“No? I didn’t know cyborgs were a race.”
“We’re persecuted,” Templeton said. He glanced at Howlaa. His eyes bulged out, telescoping like spyglasses. “Howlaa, could you shed that nasty skin? A Nagalinda tore off my original arms. I don’t like them much.” He lifted his hydraulic limbs, all silvery and skeletal, and clenched hands with eight fingers and two thumbs each – he could count to twenty on his fingers. “Not that my new arms aren’t great, but these hands are no good for –”
“Miranda is young,” Wisp said. “Please contain your lewdness.”
Templeton couldn’t smile – his mouth was more of a grille – but he made a noise I think was a snigger. “Nobody’s lewd like a teenager is lewd. I remember when I was that age. But, sure, propriety, I can roll with that.”
Howlaa rippled and changed, taking on her human form again, shadow-suit withdrawing to something like a tank top and baggy shorts, all fuzzy black again. “Templeton, we’re here to –”
“Please, I was saying something, trying to educate this little Mabling. I know you minions of the Faerie Queen hate tech, and hate cyborgs, but listen, we’re all around you, even the human-looking ones. Everybody who wears corrective eyeglasses or contact lenses is a cyborg. Everyone who has an insulin pump or a pacemaker is mechanically augmented. Just because my enhancements are a little more obvious is no reason to treat me like a freakshow or a monster, I’m no different from someone with a titanium screw in their hip or a plastic knee – it’s a difference of degree, not of kind. Understand? But I’ve been persecuted, stripped of my dignity, shorn of my –”
“You weren’t fired for being mostly robot,” Howlaa interrupted. “You were fired for testing new technology on yourself without permission.”
Templeton sniffed. “Semantics.”
“I don’t have contact lenses,” I said. “Or a plastic knee. But, ah, I do have…” I glanced at Howlaa, who nodded minutely. “I do have these.” I stripped off my gloves, revealing my rings and my bracelets.
Templeton stared at my jewels for a long moment. He didn’t lean in close to examine them, but for all I know his mechanical eyes were zooming in. “Shee-it,” he said at last. “The jump-engine has already bonded to this girl? That kind of screws my plan.”
“You were going to activate the engine yourself and steal it, leaving Wisp and me here to deal with the shitstorm fallout of your departure?” Howlaa said.
Templeton nodded. “Well, yeah.”
“We figured. That’s why Wisp was going to hijack your body to prevent such a treacherous act. You’ve still got one nostril and working sinuses and an organic brain, so Wisp can run you like a remote control racecar.”
“Would’ve been a hell of a standoff,” Templeton said, “Especially since my weapons system is on an autonomous AI circuit, and can protect me even if my self-control is compromised.”
“It would’ve come to fisticuffs?” Howlaa said, sounding a little sad. “That would’ve been entertaining.”
I pulled my hands back. “You knew this guy was going to betray you, but you were going to come talk to him anyway?”
“As we’ve already noted, genius is not the sole province of the honorable and the likable,” Wisp said. “Knowing he would betray us is better than wondering if he might, at any rate. We knew exactly how to proceed. Then you came along, and…”
“How does a second-level Mabling wind up picking up a sparkling bit of tech anyway?” Templeton said. “Aren’t you supposed to pretend to break out in hives if you so much as touch a digital watch?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m just in fairy-cultist drag, Borg-o. Traveling incognito. I’m… new around here. The jump-engine thing was an accident.”
Templeton grunted and abruptly rose. “Nuclear meltdowns are accidents. This is a catastrophe. Once it’s activated, there’s no turning the jump-engine off, folks. Which means the whole revolution-of-three is now in the hands of our unplanned fourth – what’s your name?”
“Miranda Candle. Randy.”
“Great. Our fate is in the hands of Randy-Candy here, who I’m guessing isn’t a teenage cat burglar or super spy, but just another unlucky sap who got sucked up by the snatch-engines?”
“Miranda is quite resourceful,” Wisp said. “And you are hardly the ideal of the stealth commando. Some of your augmentations could have been helpful in the event of armed confrontation, but you are… untrained.”
“Better than some girl –” he said.
“What, are you racist against girls?”
Templeton stopped, then made that snigger again. “Touché, Randy. I guess you’ll have to do, since the alternative for me is sitting in this room and waiting for rust or cascading electrical failures to take me out. Have you figured out how to do anything with the engine yet?”
“I can hit people, and make them disappear. And when people try to hit me, I teleport.”
“Ah,” Templeton said. “It’s set in full manual mode, then, with only the self-preservation and non-lethal self-defense functions operating automatically. Everything else you’d have to activate by hand, and you don’t have the instruction booklet.”
