“My Dad is dead.” I clenched my butterknife so hard it made my fingers hurt.
“Oh? Really? Perhaps I’ve been misinformed. How did he die?”
“A gas explosion destroyed his restaurant.”
“Ahh.” The Regent sat back, crossing his hands over his belly. “A gas explosion, of course. That’s almost as popular as tornadoes or sinkholes as an explanation for where things go when the royal orphans snatch them. Did the authorities recover a body?”
The Regent spread his hands. “There you have it. Because his body is here.”
“If he’s really here, let me see him.”
“No, dear,” the Regent said gently. “Not until my scientists have pried those rings and bracelets away from you. Then you can be reunited.”
“How can I believe you?”
“I am a thief, Miranda, by necessity – but not a liar.”
“Not good enough. How stupid do you think I am? It doesn’t make any sense, that I would be here, and my father, too? Out of all the possible people in the universe, in multiple universes? It’s stupid to think we’d both get grabbed.”
“It’s improbable, I admit, but you must understand, the royal orphans are whimsical, in their way. When I asked them to find me a French chef, one who could make me the food I’d loved in my childhood, I was a bit surprised to see the snatch-engines reel in the finest restaurant in the small town of Pomegranate Grove, Georgia. Though your father has proven a satisfactory chef. Those same orphans were instrumental in creating the jump-engine. It appears they programmed its self-preservation circuit with the same sense of whimsy, as it jumped to your town for safety. That’s why I said I believe the orphans make little jokes. They enjoy coincidences and synchronicities. Like your presence here. Besides, isn’t the taste of this food evidence enough that your father’s hands created it?”
I snorted. I was pretty sure some of the meat in the cassoulet came from animals not even native to my planet, so, no, not exactly. “Nope. Show me my father. Now.”
“No, no, a thousand times no.”
“You think I’m making requests here? Take me to him –”
“Do not raise your voice to me. I am the unquestioned ruler of the city-state at the center of space and time. I made myself Regent of a kingdom more powerful than any on the Earth where I was born. I began a refugee in mud and rose to be the single most significant individual in the whole of the multiverse. You will obey me, Miranda. I have made you a fine offer. Take it, or a less savory option will be thrust upon you.” He’d dropped the whole kindly-grandfather pretense, which was a relief – I hadn’t been fooled, not really, but seeing his true colors made it easier to resist him.
But what if he was telling the truth? If my Dad really was here?
Well, in that case the Regent was the kind of bastard who’d steal a man from his wife and kids forever just to get a good meal. Whatever bad things Wisp and Howlaa had done, it couldn’t be worse than that. Either the Regent was lying to trick me or he was an evil jerk. “Howlaa and Wisp said taking the jump-engine from my body might kill me. You’re saying otherwise?”
“My scientists are quite talented, Miranda. I’m sure it won’t come to that.”
Right. Not reassuring. What would he care if I did die in the process? And even if I didn’t, what incentive would he have to let me see my father afterward? How could I trust the word of – of a kleptocrat?
No. If my Dad was alive, and here, I’d find him, but not this way. I hadn’t known the Regent long, but I didn’t like him. Maybe thinking we could overthrow him was idealism, and maybe idealism was the province of the young, but so what? I am young.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll go with you.”
“Marvelous, Miranda. You are wise beyond your years.” He rose and walked toward me, and I stood up from my chair. “I’ll summon a helicopter.” He put his hand on my shoulder.
I twisted and punched him in the stomach as hard as I could, and he disappeared.
Sirens and alarms started whooping from one direction, and I ran as fast the other way as I could.
I was pursued. Helicopters whirred behind me. Nagalinda did come rappelling down from above this time, firing their strange guns, but I must have been terrified or adrenaline-jacked enough to trigger the jump-engine’s protective circuits because my entire flight was a blur of teleportations – half a dozen hops from hills to slanting slate rooftops to giant skulls half-sunk in water to fields full of open pits and purple gas. I left the pursuit behind, but jumping so often, so quickly, took something out of me – my fingers ached, and the rings pulsed and twisted and throbbed. I landed, at last, in a dirt lot filled with big pipes, building materials for some construction project, and I crawled inside one of the pipes with aching legs and a full stomach and a whirring mind and a hollowed-out heart. At least I wasn’t hungry, and the night wasn’t too cold, and inside the pipe I might be invisible from above, and maybe I had sent the Regent so far away it would take him a long time to come back.
