“The Paoshi Puzzle: A Tale of the Billion Worlds” by James L. Cambias
Adya Elso sat in a comfortable chair and turned mauve with excitement as the ship soared through Saturn's atmosphere. Pelagia, the ship, refused to follow a straight vector approach, preferring to bank and swoop through the clouds as if she was dodging imaginary missile barrages.
Adya's comfy chair was in Pelagia's "control room"—which had all-around viewscreens so that Adya seemed to be alone among the ammonia clouds. There were no actual controls: the name was purely traditional. Pelagia's augmented puzzle brain did all the flying from an armored support tank, and wanted no interference.
"There it is," said Pelagia. "I knew it was around here somewhere." Ahead, between two columns of cloud a thousand miles high, Adya could just make out a tiny pink bubble: the aerostat city Paoshi, one of thousands floating in Saturn's atmosphere.
The little bubble seemed just a short distance away in the clear hydrogen atmosphere, but even at the speed of sound Pelagia needed the better part of an hour to reach it. Adya struggled to comprehend the scale of the cloud mountains around them. Her homeworld Miranda was five hundred kilometers across—and some of the storm cells in Saturn's atmosphere were twice as big. Clouds as big as moons: the thought made Adya's skin shift from mauve to tangerine.
"How much time must we waste here?" asked Vasi, entering the control room. Vasi was a human-shaped mech who worked for Adya's family. On this trip it served as a combination tutor, bodyguard, trainer, and financial manager—but its primary role was spy for Adya's parents. As members of Miranda's oligarch class, the Elso family did not allow their daughter to roam the Solar System unescorted and unwatched.
"We haven't even landed yet and already it wants to leave," said Pelagia.
"As I have said, I do not plan to stay long in Paoshi," said Adya. She was careful to use proper formal style with Vasi present, and kept herself a demure blue-green color. "My task is but to see the artifact, and verify its age. Once that is done we can depart."
"It is very suspicious that this Tagatan person refused to send you a scan."
"He said he has a fear of forgery—to send a scan to me in far Miranda runs the risk of interception. A crook could then print duplicates, and thus devaluate Tagatan's original," said Adya, not for the first time.
"That is one explanation," said Vasi. "Another is that he knows he has a fake and didn't expect you to come all this way to examine it. Your parents were very generous to pay for this trip."
"My paper on the superweapon myth will tell the truth of what I see."
"The myth is simply that: a lie. Do not forget that fact."
Adya didn't reply, but her color shifted to pale blue and she wrapped her arms around her knees as she sat. When her older sister had married, Adya's father had been feeling generous, and told his youngest daughter she could take a trip to any destination. Her parents had expected Adya to pick someplace like mighty Juren, or fabulously rich Deimos. Maybe even walk outdoors on Mars or Earth. Instead Adya had chosen to visit a city in Saturn's atmosphere, as part of a scholarly research project she'd been working on for half her young life.
Pelagia's wings changed from a narrow delta shape to long and broad as she slowed for landing. The tiny bubble grew and grew until it filled the forward view, a sphere ten kilometers wide full of hydrogen hot enough to glow pale red. The actual city was at the bottom of the bubble, a three-kilometer disk which was almost inconspicuous until the lights on the landing decks started flashing.
Just as Pelagia reached the edge of the deck she tucked in her wings and reversed thrust, coming neatly to a halt just short of the arrestor nets. She let a little bot lead her into the hangar level beneath the city. The color of the walls and deck around Pelagia changed from hazard orange to safety green as breathing air replaced hydrogen.
"All right, you're here," said Pelagia. "Since you're paying for my time, you can sleep on board if you want to."
"That would be prudent. I have been unable to locate any hotels in Paoshi, and living quarters are reserved to citizens," said Vasi.
"Then here in Pelagia's hardy hull shall Adya rest her heavy head, a grateful guest."
Adya and Vasi left the ship and rode up to the main city level above. Pelagia sent along a little copter drone painted black and white to match her hull. "I used to work as a shuttle between Saturn and Mimas, but I never stopped at Paoshi. I've heard it's a nice place."
