Table of Contents

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1 * Chapter 2 * Chapter 3 * Chapter 4 * Chapter 5 * Chapter 6 * Chapter 7 * Chapter 8 * Chapter 9 * Chapter 10 * Chapter 11 * Chapter 12 * Chapter 13 * Chapter 14 * Chapter 15 * Chapter 16 * Chapter 17 * Chapter 18

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Update on print copies, etc.

Dear readers (well, donors, mostly): I have a novel deadline on April 1 which has eaten my life, but after that’s done, my first priority will be getting the print copies of The Nex ready and in the mail, so that should happen within the next three or four weeks. Apologies for the delay. I’ve had a perfect storm of busy-ness this year. The chapbook should follow shortly; I know the story I’m going to write, and just need the time to get it written.

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Note for Donors

For those who donated to The Nex: The prizes are coming. It might be a couple of months, because I’m slammed with deadline-intensive projects just now, but I’m working on the chapbook story and the print version of the novel, so they’ll be along. Thanks for your support, and for your patience!

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Chapter 18

I landed in the backyard, for safety’s sake. There was a lot of yelling coming from the house. Cal was in the driveway, leaning on the side of his car. I walked over to him. “So,” I said. “I guess they had the big reunion. What’d I miss?”

“Well, Mom’s boyfriend was over, and when Dad found out he and Mom were together, the two of them almost got into a fistfight.”

I groaned. “I was wondering how that first meeting would go.”

“Ross took off, said he knew we all had a lot to talk about, but really he was just scared of getting the crap beaten out of him. I mean, Dad’s got fifty pounds on the guy.”

“Jeez. I didn’t even… All I could think about was getting Dad home, you know? I didn’t think about how crazy it would make everything afterward.”

Cal laughed. “Nobody ever said happy endings were easy, Randy. Mom is grilling Dad like a steak in there. You should go take some of the heat off him.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “I’m pretty sure you’re going to be grounded until after college graduation. Maybe longer when Mom sees your haircut.”

#

Two days later things were just as complicated, but we’d done the tearful reunion thing and Dad cooked us all a huge meal – Mom’s boyfriend was there too, which was awkward, but whatever. I was totally grounded – even though I’d brought Dad home, I wasn’t off the hook for being AWOL for the best part of a week – but late one night I jumped back to Nexington-on-Axis. The palace was barely recognizable, just a dome of faintly-glowing stone without so much as a window or a door. The Queen had been serious about closing the place off to outsiders, and I guess the palace was happy to go along with her wishes.

Howlaa and Wisp had set up their government in the saloon, and I found them there, at a big table surrounded by lizard-people and Nagalinda and humans and cyborgs, everybody arguing, with Wisp floating in the middle and translating. Various bummed-out Mablings sat around the bar drinking, their whole worldview turned over when their mistress ran away.

“The hero of the revolution!” Howlaa called, and everyone cheered, which was pretty freaky – I haven’t gotten that much applause since I won the third-grade spelling bee at the county fair. People slapped me on the back and shoved drinks into my hands, which I mostly put back down again, because the last thing I needed was Mom realizing I had a hangover in the morning. She didn’t know I was technically un-ground-able, and I liked it that way.

Howlaa shooed everybody off, and he and Wisp took me into a curtained-off private booth. “So how’re things going?” I asked.

“Chaotic,” Wisp said. “But the Queen says repairs on the snatch-engines are coming along nicely, and she’s willing to allot us one-sixteenth of her children’s time to import the things we need. Once we have your jump-engine, we won’t be as dependent on the Queen, which I think will suit all of us better. I wonder if the Regent was trying to develop independence from the royal family all along?”

“Probably trying to make it so he could kill all of them,” Howlaa said. “Don’t give him too much credit.” She sighed. “You know, Randy, I thought once word got out that we could send people away, this place would become a ghost town, but enough people want to stay that we’ll definitely need a real system of government. Though for now the government of, ‘Because I said so and I can beat you all up’ seems to be working.”

“Generally speaking, second and third-generation Nexingtons have no desire to repatriate to their ancestral homes,” Wisp said. “You have no idea what you’ve gotten us into, Miranda. Putting the Nex back on track, emptying the prison camps, creating some sort of reasonable governmental structure – it’s a huge undertaking.”

“Nobody ever said happy endings were easy,” I said, and didn’t bother crediting the line to Cal. “Has Templeton figured out how to get this ring off me yet?”

“Let’s go see,” Howlaa said.

Templeton’s lab was more machine shop than operating room, all greasy tables and rattly shelves heaped with a mini-Machine Waste’s worth of junk. “Miranda!” he called. A lot of his body was gleaming with gold fittings now; he’d spent some time doing incredibly tacky upgrades. “Come here, sit down.” I took a chair at a table heaped with schematics and wire and weirdly-shaped tools that seemed to curve out of this dimension and into another. Templeton sat across from me, took my hand in his, and leaned over, putting his mouth-grille half an inch from my knuckle. A lens came telescoping out of his face, and then one of the ends of his fingers split up into a dozen hair-thin micro-manipulators and began tugging and twisting at the ring. “Turn your face away,” he said, just in time for me to get nearly blinded by a flash of purple light. The ring began to hum and twist and heat up on my hand, and I tried to pull away, but Templeton grabbed my wrist with his other metal hand, and a noise like a dentist’s drill rose from the ring.

“If you hurt her, I’ll break you down for scrap,” Howlaa said, stepping forward.

The drilling sound stopped. Templeton sat up. “There, it’s done. It can be taken on and off, though I wouldn’t do it too often in rapid succession. The ring, please?”

I touched the ring, which felt tight but not super tight, and slid it off, holding it in the palm of my hand. I passed it over – but to Howlaa, not Templeton. Howlaa couldn’t use it herself, but I doubted Templeton would be her choice for official Ringbearer for the new government.

“Do you feel any different, Miranda?” Wisp said.

“I don’t know.” I tried to jump across the room. Nothing, not so much as a twitched mental muscle. My jumping days were over. I sighed. “I’m really going to miss that thing. You know somebody who can use that ring to send me home?”

“Merrill will,” Howlaa said. “He won’t do as a permanent ringbearer – too unreliable – but he’s delighted you sent the Regent to his own oppressive Earthly home, and he doesn’t want to leave the Nex, so we can trust him to wear it for a few moments.”

“I guess… that’ll be goodbye, then,” I said. “I feel like I’ve known you two forever. I’m going to miss you a lot.”

“You’ve literally changed our world, Miranda,” Wisp said. “We can’t thank you enough.”

“You showed me it’s possible to kick ass with your brain,” Howlaa said. “We’re going to miss you, too.”

“Vomiting imminent,” Templeton said.

#

So they sent me home.

#

About a month after I left the Nex for the last time, life had settled down, but wasn’t exactly what you’d call normal. Mom and her boyfriend were “on hold” while she tried to “figure some stuff out,” which was annoying, because I’d figured they’d insta-break-up once Mom found out she wasn’t a widow. But, like Cal said: not easy.

Dad had finally convinced the government he was still alive, and he was working at a restaurant and living with us, though he and Mom weren’t sharing a bedroom or anything. She kept poking holes in his amnesia story, no matter how much Cal and I tried to cover for him, and she was convinced he’d walked out on us and only come back out of guilt or desperation. She went back and forth on whether I was his accomplice or if he was lying to me, too. I knew we were going to have to tell Mom the real truth sometime, but the problem was, I didn’t have a jump-engine anymore to prove any of the crazy story to her. Which made things kind of difficult.

I was still mostly grounded, but Mom had started letting me go to the library to do some studying, which was how I got some time alone with my friend Jenny Kay at last. I wanted to tell her all about Nexington-on-Axis, but knew she’d never buy it without proof. She’s an Occam’s Razor kind of girl, and she’d just assume I was crazy if I didn’t have any evidence to the contrary. So I just fed her the story about seeing Dad on the street and trying to track him down, and she seemed satisfied with that, though I wasn’t thrilled with lying to my best friend.

I was in the library with Jenny Kay when Howlaa Moor strolled in – along with the blonde Underdweller who’d punched me in the nose. She wore a golden ring on her finger, and a green dress, and her face tattoos were gone, and she’d even had a bath in the recent past. Howlaa wore a long trenchcoat made of shadowcloth.

“Randy,” Howlaa said, too loud, but she doesn’t really know how libraries work, probably. “Your father said I’d find you here.”

“Who’s this?” Jenny’s voice was a little sharp but mostly curious, because she’s full of the curious.

“Jenny, this is my friend Howlaa.”

“Interesting name,” she said. “Where do you know Randy from?”

“My reputation doesn’t precede me?” Howlaa said. “Randy, I’m hurt. You haven’t told –”

I made cutting-my-throat gestures and Howlaa shut up. “Ah, right. Well. Nice to meet you, the famous Jenny. I’ve heard of you. And Miranda, you remember our friend Ermintrude? We call her Trudy.”

“Guten tag,” the Underdweller said, looking around the library like she expected to be attacked by books at any moment.

“I guess she’s, ah, mellowed a little since we last met?” I said.

“She’s the god-worm’s ambassador to the city center,” Howlaa said. “We worked out our differences, and she’s got a wide streak of loyalty, so she’s the perfect ringmaiden.”

“Are you all talking in some sort of code?” Jenny Kay said, not quite patiently.

“I won’t keep you,” Howlaa said. “I just wanted to give you… this.” She set a small silver ring on the table in front of me, where it clicked gently against the wood. “First new one we’ve made, and everyone agreed, you should be the one to have it. Wisp sends his whiny love – he wanted to be here in person, but figured he’d be too conspicuous. A votre san, Miranda. Come see us sometime.” She turned on her heel and strode out of the library, and Trudy sighed a long-suffering sigh and went after her. I could see how being Howlaa’s chauffeur would get old.

“What on Earth was all that about?” Jenny Kay said.

“Nothing on Earth.” I picked up the silver ring, and slipped it onto my index finger. It tightened a little and tingled. I took Jenny Kay’s hand. “Nothing on Earth at all.” I looked around, and we were unobserved, nobody in our little corner of the library.

I had two hours before I had to be home. Plenty of space and time.

“Come on, Jenny,” I said. “I’ve got something you’ll have to see to believe.”

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Chapter 17

I jumped to the Mab’s warehouse at the appointed time, and everything was just like she promised, two rows of Mablings in winged unitards lined up on either side of a path leading to the Mab’s throne. I walked between the silent rows of four dozen girls, then knelt before the Mab, which wasn’t fun, but it was part of the deal. “My lady,” I said. “I thank you for your boon.”

“Arise, daughter.” The Mab snapped her fingers. A couple of attendants came and helped me out of my clothes, then dressed me in fresh Mabling-wear – my old outfit was too bedraggled, and I needed to look just like all the others.

“You ready?” I said, and the row of Mablings shouted “Ready!” They all held out their hands. I took a breath, then ran down the path with my own hands out, slapping the palms of every girl on either side as I ran. With each slap, the girls I touched disappeared, and when I reached the end of the line and sent the last one away, the Mab approached me.

“Ready to go home?” I said.

“You should come with me, Miranda.” She smiled, and her face lit up like it was glowing from the inside, her hard angles softening, her eyes becoming deep and gentle. She touched my cheek, and I let myself lean into her, remembering things I couldn’t possibly remember, moments when I was just a tiny baby held in my Dad’s arms, utterly safe and protected and loved. The Mab kept speaking, soft murmurings: “I will take you into my home, a palace of woven grass and smoke, and you will rule there by my side, a princess, honored, adored, appreciated, finally truly appreciated for all you have to offer, an end to fighting and striving, an eternity of comfort and joy…” I closed my eyes and breathed in, the scent of her all sweetly comforting and familiar, like the kitchen when my Dad embarked on a grand culinary experiment, all spices and warmth…

Then the little mote in my ear began to speak – to translate – and I heard what the Mab was really saying:

“Eat you, I’ll eat you and take your ring, that pretty ring will be mine, I’ll make your fingerbones into a necklace, I’ll tear you –”

She’d almost bewitched me, enchanted me, ensorcelled me, wrapped me up in her mists and shadows. Thank goodness for that little piece of Wisp in my ear, or I would’ve been lost. I slapped her hands away, then reached out and shoved her in the chest.

In the instant before I sent her back to the land of mist and mirrors, her illusion dropped. Her true form was like a spiderweb wet with morning dew, twisting and wriggling, and when she disappeared, my hand came away damp. I wiped whatever it was – sweat, slime, substance? – off on one of my wings, counted to ten to calm myself down a bit, and then jumped.

I landed in total chaos, which was exactly what I wanted. We were in one of the orbital palaces, in the room where Howlaa was being held and experimented upon, and the Mablings were totally wrecking up the place. The doctors fled into a hallway, pursued by hooting Mablings who lashed them with wooden switches decorated like wands. A handful of other girls smashed the surveillance cameras and overturned cabinets. Some of them dropped to the floor, tasered or tranquilized by automated defenses prepared for me, but I was untouched – just one of the multitude.

I went to Howlaa, and she pulled herself together into the female form I’d first seen her in. She looked around wildly – I was close to her, but there were ten other girls just as close – and I didn’t do anything to call attention to myself. I just touched her wrist, and jumped us out of there. I thought the Mablings would be okay, mostly – the Regent would have bigger things to worry about soon, and a horde of unruly girls in fairy costumes would be the least of it. I was still worried and guilty, though, because some of them had already been knocked unconscious, and others might end up in even worse shape.

Howlaa and I landed in Merrill’s basement, and Merrill himself nodded at us lazily. “We’re thoroughly shielded down here. No way we’re under surveillance.”

Howlaa shook her head. “Randy, what did you do?”