I was so exhausted I managed to fall asleep without thinking too much about what I was going to do come morning.
Something poked me in the ribs, and I rolled over, bumping my head on the roof of the pipe. The poke came again – it was a broom handle – and I grabbed it and yanked the stick out of the poker’s hands. Somebody gasped, and then a figure squatted down before the opening of the pipe. He had a wedge-shaped scaly head like a lizard, but he wore a jumpsuit – I thought of that Alice in Wonderland Disney cartoon, of the lizard Bill wearing a chimneysweep’s outfit. Only Bill didn’t show quite so many teeth when he opened his mouth, and this lizard-man made hissing noises at me.
“Sorry, I don’t speak… Lizardo.” He backed off, out of sight, and I climbed out of the pipe. Lizard-guy snatched the broom out of my hands and started brandishing it and spitting more hissy words, forked tongue flickering, eyes bulgy and scary. He advanced on me, this weird spiky web of frilled skin rising up from his neck and spreading out like a ruff on a picture of Shakespeare, still hissing, so I cocked back my arm to punch him into… wherever.
“Miranda, no!” I recognized that voice, and lowered my fist.
Wisp floated over and babbled at the lizard in a sputtery way. The lizard shrugged and walked off, pushing the broom. “He wasn’t attacking you,” Wisp said. “He just said, ‘You’re not a raccoon.’ I don’t think he expected to find refugees in his construction site. Perhaps you shouldn’t try to solve all your problems by punching people into outer space?”
I laughed. “Good to see you, too, sparkles.”
The motes of light bobbed in what was maybe a sort of nod. “Are you all right? We were worried, of course, when you didn’t make it to the rendezvous. Howlaa’s been beside herself.”
“How did you find me? I managed to get away from the Regent, so I didn’t think I left much of a trail.”
“You saw the Regent? He captured you?” The motes seemed agitated.
“He tried to buy me. Bribed, threatened, wined, and dined. Well, not wined. He kept the wine for himself.”
“How did you escape?”
“How do you think? I sucker-punched him and then ran like crazy, teleporting with every other step.” I looked around. “So how did you find me? And where’s Howlaa?”
“Searching for you elsewhere in the construction area. She’ll be along. We waited at the Roadyard, but when you didn’t arrive, Howlaa transformed into a chase-hound – one of her best tracking forms. She had a handkerchief you’d used, enough to get your scent, though tracking someone who can teleport is difficult. There were many gaps in the trail. It took us all night, starting back near the steam colossus, striking out almost randomly whenever the trail gave out until we could pick up your scent again. We ended up here.”
“You guys must be exhausted.”
“Howlaa is well-supplied with adrenaline, and its xenobiochemical analogues, while I do not sleep. Do not worry about us.”
“Wisp, you lazy – Randy!” Another lizard-person came over, but this one was wearing a jumpsuit of shadowcloth, so I knew it was Howlaa, apparently trying to blend in with the locals. Her eyes were a beautiful deep green, and her neck-ruff was fully extended. “I thought I smelled you. No offense. We were afraid you’d been stomped by a steam colossus or captured by the Regent.” She hugged me, and she smelled funny and lizardy, but then, I probably didn’t smell much better myself. I should’ve gotten a shower out of the Regent before taking off, though I bet if I’d gone into his house I’d never have gotten out again, jump-engine or not.
“Come with us to our transport,” Howlaa said. “And tell us everything.”
We walked past more heaps of pipes and boards, through a gate in a tall wooden fence and out of the construction site, onto what could have been an ordinary street, except for the gleaming golden manhole covers and the fact that the buildings – also golden – were rounded and curved, without a straight-line to be seen. “What is this place?”
“Just a neighborhood snatched from some planet,” Howlaa said. “These days it’s mostly populated by Scapeores.” She pointed backwards. “Like the one shoving a broom back there. Or like me, just now. Their kind mostly sleep late – they’re cold-blooded and get around more easily once the sun’s been on for a while – but the low-caste ones sleep with heat lamps on timers and rise early to do scutwork.”
