The Nex: Chapter 1

My mom says stealing is wrong, my brother says it’s only stealing if you get caught, and my dad used to say good artists borrow, but great artists steal. I don’t know if I’m right or wrong or any kind of artist, but the best and worst and weirdest days of my life (so far) started with theft: first I stole something, and then I got stolen away.

The school bus dropped me off in front of my house, and I gave my brother Cal’s dirty old Mustang the usual kick as I passed by. Cal saved up and bought a car as soon as he turned sixteen, but he never drops me off at my school, even though it’s on his way. The car’s so beat up Cal never notices the dents I contribute, but kicking it makes me feel better.

Mom’s car was there too, and so was her stupid boyfriend’s, so I was thinking about sneaking around the side and climbing in my bedroom window to avoid them all when I heard the sound. It was this weird hum, high-pitched, like a bunch of bees buzzing in hundred-part-harmony. I looked into Cal’s back seat and didn’t see anything hummy, but I did see a necklace, half covered in a jumble of schoolbooks and fast-food wrappers, a silvery bright metal chain all strung along with jewels like teardrops.

The jewels changed color, from yellow to blue, then shifted and shimmered to green, and it was the prettiest thing ever, even though I’m not a fancy-jewelry girl. I’d never seen a necklace change color that way, and I wanted it. I didn’t even wonder how it worked. I couldn’t imagine why Cal had something so nice anyway – he only cares about girls and drums lately, so anything without boobs or cymbals is wasted on him. I knelt down and felt around in the wheel well for the magnetic hide-a-key where Cal keeps his spare.

I opened the door and pulled out the necklace. It was heavier than I’d expected, and warm, like it had been sitting in the sun. I didn’t want to wear it – I like jangly mismatched bracelets and that’s about it – but looking at it made my heart thump and my skin warm up, the same way stealing gum from the gas station or hair clips from the mall does. That humming went on, and I realized the necklace was making the sound, and when I held it to my ear, it was like whispering –

“Randy, get outta my stuff!” Cal came through the front door, face all twisted and mad, and I tore off running across the street, over the ditch, through the empty field, and toward the woods. Cal chased me, calling me a dirty little thief – nothing I hadn’t heard before – but I’m faster than him, especially since he started sneaking cigarettes. I knew once I got in under the trees I’d lose him. My Dad used to take me out there, teaching me what plants were edible and which were poisonous, picking wild mushrooms, stuff like that, and I know all the paths. Even though I could tell which berries were safe to eat, though, I’d have to go home eventually, and that would be no fun. Mom and Cal always team up against me, ever since we lost Dad.

Once I was in the woods pretty deep and couldn’t hear Cal yelling anymore, I slowed down so I wouldn’t trip on any roots. I stopped by a tree and looked at the necklace some more. Sure, it was pretty, but was it worth getting grounded over, maybe worse? Still, there was something about the way the gems changed colors, the way it hummed…. I started thinking about places I could stash it, making up a story about how I’d dropped the necklace and couldn’t find it, sorry, Cal, and –

That’s when I got stolen away.

The whole world went white and black and blue and everything turned sideways with a whoosh and I fell down flat on my back in the dirt. The sky spun crazily, and I swear all I did was blink, but just that quick the sky was dark instead of light. I couldn’t see too well because of the tree branches above, but there were things in the sky that weren’t stars or planets or satellites or low-flying planes, things like slowly-spinning chandeliers and big blue glowing orbs, and something whirring past that looked like a helicopter in a sketch by Da Vinci I saw once in art class, all corkscrewy and strange.

I sat up, cradling the necklace – the hum was a lot more like a whisper now, and I wondered if the necklace was picking up a radio station or something, the way tooth fillings supposedly can. I stood up, dizzy and slow, and leaned against a pine tree. I touched my hand to my nose and it came away bloody, but just a little. I have nosebleeds once in a while, ever since I was a little kid. I even used to get out of school because of them, until Mom figured out I was making my nose bleed on purpose sometimes just to get out of class.