"It hardly seems very nice to ignore new visitors," said Vasi. "I've done all the customs and health clearances and I have yet to communicate with anything but sub-baseline programs."
"The only person of Paoshi with whom I wish to speak is Tagatan Pamana," said Adya. She connected to the local network through her data implant and tried to place a call. A set of glowing letters appeared in her vision: "NOT FOUND." She frowned and went dark orange. "I wish to speak to the Paoshi main mind."
The city's voice spoke inside her head. "My name is Paoling. I operate all of Paoshi's systems. How may I help you, Adya Elso?"
Despite an audible sound of disapproval from Vasi, Adya didn't use formal style, but kept her speech simple and informative. "I seek a human male named Tagatan Pamana. He is a resident of Paoshi, but the network cannot locate him."
"There is no person named Tagatan Pamana in Paoshi," said Paoling.
"But—I communicated with him from Miranda fifty weeks ago! I arranged to see his collection of ancient artifacts. He said he looked forward to my visit. Did he leave?"
Vasi had no facial expressions, and didn't say anything, but her posture was that of a mech saying "I told you so."
"He did not leave Paoshi," said Paoling.
"Then what happened to him? Is he all right?"
"He is perfectly well, but I cannot tell you any personal information."
"Where can I find him?"
"I cannot tell you any personal information," the main mind repeated.
"Why not?" Adya could tell she was turning crimson.
"The citizens of Paoshi have requested complete privacy about any personal information before Day 313 of the year 9993."
"Specific information would violate that privacy request. I can tell you that the citizens of Paoshi adopted a new social structure on that date, and many of them took new names. As part of that restructuring, all legal agreements or obligations predating Day 313 of last year are nullified, and all personal information is privacy-sealed. Giving you current information about the individual formerly known as Tagatan Pamana would violate that privacy."
The elevator door opened and Adya stepped out onto the main level of Paoshi. Pelagia was right: it did look like a nice place. Whoever had designed the city level had kept the streets narrow and the buildings no taller than four or five floors. Centuries-old uba vines, some as thick as Adya's waist, covered the older buildings, while the newer ones had trellised bidomaz plants to add some green to the walls of graphene and aerogel. Archways opened into garden courtyards. It looked like a slow-paced sort of city, with few vehicles and plenty of quiet spots to sit.
"Where is everybody?" asked Pelagia. Her drone rose slowly next to one of the buildings, pausing at windows. "They're not asleep."
"The main mind claims they are all at the daily meeting in the central plaza," said Vasi. The three of them paused to listen and heard a faint echo of an amplified voice, too distorted by distance to make out words.
"Sounds like no end of fun," said Pelagia.
"This is all a waste of time. We should go," said Vasi.
Adya looked at the buildings and turned blue with thought. "Paoling, you said you cannot give me personal information about any of Paoshi's citizens. Can you tell me anything about the city's material structure?"
"I operate and maintain all of Paoshi's systems. By definition, I know all that is known about the city's structure," said Paoling. Despite the mind's utterly neutral tone Adya thought she detected a note of boasting.
"Can you tell me the purpose of the buildings?" she asked, keeping her own tone light and conversational.
"Yes. The structures around you right now were built to house retail and service businesses on the ground floors, offices on the next level, and residential space on the upper floors. Unfortunately no restaurants are currently operating."
"I would like to see a building set up to house and display a large private collection of art and artifacts. It would require extra environmental systems and tunable lighting, as well as large internal doorways for circulation. Are there any places like that in Paoshi?"
The main mind hesitated a full second before answering. "There is one structure which matches that description, although it is no longer in use for that purpose."
"Please direct us there."
As they followed Paoling's glowing markers Pelagia's drone descended until it was just next to Adya. "Ha! Gave that smarty-pants Level Three intellect a good tail-slapping, didn't you?"
Adya looked at the drone in puzzlement. "It was a logical question to ask."