“I started a revolution,” I said. “I have to go get Wisp now.” I bounced back to the orbital palace, which was still ringing with chaos and shouting, and found Wisp in his glass bubble in an empty room; I guess there was no fun or glory in vivisecting a ball of gnat-sized particles. I touched the glass ball, and sent it away (dropping it in the middle of the snatch-engines, and hoping it would hit a royal orphan on the head). Wisp fuzzed and wobbled and said “Miranda?” The mote in my ear slid out and zipped back to the main body. “I’ve been able to hear you all this time, with the particle in your ear, though I was unable to communicate. This plan of yours – it’s extraordinary.”

“Good, then you can explain it to Howlaa, because I won’t have time. Come on, in you go.” I opened my mouth, and Wisp flew in, avoiding going up my nostrils this time, which was good, since that tickled. I jumped back to Merrill’s basement, and Wisp came streaming out again.

“Looks like you’re the new boss, Randy,” Howlaa said. “What do I do?”

“Just sit tight,” I said. “Everything’s under control, and you’ll be safe here –”

“We don’t care about safe,” Wisp said. “We want to be involved.”

I looked at Merrill, who shrugged – he’d put together the safehouse, so his part of the bargain was over. It wasn’t his fault if the fugitives didn’t want to lay low. “But, guys, what you’ve been through, are you sure you want –”

“I have only been through boredom, and worry,” Wisp said. “And Howlaa’s profession has exposed her to more than a little in the way of torture.”

“I find that getting nasty revenge helps my healing process,” Howlaa said.

“Okay, then. You can come with me to get my Dad.”

“Just to be safe,” Howlaa said, and transformed into the Rendigo.

#

We jumped, and once again, Howlaa caught a projectile meant for me – but this time it was a bullet, not a tranquilizer. There were three Nagalinda guards armed with handguns. No fancy ray guns here, just big pistols. My Dad was tied up facedown on the bed, and he screamed when the guns fired – it must be even scarier to hear gunshots when you can’t see what’s going on.

Howlaa shrugged off the bullets and swatted the guards aside, knocking them down and unconscious. She transformed into her human form again. “Move fast, Randy, we’ll have more company soon.”

I untied my Dad’s hands, and he rolled over on the narrow bed. Up close he looked older than I remembered, a little fatter, and his eyes were shadowed, but he still smelled like my Dad, like herbs and baking bread, and I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him tighter than I had since I was a little kid.

“Who – what – Miranda?” he whispered. “Is that you?”

I realized I was still in the Mabling outfit, which wasn’t exactly my usual fashion, and there was the purple hair too, so I said, “Yes, it’s me, I’m here, I’m going to take you home.”

“Home? But what – but how –”

Randy,” Howlaa growled, and I nodded.

“Okay,” I said. “Meet me in the audience chamber later, guys?”

I grabbed my Dad’s hand, and we jumped.

We landed in the treehouse behind our house, where Cal sat staring through a square window cut out from the plywood. Dad built that treehouse when we were little kids.

“Holy shit and fuck me sideways,” Cal said.

“Language, Cal,” Dad said, and then we were all silent for a moment, until Dad started laughing and crying all at once and Cal threw his arms around him in an embrace that was almost like a wrestling move, it had so much back-slapping and bear-hugging.

I kissed Dad’s stubbly cheek and said, “Welcome home.”

“I can’t believe you were telling the truth,” Cal said. “Dad, were you really in this other world?”

“I was. Sometimes I thought it was a nightmare, but it was real.”

“Maybe we should come up with a simpler story to tell Mom,” I said. “Like maybe the explosion gave you amnesia, you’ve been wandering around working odd jobs, I saw you a few days ago and I spent the past few days tracking you down. Something like that? We can tell her the truth later if you want, but for now… I think just seeing you is going to be enough for one night.”

“I guess you’re right,” Dad said. “But Miranda – how? How did you get there? How did you find me? How did you bring me back?”

“Cal will explain.”

“I barely understand it myself. I thought it was total bullshit!” Cal winced at his own curse word. “Sorry, Dad. You explain it, Miranda.”

“I would. But I don’t think I’m going to be here much –”

And then I got snatched up and stolen away.

#

The Regent paced up and down in a long observation room, with big windows looking down on the tops of the snatch-engines, all crackling with strange lightning. “You,” he said. “You think you’ve accomplished anything? Fomenting a little unrest in the provinces? Bah. I’ve heard reports of a god-worm, of all things, laying waste to my forces, but I assume that’s just Howlaa in some oversized snakelike form. As for loosing a couple of prisoners? It’s trivial, Miranda. You’re just a child playing at revolution. I’m tuning the engines now to snatch up your father, your brother, your mother, your mother’s boyfriend, your friend Jenny, maybe your whole town, and I’ll drop it in the middle of the Landlock Sea and let them all drown if you don’t –”

“Shushit,” I said, putting a finger to my lips. “It’s going to happen soon. Is the sun turned off yet?”

“What? I don’t think you understand the enormity of –”

The whole palace shook, and the upper floors of the palace were torn away, rubble showering down, exposing us to the just-darkened sky above. I felt bad about this part, too – the palace was a living thing, after all, and it had helped me – but it was temporary damage to provide greater freedom, and the Queen said the palace would heal just fine in time. Most of the parts inhabited by the Regent were dead flesh anyway.

The steam colossus leaned down, put its complex face into the hole above us, and regarded the shocked Regent.

“HELLO, GERALD,” it said. “I REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT OUR WORKING RELATIONSHIP HAS COME TO AN END.”

Then it punched the snatch-engines to pieces with one house-sized fist. Royal orphans went scurrying up the steam colossus’s arm, but it flicked them away and then strode off.

“Let’s go see the Queen,” I said, and grabbed the Regent’s arm.

#

>Abdication and exile are your only options,< the Queen said. >Unless you’d like Miranda to send you to deep space? My children will be unable to save you now that the engines have been disabled, and even your formidable personal physical protections will not keep you from going mad alone in the cold and the dark.<

“I recognize the position I’m in,” the Regent said, staring downward.

“I gave you a chance,” I said. “It didn’t have to be this way.”

He laughed and shook his head. “You have no idea what you’ve done, Miranda. This beast, this monster, this entity we call the Queen could not be less interested in the lives of humans or any other sentients here. They will all die in starvation and squalor in the wake of her neglect. You’re a fool.”

>I will not attempt to rule the inhabitants of this place.<

“Oh, anarchy then, that’s wonderful.”

“Not anarchy, either,” I said. “Just a change in leadership.”

#

I watched as the Regent unlocked the Queen’s complex chains, and then I walked with him up a sloping corridor toward his audience chamber. “She’ll execute me,” he said. “You must know that.”

“I thought she was utterly indifferent to humans?”

“I’m a special human.”

“No execution. I’ll give you a ticket off this rock. Or asteroid. Or plane. A one-way ticket.”

“You’d set me free? To plot my plots and plan my plans? I don’t object, but it’s not very smart.”

“Please. We both know that, without the orphans to steal extra years for you, you’re not going to live forever anymore.”

“True enough. I wonder if France is much like I left her…”

“Oh, you don’t get to choose where I send you. And there’s no way I’m sending you to France – at least not the France on the Earth where I’m from. I’m not sharing a planet with you. But I’ll send you someplace with an atmosphere you can breathe and food you can eat, fear not.”

“Oh, the cruelty of the young. I civilized this place. I made it into a city-state, when it was just horror and wilderness. And you come along and –”

“Whatever,” I said. “You brought this on yourself. Like I said. I gave you a chance to do the right thing.”

We reached the ruined base of the snatch-engines, where dozens of royal orphans – newly un-orphaned – were scurrying about trying to repair the considerable damage the steam colossus had done. The Regent whistled, and the native children of Nexington-on-Axis lifted their heads and antennae and sensory structures.

“My darlings,” he said. “My boys and girls and otherwise, I have great news for you. Your mother, long thought dead, has awakened from her slumber, and she is alive. She cannot wait to see you.” He glanced at me. “That little speech was for your benefit, by the way. I communicate with them telepathically.”

The princes and princesses (and otherwise) of Nexington-on-Axis streamed past us, their hatred of me apparently forgotten in the news that their dead parent was actually alive. I could understand that.

“I suppose that’s it for me, then,” he said.

“I’m guessing you regret ever creating this thing, huh?” I held out my hand and admired the golden ring.

“It was, in retrospect, not my savviest move.”

“Live and learn,” I said. Then I punched him in the chest and made him disappear.

#

I just wanted to go home, but I had too much else to do first. I found Howlaa and Wisp waiting for me in the audience chamber, and Howlaa picked me up in a giant hug. “You!” she shouted. “You are the least worthless human I’ve ever met!”

“I’ve got a question for you two,” I said. “Now that the Regent’s gone… are you still so desperate to leave Nexington-on-Axis?”

“It does seem more hospitable now,” Wisp said.

“Even smells better,” Howlaa agreed.

“Good. Because you guys are in charge of the place.”

I’d never seen Howlaa look afraid before. It looked pretty funny. “Miranda, I’m the worst choice,” she said.

“I concur,” Wisp said.

“Too bad. The Queen has spoken, and she’s giving authority over all the sentient denizens of Nexington-on-Axis – excluding her family – to you. Except for the Machine Waste, which will belong to second-generation steam colossi. And some of the provinces, which are now an autonomous zone run by the god-worm.”

Howlaa gaped.

“Yeah,” I said. “I wanted some big distractions to keep the Regent off balance during the jailbreak, so I got the last Underdweller to wake up her god and start raising hell in the outskirts. Well, it was the Queen’s idea, but I did all the talking.”

“A god-worm. I’ll have to get out there and taste its blood,” Howlaa said. “But Randy, really, we’re lousy choices. You, though – you could be queen. We’ll get you a crown and everything. Tiara. Thing.”

“As if. I’m going home to spend some time with my Dad. Besides, you’ll have help. And once I figure out how to get this ring off my finger – and you find out who you want to wear it after me – you’ll have the power of the jump-engine, and this place won’t be a prison anymore. Should be a much nicer place to rule. Besides, you don’t have to run the place like the Regent did. Maybe let people vote for their own leaders. I’ll loan you my civics textbook so you can see how it’s done.”

“Well, Wisp, you promised me freedom, and instead I’ve got another job,” Howlaa said.

“This one will involve rather less brutal violence, at least,” Wisp said.

“Exactly. There’s no upside. It’s all bad news.”

“You will have access to the fullness of the Regent’s wine cellar, however. And his beer cellar. And his bar.”

“There’s a ray of light after all,” Howlaa said.

I yawned. No time to rest, though. “I’ll give you guys a little while to process your thoughts and feelings or whatever. I’ve got some business to do.”

#

“AH, MIRANDA.” The steam colossus was sitting – who knew it could sit? – on a hill overlooking an algae-slick green sea, part of a nature preserve not far from the city center. Its footsteps had destroyed large chunks of that nature, and its smoke was already making the air stink. I sat on a rock next to one of its many knees. “I WILL NOT MISS THIS PLACE AT ALL.”

“What will you do when you get back to outer space?” I asked, wondering just what exactly I was setting loose in the universe.

“I WILL COMPLETE MY ORIGINAL MISSION. IF YOU ARE VERY LUCKY, YOU WILL NEVER FIND OUT WHAT THAT MISSION WAS.”

“Cryptic it is, then. I appreciate your help.”

“IT WAS NOT HELP. IT WAS A TRANSACTION.”

“Okay. Nice doing business with you.”

His sensor array swiveled. “YES. I SUPPOSE IT WAS. I WISH TO GO NOW.”

I touched a tiny part of its warm metal knee, and the ring on my finger tightened and hummed – I guess moving something that big took more effort than usual – and the steam colossus vanished. I squeezed my eyes shut in a sudden gust of wind, air rushing to fill the void where the giant space-monster had been.

I couldn’t help but feel like I’d just made Nexington-on-Axis a better place. Again. I was on a roll.

#

Next I went to visit Templeton, who was staring out his window.

“You did it,” he said. “I can’t believe it. The Regent is gone, the Queen is alive, she’s making pronouncements about Howlaa and Wisp taking over in the Regent’s place, she’s sealing off the palace, people are either rioting or celebrating in the streets, I can’t tell which… I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it. The Regent is gone, gone, gone.”

“Where did you send him?”

“To a version of Earth governed by the Cog Lords. The Queen told me the coordinates. We’ll see how he likes living under a dictatorship. Now, can you get this ring off me?”

“It was never meant to be permanently bound to one individual,” Templeton said. “Howlaa and Wisp just stole an unfinished prototype. I’m sure there are plans in the lab to finish the device. Now that I can walk out of this room without imploding, I’ll get right on it. Come see me in the lab in a couple of days.” His servos whirred in a moment’s silence, then he said, “You did good, Miranda.”

“Coming from you, I’ll try not to take that as an insult.” I jumped home.

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Chapter 16

So then I did the rest of my visitations.

First, I put on my Minion of Mab outfit again, even though it was bedraggled and the wings were droopy, and jumped where the Queen told me — to Fairyland-on-Axis. Apparently it had started life as a warehouse, but the Mablings had turned it into a pretty awesome place. The minions had hauled in tons of dirt and planted trees and bushes and flowers, creating an indoor forest, filled with trees hung with gauzy colorful streamers, mushrooms so huge and perfectly round they looked fake, and even artificial waterfalls. I blended in well enough to walk among the diligent Mablings, who were up on ladders cleaning skylights, on the ground digging in flowerbeds, and up in branches hanging tinkling crystal ornaments. The place was a hippie’s dream, and after a little walking I found the white canvas tent where the Mab reigned over her flock. There were Mablings kneeling and bowing all around the open-sided tent, and I stepped around and over them until I got a look at the Mab herself.

She was model-beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed, and dressed all in green, in a low-cut outfit that looked made of living leaves. Her wings were huge, filling the tent, prismatic like a dragonfly’s, and her expression was super bored.

“Hey, lady,” I said. “You and me need to talk in private.”

She stared at me, flicked her fingers, and a couple of the Mablings kneeling at her feet stood up. They were holding pointy swords, fencing foils I guess, and they came at me from either side.

