I jumped to the Mab’s warehouse at the appointed time, and everything was just like she promised, two rows of Mablings in winged unitards lined up on either side of a path leading to the Mab’s throne. I walked between the silent rows of four dozen girls, then knelt before the Mab, which wasn’t fun, but it was part of the deal. “My lady,” I said. “I thank you for your boon.”
“Arise, daughter.” The Mab snapped her fingers. A couple of attendants came and helped me out of my clothes, then dressed me in fresh Mabling-wear – my old outfit was too bedraggled, and I needed to look just like all the others.
“You ready?” I said, and the row of Mablings shouted “Ready!” They all held out their hands. I took a breath, then ran down the path with my own hands out, slapping the palms of every girl on either side as I ran. With each slap, the girls I touched disappeared, and when I reached the end of the line and sent the last one away, the Mab approached me.
“Ready to go home?” I said.
“You should come with me, Miranda.” She smiled, and her face lit up like it was glowing from the inside, her hard angles softening, her eyes becoming deep and gentle. She touched my cheek, and I let myself lean into her, remembering things I couldn’t possibly remember, moments when I was just a tiny baby held in my Dad’s arms, utterly safe and protected and loved. The Mab kept speaking, soft murmurings: “I will take you into my home, a palace of woven grass and smoke, and you will rule there by my side, a princess, honored, adored, appreciated, finally truly appreciated for all you have to offer, an end to fighting and striving, an eternity of comfort and joy…” I closed my eyes and breathed in, the scent of her all sweetly comforting and familiar, like the kitchen when my Dad embarked on a grand culinary experiment, all spices and warmth…
Then the little mote in my ear began to speak – to translate – and I heard what the Mab was really saying:
“Eat you, I’ll eat you and take your ring, that pretty ring will be mine, I’ll make your fingerbones into a necklace, I’ll tear you –”
She’d almost bewitched me, enchanted me, ensorcelled me, wrapped me up in her mists and shadows. Thank goodness for that little piece of Wisp in my ear, or I would’ve been lost. I slapped her hands away, then reached out and shoved her in the chest.
In the instant before I sent her back to the land of mist and mirrors, her illusion dropped. Her true form was like a spiderweb wet with morning dew, twisting and wriggling, and when she disappeared, my hand came away damp. I wiped whatever it was – sweat, slime, substance? – off on one of my wings, counted to ten to calm myself down a bit, and then jumped.
I landed in total chaos, which was exactly what I wanted. We were in one of the orbital palaces, in the room where Howlaa was being held and experimented upon, and the Mablings were totally wrecking up the place. The doctors fled into a hallway, pursued by hooting Mablings who lashed them with wooden switches decorated like wands. A handful of other girls smashed the surveillance cameras and overturned cabinets. Some of them dropped to the floor, tasered or tranquilized by automated defenses prepared for me, but I was untouched – just one of the multitude.
I went to Howlaa, and she pulled herself together into the female form I’d first seen her in. She looked around wildly – I was close to her, but there were ten other girls just as close – and I didn’t do anything to call attention to myself. I just touched her wrist, and jumped us out of there. I thought the Mablings would be okay, mostly – the Regent would have bigger things to worry about soon, and a horde of unruly girls in fairy costumes would be the least of it. I was still worried and guilty, though, because some of them had already been knocked unconscious, and others might end up in even worse shape.
Howlaa and I landed in Merrill’s basement, and Merrill himself nodded at us lazily. “We’re thoroughly shielded down here. No way we’re under surveillance.”
Howlaa shook her head. “Randy, what did you do?”
“I started a revolution,” I said. “I have to go get Wisp now.” I bounced back to the orbital palace, which was still ringing with chaos and shouting, and found Wisp in his glass bubble in an empty room; I guess there was no fun or glory in vivisecting a ball of gnat-sized particles. I touched the glass ball, and sent it away (dropping it in the middle of the snatch-engines, and hoping it would hit a royal orphan on the head). Wisp fuzzed and wobbled and said “Miranda?” The mote in my ear slid out and zipped back to the main body. “I’ve been able to hear you all this time, with the particle in your ear, though I was unable to communicate. This plan of yours – it’s extraordinary.”
