We slept in a giant bird’s nest, a surprisingly soft place padded with leaves and made of what looked like whole uprooted trees. The nest perched in a pile of tumbled boulders, and Howlaa had to carry me up most of the way, because I couldn’t climb, tired as I was.
Sleeping in a nest seemed weird, but Wisp said it was the safest place for miles, because everybody was afraid of the creature that lived there. He called it a “Bandersnatch,” which I remember is from that poem about the Jabberwocky, but I don’t remember much about it, except the line about “claws that catch.”
“So why aren’t we afraid of the big bird?”
“It’s not a bird, precisely… at any rate, Howlaa killed it,” Wisp said. “Though she sometimes takes on its form and flies around the surrounding area, just to keep up appearances. We decided it would be good to have some safehouses that weren’t controlled by the Regent. We’ve been planning our escape for a long time. Everything but the actual ability to escape. That’s new.”
“Why would the Regent want to steal a big monster bird from someplace anyway?”
“Oh, he didn’t,” Wisp said. “He wanted something else – an egg, a rock, a jewel, who knows? – and the snatch-engines accidentally picked up the bird along with the other things. Nexington-on-Axis is a closed system, though, so whatever comes here, stays. If we accidentally pick up something too dangerous to keep… That’s where Howlaa comes in. She neutralizes the problem.”
“I’m the Regent’s janitor. I clean up nasty messes. The kind of messes that make more messes.” Howlaa snuggled down into a heap of leaves that smelled like eucalyptus and cough drops. “At least, I used to. Now I am one of the Regent’s messes. Dawn comes soon. Go pee – take some leaves – and then snatch some sleep while you can.”
I picked my way a little distance down the rocks, managed to pull down my tights enough without falling over, and did my business, glad it was only pee. Though it’d be kind of cool to crap on another planet, I guess. Back in the nest I tried to settle down and sleep, but I couldn’t, especially once Howlaa started snoring. I stared up at the strange sky, and said, “Wisp, are you awake?”
The response was a whisper in my ear. “The Bodiless – my kind – do not sleep.”
“Those things in the sky…”
“Ah. Some are private dwellings for those high in the government – that one, the swirly blue ball? It is a pleasure palace for magisters. The one that sparkles, that looks a bit like a crown or a chandelier? Is a mining platform, extracting strange particles from the places where other universes grind up against the Nex. That twinkle of red is an orbital railgun, and I hope it does not aim itself at us again.”
I fingered the bracelets. “I wish I knew how to use this thing. How am I supposed to figure it out?”
Wisp’s motes wobbled in the wind. “We’d planned to get help from a certain disgraced government scientist named Templeton, who was involved in the early stages of the jump-engine’s development. We’ll try to see him soon. Apparently the jump-engine has some… automatic functions, ways to protect you, but as for working it voluntarily, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I would advise against experimenting with it. You could find yourself underwater, or in the vacuum of space…”
I stopped touching the bracelets. “Got it.” If I could just click the rings together and say “There’s no place like home…” I guess I wouldn’t. I mean, I missed my friend Jenny Kay, and our sort-of boyfriends, Joshua Singer and Ryan Rapoport (though we changed our minds about which one was whose boyfriend, and they seemed happy enough either way). I still didn’t understand everything that was happening, but it seemed like I would understand, if I had a little more time, and this place was way more interesting than avoiding Mom and fighting with Cal and going to school. And I liked Wisp, and Howlaa, even if Howlaa still scared me a little. People who can turn into monsters are sort of scary by nature.
I yawned. “Sleep,” Wisp said. “I will keep watch.” His motes floated away, and I closed my eyes, and eventually, I must have slept.
The sun came on, except it wasn’t a sun, but a nuclear explosion frozen in time and trapped inside a sphere of unbreakable crystal, set in the sky millennia before by the Queen and Kings of Nexington-on-Axis and set to provide ten hours of light and then switch off for ten hours of darkness, or so Wisp told me. He started to explain how it worked while I had breakfast – apples, and I was already sick of apples, even the white ones that tasted like some weird tropical fruit – but Howlaa interrupted and said, “It’s science, all right? Science is how it works.”
Wisp’s answer was cranky: “When you say ‘science’ like that you might as well be saying ‘magic’ or ‘the gods’ or –”
“Super science, then,” Howlaa said. “Are you happy? Let’s go. There’s rough ground to cover here, so,” she sighed, “I’d better let Miranda ride along. Stand back.” Howlaa started to shift and wiggle and change again, and since I wasn’t terrified this time I got to be fascinated instead. When the transformation was complete, Howlaa was a big spiderlike thing with at least a dozen spindly legs and a roundish central mass that didn’t have eyes or a mouth but just a bunch of antennae, like snail antlers. The shadowy clothes she wore changed shape and became something like a seat or a saddle.
