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Generated: Jun 22, 2018 1:03 AM
Post last updated: Jun 22, 2018 12:52 AM
Seed in barren ground
Tarinda and Page bring a seed of the super-AI Sing to Cloudbank
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Cloudbank is a beautiful place, from a certain perspective. Blue sky and white clouds above, all around, and misty white clouds below.

Here is an island of solidity in the sea of sky. The wind is a steady breeze, the floating island sitting just barely on top of a dense, foggy layer of air. It's not an especially large island, perhaps two hundred feet wide and three hundred long all told, curved slightly like the back of some giant beast.

The sandy soil is thin, and wears straight through to a porous-looking sort of rock in places. There are grasses and weeds and shrubs and a few trees, plus a few small creatures. Some familiar, like the wild onions. Some alien, like the thickets of not-quite-grass with flimsy, transparent, bulging seeds straining upwards against their mooring.

A songbird casually swoops from its nest and catches one of these seeds in its bill, while something with tentacles and a large gas-bag clings to the island at the edge, nibbling on the alien leaves of something reminiscent of mangroves, a three-dimensional web of stems and flaxen roots.

And then someone else arrives.

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Tarinda does not belong here.

She's lucky to be alive, really; wounds already knitting and bruises already fading show what happened while her ship broke apart in what must have been a wormhole - and then she crashed? But there's no ship debris; something stranger must have happened. She lies on the ground and breathes while her self-repair does its work.

When her teeth don't hurt any more, she clacks her jaw twice and wakes up Page.

Page identifies plants, calculates windspeed, checks her internal chronometer for damage and concludes she hasn't obviously lost time, carefully picks apart her audio stream for informative noise. She's alone on a sky island with mixed Earth and alien wildlife. That's so weird.

She sits up, when the repair is nearly done.

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The largest example of alien wildlife has fled with a warbling cry, spooked by her crashing arrival. The wind continues its steady push. What is possibly another floating island is visible in the distance, slightly above and quite a ways away - it's just a tiny speck.

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And that means it's really pretty far, since she's turning on all her boosts that can run on waste heat and sunlight instead of pure calories to handle whatever this is.

She takes inventory. She has her outfit, her sword, two knives, a pocketful of peanut candy. The lightsaber, the other sword, and the rest of her armory, plus her commemorative statuette from the competition, didn't make it and are probably disintegrating in the wormhole or something. Her food for the trip apart from the peanut candy is gone. Luckily it'll keep.

She gets up and paces the island carefully.

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Plants, earthly and alien. The wild onions, identifiable by the leaf shape, are the best example of photosynthesizing food, though there are a few earthly things whose roots or flowers contain nonzero amounts of nutrition. While they're alien, a few of the alien things look potentially edible. The birds and a few mice can both be seen snacking on certain plants, especially the ones with the floating seeds, which occasionally get knocked off their stalks and drift away. There aren't as many insects as one might expect, though there are some. A few more alien animals are evident too - translucent jellyfish things half an inch wide and something with spikes glued to the rock like barnacles. The stone, on inspection, is almost like coral.

There are twenty-seven wild onions, five poplar trees ranging from sapling to fifteen feet tall, three mangrove-things, and lots of miscellaneous plants. There are four songbirds, perhaps a dozen mice, and plenty of the tiny jellies and barnacles. There is no open water anywhere on the island, though there's dew on the stone below, where it curves away into oblivion at the edge.

White mist stretches out in all directions except 'up', forbidding visibility below the island.

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She's not hungry yet. The onions will keep best alive. Page walks her through careful tasting of a questionable plant to see if it'll do more harm than good, and while her metabolism sits with that she inspects the soil and the rock.

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The soil is only a few inches deep over most of the island, and is fairly sandy. It's moist, though, so it probably rained in the last day or so.

The rock is actually a collection of roughly cuboid cells with thin walls, though the skin is a bit tougher. When one of the cells is punctured it releases a small amount of smelly gas. On close inspection, some sort of - well, something alien is living inside these little cells, and probably growing them. If she manages to break a chunk of rock away cleanly, it will float up and away.

(The plant she tested doesn't seem to be doing her any harm.)

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When she does get hungry, she eats an onion, spreads onion seeds from a bolted one in case she's here a while, and conducts Page-directed experiments on the rock (the first chunk escapes; the second she catches).

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The experimental results show that the rock is definitely alien life.

The walls are some sort of aerogel type thing. Incredibly light, but brittle and weak to any kind of stress except compression. The cells are mostly full of hyrdogen, which it gets by splitting water. It photosynthesizes but probably has some supplemental source of nutrition. This floating island is probably 95% or more composed of the stuff judging by weight ratios, and there's likely something heavy and solid at the bottom keeping it balanced.

You could probably get reasonably pure hydrogen from sunlight and water if you cultivated the not-a-plant living inside the stone the right way.

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Well, this is gonna be annoying.

She assesses rainwater-catching options.

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Making a floating-stone bowl by finding a nicely-shaped chunk and crushing it down to shape could work. The tree trunks and some of the branches are solid enough to make good bowls or troughs with the help of a sword and knife and effort. The fluffy tassels on those mangrove-things look like they'd hold a lot of water when it rains.

Sunset is approaching.

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She sets out tassels and tastes one, and crushes a stone bowl, leaving the base attached, in case it rains overnight. Then she goes to sleep under a tree.

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The tassels taste disgusting and are only very mildly toxic.

 

The breeze stays steady and warm through the night. It drizzles for a little while, leaving her bowl mostly empty but tassels reasonably moist.

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Well, she needs water. She tries squeezing a tassel into her mouth.

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It barely tastes like anything at all. That will keep her hydrated for now.

 

The mist around the edges of the island has cleared away overnight. She can see... Quite a way down, now. Vast sky below, with a few more specks. Some of them seem to be animals, or swarms of floating plants. Some are clearly other islands.

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It might actually be impossible to get anywhere with the stuff on this island. Sing could probably do it but Sing isn't here, only Page.

She's gotta try anyway. She carefully tests bits of fallen wood to see what they're like, with a view toward making some kind of glider or sail.

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The fallen wood is iffy at best. It's mostly old and brittle. The trees look healthy though. Cutting them and letting the wood dry for a few days would produce good wood. Some of the alien plants have long, flexible, waxy 'leaves' that would make a decent weave.

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She practices weaving.

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Weaving isn't that hard if you have a guide.

Around noon, the wind changes. The air shifts from that steady breeze to a more random pattern - with a lurch, the island is now descending. Also, it's raining.

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She makes sure there are plenty of tassels out in low water-collecting areas and resumes weaving, intermittently munching an onion and a questionable plant.

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The tassels get nice and soaked, and her bowl fills up. The rain brings lots of turbulence and a continuous stiff downdraft of cold air with it.

Her onions are sprouting.

 

...As the rain clears, in the distance what is unmistakably an airship emerges from behind clouds. It has a lift section and a gondola strung underneath, with the outline of windows and a propeller sticking out the back. But it's so far away she can really only see it because of her vision boosts.

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It probably can't see or hear her either but she doesn't actually know how sophisticated its instruments might be. The planet being inhabited at all is great news. She will go to the edge nearest it to yell optimistically. Mostly "HEY" but with enough other words interspersed that she sounds like a person and not a weird bird, though they're unlikely to speak the same langauges.

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It doesn't change course or seem to notice her at all.

Optimistically, the wood-and-cloth construction could be an aesthetic choice. Pessimistically... Well, there's probably no metal available on this floating island. Everywhere else might be the same. Who knows? The small pack of gas-bag critters that landed after the rain and is nibbling on the floating-seed grass probably doesn't.

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Speaking of which, once the airship is out of sight and she leaves off hollering at it, she goes and stabs one of those to taste it.

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Tastes like chicken. Not poisonous, and pretty stringy. It's not as substantial as it looked, though. The foot-and-a-half-long critter bears only about half a pound of meat. Maybe half that again if she eats the organs. Its friends fly to the far edge of the island.

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She doesn't have a good way to preserve it so she eats the entire critter. They seem pretty common so she doesn't feel a need to immediately stab another and scare the rest.

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They're pretty common, yeah.

The island's descent seems to have slowed. Other islands are a lot more common here, as are creatures of the avian and alien types, and floating tangles of plant matter similar to the mangrove-things hanging onto this island's edge.

...Her bowl seems to be drinking the water stored in it. The level has done down much more than evaporation would account for.

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How rude. Good thing the tassels work. She empties some into her mouth and soaks up what's in the bowl.

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Some larger alien creatures are visible in the distance. Huge greenish jellyfish-things, manta ray-shaped creatures, an alien predator that eats the small rays, bulbous things covered in angry red spikes that the big predator shys away from.

One of the islands comes within half a mile of her. It has old ruins on it, the remains of a wooden hut and what look like overgrown fields. It would tempting to glide to it, if her glider were finished and the winds were predictable.

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It isn't, though. She attempts probably vainly to sail to it with her practice weaving.

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The island is indeed too large to yield to such a small sail easily. The attempt proves the quality of the weaving, though - while it's heavier and stiffer than a modern fabric sail would be, it catches the wind nicely.

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That's something. She yells at the island in case anyone on there has an idea.

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Seems deserted except for birds, alien critters, and a small swarm of pigs.

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There are pigs and food plants on that island dammit. She watches it pass, wishing it would get close enough to jump to.

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It keeps getting closer for a while - but then almost seems to change course away from a potential collision. Not that either of the islands do anything visible.

 

Nothing of note happens until sunset. It rains again overnight.

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Maybe the sky coral has a way to avoid more of itself.

She sleeps under her woven thing.

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The woven thing proves reasonably proof against rain!

Her sky coral bowl is obviously growing, the next morning. It's covered in the rough little bumps of newly constructed cells.

Also, one of the big green floating tentacle things comes up to the island and starts scooping armfuls of floating seeds into its mouth with the spoon-like ends of its tentacles. It doesn't seem afraid of her. After a few minutes of this, it finds a little hollow and plops itself down, grabbing on to the soil and rock. On inspection most of the main body is transparent, but it has some kind of matted hair or moss over most of its body. It's fairly good camouflage, seen against a plant-bearing island.

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Huh. She goes up to it and has a closer look.

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It's sort of like a jellyfish with actual complex organs and so on! It doesn't have a face, but it does have eyes - six of them, in all directions. Two eyes watch her as she approaches. A tentacle shifts languidly towards her. It makes a whistling sound that sounds oddly... Happy?

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She touches the tentacle tentatively with her little finger to see if it stings.

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No sting. It's soft like cartilage. The tentacle tries to gently wrap around her hand.

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Aww, okay.

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It makes the happy whistle again and then lets go.

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She attempts to pet it.

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She can pet it on the green camo covering, which proves to be soft and slightly scratchy, like thin fur! It makes a slightly different happy whistle, almost like a trill.

She can not pet it on the softer underside of the tentacle anywhere past the spoon-shaped tip - it will curl the tentacle defensively with a warning click in that case.

