Chapter 10

“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.”

“What?”

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.”

Posted in Chapters | 1 Comment

Chapter 9

“He was probably lying,” Howlaa said, after I’d explained.

“But not definitely lying,” Wisp said. “It’s possible.”

“Not probable,” Howlaa countered.

“This is Nexington-on-Axis,” Wisp said. “Home to sentient machines, hallucinogenic swamp gas, orbital love palaces, skinshifters, the Bodiless, and many other improbable things. With everything Miranda is doing for us, we have to try and help her, if there’s any chance her father is here.”

Howlaa rolled her eyes. “Of course we’ll try, I’m not saying that, I just don’t want her to be disappointed when it turns out the Regent was lying.”

“My Dad is dead,” I said. “I was at his funeral, even if his body wasn’t. I don’t expect miracles. But if I don’t try to find out, to make sure, I’ll always wonder. And I couldn’t stand that.”

“Fair enough,” Howlaa said. “We’ll beat the bushes, and we’ll beat the informants, and we’ll see what we can discover about the Regent’s favorite chef.”

Wisp said, “But we can’t go out at all until we get you disguised –”

“Is there any chance I can get a shower? I was gross two days ago, and that was before I got steamed in foil with my own sweat.”

“Ah. A shower? Not… as such. This used to be a live-work space, but the tenant was a large sapient reptilian, and his cleaning chamber is mostly composed of articulated scale-buffing arms –”

“Did it involve running water? At all?”

“No… though there was a stall for rinsing off slime-mollusks before shipping them to market, and it may still be functional.”

“At this point I’d settle for a sprinkler and a handful of sand to scrub myself with, Wisp.”

Howlaa tossed me a blanket to use as a towel, and handed me a cloth-wrapped bundle. “Change into those, not your nasty dirty clothes. Part of the disguise. And make it quick. The government isn’t going to overthrow itself.”

Wisp floated through the warehouse and I followed, around a ceiling-high stack of dusty black crates the size of ice cream trucks. They smelled like shellfish just starting to go bad.

The shower – or the closest local equivalent – was the size of a horse stall with a drain covered by an iron grate in the middle of the floor. Sparkling bits of opalescent shell fragment were scattered in the corners, and there were smears of thick green slime on the concrete walls. Worse than showering at summer camp. The only control was a knob about the size of a ship’s wheel, and there were nozzles everywhere, poking out from all sides. “Uh… is there hot water, do you think?”

“Doubtful. It’s unlikely the slime mollusks complained about the cold.”

I glanced at the swarm of glowing lights. “A little privacy?”

“Miranda, I don’t have a body, much less a body capable of feeling anything resembling lust for a barely post-pubescent female. And I’ve seen Howlaa nude in any number of –”

“Not the point!” I shouted. What did Howlaa always say? “Shushit! Go away! Shoo!” I flapped my hands at him, then looked at the jewelry on my wrists and fingers. “Is it okay to get this stuff wet?”

“The jump-engine can survive most imaginable extremes of pressure and temperature. I believe it is safe to assume it is also waterproof.”

“Good to know. Now float on.” I watched the swarm of lights drift away, though if he’d left a mote or two behind to spy on me, how would I know about it?

I sighed and started to undress, wincing at the way my clothes stuck to me, and trying not to notice the whiff of my armpits. I stepped into the shower and twisted the knob the tiniest of tiny bits.

The water shot forth in narrow streams from all directions, and it was so cold bits of my body went numb instantly. I howled and hopped in the spray, and almost ran for dry air, but I could feel the dirt running down off my body, so I gritted my teeth and tried to think warm thoughts, wishing for soap and shampoo.

I couldn’t stand it for more than a few minutes, but at least there wasn’t any crud caked on me anymore, so I twisted the knob off and stepped out, dripping. My teeth chattered as I wrapped the blanket around me and dried off.

The new clothes were crazy. Basically it was a black unitard body-stocking thing, not my usual style. Weirder, there were these dangly diaphanous purplish wings of cloth and wire attached to the shoulder blades, and a skirt sewn around the waist, only it was less a skirt and more a random spray of leaf-shaped green fabric streamers. There was a pair of glasses, too, with bulgy lenses all faceted like discoballs, but when I put them on it was just like looking through glass, only everything sort of sparkled, like the world had been doused with glitter. I pulled on the elbow-length gloves, which looked lumpy where the rings and bracelets bulged out, but at least hid the jump-engine from casual view.

I pushed the glasses up on my forehead – the sparkles were a bit much – and went back to the car/truck/whatever. “Guys, why am I dressed like an eight-year-old with a fairy princess obsession?”

“Just marking you as a member of a thriving subculture,” Wisp said. “The Minions of Mab, they call themselves – mostly human females, fairly young, who owe fealty and give adoration to our city’s one and only refugee from the land of mist and mirrors.”

“Help me out here. That didn’t clear anything up for me.”

“Mist-and-mirror people are sort of like skinchangers,” Howlaa said, “only they’re too lazy to change their skin, so they just change the way people perceive them. They’re telepathic, and our resident refugee picked up some sort of Faerie Queen imagery from a passing human girl, appeared to that girl in the form of an ethereal woman with wings and eyes like ice, and bam, she had the start of a cult. She claims to be Queen Mab of Faerie, snatched from the fields beyond the fields – stolen like a changeling, she says – but it’s all so much bullshit. She’s just another alien looking to make an easy living, and her minions keep her well-fed and comfortable. Her little darlings scurry around the city in droves, so you’ll fit right in, and no one will look twice at you.”

I tugged at the skintight fabric. “This sucks. I quit gymnastics when I was nine and I didn’t ever plan to put on one of these again.”

“Better to look silly and be free than to look good and be captured,” Howlaa said. “Speaking of…” She took a pair of scissors from the cab of the truck and snipped them at me. “You’ll need a shorter haircut to go with that. A purple one.”

I backed away. I’m not really vain about my hair – especially after this many days without washing – but pixie purple didn’t sound too flattering.

“The Regent has seen you, Miranda,” Wisp said. “It’s best if you aren’t instantly recognizable here, in the heart of his power.”

“Damn it.” I sat down. Howlaa snipped away professionally, and I tried not to sigh too dramatically at seeing my wavy dark hair fall to the floor in chunks. “Are you taking it all off?”

“Of course not,” Howlaa said. “I don’t have a razor, and I don’t want to blunt my knife’s edge on your head-stubble. Be still.”

“Is there a mirror in this place, so I can see what you’re doing to me?”

“Plenty of big glass windows once we get outside, Randy. You’ll get a look.” He took out a tube of temporary hair dye – it was even a brand name I recognized – and that was a relief, at least. Though with the lack of showers around here who knew when I’d be able to wash out the dye? Howlaa draped the blanket around me like I was at a hair salon and started working.

With so little hair left on my scalp it didn’t take long for Howlaa to get all the dye gel combed in. I wanted to reach up and touch my head, which felt about as fuzzy as a peach at best, but Howlaa slapped my hand away. “No purple fingers,” she growled. We waited fifteen minutes – I could tell it was killing Howlaa, just waiting, because she paced around and did push-ups and made fun of Wisp – and then Howlaa rinsed out my hair with the contents of a couple of bulb-shaped water bottles, purplish water sluicing down on the blanket. “All right, let’s see the whole effect,” she said.

I stood up, put on the weird glasses, and gave a little twirl, purple-haired and winged and feeling dumb, but, at least, not feeling much like myself.

“I don’t know,” Howlaa said. “The cheekbones are the same, the nose, the build, the gait won’t change, the space between the eyes is identical, the –”

“Pish,” Wisp said. I didn’t know exactly what “pish” means but it sounded like something British people would say to be condescending. “Ignore her, Miranda. Howlaa can change her body so radically that she doesn’t appreciate how effective more minor changes can be. Most sentients don’t look past the immediate surface, and your immediate surface is quite different now.”

“If you say so,” Howlaa said. “Time for me to make some changes too.”

I’d seen her transform several times already, but it wasn’t any less weird or fascinating this time – though I stepped back and widened my eyes when she finished. “One of those?”

“Yesh,” she said, sounding like a normal human voice that got run through a food processor or something. “One of theesh.” Howlaa had transformed into a Nagalinda, flat face, holes for a nose, mouth full of nasty teeth, eyes dead and big and watery, skin eel-smooth.

“No one bothers Nagalinda,” Wisp said. “They have an aggressive culture. More importantly, they can speak in human tongues, albeit heavily accented, so I won’t be stuck translating between you constantly.”

Howlaa’s shadow-suit shifted and spread out, becoming a shirt and pants… and then changing from fuzzy blackness to shiny blackness, switching texture to become some kind of dark leather. “Whoa! I didn’t know your outfit could do that!”

“The clozhe make the man,” Howlaa said. “Shadowcloth hash chameleon propertiesh. Perfect for an imposhter. I jusht usually don’t bother with the fiddly bitsh.”

“Aren’t we kind of an odd couple?”

“No one will think so. Your purple hair marks you as a high personage among the Minions of Mab, and those often have deadly bodyguards. Howlaa looks the part of just such a hired hand.”

Howlaa’s lipless mouth opened wider, showing off an extra row of teeth, and I figured it for a grin. She – he? it? – beckoned and I followed toward a tall wide door.

“Are you ready for your first glimpse of the heart of Nexington-on-Axis, Miranda?” Wisp said. “For the wonders and terrors beyond this door?”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure I’ll manage.”

The first thing that hit me was the brightness – the nuclear sun seemed to shine brighter here, and my disco-ball glasses tinted automatically into sunglasses in the glare. Once my eyes adjusted I realized the light wasn’t just from the sun, but was partly reflection from the twisted mirrored skyscrapers that rose on either side of the warehouse. My eye could barely follow their curves, and they looked more like oversized blown-glass art than buildings. I tried to imagine the kind of creatures that might live there, and could only think of huge boneless things.

And this was only a side street. Howlaa led us out, onto the main drag, and it took every ounce of my cool not to gape and gawp like a hick on his first trip to the big city.

It’s funny, but the first thing I thought was, This is like Vegas, where we went once on vacation. They have the Eiffel tower and a pyramid and a Disney-looking fairy-tale castle and the Statue of Liberty and I don’t even remember what all else, jumbled up all near each other. The Nex was like an alien’s dream of the Vegas strip.

At a glance I saw:

A mountain made of glass or maybe ice, thirty stories high, and imprisoned at the center a frozen monster with red wings and a body covered in mouths and eyes, and the eyes were blinking. But the weirdest thing was all the apartments just chiseled into the mountain, with people (not humans, mostly) going about their business, all their walls transparent, all their actions on display, completely oblivious to anyone who might be watching them cook or pee or sleep or argue, and apparently unbothered by the thing at the heart of the mountain staring at them, too;

A lighthouse tilting at a scary angle in a patch of bubbling mud;

A geyser of foaming water shooting straight up into the air from the center of a lake, bigger than Old Faithful, with a huge cubical building bobbing on top of the spray, constantly on the edge of falling off, but never quite tumbling, and when I squinted I could see an elevator descending down through the center of the waterspout and vanishing into the lake;

The corpse of something the size of a whale, with flippers and big jaws but also little useless legs, the body shellacked or lacquered or something, with people going in and out of the gaping mouth, like they lived there;

Building-sized beehives filled with bustling figures in beekeeper outfits;

Cliff dwellings like the native Americans had in the desert, only these were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a couple of totally Old-West-looking buildings, one even with a sign that said “Saloon”;

And more, and more, and more. That was just what I saw on the couple of blocks around me. And that’s omitting the people.

Out in the provinces I’d seen weird stuff, sure, from lizard people to frogmen to Nagalinda to intelligent machines, but there hadn’t been all that many of anything, and I’d gotten the idea the Nex was sparsely populated… but I’d been in the equivalent of the badlands, the big empty spaces in Wyoming or something, and now I was in the middle of the city, with the city folk.

I did see a few girls dressed like me in unitards or leotards and stupid wings, with orange hair and green hair, and the one who passed by on my side of the street gave me a curtsy so deep I thought she was falling down. And there were a couple of Nagalinda, and more lizard people, and even a clattering machine-being or two, but – but –

Okay. Imagine you go to some really hopping part of a big city on a Saturday night – think of all the different kinds of people you might see. Old people going to the theater. Married guys out with their wives. Families hustling their kids home. Homeless people panhandling. Punks standing around smoking. Guys on skateboards. All those different types, you know? Now subdivide all those types by things like hair color and eye color and shoe size and every other arbitrary category you can think of, so that blue-eyed-old men with gray hair and loafers are a completely separate category from their green-eyed counterparts. Pretty big pool of different kinds of people, right?

Now imagine all of those different kinds of people are different species, some of them so totally non-human that you’re not even sure if they’re living things or weird sculptures until they start moving. We passed by conglomerations of rocks wearing shoes. Translucent slugs reading maps. A little dust devil spinning around some leaves and litter that I almost walked through until Howlaa grabbed me because, no, turns out that’s an Aeolian, a distant relative of Wisp’s race that shares the lack of a body but lacks the powers of possession and useful glowing. I swear we saw everything you can imagine and a lot of things you can’t, everything but a hyper-intelligent shade of the color blue and a sentient kitchen sink. Things like lizard-people and guys with the faces of deep-sea fish started to look awfully normal by comparison. I guess you really can adjust to anything.

“Here.” Howlaa pointed to the saloon, which was both a relief – because I didn’t want to go near the glass mountain, for instance – and kind of a bummer, because it did look really normal in a kitschy way, like something you’d see in a ghost town theme park, with cheap beer for the parents and sarsaparillas for the kids. There were hitching posts out front and there were things tied to the posts, but they weren’t horses, as even a non-horse-crazy girl like me could tell from the spines and the number of legs.

Inside matched the outside, with wooden tables and a piano with a drunk guy sleeping with his face on the keys and a bartender with a totally out-of-control mustache. Both human. There were no customers I could see. Wisp’s translating mote was still in my ear, and it whispered: “Tell him you’re here to see Templeton.”

“Barkeep. I’m looking for Templeton.”

The bartender raised one of his eyebrows, which was almost as bushy as his mustache. “You don’t look like a geargirl. One of those airy-fairy types. I thought your kind pretended to be allergic to anything mechanical. What do you want to see Templeton for?”

Howlaa growled. It even made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I knew I wasn’t in any danger from her.

The bartender raised his hands. “Say no more. Templeton doesn’t pay me enough to ask follow-up questions.” He picked up a black plastic phone from behind the counter and spoke briefly, then hung it up. “He’s not in.”

Another growl from Howlaa, followed by a cracking of numerous knuckles.

The bartender sighed. “And the room he’s not in is number 112, right up those stairs.”

Howlaa flipped something round and shining onto the bar, and the bartender made it disappear quickly. We headed up the stairs, and I whispered, “Was that money? I thought you guys all just stole from each other.”

Howlaa laughed, a harsh noise from a Nagalinda. “We barter. I gave him a token for the Incarnadine district. Home of legendary robo-prostit–”

“Howlaa!” Wisp said, and Howlaa gave a nasty cackle. Like I couldn’t figure out what he was going to say.

“That’s gross,” I said.

“The robots aren’t shentient, so they don’t mind the work,” Howlaa said. “Could be worshe.”

“I’m not sure this is appropriate conversation,” Wisp said.

“Thish ish a brothel, Wishp,” Howlaa said. “We passhed appropriate a long time ago.”

Wisp sighed. “I didn’t choose the meeting place.”

“So this guy Templeton is a pimp or something?”

“Jusht a schientisht,” Howlaa said. “With a tashte for shlumming.”

“Do try to avoid the letter ‘S’ while in this form, Howlaa. The lisp is distracting. You could have said Templeton has a ‘predilection for low company,’ for instance, and avoided both ‘taste’ and ‘slumming.'”

“Shushit,” Howlaa said, and at least that sounded the same as usual. The door to room 112 was wooden, but had a crazy lock with blinking lights and interlocking teeth. Howlaa knocked on the door, and when nobody answered, leaned close and whispered to the lock. The lights flashed and it clicked open. “Ha. That’sh the problem with artificially intelligent locksh. If you know how, you can threaten them into opening.” She pushed open the door and stepped inside. “Templeton! We’re here to talk about you-know-what.”