I thought maybe I’d fallen down and hit my head, that I’d been unconscious in the woods until nightfall. It was a good theory, except my head didn’t hurt, and there were those things in the sky. The other possibility was the whooshing and the colors had taken me somewhere else, but if I’d been kidnapped, the bad guys had kidnapped the whole forest, too, or at least the woods as far as I could see. I’d read books about people going magically or science-fictionally to other worlds, but chunks of their own worlds didn’t usually go with them. I took out my cell phone, just to see what time it was, but the display was all weird, nothing that even looked like numbers or letters, and when I tried to dial home, I couldn’t get a signal.

A woman’s voice said something like “Over here,” and twigs crunched and pine needles slithered under oncoming feet. I wondered if I should try to hide behind a tree, or if this was a search party looking for me or something. Lights approached from the direction of the voice, but not like a lamp, more like a bunch of fireflies, all yellowy-green and clustered together.

“It’s ridiculous for them to snatch all these trees to get one little device,” came another voice, this one deep and masculine like something out of a movie trailer.

“The Regent doesn’t mind. He snatched up that whole scrapyard when all he needed was a few hundred pounds of copper. You been down to that place lately? Ha, of course not, but I hear it’s full of refugees from the Walking Wars, all building clockwork siege engines and putting up flags and declaring sovereignty. Deluded bastards.”

“They’ll be absorbed,” the man’s voice said, sounding bored, just like my friend Jenny Kay sounds in math class. The teacher always calls on her, because Jenny always knows, but she gives the answers like they’re so obvious that even asking her is a stupid question.

“We could rally them to our cause.”

“This isn’t a fight we’ll win by force of arms.”

“Force of arms is what I’m good at,” the woman said, her voice clearer now. “Also force of fists, force of feet, force of fangs, and et cetera.”

“I’m well acquainted with your strengths.”

“You can –” The crunching stopped, and I hunched over into myself, back pressed against the tree, necklace pressed against my chest between my boobs (such as they are), not at all sure these were people I wanted to meet.

The woman stepped into sight. I could see her clearly, lit in the glow of the strange cloud of floating lights, which was about the size of a basketball, hovering and sparkling. She was taller than me, almost as tall as my brother, with short dark hair and a pointy-pretty face, wearing gray and black clothes that seemed to shift around on her body like shadows. She looked like she got a lot of exercise, and –

She saw me.

The woman let out a low whistle. “Lookit, Wisp. Another citizen press-ganged.”

“None of our concern. We’re not on the welcoming committee this time.”

It was that male voice again, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from – was the woman throwing her voice?

Suddenly the cloud of glowing lights swooped down into my face and began wiggling like crazy. “She has it. She has the engine!” The voice boomed right in my ears.

The woman crouched in front of me, waving her hand through the glowing spots, which buzzed like bugs and reformed above her head. “Hello, little one,” she said. “What have you got there?”

I grabbed the necklace tighter, and it shifted and twisted in my hands like a pissed-off kitten, which was a whole new level of weird. “Nothing. Just something I found. What is this place?” The last part was maybe a stupid question – it was the woods, the ones I’d used as a shortcut for years – but it was someplace else, too, obviously.

“I’ll answer your questions, after you give me that.” The woman held out her hand.

If it had been, I don’t know, a candy bar, or a pair of earrings, or any of the other things I stole sometimes, I would have given it up – but the necklace, what they’d called the engine, was different. “It’s mine,” I said.

“I’m going to make this pretty clear,” the woman said. “I’m stronger than you, and if you don’t give it, I’ll take it.”

“Don’t hurt her.” That disembodied voice again – what, was there a ghost here, or someone in an invisibility cloak like in the movies? “If you spill her blood, a forensic dowser may be able to track us that way.”

Blood? I didn’t have any way to defend myself, not even a little pocket knife. I used to have some pepper spray on the ring with my housekeys, but Mom took it away after I sprayed some on Cal’s mashed potatoes once. I tried to remember the women’s self defense class I took with Mom, but I hadn’t paid enough attention, all I could remember was stomping on somebody’s instep or hitting a guy’s crotch, and neither would help much here. Oh, and sticking something hard into something soft, like a key into an eye. That expression, “Stick something hard into something soft,” had fuelled about a thousand dirty jokes from my friend Jenny Kay, but it seemed like a good idea, if I could reach my car keys. Getting a housekey in the eye would stop anybody.