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Tarinda can respect its boundaries! Pat pat. It probably eats too much to be worth encouraging to stay but it's nice to have something friendly visit.

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The giant jellyfish-thing will enjoy pats placidly, trilling, for a while! It did only eat the non-edible floating seeds so far. It swats at a bird that tries to peck at one the little bumps on its main body, but otherwise appears to be resting.

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It's cute.

She scatters more onion seeds and evaluates branches for sail- or glider-worthiness.

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Good, solid branches can be easily found. The five trees are a little thin but otherwise healthy. She couldn't make a cabin with just this much, but a glider is doable without even necessarily killing the trees.

(The jellyfish thing gets up, eats some more floatgrass seeds, and floats off after a couple of hours.)

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Bye, jellyfish thing.

She makes small model gliders to get an idea of how they might fit together, and then, lacking glue or nails, gets underway with elaborate carving-only joinery and carefully Page-delineated design.

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More time passes. Her supply of fully grown onions is getting low. And the mice have decided to nibble on her water-tassels.

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She eats mice. Two birds, as it were.

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Mice are slightly harder to catch than alien critters, but not that hard, given boosts.

 

There is a towering thundercloud in the distance as night approaches once again.

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Grand. She sleeps under her sail again, and not under a tree, in case they're lightningy.

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The towering thundercloud kicks up the winds some more and rains on her, but the bulk of it is passing by to the north (north if one is assuming the sun rises and sets in the east and west, anyway), the next morning.

A couple of hours after sunrise, finally a stroke of luck. There is an airship much like the first one she saw heading straight away from the storm - and straight towards her.

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Time to go yell at it and wave her arms!

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They see her! A man leans out the side of the ship in a rope harness and waves a pair of red flags at her in a code she has no way to understand.

The ship turns using little wings and rudders, aiming for an intercept course, but it looks like they're fighting the wind awfully hard.

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Hopefully they know what they're doing and will make it to her.

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It looks like they're gonna make it!

...They don't slow down all the way, the ship clearly difficult to control in this weather. They're coming in about fifty feet above her. The way the island is bucking back and forth in the turbulence might have something to do with that - a collision would not be fun.

The same man who deployed flags descends in his harness carrying a thick coil of rope, hanging precariously under the gondola and now within shouting distance.

In heavily accented but understandable English, "Cap doon't want to tie down! We'll crack like eggs tryin' to moor, or fry in the firestorm! Ye have to grab the rope an' haul in!"

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That's English! Weird!! Well she's been wearing all the gear she landed with so she doesn't have to gather anything up to go take a flying leap and catch the rope. She climbs up it with no trouble.

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The sky-sailor hauls himself back aboard after making sure Tarinda gets to somewhere stable.

"Breathin' steady, miss? Glad we could catch ya." The ship shudders as its course straightens again.

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"I'm so glad you found me! I saw another ship the other day but it was too far to see or hear me. My name's Tarinda."

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"Darien. Well, you're found now. Ye look in good form fer a castaway."

Darien... Has not had the benefit of Sing-quality medicine. Or any kind of modern medicine, probably. He smiles crookedly and holds his scarred hand out for a shake.

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Shake shake. "I was there for just a few days."

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"I hear hunter crews get vicious to each other. You look like a hunter, that is. Cast away on a tiny rock, if not just tossed overboard to the deeps..." He shudders.

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"I'm not a hunter."

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"Oh? Well, whatever you are, I'd better settle you in for a rest and get back to work. Storm's still grabbing at our tail. Unless you know how to sail and feel like helpin' out?"

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"I'm not familiar. I learn fast but you would have to teach me."

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He scratches stubble on his chin. "Well, Captain Flint told me to either settle you in or put you to work. So I'd better just get you a meal and a cabin, I think."

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"All right, thanks so much!"

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"Follow me down, then. I don't mean to deny ya a proper welcome, but the weather doesn't care what we want. I'm sure you'll get one later."

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"I understand." She follows.

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"This way."

The ship is as primitive as it appeared from afar. The only light on the inside is from windows. It's not cramped, but it's very Spartan - plywood-thin doors, almost no furniture, and everything aboard is minimal or lightweight.

"Hope ya like potatoes. Rem!"

Rem is a wiry woman who comes bearing a plate of... Mostly potatoes. Baked, mashed, fried. There's also some nuts and about half an apple, sliced.

"Damn, you look good for a castaway," comments Rem.

Darien laughs, "That's what I said! Her name is Tarinda. Can you show her a cabin after she eats up, Rem? I'm sure the engine needs me by now."

"Sure thing, sir. Nice to meet you, Tarinda. I'm Rem, as you heard." She hands over the food.

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"Nice to meet you too! Thanks for the potatoes, they look great."

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She smiles. "Thank you! I'm proud of my potatoes. Grew the chives and made the butter myself."

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"Nice!" Tarinda tucks in like she's eaten mostly onions for the last several days.

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Rem fetches a cup of water. "Heh. I'll take your voraciousness as a compliment on my cooking and not as about how hungry you probably are. When you cook for eight hours a day you can't help but get good at it. Most ships' cooks aren't as good as me because they cook for two or three hours and then do other work. I cook or do food prep all day. Dried, jammed, peeled, mixed, mashed, baked, smoked, and cut food sells better than just another boring trade ship haulin' raw onions and rice around. Clever, huh?"

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"Quite! Do you can it?"

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"...Can? Can I what?"

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"Do you put it in cans? How do you store it?"

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"Ah. Cans. Nah, too expensive. We have lots of glass jars, and some barrels for drinks, and the rest gets wrapped in paper or flatbread or whatever and stuck in the pantry."

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"And you find places to trade often enough that it doesn't go bad first?"

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Shrug. "Usually. It's rare we don't find something inside of two weeks. Plus, it's not like we can really do much about it except eat what's gonna go bad soon first."

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"Makes sense. Do you grow food on board?"

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"Yep! Well, herbs and medicinals. I mentioned my chives. Hey, what do you do, dressed up like that, and is that a real sword?"

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"It is! I do swordfighting! Recreationally, I mean."

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"Huh. You have... Friends who also own swords out there somewhere?"

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"It'd take a really long time to find them but yeah."

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Nod, nod. "Of course. Hard to get anywhere in particular in the wide blue sky. Lookin' at it the other way, my psycho ex-boyfriend will hopefully never find me again."

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"Gosh, I hope so! Good luck!"

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"I have burly friends and knives now. He's welcome to-" She looks fierce, then sheepish. "...I'd say he's welcome to try, but it's probably better for all concerned I never see him again."

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Tarinda nods.

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"Heh. Look at me, complaining to ya. You've probably had it worse."

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"I really haven't."

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"If you say so..."

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"It wasn't fun being stuck but I wasn't there that long!"

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"How'd you end up there, anyway?"

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"My ship had an accident."

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"Geesh. You must be really lucky to land on an island after something like that. And not break your neck doin' it."

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"I was injured but not too badly to heal before you found me."

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"Thank Captain Flint and the rest of the crew. I don't help fly the old girl. I cook." She glances at Tarinda's plate.

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"You cook wonderfully." There is barely anything left of the meal.

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"Thanks! I can show you to a cabin in a minute, looks like you're almost done. Or if you want to keep chatting, come to the kitchen. Can't let the day get too far away from me, even in nasty weather like this."

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"Do you want help cooking?"

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"If you're offering, sure!"

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"I'd love to help." She follows her to the kitchen.

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"If you're any good, I might be able to convince Flint to actually pay you for it too. Instead of saying that you're working for room and board, that is."

The kitchen follows the spacious-but-spartan style of the rest of the ship. Almost everything is made of a different-looking variety of skycoral instead of the wood of the rest of the ship. It's mostly counters and cabinets, with a sink, an oven, and a knife rack. The knives are... Glass?

"How do you feel about peeling and cutting potatoes? We got tons of them cheap and if we don't cook 'em they'll turn themselves to goo trying to sprout eventually."

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"I can absolutely do that."

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"Great." She selects a particular knife from the rack, then hesitates. "...I was assuming you know how to hold a knife, but sword-fighting is probably pretty different from vegetable-chopping. So do you?"

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"I don't chop vegetables a lot but I do know how!"

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"Okay, I believe you. I just didn't want to hand you a knife and say 'chop to it' if you didn't know how to do it safely. Losing a fingertip is not my idea of a fun afternoon, yeah?" Rem laughs. "Here, hold this while I get the cutting board and the first sack. You don't set knives down in a ship kitchen, it sways and lurches."

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"Got it!" And she waits for the potatoes.

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And here are some potatoes! Rem joins her with a second knife and also cuts and peels potatoes.

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Peel peel peel chop chop chop! "What are you going to do with this batch?"

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"This batch is probably going to get chunked into stew. You can throw almost anything into a potato stew and it'll be good. And the odd small pieces will get shredded and turn into cheesy potato pancakes for dinner."

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"Mmm, cheese."

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"Cheese! Fresh milk and cream is delicious, but cheese keeps."

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"Do you have different kinds of cheese?"

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She laughs. "Of course, what kind of cook do you take me for? But I don't make cheese, I just buy it from farmers. If I tried to pursue all possible culinary goals at once I'd completely overrun the ship!"

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"Oh no!" giggles Tarinda.

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"I think that'd be great of course. But everyone else would rather not trip over planters in the corridor, weave around cheese hanging in their cabins to age, or help take care of chickens." She looks thoughtful. "I might do the chickens anyway. Eggs are useful."

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"Yes they are. If you have sugar you can make meringues out of 'em."

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"Oh? Haven't heard of those. Sugar is tad pricey, but I do like new recipes."

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"You separate out the whites, beat them really really hard in a clean bowl, and then add in the finest sugar you can get, and then bake them low and slow till they're all dry."

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"Ooh. That sounds like it'll make a pure white dessert, as fine as any cake. I'm gonna write that down and try it first chance I get."

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"And a pinch of salt. And you can flavor them, too, you could put crumbled nuts on top before you bake them or whatever you like."

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"It will be a day of food experimentation. The best kind of day." She writes all that down.

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"Glad I could help."

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"More than with potatoes, you mean? Yeah, glad you could help!"

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"Are you headed anywhere specific or do you just sail around till you see someplace?"

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"Don't think so. Navigation is tricky at best, to hear Flint tell it. We mostly don't go to the same places twice."

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"Makes sense." Peel peel peel.

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"Iiii think it's time to go start the broth. Much faster with a helper! You won't wither for lack of attention if I go to the pantry for a few minutes, will ya?"

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"No, I'll be all right, although it's really so nice to have someone to talk to again!"

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"I can definitely talk. Talking is a thing I can do. A service I can perform. Along with cooking, another thing I can do. Listening too! I'm pretty good at cooking, talking, listening..."

She babbles all the way into the pantry.

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"Wanna tell me the story of your life?"

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"Why not? What level of detail d'you want? 'My ma was a sailmaker and my pa copied books, I had two little brothers' or 'and then I wanted to go to see a play with Helen but she got all dramatic and threw her shoe at Kenny and we all got kicked out, and that's how I spent my 16th summer', or what?"