I followed, and the door swung shut behind me. I’d expected some kind of four-poster-bed in red velvet, but this was more like the back room of an electronics store after an earthquake, wires and gears and electronics piled on shelves and all over the bed. The curtains were drawn over the windows, and it was dark, but I could tell there was a guy sitting in a chair in the corner. He leaned forward into the range of Wisp’s glowing lights, and I couldn’t help it – even after all I’d seen here, I gasped.

“I thought you said this guy was human,” I said.

Templeton made a noise. I can’t say if it was a laugh or a snort of contempt or what. When he spoke it sounded like the monotonous disconnected tone of the default voice on a laptop: “Human? I still have pancreas, a spleen, and most of my skin. What DNA I still possess is human.” A pause. “Why, are you racist against cyborgs or something?”

Posted in Chapters | 1 Comment

Chapter 8

“My Dad is dead.” I clenched my butterknife so hard it made my fingers hurt.

“Oh? Really? Perhaps I’ve been misinformed. How did he die?”

“A gas explosion destroyed his restaurant.”

“Ahh.” The Regent sat back, crossing his hands over his belly. “A gas explosion, of course. That’s almost as popular as tornadoes or sinkholes as an explanation for where things go when the royal orphans snatch them. Did the authorities recover a body?”

“I… No.”

The Regent spread his hands. “There you have it. Because his body is here.”

“If he’s really here, let me see him.”

“No, dear,” the Regent said gently. “Not until my scientists have pried those rings and bracelets away from you. Then you can be reunited.”

“How can I believe you?”

“I am a thief, Miranda, by necessity – but not a liar.”

“Not good enough. How stupid do you think I am? It doesn’t make any sense, that I would be here, and my father, too? Out of all the possible people in the universe, in multiple universes? It’s stupid to think we’d both get grabbed.”

“It’s improbable, I admit, but you must understand, the royal orphans are whimsical, in their way. When I asked them to find me a French chef, one who could make me the food I’d loved in my childhood, I was a bit surprised to see the snatch-engines reel in the finest restaurant in the small town of Pomegranate Grove, Georgia. Though your father has proven a satisfactory chef. Those same orphans were instrumental in creating the jump-engine. It appears they programmed its self-preservation circuit with the same sense of whimsy, as it jumped to your town for safety. That’s why I said I believe the orphans make little jokes. They enjoy coincidences and synchronicities. Like your presence here. Besides, isn’t the taste of this food evidence enough that your father’s hands created it?”

I snorted. I was pretty sure some of the meat in the cassoulet came from animals not even native to my planet, so, no, not exactly. “Nope. Show me my father. Now.”

“No, no, a thousand times no.”

“You think I’m making requests here? Take me to him –”

“Do not raise your voice to me. I am the unquestioned ruler of the city-state at the center of space and time. I made myself Regent of a kingdom more powerful than any on the Earth where I was born. I began a refugee in mud and rose to be the single most significant individual in the whole of the multiverse. You will obey me, Miranda. I have made you a fine offer. Take it, or a less savory option will be thrust upon you.” He’d dropped the whole kindly-grandfather pretense, which was a relief – I hadn’t been fooled, not really, but seeing his true colors made it easier to resist him.

But what if he was telling the truth? If my Dad really was here?

Well, in that case the Regent was the kind of bastard who’d steal a man from his wife and kids forever just to get a good meal. Whatever bad things Wisp and Howlaa had done, it couldn’t be worse than that. Either the Regent was lying to trick me or he was an evil jerk. “Howlaa and Wisp said taking the jump-engine from my body might kill me. You’re saying otherwise?”

“My scientists are quite talented, Miranda. I’m sure it won’t come to that.”

Right. Not reassuring. What would he care if I did die in the process? And even if I didn’t, what incentive would he have to let me see my father afterward? How could I trust the word of – of a kleptocrat?

No. If my Dad was alive, and here, I’d find him, but not this way. I hadn’t known the Regent long, but I didn’t like him. Maybe thinking we could overthrow him was idealism, and maybe idealism was the province of the young, but so what? I am young.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll go with you.”

“Marvelous, Miranda. You are wise beyond your years.” He rose and walked toward me, and I stood up from my chair. “I’ll summon a helicopter.” He put his hand on my shoulder.

I twisted and punched him in the stomach as hard as I could, and he disappeared.

Sirens and alarms started whooping from one direction, and I ran as fast the other way as I could.

#

I was pursued. Helicopters whirred behind me. Nagalinda did come rappelling down from above this time, firing their strange guns, but I must have been terrified or adrenaline-jacked enough to trigger the jump-engine’s protective circuits because my entire flight was a blur of teleportations – half a dozen hops from hills to slanting slate rooftops to giant skulls half-sunk in water to fields full of open pits and purple gas. I left the pursuit behind, but jumping so often, so quickly, took something out of me – my fingers ached, and the rings pulsed and twisted and throbbed. I landed, at last, in a dirt lot filled with big pipes, building materials for some construction project, and I crawled inside one of the pipes with aching legs and a full stomach and a whirring mind and a hollowed-out heart. At least I wasn’t hungry, and the night wasn’t too cold, and inside the pipe I might be invisible from above, and maybe I had sent the Regent so far away it would take him a long time to come back.

I was so exhausted I managed to fall asleep without thinking too much about what I was going to do come morning.

#

Something poked me in the ribs, and I rolled over, bumping my head on the roof of the pipe. The poke came again – it was a broom handle – and I grabbed it and yanked the stick out of the poker’s hands. Somebody gasped, and then a figure squatted down before the opening of the pipe. He had a wedge-shaped scaly head like a lizard, but he wore a jumpsuit – I thought of that Alice in Wonderland Disney cartoon, of the lizard Bill wearing a chimneysweep’s outfit. Only Bill didn’t show quite so many teeth when he opened his mouth, and this lizard-man made hissing noises at me.

“Sorry, I don’t speak… Lizardo.” He backed off, out of sight, and I climbed out of the pipe. Lizard-guy snatched the broom out of my hands and started brandishing it and spitting more hissy words, forked tongue flickering, eyes bulgy and scary. He advanced on me, this weird spiky web of frilled skin rising up from his neck and spreading out like a ruff on a picture of Shakespeare, still hissing, so I cocked back my arm to punch him into… wherever.

“Miranda, no!” I recognized that voice, and lowered my fist.

Wisp floated over and babbled at the lizard in a sputtery way. The lizard shrugged and walked off, pushing the broom. “He wasn’t attacking you,” Wisp said. “He just said, ‘You’re not a raccoon.’ I don’t think he expected to find refugees in his construction site. Perhaps you shouldn’t try to solve all your problems by punching people into outer space?”

I laughed. “Good to see you, too, sparkles.”

The motes of light bobbed in what was maybe a sort of nod. “Are you all right? We were worried, of course, when you didn’t make it to the rendezvous. Howlaa’s been beside herself.”

“How did you find me? I managed to get away from the Regent, so I didn’t think I left much of a trail.”

“You saw the Regent? He captured you?” The motes seemed agitated.

“He tried to buy me. Bribed, threatened, wined, and dined. Well, not wined. He kept the wine for himself.”

“How did you escape?”

“How do you think? I sucker-punched him and then ran like crazy, teleporting with every other step.” I looked around. “So how did you find me? And where’s Howlaa?”

“Searching for you elsewhere in the construction area. She’ll be along. We waited at the Roadyard, but when you didn’t arrive, Howlaa transformed into a chase-hound – one of her best tracking forms. She had a handkerchief you’d used, enough to get your scent, though tracking someone who can teleport is difficult. There were many gaps in the trail. It took us all night, starting back near the steam colossus, striking out almost randomly whenever the trail gave out until we could pick up your scent again. We ended up here.”

“You guys must be exhausted.”

“Howlaa is well-supplied with adrenaline, and its xenobiochemical analogues, while I do not sleep. Do not worry about us.”

“Wisp, you lazy – Randy!” Another lizard-person came over, but this one was wearing a jumpsuit of shadowcloth, so I knew it was Howlaa, apparently trying to blend in with the locals. Her eyes were a beautiful deep green, and her neck-ruff was fully extended. “I thought I smelled you. No offense. We were afraid you’d been stomped by a steam colossus or captured by the Regent.” She hugged me, and she smelled funny and lizardy, but then, I probably didn’t smell much better myself. I should’ve gotten a shower out of the Regent before taking off, though I bet if I’d gone into his house I’d never have gotten out again, jump-engine or not.

“Come with us to our transport,” Howlaa said. “And tell us everything.”

We walked past more heaps of pipes and boards, through a gate in a tall wooden fence and out of the construction site, onto what could have been an ordinary street, except for the gleaming golden manhole covers and the fact that the buildings – also golden – were rounded and curved, without a straight-line to be seen. “What is this place?”

“Just a neighborhood snatched from some planet,” Howlaa said. “These days it’s mostly populated by Scapeores.” She pointed backwards. “Like the one shoving a broom back there. Or like me, just now. Their kind mostly sleep late – they’re cold-blooded and get around more easily once the sun’s been on for a while – but the low-caste ones sleep with heat lamps on timers and rise early to do scutwork.”

“Huh. If they’re cold-blooded, why was he wearing clothes? Clothes only keep you warm by holding in your body heat, right? They’re no good if you’re cold blooded – just like bundling up in blankets won’t keep you warm if you’ve got hypothermia, there’s gotta be some warmth in you for the fabric to trap in the first place.”

“You’re right, Wisp, she is smart.”

I was Jenny Kay’s partner in science class, I thought. I couldn’t help but learn stuff.

“The clothes are ornamental, decorative, and functional,” Wisp said. “They denote caste. The highest members of Scapeore society wear only a few jewels and nothing else.”

“There’s only about two hundred Scapeore in all of the Ax,” Howlaa said. “I give their precious caste system one more generation before it falls apart, and some high-caste lady-lizard gets her eggs fertilized by a dung-jockey, same as happened with the Beetleboys and -girls after they’d been here a while. Maybe I should wear this body and try to seduce a lizard-prince. It’d be fun to mess with them. Things out here in the provinces are still pretty conservative. Closer to the city center you’ll see things get more lively.”

“So we’re still a long way from where we’re going?”

“We’re not far from the Machine Waste,” Wisp said. “Your trail went well away at points but doubled-back a bit.” He made a noise like clearing his throat, which was funny, since he didn’t have a throat. “Howlaa, she… met the Regent. In the flesh.”

Howlaa immediately turned, swept my legs out from under me with a kick, and knocked me to the ground. I landed on my back and all the air got bashed out of my lungs.

“Howlaa!” Wisp shouted, but she jumped on top of me, straddling my body and pinning my arms down by the wrists before I could even think to fight.

“Howlaa, Miranda is with us,” Wisp said. “Release her.”

Howlaa stared into my eyes, her scaly face dead blank, not that I could read lizard-people expressions anyway. “She’s with us so far as she’s able,” Howlaa said. She grunted, and her body began to change, though it wasn’t a complete transformation – a human hand burst from her side, emerging from a hole in her shadow-suit. The hand kept extending, an arm coming with it, and the fingers fumbled in one of the shadow-suits many there-and-gone pockets. The hand came out holding the tracking device they’d used to find the jump-engine the night they found me instead.

“A chimera-form, Howlaa? I thought your kind found such things unseemly.”

“Shushit, Wisp, sometimes I need an extra hand, and you can’t lend one.” The light blinked red, and Howlaa cursed. “Lie still, Miranda. Wisp, she’s infected.”

“Oh, dear,” Wisp said. “It never even occurred to me –”

“Because you don’t have a body,” Howlaa said. “You forget how vulnerable they are.”

“Infected?” I said. “What do you mean infected?” I struggled, but there wasn’t much point.

“Wisp will fix you,” Howlaa said, and the last thing I remember is tiny motes of Wisp’s body streaming toward me, into my mouth, into my nose, and then everything went dark.

#

I woke up shivering. I was sweating, wrapped in some crinkling material like tin foil that made me feel like a baked potato. I was on my back in a vehicle bumping along at high speed, and it was dark. Howlaa’s face appeared above me, human again, tipping a cup to my lips. “Here, drink,” she said, and I swallowed, cool water. I tried to sit up and gulp more but I was too weak to move. “It will be over soon,” Howlaa said, and then it was all dark again, and I was having dreams about ants and blood and war.

#

“Randy. Wake up. You need to eat something.”

I blinked, squinting in the artificial light, and Howlaa helped me sit up. I was in the back of a truck, parked in a windowless warehouse with nothing but a few oil drums in the empty space. Howlaa pressed a warm cup into my hands. I sniffed it suspiciously, then began slurping it down – it was chicken broth, or something near enough, and I was starving.

“Your fever broke in the night,” Howlaa said. “You should feel better soon.”

I lowered the cup, beginning to remember. “What did you do to me?”

“Wisp healed you,” Howlaa said. “And saved our lives.”

“What –”

“The Regent poisoned you, Randy.”

Wisp floated over. “You were full of nanites, tiny machines with transponders beaming your location back to the Regent in real-time.”

“That’s the best case scenario for what the nanites were doing,” Howlaa said. “That’s why we wrapped you in the foil blanket, I don’t know if you remember. Metal to block the transmissions, assuming you were transmitting. Maybe they were mind-control nanites turning you into a sleeper-agent assassin instead. One punch and you could send us into cells deep in the palace.” Howlaa hopped down from the truck and went to one of the metal drums, tipping it a little as if checking to see if it was full. “Wisp went inside your body and tuned your immune system, taught your body’s natural defenses to recognize the little machines as invaders. You spent two days in a fever fighting the infection.”

I swallowed. “The Regent… he has that kind of technology? He can do that?”

“Not to me,” Howlaa said. “It’s easy for me to expel foreign stuff from my body, the same way I puke up hormones or poisons I need to get rid of. And Wisp is immune, what with having no body. But you… Did you eat any food he gave you? Drink anything?”

Fairy food. Cursed pomegranate seeds. I nodded. “I’m so stupid. I had no idea.”

“Not your fault,” Wisp said. “You’re not from here, you couldn’t have known, any more than someone from the 18th century on your planet would know to be afraid of… atomic bombs. Bazookas. Biohazards.”

“But if the Regent could track me, why did he let me sleep in that pipe all night? Why not send in some guys to sneak up on me and hit me with a tranquilizer first?”

“Well, you did punch him all the way into orbit,” Howlaa said with a grin. “I’ve still got some sources on the inside, and they tell me the Regent appeared in one of the magisters’ orbital pleasure-palaces, landed right in the middle of an –”

“An inappropriate activity,” Wisp said sharply.

Howlaa laughed. “Yeah. One of those. Took him a while to get back to the surface. The snatch-engines don’t work on orbital objects – they’re still technically part of the Ax – so he had to take a conventional craft. I imagine the Regent’s lieutenants were busy dealing with his ruffled feathers for most of the night. And why hurry? He knew he could find you whenever he wanted.”

“He was probably waiting to see where you would go, too,” Wisp said. “Hoping you would find Howlaa and me, allowing him to capture all three of us.”

“Nagalinda from the palace guard started coming out of the woodwork after Wisp went up your nose, too,” Howlaa said. “They were watching your location, but Wisp is hard to see from a distance, and I just looked like a Scapeore. One of them must have figured out we were the dangerous fugitives, though. Took a fair bit of running to get away from them, but I bartered for the fastest ride in the Roadyard, and once I made it to our transport and got you shielded it was easy enough to lose them.”

I climbed down from the truck, a little unsteady, but I felt better with hot food in my belly, even if it was liquid food. I circled the vehicle, and saw it wasn’t a truck, but something much weirder. It had wheels – a lot of them – along with tank-treads and folded metal spindly spider-leg things and pontoon floats. “This is wild.”

“It’s a most-terrain vehicle,” Howlaa said.

“Not all-terrain?”

“It can’t cross lava,” Wisp said. “And it might have trouble in the non-Euclidean neighborhoods. Oh, and it can’t fly properly, it can only do brief powered glides. But in most terrain, it’s the fastest thing around. Built from one of Merrill’s schematics.”