I reached into my bag and pulled out the flower the Queen had sent me to retrieve from the land of mist and mirrors – a green and grassy place full of fog and distant howlings. The flower had red and yellow and blue petals arrayed around a black center, and when she saw it, the Mab gasped. “Out, all of you out, and close the tent!” she shouted, standing up from her throne of branches and water-smoothed rocks.

The Mablings were nothing if not obedient, and they hustled out, pulling ropes to let the sides of the tent fall down as they left. Soon it was just me and the Mab in her torchlit audience chamber, and she rushed at me, snatching the flower from my hand and shoving it into her mouth, chewing it seriously and slowly with her eyes closed, finally shuddering as she swallowed the last gulp. “Years,” she murmured. “It’s been years… Did the snatch-engines bring it? Do you have more?”

“I can get more,” I said. “But wouldn’t you rather go back to the source? Head back home?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Fairyland is forever closed to me.”

I shook my head. “You and I both know I didn’t get that flower from Fairlyand, lady. And we both know you aren’t a lady. You might fool these girls, but not me. I’ll be right back.”

I jumped to the land of mist and mirrors. I couldn’t see two feet in front of me from the thick fog, the air stank of something harsh and astringent, and the noises were terrible but, fortunately, distant. A patch of the weird flowers grew at my feet, and I plucked another before jumping back.

“Here you go,” I said, holding it out, and the Mab grabbed it and did the whole closed-eye-devouring thing again. I talked while she ate. “I can get there, and I can take you there… unless you’d rather stay here?”

“If I never see another human girl in wings, it will be too soon,” the Mab said. “But I assume you don’t offer me this escape as a kindness?”

“No. I need a favor first. And it’s kind of a weird one…”

#

I went to see Clan Kil’howlaa next, which wasn’t originally part of my plan, but the Queen said it would be a good idea. I was like, “But there’s only one of them left, and she speaks German.”

>You still have a mote of the Bodiless in your ear,< she said. >Use it.<

So that’s how I came to be in a tunnel in the dark next to a statue of a horse made of poo, holding a single mote of my friend Wisp’s cloud in the palm of my hand. I wished the mote could allow me to talk to Wisp, but he was too far away, or something – there was still a connection, and the mote would still translate for me, but communication with the rest of him wasn’t possible.

“English to German, and German to English, okay?” The mote just sort of floated there, not quite touching my palm, like it was subtly repulsed by my physical body. I had no idea if this would work or not. I cleared my throat. “Hey!” I yelled, and the mote in my hand shouted “Achtung!”

The new head of Clan Kil’howlaa emerged, and I spoke to her quickly before she could try to stab me, told her I wasn’t working with Wisp and Howlaa anymore, and that I wanted to overthrow the Regent. She was pretty cool about it. The Regent was the one she really hated, since he was the one who’d sent Howlaa to the caves to do all those horrible things originally… and, she assumed, this last time, too. I didn’t bother to correct her. I felt bad being deceitful, but not too bad, since she had punched me in the nose.

“But what can I do?” she asked. “My family is dead, my people gone… how can I help?”

“The god-worms,” I said. “You believe one is still alive, right?”

“So I was taught. Deep, asleep, in hibernation, far below ground.”

That’s what the Queen had told me – most of the god-worms had died in the inhospitable atmosphere of Nexington-on-Axis, but one had crawled into the depths, collapsed the tunnel after it, slowed its metabolism, and gone to sleep. “Can you wake it up?” I asked.

“There is a ritual,” she said doubtfully. “It requires all the voices of all the clans speaking as one, which was never possible before, as many were loath to trouble the god… but I am the last of us. Only my voice remains. Perhaps I would be sufficient.”

“Then do it. When the Regent is gone, you won’t have to live in these tunnels anymore.” Seeing the look on her face, I said, “Unless you want to. But no one will try to kill you anymore. At least, nobody from the government. Okay?”

“What should I say to the god, if it deigns to hear me?” She trembled a little, freaked out by the idea of talking to her god.

I hoped the god-worm would answer, though I worried the “ritual” was just wishful thinking. The god-worm’s presence wasn’t strictly necessary, but it would really help. “Here’s what you say,” I began.

#

I jumped to Merrill’s creepy farmhouse, right to the midst of his inner sanctum, since Howlaa said he liked to booby-trap the place in case of visitors from the Regent. Merrill was asleep in a recliner with a newspaper written in Greek or something open across his chest. At least, I thought he was asleep until I noticed the nose of the shotgun pointing at me from under the newspaper. I held up my hands. “I come in peace.”

He grunted. “You were here with Howlaa. How’d you get in without triggering my alarms?”

“I’m good at getting in and out of places.” I jumped right behind him, leaning over the chair and grinning down into his shocked face. His breath smelled like rubbing alcohol and moldy peaches, so I didn’t stay that close for long. “I can get you out of this place, too.”

“Oh yeah? What makes you think I want to go anywhere?”

“I’m talking about sending you home. Back to Earth.”

He snorted. “The Earth I come from isn’t a place you’d want to go back to, kid. I don’t think it’s the same one you’re from, unless you were indentured as a duct-cleaner to the Cog Lords? I spent all my days servicing the machinery of our clockwork masters. Being enslaved to a human like the Regent is actually a step up.”

“So if you could go anywhere, where would you want to go?”

“Back to my apartment in the city center would be nice, with my old security clearances and access to all the equipment I could use, so I don’t have to make do with the crap they left me out here in the hinterlands. I swear, you try to make a little extra money on the side peddling redundant extra parts to the cyborg community and the reaction is all out of proportion –”

“Look, I can guarantee you all that stuff, okay?”

He wasn’t pointing the shotgun directly at me anymore, but he definitely wasn’t thrilled with my company either. “How exactly are you planning to do that, little miss fugitive? I’d be better off turning you in to the Regent in exchange for the restoration of some privileges.”

“That would be harder than you think.” I explained about the jump-engine, which required yet another demonstration of its powers. At least jumping to the city center and bringing him back a scone from the café he loved best gave me a chance to grab a cup of fancy coffee too, though I had to barter the water-purifying tablets from my emergency go-bag.

“To topple the Regent,” he said, between bites of scone. “It’s crazy, but so was his rise to power. What do you want from me? I can’t go far without the Regent noticing – I can limit his surveillance here, but I’m pretty well boxed in.”

“I just need you to provide a safe haven for some mutual friends.”

#

I jumped back to the city center, this time to room 112 at the saloon, where Templeton was in bed being serviced by a geargirl with multiple robotic arms, wearing smoked-glass goggles and greasy overalls. She was working on one of the servos in his knees with a little welding torch. Neither noticed me at first, so I cleared my throat. She stood, turned up the flame on her torch, and stepped toward me, pincer-ended arms fanning out in a scary array.

“It’s all right.” Templeton propped himself up in the bed, which had to be reinforced with metal or something to hold his weight. “She’s a friend of an acquaintance.”

The geargirl shrugged, turned off the torch, and stepped out into the hallway.

“The rumor is Howlaa got snatched at a restaurant not far from here. Guess you got away? Not surprising. You’d have to be the world’s biggest idiot to get caught using the snatch-engine.”

“I’m going to set Howlaa free, too.”

“That’s just the kind of thinking that’ll get you captured. Not that I care. The inside of this room looks the same to me whether you’re free or not.”

“I’m going to stop the Regent,” I said. “I have a plan.”

“The plan of a thirteen-year-old girl with more power than sense? I’m sure it’s wonderful.”

I almost blurted out that it wasn’t just my plan, but also the Queen’s… except I didn’t really trust Templeton. I figured he’d sell me out at the first opportunity if he thought it would help him. I got to the point. “I’m not asking you to do anything, not yet. But if things work out, and we do knock the Regent off his throne, I’ll need your help with the jump-engine.”

“Is it malfunctioning?”

“No, but… I’d like to be able to take it off. Preferably without dying in the process.”

“Power over all of space doesn’t appeal to you? You’re a weird girl, Miranda.”

“I didn’t say I don’t want it. I do, believe me. Even if my life ever goes back to normal, the ability to go places in an instant… it’s pretty appealing. But I’ve got other priorities.”

“Whatever.” Templeton waved his hand at me. “If you defeat the Regent and get me out from under house arrest, sure, I’ll help you with the ring. And if magical ponies come running down the street, I’ll save one for you. And if I start to crap gold nuggets, I’ll put aside a few for your college fund. And if I vomit rose petals, I’ll –”

“Asshole,” I said, and jumped away.

#

I landed in my bedroom. It was morning on a workday, and Mom usually left before dawn, so I made a calculated bet she wouldn’t still be in my bed. She wasn’t – I had the room to myself. I looked out my window, and Cal was just getting into his car in the driveway. Perfect. I waited for him to shut the door and put on his seatbelt, then jumped – I didn’t want to startle him while he was driving.

I appeared in his passenger seat. “Hey, Cal.”

He startled and banged his head against the roof of the car. I tried not to smirk. “Jesus, Miranda, what the hell – where did you come from?”

“I need you to do something for me, Cal. Only not really for me. For Dad.”

His eyes narrowed. “Don’t start that shit with me, Miranda –”

I touched his wrist. I jumped us to the treehouse in the back yard. He staggered away from me, bumping his head on the low ceiling, then sitting and putting his back to the wall. “How did you do that? What’s happening?”

“You’re going to be late for school this morning, bro,” I said. “Sit down. I’ve got a lot to tell you, and a favor to ask.”

#

Convincing Cal took a lot longer than I expected, which was something I should have expected, if that makes any sense. I didn’t dare jump him to Nexington-on-Axis, but I took him back to the little beach in Hawaii where we’d spent so many mornings on our last real family vacation. That made him believe, though he wasn’t gracious about it. I’d hoped to grab some food, but it looked like I’d have to go through the night’s events fuelled only by dry granola bars. Those are the sacrifices we revolutionaries have to make.

I jumped to the queen, yawned, and caught a few hours of sleep in her shadow. When I woke up and drank some water, I said, “I’m almost ready. Just one last visit.”

>I advise against this,< she said. >It will accomplish nothing.<

“Maybe, but I need to try. You’ll show me where he is?”

The queen gave me a vision, of an old man in a simple book-lined room, and I jumped there.

#

“I’ve come to give you one last chance,” I said, leaning against one of the Regent’s bookshelves.

The Regent closed the book he was holding, put it down on the desk, removed his reading glasses, and said, “Interesting.”

“You’re wondering how I found you – how I knew where to jump.”

He nodded.

“Maybe I’ve got more resources than you realize.”

“Apparently. Though I still think I have the advantage in this situation.” His chair creaked as he leaned back and crossed his legs. “You’re offering me one last chance – to do what, exactly?”

“A few things. To send my father home. To free Wisp and Howlaa. To use the power of the jump-engine to send anyone who wants to leave here back to their own homes. To make Nexington-on-Axis something other than a prison. To basically be a better leader and less of a bastard.”

“Mmm. And you feel qualified to criticize my leadership? Your, what, dozen years of life provide you with the appropriate knowledge and insight?”

“I know you have a lot more stolen lifetimes’ worth of experience than I do, but experience doesn’t change what’s right and what’s wrong. You know you’re wrong. You just don’t care because you’re the one on top.”

“Right or wrong – and I would argue that those terms, as you frame them, are laughably irrelevant – I am indeed on top, and that’s where I intend to remain. I’ve been polite with you, Miranda, but really – your co-conspirators are captured, and your father is in my power. Surrender yourself now or I’ll have all of them eliminated. The royal orphans can pick over their corpses for useful body augmentations. Do you understand? I am no longer being patient with you.”

“Why do you call them orphans?” I said. “When we both know their mother is still alive?”

I waited just long enough to see his eyes widen before I jumped away.

Everybody deserves one last chance. I really wished he’d taken it. That would have been easier, cleaner. My way, I was afraid people were going to get hurt.

The Regent’s people, mostly.

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Chapter 15

Talking to the Queen of Nexington-on-Axis, mother of the royal orphans, secretly imprisoned rightful ruler of the world outside all possible worlds, was pretty freaky. She didn’t think in straight lines like a person does, and she didn’t always answer my questions in a way that made sense, but after an hour of her dropping images and words into my brain while I ate granola bars and sipped old bottled water, I kind of got the gist. It wasn’t much like the story the Regent had told me, but I got the feeling the Queen wouldn’t even know how to lie.

The Regent had gained her trust years before, and promised to stop all the various denizens of the Nex from attacking the palace and trying to kill her family (which apparently happened a lot in the old days, which was how a couple of her husbands died). It was a pretty simple deal: He was the public face of the government, and in exchange, the Queen and Kings waited until the citizens died before harvesting any interesting body parts for their own use, and they’d occasionally steal things to help the Regent improve the city, build sewers, homes, enough food, stuff like that. I got the idea the Queen didn’t give two craps about the other people living on the Nex, and was happy to let the Regent deal with their problems. The city-state grew, the snatch-engines got fancier, and everything was great. But over the years, all the Queen’s husbands sickened and died, and she realized she didn’t have anyone left to mate with, and her children were the only children she was going to have for a while… until some of the kids grew up enough to mate with her, which was going to take like hundreds of years.

I know. Totally gross. But they aren’t human, and they do things differently than humans do.

>And then the Regent told me he had killed all my husbands, using subtle poisons and radiations,< the queen said. >He told me this while his army of Nagalinda and other fierce creatures held my children in a single vast room of the palace, ready to be gassed and burned and flattened. He said he would kill all but the handful of my children he needed to keep the snatch-engines functioning… unless I agreed to this imprisonment, to let everyone believe I was dead, to cede all authority to him. I had no choice. They are my children. I have been here ever since.<

“Why didn’t he just kill you?”

>I am the heart of the Nexus. I have always been, and always will be. I am the observer that collapses the probability wave of this improbable world, and allows the Nexus to exist at all. This place is the linchpin of all universes, and I am the linchpin of this place. I cannot be killed, any more than mathematics or entropy or space itself can be killed. I am eternal. And I have been patient.< The queen paused. >I knew you would come. Or someone like you.<

Oh, well. I’d never exactly been the Chosen One, but I was the one who showed up, so I got the job.