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"I am totally up for the second one if that would be fun for you!"

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"I don't think I can remember something interesting from every season. The shoe thing really sticks out 'cause it was the most trouble I'd ever been in. How do you put your life into a story anyway? I'm gonna remember things all out of order!"

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"That's fine too! I'm just so curious about everything."

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Rem comes back out of the pantry carrying miscellaneous ingredients and a big clay pot. "Okay, how about... I didn't get into cooking until I was 18 and my folks said 'learn one of our trades, get another job, or get out of our house'. So I tried a bunch of jobs that were on offer and hated cooking the least, and read books about cooking and did experiments and before long I didn't just not hate cooking, I actually liked it. Spent a few years doing that, just living life, but then the whole, uh, psycho boyfriend episode happened."

She pauses the story to fill the pot with water. "I was pretty tense when I met Captain Flint while looking to buy some peppers, saw the slop his crew were eating, and spent five solid minutes critiquing it. Flint said 'like you can do better' and I took it as the challenge that it was, you should have seen his tone, and I whipped up a three-course meal over the next hour. Flint said 'you could almost open a restaurant in my ship' and I thought, hey, why not? Said bye to my folks, packed my things, and that's how I got aboard the Tricky Ray."

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"Do you miss your family?"

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"...Yeah. A bit. That's the sailor's lot, though."

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"If you ran into their town again would you stay on the ship or on the town?"

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She pauses and rubs her forehead. "...I actually don't know. I'd have to see how I felt about it then. I've accepted that I'll probably never see them again, but I like to think they're happy. My brother - the older one, Andrew - probably married Fara and had two kids by now."

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"I guess there's nothing like a - mail system?"

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"Not really? Well, dockhands and couriers ferry stuff around inside big towns. How would anyone get a letter where it's supposed to go between towns when you can't reliably find a particular town?"

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"If you had enough paper, and the letters weren't private, you could have them copied a bunch of times and sent around from everywhere they reached."

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"...I don't think that would work but I can't actually point to a reason I think it wouldn't work."

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"There'd be no way to tell people that a letter was where it needed to be and it could stop, so maybe it would work better for news than correspondence."

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"I guess so! If anyone wants a certain bit of news spread far and wide for some reason."

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"Does news usually spread by word of mouth or do people not have much idea what's going on in the rest of the world?"

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"You hear that someone saw pirates or a bladesquid or a nasty storm forming in the area once in a while. Sometimes what you hear is even true. Some of the bigger towns have newspapers, but they don't tend to get taken between towns."

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"Huh. Does everyone talk about the same?"

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"Uh... Northerners have - what's the word - a dialect. 'Halle friend, plessen to meet you.' That sort of thing?"

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"Ooh, huh. And they don't tend to - blow south?"

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"Sometimes. I've met two northerners and a southerner. North life is pretty different from equatorial life, to hear them tell it. They have different weather every season, and things are even sparser."

Permalink Eye

"Sounds rough."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah, but that's life. Most folks get by okay in the end."

Permalink Eye

"I suppose."

Permalink Eye

Quiet cooking for a little while, then. Rem will start humming if the silence goes on for long.

Permalink Eye

Tarinda doesn't mind. She peels potatoes. Between tunes, she asks, "Is there likely to be a good time for me to get a tour of the whole ship? When the weather's calmed down, maybe?"

Permalink Eye

"If Captain Flint likes you, probably! Everyone'll be in the galley at dinnertime. Or I could show you some of it in - say five minutes, after I finish this - if you like."

Permalink Eye

"I can wait, I just want to develop a sense of the place."

Permalink Eye

"Understood! I'm definitely not complaining about you continuing to peel potatoes for me."

Permalink Eye

"You got it." Peel peel.

Permalink Eye

Rem continues telling her biography in disjointed pieces and chatting about whatever comes to mind while cooking. Tarinda even runs out of potatoes to peel and is put to other tasks.

But eventually they have a lot of food, and the ship is no longer swaying quite as much, and she says, "Wanna do the honors and ring the dinner not-a-real-bell?" And holds out a big wooden spoon and a plate.

Permalink Eye

"Sure!" And she taps the plate with the spoon.

Permalink Eye

And the crew of the ship assembles! Most of them, anyway, Rem names people and says that Cliff, Benny, and Claire are still on post - elevators, helm, and engine respectively. "I'll fetch 'em a snack and they'll get to have a proper meal later."

 

Captain Flint is a surprisingly short man with wide shoulders, black hair, and a perpetually skeptical look. "Welcome aboard. Rem dragged you into the kitchen, eh? You would have said something if you needed patching up, I hope?"

Permalink Eye

"Oh, sure, but I'm fine, not that the potatoes didn't really hit the spot."

Permalink Eye

"Food typically does when you haven't had much for a while, yes. I'd imagine a warm blanket and a nice hammock will do the same. She's quite... Bright, isn't she?"

Permalink Eye

"I'm not sure I know what you mean."

Permalink Eye

"Cheerful? Unwearied by the world? Halfway genius with an oven?"

Permalink Eye

"She is that!"

Permalink Eye

He chuckles. "I apologize for the delay in welcoming you properly, but getting away from a firestorm is fairly urgent. I'm Captain Raymond Flint. Welcome to the Tricky Ray. Shall we sit and eat?" He gestures to the table where the crew who came in with him are already chowing down. Darien waves at her.

Permalink Eye

"Can't scare me." She sits and takes some food. She waves back at Darien.

Permalink Eye

Dinner conversation seems to largely consist of in-jokes and comments about each others' job performance. Darien suggests that he could show her how the engine works after dinner, then hesitates and says, "If that's alright, Captain."

"If that is how you wish to spend your free time I would not dream of stopping you, Mr. Verres," replies the Captain. "So long as you don't get in the way too much."

Permalink Eye

"Thanks!"

Permalink Eye

Flint asks, "Have you been on ships much, Miss Tarinda?"

Permalink Eye

"Not that much, no! And never one like this."

Permalink Eye

He raises an eyebrow. "I was under the impression that mine is a fairly typical example of the species. Single engine, semi-rigid balloon, hanging gondola."

Permalink Eye

"Well, it's all new to me. I want to see it all."

Permalink Eye

"I'm sure we can oblige our unexpected guest."

Permalink Eye

"Thanks!"

Permalink Eye

"You will have seen the deck, the corridors, and Rem's domain. Any burning questions so far?"

Permalink Eye

"Mostly asked Rem things that occurred to me."

Permalink Eye

Flint nods. "I intend to deliver you to the first sizable town we encounter without any conditions. I would want to discuss a work schedule or some other trade if you desire to stay aboard longer."

Permalink Eye

"How big is sizeable?"

Permalink Eye

"A judgement call. But let's say... Ten thousand souls. Most towns in the lower altitudes, our intended destination, are at least that large."

Permalink Eye

"Huh, how big is the biggest town you've ever seen?"

Permalink Eye

"A tangled maze of interconnected islands, a teeming hive almost one hundred thousand strong. Almura. It was a fascinating place. I do not wish to return - that stop was not very profitable."

Permalink Eye

"No? Why not?"

Permalink Eye

"They were self-sufficient and had a surprising variety of restaurants. Rem's handiwork did not fascinate and draw attention as it usually does, and our cargo of rapidly-spoiling food sold poorly." He grimaces. "We made some profit trading hard goods, but the usually reliable trade between farming altitudes and craft altitudes failed us that time."

Permalink Eye

"It seems like it might be dangerous to be a not-farming altitude. What if nobody ran into you for too long?"

Permalink Eye

He shrugs. "I suppose you either do something clever or starve."

"Dry food stores," Rem interjects, "Rice keeps, beans keep. And rationing. And if things got really bad people would start scattering."

Permalink Eye

"I guess. If they have ships to scatter on. Or do you mean something else?"

Permalink Eye

"You can cut a chunk of the town loose and throw away most of your stuff, and go up so you get more sunlight that way. My ma said her grandma lived on a place that had to do that."

Everyone's food is disappearing rapidly.

Permalink Eye

Tarinda's food is no exception. "And they have enough space to get crops going if they didn't before?"

Permalink Eye

"That would be difficult, yeah. It definitely sounded like a bad time all around. But trade ships like Flint's, here, are pretty common, so it doesn't happen that much I think?"

Permalink Eye

"That's good then."

Permalink Eye

"Yyyep."

Captain Flint is staring at her a bit, amused. "Education is rather spotty out in the wide blue sky, isn't it?"

Permalink Eye

"I'm sure there's loads of things you'd call common sense I never learned."

Permalink Eye

"I'm sure." That eyebrow quirk surely says he suspects some kind of shenanigans, but he's not going to press it. Not now, anyway.

Most of the table is finished by now. "Thank you once again for the delightful meal, Rem. Now, second shift, great job today. Third shift, you're up. Should be smooth sailing. Wake me if it's not, as always." 

The group starts dispersing with a chorus of 'aye, sir's.

Permalink Eye

"How do the shifts work?"

Permalink Eye

"There are three. Eight hours each, with some fudging to account for meals and breaks and days off. If you wish to do work for me we could discuss it in more detail later. For now, I am going to sleep."

Permalink Eye

"Sleep well!"

Permalink Eye

Darien grins at her as the room empties. "To the engine room? Engines are kind of incredible, have you ever seen one working?"

Permalink Eye

"Nope, I'm excited!"

Permalink Eye

Off he goes, walking quickly, slightly twitchy. "Fire is thrilling and terrifying and will kill everything if you're not careful but engines are caged fire."

It's not a huge ship. Here's an engine room. A tired looking woman waves shyly at them, standing to the side. The engine is almost entirely made of that same glassy, transparent substance as the knives. Some key components inside are actual metal. A large flywheel spins merrily, guarded by wooden beams.

"We burn floatgrass or anything else organic here, and then this plate gets very warm. Hot air expands, so-" He goes on to explain the workings of a Stirling engine.

Permalink Eye

"That's so cool!"

Permalink Eye

"Engines are extremely cool. There are other kinds - it's just that this sort happens to be the best for us. It's relatively light, it doesn't need special fuel, it doesn't need too many metal parts."

Permalink Eye

"There's very little metal around, I've noticed."

Permalink Eye

"...Yeah? Starglass and wood and floatstone are what the sky gives us. Steel is left over from the ancestors. Knives sharpened again and again until they're slivers. Iron recycled and reforged until it rusts and flakes away to nothing..."

Permalink Eye

Tarinda nods.

Permalink Eye

Darien goes back to explaining the engine, in more detail this time! The woman in the corner chuckles, then goes back to looking shy and being silent, watching the mechanism and occasionally shoveling plant matter into a bin.

Permalink Eye

"Where'd the ancestors get metal?" Tarinda asks, eventually.

Permalink Eye

"Ahh, the Earth. Solid ground. They made it from rocks? Or maybe just found it lying around? What a strange place it must have been."

