We made it through the other side of the woods, and this time we didn’t emerge into bleak lava nastiness. Howlaa set me down and I stared at what seemed like hundreds of oddly-shaped buildings. There were grain silos, like back home – we’re only an hour or so from Atlanta, but it’s still pretty countrified in Pomegranate Grove – plus big rounded things on tripod legs like water towers, and squat wooden buildings with cone-shaped roofs, and big metal buildings like airplane hangars, and even glass ones like greenhouses.
“Welcome to the breadbasket of the Ax,” Wisp said. “Food for the citizenry. At least those the Regent chooses to feed.”
“What Wisp knows about food could be written on the back of a small envelope,” Howlaa said. “With room left over for what he knows about sex, dancing, and fashion. Are you hungry?”
I was – it must be about dinner time, unless I’d been unconscious for part of that time under the trees. “Yeah.”
Howlaa sniffed. “Damn this primate nose. Excuse me.”
“Howlaa, no –” Wisp shouted, but I didn’t hear the rest of whatever he said, because I was screaming.
Howlaa’s body changed, arms extending, head bulging, spine curving. It wasn’t like some special effect of a person turning into a werewolf – more like one of those time-lapse videos of a plant growing or a dead animal decomposing, this fast organic expanding and collapsing. The shadowy clothes shifted and writhed and obscured some of what was happening, but it was clear Howlaa was turning into a monster, something with a long snout and pointy ears and lots of fur and bone spurs jutting from its spine, not exactly wolflike, unless maybe it was a wolf that was also partly a dinosaur.
I took off running. Wisp came bobbing after me. “Miranda! It’s not what you think! It’s just – it’s just Howlaa!”
The wolf-thing came loping up beside me, easily keeping pace, even as I veered and ran, until I tripped on a rock and went sprawling. My hair fell into my eyes and when I brushed it away and levered myself up, the monster was staring right into my face, eyes these blank orbs like they were scooped out of cherry jello with a melon-baller, black nose quivering… and then it licked my face, just like a friendly dog, and though it looked like its breath should smell like rotting meat it didn’t smell like much of anything, just warm and wet. The wolf-thing – which was bigger than me – sat back on its haunches and shook, like it just had a bath, and then it writhed and twisted and shrank and it was Howlaa again, not a hair out of place. “Sorry to scare you. I just wanted a better nose to smell where the good food is.”
“You’re a were… something.” My voice was a croak. I’d skinned my hands when I fell, and they stung, blood on my palms for the second time tonight.
“Howlaa is a were-many-things,” Wisp said, motes dancing over Howlaa’s head. “A skinshifter.”
“I am a woman of many talents,” Howlaa said. “Except when I’m a man or beast or something else of many talents. Come. Let’s eat. I smelled apples.” She sounded so cheerful and harmless, and the monster hadn’t really been all that monstrous when it came right down to it, so I followed. A shapechanger! How cool to have a power like that!
Howlaa led us toward a low wooden building, and we stepped into a big, straw-lined room fragrant with apples. There were dozens of crates and great spilling heaps of fruit, golden, red, pink, and even white – I’d never seen white apples before. I was beginning to really understand that I wasn’t home anymore… wasn’t even on Earth anymore, judging by that strange sky, and the stranger people. Howlaa tossed me a piece of fruit and I bit into it, the juice filling my mouth, my stomach growling, impatient for me to chew and swallow. I hadn’t eaten since cruddy school lunch, and I was so happy to have some food that simple physical satisfaction drove all the panic and confusion down for a while. Howlaa and I sat on crates and she held an apple in each hand, taking alternating bites and demolishing them down to the cores in just a few chews.
Wisp didn’t eat, but only hovered, casting light. “You asked where you are. The place has many names –”
“The Nex,” Howlaa said around a mouthful of fruit. “The Ax. The Magpie City. The Stolen State. The Cage. The Orphanarium. The Hub. The –”
“Its proper name is Nexington-on-Axis,” Wisp said. “Or so the Regent who rules here says. The original name, what the long-dead Queen and Kings of Nexington-on-Axis might have called this… place… are lost to time and likely unpronounceable by the tongues, pheromone glands, or throat-sacs of even any creature Howlaa can transform into.”