“Drunk cranky Merrill? He designed this?”

“Genius is not the sole province of the good or the socially well-adjusted,” Wisp said.

“Hear hear,” Howlaa said, and belched. “I had to negotiate hard to get my hands on this machine.”

“What did you even have to trade?”

“I offered to let the proprietor go on living in exchange for giving me outright ownership of this vehicle,” Howlaa said. She paused. “But he talked me into accepting a short-term rental and a promise to return the machine in working order within ten days. Those Roadyard folk haggle hard.”

I laughed. “So now that you’ve got these wheels – and legs, and things – we can make good time? Get to the city proper?”

Howlaa laughed. “I never stopped traveling while you were getting well, Randy. We ran full-out for two days. We’re in the city proper. Specifically in a very boring building in the warehouse district. We’ll see about getting you a disguise, and then we’ll try to track down our associate Templeton and see what he can tell us about the jump-engine. If that goes well… we’ll move on with our plan.”

“I have an addition to the plan,” I said. “Not that I’ve heard the plan, and I look forward to it, but there’s something else I need to do.”

Howlaa frowned. “What’s that?”

“I need to find my Dad.”

Posted in Chapters | 2 Comments

Chapter 7

“No way,” I said again. “I’m not going anywhere with you. You want to talk, we can do it right here.” I was pretty comfy on my rock. It was no worse than the other places I’d been hanging out lately.

The Regent sighed. “I’m an old man, Miranda, and the temperature drops fast once the sun goes out. Are you sure you won’t come back to my house?”

“So some sniper can shoot me with a tranquilizer dart and you can snip off my fingers with bolt-cutters? Nope.”

“Please, my dear. If I wanted you shot by a sniper, you would be well and truly sniped by now.”

“I’m not your dear. And I’m not going anywhere with you.” I crossed my arms, feeling stubborn and proud of myself about it.

“Very well. But I normally take my evening meal shortly after sunset. I hope you don’t mind if I proceed.”

Food. “Knock yourself out.”

He put his hand to his ear and began to speak softly, whispering into some invisible sleeve microphone like a secret agent on TV. “Just a few moments.” He sat down next to me on the rock.

“What’s to stop me smacking you and teleporting you into deep space?”

“For one thing, you aren’t sure it would work,” he said blandly. “The one time you did that successfully you believed your life was in danger, and the jump-engine may not respond the same way to naked aggression against a harmless old man. You’re afraid that if you hit me, and I don’t disappear, the consequences would be grave.”

I almost walloped him right there, just for the principle of the thing, but he had a point.

“Even if you did manage to send me away, I’d be back soon enough. I have a transponder implanted in my body. If I ever vanish from the borders of Nexington-on-Axis, the snatch-engines in the palace will bring me back quickly enough. And if you sent me somewhere else in my city or the provinces, some of my loyal subjects would see me home promptly.”

“Snatch-engines might bring something back,” I said. “But if I sent you to space, or the bottom of an ocean, you might not come back in very good shape. I don’t think you take me seriously enough.”

“You don’t know what you’re capable of,” the Regent said. “I barely know. The jump-engine is untested technology. You can’t control where you send me, but even if I did wind up in some such… inhospitable area… I have greater resources than you realize. The Nagalinda you punched wound up back in the barracks where he was stationed, by the way. A bit dazed, but otherwise fine. He gave me a full report. That’s how I knew you had the engine, and that the device had incorporated you into its mechanism.”

Incorporated me? That didn’t sound good. I liked to think of the jump-engine as something I had, not something I was.

“I am a bit curious how you wound up separated from Howlaa and Wisp,” the Regent said. “But we can discuss that over dinner. Those two are so misguided, the poor things. I hope they come to their senses soon.”

A helicopter appeared in the sky, not one of the weird autogyros I’d seen before but a real black helicopter, the kind you see military guys rappelling down from in movies. It landed a little distance away on a flat spot, scaring a bunch of woolbeasts into a miniature stampede down the hill. The wind from the helicopter’s rotors blew leaves off the trees, and half a dozen Nagalinda hopped out, dressed all in black. I tensed up, but didn’t see any guns… and then they started unloading a long folding table and a bunch of trays and bringing them over. They set up the table near us, threw a tablecloth over it, put plates and silverware and bowls at either end, and started putting trays covered in silver domes down along the table’s length. One came over with a couple of glasses and two sweating silver pitchers of ice water – I was so thirsty – and another put two bottles of wine and a couple of glasses by one of the plates. They even had a vase with a few yellow and orange flowers, and that went in the middle of the table. Finally they set down chairs in front of the place settings, then withdrew a short distance away.

“Thank you, gentlemen.” The Regent rose and went to the table. “We’ll serve ourselves. Kindly take the helicopter away – but on foot, please. I’d hate for the wind from its departure to ruin the lovely table you’ve set.”

The Nagalinda trotted obediently away – and then picked up the helicopter, like pallbearers lifting a coffin, and walked off over the hill with it.

“Show off,” I said, and the Regent actually laughed.

“Perhaps a little. I hope you’ll forgive me. Please, have a seat.” He sat down, uncorked one of the wine bottles, and poured a little red into a big rounded glass. He swirled and sniffed and sipped, then sighed. “Really, Miranda, a chair is bound to be more comfortable than that rock.”

I felt like I was giving in to something, but it didn’t feel like that big a concession, so I sat down.

“Have a glass of water.” The Regent put on a pair of reading glasses, opened up a folder – the Nagalinda must have brought it – and started flipping through the pages inside.

He wasn’t even paying attention to me, and I was crazy thirsty, so I started to stand up and reach for a water pitcher – then stopped and sat back down.

The Regent glanced at me, sighed, and stood up, coming to my end of the table with his own water glass. He filled it from the pitcher by my plate, took a long swallow, and set the glass before me. “See? No poison, no sedatives. Drink from my glass if you’re worried I’ve poisoned yours. I’m not a monster, just a government official with a couple of dangerous rogue employees.”

I picked up his glass and sipped. Water had never tasted so delicious. I tried not to gulp. The Regent shook his head like an indulgent uncle, picked up the water glass I wasn’t using, and returned to his end of the table. After flipping through the folder for another moment, he set it aside, half-smiling. “I think the orphans do things like this on purpose. That they have their own little jokes, a sense of humor as alien as everything else about them. Or perhaps they just like… connections.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe you should try having the whole conversation out loud, instead of just parts of it.”

“Ha. Quite right. Let’s begin at the beginning, then: You are Miranda Candle, age 13. Once a good student, though lately less interested in school work, judging by the number of absences. A note from your guidance counselor ascribes your behavior to the death of your father –”

“You got my file from school?” I couldn’t believe it. Ruler of Nexington-on-Axis with spy satellites and armies of frogmen and monster-soldiers at his disposal? Sure. Capable of having a catered dinner flown in by helicopter at a moment’s notice? Okay. But being able to get my file from the principal’s office on another planet? That was power.

“Of course. I knew the locale where the snatch-engines found the jump-engine. I knew you were a girl of school age, and I knew you were named Miranda, because the Nagalinda overheard the name. I simply configured the snatch-engines to bring me the files from the local middle school. Of course, our controls are not that precise. They took a large chunk of the principal’s office in the process, including all the filing cabinets and a small ficus tree in a pot.”

“You ripped out a chunk of my school?”

The Regent waved his hand. “No one was hurt. The snatch happened at night. Besides, you’re from, ah, Georgia? Tornadoes aren’t uncommon there. People will assume a whirlwind knocked down a piece of the school and carried the wreckage away, I imagine. People are good at explaining things away. This file is fine for the basic information, Miranda, but tell me, what do you want?”

I blinked. That wasn’t something I got asked often, at least not in any sense larger than “What do you want for dinner?” or “What do you want for your birthday?”

“Think it over,” the Regent said into the silence. “It’s a large question, but be assured, whatever the answer is, I can help you achieve it. I would imagine you’re hungry, having subsisted on whatever rations an omnivorous shapeshifter and a person with no stomach thought appropriate for a growing human girl. Have something to eat.” He lifted the lid off a covered dish, and the breeze wafted a savory scent toward me, meats and juices and fennel and bay leaf and white beans – it was a cassoulet, one of the dishes Dad liked to make for special family dinners. His favorite was rustic cuisine, comfort food, and his restaurant specialized in that kind of French country cooking, ratatouille and roast chicken and beef burgundy. Since Dad died we got by on fishsticks and take-out. Mom’s lousy in the kitchen and heart-shaped pancakes aside, her new boyfriend isn’t much of a cook either. Just the smell of that familiar, long-lost food made my mouth water and my heart hurt.

“Go on, eat.” The Regent ladled cassoulet into his bowl. “Please, Miranda. It’s just a meal, not fairy food, not a gift from Hades to Persephone – Never mind. I suppose the reference is lost on you. They don’t teach the classics anymore.”

That just pissed me off. “I’m from a town called Pomegranate Grove, genius, like it says on the file there? It’s one of the only places in Georgia where pomegranate trees bear fruit. We have a friggin’ Pomegranate Queen in the town parade every year. So, yeah, I know the story of Persephone – the god of the dead tricked her into eating some pomegranate seeds, and she got stuck in the underworld for six months of every year. Everybody knows that story where I’m from.”

“My apologies. But please, eat. Conversation is always more pleasant when the body’s needs are met.”

I couldn’t stand it – apples and gross pierogies and tinned peaches just weren’t enough – so I went to the pot and dished myself up a big helping, then opened up the other dishes too. Crusty French bread, a thick onion soup, a whole chicken roasted with herbs, eight different kinds of cheese – I loaded up my plate and bowl and carried the heap back to the end of the table and dug in. The Regent watched me eat, just nibbling his own food, having a few sips of wine. I thought about asking for a glass – I’ve only tasted wine once or twice, and then mostly just a tiny bit of Mom’s champagne on New Year’s Eve – but getting even a little bit tipsy seemed like a bad plan. “So tell me your side of things,” I said around a mouthful of sausage and onion.

“Miranda, I don’t know exactly what Howlaa told you about me, but I can make certain guesses. That I’m a tyrant. A despot. A cruel dictator.” He sighed. “Nothing could be further from the truth. When I arrived in Nexington-on-Axis – long ago – there was no government to speak of. Oh, there was the Queen, and her myriad Kings, but they did not rule the other sentient beings who lived here, they merely… tolerated them. Or, more accurately, ignored them. The royal snatch-engines only took things the Queen and Kings and their children wanted, often for incomprehensible reasons, and whatever living creatures the engines picked up by accident were left to struggle and starve and fight and survive here however they could. And once the Kings died and the Queen began to sicken, even the meager resources of food and building materials that showered down irregularly from the sky began to slow.

“When I was snatched up, in a load of hay and farm machinery from a field near my home, I found myself deposited in a horrible shantytown near the palace. The field of shacks was filled with what seemed, to my eyes, to be terrible monsters. They were, of course, only my fellow citizens, few of whom were interested in eating me. I’ve always had a knack for making friends, for organizing things, and for languages, so soon I managed to make the shantytown into something like a community. Eventually I dared to venture into the palace, where I discovered it was possible to communicate with the Queen telepathically. She’d never much bothered with communication, but she was sick, and worried about her scuttling chittering children. It takes a long time for their kind to mature – I don’t know how long, I don’t even know what the species is called, where they originally hail from, nothing – and I agreed to see that her children were cared for… in exchange for a certain degree of power. And so a bargain was struck, and when the Queen finally died, I took up residence in the palace, and assumed care for the royal orphans left behind. They are just children, you know, willful and easily distracted, quick to anger and quick to delight, and endlessly inquisitive. I’m the only one who can talk to them – their mother told them to obey me, and they are no more capable of ignoring her orders than a falling rock is capable of ignoring gravity. I rule in their place, until such time as they can rule themselves. I help the orphans make the snatch-engines more powerful, which is all they care about, and in exchange they bring me… whatever I need.”

“Like soldiers and black helicopters?” I said. “Chunks of people’s schools?”

“Like infrastructure, Miranda. You’ve seen our food stores – the people of Nexington-on-Axis need never go hungry, because I provide for them. I brought housing. I brought fields, and seeds to plant in them, and the snatch-engines can even bring rainstorms to water those fields. I’ve turned a savage place into a city without equal.”

“That’s not what Howlaa said. She said you have prison camps. That you spy on everyone. That you used to send Howlaa to kill anybody who got in your way.”

The Regent sighed. “The situation here is complex. We have no natural resources of our own, only the snatch-engines. Everything that exists here is imported. The snatch-engines are powerful, but not that precise, and sometimes we bring in things that are dangerous. And, yes, Howlaa Moor was tasked with removing those threats. It’s easy to bring things here, but nothing can get out. Mad carnivores, creatures that eat light, beings that feed on madness, animals with carcinogenic breath – they can’t be allowed to live here and threaten the rest of us, can they?”

“I met Underdwellers who didn’t seem like radioactive monsters.”

“There are more… intellectual rebels as well. Some people just can’t consent to being governed. In the past, yes, imprisonment was the only choice – it’s not as if I can exile troublemakers.” He nodded at me. “At least, until now. That’s why I was building the jump-engine. To make Nexington-on-Axis less a cage, to make it a place where people can come and go freely, where those who dislike my rule are welcome to leave.”

“Then why did Howlaa and Wisp want to steal the jump-engine? Why couldn’t they just apply for a passport and leave with your permission?”

The Regent made a face. “Howlaa and Wisp both owe a debt to this society, for their past misdeeds, and the work they do for me is just… community service. Once their debt is repaid, they will be free to leave, certainly, but they are impatient, and wish to escape their responsibilities. Believe me, Wisp and Howlaa are not treated poorly. Howlaa enjoys drinking alcohol and sleeping on piles of fur and getting into fights, and I provide all those things in abundance.”

“It doesn’t matter how nice their jail cell is, if they’re still prisoners.”

The Regent took a sip of wine. “Idealism is a beautiful thing, Miranda, but it is the province of the young. I am old, and practical. Wisp and Howlaa are useful to me – and trust me, their past actions were dire enough to make a long period of servitude as punishment seem merciful. Surely you have some sense of what they’re capable of? Come with me. Let my scientists get a look at you, and detach the jump-engine from your body. Once that’s done, I’ll send you home, safe.” He smiled.

I think he thought he’d convinced me.

The Regent reminded me of every asshole adult I’d ever met, thinking he knew better than everyone else, just assuming people my age were stupid or naïve. Maybe Howlaa and Wisp weren’t perfect, but at least they didn’t think they were perfect, like this guy did. “Why do you think I want to go home?”

“Ah,” the Regent said. “Interesting. I suppose, if you’d rather, you could stay here with your father. I just assumed you’d want to take him home with you instead.”

I put down my fork. “What. Are you. Talking about.”

He gave me one of those annoying looks of fake surprise. “Oh, didn’t I mention? Your father. We snatched him two years ago. He made the dinner we’re eating now. I had it airlifted from his restaurant in the city center.” He spooned up another mouthful of soup. “Good, isn’t it?”

Posted in Chapters | 6 Comments

Chapter 6

Two hours later we’d managed to find some wheels, but only individual unattached ones, scattered on the ground near smoking heaps of junk, which wasn’t quite what we’d had in mind. The nuclear fireball sun was still up, but it was behind a mountain of dead vacuum cleaners, so everything was shadows, and I didn’t want to think about the kind of things that might come out at night in a place like this.

“I can’t believe the Rolling Steel Roadyard got infected with sentience and declared independence.” Howlaa kicked a pile of tin cans that scuttled away in squeaking dismay – turned out they were some kind of little mechanized hermit crabs, using cans for shells. Not all the cans had been taken over as housing, and some of the cans were still sealed, though the labels were burned off, and Howlaa sheared off the tops of a few with a scary knife and let me take my pick. I passed on the one that looked like eyeballs packed in gelatin and another full of noodles that smelled ranker than Cal’s shoes, but there were some canned peaches in heavy syrup, which gave me a little sugar high, at least, and made a change from apples.