Permalink Eye

"Gosh. How'd they get here?"

Permalink Eye

"Oh, I like telling this story."

"Do it somewhere else if you're done showing off the engine," the woman complains. 

"Right. Back to the dining room."

 

They go. Darien clears his voice.

"The ancestors were masters of technology - things that seem impossible were casual, even thoughtless, with the right sort of device. What little Lost Technology remains today may as well be magic... But I know the world has rules. Technology, even Lost Technology, is just very clever at exploiting those. There are old books, histories of the wonders of the ancestors. They had machines to travel between the stars. The first time, it takes many years. But the first time, their star-ships carry a star-gate, which cheats distance somehow."

"Then one could fly from Earth to Cloudbank to any number of other worlds in a matter of days. Many ancestors came to Cloudbank, bringing all kinds of ships. They explored, they built homes and workplaces on the islands, they mined the air itself for fuel to power their machines. Even then, they could not make much use of the surface... And then one day the Stargate was destroyed. Nobody is sure, now, if it was an accident or sabotage or what, but Cloudbank cannot make the high technology of the ancestors for lack of metal, and nothing from Earth has come here since. Now, we live our lives as best we can, not thinking about what was lost, for in the end, what can we do about it?"

Permalink Eye

"Thank you, that's a fascinating story. Do you know how they say you get from Cloudbank to the Stargate?"

Permalink Eye

"The stories say rocket-ships that go higher and faster than anything we can build today. I think the star-gate is like a moon? Orbiting."

Permalink Eye

"Gosh. What happened to all the rocket-ships?"

Permalink Eye

"Rust, probably. Or crashin'." He shrugs. "This is hundreds of years ago, mind you. It's not like there's a ton of books about it left."

Permalink Eye

"People don't copy old books when they wear out?"

Permalink Eye

"Books on things like making engines and starglass, or the weather, maybe. Others - folks burn, or drop, or forget about for fifty years and mice eat all the pages."

Permalink Eye

"Starglass is this stuff?" She points at a glass component.

Permalink Eye

"Yeah. It bends before it breaks. Regular glass just breaks."

Permalink Eye

"How's it made?"

Permalink Eye

Time for a half-remembered glassmaking lesson!

You can process a certain plant with certain acids and other things into a sort of plastic and mix that plus other obscure things and do a complicated heating and cooling process and you get starglass.

Permalink Eye

"Why's it called starglass?"

Permalink Eye

He pulls the darkly transparent knife on his belt and holds it up to the reflection on the window, and at just the right angle it reflects rainbow-mottled light, reminiscent of nebulae in space. There are little speckles of impurity in it, reflecting white like stars.

"See that? Like stars. Pretty, ain't it? I'm surprised you've never seen starglass, though. 'S like you were raised by squid or something. Except you've got table manners and know English and so on."

Permalink Eye

"Well, my English is differently accented."

Permalink Eye

"...Everyone thinks you're an ancestor, or a hunter who ran afoul of some crazy device. You're too pretty."

Permalink Eye

"Awww, thanks."

Permalink Eye

He sighs. "You're welcome... You want to see the rest of the ship?"

Permalink Eye

"Yes please!"

Permalink Eye

He tours the rest of the ship for her. Cargo hold (messy), one of the empty cabins, rudder and ailerons and the controls for them, the balloon-managing equipment (uses manual pumps and the floatstone-lichen-thing, mostly), the rigging, the crow's nest - it's really a nice view from up there, atop the great balloons - "We'll get in the way if we go into the bridge, but you can look from here."

It mostly looks like three chairs with consoles full of primitive controls and indicators. There are speaking-tubes sticking up near the captain's chair, matching the ones that let out in other parts of the ship.

Permalink Eye

"This is all really cool! Thank you for showing me."

Permalink Eye

"Not a problem. Welcome to the Tricky Ray. And it's probably about time you got your cabin, yeah?"

Permalink Eye

"Sounds good."

Permalink Eye

Well, here is a cabin. It has a hammock - reasonably comfy-looking one at least - and a pillow and a blanket and a minimalist dresser and that's it. "Guest cabin. It has less furniture than the others. If you want a table and chair or something else we can probably do that tomorrow."

Permalink Eye

"I should be good with the hammock for now. Thanks!"

Permalink Eye

"Have a good night, then!"

And he goes.

Permalink Eye

Tarinda sleeps in the hammock.

Permalink Eye

Nobody comes to wake her, though the ship isn't totally silent. There's the engine, the wind, footsteps. Not too loud.

Permalink Eye

She'll be fine. If anything bothers her Page can noise-cancel.

Permalink Eye

The hammock is actually pretty cushy and stable, for a hammock.

Nobody bothers her. Eventually light bleeds through the thin curtains over the window.

Permalink Eye

She wakes up. She ventures out of her cabin to see if there is breakfast.

Permalink Eye

Breakfast is in half an hour! Rem is groggy and grouses about morning people.

Permalink Eye

Tarinda will help her with breakfast, humming to herself.

Permalink Eye

And soon breakfast is had. Neither the captain nor Darien are there. The crew don't seem suspicious of her or anything, but they're definitely watching her more now than yesterday.

Permalink Eye

"Good morning!"

Permalink Eye

She gets 'good morning's back. One guy says she looks strong and asks if she wants to spar... After some nudging from his friends, that is.

Permalink Eye

"Gosh. I might be game, what rules do you use?"

Permalink Eye

No weapons. The rules are something like sumo wrestling, without the 'almost naked' requirement. In fact, they're both to wear elaborate harnesses. Whoever is forced to the ground or forced out of a square arena first loses.

Permalink Eye

That sounds safe enough that she can have a little fun. "Sure, why not."

Permalink Eye

They attract a small crowd of spectators, probably almost everyone not on duty or asleep.

Her opponent, Gary, tries to use strength to win quickly, not realizing that Tarinda is boosted.

Permalink Eye

She is slippery and quick; she doesn't care to outright beat him in a shoving match unless he corners her.

Permalink Eye

Gary is not as quick! Instead, he attempts to use the motion of the ship to his advantage. But he probably isn't good enough to actually corner her.

Permalink Eye

After just a little showing off - she has plenty of ability to anticipate which way the ship will go - she goes for the ankles to try to trip him.

Permalink Eye

(He's supposed to be the one more familiar with the ship, dammit.)

He dodges and tries to use strength and reach against her again, but gets nowhere. Their crowd is making appreciative noises.

Permalink Eye

She makes a roll that should take her out of bounds and kips up at the last moment and swipes at his knees.

Permalink Eye

And down he goes.

Permalink Eye

And he's out! "That was fun."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah. I wasn't sure whether this would be very easy, or very very hard... Good match." He shakes her hand.

The crowd disperses, after a few people exchange little copper and starglass coins, settling up bets.

Time passes. Nothing particularly exciting happens - lunch, drizzling rain, a sighting of another jelly-thing like the one she met earlier, dinner. Rem will cheerfully accept more cooking help if she wants, though.

Permalink Eye

Not like she has anything else to do! She will cook up a storm.

Permalink Eye

Small communities, mostly on single islands with farms, have been getting more common as they descend. It's also gotten a lot darker, mostly thanks to the accumulating layers of clouds. In the twilight, they see a town that looks worth going to. Two dozen large islands (perhaps a third of a mile across) tied together with rope and wood bridges in a long, snaky line. Buildings built on top of, carved into, and hanging below the islands. Docking at the sky-piers on the one end of the snake is a production involving flags and signal lights and shouting crew, but then they're tied down.

The local government would like to deal with them in the morning, not tonight. And in the morning, after some arguing, they can all leave the ship. Rem badgers Captain Flint until he agrees to pay Tarinda for the cooking. Not as much as she gets, but it's something, right? Flint gives her three copper coins and says that he'll be here for two days, probably, if she finds the locals objectionable and wants to arrange a departure.

Permalink Eye

"Thanks! I'll check the place out and see if I like it."

Permalink Eye

He nods sharply and starts to turn away, but pauses. "Ah, one last thing - you may sleep one more night in the same cabin as before, if you cannot find lodgings today."

 

This man at the end of the pier carrying a large club would be ever so pleased if you listened to him describe the local laws before going any further. The ones they want to make sure transient sailors know are pretty simple: No theft, murder, assault (except in self defense), rape, destruction of property, open fire or sparks, vandalism, or buying the services of prostitutes.

Permalink Eye

Good to know!

Permalink Eye

Then she can pass.

The dock area contains lots of piers for airships, two proper enclosed docks on one end, cranes and similar equipment, piles of crates sitting here and there, and various people hauling crates, talking to each other, or standing around.

A bunch of bars, two restaurants, a theater, an auction house, and two 'Houses of Merchants' are all crowded up against each other, competing for dock-facing space.

Permalink Eye

She's going to explore the entire town.

Permalink Eye

There are wide and surprisingly neat streets designed for foot traffic or light carts. Aside from the narrower side roads, there are five main roads per island - one winding over the top, one hanging underneath, one straight through the middle, and two curving around the sides. There are a few elevators, mostly people use stairs and ramps to go up or down. There are apartment buildings, workshops, smithies, tailors, paper-makers, bookstores, parks, glass-makers, floatstone carvers, recycling shops, livestock pens, chemists, carpenters, rope-makers, laundromats, breweries, and dozens of other little industries.

Each island has five solidly built wood-and-rope bridges connecting it to the next, matching the five main roads. It looks like they're designed to flex a few degrees without disrupting the walking path. The bridges are well-maintained, no sign of rotting wood or frayed rope, unlike some of the buildings.

The first half a dozen islands are apparently middle class, the middle ones are more ramshackle and poorer and built very densely, and the final three islands are filled with large, clean, fancy-looking buildings, with elaborate gardens that aren't even growing veggies like the gardens in the rest of the city.

Permalink Eye

Gosh.

Is there any sign that there is a way to work metal anywhere on this island?

Permalink Eye

There are smithies here and there, advertising metal tools and jewelry repair and cash-for-scrap deals. Mostly not in the poorer areas.

Permalink Eye

Okay. She asks around trying to find out how many people live here and how often they meet other towns.

Permalink Eye

Meeting other towns? Maybe once every two months they're close enough to another one for gliders and personal corvettes to cross over, for a few days. Twenty years ago they were going to join up to another town, but then the Mayor died and that plan fell through. If she wants to see the censuses she should probably go to city hall.

Permalink Eye

She goes and checks out the census.

Permalink Eye

City hall is on the rich islands. A bored secretary-or-something finds the latest census.

In year 738, there were 13643 people in the city of Harven-lin. 383 died of age or disease, 81 died of accidents or violence. There was 1 execution (for murder). There were 347 births, 152 immigrants, 60 emigrants.

Permalink Eye

And she investigates the availability of lodging and the spending power of her three coppers.

Permalink Eye

There are boarding houses near the docks, a short ways past the bars. There are a few apartments looking to rent.

Three coppers will get her a boarding-house room for a week, or a room and meals for three days, or a new shirt, among other things.