“But you do?”
“Sweetie, I wrote the manual. I was the Regent’s best usability expert and interface designer before my tragic accident.”
“Tragic trial, conviction, and punishment,” Howlaa said. “To be fair.”
“Mmm. Semantics again. Hold out your hands, Randy. If I may?”
Another glance at Howlaa, another small nod. I guess this guy was our only hope. I held out my hands, palms down, and his robo-fingers touched me. “No snatching the rings off,” Howlaa said.
“I’d have to snatch her whole hands off, and if I tried, I’d trigger the self-defense circuit and get teleported who knows where, so no thanks. Here, okay, if you twist this ring like this, and slide this ring down as far as you can, and pass this bracelet over this other bracelet – poof, you’ve got line-of-sight teleportation turned on, just turn the thumb ring and you’ll teleport yourself to the farthest point in your vision.” As he turned the rings, they changed color and texture, from silver to gold to platinum to copper, from smooth metal to braided wire to lumpy primitive-style twists. “It’s all color and metal coded, it’s not that complex, really, there’s a learning curve, but once you master it, the pattern’s no harder than mastering a really tough video game or high-end graphic design software. See, twist these and these, and you get coordinate-specific teleportation, just state the particular cartographic system you’re using, name the coordinates, twist this thumb ring, and poof – you go right to your stated coordinates. Adjust the rings this way and you get short-burst evasive teleporting, useful for running like hell from guys with guns. This way, and you can walk through walls – short-hop teleports, with the jump-engine’s density-sensors determining where the next empty space is for you to inhabit. This lets you teleport to any place you’ve been before. And this –”
“I’ll never remember all this.” I shook my head, already forgetting which ring did what, only remembering the last step, twisting the thumb ring, and without remembering the preceding steps pulling the final trigger could be dangerous.
“Well, and why the hell would you?” Templeton said. “The full manual mode is for control freaks who don’t trust the machine to do anything on its own, Linux types, you know what I mean? Fear not, there’s a much simpler way.” He twisted both my thumb rings simultaneously, and I winced, expecting to find myself on top of a mountain or inside a tree or something, but instead the rings sort of melted, and slithered, and walked across my fingers, and the bracelets evaporated or shriveled up or shrank to nothing and then…
… I was left with just one ring, a gold band inscribed with funny but familiar-looking lettering, on the ring finger of my left hand.
“There you go,” Templeton said. “Full automatic mode, with the added bonus that guys won’t hit on you because they’ll assume you’re married.” He paused. “I guess you’re kinda young for that though, unless you’re from serious redneck country.”
“What’s this writing say?” I looked at the ring, amazed at how little it weighed after days of carrying around half a jewelry store on my hands. “What language is this?”
I wouldn’t have thought a guy with a piece of lab equipment for a face could look sheepish, but he managed. “It’s Tengwar.”
“I don’t speak that,” Wisp said, sounding doubtful.
Templeton said “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.”
“What does that mean?” I said.
“Jeez, Randy, you’re disappointing me here,” Templeton said. “You’re from some kind of Earth, your English sounds basically like mine, and I haven’t been here that long – they don’t have Tolkien where you’re from? The Lord of the Rings? ‘One ring to bring them all’? My little joke. Seemed appropriate.”
“You mean the magic ring they threw into a volcano in all those movies they made in New Zealand?”
“They made movies from those books?” Templeton said.
“This whole conversation is confusing and I suspect irrelevant,” Wisp said. “What do you mean by ‘full automatic’ mode?”
Templeton shrugged, with a whine of motors as his shoulders rose and fell. “Randy is the jump-engine now. It’s part of her, she’s part of it. Where she wants to go, she can go. Poof. Wishing makes it so.”
“You mean… I could go home? Like, now?”
“You could,” Templeton said, “but if you do, without saving our asses first, I’ll personally build a new jump-engine from my own guts and use it to chase you down and throw you into a volcano.”
“I’d come back,” I said. “I just want to leave my Mom a note so she doesn’t worry.” More so I wouldn’t get grounded quite as badly when I did return.
“Miranda,” Wisp said. “Please… don’t. What if something happened and you couldn’t come back? If you were struck by lightning, hit by a bus?”
“Eaten by a tiger?” Howlaa said. “That happens on Earth, doesn’t it? We’d be screwed. And you’d never get to find out about your Dad.”
I sighed. “Fine. Okay. We’ll do it your way. But… can I send things to earth? Like a snatch-engine in reverse?”
“Sure,” Templeton said, and he even dug up a pen and a scrap of paper for me.