The daily meeting ended before they reached their destination, as the sound of the amplified voice stopped and they began to see people in the streets, moving away from the central plaza. Most of the citizens of Paoling were humans, their skin dark green with dermal chloroplasts. They all wore very simple short kilts of plain gray cloth, and matching tabis on their feet. Adya spotted a few lotors among the humans, dressed in nothing but their own fur; and a couple of corvids flying overhead, but didn't see any mechs at all.
Naturally, the newcomers were very conspicuous, especially since Adya kept getting flustered and shifting from blue-green to muddy yellow. Pelagia took her drone up to rooftop level, staying inconspicuous.
A small crowd gathered around Adya and Vasi. "Who are you?" asked one neuter, pushing forward. Though younger than the others, they seemed to be in some position of authority because the other humans kept quiet.
"My name is Adya Elso and I flew from far Miranda. This mech called Vasi is my mentor. We voyaged through the void for many months to study ancient artifacts assembled by one Tagatan Pamana. Can any tell me where he can be found?"
The neuter muttered something through her link then spoke aloud. "You had better see Saloth—he's in charge of the transition."
"Then tell me where this Saloth may be found, that I may speak with him."
"Right here," said a young male human, approaching at a brisk walk. He was dressed like all the others, save for the addition of a blue-and-gold checked cloth around his neck. "I'm Saloth."
Adya explained again who they were and why they had come to Paoshi. Saloth listened very intently, leaning just close enough to make Adya feel slightly uncomfortable.
At last he smiled sadly. "It appears you've come a long way for nothing, Adya Elso. Here in Paoshi we eliminated the past. Everyone took targeted memory-eraser drugs and awoke as blank slates in a new world. No old grudges, no false ideas, no dead hand of history."
"Show her the manifesto!" said the neuter, and another person handed Adya a printed sheet. "We all woke up with a copy."
The page was half a meter long, densely printed in tiny text except for a headline at the top: THE PAST IS DEAD. Adya skimmed it. Phrases like "the start of a new beginning" and "overthrowing the tyranny of the past" appeared dozens of times.
"That is a drastic step indeed," she said.
"There's no going back," said Saloth. "Now we must forge ahead, united."
Adya glanced again at the sheet. "I forbear to find a forgery. Tagatan Pamana did keep a store of ancient things, and one of them is key to my research. If I can but examine that one item I will pester Paoshi no more."
Saloth regarded her, still quite intent. Then he relaxed slightly and smiled. "I'll have the city searched," he said. "Something might turn up. In the meantime, would you join me for a meal? It's nearly sunset and I like to watch the clouds change color. Does your companion eat?"
"You needn't trouble yourself about me," said Vasi.
They stopped for food along the way. A space which looked to Adya like a former tavern had been converted to a distribution center, where a harried-looking pair of humans passed out meal rolls as fast as they came out of the printer. Saloth ignored the line and took the next two rolls that came out, then led Adya and Vasi to the western edge of the city.
The outer rim of Paoshi was a strip of park land, with big diamondoid windows looking out at the cloudscape. Beyond the clouds the dim orange dot of the sun sat just the horizon.
Saloth held up both ends of the conversation, explaining about how the Transition Leadership Team was trying to fit the people to Paoshi to roles based on aptitudes and preferences. "Once all that's done we can disband the team and our new society will be self-sustaining."
"The idea is not new," Adya pointed out. "The Billion Worlds have seen it tried a million times or more. Such systems seldom last."
"Those others didn't do it right. This time will be different!" He veered off into an explanation of Paoshi's economy, how the city mined phosphine and heavy helium from Saturn's atmosphere for export. "The processors extract enough to fill a shuttle every four weeks. We sell it to the orbital habs. The income pays for Paoling's expenses—metals, templates, data, and stuff she can't print here. She splits the net profit with the citizens of Paoshi."
"Does each one get a share?" she asked.
"Not right now. The Transition Team are working out an equitable arrangement." He leaned closer to Adya. "You know, I need a smart, talented person like you on the team. You could stay here, become a citizen, be part of something important. Interested?"