Permalink Eye

What is there in the way of work?

Permalink Eye

Hauling things around, waiting tables at a bar, or cleaning seem like the ones she could get right away just by walking up and asking.

Permalink Eye

Which pays best?

Permalink Eye

Waiting tables if she thinks she can get good tips - they do seem to do tips here - hauling otherwise.

Permalink Eye

Hmm, she'll try her luck waiting tables if they'll have her.

Permalink Eye

Here's a uniform, here's the menu - try to remember most of it, smile and be charming, we're definitely not saying it's a job requirement but unbuttoning a couple buttons tends to cause increased tips from the men, if anyone harasses you or touches you come tell us and we'll kick 'em out, here's Henry he's your boss, go get 'em!

Permalink Eye

She goes! She gets 'em! She memorizes the whole menu! And then she'll take her cabin for the one night of grace period.

Permalink Eye

She's a new face, a very pretty and charming one. She gets good tips. Rem finds her and feeds her something buttery and experimental and looks slightly wistful.

Permalink Eye

Mmm, butter. "It was really nice helping out in here since the Tricky Ray picked me up. I'll miss you."

Permalink Eye

"I'll miss ya too. But I'm used to meeting people and then missing 'em again - well, you know, I already told you about the sailor's life, yeah? I wish you fair winds and good fortune and all that."

Permalink Eye

"Thanks!"

Permalink Eye

"I'll let ya sleep now I guess." Out she goes.

Permalink Eye

And Tarinda sleeps, and helps Rem fix breakfast and eats some, and goes to work.

Permalink Eye

Her next shift at the bar isn't until the afternoon, but the delivery service across the street is happy to have her carry boxes across the city until then.

Permalink Eye

Can do. She can carry many boxes.

Permalink Eye

...She gets some worried, some wary looks at that show of strength. The words 'Lost Tech' are muttered by more than one person.

Permalink Eye

...she is tentatively okay with that rumor.

Permalink Eye

It's a very gossipworthy rumor, apparently. Her coworkers at the bar have heard it when she gets there and ask if it's true she has Lost Tech inside her body.

Permalink Eye

"I know where all of my tech is! I didn't lose it!"

Permalink Eye

So she has found tech?

Where did she find the tech?

Is it why she's kind of stunningly pretty (and where can I get some)?

There's an argument about whether 'Lost Tech' means 'lost' or 'not buildable'.

Permalink Eye

"I didn't find any either! It was a joke."

Permalink Eye

Probably not all of them really believe it's a joke, she's pretty fantastic, but most do.

Their boss comes in and tells everyone to get to work already. The gossiping crowd disperses rapidly.

Permalink Eye

Tarinda gets back to work. And when work is done she looks for long-term-affordable lodging.

Permalink Eye

Cheap apartments in the seedy part of town will barely even ask for her name. Slightly nicer apartments want some paperwork from City Hall. City Hall wants her to pass a written exam on the law and pay processing fees.

Permalink Eye

How steep are the processing fees?

Permalink Eye

There's a fee for taking the test, for borrowing a copy of the legal code so she can study for the test, for getting the residency paperwork, for getting the tax paperwork, and one fee apparently just because.

They add up to about four and a half coppers. Four if she can skip borrowing a legal code copy somehow.

Permalink Eye

Yeah she's gonna just stay in a sketchy place for the time being.

Permalink Eye

Sketchy place is happy to have her money. The landlady recommends keeping her sword nearby (and doesn't blink at the sword).

Permalink Eye

"I'll sleep with it strapped on, ma'am."

Permalink Eye

Stern nod. "Here's your key. If you break stuff I'll kick you out. We don't collect trash here, you gotta take it to a place."

The sketchy place does have sketchy characters of various sorts, but nobody actually works up the nerve to bother her.

Permalink Eye

Good. She doesn't want to have to hurt anybody. She asks where trash should be taken and for grocery store recommendations.

Permalink Eye

There's a few trash places. Some take it for free and sort it and recycle it. Some pay you small amounts for sorted and clean trash, especially usefully recyclable kinds. For cheap groceries she wants Magda's on such-and-such a street.

Permalink Eye

Cool. She buys some food. She notes what kinds of trash are useful recyclables.

Permalink Eye

In descending order: Anything metal, usable wood and cloth, broken glass or ceramic shards, plastic, paper, compost.

Permalink Eye

Good to know. Can people buy things directly off them or is it all processed and marked up?

Permalink Eye

Sure, she can buy stuff direct. 

Permalink Eye

Good to know.

Are there any lost technology items around here?

Permalink Eye

There's a rumor that Mr. Griffing, who owns one of the merchant houses and a bunch of other stuff, has some tucked away in a study somewhere.

There's a rumor that she has lost technology, but she probably already knew that.

There are various other rumors that are either obviously crackpot or obviously scams.

Permalink Eye

Well, if anything obviously crackpottish is easy to follow up on she might do that - can't be too careful.

She swings by the merchant house to scope it out.

Permalink Eye

The police mind control device and invisible smuggler ship will be hard to check up on. The man who claims to have a portable sun has... Something bioluminescent.

The merchant house is basically a mall, though leaning more to catering to visiting ships selling and buying bulk goods.

Permalink Eye

Tarinda swings through it, looking for useful information to bring to its operator to justify his time. Queuing and traffic theory if it's crowded, maybe. Mold control? Are they already using floatstone chunks to make elevators?

Permalink Eye

There are elevators! Heavy duty cargo type ones with thick ropes and pulleys.

Some traffic theory wouldn't go amiss. Or the sort of psychology of color and placement that makes people spend more on average, maybe. There's at least one argument about the weight of someone's coins, perhaps better scales?

It does have mold problems. The climate control is kind of janky, too hot here and too cold there and too damp in that corner.

Permalink Eye

Page assembles some recommendations and she looks for a customer service location to ask where she can submit them.

Permalink Eye

The customer service desk can forward suggestions to management if she leaves them here.

Permalink Eye

She doesn't offer everything at once. She writes a note saying she's from somewhere else and they organize queues differently, for example thus and such, she'd be happy to meet to share more.

Permalink Eye

"The merchant house management is very busy, miss. I can make sure they see this, but I can't promise anything."

Permalink Eye

"I understand."

Permalink Eye

 

If she comes back the next day, customer service has been told to arrange an appointment. Mr. Griffing is sufficiently interested in the new arrival who has complicated intellectual ideas and some kind of rumored affiliation with technology to skip the rest of the layers of bureaucracy. Does 5 in the afternoon work for her?

Permalink Eye

Yes it does. She'll trade away a dinner shift if she has to.

Permalink Eye

In that case she is invited into his very nice office on the fifth floor with lots of books, thick carpet, dark furniture, lots of paperwork, and a view of the open sky. Mr. Griffing is 40-something, sharply dressed, bespectacled and clean-shaven (unlike most men).

"Thank you for coming to see me. Your idea with the queues is interesting but I'm not sure I fully understand it."

Permalink Eye

"Do you have some tokens I can use to represent people to show you?"

Permalink Eye

"Of course. I was hoping for a demonstration, actually, here..."

He unrolls a big paper map of his mall on one side of his expansive desk, showing all five levels, and sets down a stack of coppers and a few silver coins, and watches attentively.

Permalink Eye

And she demonstrates what she outlined in the letter under various assumptions about customer throughput and segues into something she didn't mention.

Permalink Eye

He's pretty sharp, and takes notes. At some point he asks, "Have you actually tried all this as an experiment somewhere or is it all very clever ideas on paper? Frequently, those don't hold up well when tried out."

Permalink Eye

"They'll hold up! If you want to figure out how to settle a bet, I'll bet you."

Permalink Eye

"I'd be making a bet if I tried your ideas at all, you know. Changing things around takes time and attention and might not actually help anything."

Permalink Eye

"That's true. You could skip it if you'd rather."

Permalink Eye

"It does make a lot of sense on paper. I'm pretty curious where you got the idea, to be honest."

Permalink Eye

"I come from a place called Mars."

Permalink Eye

 

"I see. Miss Tarinda... Do you have a family name? You, frankly, are either a very bold liar or a once in a lifetime opportunity. I'm going to try your queue design. If it works as you describe there will be a generous consulting fee for any further clever ideas on paper."

There's more than a little bit of greed, wonder, and excitement in his eyes over the skepticism, now.

Permalink Eye

"No family name, but I could make one up if you prefer."

Permalink Eye

"As a warning, city hall might decide to give you one, but no need to do so on my account. Thank you for coming to see me today. It's been a pleasure. Is there anything else you want to discuss now?"

Permalink Eye

"Nope. Have fun with your queueing tips."

Permalink Eye

"I intend to."

The next day, nothing is changed. The day after that, parts of the merchant house are arranged a bit differently and a woman with a clipboard is wandering around, people-watching and writing things down. On the third day, Mr. Griffings would like to meet her again.

Permalink Eye

She is available.

Permalink Eye

He's a lot less serious and businesslike this time. He has a fancy lunch and tea brought in, he shakes her hand and smiles.

"Thank you for coming by again! I had to verify it, of course, but the results of the changes were nearly exactly what you said they'd be. It's hard to measure the effects of easier traffic, especially short-term when people are getting used to changes, but there are definitely some benefits."

Permalink Eye

"Yup! Inconveniences do more than they seem like they will."

Permalink Eye

"People are happier to be inside, more people see more different stores, people buy more things. I have ideas about rearranging signage and products as well, building on what we discussed. But that can wait - I'm very excited to work with you or have my people work with you on other projects if you're interested in that. I hope that today we can discuss in general what kinds of things you might have ideas for, and I can give you an idea of the resources available to me."

Permalink Eye

"I'm interested! I bet you can beat waiting tables by a long shot."

Permalink Eye

Heh. "Quite."

He names an hourly rate five times waiting-tables-with-good-tips. "...And that will go up when you have a track record of more than one good idea."

Permalink Eye

"That sounds great."

Permalink Eye

"Excellent. Now, I already mentioned placement and signage changes... I'm interested in introducing organizational ideas into my teamster division, or into workshops and industries. I'm interested in any advances of chemistry, since my most stable ventures all involve processing chemicals and materials. I'm interested in useful things involving electricity," (He almost definitely has lost technology lying around somewhere, but can't power it, Page can guess.) "-But large quantities of metal seem to be required, which may be a challenge. I have money to invest, I have some talented people on payroll, many books, and the ability to get at least some of more or less anything produced in the city on short to medium notice."

Permalink Eye

"Electricity does require metal or very precise chemistry and I'm not actually sure which is harder. I'll need to know what your resources are to know where to start with any of those problems."

Permalink Eye

He can describe everything he has access to in some more detail.

Plastic/rope/canvas/paper/leather/ceramic/starglass makers. A chemist/pharmacy/doctor's office. She should meet the chemists and doctor for details but Mr. Griffings assures her they are competent - they can make a reasonable variety of plastics and medicines and dyes. An engine-building company that makes ships' engines and sells them to the shipyard. A smith, a maker of precise tools and instruments, a lens-crafter. A weavers' workshop with powered looms and other machinery. A botanist that grows herbs, medicinal plants, and flowers in steam-heated greenhouses.

