Talking to the Queen of Nexington-on-Axis, mother of the royal orphans, secretly imprisoned rightful ruler of the world outside all possible worlds, was pretty freaky. She didn’t think in straight lines like a person does, and she didn’t always answer my questions in a way that made sense, but after an hour of her dropping images and words into my brain while I ate granola bars and sipped old bottled water, I kind of got the gist. It wasn’t much like the story the Regent had told me, but I got the feeling the Queen wouldn’t even know how to lie.
The Regent had gained her trust years before, and promised to stop all the various denizens of the Nex from attacking the palace and trying to kill her family (which apparently happened a lot in the old days, which was how a couple of her husbands died). It was a pretty simple deal: He was the public face of the government, and in exchange, the Queen and Kings waited until the citizens died before harvesting any interesting body parts for their own use, and they’d occasionally steal things to help the Regent improve the city, build sewers, homes, enough food, stuff like that. I got the idea the Queen didn’t give two craps about the other people living on the Nex, and was happy to let the Regent deal with their problems. The city-state grew, the snatch-engines got fancier, and everything was great. But over the years, all the Queen’s husbands sickened and died, and she realized she didn’t have anyone left to mate with, and her children were the only children she was going to have for a while… until some of the kids grew up enough to mate with her, which was going to take like hundreds of years.
I know. Totally gross. But they aren’t human, and they do things differently than humans do. >
>And then the Regent told me he had killed all my husbands, using subtle poisons and radiations,< the queen said. >He told me this while his army of Nagalinda and other fierce creatures held my children in a single vast room of the palace, ready to be gassed and burned and flattened. He said he would kill all but the handful of my children he needed to keep the snatch-engines functioning… unless I agreed to this imprisonment, to let everyone believe I was dead, to cede all authority to him. I had no choice. They are my children. I have been here ever since.<
“Why didn’t he just kill you?” >
>I am the heart of the Nexus. I have always been, and always will be. I am the observer that collapses the probability wave of this improbable world, and allows the Nexus to exist at all. This place is the linchpin of all universes, and I am the linchpin of this place. I cannot be killed, any more than mathematics or entropy or space itself can be killed. I am eternal. And I have been patient.< The queen paused. >I knew you would come. Or someone like you.<
Oh, well. I’d never exactly been the Chosen One, but I was the one who showed up, so I got the job. >
>Though I did not anticipate it would take this long.<
“How long has it been?” >
>Ninety-one thousand, three hundred and sixty-five cycles of the sun.<
I blinked. Math isn’t my strongest suit, but back home there are 365 days in a year, and the days here are just a little shorter than days on Earth, so…. more than two hundred years? “But the Regent’s human! How did he live so long?” >
>He found a way to configure the snatch-engines to steal years from the lifespans of other creatures, just a year here or there, but they pile up into forevers. He wishes to be eternal, as I am.<
“If I can find a way to stop the Regent… to protect your children, and free you… what will happen to the people left here, when you’re running things again? I don’t want them to be hurt.” >
>If someone else wishes to govern, I will allow it, though I will not allow them into my palace. I will have to take safeguards to ensure this< – she rattled her chains – >doesn’t happen again.<
I sighed. The whole thing was maybe possible, but it was going to be hard. “I wish I could get Howlaa and Wisp back to help me.” >
>Then why don’t you? With your technology, you can go anywhere.<
“Yeah, but I have to know where I’m going.” >
>Ah. I know the whereabouts of all things in this place. It is my nature to know the location and velocity of every particle in the Nexus. I have been watching your comings and goings with great interest.<
“Whoa, so you know where Howlaa is?” >
The queen did something I can’t quite describe – imagine an ice-cold finger giving you a wet willie, only instead of sticking the finger in your ear, it goes into your brain. I knew she could get into my mind, since she was talking to my mind directly, but it was weird having my brain rifled through. And I thought my Mom going through my drawers was an invasion of privacy. >
>Ah, this one, the shifting one, yes, I know it. I will show.<
I got this picture in my head, but not a picture, more a full sensory thing, like a memory, with sounds (buzzing, clanging) and smell (antiseptic) to go with the sight (a chrome-shiny room with a big table in the middle, and strapped to the table, something that writhed). I didn’t just see it, I knew where it was, in one of those orbital pleasure palaces – which apparently included a lot of unpleasant rooms too.