“Huh. If they’re cold-blooded, why was he wearing clothes? Clothes only keep you warm by holding in your body heat, right? They’re no good if you’re cold blooded – just like bundling up in blankets won’t keep you warm if you’ve got hypothermia, there’s gotta be some warmth in you for the fabric to trap in the first place.”
“You’re right, Wisp, she is smart.” I was Jenny Kay’s partner in science class
I was Jenny Kay’s partner in science class, I thought. I couldn’t help but learn stuff.
“The clothes are ornamental, decorative, and functional,” Wisp said. “They denote caste. The highest members of Scapeore society wear only a few jewels and nothing else.”
“There’s only about two hundred Scapeore in all of the Ax,” Howlaa said. “I give their precious caste system one more generation before it falls apart, and some high-caste lady-lizard gets her eggs fertilized by a dung-jockey, same as happened with the Beetleboys and -girls after they’d been here a while. Maybe I should wear this body and try to seduce a lizard-prince. It’d be fun to mess with them. Things out here in the provinces are still pretty conservative. Closer to the city center you’ll see things get more lively.”
“So we’re still a long way from where we’re going?”
“We’re not far from the Machine Waste,” Wisp said. “Your trail went well away at points but doubled-back a bit.” He made a noise like clearing his throat, which was funny, since he didn’t have a throat. “Howlaa, she… met the Regent. In the flesh.”
Howlaa immediately turned, swept my legs out from under me with a kick, and knocked me to the ground. I landed on my back and all the air got bashed out of my lungs.
“Howlaa!” Wisp shouted, but she jumped on top of me, straddling my body and pinning my arms down by the wrists before I could even think to fight.
“Howlaa, Miranda is with us,” Wisp said. “Release her.”
Howlaa stared into my eyes, her scaly face dead blank, not that I could read lizard-people expressions anyway. “She’s with us so far as she’s able,” Howlaa said. She grunted, and her body began to change, though it wasn’t a complete transformation – a human hand burst from her side, emerging from a hole in her shadow-suit. The hand kept extending, an arm coming with it, and the fingers fumbled in one of the shadow-suits many there-and-gone pockets. The hand came out holding the tracking device they’d used to find the jump-engine the night they found me instead.
“A chimera-form, Howlaa? I thought your kind found such things unseemly.”
“Shushit, Wisp, sometimes I need an extra hand, and you can’t lend one.” The light blinked red, and Howlaa cursed. “Lie still, Miranda. Wisp, she’s infected.”
“Oh, dear,” Wisp said. “It never even occurred to me –”
“Because you don’t have a body,” Howlaa said. “You forget how vulnerable they are.”
“Infected?” I said. “What do you mean infected?” I struggled, but there wasn’t much point.
“Wisp will fix you,” Howlaa said, and the last thing I remember is tiny motes of Wisp’s body streaming toward me, into my mouth, into my nose, and then everything went dark.
I woke up shivering. I was sweating, wrapped in some crinkling material like tin foil that made me feel like a baked potato. I was on my back in a vehicle bumping along at high speed, and it was dark. Howlaa’s face appeared above me, human again, tipping a cup to my lips. “Here, drink,” she said, and I swallowed, cool water. I tried to sit up and gulp more but I was too weak to move. “It will be over soon,” Howlaa said, and then it was all dark again, and I was having dreams about ants and blood and war.
“Randy. Wake up. You need to eat something.”
I blinked, squinting in the artificial light, and Howlaa helped me sit up. I was in the back of a truck, parked in a windowless warehouse with nothing but a few oil drums in the empty space. Howlaa pressed a warm cup into my hands. I sniffed it suspiciously, then began slurping it down – it was chicken broth, or something near enough, and I was starving.
“Your fever broke in the night,” Howlaa said. “You should feel better soon.”
I lowered the cup, beginning to remember. “What did you do to me?”
“Wisp healed you,” Howlaa said. “And saved our lives.”
“The Regent poisoned you, Randy.”
Wisp floated over. “You were full of nanites, tiny machines with transponders beaming your location back to the Regent in real-time.”
