Chapter 09: Fly by Night

Looking out the porthole, Anna watched the ground grow closer as Vanellope once again piloted the pinnace to a picture perfect landing at Arendelle’s largest airport. She sighed. “I wonder if I’ll have time go hiking.”

“In the snow?” her seatmate said.

“Sure,” she said, giving Flynn a broad grin. “I did it all the time in Iron Fjord. On Sphinx. We’re not like you wimpy Manticorans who do nothing but lounge about in your tropical paradises.”

“Hey!” Flynn said, holding up his hands to ward off the accusation. “That’s fair, I suppose. You’re hard-core, Captain.”

“That’s what Captains are for,” Anna said. She felt a bit guilty leaving Kristoff to command Winterkiss, but someone had to and it was definitely her turn for a little shore leave. She’d been going non-stop for a week, getting Elsa home, getting Buzz’s crew out to Vesselton, conversing with the materials specialists groundside and in orbit.

She worried about Arendelle, and Elsa. Arendelle’s weather was going to undergo a massive reconfiguration, and unfortunately for the colder. With both the space elevator’s heavy lift capability gone and The Vessel’s material contributions to Arendelle’s orbital economy on hold, building new solettas to increase surface temperatures in compensation was going to be much more difficult. Winterkiss could help with personnel but raw materials lift was far beyond her heaviest shuttle’s capabilities, nor was Anna authorized by her orders to help much in that regard.

In the meantime, one-fifth of her crew was on shore leave at any given time, given the freedom to visit Chantel and enjoy the pleasures that Arendelle offered. Anna hadn’t begun to figure out the crediting system, only that one of Queen Elsa’s secretaries had assured her that food, drink, clothes, hoteling and the like were being provided “at the pleasure of the Queen.”

The very phrase made Anna blush inappropriately before she crammed those thoughts down. She had a life to return to, back on Manticore. Of a sort.

“You look like a women engaged in some deep philosophizing, Captain.”

She regarded Flynn Fitzhubert with a half-grin and a shrug. “I guess I am.” She did not want to discuss with him her discomfort with her Manticoran predicament. She definitely did not want to discuss the way she felt whenever she came within line of sight of Queen Elsa. “What do you think of Arendelle, Flynn?”

“A man could get use to it,” Flynn said. “It’s a very luxurious place. Without a real war effort, they’ve had plenty of economic slack to deal with. Some of the efforts here have been wild. The progressive tax rate and the enforced multi-owner liquidity pools are both interesting. Both prevent the hoarding of money, so despite all the free cash floating around the velocity of money is still high enough to prevent recessions.” He shook his head. “There’s no reason Manticore couldn’t be like this. None at all.”

“Are you an economist along with everything else?” She smiled at him. He was very handsome in a relaxed and rakish sort of way that appealed deeply to her, but it was a learned rakishness, as if someone had taught him how to dress. His clothes fit him so well it came off as a kind of costume. She suspected he was the sort who hired a stylist once every five years to pick out a wardrobe for him.

“Oh, no. My PhD. is in materials science, you know, but I’ve always been a generalist. Jack of all trades, master of none. I’m very good at the math, and all these disciplines are math at the heart. I just need to load the terminology into my head with a few textbooks, make the right connections, and figure out who to talk to.” He waved away the question. “If people think you’re speak their language, they’ll give you the answers you’re looking for just like that.” He snapped his fingers gently.

A chime rang out indicating they would be landing soon. Anna checked her and Flynn’s belts. She’d left Olaf on board with Winterkiss. He’d nuzzled her and assured her she needed to get out on her own. She was grateful to him, as she’d have much less trouble being incognito without a treecat on her shoulders.

A taxi cab driven by a member of the palace staff in civilian clothing carried them into Chantel and dropped them off at a street in front of a hotel. Felix had been the only other officer on the shuttle and Anna had hoped he would join them, but he had an appointment at the Queen’s College. The rest of the shuttle’s passengers had been enlisted men and scientists she didn’t know, so that left her with Flynn. He’d been fine company on the flight down. She preferred not to be alone at the moment.

“So,” she said, “Even if you’re not an economist, you seem to understand how it all works. How are we paying for our downtime?”

“We aren’t. We don’t have to. Look, money is how people figure out how to allocate and distribute stuff that an economy is short of. It’s how we reward people for having a scarce something that other people want– skill, savvy, muscle, talent, beauty, whatever. But what if something so abundant it wouldn’t make sense to allocate it?”

“Like what?”

“Like air.” He gestured up the narrow street with its perfectly seamed cobblestones, its colorfully painted storefronts, its artfully snowed-over rooftops. “Or water.” He gestured to the bottle of water she held in her gloved hand. “Or what it takes to create that, or transport it here, or recycle that when you’re done with it. You only have to pay people for the one thing they don’t want to spend: their time. Someone has to be the last check, and the holder of the responsibility, over the automation. Those people get rewarded in what Arendelle calls real money. But that,” he said, pointing to the water bottle, “can be bought with cash. Which isn’t real money.”

“What is real money, then?”

“Money you can buy real estate with. Land. Material capital. Mineral or forest or water rights. The time of other human beings. Oh, and there’s one other kind of money they have here. Interstellar money, which is how they exchange value with Corona over the radio, to negotiate what goes into their starships and what its value will be when it arrives. Because the value of real estate fluctuates at a slow pace– say annually– but the value of interstellar trade is really slow, 22 years slow.”

