Chapter 16

So then I did the rest of my visitations.

First, I put on my Minion of Mab outfit again, even though it was bedraggled and the wings were droopy, and jumped where the Queen told me — to Fairyland-on-Axis. Apparently it had started life as a warehouse, but the Mablings had turned it into a pretty awesome place. The minions had hauled in tons of dirt and planted trees and bushes and flowers, creating an indoor forest, filled with trees hung with gauzy colorful streamers, mushrooms so huge and perfectly round they looked fake, and even artificial waterfalls. I blended in well enough to walk among the diligent Mablings, who were up on ladders cleaning skylights, on the ground digging in flowerbeds, and up in branches hanging tinkling crystal ornaments. The place was a hippie’s dream, and after a little walking I found the white canvas tent where the Mab reigned over her flock. There were Mablings kneeling and bowing all around the open-sided tent, and I stepped around and over them until I got a look at the Mab herself.

She was model-beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed, and dressed all in green, in a low-cut outfit that looked made of living leaves. Her wings were huge, filling the tent, prismatic like a dragonfly’s, and her expression was super bored.

“Hey, lady,” I said. “You and me need to talk in private.”

She stared at me, flicked her fingers, and a couple of the Mablings kneeling at her feet stood up. They were holding pointy swords, fencing foils I guess, and they came at me from either side.

I reached into my bag and pulled out the flower the Queen had sent me to retrieve from the land of mist and mirrors – a green and grassy place full of fog and distant howlings. The flower had red and yellow and blue petals arrayed around a black center, and when she saw it, the Mab gasped. “Out, all of you out, and close the tent!” she shouted, standing up from her throne of branches and water-smoothed rocks.

The Mablings were nothing if not obedient, and they hustled out, pulling ropes to let the sides of the tent fall down as they left. Soon it was just me and the Mab in her torchlit audience chamber, and she rushed at me, snatching the flower from my hand and shoving it into her mouth, chewing it seriously and slowly with her eyes closed, finally shuddering as she swallowed the last gulp. “Years,” she murmured. “It’s been years… Did the snatch-engines bring it? Do you have more?”

“I can get more,” I said. “But wouldn’t you rather go back to the source? Head back home?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Fairyland is forever closed to me.”

I shook my head. “You and I both know I didn’t get that flower from Fairlyand, lady. And we both know you aren’t a lady. You might fool these girls, but not me. I’ll be right back.”

I jumped to the land of mist and mirrors. I couldn’t see two feet in front of me from the thick fog, the air stank of something harsh and astringent, and the noises were terrible but, fortunately, distant. A patch of the weird flowers grew at my feet, and I plucked another before jumping back.

“Here you go,” I said, holding it out, and the Mab grabbed it and did the whole closed-eye-devouring thing again. I talked while she ate. “I can get there, and I can take you there… unless you’d rather stay here?”

“If I never see another human girl in wings, it will be too soon,” the Mab said. “But I assume you don’t offer me this escape as a kindness?”

“No. I need a favor first. And it’s kind of a weird one…”

#

I went to see Clan Kil’howlaa next, which wasn’t originally part of my plan, but the Queen said it would be a good idea. I was like, “But there’s only one of them left, and she speaks German.”

>You still have a mote of the Bodiless in your ear,< she said. >Use it.<

So that’s how I came to be in a tunnel in the dark next to a statue of a horse made of poo, holding a single mote of my friend Wisp’s cloud in the palm of my hand. I wished the mote could allow me to talk to Wisp, but he was too far away, or something – there was still a connection, and the mote would still translate for me, but communication with the rest of him wasn’t possible.

“English to German, and German to English, okay?” The mote just sort of floated there, not quite touching my palm, like it was subtly repulsed by my physical body. I had no idea if this would work or not. I cleared my throat. “Hey!” I yelled, and the mote in my hand shouted “Achtung!”

The new head of Clan Kil’howlaa emerged, and I spoke to her quickly before she could try to stab me, told her I wasn’t working with Wisp and Howlaa anymore, and that I wanted to overthrow the Regent. She was pretty cool about it. The Regent was the one she really hated, since he was the one who’d sent Howlaa to the caves to do all those horrible things originally… and, she assumed, this last time, too. I didn’t bother to correct her. I felt bad being deceitful, but not too bad, since she had punched me in the nose.

“But what can I do?” she asked. “My family is dead, my people gone… how can I help?”

“The god-worms,” I said. “You believe one is still alive, right?”

