I landed in the backyard, for safety’s sake. There was a lot of yelling coming from the house. Cal was in the driveway, leaning on the side of his car. I walked over to him. “So,” I said. “I guess they had the big reunion. What’d I miss?”
“Well, Mom’s boyfriend was over, and when Dad found out he and Mom were together, the two of them almost got into a fistfight.”
I groaned. “I was wondering how that first meeting would go.”
“Ross took off, said he knew we all had a lot to talk about, but really he was just scared of getting the crap beaten out of him. I mean, Dad’s got fifty pounds on the guy.”
“Jeez. I didn’t even… All I could think about was getting Dad home, you know? I didn’t think about how crazy it would make everything afterward.”
Cal laughed. “Nobody ever said happy endings were easy, Randy. Mom is grilling Dad like a steak in there. You should go take some of the heat off him.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “I’m pretty sure you’re going to be grounded until after college graduation. Maybe longer when Mom sees your haircut.”
Two days later things were just as complicated, but we’d done the tearful reunion thing and Dad cooked us all a huge meal – Mom’s boyfriend was there too, which was awkward, but whatever. I was totally grounded – even though I’d brought Dad home, I wasn’t off the hook for being AWOL for the best part of a week – but late one night I jumped back to Nexington-on-Axis. The palace was barely recognizable, just a dome of faintly-glowing stone without so much as a window or a door. The Queen had been serious about closing the place off to outsiders, and I guess the palace was happy to go along with her wishes.
Howlaa and Wisp had set up their government in the saloon, and I found them there, at a big table surrounded by lizard-people and Nagalinda and humans and cyborgs, everybody arguing, with Wisp floating in the middle and translating. Various bummed-out Mablings sat around the bar drinking, their whole worldview turned over when their mistress ran away.
“The hero of the revolution!” Howlaa called, and everyone cheered, which was pretty freaky – I haven’t gotten that much applause since I won the third-grade spelling bee at the county fair. People slapped me on the back and shoved drinks into my hands, which I mostly put back down again, because the last thing I needed was Mom realizing I had a hangover in the morning. She didn’t know I was technically un-ground-able, and I liked it that way.
Howlaa shooed everybody off, and he and Wisp took me into a curtained-off private booth. “So how’re things going?” I asked.
“Chaotic,” Wisp said. “But the Queen says repairs on the snatch-engines are coming along nicely, and she’s willing to allot us one-sixteenth of her children’s time to import the things we need. Once we have your jump-engine, we won’t be as dependent on the Queen, which I think will suit all of us better. I wonder if the Regent was trying to develop independence from the royal family all along?”
“Probably trying to make it so he could kill all of them,” Howlaa said. “Don’t give him too much credit.” She sighed. “You know, Randy, I thought once word got out that we could send people away, this place would become a ghost town, but enough people want to stay that we’ll definitely need a real system of government. Though for now the government of, ‘Because I said so and I can beat you all up’ seems to be working.”
“Generally speaking, second and third-generation Nexingtons have no desire to repatriate to their ancestral homes,” Wisp said. “You have no idea what you’ve gotten us into, Miranda. Putting the Nex back on track, emptying the prison camps, creating some sort of reasonable governmental structure – it’s a huge undertaking.”
“Nobody ever said happy endings were easy,” I said, and didn’t bother crediting the line to Cal. “Has Templeton figured out how to get this ring off me yet?”
“Let’s go see,” Howlaa said.
Templeton’s lab was more machine shop than operating room, all greasy tables and rattly shelves heaped with a mini-Machine Waste’s worth of junk. “Miranda!” he called. A lot of his body was gleaming with gold fittings now; he’d spent some time doing incredibly tacky upgrades. “Come here, sit down.” I took a chair at a table heaped with schematics and wire and weirdly-shaped tools that seemed to curve out of this dimension and into another. Templeton sat across from me, took my hand in his, and leaned over, putting his mouth-grille half an inch from my knuckle. A lens came telescoping out of his face, and then one of the ends of his fingers split up into a dozen hair-thin micro-manipulators and began tugging and twisting at the ring. “Turn your face away,” he said, just in time for me to get nearly blinded by a flash of purple light. The ring began to hum and twist and heat up on my hand, and I tried to pull away, but Templeton grabbed my wrist with his other metal hand, and a noise like a dentist’s drill rose from the ring.
“If you hurt her, I’ll break you down for scrap,” Howlaa said, stepping forward.
The drilling sound stopped. Templeton sat up. “There, it’s done. It can be taken on and off, though I wouldn’t do it too often in rapid succession. The ring, please?”
