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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4 Responses to Chapter 12

  1. Pingback: Table of Contents | The Nex

  2. Pingback: Tim Pratt » Blog Archive » YOU LIKE THAT SONG?

  3. Karen says:

    Hi Tim, I just wanted to let you know that I am still reading the Nex and that I couldn’t get through Monday’s without it. I’m also about 2/3 of the way through ‘The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl’ and I’m loving it.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Me too! Me too! I like reading this a chapter at a time every week.

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