“Shushit,” the woman said. “Nobody’s going to hurt anybody. Just give.” She lashed out fast, got both hands on the necklace, and started pulling. I tried to get a better grip, crystals weirdly slippery in my hands, and then I felt a funny click as two crystals touched. I gasped when a sudden sharp pain stabbed my palms. It stung for a second, then stopped, like I’d had anesthetic gel rubbed on the stinging spots.

The woman let go and held up her hands like I was a cop pointing a gun at her, and she whistled again. All the tension and menace drained out of her. “Well, that’s it. She’s done whatever you do to activate the engine. She set the focus.”

I looked down, and the necklace had stabbed my hands somehow, leaving pinhead-sized drops of blood on my palms. The necklace started to twist again, writhing over my hands, breaking into smaller pieces that twinkled and crawled, and after a second the necklace was gone… but I was wearing two bracelets on each wrist, brass and sapphire and diamond and silver, and rings of different-colored metal on three fingers of each hand.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the ghost said.

I looked up, my throat dry. “What just happened?”

The woman put her hand on my shoulder, and I flinched, but it felt like a friendly hand. “You just joined the revolution. What’s your name?”

“I’m… Miranda. Randy. What revolution?”

The woman rose, crossing her arms and looking down at me with a smirky little smile. “My name… Is Howlaa Moor.”

I thought funny name but didn’t say it.

She frowned, and the male voice said, “She’s not from here, she’s from Earth, she doesn’t know who you are.”

“Ah. I guess that’s some excuse.” She gestured vaguely. “Randy, this is Wisp. He is annoying but I cannot hit him, and neither can you.”

I looked around. “Up here,” the voice said. “The lights.”

I blinked. The lights were talking to me. Wisp was the lights. “How can you talk?”

“Sound is just vibrations in the air. I have no trouble making vibrations.” The motes jiggled.

“This is too freaky.”

“Just you wait.” Howlaa grinned. “Come on. We have to get moving before they show up.”

“They? They who?”

“The ones we’re revolutioning against, of course.” Howlaa gestured impatiently, and I got to my feet.

“Revolting,” Wisp said.

“What are you nattering about?” Howlaa said.

“It’s not revolutioning, that isn’t even a word, it’s revolting.”

You’re revolting.” Howlaa laughed, and I realized she must have a sense of humor roughly the same as Cal’s. I found it stupid and comforting at the same time.

I followed after them, Howlaa walking and Wisp floating, thinking I could take off as soon as we got out of the woods and I figured out where I was, exactly. The trees got thinner, and now that I could see the sky clearly it was even stranger, with ribbons of shimmery color like the Northern Lights, and flashes in the corner of my eye that might have been multicolored lightning. Pretty weird, but I had like a mental block when I tried to think about what that weirdness meant. These were the woods by my house. How weird could things get there?

Except when we got out of the woods, I didn’t see the electric fence around the horse pasture, or the steeple of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, or any familiar landmarks in what should have been a super-familiar place.

What I saw was bleak nothing, ground like the lava rock from our vacation to Hawaii before Dad died, all pitted and black and hard. It all hit me then, the way the impossible had become factual, and I let out a long deep breath and tried not to let my knees give out underneath me. My body was freaking out, my heart all thud-thud-thudding, but my brain was working over the situation. Because Jenny Kay and I had talked about this, exactly this – about how, in stories, whenever the normal girl goes to a magical other world, she spends all her time trying to get home, and how stupid that is. We both agreed, if we ever found ourselves over the rainbow or through the looking glass, we’d take a look around before we tried to get away. We’d have the adventure.

The adventure was a lot scarier now that it was happening to me, but so far it was good scary like riding a roller coaster, instead of bad scary like listening at your mom’s bedroom door and wondering if she’s going to come out all day, and if she’ll be drunk when she does.

What was so great about home anyway?

Dad used to say every journey starts with one step, so I kept on walking. I was glad to be wearing my big baggy jacket, and that I had on thick-soled stomping boots and black tights under my ragged patchwork skirt, because just looking at the endless desert night made me cold. “What is this place?”

“The outskirts,” Wisp said. “The far provinces. Land waiting to be filled.”