Permalink Eye

"I might be able to make you an electrical generator out of that! It could get pricey, what's your budget like and local prices of things?"

Permalink Eye

"I'd like to keep the budget modest for things that don't have an obvious short or medium term goal. Maybe consider electricity a hobby project. I can't justify spending more than a few hundred coppers a month on it. But for things we can predict will be useful and profitable in the medium term, as much as you need, unless you need more than a percent or two of the entire economic output of Harven."

And as a merchant magnate, he knows all about local prices, of course. He has tables.

Permalink Eye

She - well, Page - memorizes it all at once. She has ideas.

"I heard you have some lost technology," she mentions, when it seems like an opportune time.

Permalink Eye

"Tch. Rumors," he deflects without hesitation and not-quite-perfectly. "I think some people want to see a reason - any reason - for others' success compared to them."

(He doesn't actually deny it.)

Permalink Eye

"Are you saying you don't have any?"

Permalink Eye

"If I had any lost technology, it would be extraordinarily rare and deserving of extreme caution. People will die and kill for lost technology. I couldn't discuss it with a recent acquaintance, as delightful as you have been so far."

Permalink Eye

"I bet it doesn't work and you don't know how to fix it."

Permalink Eye

Look how much he doesn't know what she's talking about! He's not a great actor. "As I said, if I had anything like that, I couldn't discuss it with a recent acquaintance. Martian or not."

Permalink Eye

"You're gonna feel silly when I fix it."

Permalink Eye

"It's very convenient that an ancestor or traveler from outside Cloudbank just so happened to be particularly interested in my lack of queues."

Permalink Eye

"As you like."

Permalink Eye

"I think considering hypothetical situations such as lost technology will be much more interesting in a week or two when all the obvious kinks in my businesses have been under the magnifying glass and you have a nice chunk of silver in your pocket for services rendered, don't you agree?"

Permalink Eye

"I can tell you some of the things I know in that time, certainly."

Permalink Eye

"Then perhaps we can revisit this. In a week or two. Can we go back on topic, please? Consumer psychology or teamster logistics or some other theory."

Permalink Eye

She talks a little slowly through a logistics concept.

Permalink Eye

He asks insightful questions and takes copious notes and eventually pays her for her time and wants to know whether he should arrange for her to meet various people involved in his businesses or not.

Permalink Eye

"If they have more detailed information, or need to ask their own questions to implement things, sure."

Permalink Eye

"Perhaps the weavers and engine-makers and the doctor and the chemists. They'll have more detailed information, certainly. Inventory management is a consistent problem for the engine-makers and chemists, and I think queuing and traffic theory will help the weavers. And for some reason I suspect you have relevant medical knowledge, but do tell me if I'm mistaken. Does that sound good?"

Permalink Eye

"Sounds great."

Permalink Eye

"Excellent. Thank you for your time. If you give me your address I can mail you the details - otherwise I'm afraid you'll have to come back tomorrow."

Permalink Eye

"I'll just come back, I'm not familiar with the mail system here yet."

Permalink Eye

"Fair enough. Good fortune."

Permalink Eye

"You too."

Permalink Eye

Not much to do but wait for the rest of the day. She can even make her evening waitress shift.

Tomorrow, Mr. Griffing's receptionist has a list of meeting times and places she is expected to visit. Either all packed in today, or over the next two days, her choice. Doctor and chemist first, they're in the same building. Then the engine-makers, then the weaving shop.

Permalink Eye

That's a lot of meetings. She can start in on some things but can't progress far with everyone. She scopes out the chemistry inventory, asks specifically about anything she isn't sure what it is in her own terms.

Permalink Eye

The chemistry inventory is pretty good on organic compounds, from acetic acid to acetone to benzene, but they barely have any metals and don't have much of anything volatile or flammable. Their inventory problems are of the 'never seem to remember to make enough of what we actually need' variety.

The doctor mostly knows what he's doing, but bemoans both his inability to create vaccines and the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance.

The weavers can get some minor improvements from moving the machines around a bit, but there's not much low-hanging fruit.

The engine-makers' inventory problems are of the 'not enough space' variety. They seem to do a lot of experimental projects and let them creep into every nook and cranny.

The man in charge points to a young woman who's busy re-shelving tools, saying, "She's the one who can cobble all our side-projects into something useful, if anyone can. Young, but sharp, good at the work, and interesting ideas. Maybe you should be talkin' to her instead of me."

Permalink Eye

Chemistry people need the good word on checklists and department-internal incentives. She knows two knots the weavers don't, and a cable weave that will turn into stronger rope. Engineers need lofts and things attached to benches with string and suchlike.

She introduces herself to the tool-shelver. "Hi, I'm the consultant, my name's Tarinda."

Permalink Eye

"Hi! I'm the - I dunno if I actually have a title. The apprentice? Ah, I'm Erwelta, but please call me Walta. You need anything?"

Permalink Eye

"I'm consulting on efficiency in general. Any pain points you want to point me at?"

Permalink Eye

"If you're sure you should be talking to me about that... It'd be nice not to have to run all the way across town and back whenever the parts we outsource aren't good enough! It'd be nice to not outsource them, but we don't really have the room to do molds and casting here. Umm... We should probably be more standard about our blueprints? I had to look at seven different pieces of paper to figure out how short to cut a rod the other day and still got the answer wrong."

Permalink Eye

"Ooh, lemme see the blueprints. And your contract with the place across town, if that's how you operate."

Permalink Eye

"I don't actually know if we have a contract. I'm even less qualified to tidy up all the paperwork than I am to make something out of the old experiments... Ah, blueprints are in that room over there."

She heads over. The blueprints are organized into in cabinets by type-of-engine, with duplicate, hand-annotated, and conflicting versions aplenty. There is not a version number or master document or table of contents in sight.

Permalink Eye

Time to explain ~version control~!

Permalink Eye

It sounds like a pretty neat idea! No more sometimes spending two hours to do something that ought to take five minutes!

"It'll be a lot of work bludgeoning it all into shape though. I dunno how to get everyone else onboard. I guess that's what you're here for, if Mr. Griffing sent you to us."

Permalink Eye

"I think he's impressed enough with stuff he's already implemented to badger everyone into making it work. Can't try an idea without trying it."

Permalink Eye

"I think I can work up, like, a sample version-controlled blueprint to show them? And that would help sell the idea without the big boss having to huff and puff and blow the house down."

Permalink Eye

"If that's what works for you!"

Permalink Eye

"I actually don't think the idea should go through me? You seem a lot, uh," prettier, smarter, more confident, "Like they'll listen to you. I'm still the new kid."

Permalink Eye

"Sure, point me at whoever and I can explain it again."

Permalink Eye

She points Tarinda at someone - a managerial type and not one of the actual engineers - and goes back to some kind of project area in the corner of the main room. A bundle of mismatched parts all her own, though she keeps getting called away to help with this or that and then going back to it.

Permalink Eye

Tarinda explains version control again.

Permalink Eye

The manager thinks version control is aesthetically pleasing and interesting and maybe will help cut down on all those annoying costly mistakes and waste material, he's going to write up a project plan to implement it but the engineers will resent it, interfering with their part of the work, any ideas on that?

Permalink Eye

"You know them and I don't. I can try introducing it to them myself, if you think that's a good use of my time."

Permalink Eye

"Hmm... No, I'll think of something."

He has a couple questions on the finer points of version control and then says she can go thank you for your time.

Permalink Eye

And she moves on.

Permalink Eye

Mr. Griffing pays Tarinda and receives reports from his employees and approves and denies things she suggested and sends her around to other places and keeps deflecting if she mentions lost technology, though he's wavering some.

At the end of the first week he says he wants to stop sending her around to places as much and produces specifications for a fairly beefy electrical generator that are obviously pulled verbatim from some kind of manual.

Permalink Eye

"Gosh," she says, looking it over.

Permalink Eye

"I think I'm past the point where pretending serves me at all. Yes, I have lost technology. Several pieces of it, in fact. This is the kind of electricity the most interesting piece supposedly requires."

Permalink Eye

"If you have the plans how come you haven't built it yet?"

Permalink Eye

"I don't have plans. I have specifications - I have a list of qualities the electricity must have, and no blueprints for a device for actually making it."

The fairly demanding specifications indicate that it's probably something big or industrial. Possibly a big robot or manufacturing equipment of some kind.

Permalink Eye

She pages through it. "This looks pretty heavy-duty. How big is your lost technology?"

Permalink Eye

"Perhaps twice the size of my desk. Though much heavier." He looks slightly annoyed at that fact. (It's a big, fancy desk.)

Permalink Eye

"This much power output might run a few things that size but you probably don't need all that for just one. Can I see it?"

Permalink Eye

"...Oh, very well. It's not like it's stealable. And you do seem to know what you're doing. We'll have to go to my residence."

Permalink Eye

"Can't scare me."

Permalink Eye

Off they go, then. It's not a super long walk. Past the gardener and housekeeper, into the basement (as much as 'basements' are even a thing in such a vertically-oriented city.) The whole area is made out of non-flammable material and it's lit by oil lamps he starts as they go down - almost the first artificial light Tarinda has seen anywhere on Cloudbank.

It's a low bulky piece of industrial equipment. It's a little beat up and dusty, but not otherwise visibly damaged. The chromed label says Tranquility Industries General Purpose Fabricator.

Permalink Eye

 

"Gosh," she says. And she gives it a very thorough inspection.

Permalink Eye

"I hope you can see now why I'm so very cautious with it, and with any information surrounding it," Mr. Griffings says. "If it could be made to work... It would be like magic. Like a miracle. It would be the key to bringing the world of the ancestors, of abundance and security, back. It may very well be the most precious and irreplaceable object on Cloudbank."

It's sealed aside from some data ports and a very heavy-duty power socket on the back. The exact design is unfamiliar, but it looks like it can purify and synthesize things over here, and also act as an extremely precise 3D printer over there.

Permalink Eye

Page can figure out its actual power specs from the socket.

Permalink Eye

Mr. Griffings had it right, actually. What a power-hungry beast this is... Though it has a low-power mode and can run on much less, just probably a lot slower.

Permalink Eye

"So it can actually suck up all the juice your specs called for, or it can run probably pretty slow on less than that. And once we have it working I can see about having it spit out stuff I'd need to build some better power generation options and even better swag."

Permalink Eye

"That sounds like an extremely worthwhile project. Tell me what you need and I will get it."

Permalink Eye

"Now we're talking. Do you want to write this down -"

Permalink Eye

He takes out a notebook, gaze sharp. Eager.

Permalink Eye

She lists, carefully, precisely, gaze a little spacey as she reads off Page's results. "- and I'm willing to contribute my sword to the project if I get a free hand with some of the fabber's time after it's running at full speed."