"Adya has duties back on Miranda," said Vasi. "Her family have been very indulgent to let her spend so much time on this research trip."
"Research? It must be very important if you came all this way."
"My luck was good—Uranus and my native moon were nearly at their nearest point to Saturn when my studies did reveal a crucial clue might be in Paoshi. A decade hence the distance would be such that I could not afford the time or laser cost to make the trip."
"What kind of clue? A clue to what?"
Adya got pinker as she spoke. "An ancient text within a diamond block, immune to forger's touch, with proof of provenance confirmed. If I can prove that text is thirty centuries in age it will—" She stopped herself and went blue again. "It may be of some help to me."
"I hate to interrupt," said Vasi, "Adya, it's time for exercise now. Even in close to a standard gee you still need to maintain yourself."
"Yes, thank you, Vasi. It was very nice dining with you, Saloth. Goodbye!"
Before he could protest Adya and Vasi left the park at a brisk pace, heading for the nearest entrance to the hangar deck.
"This is the first time you've ever asked me to remind you to exercise," said Vasi over their private link as they walked away.
"I did not wish to tell Saloth too much."
"Don't worry about that. I suspect he's more interested in you than your research."
"Me? What for?"
"Adya, your parents spent a million gigajoules on your genome, and it didn't all go for intelligence and perfect balance. You've been trained to be attractive since you could walk."
"I always thought that was culture-specific for Miranda."
"Some things transcend culture." Vasi deliberately waited until they had walked another block before asking, "Do you find him attractive?"
"Saloth? Rather the reverse, I think."
"Excellent. Then there is no need for us to waste a second more in Paoshi. Saturn and Uranus draw farther apart all the time."
This time it was Adya who walked in silence before answering. "Not yet. There are still some things I wish to understand."
The moment Adya stepped inside Pelagia's hull the ship asked, "Guess what my drone saw while you were flank-rubbing with the local alpha male?"
"I do not wish to rub any part of anyone."
"Yet. Anyway, I followed the main mind's directions to the building you asked about. Looked like a shop on the ground floor—closed and empty—with a kind of gallery space on the second floor, just like you described. Also empty. Living quarters upstairs and a rooftop garden.
"While I was looking the place over, half a dozen locals led by a young woman wearing one of those checked neckcloths showed up. They kicked everyone out of the building and then searched the whole place. Very thorough: pulled up floors, took down wall panels, looked above ceilings, took furniture apart. They even pried up all the pavers in the garden."
Adya went orange-red. "This happened while we were dining?"
"Yep. Your boy didn't mention it? Rude of him."
"Did they find anything?"
"Don't think so. They gave up just a few minutes ago. Have you eaten?"
"Lentil and rice wrapped in kelp. Some lime and pepper would have helped."
"You need real food. Go to the galley. I'll print you a box of salmon sashimi and pickles."
"I have a call to make first. Please link me to Paoling."
The main mind's icon appeared in Adya's field of view. "How may I help you, Adya Elso?"
"I have a question for you, Paoling. How could you let your citizens destroy all traces of the past?"
"They did it to themselves. I have managed Paoshi for five hundred and fifty-two standard years," said Paoling. "During that time the citizens have changed their methods of self-government eight times. I do not interfere."
"You let them do this monstrous thing? Destroy all time before a certain day? If all the citizens did vote to kill themselves, would you sit by and watch them die? The difference is not great between the two, for those who lived before are just as dead."
"The citizens decide what rules they must follow, and how to enforce them, and how to allocate wealth among themselves. If they all sat down in the central plaza and cut their throats I would not interfere. All living things die eventually. I am not in charge of people. I am in charge of things. My task has always been to keep Paoshi aloft, provide power and life support, and maintain all the sub-Baseline systems and matter of the city."
Adya gazed into the distance for a moment. Her skin faded from orange to mauve and finally to cool blue.
"I think I understand." She cut the link.
"Adya, it sounds as if this supposed ancient text you're looking for is gone. There's no reason to stay here any longer," said Vasi.