>Though I did not anticipate it would take this long.<

“How long has it been?”

>Ninety-one thousand, three hundred and sixty-five cycles of the sun.<

I blinked. Math isn’t my strongest suit, but back home there are 365 days in a year, and the days here are just a little shorter than days on Earth, so…. more than two hundred years? “But the Regent’s human! How did he live so long?”

>He found a way to configure the snatch-engines to steal years from the lifespans of other creatures, just a year here or there, but they pile up into forevers. He wishes to be eternal, as I am.<

“If I can find a way to stop the Regent… to protect your children, and free you… what will happen to the people left here, when you’re running things again? I don’t want them to be hurt.”

>If someone else wishes to govern, I will allow it, though I will not allow them into my palace. I will have to take safeguards to ensure this< – she rattled her chains – >doesn’t happen again.<

I sighed. The whole thing was maybe possible, but it was going to be hard. “I wish I could get Howlaa and Wisp back to help me.”

>Then why don’t you? With your technology, you can go anywhere.<

“Yeah, but I have to know where I’m going.”

>Ah. I know the whereabouts of all things in this place. It is my nature to know the location and velocity of every particle in the Nexus. I have been watching your comings and goings with great interest.<

“Whoa, so you know where Howlaa is?”

>Wait.<

The queen did something I can’t quite describe – imagine an ice-cold finger giving you a wet willie, only instead of sticking the finger in your ear, it goes into your brain. I knew she could get into my mind, since she was talking to my mind directly, but it was weird having my brain rifled through. And I thought my Mom going through my drawers was an invasion of privacy.

>Ah, this one, the shifting one, yes, I know it. I will show.<

I got this picture in my head, but not a picture, more a full sensory thing, like a memory, with sounds (buzzing, clanging) and smell (antiseptic) to go with the sight (a chrome-shiny room with a big table in the middle, and strapped to the table, something that writhed). I didn’t just see it, I knew where it was, in one of those orbital pleasure palaces – which apparently included a lot of unpleasant rooms too.

I could go there. I could get Howlaa out.

“What about Wisp?”

Another brain-rifling, which I was at least braced for this time. >Mostly here,< the queen said, and showed me a glass bubble in the same orbital palace, this one full of motes. >But partly in your ear.<

I touched my earlobe, remembering the mote Wisp had put there to whisper to me – I guessed he was too far away to talk to me now, but it was kind of comforting, in a weird way, to know a little bit of him was still with me.

I finally asked what I most wanted to ask: “Is my Dad here?”

Another brain touch, another image: a bare room in a deep part of the palace, and my Dad – oh, my Dad, looking a little pudgier but otherwise just the same – pacing back and forth on the little patch of floor beside the bed, head down, frowning. He was alive. He was here. I could save him. I could take him home.

>The Regent will expect you to try and save them. He will have surveillance. He will have snipers. He is waiting for you, Miranda. Do not doubt that.<

I chewed my lip and did some thinking. I wanted to charge in and save them all, send Dad right back to our living room, break out Howlaa and Wisp, and go in after the Regent… but if I got captured, knocked unconscious and unhooked from the engine, we were all screwed. “I don’t think I can do this by myself. I mean… I think the only way to make it happen is to start a revolution.” The whole idea was too big, too overwhelming. I’d never organized anything more complicated than a sleepover – how was I supposed to start an uprising?

But the Queen… she’d run this place for who knows how long. Maybe she could help with the planning. I could go anywhere, and she knew where everything was, and between the two of us, maybe we could move the world.

>We will need allies,< the Queen said.

“Okay. So where do you think I should start?”

She had some pretty big ideas.

#

I went to the Machine Waste first, because without the steam colossus, our plan – okay, mostly the Queen’s plan, but I helped, and the basic idea was mine – would fall apart. I jumped from the palace to the radio telescope and opened up my bag, looking for a change of clothes. Even though the Queen was as far from human as Wisp, I still would have felt funny stripping in front of her, but out here in a desert of broken machinery I was less concerned – there might be prying eyes, but they weren’t any more interested in my body than a toaster would be. I pulled on an Allison Wonderland concert t-shirt and corduroy pants with frayed bottoms and stuffed my Minion of Mab outfit into the bag. Being in my own clothes again did wonders for my mood. I stood up, cupped my hands around my mouth, and said “Colossus! We need to talk!”

I expected another earth-shaking appearance of the giant machine-god itself, probably rising up from the ground right in front of me, but nothing happened. I figured the boss of the junk-realm had to be listening in on all his territory, so did that mean he was ignoring me, or sneaking up on me, or what?

A skittery mechanical thing came up over the side of the dish, like the horn of an old-fashioned phonograph with a bunch of mechanical crab legs. It rushed at me, and I got ready to jump in case that horn on top was really a cannon or something, but it stopped a couple of feet away, and a scratchy mechanical voice emerged: “Ah, the girl with the jump-engine. Come to sacrifice your body to science?”

The steam colossus’s voice was a lot less disturbing when it wasn’t highly-amplified super-thunder loud, so I kicked at the colossus’s (literally) mobile phone, and it scuttled out of my reach. “I’m here to make a deal with you.”

“What do you have to offer me, apart from your vivisected body and the technology therein?”

“I can send you back home,” I said.

There was a hiss of dead-air static from the phonograph. Then the steam colossus said, “We should talk in closer physical proximity.”

“Why, so you can snatch me up?”

“No, because remote transmissions like this one can be intercepted.”

“All right. But if I even think I’m in danger, poof, I’m gone. Where are you?”

“Look to the horizon, in front of you, do you see the platform?”

Off in the distance a structure listed at an angle on spindly legs. “Yeah.”

“Jump there.”

I focused, I thought, and I jumped, landing on the platform without so much as a wobble. The platform was a rusty, greasy thing of bolted-together slabs of metal, maybe an offshore oil rig or something picked up and dropped in the midst of a field of busted computer monitors.

“PREPARE FOR DESCENT,” a voice said from hidden speakers, and the platform shuddered and started to sink. I looked around for something to grab onto and clutched a pole that wasn’t too corroded. The platform sank down pretty fast into a hidden shaft, and lights came on at the top of the poles, so I could watch the rock walls slide up past me. After a couple of minutes the platform settled, and I walked off it into a mineshaft tunnel, up a metal ramp, and into what looked like the control room of a spaceship from a science fiction movie. The walls were covered with lights and dials, and a huge glass-and-metal cylinder stood in the middle of the room, with a pulsing floating ball of yellow-gray goop bobbing at the center.

“Welcome to my brain,” the steam colossus said, voice coming from the ceiling.

“Hello, brain. So I’m inside your body now?”

“A rare privilege. Only one other human has ever been here – the Regent.”

“You made a deal with him, too. What was it? I mean, why didn’t you squish him and throw him against a wall when you attacked the palace all those years ago?”

“I see you’ve been educating yourself in the history of Nexington-on-Axis. The Regent offered me… certain resources, and an autonomous region to rule under my own authority.”

“The Machine Waste.”

“I sometimes refer to the rest of this cursed place as the Flesh Waste, so I suppose that name is fair.”

“So you get all the junk you can use and a place to build more things like yourself in exchange for behaving yourself? And occasionally playing the tough guy on the Regent’s behalf?” I sat down with my back against one of the wall panels, because I was tired of standing up and looking at the ceiling.

“In theory. Though the Regent doesn’t fulfill all my requests for equipment. He’s been hesitant to provide me with sufficient quantities of radioactive material, and he limits my energy sources rather brutally. I think he’s afraid I’m going to do something drastic. Which, of course, I am. It’s just going to take a while at current rates of development. I’d rather assumed I would outlive the Regent in short order, but he’s oddly persistent for a fleshthing.”

“You don’t have any loyalty to the guy, then.”

“Loyalty? The concept is meaningless to me.”

“Good. Because I’d like to kick him out of his job.”

The steam colossus chuckled. “And replace him with who? You? Your friend Howlaa?”

“Nope. The Queen of Nexington-on-Axis.”

Another silence. “My voice analysis suggests you believe what you’re saying. You have reason to think the Queen yet lives?”

“I talked to her earlier today.”

“That is interesting. And improbable, but this is an improbable place. Tell me, then – what is your plan?”

I considered holding back, but if the steam colossus wanted to betray me I was doomed anyway – this couldn’t work without his help. So I told him what the Queen and I had worked out.

“Your plan has numerous flaws,” it said. “There are many choices governed by emotional demands rather than rational strategic ones. The whole is also rather complex, and complexity can be a problem – the more moving parts a system has, the more prone it is to failure.”

I snorted. “You’re telling me my plan has too many moving parts? You’re a giant steam-powered robot the size of a skyscraper. Hello, kettle? This is pot: you’re black!”

“Your colloquialism is tiresome, but your point is taken – sometimes complexity is necessary, and if you insist on the various rescues and repatriations you’ve described, I suppose such curlicues are unavoidable.”

“You think you’d be able to pull off your part of the plan?”

“With negligible effort. The question is whether I will bother. You’ve demonstrated an ability to teleport, but that doesn’t mean you’re capable of sending me back to the place where I’m from. It is an unimaginably distant galaxy.”

“I’m sure it is, but from here, all places are equally unimaginably distant, right? I can do it.”

“Then take me there now. Prove it.”

“No way.” The idea was too dangerous. The jump-engine protected me to an extent, but if the steam colossus got what it wanted, it might do its best to kill me, and maybe it could act faster than my jump-engine could respond. I was safe now because the steam colossus wanted to use me, but if I was no longer useful… “But I can send something else. Like a probe, maybe? You were a spaceship, so you must have stuff like that.”

“I do, but assuming you can send such a thing to my home space, how do you propose to bring it back? You don’t have access to the snatch-engines.”

“No, I’ll need to be able to lay hands on the probe to bring it back here, which means I’m going to have to go with it.” I didn’t find the prospect of space travel all that exciting – it always sounded uncomfortable to me, unlike Jenny Kay, who talks about wanting to become a scientist so she can take a trip to the International Space Station or even a Mars base someday. But you do what you have to.

“That will require a probe capable of containing you, and sustaining your life – oxygen, pressure… This will take a little time.”

“A little time on my kind of scale, or on yours? Because if you’re talking an hour, I’ll wait, but if you’re talking months….”

“Closer to the former. Tell me, how do you propose to reach my galaxy, when you have never been there? I assume the jump-engine has some limitations.”

“I can tell it to go places based on coordinates.”

“Coordinates? That explanation is meaningless. Nexington-on-Axis exists outside the rest of the multiverse, and ‘coordinates’ are by nature relative, not absolute – they describe the location of a place in relation to other places.”

“Yeah, it’s complicated,” I said. “But the Queen is a whiz when it comes to navigation, and she can tell me where to go. She’s got a perfect memory of where everything on Nexington-on-Axis came from, and where it is now, and she can look for stuff outside, too. How do you think the snatch-engines work? They couldn’t grab specific stuff without some way to program the engines, to guide them. The Queen and her kids all have this ability, to know where stuff is.” The Queen said they “extrapolated from the original velocities of the moments of creation” but I didn’t know exactly what that meant so I didn’t repeat it.

“Extraordinary,” the steam colossus said. “If you can deliver on your promise, you will be the least useless and objectionable fleshthing I have ever encountered.”

“I think you’re kind of mean and scary, personally, but you’re really freaking big and insanely strong, and that’s all I need you to be. So we can help each other. Look, I’m going to take a nap. Wake me when you’re ready to go probing.”

#

Something poked me in the ribs, and when I sat up I was face-to-nosecone with a sleek teardrop-shaped thing in gleaming red and black, a little bigger than a coffin, standing on a dozen of those spindly spider-legs the steam colossus seemed to like. It had half a dozen extending multi-jointed arms, one of which had poked me.

“Your chariot awaits,” the steam colossus said.

The probe dropped its belly to the floor and the lid slid open with a hiss, revealing a red leather-padded area inside, in a space just about as big as me.

“That looks… claustrophobically cozy.”

“It suits your physical parameters. Get in.”

“How long should I stay… wherever we’re going?”

“The probe will be able to confirm its location using certain astronomical landmarks almost instantly, so you needn’t stay long. I thought of simply sending you unprotected – you could probably maintain consciousness for almost ten seconds if you were exposed to the vacuum of space, which would be ample time for you to take the probe and return. But I suppose you’d be upset if your eardrums burst from the pressure inequality, so I took the trouble of creating a pressurized cabin for you. There won’t be more than a few minutes of air, so don’t linger.”

I climbed into the probe, settling down on the soft cushions, and the lid slid closed over me. “Hey, it’s pitch black in here!” I pounded on the lid.

“Yes?”

“How am I supposed to see?”

“Why do you need to see? The probe will see.”

I sighed. So much for witnessing a vista never seen before by human eyes and all that. I tried to relax, to pretend I was snuggled in a bed in the dark, but it was hard to forget I was in a metal shell about to be floating in the emptiness of insanely distant space. “I’m ready.”

“Then do whatever it is you do.”

I placed my hands on the inside of the probe and thought about the string of letters and numbers the Queen had taught me, the coordinates of the place where the steam colossus was snatched. She assured me the jump-engine would understand the coordinate system, since the royal orphans had helped develop that device – it was the same system the snatch-engines used. I’d memorized the coordinates like a little song, and I hummed it under my breath a few times, and then I jumped.

The probe lurched a little, then… nothing. Just hanging there smoothly. I couldn’t see or hear anything. “Are we there?” I said. Nothing and nobody answered. After a few more seconds I put my hands back out and jumped us to the steam colossus’s brain chamber.

For a moment nothing happened, and I was afraid the jump-engine had failed, that I was stuck in a padded coffin in the depths of space – and then the lid slid back, and I climbed out, in one piece.