“The unexpected acquisition of intelligence is always a danger here,” Wisp said. “Sentience is a virus in the Machine Waste, constantly configuring itself to run on new hardware.”

“Bloody go-carts couldn’t have waited until we were done with our trip to become intelligent? Or done it a month ago, so another shop would be set up by now? We need transport, and the only rental agency around is off learning about the joys of consciousness.”

“There’s another roadyard at the other end of the Waste,” Wisp said.

“Ha, yes, it’s just there’s leagues of intermittently awakening occasionally radioactive junk between us and there, thanks,” Howlaa said. “Nothing to be done about it. At least the Regent can’t see us here.”

I ate another slithery slice of peach. If I kept eating so much fruit I was going to get the runs like crazy, and that didn’t sound fun out here, where there was nothing but scrap metal to wipe your butt with. “Oh yeah? Why not?”

“Satellites that pass over the Machine Waste don’t stay in the sky long,” Wisp said. “This place is filled with sentient mechanical beings, all desperate to upgrade, and any of them would be delighted to have the sort of sensory array the Regent’s spy satellites carry. There are cobbled-together tractor beams and gravity guns here that can knock satellites down and pull them out of the sky.”

“Huh. So this place used to be an alien spaceship? What’s with the tin cans and fridges and computer monitors and all this other junk then? They eat peaches in outer space?” I slurped the last juice out of my can. I was still hungry, but not hungry enough to try those black noodles. Yet.

“A ship the size of a city,” Howlaa said, tossing sheets of metal and refrigerator doors aside and unearthing the torn leather back seat of a car, which she set upright. I whooped and joined her on it. After two hours of picking our way across uneven – and occasionally independently moving – terrain, my butt and legs were grateful for something resembling a couch. “The snatch-engines pulled the ship here from who knows where, and dropped it to the ground, where it broke like a whole basket of eggs dropped on a concrete floor. The royal orphans – though this was before they were orphans – swarmed all over the wreck, carrying off choice bits of machinery to build bigger and better snatch-engines. The rest they just left here. Bits of the wreck still remain. I wouldn’t be surprised if your jump-engine didn’t originate, at least in part, from that original wreck, though I’m sure the scientists made some major changes. For the past umpty-dozen years the snatch-engines have been grabbing whatever bits of metal and machinery they can find in the multiverse during any idle cycles, picking up junk and dumping it here. The Machine Waste has a little bit of everything from planet-destroying weapons to tin cans full of unidentified meat.”

“Were there any aliens on the ship?”

“The ship was an alien,” Wisp said. “A machine intelligence, though it had a biological brain – apparently the lump of neuron-packed meat so many of you bodied types carry inside you is a common data storage and processing medium. The brain survived the crash, unbeknownst to everyone, and many years later managed to assemble a new body.”

“That was the first steam colossus,” Howlaa said, leaning back in the seat with her eyes closed, as if turning over a pleasant memory. “Oh, I remember the terror the night it marched on the city center, bent on revenge – or so we thought. The Regent was in power then, but the Queen hadn’t been dead more than a year, and everyone expected the Regent to break and run when that giant thing, big as a building, came striding along, weapons glittering, eyes made of stolen satellites, the earth shaking with every step.”

“So what happened?”

“The Regent talked to it,” Wisp said. “No one knows exactly what they talked about, but somehow the Regent… made an arrangement with it. The steam colossus turned and walked back into the Machine Waste, and the Regent configured the snatch-engines to send mechanical matter here. A few years later, a second steam colossus – but a much smaller one – appeared, and went to the palace, and the Regent greeted the thing as if it had been expected.”

“Whoa.”

Wisp never needed much encouragement to lecture, so he kept going while Howlaa began to gently snore. “The Machine Waste is technically under the Regent’s control, but in practice, it’s no-man’s-land. The original intelligence on the ship made its own sentience into a sort of, ah, you might say computer virus? Only computer viruses aren’t airborne. This free-floating intelligence tries to find usable mechanical bodies, and those bodies then awaken, and begin to upgrade themselves. Those little hermit crabs we disturbed are one of the smallest forms of such intelligence, barely even self-aware, but gradually a few of them will clump together, and they’ll find something bigger to devour or be assimilated by, and before long they’ll be fully conscious and relentlessly ambitious. The best, smartest, most adaptable of those intelligences grow and grow until they’re big enough to be recognized by the original steam colossus… and it gifts them with an armored organic brain, presumably cloned from a chunk of the ship’s original central biological computer, and sends the new child off to work for the Regent. It’s only happened half a dozen times so far, and one of the steam colossi went rogue and Howlaa was sent to destroy it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the machine intelligences end up running Nexington-on-Axis in a few centuries.”

“Nothing around here has paid much attention to us,” I said. We’d seen mechanical intelligences go by – including some of the all-terrain vehicles Howlaa had originally been hoping to hire, spindly things with huge fat tires, only instead of being dune buggies for rent they were feral self-propelled sentients, now. There was nothing left of the Rolling Steel Roadyard but a Quonset hut flattened like a giant had sat on it. Which, out here, was maybe exactly what had happened.

“No. You two are organic – whatever else Howlaa might be – and I am Bodiless. Our kind don’t interest the things living here. Of course,” and he lowered his voice, “if any of the creatures realized what you have on your fingers and wrists there, they might become very interested in you.”

Howlaa stopped snoring and spoke, without opening her eyes: “That’s why I want to get us out of here as fast as possible. Even if the jump-engine disguises itself somehow, goes stealth, some things out here are very smart, and they’d all love to get their robo-claws on technology like that.”

“I ADMIT, IT DOES SOUND INTERESTING.”

I pressed my hands to my ears – a few months ago Jenny Kay and I snuck out to go to an all-ages rock show and wound up pressed right against the giant stack of speakers, and this voice was louder than the loudest guitar solo, such a deep rumble that I almost crapped myself, and all the sheet metal around us vibrated with a noise like thunder sound effects. I couldn’t figure out where the voice was coming from, except for everywhere.

Howlaa sat straight up, eyes going wide.

“BUT WHAT IS A JUMP-ENGINE?”

Howlaa transformed into the spider-thing again, and without being told I scrambled onto her back and let the shadow-saddle grab me tight. Wisp didn’t say anything as Howlaa started hauling ass across the junk-filled plain, and that silence freaked me out more than anything else – Wisp should have been explaining, or at least theorizing, talking the way he always did, but if he was quiet, something must be really wrong.

“ARE YOU RUNNING?” the voice boomed. “MAY AS WELL RUN FROM THE GROUND BENEATH YOUR FEET.”

Just like that we started rising up. By which I mean the ground rose up, and we rose with it. The piles of smashed toaster ovens, cell phones, gears with pitted teeth, and coiled wires in silver and copper and gold all rose around us… and something gigantic started to stand up.

Picture a kid buried in the sand at the beach. The kid gets up, elbows and knees poking out of the sand, then all the sand cascades down as the kid levers himself to sitting, then kneeling, then standing. Now imagine you’re seeing this from the viewpoint of an ant, a sand flea, some tiny bug just walking across the sand that covered the kid’s belly. From your point of view, that kid standing up, it’s an apocalypse. It’s the end of the world and the coming of a monster so big you can’t comprehend it, so big you can’t even get a sense of its form.

We were the bugs. (Howlaa literally.) I hung on as tight as I could, and Howlaa’s legs scrambled and twisted and found some purchase even when the ground went diagonal and then vertical, but we went sliding down all the same.

‘TELL ME ABOUT THIS… JUMP-ENGINE.”

“It’s the steam colossus,” Wisp said in my ear. “The first one. No one has seen it for years. It’s… bigger than it was before.”

Howlaa couldn’t speak any language I could understand in that spider-form, but she made some noises like feedback squeals and Wisp sighed and said, “Yes, I know.”

Before I could ask what Howlaa said, we were in a cage, surrounded by these black metal pillars that rose up and curled above us and –

Oh crap. The steam colossus was holding us in its hand. The thick black bars were its fingers. We rose up, up, up, until we hung before the thing’s face. Or maybe I should say “sensory array” or something, since there was nothing you’d recognize as a face, just lenses and things like microphones and doohickeys telescoping in and out and vents puffing out billowing white clouds of steam. “I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF A JUMP-ENGINE,” the colossus said. “AND I KNOW OF ALL THE TECHNOLOGY IN THIS PLACE.”

The shadow-saddle relaxed, and I slid down off Howlaa’s back. She transformed back into her human form. “Randy,” she said. “Miranda. Wait for us on the far side of the Machine Waste, if you can. Look for the Bleak Mountain Roadyard. We’ll get there as soon as possible.”

“What? How am I supposed to –”

Howlaa rushed at me, snarling, a knife in her hand, and I screamed, and raised my hands in front of my face, and

jumped.

Just like before, when the railgun blew up the autogyro, I crossed space without moving. I landed – but it didn’t feel like landing, I was just there – on the roof of a dark blue Winnebago sunk halfway down in a sea of loose nuts and bolts. I could see the back of the steam colossus off in the distance, its huge legs all covered in hydraulics and pistons, with a row of spikes made of smokestacks running down its back, all gushing white clouds. Its body — wider than a battleship, taller than a skyscraper on top of another skyscraper — gleamed with oil.

“OH,” it said, turning – its upper body just rotated, its legs not even moving, like its torso was on a lazy susan. “THAT’S A JUMP-ENGINE.” I could see its arms now, all four of them, black metal covered with shining bumps that could have been the domes of telescopes or the closed roofs of missile silos. It opened its hand, and a tiny black speck fell – Howlaa. I shouted her name, but the falling shape twisted somehow and became a flying shape, long and snaky with big wings, streaking off toward me.

I was sure Howlaa would land and pick me up, but she just went past above my head, close enough for me to feel the wind from her many wings, and I screamed, told her to come back, to save me, damn it.

“DON’T BE AFRAID,” the steam colossus said. “YOU’LL BE PAST PAIN AND FEAR IN A MOMENT.” It stepped toward me, and just its approach must have triggered whatever turns on the jump-engine’s self-preservation circuit, because I teleported again. This time I wound up in the huge curved dish of a radio telescope, only there were big chunks missing from the surface of the dish. I was way up high, and though I’m not especially scared of heights, there are heights and there are heights, so I dropped down to my hands and knees and crawled as close to the edge as I dared. The steam colossus was still visible, but it was just a speck on the horizon, way past the point of reaching me, and I looked around, trying to figure out how I was supposed to get down off the world’s biggest satellite dish.

“NOT FAR ENOUGH,” the voice boomed, and I looked around, freaked out, because the voice was coming from the ground all around me. I crept up closer to the edge and looked down, and there were dozens of things clumping and grinding and rolling and spindling toward me, robots made of old lawnmowers and gurneys and tanks, things with mirror-balls for eyes and chainsaws for hands.

“Jump, jump, jump,” I whispered, but nothing happened – would I have to wait until a chainsaw was coming at my face before I jumped? One of the things rose up on telescoping legs like two cherry-pickers until it was higher than the edge of the satellite dish, though it was still pretty far away. It lifted an arm of polished copper pipe and something went thwock past my ear. I looked around and there was a wicked dart with fins stuck into the metal of the radio telescope’s dish, and the metal started to smoke.

They were shooting at me with acid-filled darts. And that still didn’t trigger the flight-or-more-flight mechanism.

I had a stupid idea, but it was better than no idea, so I ran for the other side of the dish, and without even looking, I jumped off.

I looked down once I was falling. There was nothing fancy underneath me. Just a big jumble of rebar, steel spikes pointing out in all directions, ready to impale me twenty different ways. I closed my eyes.

This time I did land, though not as hard as I should have, and rolled a couple of times and ended up on my back. The jump-engine had decided to save my life, again, once I didn’t give it any choice.

I opened my eyes. The sky was still there, the sun a ball of frozen fire just beyond the edge of my vision. I reached out my hand, dug my fingers into the ground, made a fist, and lifted my hand.

Grass. There was grass in my hand, and dirt. I sat up, and though I could see a bunch of white three-sailed windmills on a distant hill, I knew right away I was out of the Machine Waste. For one thing, there were trees. There were animals, too, sort of like cows but bigger and way shaggier, hairy like yaks, chewing the grass off in the distance. I was on a hill that lacked yaks or windmills, but was clearly part of the same geographical family. Beyond the hills I could just see a dull gray sparkling plain that must have been the Waste.

It looked pretty far off, and I wondered how long it would take me to get back to the edge of the Waste to meet up with Wisp and Howlaa. I wondered if I wanted to. Sure, I sort of understood why they’d taken off and left me to my own devices like that – they trusted in my device, the jump-engine, to save me when they couldn’t. But still. They could’ve told me the plan. And what if the stupid jump-engine hadn’t worked? Would they have come back for me?

Then again, I didn’t know where else to go. Off I trudged, over hill, past shaggy things, under windmills, until my feet ached and I was thirsty. I sat down on a nice big round rock and stared at the green hills in front of me, humps of grass hiding the horizon. The nuclear sun was getting dimmer, its last rays turning the sky pinkish, and things that weren’t exactly stars became visible in the sky.

“Miranda. You’re a long way from home.”

I just sat there. I recognized the voice – sort of nice-grandpa-sounding, definitely old. “You’re the Regent,” I said. “Beamed down from another satellite. Can you hear me? You got microphones hidden here? Maybe in one of those big yaks over there?”

“I don’t need microphones, Miranda.” The Regent stepped around me, still wearing those robes, hands clasped behind his back. He stood, his back to me, watching the sun go down. When the last rays of light vanished, he turned, just a shadow among the shadows. I couldn’t see the smile on his face, but I could hear it in his voice. “I’m here in person, Miranda, because you’ve landed on my country estate. Do you like it? It’s very pretty. Reminds me a bit of my childhood home. Except for the windmills and the woolbeasts.”

“Don’t come near me.”

“I won’t. I won’t threaten you by word or deed. I won’t so much as raise my voice to you. I’d hate to trigger your little escape hatch.” He shook his head. “It would be shame for you to run away before you hear my side of the story.”

Posted in Chapters | 10 Comments

Chapter 5

Howlaa’s new form was kind of like the armored Humvee version of a Komodo dragon, big and covered in spiky plates, with a long flat snout full of fangs. It reared up on two legs and showed off four arms, like a freaky Hindu god, each one tipped with claws like hunting knives that dripped some clear fluid – acid, venom, who knows.

“The Rendigo,” Wisp said. “Her most fearsome battle form.”

The Rendigo rushed for the most crowded tunnel, screaming with a noise like a boiling teakettle being murdered. “Normally I would urge you to find a place of safety,” Wisp said, “But if the full strength of clan Kil’howlaa is here, we’ll need your help.” Wisp went zipping toward one of the tunnels faster than I’d ever seen him move before, and one of the crouching shapes began to move clumsily and turn around and, from the sound of it, start to attack its fellow Underdwellers.

Well, crap. Time to earn my passage, I guess. I wasn’t much of a fighter, not since some hair-pulling in fifth grade when I caught Sandy Tyler going through my bookbag when I came back from the bathroom, but I had the jump-engine all over my fists, and maybe they’d work their magic – excuse me, science magic – again.

One of the Underdwellers came out of an unattended tunnel and ran straight for me, low and loping. I reared back my arm to throw a hopefully-teleporting punch, but then I saw its face – her face. This wasn’t some monster. The Underdweller was just a girl, blonde and snub-nosed and about my age, and apart from the spiraling glowing tattoo design on her face and the raggy clothes, she could’ve been a girl in my class.

While I was being confronted with the essential humanity of my enemy and all that, she punched me in the face.

I’d never been punched before. Slapped, once, right after Dad died, when Mom was pretty much having a breakdown and I said something that set her off, but never punched. I saw black stars bloom in the blackness of the cavern, and my cheekbone felt like it nearly cracked, and my nose went off like a busted fire hydrant, blood going everywhere. I stumbled and half-lifted my arms to defend myself, but then Wisp came streaming in, up little miss Underdweller’s nose and into her gaping mouth, and she just stood there like a switched-off robot.

