felt like time to come clean.
"And what's inside this little barnacle encrusted box?" she asked.
That's something not even Shipman Eva knew.
I got the box out of my pocket, and used both hands to open its tiny top. Then I picked up what was inside between my finger and thumb and held it up.
"It's a token. From the game arcade that used to be at the Top of the Verts."
"Captain! Climb aboard!"
It's Shipman Eva, shouting from the ship. She's just tossed a rope ladder down for Engineer Tom and I to climb up. The rest of crowd at the Bar at the Top of the Verts is still scrambling for cover, heading for the exits or hiding under their tables. The only ones not running and hiding are the clockwork waiters. They're coming nearer.
I make Tom go first. Because I'm that kind of captain.
"It's gone you know!" It's that whirry chimey clockwork voice again. The waiter with the nasty razor nails marches over the broken class. "You'll never find it. The token is of no use to you!"
Instinctively my had goes for the little barnacle encrusted box in my breast pocket. It's still there.
I hook my arm around the rope ladder and let Shipman Eva haul me aboard, while Matte Kudasai backs out of the atrium, creating a second shower of glass.
"A little barnacle encrusted box? I... I don't know what you're talking about."
Darn! Hesitated too long.
"I think you know exactly what I'm talking about."
These clockwork types had a special ring to their voices. If you knew what to look for.
I could feel the little barnacle encrusted box in my breast pocket. Shaking it with my heartbeat.
"Oh! THAT little barnacle encrusted box. I left that on the ship, yup. Too valuable not to keep safe."
The waiter pointed a finger at me and an extensor shot out of it, fingertip at the end, and tap tap tapped the little barnacle encrusted box in my pocket.
"And what about this?"
"Oh, uh OW! That's my nipple. I have one seriously messed up nipple. It grows these gnarled bones out see, and--"
"Enough!" the waiter yelled in his chimey voice. "We have what we need." And the rest of his fingertips sprang out, but with whirling razors instead of fingertips, and he drew back...
And there was a tremendous crash as the glass atrium ceiling fell all around us, and the nose of the Matte Kudasai poked through.
"And... may I offer you a drink?"
The clockwork waiter is a lot more civil now that the elevator ride is over. Tom and I tried to overtake it in the lift, while its head was spinning with the red light and the ticking. It was horrible. And uncalled for. And ineffectual, as it batted us against the walls of the tiny elevator and kept us pinned down for the duration of the ride.
And it was a long ride, let me tell you. Because now we're sitting in the Bar at the Top of the Verts. As it's known.
"Yes, uh... two beers," I say.
There's no sitting at the edge here for Tom to throw his peanut shells. No complimentary peanuts at all. It's a classy joint, since no one I know has ever been admitted to the Bar at the Top of the Verts before. And they don't let you get too close to the edge here. And the sky is verging on deep purple and there are almost stars, even though the sun is in the sky. You can see the curve of the whole planet from up here.
"And here you are. Two beers," says a new waiter. But now that I'm on the lookout I can see it's another of those clockwork waiters. "And you have something for me, I believe?" the new clockwork waiter asks.
"Um, uh... yes.... my debit card, perhaps?"
"No," answers the clockwork waiter. "A little barnacle encrusted box will do."
I followed Engineer Tom, who was apparently following the waiter.
"Oh, uh, excuse me. Er, 'Excusez-MOI!!!'"
The patrons give me such funny looks. But I practiced the pronunciation just like from the record!
Tom cuts a path through the room and down a service corridor. I can see the waiter entering a small broom closet ahead of us.
"Into the broom closet!" I call, tumbling over Tom through the threshold.
"Captain! I can't assure this is safe,"
"Hey, we got it on a NOTE. I do this stuff all the time."
Suddenly, the door slams shut, the lights in the closet turn red, the room shudders, and I can feel the whole thing is going up.
"Going up!" says the waiter.
I look up, and see the waiter's head is rotating, spinning slowly around on his neck. And emitting a ticking sound.
"Wow. Look at that peanut shell fly."
Sunset in the Verts. Everybody's seen the postcards. Clouds below, sun setting over the curve of the earth. And Engineman Tom Connex eating peanut after peanut and throwing the shells over the tiny railing.
"You see that one? It caught an updraft. It's just sitting there."
He tries flicking them with different spins. It's pointless.
"Woo-eee, that's a long way down!"
"Your drinks, sirs."
A pair of beers in ridiculous fluted glasses, like lillies, appear before us. Mine has a white folded note along side with my name on it. Must be the bill.
"Aw, hey," I say, sliding the note over to Tom. "I forgot my wallet. Would you mind picking this up?"
"Oh, uh, sure captain. But it's only the first round!"
Tom picks up the note and looks at it.
"Uh, captain? This isn't the bill."
I snatch it out of his hand, almost knocking over my ridiculous beer.
FOLLOW THE WAITER
Waiter? I look around rapidly. The place is packed.
"There, sir. By the kitchen. He's just standing there."
I stare blankly at Tom.
"Well let's do it!" he says.
Springing out of his chair, he knocks over his ridiculous beer.