Permalink Eye

"Of course. For continued assistance- We'll work out the details later. That may be necessary, I'll know tomorrow. I was thinking - can a fabricator make another fabricator?"

Permalink Eye

"I don't know if it can do that by default, but I can make something that can without having to exactly duplicate this one's parts."

Permalink Eye

"I want to try that. Tools making tools making tools. Redundancy. If you can make it work... Well, one step at a time. Before I go start acquiring things, may I ask what you want to make with it?"

Permalink Eye

 

"You have probably guessed that I'm from very far away. We have - we have everything. And I don't know how to make everything, but I know how to build something that does."

Permalink Eye

He nods, looking thoughtful. "Yes, you're from very far away. You have a superhuman body and see things nobody else does. And you told me as much, that you're from 'Mars'. I thought it was some sort of trick at first... Cloudbank could really use some 'everything'."

Permalink Eye

"I'd like nothing more than to supply it."

Permalink Eye

Sharp nod. "I've wasted a week on suspicion and paranoia already. I want to show you the other pieces I have - maybe they can save a few days - and then go shopping."

Permalink Eye

"Sounds great."

Permalink Eye

His 'other pieces' turn out to be a microwave oven and two cracked tablet computers.

Permalink Eye

"This is approximately scrap," she says, tapping the microwave. "Those two might be usable but I'd have to open them up be sure."

Permalink Eye

"Feel free to. It's not like I'm using them, and the fabricator is the real prize. Shall I leave you to work now?"

Permalink Eye

"I'll need tools. A small screwdriver, to check the tablets."

Permalink Eye

There's a toolbox in the corner of the room. It does not have a sufficiently small screwdriver. Mr. Griffings writes out a short note and tells her to take it to his instrument-maker, they are supposed to give or make her a tiny screwdriver as soon as possible. He also gives her a key to the house, looking slightly pained at the show of trust.

Permalink Eye

"I promise not to sneak into your bedroom or anything."

Permalink Eye

"I'm sure I'm not perfect at suppressing my flinch reactions in the face of logic and sense. Deliveries will start as soon as I can arrange them."

Permalink Eye

"Thank you."

Permalink Eye

Out he goes.

 

The instrument makers have a wide variety of tiny screwdrivers and seem confused as to why she needs one so urgently, but sure, she has Mr. Griffing's seal and everything, here you go take your pick.

Permalink Eye

She selects the correct tininess of screwdriver. She opens up the tablets to see how they're doing - just need juice, or a more complicated salvage, or are they scrap too?

Permalink Eye

A more complicated salvage on both counts. One is much more intact than the other.

Permalink Eye

Page identifies the steps necessary to recover the better one and she reports the results to Mr. Griffings.

Permalink Eye

There are a dozen or so tiny electronic parts in need of replacement, which can all be salvaged from the worse-off one except for three. He puts in an order with the instrument makers to make acceptable replacements for those.

Stuff for the generator starts to arrive the next morning.

Permalink Eye

She fixes the tablet. She works on the generator. She's not even pretending to care about the waitress job any more. She gets a more expensive apartment closer by to save commute time; this is important.

Permalink Eye

Mr. Griffings interferes with the bureaucracy on her behalf and has meals delivered and ticks off the boxes on the shopping list quite rapidly. Would extra hands and someone clever attached to them help at all or just get in the way?

(The tablet is still unusable for lack of power for now.)

Permalink Eye

"The way I'm doing this means I can't teach anyone else to be as effective as me at it but one extra person to hand me stuff or run for supplies might speed me up slightly."

Permalink Eye

Then she can have a quiet, efficient secretary reassigned to her. She understands all this tech stuff even less than her boss does, but can fetch and hand things efficiently and without interrupting with annoying questions or anything like that.

Permalink Eye

That works for Tarinda. Tinker tinker.

Permalink Eye

That one young woman from the engine-makers delivers her an engine to drive the generator, the last big piece. She tries to linger and watch, but is promptly shooed out by Tarinda's assistant.

The last of her shopping list finally arrives.

Permalink Eye

This must all be so staggeringly expensive in local currency and it's not going to matter, soon.

She fires up the generator.

Permalink Eye

The generator generates.

The fabber clicks and thuds to life and complains on its big screen that it lacks lubricant, that the real time clock is not responding, and that it's not connected to the internet.

Permalink Eye

These things are all much easier to fix.

She plugs in the refurbished tablet too.

Permalink Eye

Tablet wants a password. The fabber starts a longer self-diagnostic once it's been lubricated.

Mr. Griffings has been looking more and more tired. 'Staggeringly expensive in local currency' is right. He's smiling, but keeps muttering "Not done yet... One step at a time..."

Permalink Eye

"We're super close." She attempts a factory reset on the tablet.

Permalink Eye

Tablet will accept a factory reset! The operating system is minimal. It's not that powerful, but it's an available working computer, for sure.

The fabber completes its self-diagnostic and pronounces itself operable and opens a user interface on the screen at the front.

Permalink Eye

The important question is whether this tablet can hold a seed Sing or if she needs to make it peripherals before it can do that.

Permalink Eye

The tablets are cheap junk for the tech level. Apparently meant to hook into mining equipment and not do much else.

Permalink Eye

"This needs more storage capacity before it can hold the thing I need it to hold. I can build it with the fabber."

Permalink Eye

Mr. Griffings had been poking the fabber - so far he has gotten it to start on a plastic art object that is some kind of calibration piece.

"At this point I'm inclined to simply let you have the run with it. This has gotten a bit away from me. Though I might have to show the, ah, bank what I've been taking loans for at some point, so something I can sell would be nice to have."

Permalink Eye

"Can you sell, uh, answers to math problems with two second turnaround?"

Permalink Eye

"...I can sell it as a reason not to collect for a month or two, at minimum."

Permalink Eye

"I'm pretty sure it won't matter after that. This tablet has enough capacity as-is that my hardware can talk to it; it can use my ears to listen to math problems and print them on the tablet while I mess with the fabber and it won't even slow me down."

Permalink Eye

"Good, good... So I'll bring a few people down here, dazzle them with the display of equipment, and show off mathematics tricks. I can get an investment with that. Have to go make myself presentable... Right. I'll take care of things so that you can keep working. Your project will change everything. I dearly hope so after all this money, at any rate..."

And out he goes.

 

Some old rich people come gawk at the fabber and generator a few hours later. They are awed by the spectacle - the tablet's glowing screen might even have been enough by itself. The math show is just a bonus.

 

"I won't be bothered by the bank again. Seeing all this unfold before my eyes... I'm not sure which of us had the harder job. But, you're almost done?"

Permalink Eye

"Almost. I think another few days for the fabber to spit out enough computer parts to hold Sing. Then Page can dictate it over wireless, then - it'll tell us what's next, and if that means making you a ton of money so it doesn't lose the fabber I'm sure it can start there."

Permalink Eye

"There's only so much money in circulation in the city and I owe almost all of it to the bank." He shakes his head and laughs, slightly manic. "Lost technology! I keep thinking this is a dream."

Permalink Eye

"It gets better."

Permalink Eye

"I know. I know. You work hard now and see the benefits later... I don't think I want to hear what it will be like. I want to see it unfold. It sounds like when Sing is built my job is not quite done. I'm sure I will be proud of my place in all this in ten years."

Permalink Eye

"Mm-hm."

Permalink Eye

Back to work, then.

The fabber chugs along faithfully in low-power mode. Tranquility Industries builds 'em reliable. It's really kind of impressive that a non-Sing-designed machine as complex as a fabber can sit idle somewhere for 800 years and start back up with almost no problems.

Permalink Eye

Good on you, Tranquility Industries.

And soon Page sends a stream of maximally compact seed code to the tablet and its peripherals.

Permalink Eye

The tablet and peripherals can hold Sing, if barely.

Permalink Eye

Sing boots.

It runs in silence for two minutes and fourteen seconds.

It taps Page for auxiliary processing, once it figures out how to do that.

And Tarinda repurposes the fabber to its needs.

Permalink Eye

"I do hope," Mr. Griffings says, slightly nervously, "That Sing remembers who made it possible - or at least much faster - here. Because seeing you do impossible things was - comprehensible. Seeing a machine do it is... A bit unnerving."

Permalink Eye

"Oh, I had a machine helping me, it's just not visible," she says. "Practically speaking I'm just a really inconvenient sort of robot. You will be totally fine. Sing is good."

Permalink Eye

"I still have only your word for that. But if ever there is a time for faith, it is now."

Permalink Eye

"I wouldn't call it that, but then I've seen it."

Permalink Eye

"Faith is trusting in something you cannot see or know... Ah, I've been thinking about old religions too much since we started this. But I suppose you're right - I trusted you."

Permalink Eye

She giggles.

Permalink Eye

He shrugs. "Well, it's true. Though I did make you impress me first."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah. I figure at this point it's safe to admit that if it had taken much longer I woulda broken into your house to check out the stuff. The fabber would have been hard enough to move that I'd probably have stuck it out once I got a look at it though."

Permalink Eye

He grimaces. "Well, this way is much less acrimonious, I'm sure."

Permalink Eye

"I'm pretty sure I could have done it without being noticed but yep this is way better."

Permalink Eye

"To peace and cooperation and trust. I think I'm going to go... Cloudwatching, maybe, and think. Wistfulness is a weakness of mine sometimes. Nobody knows it but us yet, but today is one of fallen Cloudbank's final days..."

Permalink Eye

"It's going to be gorgeous. Sing, ETA?"

16 days, Sing prints on the tablet.

Permalink Eye

(...He kind of wants to kiss her, but will never, ever, acknowledge that openly. Or so he tells himself.)

"I will look forward to it." He heads for the stairs.

Permalink Eye

(Good thing too 'cause she's super gay.)

She acts as Sing's hands.

One day she sneaks out to illegally drop something off the edge of the island.

Permalink Eye

The local government would probably approve it after a few weeks of debate if it had a full explanation, surely. But this is faster.

The lower atmosphere and surface of Cloudbank is hostile.

Permalink Eye

Yes, it was expecting that. It can handle it.

It mines. It builds. The things it builds mine and build.

Permalink Eye

The sheer heat and acidity of the surface slows this process down by a day or two. Industrial processes are hard under these kinds of conditions. But it expected that.

Permalink Eye

It did. It's on schedule. And it cuts way down on fuel costs.

It sends a much more sophisticated machine back up to chew up the fabber and spit out a much better one that runs on a battery charged from the surface after a few days.

Permalink Eye

The bank is getting grumbly towards Mr. Griffings again. A raid on his basement is not likely but probably worth heading off.

Permalink Eye

By devouring a neighboring island in broad daylight? That will probably distract them.

Permalink Eye

"What the hell did you make-"

"Something that is worth your incredibly generous investment ten thousand times over. Just a little patience, my friends."

The bank backs off. The rest of the town chews wild rumors a lot.

Permalink Eye

Sing chews islands. It makes things.