I could go there. I could get Howlaa out.
“What about Wisp?”
Another brain-rifling, which I was at least braced for this time. >Mostly here,< the queen said, and showed me a glass bubble in the same orbital palace, this one full of motes. >But partly in your ear.<
I touched my earlobe, remembering the mote Wisp had put there to whisper to me – I guessed he was too far away to talk to me now, but it was kind of comforting, in a weird way, to know a little bit of him was still with me.
I finally asked what I most wanted to ask: “Is my Dad here?”
Another brain touch, another image: a bare room in a deep part of the palace, and my Dad – oh, my Dad, looking a little pudgier but otherwise just the same – pacing back and forth on the little patch of floor beside the bed, head down, frowning. He was alive. He was here. I could save him. I could take him home. >
>The Regent will expect you to try and save them. He will have surveillance. He will have snipers. He is waiting for you, Miranda. Do not doubt that.<
I chewed my lip and did some thinking. I wanted to charge in and save them all, send Dad right back to our living room, break out Howlaa and Wisp, and go in after the Regent… but if I got captured, knocked unconscious and unhooked from the engine, we were all screwed. “I don’t think I can do this by myself. I mean… I think the only way to make it happen is to start a revolution.” The whole idea was too big, too overwhelming. I’d never organized anything more complicated than a sleepover – how was I supposed to start an uprising?
But the Queen… she’d run this place for who knows how long. Maybe she could help with the planning. I could go anywhere, and she knew where everything was, and between the two of us, maybe we could move the world. >
>We will need allies,< the Queen said.
“Okay. So where do you think I should start?”
She had some pretty big ideas.
I went to the Machine Waste first, because without the steam colossus, our plan – okay, mostly the Queen’s plan, but I helped, and the basic idea was mine – would fall apart. I jumped from the palace to the radio telescope and opened up my bag, looking for a change of clothes. Even though the Queen was as far from human as Wisp, I still would have felt funny stripping in front of her, but out here in a desert of broken machinery I was less concerned – there might be prying eyes, but they weren’t any more interested in my body than a toaster would be. I pulled on an Allison Wonderland concert t-shirt and corduroy pants with frayed bottoms and stuffed my Minion of Mab outfit into the bag. Being in my own clothes again did wonders for my mood. I stood up, cupped my hands around my mouth, and said “Colossus! We need to talk!”
I expected another earth-shaking appearance of the giant machine-god itself, probably rising up from the ground right in front of me, but nothing happened. I figured the boss of the junk-realm had to be listening in on all his territory, so did that mean he was ignoring me, or sneaking up on me, or what?
A skittery mechanical thing came up over the side of the dish, like the horn of an old-fashioned phonograph with a bunch of mechanical crab legs. It rushed at me, and I got ready to jump in case that horn on top was really a cannon or something, but it stopped a couple of feet away, and a scratchy mechanical voice emerged: “Ah, the girl with the jump-engine. Come to sacrifice your body to science?”
The steam colossus’s voice was a lot less disturbing when it wasn’t highly-amplified super-thunder loud, so I kicked at the colossus’s (literally) mobile phone, and it scuttled out of my reach. “I’m here to make a deal with you.”
“What do you have to offer me, apart from your vivisected body and the technology therein?”
“I can send you back home,” I said.
There was a hiss of dead-air static from the phonograph. Then the steam colossus said, “We should talk in closer physical proximity.”
“Why, so you can snatch me up?”
“No, because remote transmissions like this one can be intercepted.”
“All right. But if I even think I’m in danger, poof, I’m gone. Where are you?”
“Look to the horizon, in front of you, do you see the platform?”
Off in the distance a structure listed at an angle on spindly legs. “Yeah.”
I focused, I thought, and I jumped, landing on the platform without so much as a wobble. The platform was a rusty, greasy thing of bolted-together slabs of metal, maybe an offshore oil rig or something picked up and dropped in the midst of a field of busted computer monitors.
“PREPARE FOR DESCENT,” a voice said from hidden speakers, and the platform shuddered and started to sink. I looked around for something to grab onto and clutched a pole that wasn’t too corroded. The platform sank down pretty fast into a hidden shaft, and lights came on at the top of the poles, so I could watch the rock walls slide up past me. After a couple of minutes the platform settled, and I walked off it into a mineshaft tunnel, up a metal ramp, and into what looked like the control room of a spaceship from a science fiction movie. The walls were covered with lights and dials, and a huge glass-and-metal cylinder stood in the middle of the room, with a pulsing floating ball of yellow-gray goop bobbing at the center.