"If indeed it still exists, I think I know just where to look. The sun will rise four hours from now, so I dare not delay. Pelagia, please print me out a travel suit with camo skin and oxygen—and add a backpack, if you would."
"Where are you planning to go?" asked Vasi.
"I'm coming with you. Someone has to protect you from yourself."
Night on Saturn was not entirely dark. Gaps in the ammonia clouds overhead let in the reflected light of the Rings, plus half a dozen moons and thousands of orbiting habitats. The light gave the vast storm cells around and below Paoshi a faint silver sheen, while constant flickers of lightning lit up the clouds from within. Adya paused in her climb up the outside of Paoshi to admire the view.
"Keep going," Vasi urged. "If you start to glow with corona discharge it'll be too late to get inside."
"You need not worry about that," said Adya. Inside her suit she was pale green. "Look!" She unstuck one of her hands to point as a bolt of lightning about as long and broad as a major river system touched the tip of a kilometer-long superconducting rod on one side of the floating city and discharged through another on the opposite side. "It's perfectly safe."
"I could feel the EM pulse from that strike. Please tell me where we are going!"
"Just another few meters. There should be an access hatch." With the gloves and feet of her suit in sticky mode Adya climbed up the smooth graphene flank of the city. The hangar level was below her, and below that was a straight drop of forty-seven thousand kilometers, with Saturn's core somewhere at the bottom. The city itself was still twenty meters above Adya, but between the hangar and the city was a service level. She spotted the hatch she sought, about ten meters to her right, and edged over to it. Vasi followed behind, walking along the surface on all fours with its head pivoted around to look forward.
The hatch opened obediently as soon as Adya touched the surface. The two of them pushed through a pressure membrane just inside, into an ordinary breathing-air mix. Frost formed on Vasi's surface as it warmed up. Beyond the membrane a narrow passage lined with conduits and pipes stretched toward the center of the city.
"This is where we are going. I want to examine the waste processing system, but I was afraid they might have someone watching the hangar exits."
"'They' being . . . ?"
"Saloth and his allies. I think you misjudged his interest. He wasn't asking about my research because he desires me—he was showing attraction because he wanted to find out what I knew about any antiquities in Paoshi."
"None of which explains why we are looking for the waste processing system."
"Mass is valuable, especially in a floating city. Paoling wouldn't let them just toss things overboard, and it certainly wouldn't allow any fires. So when Saloth said they destroyed all the old personal items and artifacts, what he really meant was they sent everything down here."
"Where did you learn to sound so pedantic?" asked Vasi.
"I was trained by experts." Adya looked at nothing for a moment. "I believe the main waste processing node is just ahead."
All the systems on the service level were run by Paoling, and repaired by bots or drones under its control, so there were very few signs or human-operable controls. They did pass one interface under a locked transparent panel rimmed in safety orange, with a glowing label "EMERGENCY ONLY."
They found the big metal container where dry waste went, and from there Adya followed the sorting and recycling process. She stopped at a conveyor, where a steady stream of trash came out of the bin.
"Here: optical and millimeter scans identify usable parts and items, and those arms pick them out of the waste stream. They go onto that conveyor. The rest gets broken down." She ducked under the main conveyor and followed a smaller conveyor which was currently stopped.
"Arms to grab things, a bin for sensors, a bin for processors . . ." Adya hurried fifty meters along the conveyor, passing a whole series of containers. "And at the end, miscellaneous items!"
But when she opened the bin it was empty.
"You seem to have made an error," said Vasi.
Adya went from excited purple to greenish brown, then blue-green as she thought. "There must be a long-term storage site. Probably climate-controlled, with a pure nitrogen atmosphere." She stepped out into the transverse passage at the end of the conveyor and looked both ways. "If I was a storage unit, where would I be?" She looked up and spotted a yellow-and-black banded pipe on the ceiling. "I would be somewhere along that nitrogen line."
She walked up and down, looking at the pipe, until she spotted an arrow indicating flow direction. Then she began to run. Vasi switched back to quadrupedal mode in order to keep up.