I wrote a pretty cryptic note: “Mom, am okay, will be home soon, sorry I couldn’t call, not running away forever, promise.” It wouldn’t keep me out of trouble, but sending a note might keep her from killing me when I got home. I looked at the note, then wrote “Love” at the bottom in a loopy scrawl even I could barely read. “Okay. How do I, ah, jump-mail it?”
“You seem to like punching,” Templeton said. “Just think of where you want it to go, and give it a smack.”
So I did. I punched the letter and it disappeared. Templeton said it should appear on my kitchen table instantaneously. Better than e-mail. But maybe not as good as texting.
“All right,” Templeton said. “Your girl has some of the most powerful technology on the Nex in her hands. What’s the next step?”
“I can just poof my way into the palace and wreck up the snatch-engines, right?” I said. “Punch ’em into outer space?”
“Small problem: you’ve never been there. You don’t know where you’re going, so you can’t just teleport there. I could give you coordinates and let you jump to a specific location, but the palace is… tricky. You might end up jumping blindly inside a furnace or a deathworm torture pit or something if we do that. So you’ll have to get close to the engines, step through a few walls, work your way in gradually. Of course, after you’ve gotten a good look at the heart of the palace, you can come and go back there at will. Though we all hope more than one trip won’t be necessary.”
Howlaa burped. “First we have lunch. Then Miranda practices until she can teleport in her sleep. Then we help her with some personal business. Then we defeat the Regent.”
“Shit. What personal business are you talking about?”
“It’s personal,” I said. “Are you coming with us?”
Templeton lifted one of his legs, which had some patches of actual skin and muscle left, and pointed to a blinking black anklet. “See that? It’s tamperproof, and infallible, and it keeps me here.”
“Ohhh. Like, house arrest? You leave and the cops come?”
“No, like self-destruct. I leave and I implode. Just as lethal as exploding, only with less property damage. The Regent doesn’t want me running around loose, though he doesn’t seem to care who visits me.”
“You are probably under surveillance,” Howlaa said. She turned, shivered, and began transforming back into a Nagalinda.
Templeton nodded. “Sure. Nothing mechanical, nothing in here – I can keep my own room clean, at least. But I’m sure the barkeep is an informant. Why wouldn’t he be?”
“Explains his curiosity,” Wisp said. “Curiosity isn’t usually a survival trait in a landlord around here. But all he saw was a high-level Minion of Mab and her bodyguard come in. We just need a… plausible explanation for that.”
“Good luck.” Templeton began sorting a pile of wires heaped on his bed. “Might as well come up with a plausible reason for oil to hang out with water.”
“I can think of shomething,” Howlaa said. She knocked Templeton down and began beating his head and chest. Fragments of plastic and metal sprang free.
“Damn it!” Templeton shouted. “A little warning next time, let me turn off my sensory inputs, or at least flip the switch that lets me interpret pain as pleasure.” He made a low moan. “Ah, there, yes, just like that. Bash away, big boy.”
“Eww,” I said.
Howlaa stepped back. “This ish unpleashantly non-consenshual.”
“I’m just coping in my own way.” Templeton sat up with a whine of overstressed motors. “It’s going to take me hours to return this damage.”
“That’s what you get for seeding a Mabling recruitment potluck with nanites,” Wisp said. “You know they’re allergic to machines. Next time, our mistress the Faerie Queen might do more than send us to beat you up.”
“Oh, is that what I did.” Templeton unscrewed one of his eyes, removed it, and examined the cracked lens. “I am a bastard. Listen, you assholes – you come back for me when you’ve finished your mission. I didn’t help you for free.”
“We keep our promishesh,” Howlaa said. She led the way out, and Wisp went dark and floated inconspicuously with us.
“You’re lucky that’s all we did!” I shouted back into Templeton’s room, and tried to look like a smug brainwashed fairy fancier as we went down the stairs.
“You all need a post-brawl drink?” the bartender said.
“It wasn’t a brawl,” I said. “Just a friendly message.”
“I thought the noise of crunching components and breaking glass sounded pretty friendly,” the bartender said.
Back on the thronged street, I said, “Okay, so what are we doing now?”
“I was serioush,” Howlaa said. “Lunch. We’ve been living on shcraps for too long. Now we’re in the city. Now we can get shomething good.”
“The restaurant district it is,” Wisp whispered in my ear.
My belly growled – it had been growling pretty regularly, but now it really growled, apparently alerted to the possibility of real solid food. I hadn’t had anything substantial since the Regent’s dinner party. “What are we going to eat?”
“The best food in the universes can be found here,” Wisp said. “Come along.”