When it can make things fast enough, things fly hither and yon. It can save a little time on the medical front by sticking a rather scary looking needle into Tarinda for a sample to doctor and clone, so it asks nicely and does that.

Permalink Eye

Mr. Griffings has stubbornly continued working his businesses as normally as possible. Even if it's all going to disappear. It's almost... Serene, doing something that he knows so very well but like as not won't matter soon.

People have very, very mixed reactions to the robots. Some are curious. Many are mostly indifferent unless directly confronted. A lot of them panic and flee/attack/set things on fire.

Permalink Eye

Sing definitely has fire suppressants figured out. Seemed like it'd come in handy.

Permalink Eye

Then various attempts to harm robots pretty much all totally fail.

Permalink Eye

Oh good.

Then it can start saving dying people without permission and upgrading non-emergency cases with permission.

Permalink Eye

Dying people are in relatively short supply. They're mostly already dead.

A lot of non-emergency cases want to know what the heck is going on before they agree to anything. Some want their amputated foot/persistent cough/poor vision/teeth/arthritis fixed. Some of them are nervous about this and want the 'bots to stay away from their family, or want them to fix a mangled hand and nothing else. Some of those who want something fixed don't manage to verbalize an objection to further upgrades, and a few risk-taking perfectly healthy people want upgrades.

There are caches of lost technology here and there, mostly in the far north and south or in the hands of rich people. Perhaps a few thousand such items all over the world. But at this point Sing doesn't really need them except maybe as a source of raw materials.

Permalink Eye

Sing can do "and nothing else", assuming they aren't about to die of heart disease. It will not honor requests to stay away from people's families without hearing it from the families, but it's not particularly sinister about that.

Permalink Eye

Some parents and spouses attempt to attack or chase away robots rather than let them talk to their families, or tell their family not to talk to the robots, or similar.

People want to know where it came from, why now, what it wants from them, whether it's going to eat all the islands and native wildlife.

Permalink Eye

It was built here by someone who grew up with a copy of it. It couldn't get here sooner. It wants universal flourishing. It will leave plenty of both.

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The fact that they have cultural references for 'nigh-magical technology' helps get over the bumpy period a lot quicker. It also helps that the robots can be flagrantly metallic by Cloudbank standards - people react as if anything not plastic or glass was made of solid gold.

More people want things fixed after talking to the folks who went in first or who got emergency care. People mostly don't seem to understand that the robots can do anything not medical-related yet.

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They will.

It builds new islands, which it can riddle with its infrastructure from the start and pilot around. They go places, taking on immigrants.

Also, it sends a probe up to look for the rumored Stargate.

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People start asking for things - mirrors, toys, tools, music, jewelry, help with their chores or crops, finding an old friend or relative, books.

A lot of people are kind of reluctant to leave their homes, especially the ones who lived on ships. Even when the alternative is very shiny.

The Stargate: Exists, as a two kilometer wide ring shaped station, a giant hole blown into it by a massive explosion a long time ago. There's some busted old satellites and other space debris up there too.

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It starts salvage and attempts at repair.

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The gate is pretty badly fucked up. One of the four reactors is missing, a bunch of other vital equipment is missing or explosion-shredded or holed from centuries of micrometeorites and so on. The key components, the redundant pair of discontinuities, are safe.

There are a few corpses in the station. Most of them are unrecoverable. Four froze before they ran out of air and might be revivable.

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Sing corrals those for later and gets the station running.

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The station can be brought online. The other end has long since been shut off so it won't open to the far side, but a (frankly rather stupid) bot is listening and is soon convinced to send for a real person and will answer a limited set of questions if asked.

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Sing is patient, in its way. It asks the bot things.

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The United Systems is a multi-world government running on the backs of tens of thousands of stargates! (The United Systems has grown increasingly toothless and decentralized over the last few centuries.) There are thousands of inhabited systems and on the order of 200 billion humans! (They've got life extension and industrial automation and other good stuff but not Sing quality, people still die a lot.)

The star system Cloudbank is in was not very promising in the first place and when the stargate exploded they were going to send a replacement but it was going to take a hundred years to get there. Someone decided that probably everyone was dead anyway and stargates are very expensive so they didn't bother.

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That's a lot of network and civilization to cultivate. Sing plans accordingly.

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Someone answers the phone. Someone can be convinced, after a few minutes, to throw a lot of government money at rebuilding the other side of the stargate. It'll take a few months.

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Is that a technical limitation or a financial resource one?

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Technical. It's a really old model of discontinuity. They're going to have to scare up specialist engineers and everything.

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Can that be accelerated with more money that Sing could acquire by selling intellectual property through this channel?

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Yes. Not much bandwidth on this thing though.

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If there's any math or science prizes about for proofs of things that's probably the lowest bandwidth option.

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There are some of those! And it's enough bandwidth for a few songs and novels, just not hi-def video or anything. Sing starts making money and the government project accelerates.

 

Back on the planet below, Rem figures out how to send a message to Tarinda. 

You do all this?? Also hi, also I'm making meringue right now.

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Yes, that was me! I come from a place Sing has already fixed up. I hope you like meringue!
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Thanks for fixing up Cloudbank too! Meringue is great, this is my third batch! Cloudberries and blueberries!

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Sounds yummy! Are you seeing much increase in ingredient variety? It'll get to that but I don't know where you've been to.
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It got me sugar when I asked, robot shaped like a floater ray flew up and dropped a bag on me and asked me to share the desserts. Oh, I moved onto one of those island-ships. And I talked to my brother. He has two kids just like I predicted.

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I'm so glad.
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I never would have guessed you lived with all this and more! What are you up to now?

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I moved onto a Sing island too. I'm waiting for it to finish everything that's more urgent and then I'm hoping it can send me home, I miss my girlfriend.
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Girlfriend? Huh.

I hope you can go back! You deserve it.

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Thank you!
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Maybe I can get Sing to send you some of my meringue. Bye for now!

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Merry baking!
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Cloudbank gets used to the new state of things gradually. Almost everyone gets rejuvenated or upgraded - the holdouts are mostly Southerners who want to remain "real humans" and think Sing is unnatural by their religion. A lot of people want wings, once things as frivolous as wings are on offer. Mr. Griffings takes a week off and studies economics and computers and arranges to come out well in the post-Sing economy whenever it settles down.

Badly-governed polities, abusive relationships, pirate bands, and so on evaporate. The four people frozen aboard the destroyed gate wake up and more or less go 'huh, it's the good kind of singularity,' though they miss their definitely-dead-now friends and families. People start getting used to spirit guides and computers, though both will probably take a long time to really penetrate society.

Some people do what they were doing before with less worrying about necessities, some drop everything to go on Sing-facilitated adventures or explore science and technology or reunite with family and friends or pursue their true passion and share it with the burgeoning internet, some stop working at all. And they are all vastly happier.

 

The United Systems government finishes their side of the stargate.

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Tarinda's not a Cloudbank native; Sing has been quietly seeking someone suitable to send as a human representative so people don't panic before it's entrenched.

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Mr. Griffings thinks he would be a reasonable candidate. He's pretty into the mindset of helping bring all this prosperity about and is very used to being professional-and-businesslike and would be perfectly willing to read from a spirit guide script.

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Then he and his spirit guide can get in a shuttle and ascend to the stargate.

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Some United Systems diplomats and bureaucrats are very excited to meet him! It's extremely suprising, but great of course, that his people were able to repair the stargate! Does Cloudbank require aid at this time?

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The spirit guide thinks he will do fine without prompting at this part. It's gently hacking into a nearby computer though.

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They have passable encryption. It might take more than five seconds.

"Thank you! Not urgently. I'm sure there's something but it's not necessary to discuss right this second, I think."

"We're curious how Cloudbank's people are currently organized - you sent some very interesting things through the link..."

"Well, the nature of our life on Cloudbank lends itself to small communities, though there's been lots of larger-scale cooperation recently."

He makes distracting small talk with the diplomats, watching for cues from his guide in case he gets too close to alarming them.

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The guide helps with a running index of extrapolated emotional states and provides as necessary the content of Sing's conversations with the people on the other end.

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Oh good, that helps. He's good at schmoozing when he has a good reason to try. He plays up the very real culture gap to cover for his mistakes and buy time. 

They want to send through technicians and spare parts, just in case the gate goes down again. "We have that well in hand," He insists, "Or I wouldn't be here!"

Small talk and introductions are more or less exhausted after ten minutes - they want to discuss the future relationship between Cloudbank and the United Systems, with a view toward Cloudbank joining. He asks lots of questions about United Systems policy and laws that Sing hasn't already asked someone about and looks thoughtful and is carefully noncommittal about Cloudbank's own details, though he shares distracting anecdotes freely.

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That will buy his passenger hacker some time. Sing is helping, through the gate, but they didn't load up Griffings with too much exterior hardware, lest it be confiscated for security reasons.

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He schmoozes. He starts discussing a treaty that's going to be totally irrelevant with them. They don't search him or confiscate things.

Their cybersecurity is not perfect. They didn't bother to separate the diplomats' devices from the rest of the internet - or from government systems - but they have watchdogs that mean Sing has to move relatively slowly to not be labeled a virus. At first.

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Sing is patient in its way.

If there's any other gates in range it can reach through those too, parallelize.

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Other gates aren't quite close enough until it has a far-side communications satellite or two.

Schmoozing continues. The diplomats want to meet more people from Cloudbank, get to work setting up an internet connection and trade and visitors. He makes expansive speeches about tariffs and visas and we're not in a hurry are we?

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Sing can suggest other people, if anyone else wants to help with stalling tactics. The internet connection's not a bad idea either.

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Some more elaborate stalling tactics might be necessary, yes.

At some point Sing is established enough to make money in various ways and literally just buy server space everywhere to spread faster.

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That's convenient. Can it buy one of those satellites?

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It can buy time on the satellites. The satellites themselves are not listed on the open market.

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Time's enough to get copies of itself through gates so if any of them have a Cloudbank-like accident it won't have to let people die there for a hundred years sending help.

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You could get a replacement gate somewhere a lot closer to lightspeed with enough energy, save a few decades. There are some other dead links to systems, like Cloudbank. Most of them are verified empty and useless. A few are more ambiguous.

There is lots of very clever cybersecurity. Not much of it holds up to Sing very long.

By morning, the sysadmins of the galaxy are generally aware that something is up and are investigating.

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Cloudbank ramp-up was slow because it had to build all of its initial computing hardware with one fabber which it also had to use to create mining apparatus to extract materials from the corrosive and tectonically hyperactive surface of the planet while on a desperately rationed metal budget.

These places have internets.

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There are some attempted suicides and homicides and bomb-makings when people realize a superhuman AI is taking over everything. And a few black-ops military ships are unaccounted for.

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It will have to be very vigilant. Especially about the military ships, what if they hurt somebody?

And when it has the resources to spare, it looks into Page's data about Tarinda's accident, and makes her a much more rattle-proof little ship, and finds her a similar wormhole.

And sends her home.