“Good, then you can explain it to Howlaa, because I won’t have time. Come on, in you go.” I opened my mouth, and Wisp flew in, avoiding going up my nostrils this time, which was good, since that tickled. I jumped back to Merrill’s basement, and Wisp came streaming out again.
“Looks like you’re the new boss, Randy,” Howlaa said. “What do I do?”
“Just sit tight,” I said. “Everything’s under control, and you’ll be safe here –”
“We don’t care about safe,” Wisp said. “We want to be involved.”
I looked at Merrill, who shrugged – he’d put together the safehouse, so his part of the bargain was over. It wasn’t his fault if the fugitives didn’t want to lay low. “But, guys, what you’ve been through, are you sure you want –”
“I have only been through boredom, and worry,” Wisp said. “And Howlaa’s profession has exposed her to more than a little in the way of torture.”
“I find that getting nasty revenge helps my healing process,” Howlaa said.
“Okay, then. You can come with me to get my Dad.”
“Just to be safe,” Howlaa said, and transformed into the Rendigo.
We jumped, and once again, Howlaa caught a projectile meant for me – but this time it was a bullet, not a tranquilizer. There were three Nagalinda guards armed with handguns. No fancy ray guns here, just big pistols. My Dad was tied up facedown on the bed, and he screamed when the guns fired – it must be even scarier to hear gunshots when you can’t see what’s going on.
Howlaa shrugged off the bullets and swatted the guards aside, knocking them down and unconscious. She transformed into her human form again. “Move fast, Randy, we’ll have more company soon.”
I untied my Dad’s hands, and he rolled over on the narrow bed. Up close he looked older than I remembered, a little fatter, and his eyes were shadowed, but he still smelled like my Dad, like herbs and baking bread, and I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him tighter than I had since I was a little kid.
“Who – what – Miranda?” he whispered. “Is that you?”
I realized I was still in the Mabling outfit, which wasn’t exactly my usual fashion, and there was the purple hair too, so I said, “Yes, it’s me, I’m here, I’m going to take you home.”
“Home? But what – but how –”
“Randy,” Howlaa growled, and I nodded.
“Okay,” I said. “Meet me in the audience chamber later, guys?”
I grabbed my Dad’s hand, and we jumped.
We landed in the treehouse behind our house, where Cal sat staring through a square window cut out from the plywood. Dad built that treehouse when we were little kids.
“Holy shit and fuck me sideways,” Cal said.
“Language, Cal,” Dad said, and then we were all silent for a moment, until Dad started laughing and crying all at once and Cal threw his arms around him in an embrace that was almost like a wrestling move, it had so much back-slapping and bear-hugging.
I kissed Dad’s stubbly cheek and said, “Welcome home.”
“I can’t believe you were telling the truth,” Cal said. “Dad, were you really in this other world?”
“I was. Sometimes I thought it was a nightmare, but it was real.”
“Maybe we should come up with a simpler story to tell Mom,” I said. “Like maybe the explosion gave you amnesia, you’ve been wandering around working odd jobs, I saw you a few days ago and I spent the past few days tracking you down. Something like that? We can tell her the truth later if you want, but for now… I think just seeing you is going to be enough for one night.”
“I guess you’re right,” Dad said. “But Miranda – how? How did you get there? How did you find me? How did you bring me back?”
“Cal will explain.”
“I barely understand it myself. I thought it was total bullshit!” Cal winced at his own curse word. “Sorry, Dad. You explain it, Miranda.”
“I would. But I don’t think I’m going to be here much –”
And then I got snatched up and stolen away.
The Regent paced up and down in a long observation room, with big windows looking down on the tops of the snatch-engines, all crackling with strange lightning. “You,” he said. “You think you’ve accomplished anything? Fomenting a little unrest in the provinces? Bah. I’ve heard reports of a god-worm, of all things, laying waste to my forces, but I assume that’s just Howlaa in some oversized snakelike form. As for loosing a couple of prisoners? It’s trivial, Miranda. You’re just a child playing at revolution. I’m tuning the engines now to snatch up your father, your brother, your mother, your mother’s boyfriend, your friend Jenny, maybe your whole town, and I’ll drop it in the middle of the Landlock Sea and let them all drown if you don’t –”
“Shushit,” I said, putting a finger to my lips. “It’s going to happen soon. Is the sun turned off yet?”