“So I was taught. Deep, asleep, in hibernation, far below ground.”

That’s what the Queen had told me – most of the god-worms had died in the inhospitable atmosphere of Nexington-on-Axis, but one had crawled into the depths, collapsed the tunnel after it, slowed its metabolism, and gone to sleep. “Can you wake it up?” I asked.

“There is a ritual,” she said doubtfully. “It requires all the voices of all the clans speaking as one, which was never possible before, as many were loath to trouble the god… but I am the last of us. Only my voice remains. Perhaps I would be sufficient.”

“Then do it. When the Regent is gone, you won’t have to live in these tunnels anymore.” Seeing the look on her face, I said, “Unless you want to. But no one will try to kill you anymore. At least, nobody from the government. Okay?”

“What should I say to the god, if it deigns to hear me?” She trembled a little, freaked out by the idea of talking to her god.

I hoped the god-worm would answer, though I worried the “ritual” was just wishful thinking. The god-worm’s presence wasn’t strictly necessary, but it would really help. “Here’s what you say,” I began.

#

I jumped to Merrill’s creepy farmhouse, right to the midst of his inner sanctum, since Howlaa said he liked to booby-trap the place in case of visitors from the Regent. Merrill was asleep in a recliner with a newspaper written in Greek or something open across his chest. At least, I thought he was asleep until I noticed the nose of the shotgun pointing at me from under the newspaper. I held up my hands. “I come in peace.”

He grunted. “You were here with Howlaa. How’d you get in without triggering my alarms?”

“I’m good at getting in and out of places.” I jumped right behind him, leaning over the chair and grinning down into his shocked face. His breath smelled like rubbing alcohol and moldy peaches, so I didn’t stay that close for long. “I can get you out of this place, too.”

“Oh yeah? What makes you think I want to go anywhere?”

“I’m talking about sending you home. Back to Earth.”

He snorted. “The Earth I come from isn’t a place you’d want to go back to, kid. I don’t think it’s the same one you’re from, unless you were indentured as a duct-cleaner to the Cog Lords? I spent all my days servicing the machinery of our clockwork masters. Being enslaved to a human like the Regent is actually a step up.”

“So if you could go anywhere, where would you want to go?”

“Back to my apartment in the city center would be nice, with my old security clearances and access to all the equipment I could use, so I don’t have to make do with the crap they left me out here in the hinterlands. I swear, you try to make a little extra money on the side peddling redundant extra parts to the cyborg community and the reaction is all out of proportion –”

“Look, I can guarantee you all that stuff, okay?”

He wasn’t pointing the shotgun directly at me anymore, but he definitely wasn’t thrilled with my company either. “How exactly are you planning to do that, little miss fugitive? I’d be better off turning you in to the Regent in exchange for the restoration of some privileges.”

“That would be harder than you think.” I explained about the jump-engine, which required yet another demonstration of its powers. At least jumping to the city center and bringing him back a scone from the café he loved best gave me a chance to grab a cup of fancy coffee too, though I had to barter the water-purifying tablets from my emergency go-bag.

“To topple the Regent,” he said, between bites of scone. “It’s crazy, but so was his rise to power. What do you want from me? I can’t go far without the Regent noticing – I can limit his surveillance here, but I’m pretty well boxed in.”

“I just need you to provide a safe haven for some mutual friends.”

#

I jumped back to the city center, this time to room 112 at the saloon, where Templeton was in bed being serviced by a geargirl with multiple robotic arms, wearing smoked-glass goggles and greasy overalls. She was working on one of the servos in his knees with a little welding torch. Neither noticed me at first, so I cleared my throat. She stood, turned up the flame on her torch, and stepped toward me, pincer-ended arms fanning out in a scary array.

“It’s all right.” Templeton propped himself up in the bed, which had to be reinforced with metal or something to hold his weight. “She’s a friend of an acquaintance.”

The geargirl shrugged, turned off the torch, and stepped out into the hallway.

“The rumor is Howlaa got snatched at a restaurant not far from here. Guess you got away? Not surprising. You’d have to be the world’s biggest idiot to get caught using the snatch-engine.”

“I’m going to set Howlaa free, too.”

“That’s just the kind of thinking that’ll get you captured. Not that I care. The inside of this room looks the same to me whether you’re free or not.”

“I’m going to stop the Regent,” I said. “I have a plan.”

“The plan of a thirteen-year-old girl with more power than sense? I’m sure it’s wonderful.”