“That’s the best case scenario for what the nanites were doing,” Howlaa said. “That’s why we wrapped you in the foil blanket, I don’t know if you remember. Metal to block the transmissions, assuming you were transmitting. Maybe they were mind-control nanites turning you into a sleeper-agent assassin instead. One punch and you could send us into cells deep in the palace.” Howlaa hopped down from the truck and went to one of the metal drums, tipping it a little as if checking to see if it was full. “Wisp went inside your body and tuned your immune system, taught your body’s natural defenses to recognize the little machines as invaders. You spent two days in a fever fighting the infection.”
I swallowed. “The Regent… he has that kind of technology? He can do that?”
“Not to me,” Howlaa said. “It’s easy for me to expel foreign stuff from my body, the same way I puke up hormones or poisons I need to get rid of. And Wisp is immune, what with having no body. But you… Did you eat any food he gave you? Drink anything?” Fairy food. Cursed pomegranate seeds.
Fairy food. Cursed pomegranate seeds.I nodded. “I’m so stupid. I had no idea.”
“Not your fault,” Wisp said. “You’re not from here, you couldn’t have known, any more than someone from the 18th century on your planet would know to be afraid of… atomic bombs. Bazookas. Biohazards.”
“But if the Regent could track me, why did he let me sleep in that pipe all night? Why not send in some guys to sneak up on me and hit me with a tranquilizer first?”
“Well, you did punch him all the way into orbit,” Howlaa said with a grin. “I’ve still got some sources on the inside, and they tell me the Regent appeared in one of the magisters’ orbital pleasure-palaces, landed right in the middle of an –”
“An inappropriate activity,” Wisp said sharply.
Howlaa laughed. “Yeah. One of those. Took him a while to get back to the surface. The snatch-engines don’t work on orbital objects – they’re still technically part of the Ax – so he had to take a conventional craft. I imagine the Regent’s lieutenants were busy dealing with his ruffled feathers for most of the night. And why hurry? He knew he could find you whenever he wanted.”
“He was probably waiting to see where you would go, too,” Wisp said. “Hoping you would find Howlaa and me, allowing him to capture all three of us.”
“Nagalinda from the palace guard started coming out of the woodwork after Wisp went up your nose, too,” Howlaa said. “They were watching your location, but Wisp is hard to see from a distance, and I just looked like a Scapeore. One of them must have figured out we were the dangerous fugitives, though. Took a fair bit of running to get away from them, but I bartered for the fastest ride in the Roadyard, and once I made it to our transport and got you shielded it was easy enough to lose them.”
I climbed down from the truck, a little unsteady, but I felt better with hot food in my belly, even if it was liquid food. I circled the vehicle, and saw it wasn’t a truck, but something much weirder. It had wheels – a lot of them – along with tank-treads and folded metal spindly spider-leg things and pontoon floats. “This is wild.”
“It’s a most-terrain vehicle,” Howlaa said.
“It can’t cross lava,” Wisp said. “And it might have trouble in the non-Euclidean neighborhoods. Oh, and it can’t fly properly, it can only do brief powered glides. But in most terrain, it’s the fastest thing around. Built from one of Merrill’s schematics.”
“Drunk cranky Merrill? He designed this?”
“Genius is not the sole province of the good or the socially well-adjusted,” Wisp said.
“Hear hear,” Howlaa said, and belched. “I had to negotiate hard to get my hands on this machine.”
“What did you even have to trade?”
“I offered to let the proprietor go on living in exchange for giving me outright ownership of this vehicle,” Howlaa said. She paused. “But he talked me into accepting a short-term rental and a promise to return the machine in working order within ten days. Those Roadyard folk haggle hard.”
I laughed. “So now that you’ve got these wheels – and legs, and things – we can make good time? Get to the city proper?”
Howlaa laughed. “I never stopped traveling while you were getting well, Randy. We ran full-out for two days. We’re in the city proper. Specifically in a very boring building in the warehouse district. We’ll see about getting you a disguise, and then we’ll try to track down our associate Templeton and see what he can tell us about the jump-engine. If that goes well… we’ll move on with our plan.”
“I have an addition to the plan,” I said. “Not that I’ve heard the plan, and I look forward to it, but there’s something else I need to do.”
Howlaa frowned. “What’s that?”
“I need to find my Dad.”