“Well?” the steam colossus said.

“Well what?”

“Not you,” it said, and the probe began to speak.

I thought it would just say “Location confirmed” in a robot voice or something, but the probe’s voice was high-pitched and awed. It said “A Wolf-Rayet star shedding mass and venting gases. A globular cluster ringed with blue stragglers. In the distance, a barred spiral galaxy and a dark matter halo. A symbiotic variable star system. An array of galaxies all around them, filaments and voids, filaments and voids.”

“And the quark star?” The steam colossus’s voice was tense.

“The quark star,” the probe said breathlessly. (I guess literally since it has no breath, but it sounded breathless.) “Oh, yes, the quark star, the strange star, exotic matter, dark matter. It is there.”

“We have an agreement, fleshthing,” the steam colossus said. “I will help you, and when we’re done, you’ll send me back.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“If you try to cheat me –”

I interrupted. “Please. You freak me out. Why would I want to keep you around, especially if you’re all pissed-off from being lied to?” I jumped back to the palace to tell the Queen we were on.

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Chapter 14

I landed in my own backyard.

It was night in Pomegranate Grove, and I wondered how many days had passed, if time went by the same way here as it did on the Nex, and fantasized that maybe only a few hours had gone by here… but the apple tree, in bloom when I left, had lost all its blossoms, and the moon was fatter than before, so I knew at least a few days had gone by. The windows in my house were dark, and I decided it was worth the risk to get some clean clothes and some food from the kitchen before returning to the Nex to do… whatever I could do.

I was really happy to see home, and surprised at myself for being happy. Being away is fun – at least until everything starts to fail and fall apart – but part of the fun of being away is having a home to come back to, maybe.

Tempting as it was just to go sleep in my own bed and accept the inevitable grounding – or worse – that I’d get in the morning when Mom found me, I knew I couldn’t stay. For one thing, there was Dad, maybe still alive out there. For another, there was Howlaa and Wisp, who were now both captured, because of me. And then there was the Regent. I didn’t like him, and didn’t want him to win.

Besides, he could reach me with his snatch-engines here, and I didn’t think I’d done nearly enough damage to disable those things, even temporarily. The Regent would drag me back to the Nex if I tried to stay, because I had something he wanted. I was something he wanted. Wisp and Howlaa’s revolution wasn’t the great good thing I’d originally imagined – not even really a revolution at all – but now that I had the jump-engine, I had as much reason as they did to want the Regent kicked out of power.

I jumped to the dark of the pantry, surrounded by shelves packed with canned food and dry goods in plastic pest-proof tubs. Mom bought massive quantities of stuff from the warehouse store every month. She’d gotten into hoarding after Dad died, trying to make us feel more secure I guess, even though she hardly cooked. I listened at the door and heard only silence in the kitchen, so I eased the pantry door open and slipped out. There was a light on over the stove, but the rest of the house was dark, Mom and her dumb boyfriend and Cal all asleep upstairs. I went to the fridge and opened it up, wondering what I could eat that wouldn’t be missed. It was full of take-out containers – no shock – and I found a box of mu shu pork, which I’m always happy to eat cold. I opened a drawer as quietly as I could and pulled out a couple of chopsticks. The thought of sitting in my own kitchen and having a meal, even a cold greasy take-out meal, was amazing.

After I sat down, I heard a tap-ratt-tat-tap.

I knew the sound. Drumsticks rattling on walls or tables or whatever. My brother Cal is a drummer, and he carries drumsticks with him everywhere, rapping on everything he passes – he says he’s practicing, but I think he’s just equal parts obsessive and annoying. He’s in a crappy garage band called Feral Sex Herd. The sound of his tap-tapping made me think of Dad, which was kind of weird, but not really – he’s the one who got Cal his first drum kit, and he said drummers can always get gigs, because every teenage kid in the world plays guitar, but there aren’t that many decent drummers.

The tap-tapping got louder, and I almost jumped away… but I was so tired of jumping, of running, and maybe I even kind of missed my stupid brother, so I just waited to see what would happen.

Cal came into the kitchen, dressed in boxer shorts and nothing else – he’s so gross – and stared at me. “Randy.” His bushy eyebrows, just like Dad’s, went up and down. “You’re eating my breakfast.”

“Sorry.” I ate another mouthful.

“What the hell happened to your hair?”

I ran my hand through the purple stubble and winced. “The dye’s only temporary.”

“Uh huh. And why are you dressed like you’re in a third-grade dance recital?”

I looked down at my unitard and shrugged. “Didn’t have a ton of options. I was going to change.”

Cal leaned against the counter, drumsticks tapping on his thighs. “Mom’s sleeping in your bed. If you go in there she’ll jump on you and never let go.”

I winced. “She’s pissed.”

Cal snorted. “She thinks you’re on drugs living under a freeway in Atlanta having sex with strangers for crack. But when she sees you here, yeah, she’ll go from being scared to being pissed off.”

“Didn’t she get my note?”

“Yep. Not your best idea, sis. Leaving a note that doesn’t make sense on the kitchen table. Mom just flipped out even more knowing you’d been in the house and she’d missed you. That’s when she started sleeping in your bed every night. She keeps saying she should’ve gotten one of those GPS tracker things for your cell phone, which she’s been calling every hour on the hour. She can’t even get your voicemail.”

“Yeah, the phone’s been… not working.” Way out of range, I thought. Seriously roaming.

“So where have you been? And how much did you get for the necklace?”

I frowned. “What?”

“The necklace you stole from me, I figured you must’ve pawned it or something, gone on a shopping spree with Jenny Kay. Except she swears she hasn’t seen you, and she’s worried too. So’s that boy, Ryan — or is it Joshua? I can’t tell them apart. Whichever, he came by asking after you. I was almost worried about you myself. Anyway, however much money you got, you owe it to me now.”

“The necklace wasn’t yours either, Cal.”

He stopped drumming and crossed his arms. “I bought it. For Clarissa.”

Cal’s skanky on-again-off-again girlfriend, who everyone knew was really in love with Brandon, the singer in his band, and just hung out with Cal to get close to him. I shook my head. “Right. If you had that kind of money you’d spend it on cymbals or something. Where’d you really find it?”

I’ll say this for me and Cal, there’s never been a lot of bullcrap between us. He shrugged. “It was just glittering in the dirt out by the fairgrounds. Some rich lady must have dropped it. Finder’s keepers, though, Randy.”

“I didn’t pawn it. I traded it. For this ring.” I held out my hand.

“What’s that, gold? Randy, that necklace had diamonds on it.” He frowned. “Or emeralds? I can’t remember.”

Because it changed.

“Anyway, you got cheated,” he said. “But we can work out some kind of compensation plan, right? Now that you’re back, you can start doing my chores for me –”

I just laughed. “Or what? You’ll tell Mom I stole the necklace you stole first? You think she’ll believe your ‘I found it in the dirt’ thing?”

“Because you’re the trustworthy one, runaway? Please. You’re at the top of mom’s shitlist. And you don’t want to get any farther onto my bad side. I was gonna let you sleep on the couch and deal with Mom in the morning, but I can go wake her up now, if you want.”

I shook my head. “I’m not staying, Cal. I just stopped by for a little while. I have to go back out again.”

“Are you crazy? Miranda, you’re thirteen. You can’t leave home and, like, seek your fortune. If Mom finds out you were here and I let you go, she’ll kill me.” His eyebrows went up again. “You aren’t on drugs, or mixed up in…. anything like that… are you? I didn’t think you were that dumb. I mean, a little weed, sure, but anything more –”

“No, it’s nothing like that. Just don’t tell Mom I was here. You never saw me.”

“No way, Randy. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but if you’re in some kind of trouble, let Mom help. And if you’re not in some kind of trouble yet, you will be. It’s not like I never cut a class, but you’ve missed days of school – miss too many more, and you’ll be screwed. You like middle school so much you want to stay an extra year?”

“Cal. I think Dad is still alive.”

He came to the table slowly, sat down across from me, and put his drumsticks aside. “Randy. Dad’s dead.”

“They never found his body. What if he… if something whacked him in the head and he got amnesia or something, and just wandered away from the explosion?”

“You’re telling me you’ve been out looking for Dad? What… why?”

“I can’t explain right now. But trust me – I’ll know for sure soon.”

“This is crazy, Randy. I think somebody’s scamming you, trying to use you, I don’t know what, but there’s no way Dad survived. There was nothing left of the restaurant but a hole in the ground.”

I didn’t dare take Cal to the Nex – no reason to bring him to the Regent’s attention, plus he’d waste my time by freaking out – but I wished I could show him something. Any demonstration of my new power would just lead to more questions, though, and there’s no easy way to say, “Well, there’s this other universe, only it’s actually outside the universe, and it’s full of monsters, only they’re mostly just people like us, and oh yeah, I’m the last free member of a revolutionary force…” So I fell back on, “Just trust me. I’ll be back in a couple of days.”

“Cal? Honey, who are you talking to?”

I stiffened at Mom’s voice – she was calling from the living room, and I heard her approaching footsteps. When Cal twisted in his chair to answer her, I took advantage of the moment and jumped to my own bedroom.

I heard distant shouting in the kitchen – I guess it had to do with me being there, then suddenly not – so I hurried past my rumpled bed to the closet. I had a pretty serious privacy-invasion pang at the thought of Mom in my room, going through my stuff, probably trying to read my e-mail (fortunately my friend Jenny Kay set up some sweet encryption so I could keep my secrets, such as they are). But there was nothing I could do about that now. I opened the closet and grabbed my go-bag. That was another of Mom’s post-Dad life changes, forcing us all to put together little overnight bags to grab in case of fire or terrorist attack or natural disaster, with changes of clothes and nasty dry granola bars and other stuff like that. I scooped up the bag, paused to listen to the ongoing yelling, then sighed. I went to my desk, scribbled a quick note with a sharpie on a piece of printer paper, and left it on the pillow. “Mom – sorry – love you – home soon – don’t worry.” I didn’t think it would help, but it probably wouldn’t hurt.

I looked around the room, at the pictures thumbtacked to the walls, my bed, my vanity, my bookshelves, and wished I could stay. Who would’ve thought I’d miss home? A few nights sleeping in birds nests and lengths of pipe made home seem pretty inviting, even with Mom’s dumb boyfriend there half the time.

I jumped back to the Nex, to a corridor deep in the palace, near the big gates that held back the humongous icky thing I’d found before.

Going home had actually given me some ideas about what to do next. Maybe I was relying on the jump-engine too much. Cal banged his drumsticks on everything, because to a drummer, everything looks like a drum. To a teleporter, everything looks like a job for teleportation. The problem was, Wisp and Howlaa and me had been calling this thing of ours a revolution, but it wasn’t – it was just a jailbreak. The jump-engine could help with a jailbreak, maybe, but a revolution took more than three people with some badass powers. A real revolution needed a plan more complicated than punching people until they disappeared.

I’d realized something else at home, or maybe not so much realized as hoped. Hearing Mom’s voice made me think about mothers in general, how mothers would supposedly do anything for their kids – whether their kids wanted them to or not. So I got to wondering….

I went to the big metal gates, stepped through them again, and faced the warty gelatinous mountain of flesh chained up on the other side.

“Hey,” I said. “Your majesty?”

>Yes<, the Queen of Nexington-on-Axis replied.

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Chapter 13

I walked down the corridor. There was no point teleporting – I could only safely jump in line-of-sight here, and the curve of the tunnel meant I couldn’t see more than a few yards ahead or behind. We hadn’t passed a single branching passage or doorway. “So, palace. If you can hear me, give me a sign.” Nothing happened. “Do you mind that I’m here? Blink once for yes, twice for no.” The walls remained steady. “Hmm. Do you think we’re going in circles, Wisp? Maybe the corridor just changed behind us and formed a loop like a doughnut, like a snake eating its own tail?”

“A troubling thought,” Wisp said. “You can always teleport if this hallway goes on much longer.”

“Yeah, but then we’re just starting over somewhere else. Hey, palace – how about opening up a shining path to the heart of you, where the snatch-engines live?”

The lights in the walls pulsed slightly. “What does that mean?”

“Squid communicate by flashing colors at one another in a spectrum their predators can’t even see,” Wisp said. “Ants leave pheromone trails for their compatriots to follow. And the palace is far more alien from you than an ant or a squid. What hope can you have of communicating with it? Who knows what it means?”

I stopped walking. “It understood when I asked for light. So I’m hopeful. Palace? See this crowbar? I want to find the snatch-engines, and I want to bash the crap out of them. If you like having a bunch of weirdo creatures running an industrial theft-factory in your body, you don’t have to help me. But if you want to see the parasites kicked out of your guts, give me a hand.”

The walls shimmered and parted like a slice of bread being torn apart, creating a ragged tear that revealed another passageway.

“Remarkable,” Wisp said. “How did you know it would help you?”

“I didn’t. I just figured, if I was a sentient palace, I wouldn’t want a government bureaucracy set up in some dead part of my body, or a bunch of royal orphans and heavy machinery living in my heart. It’s a body-having thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

“It’s always possible the palace is leading us to an electric eel pit, you know.”

“We’ll jump that deathtrap when we come to it, Wisp.”

This corridor angled down, and lit up in pulsing sections, so I could never see very far before me. Eventually the walls got farther apart until we stood at one end of a long broad bridge, without so much as a guardrail protecting us from a deep drop, suspended in a huge space. There were structures in the emptiness all around, things that might have been glass or stone, rising and bending and twisting like the girders of a half-built skyscraper come to life, all silent. Sparks of light ran up and down the girders, flickering. A flowing river of glowing jewel-colored liquid rushed underneath us. The silence and bigness made me feel like I was in church, though my family hardly ever went, except for a couple of months after Dad died – or disappeared.