Howlaa came trotting up, human again and covered in specks of I-didn’t-want-to-think-about-what, the whole rest of the fight apparently finished in the time it took me to get a nosebleed. “Here.” Howlaa handed me a piece of torn cloth that looked relatively clean, and I pressed it to my nose, happy for the excuse to tilt my head back and look at the ceiling and not say much.

“Their numbers were greatly diminished,” Wisp said, his male voice coming out of the Underdweller’s open mouth, which was beyond weird. “Unless there are reserves hidden deeper. I wish I could read minds as well as hijack bodies.”

“I do too,” Howlaa said, “because I went far enough up that tunnel to see that it’s changed. They’ve done some earthworks down here since we departed, and I don’t know the way out anymore.” Howlaa tugged on her shirt and a piece of shadowcloth came away, without so much as a ripping sound. A little more tugging and she held a length of thin black rope. She bound up the Underdweller’s unresisting hands behind her back.

“Well, then.” Wisp spiraled out of the girl’s nose, and she shook her head, blinking blankly around, then snarling. She spat out a stream of words in –

“Is that German? Cal’s taking a German class, it sounds kinda like that.”

“It is,” Wisp said. “I’ll translate.” A single glowing mote detached from Wisp’s main swarm and floated to my ear, where it quietly spoke: “Dirty ugly bastards I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you all, when I get free –”

“I get the gist,” I said.

Wisp laughed. “I’ll only translate… pertinent information in the future.” Wisp spoke to the Underdweller, English in my ear along with the German that came out directly. “Show us the way to the surface, and we will spare your life.”

“Too generous,” Howlaa growled. “Should have offered a quick death. Oh well.”

“Don’t be a jerk,” I said. “Didn’t you say the Underdwellers are against the Regent too? Shouldn’t you be helping her instead of killing all her friends?”

“They wanted to kill us, Randy. I saved your life.”

“But why do they want to kill you? Because you killed a bunch of their other friends back when you were working for the Regent, right?”

Howlaa looked at Wisp for some kind of back-up, but Wisp was deep in a German argument with the Underdweller, no longer bothering to translate for me, probably because I was about to dig in deep for an argument of my own with Howlaa.

Howlaa spat, and her spit sizzled on the rock – some leftover side-effect from being the Rendigo, I figured. “Yes. Fine. True.”

“You’re plotting a revolution, so shouldn’t they be part of it? The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that?”

“Maybe if they didn’t have a vendetta against me,” Howlaa said. “Besides, it’s not really a revolution. It’s a mini-revolution. Wisp and I only want to break into the palace and wreck the snatch-engines and get rid of the royal orphans so that once we escape the Nex, the Regent can’t bring us back. What happens to his government after that…” Howlaa shrugged. “Not our problem.”

I stared at her. I thought I’d fallen in with freedom fighters, trying to change the world, but they just wanted to save their own butts. I couldn’t see a reason not to say that: “You just want to save yourselves? I mean, if you wreck the engines, kill the royal orphans, and leave this place behind… won’t everyone who’s left behind starve? You said there are no natural resources here, not even real weather, so when the supplies run out, what happens to the people you liberated?”

The Underdweller tried to run – Howlaa hadn’t tied her legs – and Howlaa had to tackle her. She whispered in the Underdweller’s ear, and the girl stiffened, then nodded and struggled to her feet. She plodded slowly toward one of the body-choked tunnels.

“What did you say to her?” I asked.

“Something motivating, in the language of the Underdwellers, and less diplomatic than Wisp’s words.” Howlaa went after the girl. I hung back a bit, knowing I should follow, but wanting space between me and the skinshifter.

Wisp floated up to me. “Come, Miranda. We never claimed to be perfect. We only want our freedom. But… you have a point. There are other innocents here, who do not deserve to be abandoned. Once the snatch-engines are disabled, we can use the power of the jump-engine to send everyone back to their homes.”

I thought about that. There were probably families who’d been on Nexington-on-Axis for generations, whose grandparents or great-grandparents had been snatched originally – this place was their home. Where were they supposed to go? To planets they’d never seen before, to live with people who looked like them but had totally different cultures? “Even the Underdwellers? You’d help them?”

“The Underdwellers… are not good choices for allies. They might not accept our help. But if they alone were left behind on the Nex, the food stores would last them for decades. As it is, they eat each other here in the dark – they have become monstrous in their rebellion ”

“Please, like you’re squeamish about people who eat people. Or people who are monstrous.” It was hard to sound snotty with a handkerchief shoved against my nostrils, but I did my best. I went into the tunnel after Howlaa, trying not to look at the bodies I stepped around. Most of them weren’t human, at least – maybe it’s speciesist of me, but it was way harder for me to see a dead human than a dead something else, even knowing the other creatures are people too. “If I hadn’t accidentally turned on the jump-engine, you two would have just taken the necklace and left me in the woods.”

“Yes. I suppose you’re right. And I’m sorry. But Miranda… our lives have not allowed us much in the way of conscience. Howlaa is actually quite well-adjusted for a creature evolved over countless generations to become an infiltrating treacherous killer. She… drinks, you know. One reason she wanted a human form originally is because alcohol is plentiful here, at least in the city proper, and she prefers drunken oblivion to the sober contemplation of her lot in life. This is the longest I’ve seen her sober in a long time. Sober, and focused, and trying. Please don’t judge us too harshly. We’re doing our best.”

You’ll have to do better than that if you want my help, I thought, but didn’t say it. Not yet.

We followed the Underdweller for a while. “How do we know she’s not leading us to a room full of her pals? Or a lava pit?”

“We don’t,” Howlaa said. “But where’s your love and trust and fellow-feeling now?”

I bit back a nasty answer – “Something about being with you has made me a lot less trusting” – then looked at the cloth Howlaa had given me. I hoped there wasn’t anything down here that could smell blood. I pressed it back against my nostrils. At least the bleed was slowing down.

The tunnel was close and narrow and weirdly twisty, and it was kind of like being inside an ant farm – this didn’t feel like the inside of a mine or something people had made, but it wasn’t like natural caves, either, because the walls and ceiling were all smooth and rounded. Gradually the tunnel got brighter, light coming from smears of luminous fungus dotting the walls at irregular intervals. The passage opened up and out from narrow hallway to four-lane freeway width, and we passed crumbling statues of the weirdest things – a pickup truck, a park bench, a refrigerator, an old-fashioned jukebox. Those were just the sculptures of things I recognized. There were lots of others that didn’t look like anything I knew at all, big jumbles of tubes and valves, weird things with spikes and loops and holes, all made out of this brownish crumbly-looking rock. The sculpture garden stretched as far into the gloom in all directions as I could see, some of the statues painted here and there with glowing fungus in weird patterns.

I touched one of the statues – it looked like a sci-fi movie robot crossed with a knight’s suit of armor – and the arm fell off with a thump. The Underdweller girl whipped around and snarled at me, then launched herself. Howlaa swatted her down, but she bounced back up again and came for me. My nose started hurting preemptively. Howlaa grabbed her, shook her, and put her back on the path, and she kept on leading us, but not without a lot of sullen pissy looks over her shoulder at me.

“What’d I do? Did she carve that one or something?” My voice was all nasally from the crusted-up blood in my nostrils.

“The coproliths are sacred to the Underdwellers,” Wisp said. “The touch of someone from above is considered profane.”

Oh, crap. A taboo, like I’d read about on our trip to Hawaii, which hadn’t stopped Cal from bringing a few chunks of sacred lava rock home in his suitcase. “Can you tell her I’m sorry? That I didn’t mean to?”

“I can, but it wouldn’t help,” Wisp said.

Something sparked in my head, some vocabulary word I’d seen when studying for the PSAT. “Wait, did you say copro-something? Like, dinosaur crap?”

“I call them coproliths, which just means fossilized dung, but in this case, in your language, it’s also a pun on ‘monolith,’ rather a clever one I think –”

“Wisp thinks he’s so clever,” Howlaa said. “I’m sure there’s a word in your language for people like him, too.”

It seemed to me they were skipping over the important point. “So you’re saying those sculptures are made of poo?”

Howlaa cackled. “Better wash your hands before you eat your next apple, Randy.”

“They are essentially rock, at this point,” Wisp said. “The statues were created – perhaps ‘produced’ is a better word – by the gargantuan god-worms who first made these tunnels. The worms did not survive long after their transportation to Nexington-on-Axis. Something in the atmosphere disagreed with them. I never saw them myself, but by all accounts they were a fearsome and erudite race.”

“For big worms anyway,” Howlaa said. “Wish I could’ve eaten one. Ah, well. Before my time.”

“I guess I’m missing the part where the worms poop out full-size models of washing machines?” We were passing exactly that just then, sculpted with the lid half-open.

“It’s admittedly odd, even for the Nex,” Wisp said. “But then, the universe is infinite, and any conceivable combination of particles is bound to show up in an infinite universe somewhere – even those unlikely collections of particles which constitute a race of giant worms who excrete sculptures. The worms were blind – more, as far as we know they had no senses at all like your own or even mine – but they still somehow created these models, perfect in every detail, altering their own internal physiology to allow them to excrete images of things they’d never seen. Indeed, they created things they couldn’t have seen, even if they’d had eyes, items that didn’t exist on their native world or on the Nex during their lifetimes. Things like that washing machine, that hadn’t even been invented when the worms lived. They were obviously clairvoyant, and apparently capable of precognition as well. The Underdwellers worship the works the god-worms left behind. It’s an article of faith among them that there is one great worm left, living deep underground in hibernation…”

I sort of shivered. Bugs and worms don’t especially creep me out, but worms the size of the tunnel we’d passed through? Definitely creepy.

“Bah,” Howlaa said. “They’re all dead. We looked everywhere, in every hole, last time we were here, and no sign of life. I looked hard. I had incentive. I really wanted to eat one. Imagine if I’d slithered here in the shape of a god-worm? These Underdwellers would have named me king instead of public enemy number only.”

“King in a garden of excrement. How pleasant. And that wouldn’t have solved our fundamental problem.”

“Shushit, Wisp,” Howlaa said. “I’m fantasizing.

The big cavern narrowed again, and this new tunnel sloped upward hard. My calves were screaming. I’d played soccer a little before Dad died, but since the explosion, my exercise had pretty much been limited to running from Cal when I pissed him off or running from a store after stealing something. Shoplifting anything, even just a lipstick, zoomed me up with adrenaline I had to burn off by running. But my adrenaline was pretty well tapped-out in the aftermath of getting punched in the face, so I just trudged along.

The light up ahead wasn’t really bluish or greenish, but more like good old sunlight, and a breeze came in, carrying the smell of… oil and exhaust, which at least made a change from the air full of unlikely particles of god-worm poo.

The Underdweller girl stopped and babbled at us for a while, and the Wisp-mote in my ear translated, sort of: “Euphemistic curse, biologically impossible demand, formal vow of blood revenge, all very standard.”

“Guess I’d better kill her,” Howlaa said.

I moved so fast I surprised even myself, getting between Howlaa and the girl, though that meant turning my back on little miss nosepunch. “No you better not. She’s no threat to us.”

“Not just at this moment,” Howlaa said. “But this is the place where refugees and fugitives go, the broken and the mad, the ones who can’t handle life on the Ax, and she’ll have a new tribe in no time. She’ll be the last high priest of the shit-worms, and everyone who comes will listen to her because she knows where the food is stored, where the escape routes are, where the good dry bedroom caverns can be found. She’ll re-form Clan Kil’howlaa, and they will be a threat to us, and by us, I mean me.”

“Touch her and I’ll punch you off this planet.”

“Well,” Wisp corrected. “We’re not certain the Nex is a planet. It could be an asteroid or construct or –”

“Whatever. I’ll send you away, Howlaa, and then the Regent can slurp you up with a snatch-engine and put you back to work. You can’t go around killing people just because they get in your way. Not while you’re hanging out with me.”

Howlaa stared me down for a while, then sniffed. “Fair enough. You’re showing some backbone at least – you’ll need that when we get to the city center. Wisp always tells me I’m too casual with the killing, that being pretty much immortal makes me cold-hearted, like he has any room to talk. The Bodiless will be around until the heat death of the universe at least. But fine. She can go back to her hole. Only don’t come crying to me when she grows up and murders us all.”

Howlaa untied the ropes binding the girl’s wrists, and Wisp spoke to her, and the girl ducked her head and raced back down the tunnel.

“We’d better get on our way,” Howlaa said. “Before she comes back with a knife. If I have to kill her now Randy will never let me hear the end of it.”

“Thanks, Howlaa,” I said, because I don’t need to be a bitch about everything, and I had gotten my way. Be gracious in victory, right?

“Shushit,” she said. “Even Wisp doesn’t say thank you when he makes me do something I don’t want to do.”

“Where to now?” I said.

“Up, and out, and into the Machine Waste,” Wisp said.

“If we can’t find transportation there, we deserve to go on foot,” Howlaa said.

Posted in Chapters | 5 Comments

Chapter 4

The fish shifted in a sudden surge of water, either from invisible currents or because of Howlaa’s slimy violence. I hauled back on the stick way too hard and the fish’s head tilted up, up, up, but I took a deep breath and eased it forward gently, just a touch at a time, and it settled back to the comfortably horizontal again. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so twisted-up and worried inside. Probably right after dad died.

Wanting to take my mind off the ten million things totally beyond my control, I said, “That big sea serpent thing that went past the window – that was Howlaa?”

“In the green and scaly flesh,” Wisp said.

“But it was like a hundred feet long. How can that be Howlaa? I’m not a scientist or anything, but isn’t there some kind of law of conservation of… bigness?”

“I believe the Howlaa we see – in whatever form she takes – is not the real Howlaa. Not all of her. Skinshifters have never been extensively studied, and much about their nature is mysterious. They don’t like to reveal their secrets, and since they have a unique gift for posing as members local populations, they’re seldom even recognized. One theory holds that skinshifters are extradimensional creatures. The part of Howlaa we see is simply the part that… emerges into the dimensions you and I are able to perceive. The rest of her body – including additional mass – is somewhere else.” He went on for a while, saying things like “M-theory” and “string theory” and “brane cosmology,” and I just let it wash over me, not because I’m dumb, but because I didn’t have the background – it was like learning algebra before you can add or subtract. Jenny Kay would’ve understood it all, I bet. I felt a stab of homesickness, sort of, but it was just homesickness for Jenny. It would’ve been good to have her here with me.

Wisp must’ve noticed the faraway look on my face, because he said, “Listen: think of a shark’s fin, breaking the surface of the water, coming toward you. You can see the fin, and you can deduce the existence of the shark, but you can’t actually see the shark. You see? The fin is all that extends into your world from the water. But instead of hiding under water, the rest of Howlaa is hidden away in higher dimensions of our universe.”

“Like an iceberg,” I said. “Nine-tenths of it is underwater.”

“Apt enough, though when talking about Howlaa, a shark is a better metaphor than an iceberg.”

The airlock squealed, and I turned in my chair, wishing for a speargun or something – but then, I always had my rings and bracelets, and if I had no other choice, those would maybe let me punch somebody hard enough to make them disappear, or at least get me to safety.

Howlaa came in, looking perfectly human if extremely wet in a shadowcloth bikini, dragging what looked like some kind of green garbage bag full of bones. But when she tossed the thing on the floor, I realized it had a face, and the greasy pierogies I ate at Merrill’s rose up in my throat. I fought down the urge to puke by squeezing my hands into fists so hard the rings dug into my flesh, distracting myself with pain.

“I see you brought a souvenir,” Wisp said.

Howlaa leaned over and spat several times, expelling ropy green slime with each hacking gag. She wiped her hand across her mouth and shuddered, then caught my eye. “Sorry. Bad manners. Wisp is always telling me to be less disgusting. But Dagonites have poison in their skin. Doesn’t bother me when I’m a Manipogo – they’re immune – but I had to expel the poison from this body unless I wanted to go gangrenous from the inside out. Hop up from my chair, Randy. We should get going before the second wave arrives.”

I got up, though it meant moving closer to the corpse in front of the airlock. I’d never seen a dead person before, and this wasn’t exactly a person, but then again, it kinda was. The dead Dagonite had a bracelet of its own, seashells and smooth beads on a string, and I wondered if the jewelry had been a gift, or if the Dagonite had made it, or –

“It was us or them,” Wisp said in a low voice. “Always pick ‘us’ in that situation. Anyone would.”