The City of Palms Cafe was yet another broad cave opening in the Verts. The whole humungous natural stone monolith was riddled with them, like holes in a sponge. The City of Palms Cafe was the most popular (and only) cafe in the Lavender Federation, and served not only as a restaurant, but a meeting place for local corporations, military organizations, and the Lavender Federation Central Government itself. We'd seen the signs posted on the rock surface on the way up not long before--the Lavender Federation occupies one of the thinnest niches in the giant soufflé of different socio-political cultures that inhabit the Verts.
We docked on a moor near the cafe, and the crew and I shuffled off via a rickety catwalk, looking down over a 15,000 ft straight drop. The view looked more like a miniature topographical map than anything an airshipman usually sees.
We stepped out onto the scaffolding.
"So!" I clapped my hands together and looked at the crew. "Where's everybody headed?"
"Captain, the only place in the Lavender Federation open to non-party members is The City of Palms Cafe," Shipman Eva said.
Hmmm. I didn't want the crew to see me making whatever contact the Bookseller had arranged.
"But, uh..." I didn't have a plan. "There's a whole city! The City of Palms! Get out there and find some palm trees. They must be... growing in a tunnel somewhere? Near the opening? Where there's light?"
"Aw, gee captain." It was Tom Connex, Engineman. "I was really looking forward to a nice beer, legs kicked up on the rails, leaning back in a cafe! Not to mention that it's a radically progressive enclave's cafe and center of their movement. Also, I heard they serve peanuts and you can toss the shells over the side."
"A progressive enclave? Uh... is that some music thing?"
"No! It's THE home of autonomous radicalism and a living experiment in anarcho-communism. The City of Palms Cafe is as close as you can get to seeing it short of taking their Oath."
Tom Connex was a connoisseur of obscure political micro-cultures? Who would have guessed?
"Ah, well, in that case.... Which way is it?"
"This way, captain," said Shipman Eva.
".... composed largely of non-dissolubable quartizinibubble. These mighty karsts were thrust up though the surface via a still not-fully understood process, and have been continually inhabited since the dawn of recorded history, with a wide range of cultures being born, growing, dying, and being reborn once again as the living cultural fabric of these immense stone structures, extending farther than the eye can see, up, up, up into the atmosphere..."
"Who said that?" I whipped my head around so fast the googles almost fell off.
"Me, of course. In the googles. Who else could it be? Have you been picking up OTHER transmissions?"
Ah, of course. The bookseller. Speaking to me through the googles. Which I was wearing to see what kind of special details I could see in the Verts and we slowly made our ascent.
"And what brings you to this amazing natural wonder, hmmmm?" asked the bookseller.
"Well I, uh..." Had I looked at the barnacle encrusted box with the googles on? Had the bookseller seen it? I scrambled my brains trying to remember.
"Hey!" I remembered in the knick of time. "Don't you owe me some money? I took Le Bullfrog to his destination, and it was him who decided to hydrate that vicious fish skeleton of yesteryear by putting it in his mouth and EXPLODING and then being reborn as a million tiny tadpoles out of a monster's mouth, thus fulfilling an ancient prophecy and making the Fishpeople very grateful?"
"They did reward you generously, did they not?"
"Well, see, about that, it was really heavy, and we were running low on oxygen and power in the submersible..."
"The Lavender Federation."
"Make a stop at the Lavender Federation. It's one of those new governments, near the 15,000 foot mark. Small enough you'll miss it if you blink. But it's the right distance for a natural pitstop. Let the crew take a break, and be at the City of Palms Cafe at dusk. I'll be in touch. Click."
I watched the green rock walls pass by, a continuously falling motion, as the Matte Kudasai continued going up, up, up.... Vegetation changing slowly with the altitude, as well as the people living in the tunnels of rock, inhabiting bands sometimes a mile in width, sometimes just a few hundred feet. A thousand different cultures and governments, eeeeking out their histories as stripes on the largest stone spire in the galaxy.
Jeesh. Why can't anything ever be simple?
@Rose Nomenclature's ship, the Egregore, was long gone by the time we resurfaced. Damage from the grapples wasn't so bad.
Shipman Eva likes to keep things moving. Trouble was, I didn't have a plan.
"No, uh, bottles with messages near by?"
"Hyper-intelligent Man Seals barking riddles at us?"
Any payment from our last job may have... complications. Our passenger biologically merged with a fossilized fish skeleton and destroyed Destiny City in the process. The person we were supposed to be following, @Rose Nomenclature, gave us the slip. And the bookseller isn't picking up on the communications link in the goggles he gave me. We were already beginning to get low on liquidity before this whole mess...
"The box, sir."
"I'm sorry, what was that, shipman?"
"The little barnacle encrusted box the King of the Fishmen gave you. Have you opened it?"
Oh my god, the little box. I got so interested in the chests full of treasure I had forgotten it. And then having to dump the treasure that was too heavy for the submersible, I forgot about it then too. Oh no was it in my hand when I started flushing it all? I feel my self go pale patting down all my pockets looking for it.
"Breast pocket, sir."
Ah... there it is. The little barnacle encrusted box. I lift the lid.
"Uh... yes. Shipman..."
"Take us to the Verts."