“What? I don’t think you understand the enormity of –”
The whole palace shook, and the upper floors of the palace were torn away, rubble showering down, exposing us to the just-darkened sky above. I felt bad about this part, too – the palace was a living thing, after all, and it had helped me – but it was temporary damage to provide greater freedom, and the Queen said the palace would heal just fine in time. Most of the parts inhabited by the Regent were dead flesh anyway.
The steam colossus leaned down, put its complex face into the hole above us, and regarded the shocked Regent.
“HELLO, GERALD,” it said. “I REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT OUR WORKING RELATIONSHIP HAS COME TO AN END.”
Then it punched the snatch-engines to pieces with one house-sized fist. Royal orphans went scurrying up the steam colossus’s arm, but it flicked them away and then strode off.
“Let’s go see the Queen,” I said, and grabbed the Regent’s arm.
>Abdication and exile are your only options,< the Queen said. >Unless you’d like Miranda to send you to deep space? My children will be unable to save you now that the engines have been disabled, and even your formidable personal physical protections will not keep you from going mad alone in the cold and the dark.<
“I recognize the position I’m in,” the Regent said, staring downward.
“I gave you a chance,” I said. “It didn’t have to be this way.”
He laughed and shook his head. “You have no idea what you’ve done, Miranda. This beast, this monster, this entity we call the Queen could not be less interested in the lives of humans or any other sentients here. They will all die in starvation and squalor in the wake of her neglect. You’re a fool.” >
>I will not attempt to rule the inhabitants of this place.<
“Oh, anarchy then, that’s wonderful.”
“Not anarchy, either,” I said. “Just a change in leadership.”
I watched as the Regent unlocked the Queen’s complex chains, and then I walked with him up a sloping corridor toward his audience chamber. “She’ll execute me,” he said. “You must know that.”
“I thought she was utterly indifferent to humans?”
“I’m a special human.”
“No execution. I’ll give you a ticket off this rock. Or asteroid. Or plane. A one-way ticket.”
“You’d set me free? To plot my plots and plan my plans? I don’t object, but it’s not very smart.”
“Please. We both know that, without the orphans to steal extra years for you, you’re not going to live forever anymore.”
“True enough. I wonder if France is much like I left her…”
“Oh, you don’t get to choose where I send you. And there’s no way I’m sending you to France – at least not the France on the Earth where I’m from. I’m not sharing a planet with you. But I’ll send you someplace with an atmosphere you can breathe and food you can eat, fear not.”
“Oh, the cruelty of the young. I civilized this place. I made it into a city-state, when it was just horror and wilderness. And you come along and –”
“Whatever,” I said. “You brought this on yourself. Like I said. I gave you a chance to do the right thing.”
We reached the ruined base of the snatch-engines, where dozens of royal orphans – newly un-orphaned – were scurrying about trying to repair the considerable damage the steam colossus had done. The Regent whistled, and the native children of Nexington-on-Axis lifted their heads and antennae and sensory structures.
“My darlings,” he said. “My boys and girls and otherwise, I have great news for you. Your mother, long thought dead, has awakened from her slumber, and she is alive. She cannot wait to see you.” He glanced at me. “That little speech was for your benefit, by the way. I communicate with them telepathically.”
The princes and princesses (and otherwise) of Nexington-on-Axis streamed past us, their hatred of me apparently forgotten in the news that their dead parent was actually alive. I could understand that.
“I suppose that’s it for me, then,” he said.
“I’m guessing you regret ever creating this thing, huh?” I held out my hand and admired the golden ring.
“It was, in retrospect, not my savviest move.”
“Live and learn,” I said. Then I punched him in the chest and made him disappear.
I just wanted to go home, but I had too much else to do first. I found Howlaa and Wisp waiting for me in the audience chamber, and Howlaa picked me up in a giant hug. “You!” she shouted. “You are the least worthless human I’ve ever met!”
“I’ve got a question for you two,” I said. “Now that the Regent’s gone… are you still so desperate to leave Nexington-on-Axis?”