The spider – Howlaa – squatted down and Wisp said, “Well, climb on.”
I clambered up, where the shadowy stuff, which felt like stiff cloth, shaped itself around me and held me in tighter than a roller coaster’s straps. “Can she turn into anything?”
“Anything with blood in it,” Wisp said, and then Howlaa started to run.
I thought she’d been quick as a person, but as a spider she was at least as fast as a car. The wind streamed by so hard I could barely keep my eyes open, but I could see well enough to make out the crazy piles of jagged rocky rubble we passed over, with Howlaa leaping chasms and scrabbling over treacherous slopes as easily as I’d walk across my kitchen floor. In what seemed like moments we were beyond the rubble of rocks and racing through the remains of a city, only the buildings were made of dirt and paper and resembled wasp’s nests. “What is this place?” I yelled over the wind.
“Who knows?” Wisp said in my ear. “The Regent let the royal orphans know he wanted something, and they fired up the snatch-engines to get it. I’m sure they got whatever they needed, but they also got these ruins in the process. Eventually, as the population expands, I’m sure our citizens will take up residence. For now they’re deserted.”
We ran for a long time before Howlaa slowed down, and we passed so many things. A pile of blimps with holes in the gasbags. More trees, only some of them weren’t trees but giant mushrooms. A thing like a big termite’s nest that rose into the sky so high it made my eyes water trying to see the top. An ordinary parking lot like you’d see at the mall, complete with lightposts, sitting in a meadow of weird green flowers. A sword as big as an apartment building jammed into the ground, black metal hilt sticking out at an angle. And more. Nexington-on-Axis was a patchwork place, and the weather was like a mild spring afternoon no matter what weird stuff surrounded us.
Howlaa stopped running beside what could have been any old junked-up country farmhouse built on bare dirt, surrounded by heaps of scrap metal and various piles covered in gray and faded blue tarps. But this farmhouse was on the shores of a shining lake, or maybe an ocean for all I knew, that stretched off in the distance as far as I could see.
Howlaa squatted down again and I slid off, legs numb – we’d only stopped once in all those hours, to drink from a spring bubbling out of a rock – and stomped around, trying to get some feeling back. I’d been gone from home less than a day, and felt like I’d seen the world several times over. I liked it, but I was starting to see some advantages to going back someday. For one thing, I could have used a hot shower and my own bathroom, even if I do have to share the facilities with Mom. (Cal gets his own bathroom because he’s such a pig.)
Howlaa rippled and transformed. The shadowy stuff was clothes again, but this time it was a skimpy halter and even tinier shorts. She looked like a skank, like Tina McKenzie the day she got sent home from school for being dressed inappropriately.
“Those clothes…” I said.
Howlaa arranged her top, which made her boobs, which weren’t very big really, look a lot bigger. I think she misunderstood what I was asking. “Being a skinshifter is hell on normal clothing. I got sick of ending up naked at the end of a fight, so the Regent had his scientists whip this up for me. It’s smartcloth – changes to fit my shape.”
“It, ah, definitely fits your shape now,” I said.
Howlaa nodded. “That’s the point.”
“So, how does it work?”
Howlaa opened her mouth, but I held up my hand. “Wait, don’t tell me. Science.”
Howlaa smiled, and it was a lot like the way the wolf-monster smiled. “Smart girl.”
Wisp floated near me while Howlaa walked up to the farmhouse door. “Howlaa is not above using sex appeal to get what she needs. She specializes in physical solutions. That doesn’t always mean beating people up.”
I thought about that. “Eww,” I said.
“Indeed,” Wisp agreed. “I don’t know how you bodied types do it.”
I started to say we didn’t all do it, or anyway not yet, but then the front door slammed open and a skinny guy wearing patched overalls came out holding some kind of gun, but with a bell at the end of the barrel like an old-fashioned musket.
“My friend!” Howlaa said. “I’ve come to visit!”
The guy, who was maybe not as old as I thought at first despite his white hair, lowered the gun and frowned. “What brings the Regent’s chief junkyard dog all the way out here? I haven’t seen you since my change-of-address-at-gunpoint.”
“We’re on unofficial business,” Howlaa said.
He lifted the gun again. “Don’t get me involved in your smuggling bullshit. That’s how I wound up stuck all the way out here under house arrest in the first place. If the Regent didn’t need my schematics, I’d be in a gulag somewhere.”