When I stepped on the bridge it sank in a little under my feet like a mattress, and I went across fast, afraid that if I stopped I wouldn’t be able to start again. If I got scared and had to go down on hands and knees, I knew I wouldn’t like the feel of the bridge on the palms of my hands, all fleshy and soft. The passage at the other end of the bridge looked a lot more normal, with floors that seemed to be stone and a few arched doorways. I paused and peeked through every open door, wondering if I’d know a snatch-engine or a royal orphan if I saw one, but there was nothing obviously alive – just rooms full of strange pools and fountains bubbling colored liquid, or sculptures of trees with glass fruit, or bottomless pits, or rooms where the corners didn’t come together in a sensible way and the light seemed to churn and foam against itself and my eyes crossed just trying to see inside.

Eventually, though, we reached something new.

This door was twice as tall as me, made of dull gray metal and studded with fist-sized rivets, with a round handle as big as a wagon wheel in the middle. The door wasn’t something the palace had grown – the palace was trying to reject it, wall-flesh growing over the edges, all red and green and sick-looking where the palace’s flesh touched the metal door. I put my palm against the poisoned part of the wall, and it was feverishly hot. “This must be a door the Regent really wanted to stay in place.”

“Can you open it?” Wisp said.

I tugged the wheel, which didn’t move, then slipped the crowbar between the spokes and pulled down on it with all my weight, but it still didn’t budge. “How does an old bastard like the Regent get this open?”

“He probably has the Nagalinda open it for him. Assuming this is even the Regent’s door. The palace, and the Queen and Kings of Nexington-on-Axis, were here long before the Regent became ascendant.”

“Huh. I hate to jump in there blind. Can you squeeze under the door and let me know what we’re dealing with?”

Wisp’s motes fluttered around the edges of the door, then came back together. “I’m afraid not. If there ever were cracks, the palace’s flesh has grown over and sealed them.

“Okay then. Let’s hope it’s not a room full of poison gas or lava or something.” I put my hand on the door, made an effort to keep my eyes open this time, and stepped forward. The ring on my hand warmed up – was something trying to keep me out, some high-tech force field? – but I passed through, even getting a glimpse of door’s insides, tumblers and locking mechanisms frozen shut with rust.

Beyond the door was the heart of the palace. Or the things that had been built in that heart.

The noise was crazy loud, hammering and clanging and sizzling and roaring. The air stank of electricity and burning charcoal and hot metal. Wisp had to slip a mote right inside my ear for me to hear him, and even then, it was faint. “I’ve only seen the engines from above, briefly, from an observation deck, but this… I think we’re at the bottom of the engine room, Miranda.”

I looked up. And up. And up.

The snatch-engines were these huge towering coils of copper and silver and gold and brass and iron, glass globes the size of houses filled with lightning, sparking jacob’s ladders and coils, wires and cables in spiderweb designs, pipes venting exotic steams, pistons as big as my body pounding up and down. Bellows expanding and contracting. Valves dripping hissing fluids. Gears the size of Ferris wheels turning against each other.

I knew I was only seeing a tiny portion of the engines, because they stretched up toward a ceiling I couldn’t even see, and sprawled out in all directions, bigger around than a building, bigger than a city block. Catwalks crisscrossed the shaft above me, and I could see things moving up there, skittering and crawling and swinging, doing who knows what to the snatch-engines – servicing them, improving them, snuggling them.

Wisp said, “They’ve grown, since I was here last, though the engines were vast even then. No one understands how they work, except the royal orphans, and who knows which embellishments are necessary and which are merely ornamental? I know it’s daunting, Miranda, but this is what we came to do – to destroy these things.”

There was no way my plan to hold the snatch-engines hostage in exchange for Howlaa and my Dad would work. I’d imagined the engines as objects I could just stick somewhere inconspicuous – I’d imagined sending the engines to the old quarry deep in the woods south of Pomegranate Grove, where hardly anyone ever went, where they’d be unnoticed until I needed to bring them back. But these engines were huge, impossible to hide – if I sent them to Earth you could probably see them from space.

As for falling back on plan A, I didn’t think I could destroy them, either. I looked at the crowbar in my hand and had to laugh. I couldn’t smash these engines any more than I could dismantle a car with a spoon, any more than I could smash a mountain with a mallet. As for using my teleportation powers to send the engines away, I could try

I reached out and touched the nearest component, a metal strut holding up a gently spinning brass globe. I pushed, tried to send the whole snatch-engine away, into a desert I’d seen once from the window of an airplane.

The metal strut went, but the brass sphere came crashing down and rolled away, and nothing else so much as budged.

The engines were too big. Maybe because there were limits to the jump-engine’s powers, or because I couldn’t conceive of the snatch-engines as individual things – they looked so much like mismatched piles of parts, I couldn’t even tell where one engine ended and another began. I could try to get rid of the thing piece by piece, but it would take forever. I’d have to teleport chunks of it, and once I sent away everything I could lay hands on, the stuff up higher would just collapse on me. It wouldn’t be enough to take pieces out of the thing, to damage it – the royal orphans would just repair it. I had to make the whole thing go away, fast enough that the orphans couldn’t just snatch the missing pieces back, and get rid of the orphans themselves so they couldn’t build another engine from scraps of technology in the Machine Waste. I let the crowbar fall to the floor. I’d never felt more overwhelmed.

But I had to try. I was here, and if I gave up, what was left for me? Going to live in the tunnels with Clan Kil’howlaa? Hanging out with Templeton? Joining the Minions of Mab in hopes of scoring a free vegetarian meal? I went to the brass globe on the floor and sent it to the desert too. I looked around for the next piece of the machine and reached out for a bolt the size of my head.

Then I sensed… something.

Ever notice a swarm of bees coming at you from the side? Or caught sight of a flock of birds changing direction from the corner of your eye? Something like that happened. I got a sense of motion, looked up, and a swarm of things massed on the catwalks above, and then came scurrying and leaping and gliding down toward me. I hadn’t been able to see them clearly before, and now that I could… their bodies were almost too bizarre to be horrible.

“The royal orphans,” Wisp said in my ear. “They’ve seen us.”

“They’re – what – Wisp, what are they?”

“The orphans make changes to themselves much as they do to the engines. When they see something they like on another creature, a tentacle or teeth or claws or wings… they steal it and graft it onto their own bodies.”

I don’t know what I’d expected. Snot-nosed kids, or slug-people, or lizard people, or frog people, or cyborg midgets, or something like anything I’d seen before. But the orphans were as weirdly patchwork and cobbled-together as the snatch-engines themselves. Their bodies were feathered or scaled or horned, multi-legged, with bodies like those of bugs or manta rays or snakes. Most weren’t much bigger than a good-sized dog, though one or two were cow-sized. A lot of them didn’t have eyes, though others had too many eyes, or antennae, or snail-stalks, or –

Imagine everything that creeps or crawls or runs or swims or flies on the Earth, all put in a box and shaken up and mixed together, then dumped out again, bits of one stuck to bits of another, and you might have some idea of the variety in the royal orphans. And they were coming at me. Because I’d smashed up their pride and joy. The same way Cal came after me when he saw me messing with his car… except Cal was my brother, and I knew he’d never really hurt me.

“We can fight them, Miranda. They aren’t very strong – they’re horribly inbred – and they aren’t designed for fighting. And remember: you have the jump-engine.”

He made a good point – faced with a wall of monsters I’d sort of forgotten I had options. I looked past them and jumped to one of the catwalks, up as high as I could see.

I landed, grabbed a wire rail, and looked down. The orphans were milling far below me in obvious confusion. How many were there? Dozens? More? I hurried along the catwalk to the part of the snatch-engines I could reach, a gleaming silver panel covered in little metal switches, and laid my hand on the metal. Poof, gone, sent away to the desert.

I only realized I’d left Wisp down at the bottom of the shaft when he came flying up at me – he was fast, but the orphans noticed him and changed direction, swarming back up the engines, apparently oblivious to the cracklings of electricity or the ventings of scalding steam. No problem, though – I’d just jump higher.

When I landed on the next catwalk, two orphans came surging out of the shadows, one an iridescent crab thing, one like a wild boar with eyestalks and open sores filled with teeth. They were on me before I could think, so I just reached out and shoved, making the boar disappear – and amazingly not losing a finger to the snapping mouths in its side. I had the good sense not to send it to Earth, but instead to the reservoir we’d traveled beneath days before. I suspected if I sent the royal orphans off the Nex, their brothers and sisters would just bring them back immediately with the snatch-engines, but as long as I sent them elsewhere here at the linchpin of the universe, they were unsnatchable.

Seeing what happened to its sibling, the crab-thing hesitated. “Hi,” I said. “Maybe you’ve heard of me. I’m Miranda Candle. I punch people so hard they disappear.”

I don’t know if it understood me or not, but it sure acted pissed-off. It whipped a leg around and hit me on the hip, and went poof as soon as it did, sent to the water with its brother – sister – sibling. I could get used to this.

More orphans reached me, though, crawling onto the catwalk, and I did little short hopping teleports, ending up behind them, beside them, above them, below them, and punching them all away. Nice. Jump-fu. Even with all my hopping, though, the catwalk was soon crowded with gnashing snarling things, and I started to freak out at the way they were pressing in. I touched the catwalk itself and sent it away, and me and all the orphans fell toward the distant floor, suddenly unsupported – except I just jumped up to the next level.

Where there were more orphans. And where I discovered that the jump-engine did a lot of things, but it didn’t give me endless energy. I was getting tired, and the nasty beasts just kept coming. I revised my estimate of their numbers from dozens to hundreds and reserved the right to go up from there. The ring on my finger was pulsing with heat, and I wondered if it was possible for me to burn the engine out – if, because I was part of the engine, I might burn myself out.

Wisp was trying to help – he possessed the body of one of the bigger orphans, a gorilla-like thing armored in bony plates, with a head covered in long curved beaks, and he turned on the other orphans, knocking them away. But he barely made a dent – and then something bizarre happened. A big scratched-up clear plastic box just appeared, popping into empty air from nowhere, surrounding Wisp completely. His motes spewed out of the orphan and bumped into the plastic, but couldn’t seem to escape, and I couldn’t reach him to send the box away because of the pressure of attacking orphans. The one mote in my ear said, “Miranda, I’m trapped! It’s airtight! The orphan I possessed will suffocate, but – I don’t think the others care.”

That’s when it started raining stuff. Tires. Buckets. Rocks, rocks, and more rocks. Sheets of scrap metal. Even, for real, an anvil. All appearing in bursts of light from the air itself, then falling, victims of gravity. The orphans were snatching stuff from other worlds and throwing it down on me. It took all my attention to jump and dodge away from injury. I tried to stay close to the main parts of the engines, because the orphans seemed reluctant to drop heavy junk on delicate machinery, but the little monsters wised up and started guarding the engine more closely, clinging to its surfaces and lashing and slashing at me wherever I appeared. I wasn’t hurting them anymore, wasn’t sending pieces of the snatch-engine away, wasn’t even holding my own.

One time, I zigged when I should have zagged, and a splintery hunk of wood hit my shoulder, knocking me from a catwalk into empty space, and I screamed, too shocked from the pain and the surprise to consciously jump to a place of safety. My automatic self-preservation circuits must have kicked in, because I jumped –

– and found myself back in one of the palace’s faintly glowing corridors. I rubbed my aching shoulder and sat on the floor, closing my eyes, wondering what to do next. The engines were too much for me. Maybe with Howlaa in there to help fight the orphans I could have gotten somewhere, but alone? Without even Wisp, anymore?

The walls rippled and opened, revealing another oval-shaped passageway, this one leading downward. “What now? Whatever you want me to do, Miss Palace, I don’t think I can manage it.”

The light in the walls pulsed rapidly, and I sighed. “I’m going. I hope there’s a bed and a buffet down there.” I walked along for ages, until my legs got tired, then just started short-hop teleporting as far down the sloping corridor as I could see. Eventually the steep downward slope leveled off and the hallway widened until I encountered metal gates set into the reddened infected flesh of the palace.

But these gates weren’t the size of doors. Not even garage-door sized. Not even loading-dock door sized. These doors were three or four stories high, huge bolt-studded metal walls without visible hinges, shut with girder-sized crossbars lumpily welded across the seam. Whatever these doors were meant to hold in was big, and someone really didn’t want it getting out. But that wasn’t the scariest part.

The scariest parts were all the dents bulging outward, where something on the other side had obviously been pounding on the door trying to get out.

“I’m supposed to go in there?”

The palace walls pulsed. I sighed, put my hand on the metal, and stepped through.

And through, and through, and through. It took at least five big steps – the doors were incredibly thick.

Once I emerged on the other side, I couldn’t even comprehend what I saw. The snatch-engines had been overwhelming, but they were made up of recognizable things, metal and glass and electricity and machine parts. Now I was in a cathedral-sized space, filled with towering pillars, and bound to those pillars by metal chains was – was –

A whale turned inside-out. A tumor the size of a skyscraper, all pulsing with veins and sprouting weird floral growths that opened and closed and bobbed like flowers in a breeze. A great bulbous shifting thing that moved in and out like a beating heart, that seemed to sigh and breathe.

The air inside the room was humid, like a sauna, and the pillars and chains were slick with moisture. The smell, under the heat, was like a fresh-turned compost heap. The chains – which disappeared into the thing, anchored inside that nasty mass of flesh – rattled as it shifted around. I couldn’t tell if it was an animal or a plant or something completely different, but it was definitely alive.

The thing moved, body convulsing, and a horrible face started to appear deep in the parting folds, mouth a wet hole, eyes all milky white and red-rimmed, and I realized it was straining against its chains, reaching for me.

>A visitor.< The voice was inside my head, almost like my own thoughts, but with a dead monotone delivery I’d only heard inside my mind at my most depressed. >It’s been so long since I had a visitor. Come to me.<

I jumped, blindly, just aiming to get somewhere safe.

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Chapter 12

I sat curled up in the same pipe in that construction site for what felt like hours, waiting to be discovered or captured or shot with a tranquilizer dart. That last wouldn’t have been so bad maybe, since I would have actually been able to sleep. At least Wisp wasn’t bugging me – he seemed content to just hover there indefinitely.