“But a name is just a name. What this place is… Wisp, you tell her.”
“It is the linchpin of the multiverse. Or, more accurately, a sort of… barnacle growing on that linchpin. We exist at the center of all things, and any universes that are, might be, will be, or have been, all turn and churn and twist around us. We live in the pivot of possible worlds, with galaxies and stars and planets and realities whipping above and below and around.”
“And the royal orphans, they can reach out. They can snatch.” Howlaa’s hand whipped out and grabbed another apple, quick as a snapped rubber band. “They steal whatever they want – or whatever the Regent wants – from any universe that passes by.”
Wisp bobbled before me. “We don’t know how their power works – wormholes, white holes, harnessing negative energy? But long ago the Queen and Kings built vast machines called snatch-engines in the royal palace, machines that enhanced their natural abilities, and by using those engines, the orphans can reach even farther and steal bigger things. Buildings. City blocks. Farmland. Seas. Nexington-on-Axis has no natural resources at all. Everything is imported. Even the people.”
“It’s a bloody kleptocracy, is what it is,” Howlaa said.
“I taught her that word,” Wisp said. “It means ‘government by thieves.'”
I shook my head. “This is crazy. This is beyond science fiction.”
Howlaa shrugged. “It is what it is, Randy. We’re way out in the boonies now. The royal orphans are mostly filling up the Nex in a spiral pattern – who knows why, maybe that’s what a straight line looks like to them – and they put your little chunk of Earth in the next empty slot, out by the food stores and reservoirs and slag pits and prison camps. It’s only a few hours back to the city center by autogyro, but on foot…”
She shook her head. “So that’s ‘where,’ and enough of ‘who’ for now, which leaves…” She pointed to my hands. “‘What.‘ As in, what is that thing you found. Which we found first, only we found it in a locked room in a forbidden vault in the depths of the Regent’s palace. It’s called a jump-engine. Or the jump-engine, since there’s only one. Built by the Regent’s scientists, reverse-engineered from the snatch-engines.”
“Literally reverse,” Wisp said, “as the snatch-engines can only seize things and bring them here, while the engine you found can take things away. Or send them away. Or send people away.”
“Teleportation,” Howlaa said. “Poof! Here you are, there you go, no passing through the space between, instantaneous. Could be very handy.”
I looked at my hands, thinking of the way I’d moved from the autogyro to the woods in a blink. Teleportation might even beat shapeshifting as far as cool powers go. I’d never really been anywhere, except Hawaii, so the power to go anywhere was pretty appealing.
“Except,” Howlaa said. “You activated the engine earlier, and it tasted your blood, and hooked itself into your body. So now you’ve got the mind –”
“Really the whole nervous and limbic system,” Wisp interjected.
“– that controls it,” Howlaa finished. “Not exactly part of our plan.”
I stared at the bracelets and the rings and thought, Take me to Paris, but nothing happened. Of course it had to be more complicated than that. “How did this thing wind up in Pomegranate Grove Georgia?”
“Because I smashed it against the wall when it looked like the Regent’s men might capture us,” Howlaa said. “It’s got a self-preservation circuit, and when the choice was go smash or jump away, it jumped. Why did it jump to your town? Why not? It had to go somewhere.”
Wisp said, “We knew the orphans would snatch the jump-engine back soon, and that it would get dropped out here on the edge of everything, so we escaped the palace, stole an aircraft, acquired a device capable of tracking the jump-engine’s emanations, and… Here we are.”
“If this thing can teleport you anywhere,” I said, “why didn’t you just use it to get away?”
“It needs a body to bond to,” Howlaa said. “Wisp doesn’t have a body, and mine is way too… flexible. If I put on the jump-engine while I was human, and later changed my shape into something else, the jump-engine might decide my body was under attack and teleport random parts of me to a safe distance, or something equally nasty. We were going to take the jump-engine to a man we know and get him to send us far, far away from here.”
“Why do you want to leave?” I said. “The Nex sounds like a pretty cool place.”
“We are slaves,” Wisp said. “We work for the Regent, because if we do not obey him, he can make our lives misery. The jump-engine is our way out. We stole it as soon as we learned of its existence. We only want our freedom.”