“Here’s something to take your mind off the moral torment.” Howlaa reached into a pocket of the shadowcloth – a bikini with pockets? – and tossed me something like an oversized brown leather wallet. I opened it and found a creepy-looking syringe, the old-timey kind you see in horror movies set in abandoned insane asylums, all dull brass finger-holds and a needle the size of a ballpoint pen. “Jam that in Froggy’s neck and suck out some of his blood.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re right,” Howlaa said. “It doesn’t really have a neck. Just shove it generally below the head there. You’ll probably hit blood.”

“Why… would I be doing this?”

“Wisp, I have to drive,” Howlaa said crankily, and turned away, pulling levers and twisting knobs and sending the submersible fish through the lake water at high speed. Occasional green lumps bumped off the windows and spun lazily away.

“Howlaa doesn’t have a Dagonite in her… repertoire,” Wisp said. “But if you draw the blood, Howlaa can drink it.”

“You drink blood? I thought you were a werewolf, not a vampire.”

Howlaa didn’t answer me, didn’t even appear to hear me, just turned on some wobbly black-and-white screen on the fish’s cockpit that beeped and booped, like sonar or something.

“Howlaa can take on the form of any creature she consumes,” Wisp said. “It’s disgusting, worse even than the ordinary eating habits of the bodied, I know, but it is her way. Skinshifters can take in a genetic sample, extrapolate the entire organism from that sample, and duplicate that organism, perfect in every way.”

I looked at the back of Howlaa’s totally human neck. “So at some point… Howlaa drank the blood of a human?” Like me, I didn’t say.

“Ah,” Wisp said. “Well. In that particular situation, it was consensual. Part of a rather complex intrigue involving impersonation and espionage in the service of the Regent… but that was long ago.”

“And that woman’s been dead for eighty thousand days,” Howlaa said. “Her genes only live on in me. But, yes, most of the other bodies are things I just ate. I didn’t consume any of the Dagonites during that battle, though – just bit them dead and spat them out. They tasted awful. The blood won’t be a treat, either, but I want it.”

“Skinshifters are apex predators,” Wisp said. “Masters of disguise. Once they manage to eat one example of a species, they can blend in with the herd… or society… and prey on others at will.”

“Wolf in sheep’s clothing,” I said. I’d known Howlaa was kind of scary, that much was obvious, but somehow the total not-human-ness of her hadn’t sunk in before. Turning into a wolf, okay, werewolves are just people with a weird medical problem and a big shaving cream budget. I could relate to a werewolf. But Howlaa only looked human, and she was really something else entirely. “Are you sure you two are the good guys?”

“Definitely, in comparison to the opposition,” Wisp said. “But Howlaa only plays the predator in the line of duty these days. If she ever did otherwise, ever tried to prey on an innocent, I would step in, and stop it.”

“How would you – Oh. The body control thing.”

“It’s why we were made partners,” Howlaa said. “The Regent knew I wouldn’t like being leashed, so he sent Wisp along to make sure I behaved myself. If I tried to run – not that there’s anywhere to run on the Ax, not really – Wisp would hijack my body and walk me back to the palace for a bout of reeducation.” Howlaa turned and gave me one of her grins. “It took me decades to get Wisp reeducated into seeing things my way.”

“I owed a debt to society,” Wisp said stiffly. “I sought only to pay it off honorably, through service. But the Regent abused my loyalty, and his sovereignty, and I agreed to help Howlaa find a way out of our situation. Out of this place. Beyond the Regent’s reach, even though his reach extends into every corner of every possible universe.”

“Now that you know the terrible true nature of beastly old me,” Howlaa said, “suck out that frog’s blood, Randy. Before it spoils and starts to stink. Blood dead more than a little while is no good to me – the cells decay.”

I told myself the Dagonite was just a big frog. I’d dissected one of those in biology class, and while some of the other girls had flapped their hands and shrieked, I hadn’t seen the big deal – I mean, I’d helped my Dad cut up chicken carcasses, and frogs were probably even stupider than chickens.

Of course, this frog had a bracelet. This frog had a culture.

But it was already dead. And if Howlaa could imitate a Dagonite next time, maybe she’d have an alternative to killing them. I jabbed in the syringe and pulled back the plunger, a swirl of blackish-red fluid filling the cylinder. “Is this enough?”

“That will do,” Wisp said.

Howlaa beckoned, took the syringe, and squirted a long stream of blood into her mouth, closing her eyes for a moment as if to savor it, the way my Mom used to do with wine, before she got into the habit of guzzling the stuff instead. Howlaa’s eyes opened, and she said, “Now chuck the dead thing out of the airlock.”

“Sorry, but I draw the line at corpse disposal. Besides, you said the skin was poisonous.”

Howlaa sighed. “Only as poisonous as the skin of a mango — not a real problem unless you bite a few dozen of them to death. But fine.” She twisted more levers, and told me to take the helm again. “Don’t touch anything.”

“If I’m not supposed to touch anything, why am I sitting there?”

“Because otherwise Wisp will get nervous.” Howlaa opened the airlock and wrestled the dead Dagonite away while I sat quietly and didn’t touch anything, even when the sonar thing began to beep and boop very insistently.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Wisp said.

When the airlock opened again and Howlaa returned, once more soaked, I pointed wordlessly to the black-and-white screen. Howlaa came over, leaned down, and peered at it. “Huh,” he said. “Wisp, you remember those caves we found under here when we were after those cannibals?”

I wondered if Howlaa would be considered a cannibal if she ate something while she was in the same physical form as that something, but decided maybe now wasn’t the best time for philosophy.

“Yes,” Wisp said.

“We’d better find them, and soon.”

“Why?”

“Because if I’m reading this screen correctly, there’s a steam colossus standing in the water just ahead, and I’d rather not be stepped on today.”

“You can’t turn into a steam colossus?” I said. “And, you know, have an epic monster fight?”

“The colossi don’t have blood,” Wisp said. “They have… steam. They’re seven-eighths machine. I can’t possess them, either. Howlaa defeated one, years ago, when the colossus went rogue – she became small, infiltrated the mechanism, and destroyed the armored vat-grown brain inside. But it took most of a day to kill the creature, and we don’t have that kind of time.”

“There are only half a dozen colossi in all of the Nex,” Howlaa complained, making the fish turn hard to the right. “What are the odds that one would be standing around here?”

“Maybe it was coming to Merrill for repairs or upgrades. Whatever the reason, I’m sure the Regent has it looking for us now.”

“Not much chance of it finding us, any more than I could pluck a protozoa from a puddle at my feet, but if we pass too close it might have proximity sensors online… Caves it is.” Howlaa focused on the cockpit, muttering about lost time and too much distance and useless worthless jump-engines. I settled back down on my unpleasant bench, scared but also a little regretful that I wouldn’t get to see a steam colossus, whatever it was – I imagined a giant mecha robot suit, the kind you see in Japanese cartoons.

“We were hoping to cover more ground underwater – the caves will be slower – but at least they’re relatively protected.” Wisp paused. “From the Regent, anyway. They’re not particularly well-protected against the things that live in the caves.”

“They’re our brothers-in-arms, Wisp,” Howlaa said, tone full of mockery. “Brave souls standing against the Regent, determined to live as free creatures on their own terms. I’m sure they’ll embrace us with open arms. Or open tentacles. Or mandibles. Here we are.” The fish slowed in its whooshing onrush, and I leaned over to look out the windows, where something that might have been an underwater mountain or the roots of an island became clear. There were big black holes in the rock, from the size of a person to the size of a house, and Howlaa aimed the fish toward one of the biggest. Soon we were in total blackness, without even the murky light from the frozen nuclear sun above, and the fish’s interior was lit only by Wisp’s glow. The fish scraped its metal belly on rocks a few times with horrible shrieks of metal, and the sweating in the head became more of a shower.

“Tighter than I remember,” Howlaa said. “But then, I was traveling under my own power last time.”

Finally the fish ran aground completely, and Howlaa cursed and smacked the controls. “End of the line. Everybody out.” She flung open the hatch and went into the airlock without closing the door behind her, which meant we’d emerged into someplace dry, unless Howlaa had decided to drown me.

I followed Wisp out of the airlock, into your basic damp natural cavern. The metal fish was half-submerged in a pool of water and half-shredded against rock, several of its serrated teeth broken and gleaming in Wisp’s light. Howlaa hopped down to the rock, and I followed more cautiously. There were tunnels branching off from this cavern, and I hoped some of them led to light and food and maybe a place to take an afternoon nap, though I wasn’t too hopeful about any of those.

“Which way was it?” Howlaa said, but before Wisp answered, we all noticed the glows approaching from the tunnels before us, shifting blue-green specks and spirals in the dark.

“Underdwellers,” Wisp said. “The glowing lights you see are clan tattoos drawn with bioluminescent fungus.” I figured that informational moment was for my benefit.

“Recognize the clan symbol?” Howlaa asked. I couldn’t read the tone of her voice. Worry? Annoyance? Pride? The things drew closer, and now there was a murmuring from the tunnels, a sort of chittering gnashing bunch of grunts and moans.

“Yes,” Wisp said, and sighed. “I’ve seen the intelligence reports. They’re clan Kil’howlaa. A vengeance clan formed by the few Underdwellers who survived your last visit here.”

“It’s nice to be remembered,” Howlaa said, and transformed.

Posted in Chapters | 5 Comments

Table of Contents

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1 * Chapter 2 * Chapter 3 * Chapter 4 * Chapter 5 * Chapter 6 * Chapter 7 * Chapter 8 * Chapter 9 * Chapter 10 * Chapter 11 * Chapter 12 * Chapter 13 * Chapter 14 * Chapter 15 * Chapter 16 * Chapter 17 * Chapter 18

Posted in Administrivia | 8 Comments

Chapter 3

We slept in a giant bird’s nest, a surprisingly soft place padded with leaves and made of what looked like whole uprooted trees. The nest perched in a pile of tumbled boulders, and Howlaa had to carry me up most of the way, because I couldn’t climb, tired as I was.

Sleeping in a nest seemed weird, but Wisp said it was the safest place for miles, because everybody was afraid of the creature that lived there. He called it a “Bandersnatch,” which I remember is from that poem about the Jabberwocky, but I don’t remember much about it, except the line about “claws that catch.”

“So why aren’t we afraid of the big bird?”

“It’s not a bird, precisely… at any rate, Howlaa killed it,” Wisp said. “Though she sometimes takes on its form and flies around the surrounding area, just to keep up appearances. We decided it would be good to have some safehouses that weren’t controlled by the Regent. We’ve been planning our escape for a long time. Everything but the actual ability to escape. That’s new.”

“Why would the Regent want to steal a big monster bird from someplace anyway?”

“Oh, he didn’t,” Wisp said. “He wanted something else – an egg, a rock, a jewel, who knows? – and the snatch-engines accidentally picked up the bird along with the other things. Nexington-on-Axis is a closed system, though, so whatever comes here, stays. If we accidentally pick up something too dangerous to keep… That’s where Howlaa comes in. She neutralizes the problem.”

“I’m the Regent’s janitor. I clean up nasty messes. The kind of messes that make more messes.” Howlaa snuggled down into a heap of leaves that smelled like eucalyptus and cough drops. “At least, I used to. Now I am one of the Regent’s messes. Dawn comes soon. Go pee – take some leaves – and then snatch some sleep while you can.”

I picked my way a little distance down the rocks, managed to pull down my tights enough without falling over, and did my business, glad it was only pee. Though it’d be kind of cool to crap on another planet, I guess. Back in the nest I tried to settle down and sleep, but I couldn’t, especially once Howlaa started snoring. I stared up at the strange sky, and said, “Wisp, are you awake?”

The response was a whisper in my ear. “The Bodiless – my kind – do not sleep.”

“Those things in the sky…”

“Ah. Some are private dwellings for those high in the government – that one, the swirly blue ball? It is a pleasure palace for magisters. The one that sparkles, that looks a bit like a crown or a chandelier? Is a mining platform, extracting strange particles from the places where other universes grind up against the Nex. That twinkle of red is an orbital railgun, and I hope it does not aim itself at us again.”

I fingered the bracelets. “I wish I knew how to use this thing. How am I supposed to figure it out?”

Wisp’s motes wobbled in the wind. “We’d planned to get help from a certain disgraced government scientist named Templeton, who was involved in the early stages of the jump-engine’s development. We’ll try to see him soon. Apparently the jump-engine has some… automatic functions, ways to protect you, but as for working it voluntarily, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I would advise against experimenting with it. You could find yourself underwater, or in the vacuum of space…”

I stopped touching the bracelets. “Got it.” If I could just click the rings together and say “There’s no place like home…” I guess I wouldn’t. I mean, I missed my friend Jenny Kay, and our sort-of boyfriends, Joshua Singer and Ryan Rapoport (though we changed our minds about which one was whose boyfriend, and they seemed happy enough either way). I still didn’t understand everything that was happening, but it seemed like I would understand, if I had a little more time, and this place was way more interesting than avoiding Mom and fighting with Cal and going to school. And I liked Wisp, and Howlaa, even if Howlaa still scared me a little. People who can turn into monsters are sort of scary by nature.

I yawned. “Sleep,” Wisp said. “I will keep watch.” His motes floated away, and I closed my eyes, and eventually, I must have slept.

#

The sun came on, except it wasn’t a sun, but a nuclear explosion frozen in time and trapped inside a sphere of unbreakable crystal, set in the sky millennia before by the Queen and Kings of Nexington-on-Axis and set to provide ten hours of light and then switch off for ten hours of darkness, or so Wisp told me. He started to explain how it worked while I had breakfast – apples, and I was already sick of apples, even the white ones that tasted like some weird tropical fruit – but Howlaa interrupted and said, “It’s science, all right? Science is how it works.”

Wisp’s answer was cranky: “When you say ‘science’ like that you might as well be saying ‘magic’ or ‘the gods’ or –”

Super science, then,” Howlaa said. “Are you happy? Let’s go. There’s rough ground to cover here, so,” she sighed, “I’d better let Miranda ride along. Stand back.” Howlaa started to shift and wiggle and change again, and since I wasn’t terrified this time I got to be fascinated instead. When the transformation was complete, Howlaa was a big spiderlike thing with at least a dozen spindly legs and a roundish central mass that didn’t have eyes or a mouth but just a bunch of antennae, like snail antlers. The shadowy clothes she wore changed shape and became something like a seat or a saddle.

The spider – Howlaa – squatted down and Wisp said, “Well, climb on.”

I clambered up, where the shadowy stuff, which felt like stiff cloth, shaped itself around me and held me in tighter than a roller coaster’s straps. “Can she turn into anything?”

“Anything with blood in it,” Wisp said, and then Howlaa started to run.

I thought she’d been quick as a person, but as a spider she was at least as fast as a car. The wind streamed by so hard I could barely keep my eyes open, but I could see well enough to make out the crazy piles of jagged rocky rubble we passed over, with Howlaa leaping chasms and scrabbling over treacherous slopes as easily as I’d walk across my kitchen floor. In what seemed like moments we were beyond the rubble of rocks and racing through the remains of a city, only the buildings were made of dirt and paper and resembled wasp’s nests. “What is this place?” I yelled over the wind.

“Who knows?” Wisp said in my ear. “The Regent let the royal orphans know he wanted something, and they fired up the snatch-engines to get it. I’m sure they got whatever they needed, but they also got these ruins in the process. Eventually, as the population expands, I’m sure our citizens will take up residence. For now they’re deserted.”

We ran for a long time before Howlaa slowed down, and we passed so many things. A pile of blimps with holes in the gasbags. More trees, only some of them weren’t trees but giant mushrooms. A thing like a big termite’s nest that rose into the sky so high it made my eyes water trying to see the top. An ordinary parking lot like you’d see at the mall, complete with lightposts, sitting in a meadow of weird green flowers. A sword as big as an apartment building jammed into the ground, black metal hilt sticking out at an angle. And more. Nexington-on-Axis was a patchwork place, and the weather was like a mild spring afternoon no matter what weird stuff surrounded us.