After a while, when it was dark, I whispered, “I messed up pretty bad, huh?”

Wisp didn’t light up, but my eyes were adjusted well enough to see the swirl of motes before me. “The Regent is gifted at anticipating the actions of others,” he said at last. “You only wanted to see your father. It’s understandable.”

“I ruined all your plans.”

“Howlaa always says ‘plan’ is a four-letter-word for something that goes wrong. We simply have to… adapt to our new circumstances.”

“So what do we do now?”

“I am primarily an observer, Miranda. I am capable of doing my part for the cause of our freedom, certainly, but when it comes to creating stratagems, tactics, making plans… these are not my strengths. I always depended on Howlaa for such things.”

Which meant… what? It was up to me? Not reassuring. “How long do you think we have before they realize Howlaa’s not really me?”

“Difficult to say. Howlaa is genetically identical to you, and she is an adept imposter, so she will stand up to considerable scrutiny. Once the Regent begins to study the false jump-engine, however, the deception will become apparent. For now, I think it is safe to say that no one is looking for you. Yet.”

“Which means if we’re going to do something, we should do it soon.” I crawled out of the pipe. The construction site was lit only by the streetlamps outside the fence. I walked around for a while, poking under tarps, until I found a long wooden box with a lid, padlocked shut. I rattled the big lock, then squeezed it in my fist.

The lock flickered, and went from hanging on the box’s clasp to lying in the dirt at my feet. Very cool. The jump-engine could vastly simplify my shoplifting process, though after a few days of genuine adventure, the adrenaline rush of stealing bracelets was starting to seem kind of childish. I flipped open the box’s lid and peered inside. Wisp floated close and said, “Miranda, do you have any experience with demolitions?”

“Is that, what, dynamite?” The box was full of neatly stacked cylinders, but they weren’t cartoon red with fuses sticking out of one end, just a dusty dull orange.

“Yes. They’re dangerous if you aren’t experienced.” He paused. “They’re dangerous anyway.”

I shook my head. “Sorry, Wisp. I don’t know what they teach in seventh grade around here, but we don’t have classes in blowing shit up in Pomegranate Grove.”

“A pity. A teleporter with access to bombs… you could be a one-woman uprising.”

I found another box, made the padlock disappear, and considered the jumble of dirty tools inside. There was a big sledgehammer that seemed perfect, but I could barely even lift it – I don’t think it was made for human hands, even big burly construction worker hands. I picked up a wrecking bar with a curved end, about three feet long, and it felt good in my hands, something I could swing. “There we go,” I said.

“Why do you want a weapon, exactly?” Wisp said. “Anything you could smash with that you could just as easily reach out and send away. Any door you wanted to pry open you could simply pass through.”

“I don’t know. Maybe I don’t trust the whole magical ring thing. If the Regent finds a way to turn off the jump-engine, at least with this I’ll still be able to hit stuff.”

“Contingency plans are never a bad thing,” Wisp said. “What now?”

My rumbling stomach answered that before my brain could think about it. “We never did get anything to eat. All aboard, Wisp. We’re jumping.”

A flicker, and we were back in the kitchen at Etienne’s, dark, empty, quiet. The pot on the stove was cold and crusted, and everything was still a mess from the interrupted lunch service, which meant my Dad must be in custody somewhere – he never left the kitchen messy like this. I hunted around and found some cheese and fruit and bread, enough to make a half-assed repast, and dug in while Wisp floated around the room.

Once my belly was full, thinking was easier. If I could get to the center of the palace and send the snatch-engines into a black hole or something, the Regent would lose his biggest source of power… but he’d still be a pissed-off ruler with an army and a bunch of high-tech stuff at his beck and call. He’d never let my Dad free, or Howlaa, for that matter, and even though there was no prison on Nexington-on-Axis that could keep me out – or keep them in, once I found them – the Nex was a big place, and I didn’t know where to start looking for either of them.

The snatch-engines were still key. They were the thing the Regent valued most. Just getting rid of them wasn’t enough anymore, because there was more at stake than Howlaa and Wisp’s freedom. Maybe I could hold the engines hostage. Put them somewhere out of the Regent’s reach, but not out of mine. He’d have to agree to an exchange of prisoners then, and I could negotiate for Wisp and Howlaa’s freedom, too.

I picked up the wrecking bar. “Let’s go to the palace, Wisp. It’s time to snatch the snatch-engines.”

#

First I teleported to the moving walkway, much to the surprise of all the people and things riding it – apparently Nexington-on-Axis never sleeps. A steam-powered piston-driven cyborg like Templeton – only even less human-looking – growled at me, and a bunch of LEDs on his face lit up. A twisted little imp with a pearl necklace riding on the shoulders of a bored-looking human boy said “Where did you come from?”

“Blessings of Mab be upon you,” I said, conscious of my bedraggled wings and the fact that I’d lost my faceted glasses somewhere. So much for my disguise. I looked down at the palace, glittering and shifting in the distance, towers elongating and shrinking and corkscrewing with slow grace. At night, from above, the lights of Nexington-on-Axis were like galaxies colliding.

Line of sight, I thought, and jumped to the roof of the palace. I knelt down and put my hand on the smooth surface of the roof. The stone, or whatever, was cool and slightly rough and weirdly organic, like touching the skin of a snake. I pressed down, and it yielded slightly, milky rainbows of color spiraling out from the pressure of my fingers. I walked up to the base of one of the towers, bigger around than a giant sequoia, and it didn’t look like a built thing at all, but like a growing thing, a tree branch sprouting off from the main trunk. “Where did the Regent snatch this place from?”

“The palace predates the days of the Regent,” Wisp said in my ear. “It was the first structure on Nexington-on-Axis, as far as we know, home to the Kings and Queen and their children. Perhaps it is native to this place. The engines have never found anything like it again, though the Regent has searched.”

“Huh. So do we have any idea where the snatch-engines are located?”

“Just ‘the heart of the palace.’ But the palace extends for many blocks in all directions, and extends downward as well. There are whole wings that have never been seen by sentient eyes, sections that are utterly inaccessible, without doors, windows, or ventilation shafts. The Regent’s government occupies only a tiny portion of the palace. The rest… governs itself.”

“So we’re going exploring, then. Will we know the snatch-engines if we see them?”

“I suspect they will be difficult to miss,” Wisp said.

I walked to one of the towers and put my hands on its surface. “Here we go.” I closed my eyes and stepped forward.

When my eyes opened, it was dark, and Wisp’s motes lit up rapidly, his form spreading out to make a net of light. I stood on a smooth stony platform inside the curvature of the tower, with what I thought was a spiral staircase winding up into the darkness above and down into the darkness below. When I stepped closer, though, I saw there were no steps, and the curve was just a single glass rail, like a giant corkscrew. “What, am I supposed to slide down that?” I asked.

“I don’t think this tower is designed for human habitation,” Wisp said.

“Wonder what this lever does?” It was a crystalline rod about three feet long, set into the center of the platform, with a sparkling diamondlike knob on top. I tugged, and the lever didn’t budge – it wasn’t as delicate as it looked. “See?” I said. “My crowbar is already useful.” I jammed the bar between the base of the lever and the wall and pulled, and the lever creaked and inched forward. “Can’t use teleportation for leverage.”

“I hope pulling that lever doesn’t trigger something unpleasant. Like the disappearance of this tower.”

“If the walls start closing in, I’ll just step through them, and you’ve got nothing to worry about anyway, right?”

“I can’t pass through impermeable solids, Miranda. My kind are difficult to contain, it’s true, but an airtight container closing around us fast enough can do it. I don’t know whether I’d be able to escape this tower or not.”

“Better be ready to climb up my nose and in my ears and under my clothes in a hurry then, just in case.”

I grunted and strained at the bar, and the lever gave way completely, slamming down against the platform with a sound like a spoon ringing against a glass.

“Subtlety, thy name is Miranda,” Wisp said.

“Shhh.” I listened. There was noise up above, a sound almost like whistling, like when you blow over the mouth of a bottle. “What is that?”

“Onrushing death?”

Something like a car on a roller coaster came spiraling down the rail, but it was low and sleek and rose-quartz colored. The car pivoted around and around as it descended, so even though the track spun in tight corkscrews, the front of the car always faced the same way. “I thought this palace was alive. This looks like something that was built.”

“Perhaps the palace is both an organism and the habitation for an organism. Perhaps there is a central life form, somewhere, and the palace is merely its shell, built up around it like a nautilus. Who can say? But this is hardly the oddest thing you’ll find in the palace.”

The car stopped in front of the platform. It was a no-frills thing, without pads or seatbelts, and the only control was a small lever. I climbed in. “I guess we head down.” I pushed the lever toward my feet.

The ride was smoother than I expected, and with the pivoting-around I didn’t even feel dizzy, though the blank expanse of wall lit by Wisp wasn’t all that interesting. “Think there’ll be guards waiting for us at the bottom?”

“Possibly,” Wisp said. “If this railway is monitored. But the palace is unimaginably vast. It has gradually consumed the buildings around it, growing around them the way a tree will grow around a nail driven into a branch – or the way an oyster will surround a piece of grit to make a pearl – utterly enclosing and incorporating them. Even at its most active, the palace can seem empty. The business of government takes place only in a few stable chambers near the front doors. It’s considered suicidally foolhardy to venture much deeper, since corridors and staircases have a way of folding in on themselves, disappearing, and reconfiguring. Some say the Regent’s apartments and audience chamber and courtrooms and offices are actually dead parts of the palace, necrotic tissue in the organism, since they are the only rooms that never change. You and I are in one of the living sections. I don’t know what we’ll find, but it’s unlikely we’ll be found.”

“I just can’t get over how weird this place is.”

“The universe is vast and strange. Have you heard the theory that, in an infinite universe, anything that possibly can exist must exist?”

I nodded. “My friend Jenny Kay told me something like that once – she said that everyone on Earth has perfect doubles way out there in the universe, some impossibly far distance away. And not just perfect doubles, but also slightly imperfect doubles, people almost exactly the same except for maybe a mole, a pimple, a missing tooth. I didn’t really get it.” I realized I’d just given Wisp permission to lecture, but it was better than staring at a blank wall, at least.

“The theory holds that since all objects– you, me, restaurants, planets, everything – are composed of specific combinations of particles, all of those combinations would repeat an infinite number of times, assuming the universe itself is infinite. So there are countless versions of you, including infinite identical versions and infinite slightly-different versions. There are versions of you identical in every way, except you have the thoughts and memories of Mozart or Einstein or Howlaa –”

I interrupted. “Wait, I get that physical stuff is just made of atoms or whatever, and that if you have enough space those atoms will fall into the same patterns over and over, but you’re saying thoughts can get copied too?”

“Thoughts, dreams, they’re all just the emergent properties of given combinations of atoms, as you say, in the structure of your brain.”

“So there could be zillions and zillions of Mirandas and Wisps riding down this tower? And in some places it’s my friend Jenny Kay instead of me, or it’s Napoleon instead of you, or it’s a gorilla with a pistol and his partner the cyborg parrot? Anything I can imagine?”

“Not exactly,” Wisp said. “You may be able to imagine things that are not possible given the existing laws of physics. Though there’s also a theory that there are other universes, equally as infinite as your own, which have different laws of physics. Occasionally the snatch-engines pick up things that simply evaporate, collapse, or disappear, as if they are fundamentally inimical to this universe. We also grab humans from Earths that don’t have the same history or civilization that yours does – Earths that are dominated by the denizens of the land of mist and mirrors, Earths over-run by spidery aliens, Earths where zero-point energy was discovered in the 19th century and the world became a Utopia – at least for the citizens of the Unending Holy Roman Empire.”

“Whoa. There are whole parallel dimensions?”

“Not parallel dimensions – that’s a different theory – just planets in your own universe that are unimaginably far away from your Earth, in solar systems that happen to exactly resemble your own, populated by human who are remarkably similar. Not that we’ve ever snatched two versions of the same person, as far as I know. The vastness of the universe makes such things unlikely – it would be like catching two identical snowflakes on two different continents the first time you stuck out your tongue in a blizzard. Only much more unlikely.”

“Is there a chance the father I have here… isn’t my father? That he’s some other Miranda’s Dad?”

“It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely. The royal orphans tend to snatch things from the same general areas again and again, if they can – it’s easier than reconfiguring the engines into whole new combinations every time they need something. So statistics are in your favor.”

Sometimes, like anybody, I lay in bed and look at the ceiling and think about infinity, and I always fall asleep before I get very far. I wasn’t sleepy now, but I still wasn’t getting very far. It all sounded interesting, but in normal day-to-day life infinity didn’t much matter. But here, in this place, with universes whirling past in the sky, it seemed like something I should get a handle on. “So there are also countless copies of Nexington-on-Axis?”

“Now that is a matter of some debate,” Wisp said. I could tell he was warming up – he was a born lecturer, assuming he was ever born. Get him and Jenny Kay in a room together and nobody else would be able to get a word in anywhere. “Some contend that the Nex is a singular place, standing outside all possible universes – that this is the Omphalos, the Axis Mundi, the singular hub around which infinity spins. Certainly the Regent believes that, and truthfully, so do I. We are not inside any of the universes, but in the space between them.”

Trying to imagine bubbles of infinity inhabiting a greater infinity was too much for me, but I did take one thing away from Wisp’s words: “If there’s only one Nex, that means I’m the only Miranda – the only anybody – riding this rail right now. The only Miranda in the palace. The only Miranda trying to save the day.”

“That’s true.”

I sighed. “Which means if I screw up, there’s no chance it’s being done right in some other part of the universe.”

“I… Ah. Yes. I think that’s likely.”

“Guess I better not screw up, then.”

The car lurched to a halt. Wisp drifted up and out, lighting a corridor leading away from the base of the tower. I climbed out of the car, head still spinning with infinities, and followed him. “I wish there were some lights down here. No offense, but you’re more firefly than flashlight, Wisp.”