They walked up the street. Anna took a deep breath and smelled coffee coming from a dark-green shop ahead of them. When they reached it, it looked like a cozy cafe. “Stop here?” she said.

“Anything the lady likes,” Flynn said, making a little bow and gesture toward the door. Anna giggled.

Inside reminded of Anna of every coffee shop she’d ever been in, from the hissing espresso machine that looked like a cross between a chrome grasshopper and a gleaming locomotive, to the tiny tables with men and women reading, writing in notebooks, hammering away at clamshell computers of various sizes, or looking into each other’s eyes with fondness. One couple in the corner was clearly and blatantly into some new stage of romance, unable to keep their hands off each other as they gazed across the table. Anna sighed and turned away. Young love was supposed to feel like that. What wasn’t fair was how love at fifty didn’t feel that way. “Hey,” Flynn said, his voice softening. “You’re fading out. He asked what you want.”

“Oh!” Anna said. “Sorry. Can you make a mocha?” The man behind the counter, an older man with a shock of white hair, nodded. “One, please. With whipped cream. And sprinkles if you’ve got ‘em.”

“Anything for the pretty lady,” the barista said, his accent heavy.

When they had their drinks, Flynn and Anna took a table near the window. Chantel may have been deep into late winter but the streets were remarkably clear of snow. People walked back and forth, a panoply of humanity. Like Manticore, the most common skin color was a simple light brown similar to Anna’s or Flynn’s, the result of generations of genetic averaging. Most of them were heavyset. It made Elsa’s tall, thin, startlingly pale appearance all the more exotic.

Anna shook her head. She had to stop thinking of Elsa. “What do they do all day?” she said to Flynn.

“What did human do before crowding and agriculture made things like fertile real estate and resource hoarding a thing we even cared about? Nap, mostly. Screw a lot. We have books and movies and socializing with a much wider circle than our hundred-or-so tribe-and-family now. Substitutes.”

“Elsa doesn’t seem to get a lot of ‘free time.’“

“No,” Flynn said. “Maybe that’s a price to be paid. Rulers don’t get a break. Which might explain why it’s a kingdom, like Manticore. At least you get to feel important. Unlike old Rob Pierre. ‘President’ doesn’t sound like a job title worth the stress, especially since at the end you go back to being just plain ‘citizen.’ Provided you don’t get shot in the head, like Pierre.” He frowned for a moment. “I heard the Queen invited you to dinner.”

“Oh.” Anna froze for a moment, then waved it away. “That. She wanted to sound me out. Get a feel for how Manticore might approach Arendelle more permanently.”

“I see,” Flynn said, tapping his chin rhythmically with one hand.

“Although I could tell that she’s lonely. It must be really lonely, being Queen and all. Maybe she goes for the handsome scientist type?” Anna eyed Flynn, one eyebrow raised.

“No,” Flynn said firmly. “No, no, no, no, no. No thank you at all. My life is simple and uncomplicated. I’m not going to get involved in anything entailed, Lady Captain DuVar. No baronesses, no duchesses, no countesses, no princesses.”

“But a queen is okay?”

“It didn’t rhyme. Or fit the meter.”

Anna laughed. “That’s a shame. I’m sure you could charm her in no time flat, Flynn Fitzhubert. Just don’t wear those cargo pants if you do.”

“And be somewhere without my gadgets?” Flynn mimed apall.

“You know, Doctor Fitzhubert, for a boffin you’re pretty good company.”

“And for a Lady and a Captain, you are as well,” Flynn admitted. He raised his coffee cup. “To good company.”

“To good company,” Anna replied in kind.

They sat quietly for a moment. The cafe was busy with people coming and going, so Anna hadn’t noticed the tall, intense man when he’d first entered, but now he was making a beeline for their table. He leaned over said softly, “Captain DuVar?”

Anna looked up, startled. “Yes?”

He reached into his pocket. Anna stiffened until she saw it was just a leather billfold. He showed her an identity card. In a very low voice he said, “Her Majesty requests that you have tea with her this afternoon at 1pm.” Anna checked her watch. That was two hours from now, local time. “Would you care to be escorted?”

“No, thank you.” The man looked startled. “It’s not that far,” she said. “I’ll walk.”

He smiled. “As you wish.” In a louder voice he said, “My apologies. I seem to have mistaken you for someone else. Good day, sir. And you, madam.” With a much more relaxed look, he turned and left.

“Well, that was certainly odd,” Flynn said. “Professionally odd but still, odd.”

“Yeah, but–” Anna took a deep breath. “Time for me to go. I’ll catch up when we’re done.”

“I’ll be around.” He made a broad gesture toward the window. “It’s a lovely city.”

Anna rose, walked out of the cafe, and made her way toward the waterfront. It didn’t seem as if anyone was following her. She’d heard the harrowing tales of how the Admiral had been stalked by one of her enemies, complete with an actual assassination attempt in a crowded restaurant, and now wondered if Elsa’s enemies, of which there were more than a few on Arendelle, might try to kill her as an indirect attack on the royal family. The palace officer may have been legitimate, but Anna had no idea what an official palace ID card looked like.

The city seemed safe. Arendelle felt safe. Arendelle would recover from the loss of the Elevator; already, the manufactories in orbit were spinning out the first lengths of cable, no thicker than her thumb, to be stretched from Midpoint outward in both directions, toward the new Anchor and toward the ground. Anna hoped Arendelle stayed safe. It deserved it. Elsa deserved it.