Howlaa stopped running beside what could have been any old junked-up country farmhouse built on bare dirt, surrounded by heaps of scrap metal and various piles covered in gray and faded blue tarps. But this farmhouse was on the shores of a shining lake, or maybe an ocean for all I knew, that stretched off in the distance as far as I could see.

Howlaa squatted down again and I slid off, legs numb – we’d only stopped once in all those hours, to drink from a spring bubbling out of a rock – and stomped around, trying to get some feeling back. I’d been gone from home less than a day, and felt like I’d seen the world several times over. I liked it, but I was starting to see some advantages to going back someday. For one thing, I could have used a hot shower and my own bathroom, even if I do have to share the facilities with Mom. (Cal gets his own bathroom because he’s such a pig.)

Howlaa rippled and transformed. The shadowy stuff was clothes again, but this time it was a skimpy halter and even tinier shorts. She looked like a skank, like Tina McKenzie the day she got sent home from school for being dressed inappropriately.

“Those clothes…” I said.

Howlaa arranged her top, which made her boobs, which weren’t very big really, look a lot bigger. I think she misunderstood what I was asking. “Being a skinshifter is hell on normal clothing. I got sick of ending up naked at the end of a fight, so the Regent had his scientists whip this up for me. It’s smartcloth – changes to fit my shape.”

“It, ah, definitely fits your shape now,” I said.

Howlaa nodded. “That’s the point.”

“So, how does it work?”

Howlaa opened her mouth, but I held up my hand. “Wait, don’t tell me. Science.”

Howlaa smiled, and it was a lot like the way the wolf-monster smiled. “Smart girl.”

Wisp floated near me while Howlaa walked up to the farmhouse door. “Howlaa is not above using sex appeal to get what she needs. She specializes in physical solutions. That doesn’t always mean beating people up.”

I thought about that. “Eww,” I said.

“Indeed,” Wisp agreed. “I don’t know how you bodied types do it.”

I started to say we didn’t all do it, or anyway not yet, but then the front door slammed open and a skinny guy wearing patched overalls came out holding some kind of gun, but with a bell at the end of the barrel like an old-fashioned musket.

“My friend!” Howlaa said. “I’ve come to visit!”

The guy, who was maybe not as old as I thought at first despite his white hair, lowered the gun and frowned. “What brings the Regent’s chief junkyard dog all the way out here? I haven’t seen you since my change-of-address-at-gunpoint.”

“We’re on unofficial business,” Howlaa said.

He lifted the gun again. “Don’t get me involved in your smuggling bullshit. That’s how I wound up stuck all the way out here under house arrest in the first place. If the Regent didn’t need my schematics, I’d be in a gulag somewhere.”

“Merrill,” Howlaa said, and I wouldn’t have believed she could purr before then. “We come in peace. I don’t ask much. A chance to use the bathroom for me and my friend – the friend who has a bladder anyway – and maybe a bite to eat. Then we’ll discuss things further. Unless you’d like me to tell Regent about the moonshine you’re brewing out back? You know he disapproves of you drinking. It makes your blueprints go to shit.”

Merrill swore. “Come in, then. And I imagine you’ll want a drink from that still you’re blackmailing me with?”

“Maybe one,” Howlaa said. “Or two. Three at most.”

“Please,” Merrill said. “You drink like a goddamn fish.”

“Speaking of fish…” Howlaa said, following Merrill inside.

#

“Piece of crap.” Howlaa banged a big red wrench against the side of a twenty-foot-long metal sculpture of a fish propped up on cinderblocks near the shore. The fish had overlapping metal scales that tinkled in the breeze, eyes made of big dirty curved windows, and metal jaws full of serrated teeth. Howlaa flung open a toolbox and began rattling around inside. Her outfit looked like a mechanic’s jumpsuit now. I sat in what shade I could find from a nearby pile of splintery boards, glad to be out of Merrill’s crap-filled house, all heaped with engine parts and with greasy blueprints thumbtacked to the walls. The only upside of the visit had been the chance to use a real indoor toilet, even if it was almost as dirty as Cal’s bathroom, and I’d had to sort of hover over the toilet seat to pee.

Wisp bobbed in the breeze. “It just occurred to me – you must forgive me, I have no family in the conventional sense – that your loved ones must be worried about you, Miranda. I wish we had a way to get a message to them. Normally, I’m afraid, it doesn’t much matter, because new citizens have no hope of ever returning home, but your situation is unusual. I hope you don’t get in too much trouble when you return.”

“Oh, I’ll get in trouble.” I didn’t want to think about it. Being grounded for the rest of seventh grade didn’t sound fun. “But at first my Mom will just think I ran away. They won’t worry much until tonight, probably.”

Howlaa, kneeling to peer underneath the mechanical fish, didn’t seem to be paying any attention. Wisp floated closer, motes of light stirring together, and said, “Oh? They won’t think you’ve been kidnapped?”

Wisp doesn’t have a face, so it’s not like his expression made me uncomfortable, but I still looked down at my feet. “I’ve run away before. A couple of times. Once I slept under the bleachers at school by the football field, until the janitor woke me up at dawn. The other time I just hid out in a friend’s basement.” Jenny Kay’s basement. It wasn’t an awesome basement with couches and a pool table and pinball machines. It was just pipes and spiderwebs and old rakes. But Jenny snuck down after dinner and brought me a corn muffin with butter and a chicken leg wrapped in a napkin, so it was still better than shivering behind the school.

“Running away’s a good impulse, but you went back afterward?” Howlaa growled. “Quitter.” Guess she was paying attention after all.

“Why did you run away?” Wisp’s movements were hypnotic, beautiful and random.

“I don’t know. The first time things were just really tense at home, and I couldn’t stand it, I needed to get out.” That was right after what happened to Dad, with Mom all zombified on pills, Cal in his room blasting music all the time, the whole family falling to pieces. “The second time was mostly to avoid my Mom’s boyfriend Ross – it was the first night he slept over. I can’t stand him.”

“This man beats you?” Howlaa banged a wrench or something, and the fish shuddered, tiny metal scales showering down flakes of rust. “Or tries to take liberties –”

“No! Nothing like that. He just… he sings all the time.”

“I do not understand,” Wisp said.

“He’s… he’s always singing songs from old musicals and doing dumb little dances and he makes my Mom heart-shaped pancakes and he tries to talk to me about stupid things. Like, he got my reading list from English class somehow, and read all the books, and tried to talk to me about them.” The only good thing about Ross was that Mom pretty much stopped drinking once they got serious a few months ago. She was finally “moving on.” But I didn’t really want her to move on. When your husband gets exploded, shouldn’t you stay stuck right where you are for a while? I didn’t want her getting over Dad. Especially not for a giant loser like Ross.

Wisp bobbled. “I fail to see what’s so objectionable about singing and cooking and –”

“She means the man is annoying, Wisp.” Howlaa climbed out from under the fish, which was beginning to move its fins with a series of squeaky shrieks of metal. “With the la-di-dah and the prancing and the sunny disposition that doesn’t know when to shush.”

“That’s it.” I nodded. “That’s exactly it.”

“I know it is,” Howlaa said. “Now get in the fish. This lake isn’t going to cross itself.”

I blinked. “In that?”

Howlaa thumped the side of the big fish, and a hatch popped open, with a collapsible stairway unfolding down. “The only way to travel. At least, the only way to travel unnoticed. If we move on the surface of the lake, the Regent’s spies might see us, but if we travel under the waves…”

“That thing’s a submarine? I thought it was, I don’t know, a bath toy for giants.”

“The only giants here are the steam colossi, and they don’t take baths,” Wisp said. “And while they do enjoy toys, of a sort… this isn’t the sort.”

“It’s perfectly safe,” Howlaa said. “Or close enough. You might get wet, but otherwise. Merrill swears it’s seaworthy. He knows if he tries to drown us I’ll just swim out and drown him.” Howlaa made a hurry-up motion but I didn’t budge.

“Can’t you just turn into a manatee or something? Swim that way?”

“Yes, and Wisp can just dim his lights a bit and float, but you can’t, and we need you. Until we figure out how to work that jump-engine you’re wearing, you need to travel the ordinary way.”

I didn’t think a big metal fish was very ordinary. “Where exactly are we going? You keep talking about a plan, plans for me, and I know what your goal is, but what are we doing?”

An old man with a neatly trimmed beard, wearing a long white robe, appeared between us. He didn’t so much as glance at me, just smiled beatifically, looking at nothing in particular. “Howlaa. This disobedience saddens me. And Wisp, I expected better of you. Please, both of you, return to the palace. Whatever your objections to the terms of your service, I’m sure we can work out some mutually beneficial agreement. Just return the thing you stole, and all will be forgiven.” The old man chuckled. “I can’t fault you for stealing, after all. You did learn it from watching me. But you must choose your targets more wisely.”

“Into the fish,” Howlaa said. “No more talk, now.”

I hurried around the man, wanting to ask who he was. He sighed. “I assume you’re ignoring me? Attempting to flee? Really, Howlaa, all the resources of Nexington-on-Axis are arrayed against you. Didn’t you realize we would have Merrill under remote surveillance, after the indiscretions in his past? Admittedly, he tends to destroy any equipment we place within his perimeter of influence, but he can’t knock spy satellites out of the sky.”

“Ignore him,” Wisp said. “It’s just a projection, beamed down from the satellite. They can see us with their remote cameras, but they can’t hear us, and they can only see the tops of your heads, not your faces. And, I hope, not your jewelry.”

I went up the rickety steps into the fish. There was another door immediately in front of me, like I was in an airlock, so I pushed that open and looked around. I’d been on boats before. This wasn’t much like those boats. The inside of the fish was mostly bare metal and steel mesh and pipes running everywhere, and it smelled of algae. “Is that guy the Regent?”

“None other,” Howlaa said. “Probably sending a fleet of autogyros and drone jets as we speak. The sooner we get into the lake the better. The satellites can’t see underwater, and it’s a big lake, and I know all the caves.” Howlaa slammed the door shut, and I tried to find a place to sit that didn’t look like it would give me tetanus just from touching it.

“Where’s Howlaa going?”

“She has to push the sub in the water,” Wisp said. The fish jerked, and lurched, and splashed, and I barely kept my seat by grabbing a metal cross-bar overhead. The hatch opened again and Howlaa climbed in, dripping water.

“How did you push this thing? It’s huge!”

“Some of my forms are very strong.” Howlaa went past me and sat down in a pilot’s chair in the fish’s head. She started to throw levers and flip switches and the fish sank, the big glass eyes filling up with lake water, clear at first, then murkier as we descended. Water began to drip in tiny dribbles from the inside of the fish’s head, though it was dry where I sat. “I’ll take evasive maneuvers, though I doubt there are other subs here. They were all in the Landlock Sea last time I saw a status-of-force report. It will take some time for the Regent to get combat vessels here, and we’ll be gone by then, I hope.”

“So about this plan –” I said.

“Shushit!” Howlaa shouted, and I shrunk back as her voice echoed in the confines of the sub.

“Howlaa needs to concentrate now,” Wisp said, soothing. “Better to talk about… other things. You mentioned your mother’s boyfriend. What happened to your, ah, original father?”

“Wisp is taking an interest,” Howlaa said from the sweating head of the fish, and I wondered if her friendly tone was an apology for snapping at me. “Watch out.”

“I am interested,” Wisp said, sounding dramatically hurt. I guess when you don’t have a face you learn to put a lot of expression into your voice. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but it’s apt to be a long voyage, and Howlaa’s not much of a conversationalist.”

“My Dad was –” I almost used my Mom’s phrase, and said “He was taken from us,” but instead I said, “He got blown up. Two years ago.”

“Bomb? Mortar fire? Soldier?” Howlaa sounded halfway interested.

“He was a chef. At a restaurant downtown. There was a gas leak one night, and he was the first one in the next morning, wanted to try out some new ideas for recipes, and… They think when he turned on the light there was a spark, or maybe he just somehow didn’t smell the gas and tried to turn on the stove… Anyway, the restaurant blew up. We went to see it, after. Nothing left but a hole in the ground and some pipes sticking out.”

“I am sorry for your loss,” Wisp said, solemn.

“Hell of a thing,” Howlaa said. “There may be explosions in our future, but we’ll try to keep you out of them.”

“Do you have a large family?” Wisp asked.

“A few cousins I don’t see much, but otherwise, no, just me, my Mom, and my brother Cal, for whatever he’s worth.”

“Ah,” Wisp said. “Your brother is… not nice?”

“He’s just Cal.” I almost missed him. “He won’t drive me to school unless Mom yells at him, but he’s not all bad. He lets me watch his band practice.” His guitarist was really cute, even if the music sucked. “He’s the only one who hates Mom’s boyfriend as much as I do.” I looked at the rings on my fingers and sighed. “Cal’s the one who found the jump-engine. I don’t know where. I guess he just picked it up because it was pretty, same as me, probably saw it on the side of the road somewhere. I noticed it glinting in the back of his car when I got home from school yesterday…” Was it only yesterday? “Anyway, I know where he keeps his spare key, so I unlocked the car and took the necklace. He came out of the house and yelled at me and started chasing me so I took off into the woods.”

“Ha! She stole,” Howlaa said. “See, she’ll be right at home here.”

I thought about saying “I steal lots of things,” but that wasn’t exactly something to be proud of, was it? I don’t know why it started. The shoplifting, I mean. I never did it before Dad died. I’m not a kleptomaniac, it’s not like I can’t stop myself from taking stuff. I just like it. Jenny Kay started it, kind of, stealing some sunglasses from the mall and encouraging me to do the same, but I took it a lot farther than Jenny ever did. There’s a loose board in the floor of my closet and I’ve got all kinds of stuff in there. I tell myself it’s Christmas presents for everybody, but it’s not like I even steal things anybody would want. Shoplifting just makes me feel a thrill, like I’m on an adventure, like life is exciting and dangerous instead of boring and annoying. I feel bad afterward, but the thrill is better than the guilt is bad, you know?

Something started beeping like an insistent alarm clock. “Piss and poison,” Howlaa said. “We’ve got frogmen coming after us.” She leaned forward and peered into the water, but I couldn’t see anything but murk.

“Like scuba divers?” I said. “With spear guns or something?”

“No,” Wisp said. “Literally frogmen. They’re called Dagonites. They must have a settlement near here. And they have much worse than spearguns. Normally they aren’t aggressive. The Regent must have sent them.”

“They work for the Regent?”

“Everyone here works for the Regent, Miranda. The whole of Nexington-on-Axis. Most of the residents just hope he never thinks of a job for them. But when he calls, you answer. Obedience is the price they pay for food and security”

“Take the helm, Randy,” Howlaa said. “I’m going for a little swim.” She stood up and went to the airlock hatch.

“I – what?”

“Just sit there, and if the nose starts to dip, pull back on the lever with the red handle, just a little. If the nose starts to tilt up, push the same lever forward. It’s simple. I don’t want you to go anywhere, just keep the fish steady.”

“But can’t –” No. Wisp couldn’t do it. Wisp didn’t have a body.

“It’s you, Randy.”

I sat down in the pilot’s seat and touched the lever lightly. I could see things moving in the water, now, but couldn’t make out exactly what they were. “What are you going to do?”

Howlaa paused by the airlock. “I haven’t been a Manipogo in ages. It should be fun. And Manipogos eat Dagonites.” Then she climbed in, slammed shut the hatch, and was gone.

“Well,” Wisp said. “Either Howlaa will win, or we’ll throw caution to the wind and see if we can figure out how to work that jump-engine after all.”

“Because dying in the vacuum of space is better than waiting to drown inside this fish?”

“You understand the situation completely.”

We sat. We bobbed. We waited. I saw something like a snake the size of a couch but longer go slithering across the fish’s transparent eyes, twisting sinuously as it passed.

I never knew screams sounded like that under water.

Posted in Chapters | 6 Comments

Chapter 2

We made it through the other side of the woods, and this time we didn’t emerge into bleak lava nastiness. Howlaa set me down and I stared at what seemed like hundreds of oddly-shaped buildings. There were grain silos, like back home – we’re only an hour or so from Atlanta, but it’s still pretty countrified in Pomegranate Grove – plus big rounded things on tripod legs like water towers, and squat wooden buildings with cone-shaped roofs, and big metal buildings like airplane hangars, and even glass ones like greenhouses.