“It does seem more hospitable now,” Wisp said.
“Even smells better,” Howlaa agreed.
“Good. Because you guys are in charge of the place.”
I’d never seen Howlaa look afraid before. It looked pretty funny. “Miranda, I’m the worst choice,” she said.
“I concur,” Wisp said.
“Too bad. The Queen has spoken, and she’s giving authority over all the sentient denizens of Nexington-on-Axis – excluding her family – to you. Except for the Machine Waste, which will belong to second-generation steam colossi. And some of the provinces, which are now an autonomous zone run by the god-worm.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I wanted some big distractions to keep the Regent off balance during the jailbreak, so I got the last Underdweller to wake up her god and start raising hell in the outskirts. Well, it was the Queen’s idea, but I did all the talking.”
“A god-worm. I’ll have to get out there and taste its blood,” Howlaa said. “But Randy, really, we’re lousy choices. You, though – you could be queen. We’ll get you a crown and everything. Tiara. Thing.”
“As if. I’m going home to spend some time with my Dad. Besides, you’ll have help. And once I figure out how to get this ring off my finger – and you find out who you want to wear it after me – you’ll have the power of the jump-engine, and this place won’t be a prison anymore. Should be a much nicer place to rule. Besides, you don’t have to run the place like the Regent did. Maybe let people vote for their own leaders. I’ll loan you my civics textbook so you can see how it’s done.”
“Well, Wisp, you promised me freedom, and instead I’ve got another job,” Howlaa said.
“This one will involve rather less brutal violence, at least,” Wisp said.
“Exactly. There’s no upside. It’s all bad news.”
“You will have access to the fullness of the Regent’s wine cellar, however. And his beer cellar. And his bar.”
“There’s a ray of light after all,” Howlaa said.
I yawned. No time to rest, though. “I’ll give you guys a little while to process your thoughts and feelings or whatever. I’ve got some business to do.”
“AH, MIRANDA.” The steam colossus was sitting – who knew it could sit? – on a hill overlooking an algae-slick green sea, part of a nature preserve not far from the city center. Its footsteps had destroyed large chunks of that nature, and its smoke was already making the air stink. I sat on a rock next to one of its many knees. “I WILL NOT MISS THIS PLACE AT ALL.”
“What will you do when you get back to outer space?” I asked, wondering just what exactly I was setting loose in the universe.
“I WILL COMPLETE MY ORIGINAL MISSION. IF YOU ARE VERY LUCKY, YOU WILL NEVER FIND OUT WHAT THAT MISSION WAS.”
“Cryptic it is, then. I appreciate your help.”
“IT WAS NOT HELP. IT WAS A TRANSACTION.”
“Okay. Nice doing business with you.”
His sensor array swiveled. “YES. I SUPPOSE IT WAS. I WISH TO GO NOW.”
I touched a tiny part of its warm metal knee, and the ring on my finger tightened and hummed – I guess moving something that big took more effort than usual – and the steam colossus vanished. I squeezed my eyes shut in a sudden gust of wind, air rushing to fill the void where the giant space-monster had been.
I couldn’t help but feel like I’d just made Nexington-on-Axis a better place. Again. I was on a roll.
Next I went to visit Templeton, who was staring out his window.
“You did it,” he said. “I can’t believe it. The Regent is gone, the Queen is alive, she’s making pronouncements about Howlaa and Wisp taking over in the Regent’s place, she’s sealing off the palace, people are either rioting or celebrating in the streets, I can’t tell which… I don’t believe it.”
“Believe it. The Regent is gone, gone, gone.”
“Where did you send him?”
“To a version of Earth governed by the Cog Lords. The Queen told me the coordinates. We’ll see how he likes living under a dictatorship. Now, can you get this ring off me?”
“It was never meant to be permanently bound to one individual,” Templeton said. “Howlaa and Wisp just stole an unfinished prototype. I’m sure there are plans in the lab to finish the device. Now that I can walk out of this room without imploding, I’ll get right on it. Come see me in the lab in a couple of days.” His servos whirred in a moment’s silence, then he said, “You did good, Miranda.”
“Coming from you, I’ll try not to take that as an insult.” I jumped home.