“Welcome to my brain,” the steam colossus said, voice coming from the ceiling.
“Hello, brain. So I’m inside your body now?”
“A rare privilege. Only one other human has ever been here – the Regent.”
“You made a deal with him, too. What was it? I mean, why didn’t you squish him and throw him against a wall when you attacked the palace all those years ago?”
“I see you’ve been educating yourself in the history of Nexington-on-Axis. The Regent offered me… certain resources, and an autonomous region to rule under my own authority.”
“The Machine Waste.”
“I sometimes refer to the rest of this cursed place as the Flesh Waste, so I suppose that name is fair.”
“So you get all the junk you can use and a place to build more things like yourself in exchange for behaving yourself? And occasionally playing the tough guy on the Regent’s behalf?” I sat down with my back against one of the wall panels, because I was tired of standing up and looking at the ceiling.
“In theory. Though the Regent doesn’t fulfill all my requests for equipment. He’s been hesitant to provide me with sufficient quantities of radioactive material, and he limits my energy sources rather brutally. I think he’s afraid I’m going to do something drastic. Which, of course, I am. It’s just going to take a while at current rates of development. I’d rather assumed I would outlive the Regent in short order, but he’s oddly persistent for a fleshthing.”
“You don’t have any loyalty to the guy, then.”
“Loyalty? The concept is meaningless to me.”
“Good. Because I’d like to kick him out of his job.”
The steam colossus chuckled. “And replace him with who? You? Your friend Howlaa?”
“Nope. The Queen of Nexington-on-Axis.”
Another silence. “My voice analysis suggests you believe what you’re saying. You have reason to think the Queen yet lives?”
“I talked to her earlier today.”
“That is interesting. And improbable, but this is an improbable place. Tell me, then – what is your plan?”
I considered holding back, but if the steam colossus wanted to betray me I was doomed anyway – this couldn’t work without his help. So I told him what the Queen and I had worked out.
“Your plan has numerous flaws,” it said. “There are many choices governed by emotional demands rather than rational strategic ones. The whole is also rather complex, and complexity can be a problem – the more moving parts a system has, the more prone it is to failure.”
I snorted. “You’re telling me my plan has too many moving parts? You’re a giant steam-powered robot the size of a skyscraper. Hello, kettle? This is pot: you’re black!”
“Your colloquialism is tiresome, but your point is taken – sometimes complexity is necessary, and if you insist on the various rescues and repatriations you’ve described, I suppose such curlicues are unavoidable.”
“You think you’d be able to pull off your part of the plan?”
“With negligible effort. The question is whether I will bother. You’ve demonstrated an ability to teleport, but that doesn’t mean you’re capable of sending me back to the place where I’m from. It is an unimaginably distant galaxy.”
“I’m sure it is, but from here, all places are equally unimaginably distant, right? I can do it.”
“Then take me there now. Prove it.”
“No way.” The idea was too dangerous. The jump-engine protected me to an extent, but if the steam colossus got what it wanted, it might do its best to kill me, and maybe it could act faster than my jump-engine could respond. I was safe now because the steam colossus wanted to use me, but if I was no longer useful… “But I can send something else. Like a probe, maybe? You were a spaceship, so you must have stuff like that.”
“I do, but assuming you can send such a thing to my home space, how do you propose to bring it back? You don’t have access to the snatch-engines.”
“No, I’ll need to be able to lay hands on the probe to bring it back here, which means I’m going to have to go with it.” I didn’t find the prospect of space travel all that exciting – it always sounded uncomfortable to me, unlike Jenny Kay, who talks about wanting to become a scientist so she can take a trip to the International Space Station or even a Mars base someday. But you do what you have to.
“That will require a probe capable of containing you, and sustaining your life – oxygen, pressure… This will take a little time.”
“A little time on my kind of scale, or on yours? Because if you’re talking an hour, I’ll wait, but if you’re talking months….”
“Closer to the former. Tell me, how do you propose to reach my galaxy, when you have never been there? I assume the jump-engine has some limitations.”
“I can tell it to go places based on coordinates.”