“Welcome to the breadbasket of the Ax,” Wisp said. “Food for the citizenry. At least those the Regent chooses to feed.”

“What Wisp knows about food could be written on the back of a small envelope,” Howlaa said. “With room left over for what he knows about sex, dancing, and fashion. Are you hungry?”

I was – it must be about dinner time, unless I’d been unconscious for part of that time under the trees. “Yeah.”

Howlaa sniffed. “Damn this primate nose. Excuse me.”

“Howlaa, no –” Wisp shouted, but I didn’t hear the rest of whatever he said, because I was screaming.

Howlaa’s body changed, arms extending, head bulging, spine curving. It wasn’t like some special effect of a person turning into a werewolf – more like one of those time-lapse videos of a plant growing or a dead animal decomposing, this fast organic expanding and collapsing. The shadowy clothes shifted and writhed and obscured some of what was happening, but it was clear Howlaa was turning into a monster, something with a long snout and pointy ears and lots of fur and bone spurs jutting from its spine, not exactly wolflike, unless maybe it was a wolf that was also partly a dinosaur.

I took off running. Wisp came bobbing after me. “Miranda! It’s not what you think! It’s just – it’s just Howlaa!”

The wolf-thing came loping up beside me, easily keeping pace, even as I veered and ran, until I tripped on a rock and went sprawling. My hair fell into my eyes and when I brushed it away and levered myself up, the monster was staring right into my face, eyes these blank orbs like they were scooped out of cherry jello with a melon-baller, black nose quivering… and then it licked my face, just like a friendly dog, and though it looked like its breath should smell like rotting meat it didn’t smell like much of anything, just warm and wet. The wolf-thing – which was bigger than me – sat back on its haunches and shook, like it just had a bath, and then it writhed and twisted and shrank and it was Howlaa again, not a hair out of place. “Sorry to scare you. I just wanted a better nose to smell where the good food is.”

“You’re a were… something.” My voice was a croak. I’d skinned my hands when I fell, and they stung, blood on my palms for the second time tonight.

“Howlaa is a were-many-things,” Wisp said, motes dancing over Howlaa’s head. “A skinshifter.”

“I am a woman of many talents,” Howlaa said. “Except when I’m a man or beast or something else of many talents. Come. Let’s eat. I smelled apples.” She sounded so cheerful and harmless, and the monster hadn’t really been all that monstrous when it came right down to it, so I followed. A shapechanger! How cool to have a power like that!

Howlaa led us toward a low wooden building, and we stepped into a big, straw-lined room fragrant with apples. There were dozens of crates and great spilling heaps of fruit, golden, red, pink, and even white – I’d never seen white apples before. I was beginning to really understand that I wasn’t home anymore… wasn’t even on Earth anymore, judging by that strange sky, and the stranger people. Howlaa tossed me a piece of fruit and I bit into it, the juice filling my mouth, my stomach growling, impatient for me to chew and swallow. I hadn’t eaten since cruddy school lunch, and I was so happy to have some food that simple physical satisfaction drove all the panic and confusion down for a while. Howlaa and I sat on crates and she held an apple in each hand, taking alternating bites and demolishing them down to the cores in just a few chews.

Wisp didn’t eat, but only hovered, casting light. “You asked where you are. The place has many names –”

“The Nex,” Howlaa said around a mouthful of fruit. “The Ax. The Magpie City. The Stolen State. The Cage. The Orphanarium. The Hub. The –”

“Its proper name is Nexington-on-Axis,” Wisp said. “Or so the Regent who rules here says. The original name, what the long-dead Queen and Kings of Nexington-on-Axis might have called this… place… are lost to time and likely unpronounceable by the tongues, pheromone glands, or throat-sacs of even any creature Howlaa can transform into.”

“But a name is just a name. What this place is… Wisp, you tell her.”

“It is the linchpin of the multiverse. Or, more accurately, a sort of… barnacle growing on that linchpin. We exist at the center of all things, and any universes that are, might be, will be, or have been, all turn and churn and twist around us. We live in the pivot of possible worlds, with galaxies and stars and planets and realities whipping above and below and around.”

“And the royal orphans, they can reach out. They can snatch.” Howlaa’s hand whipped out and grabbed another apple, quick as a snapped rubber band. “They steal whatever they want – or whatever the Regent wants – from any universe that passes by.”

Wisp bobbled before me. “We don’t know how their power works – wormholes, white holes, harnessing negative energy? But long ago the Queen and Kings built vast machines called snatch-engines in the royal palace, machines that enhanced their natural abilities, and by using those engines, the orphans can reach even farther and steal bigger things. Buildings. City blocks. Farmland. Seas. Nexington-on-Axis has no natural resources at all. Everything is imported. Even the people.”

“It’s a bloody kleptocracy, is what it is,” Howlaa said.

“I taught her that word,” Wisp said. “It means ‘government by thieves.'”

I shook my head. “This is crazy. This is beyond science fiction.”

Howlaa shrugged. “It is what it is, Randy. We’re way out in the boonies now. The royal orphans are mostly filling up the Nex in a spiral pattern – who knows why, maybe that’s what a straight line looks like to them – and they put your little chunk of Earth in the next empty slot, out by the food stores and reservoirs and slag pits and prison camps. It’s only a few hours back to the city center by autogyro, but on foot…”

She shook her head. “So that’s ‘where,’ and enough of ‘who’ for now, which leaves…” She pointed to my hands. “‘What.‘ As in, what is that thing you found. Which we found first, only we found it in a locked room in a forbidden vault in the depths of the Regent’s palace. It’s called a jump-engine. Or the jump-engine, since there’s only one. Built by the Regent’s scientists, reverse-engineered from the snatch-engines.”

“Literally reverse,” Wisp said, “as the snatch-engines can only seize things and bring them here, while the engine you found can take things away. Or send them away. Or send people away.”

“Teleportation,” Howlaa said. “Poof! Here you are, there you go, no passing through the space between, instantaneous. Could be very handy.”

I looked at my hands, thinking of the way I’d moved from the autogyro to the woods in a blink. Teleportation might even beat shapeshifting as far as cool powers go. I’d never really been anywhere, except Hawaii, so the power to go anywhere was pretty appealing.

“Except,” Howlaa said. “You activated the engine earlier, and it tasted your blood, and hooked itself into your body. So now you’ve got the mind –”

“Really the whole nervous and limbic system,” Wisp interjected.

“– that controls it,” Howlaa finished. “Not exactly part of our plan.”

I stared at the bracelets and the rings and thought, Take me to Paris, but nothing happened. Of course it had to be more complicated than that. “How did this thing wind up in Pomegranate Grove Georgia?”

“Because I smashed it against the wall when it looked like the Regent’s men might capture us,” Howlaa said. “It’s got a self-preservation circuit, and when the choice was go smash or jump away, it jumped. Why did it jump to your town? Why not? It had to go somewhere.”

Wisp said, “We knew the orphans would snatch the jump-engine back soon, and that it would get dropped out here on the edge of everything, so we escaped the palace, stole an aircraft, acquired a device capable of tracking the jump-engine’s emanations, and… Here we are.”

“If this thing can teleport you anywhere,” I said, “why didn’t you just use it to get away?”

“It needs a body to bond to,” Howlaa said. “Wisp doesn’t have a body, and mine is way too… flexible. If I put on the jump-engine while I was human, and later changed my shape into something else, the jump-engine might decide my body was under attack and teleport random parts of me to a safe distance, or something equally nasty. We were going to take the jump-engine to a man we know and get him to send us far, far away from here.”

“Why do you want to leave?” I said. “The Nex sounds like a pretty cool place.”

“We are slaves,” Wisp said. “We work for the Regent, because if we do not obey him, he can make our lives misery. The jump-engine is our way out. We stole it as soon as we learned of its existence. We only want our freedom.”

I tried to pull the rings off my fingers, but they were way too tight, which was funny, since they didn’t feel tight – it was like they tightened up when I touched them. “If the Regent is so nasty, why doesn’t he just grab you, or me, with the snatch-whatsits?”

“The snatch-engines don’t work within the confines of Nexington-on-Axis itself – they can only grab things from outside,” Howlaa said. “The Regent says trying to snatch something from within the Nex would be like trying to eat your own head. Lucky for us. Our tracking device doesn’t work now, either.” She consulted a little black box with a blinking green light on top. “The jump-engine’s energy signature has changed, now that it’s connected to you. Must be some kind of stealth routine that comes online when it’s activated. So that means the Regent can’t find us by tracking the jump-engine, either. He’ll have to come after us the old-fashioned way. Though there are spy cameras, not to mention the gutless citizens of the Ax. Most of them would sell us out for a keg of beer or loaf of bread. We should be all right if we keep moving, though. Me and Wisp are good at getting places we’re not supposed to go.”

I stared at my beautiful jewelry, and the rings changed from glass to sapphire to ruby as I watched. “How does this thing work?” Maybe if they told me, I could get the engine to do something when I wanted it to.

“The device is made of conditional matter,” Wisp said, “its physical nature shifting in and out of phase with the fluctuations of the axis of the multiverse, maintaining correspondences with certain distant but linked particles, or rather the possibility of particles, and –”

“It’s science.” Howlaa rolled her eyes. “It works by science.”

“Right. So… what exactly am I supposed to do for you?”

Howlaa grinned. It looked like she still had too many teeth, maybe a few left over from that last transformation. “Travel with us a while. Figure out how the use the jump-engine. Save the day. The only other choice is letting the Regent catch you so he can remove the jump-engine. He’d probably start with taking off your skin and pulling out your bones.” I must have made a pretty horrified expression because her face softened and she said, “We’ll help you get home, when we’re done. Which isn’t an offer anybody else snatched up to the Cage here has ever gotten.”

“I’m not so sure I want to go home,” I said. “Home isn’t so great. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of the Nex.”

“You’ll have a chance to see more than you’d like,” Howlaa said. “Enough talk. If your belly’s full we should find a place to sleep, except Wisp, who doesn’t sleep, so he gets guard duty. In the morning we’ll find transportation. I know a man near here who might be able to help us.”

“A friend of yours?”

Wisp laughed. It was weird, hearing laughter from the empty air, weirder even than words. “Howlaa doesn’t have friends. Howlaa just has people she has declined to kill so far.”

I blinked – Howlaa was clearly tough, but a killer?

Wisp said, “I’m sorry. That was a joke. Perhaps not the most reassuring thing to hear just now. Howlaa isn’t an assassin, so much as an… exterminator. Pest control. She disposes of dangerous things snatched up and brought here by mistake. My apologies, Miranda. ”

I nodded, wondering how much of a joke it was, really. “It’s okay. And you can call me Randy.”

“Never happen,” Howlaa said. “Wisp doesn’t do nicknames. Wisp is precise. Grab a couple of apples for the road and come on.” Howlaa went to the door and stepped outside. There was a sound – sort of a brief “zap” – a flash of violet light, and then Howlaa fell, right outside the doorway. The last piece of apple dropped from my fingers.

“Hide,” Wisp said, right in my ear, and I scrambled behind a pile of crates in a dark corner as quick as I could, peering around the side. Was Howlaa dead? I’d never seen a dead person before – Dad’s coffin was empty, obviously – and this would be a bad night to start. Wisp’s lights darkened, one by one, though if I squinted I could still see the specks – they were just more like gnats than fireflies, now. He floated behind the crates with me.

Bulky figures appeared in the doorway, three of them, holding things like vastly overcomplicated machine guns, with way too many knobs and antennas and glowing red and green lights, and miniature pitchforks poking out of the end of the barrels. One prodded Howlaa with his foot and said something harsh and grinding in what must have been a language. I couldn’t see what they looked like, and was sort of glad.

“Nagalinda,” Wisp said. “The Regent prefers their species for his personal guard because they have astonishingly high thresholds for pain.”

I was afraid to say anything, in case they might hear me – Wisp was able to float a mote right into my ear and talk, so I was pretty sure they couldn’t hear him.

“I’ll take care of this, you stay here.” Wisp’s now-dark cloud moved toward one of the guards, but in the dim light I couldn’t see what happened. One of the Nagalinda stiffened, then took a jerky, awkward step around Howlaa, almost falling over. He raised the gun, looked at it for a long moment, then reversed it, holding it backwards. The other guards talked to him – more guttural consonants and mushy vowels – and the clumsy guard smashed the butt of his gun into another guard’s face, knocking him down. He fell into the apple room, just a few feet away from me. I gasped. This was something Wisp was doing, something he was making the guard do – mind control? Body control? Could Wisp possess people?

The guard Wisp controlled tried to attack the other one, but the Nagalinda knocked his legs out from under him and threw him on the ground outside the hut. While Wisp’s guard struggled to get upright, looking a lot like a turtle on its back, the other one lifted his gun, twiddled a knob, and shot what looked like a stream of sparkling silver liquid all over his possessed partner.

I expected Wisp to come spiraling up into the air, maybe glowing, maybe not, but nothing happened – just Howlaa unmoving, and two guards down, and one big one still standing. He started to come into the room, and before I had time to get petrified with fear I ran out from behind the crate to the fallen guard and picked up his gun. It weighed a ton, and I couldn’t even find a trigger, just a bunch of buttons, but I pointed it at the last guard anyway, hoping to scare him until I could figure out how to set the phaser on stun or whatever.

The guard came toward me, and up close I could see his face, which was like some kind of deep-sea nightmare fish – broad and flat, no nose, lipless mouth full of triangular teeth, oversized pearly white eyes – and I whimpered. He spoke, almost soothingly, then swatted the gun from my hands. After that he laughed. A laugh is a laugh in any language I guess.

Something hard into something soft. The Nagalinda’s face was scary, but it looked pretty soft to me, and I had about a pound and a half of metal on each of my hands, so while it was laughing I cocked back my arm and just punched.

I felt the impact, but only barely, and as soon as I struck… The Nagalinda disappeared. Poof, gone, gun falling at my feet. I looked at my hands. Wisp had said the jump-engine could send things away. I guess it worked. I just wish I knew how it worked. The jump-engine only seemed to do anything when I was too scared or adrenaline-pumped to control it.

Howlaa groaned, and I went to her, glad she wasn’t dead. She rubbed the side of her head while I helped her up. “Whatsit?” she said, and I babbled about how the guards had hit her, how Wisp had possessed one, how I’d faced the last guard.

By the end, Howlaa was laughing. “You punched him so hard he disappeared? That’s a good trick. Keep doing that and you’ll get a reputation around here. People might be more afraid of you than they are of me. Come on. We have to free Wisp. The guard must have sprayed some fixative on the body, something to keep Wisp from escaping, but the guns should have a setting to undo it.” Howlaa picked up a gun and started flicking switches and turning knobs like she’d done it a thousand times before.

“So Wisp is in that guard?”

Howlaa nodded. “Up the nose, in the mouth, into the ears – through any hole, really, even the more personal ones. He can take over bodies, but he’s crap when it comes to controlling them. He doesn’t have a body of his own, so it’s not like he gets to practice very often. Mostly he just falls over.”

“So maybe he could take over the Regent, and…”

Howlaa shook his head. “The Regent and his best cronies have defenses against the Bodiless – brain implants, neural doodads, who knows what. All those things are too expensive to give every grunt and guard, but the Regent might send some better-equipped special forces after us when he sees what happened here..”

“These guys weren’t special?”

Howlaa sprayed something orange and glistening from the gun onto the guard Wisp had possessed. “Nah. Bog standard. We’ve got a lot worse on the way if we don’t move fast.”

Wisp’s motes, glowing again, came drifting up out of the guard’s clothes and mouth, reassembling into a cloud. The guard moaned but didn’t get up.

“Thank you for stepping in, Miranda,” Wisp said. “I thought I was going to be stuck in that wet mush of a thing forever. And Howlaa, thanks –”

“Mutual appreciation over,” Howlaa said. “Now we run.”

Posted in Chapters | 5 Comments