I tried to pull the rings off my fingers, but they were way too tight, which was funny, since they didn’t feel tight – it was like they tightened up when I touched them. “If the Regent is so nasty, why doesn’t he just grab you, or me, with the snatch-whatsits?”
“The snatch-engines don’t work within the confines of Nexington-on-Axis itself – they can only grab things from outside,” Howlaa said. “The Regent says trying to snatch something from within the Nex would be like trying to eat your own head. Lucky for us. Our tracking device doesn’t work now, either.” She consulted a little black box with a blinking green light on top. “The jump-engine’s energy signature has changed, now that it’s connected to you. Must be some kind of stealth routine that comes online when it’s activated. So that means the Regent can’t find us by tracking the jump-engine, either. He’ll have to come after us the old-fashioned way. Though there are spy cameras, not to mention the gutless citizens of the Ax. Most of them would sell us out for a keg of beer or loaf of bread. We should be all right if we keep moving, though. Me and Wisp are good at getting places we’re not supposed to go.”
I stared at my beautiful jewelry, and the rings changed from glass to sapphire to ruby as I watched. “How does this thing work?” Maybe if they told me, I could get the engine to do something when I wanted it to.
“The device is made of conditional matter,” Wisp said, “its physical nature shifting in and out of phase with the fluctuations of the axis of the multiverse, maintaining correspondences with certain distant but linked particles, or rather the possibility of particles, and –”
“It’s science.” Howlaa rolled her eyes. “It works by science.”
“Right. So… what exactly am I supposed to do for you?”
Howlaa grinned. It looked like she still had too many teeth, maybe a few left over from that last transformation. “Travel with us a while. Figure out how the use the jump-engine. Save the day. The only other choice is letting the Regent catch you so he can remove the jump-engine. He’d probably start with taking off your skin and pulling out your bones.” I must have made a pretty horrified expression because her face softened and she said, “We’ll help you get home, when we’re done. Which isn’t an offer anybody else snatched up to the Cage here has ever gotten.”
“I’m not so sure I want to go home,” I said. “Home isn’t so great. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of the Nex.”
“You’ll have a chance to see more than you’d like,” Howlaa said. “Enough talk. If your belly’s full we should find a place to sleep, except Wisp, who doesn’t sleep, so he gets guard duty. In the morning we’ll find transportation. I know a man near here who might be able to help us.”
“A friend of yours?”
Wisp laughed. It was weird, hearing laughter from the empty air, weirder even than words. “Howlaa doesn’t have friends. Howlaa just has people she has declined to kill so far.”
I blinked – Howlaa was clearly tough, but a killer?
Wisp said, “I’m sorry. That was a joke. Perhaps not the most reassuring thing to hear just now. Howlaa isn’t an assassin, so much as an… exterminator. Pest control. She disposes of dangerous things snatched up and brought here by mistake. My apologies, Miranda. ”
I nodded, wondering how much of a joke it was, really. “It’s okay. And you can call me Randy.”
“Never happen,” Howlaa said. “Wisp doesn’t do nicknames. Wisp is precise. Grab a couple of apples for the road and come on.” Howlaa went to the door and stepped outside. There was a sound – sort of a brief “zap” – a flash of violet light, and then Howlaa fell, right outside the doorway. The last piece of apple dropped from my fingers.
“Hide,” Wisp said, right in my ear, and I scrambled behind a pile of crates in a dark corner as quick as I could, peering around the side. Was Howlaa dead? I’d never seen a dead person before – Dad’s coffin was empty, obviously – and this would be a bad night to start. Wisp’s lights darkened, one by one, though if I squinted I could still see the specks – they were just more like gnats than fireflies, now. He floated behind the crates with me.
Bulky figures appeared in the doorway, three of them, holding things like vastly overcomplicated machine guns, with way too many knobs and antennas and glowing red and green lights, and miniature pitchforks poking out of the end of the barrels. One prodded Howlaa with his foot and said something harsh and grinding in what must have been a language. I couldn’t see what they looked like, and was sort of glad.
“Nagalinda,” Wisp said. “The Regent prefers their species for his personal guard because they have astonishingly high thresholds for pain.”