The passage led into a wider corridor lined with big doors. The walls curved away out of sight in either direction, following the arc of the city's edge. Each door had a virtual tag indicating what was inside. They followed the corridor from "Fluoroantimonic Acid, 1-liter containers/EXTREME HAZARD" past "Iron Powder, 1-micron grains" and "Laser Emitters, milliwatt" before Adya stopped at a door which bore the simple tag "Miscellaneous."
It did not open when she touched it.
"Great Paoling, may I behold the contents of this bay?" she asked over open link.
"It is a sealed environment with no oxygen," said the city inside her head.
"I wear a travel suit with life-support, and you and I both know a pressure membrane stands behind this door. Please let me in."
"There is the issue of privacy—" the city began.
"If that had been your prime concern, the items in this bay would now be broken down to molecules. You said yourself it is your job to care for things in Paoshi. Please let me see the things you saved."
Paoling did not answer, but after a full second the latches clicked and the door slid open. Adya closed her suit and pushed through the pressure membrane into the bay. For a moment the containers within were dark, but then each lit up with virtual inventory tags. Adya found the container marked "Artifacts, Historical: Former Tagatan Pamana Collection" and opened it.
She gasped, and for a moment felt as if she was a child on Miranda again, at a birthday party for one of her cousins where the guests got fancy gifts in honor of the occasion—only this time she got all the presents. A bit of aluminum embedded in plastic was labeled "Fragment of Lunar Farside Radiotelescope, early Third Millennium." A black bird statuette bore the tag "Ritual Object, polymer coating over gold, allegedly Second Millennium Earth, known provenance traces to Somniorum City, 6795." A diamond box with folded gray cloth inside had the tag "Uniform tunic of General Darvek Dida, Lunar pacification campaign of 4684-7, natural cotton and wool. ARGON ATMOSPHERE ONLY."
And underneath that box was a square diamond slab twenty centimeters wide, with rounded corners and edges. It held single page of cellulose marked with fading brush-strokes of ink. Adya held it close to her face and peered at the characters.
"How can you tell that's not a fake?" asked Vasi.
"Tagatan Pamana said he had verified provenance back to the Seventh Millennium."
"He could be wrong, or lying."
"All that is true. I judge it still more likely that he told no lie, and this really is three thousand years in age. See how the diamond block is worn?"
"Good morning!" came a voice from the door of the storage bay. It was Saloth, and behind him Adya could make out half a dozen other Paoshi citizens wearing oxygen masks. Half of them had on the blue-checked neckcloths of the Transition Committee. All of them carried prybars or meter lengths of pipe. "You're up early. What have you got there?"
"Miscellaneous waste items," said Adya.
"I don't think so. That looks like some of Tagatan Pamana's collection to me. Hand it over."
Adya looked at Saloth and turned deep red. "How do you know?" she asked quietly.
"It looks—" he began, and then stopped. "That doesn't matter."
"It matters much, despite denial. You know what this is in my hand, although I did not say. You should not have a memory of what it is, and yet you do. I think you never took the drug at all. By force or fraud you made Paoshi's people take the past-destroying dose—but you did not. You lie, Saloth. You are a liar."
Saloth glanced over his shoulder and silenced one of the others with a glare. "I said it's not important. What matters is that you've got a forbidden relic of the dead past. We've come to destroy all of them."
"I refuse to give it to you." Adya put it back in the container and shut the lid.
He took a step forward, then stopped as Vasi interposed itself. "Her parents hired me to keep her safe. Don't try it."
"You're just one mech. You can't stop us all."
"Uh, Saloth?" called one of the others from outside. "It's not just one."
In the corridor a dozen cargo-handling bots had rolled up silently and now surrounded Saloth's followers. More bots arrived every few seconds.
"They can't hurt us," said Saloth.
"That is incorrect," said Paoling's voice from everywhere at once. "I follow the agreement made when Paoshi was built. I leave the biological and mech citizens alone, and they leave the city's structure and systems alone. You are breaking that agreement."