“Merrill,” Howlaa said, and I wouldn’t have believed she could purr before then. “We come in peace. I don’t ask much. A chance to use the bathroom for me and my friend – the friend who has a bladder anyway – and maybe a bite to eat. Then we’ll discuss things further. Unless you’d like me to tell Regent about the moonshine you’re brewing out back? You know he disapproves of you drinking. It makes your blueprints go to shit.”
Merrill swore. “Come in, then. And I imagine you’ll want a drink from that still you’re blackmailing me with?”
“Maybe one,” Howlaa said. “Or two. Three at most.”
“Please,” Merrill said. “You drink like a goddamn fish.”
“Speaking of fish…” Howlaa said, following Merrill inside.
“Piece of crap.” Howlaa banged a big red wrench against the side of a twenty-foot-long metal sculpture of a fish propped up on cinderblocks near the shore. The fish had overlapping metal scales that tinkled in the breeze, eyes made of big dirty curved windows, and metal jaws full of serrated teeth. Howlaa flung open a toolbox and began rattling around inside. Her outfit looked like a mechanic’s jumpsuit now. I sat in what shade I could find from a nearby pile of splintery boards, glad to be out of Merrill’s crap-filled house, all heaped with engine parts and with greasy blueprints thumbtacked to the walls. The only upside of the visit had been the chance to use a real indoor toilet, even if it was almost as dirty as Cal’s bathroom, and I’d had to sort of hover over the toilet seat to pee.
Wisp bobbed in the breeze. “It just occurred to me – you must forgive me, I have no family in the conventional sense – that your loved ones must be worried about you, Miranda. I wish we had a way to get a message to them. Normally, I’m afraid, it doesn’t much matter, because new citizens have no hope of ever returning home, but your situation is unusual. I hope you don’t get in too much trouble when you return.”
“Oh, I’ll get in trouble.” I didn’t want to think about it. Being grounded for the rest of seventh grade didn’t sound fun. “But at first my Mom will just think I ran away. They won’t worry much until tonight, probably.”
Howlaa, kneeling to peer underneath the mechanical fish, didn’t seem to be paying any attention. Wisp floated closer, motes of light stirring together, and said, “Oh? They won’t think you’ve been kidnapped?”
Wisp doesn’t have a face, so it’s not like his expression made me uncomfortable, but I still looked down at my feet. “I’ve run away before. A couple of times. Once I slept under the bleachers at school by the football field, until the janitor woke me up at dawn. The other time I just hid out in a friend’s basement.” Jenny Kay’s basement. It wasn’t an awesome basement with couches and a pool table and pinball machines. It was just pipes and spiderwebs and old rakes. But Jenny snuck down after dinner and brought me a corn muffin with butter and a chicken leg wrapped in a napkin, so it was still better than shivering behind the school.
“Running away’s a good impulse, but you went back afterward?” Howlaa growled. “Quitter.” Guess she was paying attention after all.
“Why did you run away?” Wisp’s movements were hypnotic, beautiful and random.
“I don’t know. The first time things were just really tense at home, and I couldn’t stand it, I needed to get out.” That was right after what happened to Dad, with Mom all zombified on pills, Cal in his room blasting music all the time, the whole family falling to pieces. “The second time was mostly to avoid my Mom’s boyfriend Ross – it was the first night he slept over. I can’t stand him.”
“This man beats you?” Howlaa banged a wrench or something, and the fish shuddered, tiny metal scales showering down flakes of rust. “Or tries to take liberties –”
“No! Nothing like that. He just… he sings all the time.”
“I do not understand,” Wisp said.
“He’s… he’s always singing songs from old musicals and doing dumb little dances and he makes my Mom heart-shaped pancakes and he tries to talk to me about stupid things. Like, he got my reading list from English class somehow, and read all the books, and tried to talk to me about them.” The only good thing about Ross was that Mom pretty much stopped drinking once they got serious a few months ago. She was finally “moving on.” But I didn’t really want her to move on. When your husband gets exploded, shouldn’t you stay stuck right where you are for a while? I didn’t want her getting over Dad. Especially not for a giant loser like Ross.
Wisp bobbled. “I fail to see what’s so objectionable about singing and cooking and –”
“She means the man is annoying, Wisp.” Howlaa climbed out from under the fish, which was beginning to move its fins with a series of squeaky shrieks of metal. “With the la-di-dah and the prancing and the sunny disposition that doesn’t know when to shush.”
“That’s it.” I nodded. “That’s exactly it.”