I was afraid to say anything, in case they might hear me – Wisp was able to float a mote right into my ear and talk, so I was pretty sure they couldn’t hear him.
“I’ll take care of this, you stay here.” Wisp’s now-dark cloud moved toward one of the guards, but in the dim light I couldn’t see what happened. One of the Nagalinda stiffened, then took a jerky, awkward step around Howlaa, almost falling over. He raised the gun, looked at it for a long moment, then reversed it, holding it backwards. The other guards talked to him – more guttural consonants and mushy vowels – and the clumsy guard smashed the butt of his gun into another guard’s face, knocking him down. He fell into the apple room, just a few feet away from me. I gasped. This was something Wisp was doing, something he was making the guard do – mind control? Body control? Could Wisp possess people?
The guard Wisp controlled tried to attack the other one, but the Nagalinda knocked his legs out from under him and threw him on the ground outside the hut. While Wisp’s guard struggled to get upright, looking a lot like a turtle on its back, the other one lifted his gun, twiddled a knob, and shot what looked like a stream of sparkling silver liquid all over his possessed partner.
I expected Wisp to come spiraling up into the air, maybe glowing, maybe not, but nothing happened – just Howlaa unmoving, and two guards down, and one big one still standing. He started to come into the room, and before I had time to get petrified with fear I ran out from behind the crate to the fallen guard and picked up his gun. It weighed a ton, and I couldn’t even find a trigger, just a bunch of buttons, but I pointed it at the last guard anyway, hoping to scare him until I could figure out how to set the phaser on stun or whatever.
The guard came toward me, and up close I could see his face, which was like some kind of deep-sea nightmare fish – broad and flat, no nose, lipless mouth full of triangular teeth, oversized pearly white eyes – and I whimpered. He spoke, almost soothingly, then swatted the gun from my hands. After that he laughed. A laugh is a laugh in any language I guess. Something hard into something soft
Something hard into something soft. The Nagalinda’s face was scary, but it looked pretty soft to me, and I had about a pound and a half of metal on each of my hands, so while it was laughing I cocked back my arm and just punched.
I felt the impact, but only barely, and as soon as I struck… The Nagalinda disappeared. Poof, gone, gun falling at my feet. I looked at my hands. Wisp had said the jump-engine could send things away. I guess it worked. I just wish I knew how it worked. The jump-engine only seemed to do anything when I was too scared or adrenaline-pumped to control it.
Howlaa groaned, and I went to her, glad she wasn’t dead. She rubbed the side of her head while I helped her up. “Whatsit?” she said, and I babbled about how the guards had hit her, how Wisp had possessed one, how I’d faced the last guard.
By the end, Howlaa was laughing. “You punched him so hard he disappeared? That’s a good trick. Keep doing that and you’ll get a reputation around here. People might be more afraid of you than they are of me. Come on. We have to free Wisp. The guard must have sprayed some fixative on the body, something to keep Wisp from escaping, but the guns should have a setting to undo it.” Howlaa picked up a gun and started flicking switches and turning knobs like she’d done it a thousand times before.
“So Wisp is in that guard?”
Howlaa nodded. “Up the nose, in the mouth, into the ears – through any hole, really, even the more personal ones. He can take over bodies, but he’s crap when it comes to controlling them. He doesn’t have a body of his own, so it’s not like he gets to practice very often. Mostly he just falls over.”
“So maybe he could take over the Regent, and…”
Howlaa shook his head. “The Regent and his best cronies have defenses against the Bodiless – brain implants, neural doodads, who knows what. All those things are too expensive to give every grunt and guard, but the Regent might send some better-equipped special forces after us when he sees what happened here..”
“These guys weren’t special?”
Howlaa sprayed something orange and glistening from the gun onto the guard Wisp had possessed. “Nah. Bog standard. We’ve got a lot worse on the way if we don’t move fast.”
Wisp’s motes, glowing again, came drifting up out of the guard’s clothes and mouth, reassembling into a cloud. The guard moaned but didn’t get up.
“Thank you for stepping in, Miranda,” Wisp said. “I thought I was going to be stuck in that wet mush of a thing forever. And Howlaa, thanks –”
“Mutual appreciation over,” Howlaa said. “Now we run.”