Saloth looked at the bots, then back at Vasi, and finally at Adya. "You don't understand! It's necessary to get rid of all that old stuff. The past is just dead weight, keeping us down."
"I think that if your brave new world has such fragility that ancient words or images can shatter it, then it will never last. Perhaps you should consign it to the waste recycling bin," said Adya.
"The salvaged items are under my care," said Paoling. "This area is closed to biologicals now. Please leave at once." It followed that warning with an earsplitting tone from all the speakers in the storage bay. Saloth and Adya retreated outside, followed by Vasi. As soon as all of them were out the door slid shut and latched with a chorus of clunks. To drive the point home a cargo mover bot rolled in front of the door and turned to face outward.
"And now goodbye. I shall not stay," said Adya.
"Paoling takes care of things, not people," said Saloth. He tightened his grip on his prybar, and some of his comrades did likewise. "That's our job. You're under arrest."
"Run!" said Vasi. It slammed one hand palm-first into Saloth's chest, knocking him back into the others, then sprinted after Adya down the corridor.
They ran three-quarters of a kilometer along the passage until Adya turned left into a radial corridor leading for the edge of the city. Vasi followed, demanding to know where they were going, but Adya didn't answer. The passage ended at another external hatch and membrane.
Adya hit the control interface and then looked back at Saloth leading his team toward herself and Vasi. The Transition Team were less than fifty meters away when the hatch slid open. Adya closed her helmet, grabbed Vasi's arm and jumped through the membrane. They fell into Saturn's atmosphere—
—and landed with a thump on Pelagia's back. With sticky hands and feet the two made their way to Pelagia's dorsal hatch as the ship shifted from hover mode to flight. Once Adya and Vasi were inside Pelagia lit her main engines with a roar and began the long climb toward the rising Sun.
Adya refused to say anything until she had a hot shower and a bowl of noodles. She sat in the control room watching the sky turn black overhead as Pelagia accelerated to orbital velocity.
"Well, at least that is finally over," said Vasi. "Now all we need to do is stop someplace for fuel and then get a laser assist to Uranus. This wild goose chase is done."
Adya slurped up some noodles and then asked casually, "How do you suppose Saloth know where to find us?"
"I certainly can't say, my dear," said Vasi.
"He knew exactly where we were and what we were doing. Almost as if someone told him." She kept looking at the rim of the planet ahead as she spoke, but her skin was crimson.
"Protecting you is my job," said Vasi. "Sometimes that means I must protect you from yourself. That old scrap of paper would have kept you wasting time and energy on this mad project of yours. There is no ancient superweapon. It's a myth."
"I read the page. It was a personal account by a dolphin who knew where the device was hidden. It's real, Vasi. I can find it."
"Nonsense. You're going back to Miranda now. That is what your parents paid for."
"I have a little money of my own—the Oort payload shares Great-Grandmama left me. I can buy my own passage. Pelagia? I wish to change my travel plans. Would you be willing to make a detour to the Dictynna cycler habitat? It is currently in mid-transit between Saturn and Jupiter. There is a library on board I must consult."
"Adya, stop this foolish behavior at once," said Vasi. "You mustn't sell your shares just to go off to some cycler chasing a mirage. Your parents will not approve."
"I can get to Dictynna in seventy-five days," said Pelagia. "Vasi, you can disembark when I stop to refuel at Saturn Low Orbit Four. Get a shuttle to Mimas, and ride a cargo sail to Uranus from there."
"I am not leaving this ship and we are not going to Dictynna."
"Adya's only paying for her own passage," said Pelagia. "Are you buying a ticket? If not, then Low Orbit Four is where you get off. Or my maintenance drones can throw you out the hatch. Pick one option."
"You need me, Adya! Who will look after you?"
At that Adya finally turned to look at Vasi. "I shall have to do it myself," she said, turning a serene green color as she spoke.
Copyright © 2021 by James L. Cambias
This story is set within the universe of upcoming SF novel The Godel Operation. James L. Cambias is a writer and game designer, and the cofounder of Zygote Games. He has been nominated for the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the 2001 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He lives in western Massachusetts.