“Coordinates? That explanation is meaningless. Nexington-on-Axis exists outside the rest of the multiverse, and ‘coordinates’ are by nature relative, not absolute – they describe the location of a place in relation to other places.”
“Yeah, it’s complicated,” I said. “But the Queen is a whiz when it comes to navigation, and she can tell me where to go. She’s got a perfect memory of where everything on Nexington-on-Axis came from, and where it is now, and she can look for stuff outside, too. How do you think the snatch-engines work? They couldn’t grab specific stuff without some way to program the engines, to guide them. The Queen and her kids all have this ability, to know where stuff is.” The Queen said they “extrapolated from the original velocities of the moments of creation” but I didn’t know exactly what that meant so I didn’t repeat it.
“Extraordinary,” the steam colossus said. “If you can deliver on your promise, you will be the least useless and objectionable fleshthing I have ever encountered.”
“I think you’re kind of mean and scary, personally, but you’re really freaking big and insanely strong, and that’s all I need you to be. So we can help each other. Look, I’m going to take a nap. Wake me when you’re ready to go probing.”
Something poked me in the ribs, and when I sat up I was face-to-nosecone with a sleek teardrop-shaped thing in gleaming red and black, a little bigger than a coffin, standing on a dozen of those spindly spider-legs the steam colossus seemed to like. It had half a dozen extending multi-jointed arms, one of which had poked me.
“Your chariot awaits,” the steam colossus said.
The probe dropped its belly to the floor and the lid slid open with a hiss, revealing a red leather-padded area inside, in a space just about as big as me.
“That looks… claustrophobically cozy.”
“It suits your physical parameters. Get in.”
“How long should I stay… wherever we’re going?”
“The probe will be able to confirm its location using certain astronomical landmarks almost instantly, so you needn’t stay long. I thought of simply sending you unprotected – you could probably maintain consciousness for almost ten seconds if you were exposed to the vacuum of space, which would be ample time for you to take the probe and return. But I suppose you’d be upset if your eardrums burst from the pressure inequality, so I took the trouble of creating a pressurized cabin for you. There won’t be more than a few minutes of air, so don’t linger.”
I climbed into the probe, settling down on the soft cushions, and the lid slid closed over me. “Hey, it’s pitch black in here!” I pounded on the lid.
“How am I supposed to see?”
“Why do you need to see? The probe will see.”
I sighed. So much for witnessing a vista never seen before by human eyes and all that. I tried to relax, to pretend I was snuggled in a bed in the dark, but it was hard to forget I was in a metal shell about to be floating in the emptiness of insanely distant space. “I’m ready.”
“Then do whatever it is you do.”
I placed my hands on the inside of the probe and thought about the string of letters and numbers the Queen had taught me, the coordinates of the place where the steam colossus was snatched. She assured me the jump-engine would understand the coordinate system, since the royal orphans had helped develop that device – it was the same system the snatch-engines used. I’d memorized the coordinates like a little song, and I hummed it under my breath a few times, and then I jumped.
The probe lurched a little, then… nothing. Just hanging there smoothly. I couldn’t see or hear anything. “Are we there?” I said. Nothing and nobody answered. After a few more seconds I put my hands back out and jumped us to the steam colossus’s brain chamber.
For a moment nothing happened, and I was afraid the jump-engine had failed, that I was stuck in a padded coffin in the depths of space – and then the lid slid back, and I climbed out, in one piece.
“Well?” the steam colossus said.
“Not you,” it said, and the probe began to speak.
I thought it would just say “Location confirmed” in a robot voice or something, but the probe’s voice was high-pitched and awed. It said “A Wolf-Rayet star shedding mass and venting gases. A globular cluster ringed with blue stragglers. In the distance, a barred spiral galaxy and a dark matter halo. A symbiotic variable star system. An array of galaxies all around them, filaments and voids, filaments and voids.”
“And the quark star?” The steam colossus’s voice was tense.
“The quark star,” the probe said breathlessly. (I guess literally since it has no breath, but it sounded breathless.) “Oh, yes, the quark star, the strange star, exotic matter, dark matter. It is there.”
“We have an agreement, fleshthing,” the steam colossus said. “I will help you, and when we’re done, you’ll send me back.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“If you try to cheat me –”
I interrupted. “Please. You freak me out. Why would I want to keep you around, especially if you’re all pissed-off from being lied to?” I jumped back to the palace to tell the Queen we were on.