I almost blurted out that it wasn’t just my plan, but also the Queen’s… except I didn’t really trust Templeton. I figured he’d sell me out at the first opportunity if he thought it would help him. I got to the point. “I’m not asking you to do anything, not yet. But if things work out, and we do knock the Regent off his throne, I’ll need your help with the jump-engine.”

“Is it malfunctioning?”

“No, but… I’d like to be able to take it off. Preferably without dying in the process.”

“Power over all of space doesn’t appeal to you? You’re a weird girl, Miranda.”

“I didn’t say I don’t want it. I do, believe me. Even if my life ever goes back to normal, the ability to go places in an instant… it’s pretty appealing. But I’ve got other priorities.”

“Whatever.” Templeton waved his hand at me. “If you defeat the Regent and get me out from under house arrest, sure, I’ll help you with the ring. And if magical ponies come running down the street, I’ll save one for you. And if I start to crap gold nuggets, I’ll put aside a few for your college fund. And if I vomit rose petals, I’ll –”

“Asshole,” I said, and jumped away.

#

I landed in my bedroom. It was morning on a workday, and Mom usually left before dawn, so I made a calculated bet she wouldn’t still be in my bed. She wasn’t – I had the room to myself. I looked out my window, and Cal was just getting into his car in the driveway. Perfect. I waited for him to shut the door and put on his seatbelt, then jumped – I didn’t want to startle him while he was driving.

I appeared in his passenger seat. “Hey, Cal.”

He startled and banged his head against the roof of the car. I tried not to smirk. “Jesus, Miranda, what the hell – where did you come from?”

“I need you to do something for me, Cal. Only not really for me. For Dad.”

His eyes narrowed. “Don’t start that shit with me, Miranda –”

I touched his wrist. I jumped us to the treehouse in the back yard. He staggered away from me, bumping his head on the low ceiling, then sitting and putting his back to the wall. “How did you do that? What’s happening?”

“You’re going to be late for school this morning, bro,” I said. “Sit down. I’ve got a lot to tell you, and a favor to ask.”

#

Convincing Cal took a lot longer than I expected, which was something I should have expected, if that makes any sense. I didn’t dare jump him to Nexington-on-Axis, but I took him back to the little beach in Hawaii where we’d spent so many mornings on our last real family vacation. That made him believe, though he wasn’t gracious about it. I’d hoped to grab some food, but it looked like I’d have to go through the night’s events fuelled only by dry granola bars. Those are the sacrifices we revolutionaries have to make.

I jumped to the queen, yawned, and caught a few hours of sleep in her shadow. When I woke up and drank some water, I said, “I’m almost ready. Just one last visit.”

>I advise against this,< she said. >It will accomplish nothing.<

“Maybe, but I need to try. You’ll show me where he is?”

The queen gave me a vision, of an old man in a simple book-lined room, and I jumped there.

#

“I’ve come to give you one last chance,” I said, leaning against one of the Regent’s bookshelves.

The Regent closed the book he was holding, put it down on the desk, removed his reading glasses, and said, “Interesting.”

“You’re wondering how I found you – how I knew where to jump.”

He nodded.

“Maybe I’ve got more resources than you realize.”

“Apparently. Though I still think I have the advantage in this situation.” His chair creaked as he leaned back and crossed his legs. “You’re offering me one last chance – to do what, exactly?”

“A few things. To send my father home. To free Wisp and Howlaa. To use the power of the jump-engine to send anyone who wants to leave here back to their own homes. To make Nexington-on-Axis something other than a prison. To basically be a better leader and less of a bastard.”

“Mmm. And you feel qualified to criticize my leadership? Your, what, dozen years of life provide you with the appropriate knowledge and insight?”

“I know you have a lot more stolen lifetimes’ worth of experience than I do, but experience doesn’t change what’s right and what’s wrong. You know you’re wrong. You just don’t care because you’re the one on top.”

“Right or wrong – and I would argue that those terms, as you frame them, are laughably irrelevant – I am indeed on top, and that’s where I intend to remain. I’ve been polite with you, Miranda, but really – your co-conspirators are captured, and your father is in my power. Surrender yourself now or I’ll have all of them eliminated. The royal orphans can pick over their corpses for useful body augmentations. Do you understand? I am no longer being patient with you.”

“Why do you call them orphans?” I said. “When we both know their mother is still alive?”

I waited just long enough to see his eyes widen before I jumped away.

Everybody deserves one last chance. I really wished he’d taken it. That would have been easier, cleaner. My way, I was afraid people were going to get hurt.

The Regent’s people, mostly.

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