“I know it is,” Howlaa said. “Now get in the fish. This lake isn’t going to cross itself.”
I blinked. “In that?”
Howlaa thumped the side of the big fish, and a hatch popped open, with a collapsible stairway unfolding down. “The only way to travel. At least, the only way to travel unnoticed. If we move on the surface of the lake, the Regent’s spies might see us, but if we travel under the waves…”
“That thing’s a submarine? I thought it was, I don’t know, a bath toy for giants.”
“The only giants here are the steam colossi, and they don’t take baths,” Wisp said. “And while they do enjoy toys, of a sort… this isn’t the sort.”
“It’s perfectly safe,” Howlaa said. “Or close enough. You might get wet, but otherwise. Merrill swears it’s seaworthy. He knows if he tries to drown us I’ll just swim out and drown him.” Howlaa made a hurry-up motion but I didn’t budge.
“Can’t you just turn into a manatee or something? Swim that way?”
“Yes, and Wisp can just dim his lights a bit and float, but you can’t, and we need you. Until we figure out how to work that jump-engine you’re wearing, you need to travel the ordinary way.”
I didn’t think a big metal fish was very ordinary. “Where exactly are we going? You keep talking about a plan, plans for me, and I know what your goal is, but what are we doing?”
An old man with a neatly trimmed beard, wearing a long white robe, appeared between us. He didn’t so much as glance at me, just smiled beatifically, looking at nothing in particular. “Howlaa. This disobedience saddens me. And Wisp, I expected better of you. Please, both of you, return to the palace. Whatever your objections to the terms of your service, I’m sure we can work out some mutually beneficial agreement. Just return the thing you stole, and all will be forgiven.” The old man chuckled. “I can’t fault you for stealing, after all. You did learn it from watching me. But you must choose your targets more wisely.”
“Into the fish,” Howlaa said. “No more talk, now.”
I hurried around the man, wanting to ask who he was. He sighed. “I assume you’re ignoring me? Attempting to flee? Really, Howlaa, all the resources of Nexington-on-Axis are arrayed against you. Didn’t you realize we would have Merrill under remote surveillance, after the indiscretions in his past? Admittedly, he tends to destroy any equipment we place within his perimeter of influence, but he can’t knock spy satellites out of the sky.”
“Ignore him,” Wisp said. “It’s just a projection, beamed down from the satellite. They can see us with their remote cameras, but they can’t hear us, and they can only see the tops of your heads, not your faces. And, I hope, not your jewelry.”
I went up the rickety steps into the fish. There was another door immediately in front of me, like I was in an airlock, so I pushed that open and looked around. I’d been on boats before. This wasn’t much like those boats. The inside of the fish was mostly bare metal and steel mesh and pipes running everywhere, and it smelled of algae. “Is that guy the Regent?”
“None other,” Howlaa said. “Probably sending a fleet of autogyros and drone jets as we speak. The sooner we get into the lake the better. The satellites can’t see underwater, and it’s a big lake, and I know all the caves.” Howlaa slammed the door shut, and I tried to find a place to sit that didn’t look like it would give me tetanus just from touching it.
“Where’s Howlaa going?”
“She has to push the sub in the water,” Wisp said. The fish jerked, and lurched, and splashed, and I barely kept my seat by grabbing a metal cross-bar overhead. The hatch opened again and Howlaa climbed in, dripping water.
“How did you push this thing? It’s huge!”
“Some of my forms are very strong.” Howlaa went past me and sat down in a pilot’s chair in the fish’s head. She started to throw levers and flip switches and the fish sank, the big glass eyes filling up with lake water, clear at first, then murkier as we descended. Water began to drip in tiny dribbles from the inside of the fish’s head, though it was dry where I sat. “I’ll take evasive maneuvers, though I doubt there are other subs here. They were all in the Landlock Sea last time I saw a status-of-force report. It will take some time for the Regent to get combat vessels here, and we’ll be gone by then, I hope.”
“So about this plan –” I said.
“Shushit!” Howlaa shouted, and I shrunk back as her voice echoed in the confines of the sub.
“Howlaa needs to concentrate now,” Wisp said, soothing. “Better to talk about… other things. You mentioned your mother’s boyfriend. What happened to your, ah, original father?”
“Wisp is taking an interest,” Howlaa said from the sweating head of the fish, and I wondered if her friendly tone was an apology for snapping at me. “Watch out.”
“I am interested,” Wisp said, sounding dramatically hurt. I guess when you don’t have a face you learn to put a lot of expression into your voice. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but it’s apt to be a long voyage, and Howlaa’s not much of a conversationalist.”