The walls began to glow with a pearly pale light until the curving corridor was totally lit up.

“Wait. Can the palace hear me?”

“Improbable as that seems,” Wisp said, “it appears it can.”

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Chapter 11

“Suddenly the Regent’s claim seems much more plausible,” Wisp said.

I barely heard him. I just stared at Etienne’s, the restaurant looking exactly as I remembered it – the name written in elaborate script on the awning, the big front windows revealing a bright and airy dining room that became dark and cozy when night fell. Tables covered in cloth and set with crystal glasses, the length of the bar in the back of the room, the swinging doors that led to Dad’s domain, the kitchen, where he’d shown me how to crack eggs one-handed and promised to teach me fancy knifework once I got old enough that Mom wouldn’t freak. The only difference was the quality of the diners inside – instead of the more well-off citizens of Pomegranate Grove (and the occasional scattering of ordinary people out for a special occasion), the tables were populated by the usual motley that surrounded us on the street, all sipping wine and eating food that… food that my father had made? Really?

I started toward the restaurant, and Howlaa laid a hand on my shoulder. I shrugged her off, and then it was both hands, one on each shoulder, and her leaning down to whisper in my ear: “The Regent ish sure to have people watching thish place, Randy. We should get away.”

“My Dad might be in there.”

“All the more reason to tread carefully,” Wisp said. “So your reunion can be a happy one.”

“I am not going to risk my life without at least trying to see if my Dad is alive first, guys. What do you think will happen? They’ll catch me? I can freaking teleport.”

“Not if they have snipers armed with tranquilizers, and knock you out before you can,” Wisp said.

“I’m willing to risk it,” I said. “I don’t know if Bodiless or skinchangers have parents, but I do, and if my Dad is still breathing, I need to know.”

Howlaa’s grip tightened, at first, and I thought I was going to have a fight on my hands, but then she let go. “Jusht be careful,” she murmured. Howlaa and Wisp faded back, though I could still feel a little Wisp-mote hovering in my ear. I walked into the restaurant, trying to figure out how to get to the kitchen unnoticed – if Dad was here, he’d be in the back. He hated front of the house. Said he was comfortable cooking, but didn’t like to see how people reacted to his food. His version of stage fright.

Before I got two steps in, the hostess glided up to me. She was human, tall, thin like a shishkabob skewer, with long blonde hair and a weird ruby-red monocle over one eye, with a lens that twisted and spun. “Miranda Candle?” Her voice was all warmth and welcome, and I stopped.

“Um,” I said.

She tapped her monocle. “I see you’ve… joined a new subculture since the photograph I saw was taken, but facial feature ratios don’t lie. We’ve been expecting you. Come with me to the private dining room?”

I glanced to the right, automatically, toward the room reserved for private parties. Cal had his thirteenth birthday party in there. “I don’t remember making a reservation,” I said. “How did you know I was coming?”

Her one human eye twinkled. “A certain gentleman of your acquaintance made the arrangements. He’s eager to see you again.”

Dad? I followed her, and she opened the door. The private room was dim, the hanging lights turned off, just a candle burning in the center of the table. I stepped inside, and the hostess shut the door behind me. I heard the click of a lock engaging and my heart sank. A lock wouldn’t keep me here, if push came to shove, but it told me I wasn’t meeting my Dad.

The Regent leaned into the circle of the candle’s light. “Hello, Miranda. So nice to see you again. The disguise is a nice effort, and bravo for getting rid of the tracking devices, but my greatest strength has always been understanding the psychology of my rivals. I knew you’d come here, once I told you about your father. The hook was set.”

“I want to see my Dad.” I crossed my arms.

“Oh, my,” he said softly. “Your jewelry has changed. Tell me, was it simple trial and error to change the settings, or did Howlaa smuggle out a draft of the user’s manual? Or… no. You found someone to give you advice, didn’t you? I knew Howlaa must have contact with someone who knew about the jump-engine project. She’s no good at detective work, really – just extermination. Was it Templeton? I should have dismantled him, but I have a pathetic tendency to hold onto everything, just in case I need it in the future. A certain… hoarding mentality… comes along with proximity to the royal orphans, I think.”

“If you’re done monologuing, I’d really love to see my Dad now. Or would you rather get punched into outer space again? I’ve got a little more control now.” I cracked my knuckles, thinking it was a pretty good dramatic gesture, and now that my fingers were mostly clear of rings, I could do it without pinching myself. “You might not wind up in an orbital pleasure palace. You might just end up in orbit.”

“A counter-offer. You can come with me to a very pleasantly-appointed lab, where you’ll be treated kindly while my scientists disconnect the jump-engine from your limbic system – that’s the deep old reptile part of your brain, the fight-or-flight part, the place where the engine is most deeply entrenched.”

I looked at my ring. “This is in my brain?”

“Parts of it, yes. You’re just a cog in the engine now, Miranda. Let me disconnect it before things spin even more out of your control. Let me give you your life back.”

“Fu–”

“Please!” The Regent held up his hands. “Hear my entire proposal. I remove the engine. I reunite you with your father. I use the engine to send both of you back home, and never trouble either of you again. How does that sound?”

Familiar. “I don’t trust you.”

“I’ll swear before as many witnesses as you like. I’ll have my magisters draw up ironclad contracts. I’ll cross my heart and hope to die. I have nothing to gain from betraying you. All I want is the engine. I can give you something you want in return. Ask anyone – I am a reasonable man. I am not vindictive.” He chuckled. “I prefer to outlive my enemies in lieu of exacting revenge.”

I sat down. I wasn’t a zillion-year-old tyrant, but I knew when I had bargaining power. “What about Wisp and Howlaa?”

His mouth tightened. “They will be returned to their regular duties, pending reeducation.”

“Brainwashing, you mean?”

“Their brains are remarkably resistant to washing, which is part of why they’re valuable to me, but they will be given the opportunity to reconsider their recent poor choices and dedicate themselves to my service anew. They’ve been captured already, you know. My people are everywhere, and we saw Howlaa in her bodyguard disguise. My forces moved on them as soon as you came into the restaurant.”

Crappo. “Okay. You want to make a deal? Fine. I get my Dad back, and you have to set Wisp and Howlaa free, let them out of their contract, sign an emancipation proclamation, whatever. Send them wherever they want to go.”

“Ah!” The Regent said. “I see. You’re under the misapprehension that this is a negotiation. It is not. You will accept my offer. Period.”

“Punching you. Into space. That’s my offer. Of course this is a negotiation.”

“Your father is here, Miranda. In the kitchen, with a sous chef and a saucier. One of them is simply a humble cook. The other is one of my agents. He will put a knife into your father’s kidneys as soon as he gets the order from me through his little earpiece. Really, Miranda. Your father’s a good cook, but he’s not so good I won’t use him as a hostage.”

I took a deep breath, then let it out. “Let me see him. Let me see that he’s here, and that he’s all right, and I’ll do what you want.”

The Regent cocked his head.

“You said you’re a reasonable man. So be reasonable.”

“Fair enough. Come.” He rose and headed for the door, and I resisted the temptation to punch him into the center of the frozen sun – if Templeton was right, I could control destinations now, but who knew what would happen to Dad if the Regent disappeared? He gestured for me to open the door, and stepped out after me. I was amazed – the whole restaurant was empty, all the diners hustled out during the time I’d been in the dining room. Unless maybe they’d all been undercover spies for the Regent, just pretending to have lunch. I was beginning to get some idea of how powerful this guy really was. “Just through here.” The Regent nodded to the kitchen.

The front of the restaurant exploded, windows shattering and glass flying. We were far enough in the back that none of the really big shards reached us, but a few little fragments bounced off me, and it was still enough to trigger my flight mechanism; I ended up teleported behind the bar. I stood up in time to see Howlaa in her Rendigo form come barreling into the restaurant, claws dripping venom, stalking toward the Regent, who regarded her coolly.

“I suppose this means I’ve lost a number of my best-trained troops?” he said. “I warned them not to underestimate your capabilities. The next wave will be more cautious, at least.”

Howlaa growled and lashed out…

And her claws passed harmlessly through the Regent, who rippled like a flag in the breeze.

“A hologram,” Wisp said, suddenly hovering beside me, and I realized that I couldn’t have punched the Regent into the sun even if I’d wanted to – he was just a projection again. The guy was smart, you had to give him that.

Howlaa snarled, and I looked at the kitchen door longingly. Was my Dad back there? Was he okay?

“Miranda, we have to go,” Wisp said.

“If you leave with them, I will have your father killed,” the Regent said.

It was almost enough to make me bow my head… but instead I looked into his simulated eyes. “If you hurt him, if you touch him, I’ll never let you have this jump-engine.” I slammed my fist down on a table, and sent it – away, far, as far as I could reach, which I thought was very far. I stalked forward, bringing my fist down on the bar, and it winked out of existence, the pitchers and glasses that had been resting on it crashing to the floor and shattering. “I’ll send everything in your city away. Everything. You like hoarding things? I’ll empty your whole world. You can run your snatch-engines full-speed to try to get that stuff back, but I’ll drop this shit into black holes, into the middle of stars. Your palace is next.”

The Regent shook his head and smiled like I was a two year old throwing a tantrum. “Miranda, please, just a moment ago we were being so reasonable –”

Howlaa leapt into the air, twisting, and I jumped back. “What the –”

“He caught a sniper’s tranquilizer dart, Miranda,” Wisp said. “Meant for you. But there will be more. We have to go.”

“Can I – how do I teleport with you guys? How do I take you with me?”

“We don’t know,” Wisp said. “Templeton said it should… respond to your thoughts?”

I turned to the Regent. “Remember. If anything happens to my father –”

“Yes, yes. This posturing is silly, Miranda. I have your father. You have my jump-engine. We’ll end up trading eventually. Why waste all this time?”

I reached out to touch Howlaa’s slick, scaly side. “Wisp, can you… go up Howlaa’s nose or in her mouth or something? I can’t touch you, so I’m not sure…”

“Of course.” Wisp’s motes ran into Howlaa’s gaping, panting, tooth-filled mouth.

“Until next time, then,” the Regent said.

I didn’t teleport far. Just into the kitchen, where Howlaa took up way too much room and knocked over a couple of garbage cans.

My Dad wasn’t there. The kitchen was empty, though it was just like I remembered it, the bank of stoves and ovens, the prep tables, the big industrial sinks, the smells of herbs and cooking meat. A pot was bubbling over on one of the burners, stew turning to burned mess, and without thinking I walked over and twisted the burner off.

“Perhaps we should go a bit farther?” Wisp said.

I looked around, hoping for some sign that Dad was still here – a picture of the family, a lumpy mug I’d made for him at summer camp, something – but it was just a working kitchen, no personal stuff. I sighed. “Okay. Where? Earth?”

“No! If we leave the Nex, the snatch-engines will be able to bring us back.”

“Okay, then. Somewhere more local.”

I jumped us back to the warehouse, beside the truck.

We were at the center of a ring of a hundred Nagalinda, all aiming their complex guns at us. The Regent was there, or another simulation, sitting on the back of the truck. “Ah, Miranda. I know everywhere you’ve been, dear. My trackers have worked out your whole backtrail. And you can only teleport to places on the Nex you’ve already been – otherwise, you’re jumping blind, and even in your petulance I don’t think you’re stupid enough to try that. All your little haunts and way stations are surrounded. Really, now. This is the end. This is –”

Howlaa snatched me up with one of her huge arms and barreled through the line of Nagalinda. Her shadowcloth slithered up over me, changing into a hard armored shell, and I heard darts pinging off the material, and the Regent shouting “I need her alive!” and Wisp saying “Oh dear oh dear oh dear.”

Howlaa darted into some kind of deep, narrow storage room and dropped me on my ass, rapidly changing into human form and shoving the heavy steel door closed. I stood up and said “What do we do now?” and tasted blood on my lips. Crap. In all the commotion, my stupid nose had started bleeding again.

Howlaa handed me a handkerchief, and I pressed it to my flowing nostrils.

“They’ll be able to peel this room open soon enough,” Howlaa said. “But if the Regent is telling the truth about scouting our backtrail, I’m not sure where we should go. If we flee the Nex, we get snatched, and a blind jump…” She shook her head. “Too dangerous.”

“We came so close,” Wisp said as the pounding on the other side of the door began, along with muffled shouting. “Perhaps it’s better if Miranda saves herself, makes an arrangement…”

“We’re not done yet.” Howlaa snatched the handkerchief from my hands.

“Hey, I’m still bleeding here!”

Howlaa put the bloody handkerchief in her mouth and slurped. I winced and said “Oh my god, gross,” and then realized what she was doing, if not exactly why. A moment later she spat out the handkerchief and began to change…

Into me. I was looking at a perfect image of me, only naked, and she was exactly the same, right down to the mole over my bellybutton. The shadowcloth slithered and wiggled and changed into my stupid Mabling costume, and one little bit of it crawled to her finger and became a copy of my ring. “Regent!” she shouted. “I’ve sent Howlaa and Wisp away, someplace you won’t find them, someplace they can survive. I’m coming out!” She turned to me and hissed, “Go. They can’t have every inch of our backtrail covered. Go someplace obscure, in the provinces, and lay low for a bit – they won’t look for you if they think you’re already in custody. This won’t buy us much time. Soon enough the Regent will realize I’m not you.”

It was so weird, like if my mirror started ordering me around. “But… what am I supposed to do?”

Howlaa shrugged. “Destroy the snatch-engines. Get rid of the orphans. Topple the government. Depose the Regent. Reunite with your father. Oh, and save me. Wisp will help.”

“I – thanks, Howlaa. Be careful.”

“Shushit. Being careful is for others.”

“If you’d open your mouth, Miranda?” Wisp said.

“Uh,” I said, and Wisp took the opportunity to zip into my mouth, which was kind of like having a mouthful of gnats, only more bubbly. I closed my eyes, thought obscure, and jumped.

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