I touched the ring, which felt tight but not super tight, and slid it off, holding it in the palm of my hand. I passed it over – but to Howlaa, not Templeton. Howlaa couldn’t use it herself, but I doubted Templeton would be her choice for official Ringbearer for the new government.
“Do you feel any different, Miranda?” Wisp said.
“I don’t know.” I tried to jump across the room. Nothing, not so much as a twitched mental muscle. My jumping days were over. I sighed. “I’m really going to miss that thing. You know somebody who can use that ring to send me home?”
“Merrill will,” Howlaa said. “He won’t do as a permanent ringbearer – too unreliable – but he’s delighted you sent the Regent to his own oppressive Earthly home, and he doesn’t want to leave the Nex, so we can trust him to wear it for a few moments.”
“I guess… that’ll be goodbye, then,” I said. “I feel like I’ve known you two forever. I’m going to miss you a lot.”
“You’ve literally changed our world, Miranda,” Wisp said. “We can’t thank you enough.”
“You showed me it’s possible to kick ass with your brain,” Howlaa said. “We’re going to miss you, too.”
“Vomiting imminent,” Templeton said.
So they sent me home.
About a month after I left the Nex for the last time, life had settled down, but wasn’t exactly what you’d call normal. Mom and her boyfriend were “on hold” while she tried to “figure some stuff out,” which was annoying, because I’d figured they’d insta-break-up once Mom found out she wasn’t a widow. But, like Cal said: not easy.
Dad had finally convinced the government he was still alive, and he was working at a restaurant and living with us, though he and Mom weren’t sharing a bedroom or anything. She kept poking holes in his amnesia story, no matter how much Cal and I tried to cover for him, and she was convinced he’d walked out on us and only come back out of guilt or desperation. She went back and forth on whether I was his accomplice or if he was lying to me, too. I knew we were going to have to tell Mom the real truth sometime, but the problem was, I didn’t have a jump-engine anymore to prove any of the crazy story to her. Which made things kind of difficult.
I was still mostly grounded, but Mom had started letting me go to the library to do some studying, which was how I got some time alone with my friend Jenny Kay at last. I wanted to tell her all about Nexington-on-Axis, but knew she’d never buy it without proof. She’s an Occam’s Razor kind of girl, and she’d just assume I was crazy if I didn’t have any evidence to the contrary. So I just fed her the story about seeing Dad on the street and trying to track him down, and she seemed satisfied with that, though I wasn’t thrilled with lying to my best friend.
I was in the library with Jenny Kay when Howlaa Moor strolled in – along with the blonde Underdweller who’d punched me in the nose. She wore a golden ring on her finger, and a green dress, and her face tattoos were gone, and she’d even had a bath in the recent past. Howlaa wore a long trenchcoat made of shadowcloth.
“Randy,” Howlaa said, too loud, but she doesn’t really know how libraries work, probably. “Your father said I’d find you here.”
“Who’s this?” Jenny’s voice was a little sharp but mostly curious, because she’s full of the curious.
“Jenny, this is my friend Howlaa.”
“Interesting name,” she said. “Where do you know Randy from?”
“My reputation doesn’t precede me?” Howlaa said. “Randy, I’m hurt. You haven’t told –”
I made cutting-my-throat gestures and Howlaa shut up. “Ah, right. Well. Nice to meet you, the famous Jenny. I’ve heard of you. And Miranda, you remember our friend Ermintrude? We call her Trudy.”
“Guten tag,” the Underdweller said, looking around the library like she expected to be attacked by books at any moment.
“I guess she’s, ah, mellowed a little since we last met?” I said.
“She’s the god-worm’s ambassador to the city center,” Howlaa said. “We worked out our differences, and she’s got a wide streak of loyalty, so she’s the perfect ringmaiden.”
“Are you all talking in some sort of code?” Jenny Kay said, not quite patiently.
“I won’t keep you,” Howlaa said. “I just wanted to give you… this.” She set a small silver ring on the table in front of me, where it clicked gently against the wood. “First new one we’ve made, and everyone agreed, you should be the one to have it. Wisp sends his whiny love – he wanted to be here in person, but figured he’d be too conspicuous. A votre san, Miranda. Come see us sometime.” She turned on her heel and strode out of the library, and Trudy sighed a long-suffering sigh and went after her. I could see how being Howlaa’s chauffeur would get old.
“What on Earth was all that about?” Jenny Kay said.
“Nothing on Earth.” I picked up the silver ring, and slipped it onto my index finger. It tightened a little and tingled. I took Jenny Kay’s hand. “Nothing on Earth at all.” I looked around, and we were unobserved, nobody in our little corner of the library.
I had two hours before I had to be home. Plenty of space and time.
“Come on, Jenny,” I said. “I’ve got something you’ll have to see to believe.”