“My Dad was –” I almost used my Mom’s phrase, and said “He was taken from us,” but instead I said, “He got blown up. Two years ago.”
“Bomb? Mortar fire? Soldier?” Howlaa sounded halfway interested.
“He was a chef. At a restaurant downtown. There was a gas leak one night, and he was the first one in the next morning, wanted to try out some new ideas for recipes, and… They think when he turned on the light there was a spark, or maybe he just somehow didn’t smell the gas and tried to turn on the stove… Anyway, the restaurant blew up. We went to see it, after. Nothing left but a hole in the ground and some pipes sticking out.”
“I am sorry for your loss,” Wisp said, solemn.
“Hell of a thing,” Howlaa said. “There may be explosions in our future, but we’ll try to keep you out of them.”
“Do you have a large family?” Wisp asked.
“A few cousins I don’t see much, but otherwise, no, just me, my Mom, and my brother Cal, for whatever he’s worth.”
“Ah,” Wisp said. “Your brother is… not nice?”
“He’s just Cal.” I almost missed him. “He won’t drive me to school unless Mom yells at him, but he’s not all bad. He lets me watch his band practice.” His guitarist was really cute, even if the music sucked. “He’s the only one who hates Mom’s boyfriend as much as I do.” I looked at the rings on my fingers and sighed. “Cal’s the one who found the jump-engine. I don’t know where. I guess he just picked it up because it was pretty, same as me, probably saw it on the side of the road somewhere. I noticed it glinting in the back of his car when I got home from school yesterday…” Was it only yesterday? “Anyway, I know where he keeps his spare key, so I unlocked the car and took the necklace. He came out of the house and yelled at me and started chasing me so I took off into the woods.”
“Ha! She stole,” Howlaa said. “See, she’ll be right at home here.”
I thought about saying “I steal lots of things,” but that wasn’t exactly something to be proud of, was it? I don’t know why it started. The shoplifting, I mean. I never did it before Dad died. I’m not a kleptomaniac, it’s not like I can’t stop myself from taking stuff. I just like it. Jenny Kay started it, kind of, stealing some sunglasses from the mall and encouraging me to do the same, but I took it a lot farther than Jenny ever did. There’s a loose board in the floor of my closet and I’ve got all kinds of stuff in there. I tell myself it’s Christmas presents for everybody, but it’s not like I even steal things anybody would want. Shoplifting just makes me feel a thrill, like I’m on an adventure, like life is exciting and dangerous instead of boring and annoying. I feel bad afterward, but the thrill is better than the guilt is bad, you know?
Something started beeping like an insistent alarm clock. “Piss and poison,” Howlaa said. “We’ve got frogmen coming after us.” She leaned forward and peered into the water, but I couldn’t see anything but murk.
“Like scuba divers?” I said. “With spear guns or something?”
“No,” Wisp said. “Literally frogmen. They’re called Dagonites. They must have a settlement near here. And they have much worse than spearguns. Normally they aren’t aggressive. The Regent must have sent them.”
“They work for the Regent?”
“Everyone here works for the Regent, Miranda. The whole of Nexington-on-Axis. Most of the residents just hope he never thinks of a job for them. But when he calls, you answer. Obedience is the price they pay for food and security”
“Take the helm, Randy,” Howlaa said. “I’m going for a little swim.” She stood up and went to the airlock hatch.
“I – what?”
“Just sit there, and if the nose starts to dip, pull back on the lever with the red handle, just a little. If the nose starts to tilt up, push the same lever forward. It’s simple. I don’t want you to go anywhere, just keep the fish steady.”
“But can’t –” No. Wisp couldn’t do it. Wisp didn’t have a body.
“It’s you, Randy.”
I sat down in the pilot’s seat and touched the lever lightly. I could see things moving in the water, now, but couldn’t make out exactly what they were. “What are you going to do?”
Howlaa paused by the airlock. “I haven’t been a Manipogo in ages. It should be fun. And Manipogos eat Dagonites.” Then she climbed in, slammed shut the hatch, and was gone.
“Well,” Wisp said. “Either Howlaa will win, or we’ll throw caution to the wind and see if we can figure out how to work that jump-engine after all.”
“Because dying in the vacuum of space is better than waiting to drown inside this fish?”
“You understand the situation completely.”
We sat. We bobbed. We waited. I saw something like a snake the size of a couch but longer go slithering across the fish’s transparent eyes, twisting sinuously as it passed.
I never knew screams sounded like that under water.