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.