I had to do my playing-it-cool thing again as we navigated the broad avenue. Howlaa led the way to a moving walkway that snaked up through the air, apparently unsupported, like a silver ribbon in the wind. We stepped onto the walkway along with a cross-section of the bizarre residents of the Nex, from dolphins with legs and bubbling fluid-filled helmets to tiny wizened men on robotic stilts to a girl about my age in a ballet dancer’s tutu smoking a long black cigarette. All these people had names, cultures, histories, lives – they’d all been stolen away to this place, or descended from others stolen long ago, and made their lives here. I remember how stunned I’d felt in school when one of my teachers told me there were almost 300 countries on Earth, and 7,000 living languages – how could there possibly be so many? How could I ever hope to visit all those places, and speak to everyone I found there? And Nexington-on-Axis made Earth seem like a little hick town, smaller even than Pomegranate Grove.
As we rose into the air – high enough that I clenched the rail as hard as I could – I got my first look at the Nex from above, and the city spread out as far as I could see in all directions. Out where we were, the streets were more-or-less straight, a pretty comprehensible grid, but closer to the center things got narrow, jumbled, and cramped, like an old historical district surrounded by modern outskirts. And at the very center rose a building that stood high above everything else, a curved thing of domes and minarets and swooping arches, all made of stone that changed color in the sun and seemed, in places, to flow like water. I half-turned and craned my head to keep looking at the thing.
The ballet dancer glanced at me. “Yeah, it’s got some new towers today. Kind of pretty. Hope they keep them.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Stupid Mabling,” she muttered, tossing her cigarette over the side and walking away.
Apparently I was not disguised as the member of a universally popular clique.
“The palace,” Wisp said in my ear. “The building at the center of the city. It is a living thing, in its way, changing shape, growing new towers, new arches, rising up, changing daily.”
“Awesome,” I said.
“Makes it difficult to break in,” Wisp said. “There are no blueprints, no floor plans – that’s why you can’t jump to specific coordinates inside safely. But with the jump-engine, we should be able to navigate, room by room. Once you’ve practiced a bit and feel comfortable with your abilities, you can take us inside with you. The snatch-engines are vast, but smashing them is within Howlaa’s powers, and you can scatter the fragments throughout the universe. Then we’ll be free to go wherever we like, without fear of being recaptured.”
“Eat now, plan later,” Howlaa said, and tugged me toward a branching side-path on the walkway. We went down a drop so steep I had to close my eyes and breathe slowly to keep from puking, then leveled out close to the ground again and stepped off the walkway. I stumbled a little coming off it – Way to look like a tourist, Miranda, though I guess the Nex doesn’t have tourists, just immigrants, pretty much by definition – and Howlaa caught my arm and steadied me. “The reshtaurant dishtrict,” she said.
The buildings were as weird and varied as they were elsewhere: a mammoth tree with rope ladders and platforms loaded with diners, all pulling fruit from branches; a dead Ferris wheel with a guy serving cotton candy and fried dough from one of the cars; a slowly-revolving glass globe filled with fluttering bugs, with bug-people inside snatching live food from the air; and more. “Is there any human food here?”
“Some,” Wisp said. “But mostly fusion restaurants. Nagalinda-Peruvian is quite good. And Dagonite-Mediterranean is marvelous seafood, with delicacies shipped in from the Landlock Sea.”
“Could I maybe ease into the multicultural thing?”
“There are some purer examples of human cuisine,” Wisp said. “Mostly clustered a few streets down. Though they do make use of local ingredients, which won’t always match your previous experience.” We passed street vendors serving everything from hot dogs to twitching things impaled on sticks, and the air was a mosh pit of smells, savory banging up against sweet knocking over sour shoving rotten aside. Every once in a while I’d get a noseful of something mouth-wateringly delicious, and then some millipede thing would go by eating from a plastic bowl that smelled like an open sewer and my guts would churn.
I was relieved when we turned a corner onto a street lined with pretty-much conventional-looking buildings. Funny how a street with an adobe Mexican restaurant and a wooden steakhouse next to a Japanese teahouse with paper walls looked familiar and normal here, when such a combo back home would’ve been weird and jarring.
“What are you in the mood for?” Wisp asked. “Thai? Mexican? French? Guatemalan? Hmong?”
“Wishp talksh a lot about food for shomeone who doeshn’t eat,” Howlaa said. “Like a virgin going on and on about shex.” She paused. “Not that, ah, there’sh anything wrong with virginsh, I mean, if you’re…”
I stopped, staring, and lifted my arm to point.
“What is it?” Wisp said.
“That,” I said, my mouth suddenly dry, my legs trembling. “That building.”
“Yesh? Rushtic French Cuishine? We can eat there if you want.”
“No. It… That was my Dad’s restaurant. The one that blew up.”