The only thing breaking up the landscape was that funny-looking helicopter I’d seen go past before, with corkscrewed sails instead of rotors and a platform with a couple of chairs bolted on, along with a few long levers and a set of handlebars. It didn’t look like anything that could fly.

“There’s only one seat with straps, so you’ll have to hold on tight,” Howlaa said. “The autogyro can be… a bit bumpy.”

“She should be the one strapped in, she’s indispensable now,” Wisp argued.

“Why am I indispensable?”

They ignored me. Howlaa said, “Unless she can fly this thing, she gets the other chair, because only the pilot’s seat has straps, you floating ball of –”

Something like a glowing red boulder came streaking out of the sky with a long whine, and it landed with a crash like ten thunderstorms… right on the autogyro, which exploded into flying fragments of metal and wood. Before I could even blink I found myself way back in the woods again, easily a football field’s length away from Howlaa and the remains of the smoking autogyro. Had the explosion thrown me back? But I didn’t feel like I’d been thrown, hadn’t felt any sensation of movement at all, I was just here, out of harm’s way, not that I didn’t scream a couple of times anyway.

Howlaa came racing back into the woods, Wisp bobbing after her. After the noise of impact, it was quiet again, and I heard Wisp say “self-preservation circuit kicking in” before Howlaa scooped me up in her arms and started running, carrying me like I was a baby, like I didn’t weigh anything.

“They found us, kid,” she said. “And you’re going to be the Ax’s most popular girl if we’re not careful with you.”

“Must have been an orbital rail gun,” Wisp said.

“I don’t care if it was a steam colossus with a powered slingshot, the autogyro is gone, and that means we can’t fly.”

“Well, you and I can,” Wisp said. “Albeit much more slowly. It’s only Miranda that can’t fly at all. Unfortunately. I don’t suppose you can carry her…”

“Not a hope. It would ruin my aerodynamics.” Howlaa wasn’t even breathing hard, though I would’ve been gasping way too much to speak if I’d been running as hard and fast as she was. “What’s the plan now, Wispy?”

“Find transportation. Resume our journey. Use Miranda’s… unique abilities… to complete our mission.”

“Short on details, aren’t you? We’re leagues from the city center. And now we know they’ll be waiting. I should never have let you talk me into this. Things weren’t so bad, working for the Regent – all the booze I could drink, permission to hit people, places, and things on a regular basis… There are worse prisons, you know.”

“We knew this wouldn’t be easy,” Wisp said. “But our freedom is worth some effort, don’t you think?”

“Yes, fine, it just seemed like a better idea before the shooting started. And now a lot depends on this kid, who is… a kid.”

“At least we don’t have to depend on Templeton now. He’s the only human I’ve met who’s more reliable when intoxicated, and even then not by much. We’ll –”

They were talking about me like I wasn’t there. I hate that – Mom did it at a conference with my principal after what happened to Dad, saying “We all want what’s best for Miranda, I’m sure it’s just because she’s grieving, she’ll try harder,” blah blah blah – like I didn’t have a say in my own life, and like Mom had it together herself, when I knew she’d probably had four glasses of wine before she got to the school.

I wriggled and arched my back and Howlaa stopped running and let me drop. “Fine, you can walk yourself, but keep up.”

I scrambled away, the rings and bracelets on my fingers and wrists pressing cold against my skin as my heart thumped fast and wild, like the drum part in one of the lousy songs by Cal’s band. Having the adventure’s one thing, but I didn’t even know what the adventure was yet. “Why should I go anywhere with you? Where am I? What’s going on?”

Howlaa and Wisp – I won’t say they exchanged glances, since Wisp has no eyes, but Howlaa looked at Wisp and then back at me and sighed. “We’ll find a safe place, and then tell you everything you need to know.” She rolled her eyes. “Wisp will try to tell you everything, period, all-inclusive, including a short history of space-time, but I’ll restrain him from going on too much.”

I hesitated, thinking about running, but wherever I might want to go, it was pretty clear I couldn’t get there from here on my own.

“Please,” Howlaa said. “Come with us? We’re the ones who didn’t throw a big rock at you from orbit. And you must be wondering about the thing you… found. That turned itself into your jewelry there. I can tell you about that, too.”

I was suddenly so tired. A day at school, no more terrible than usual but still pretty terrible, then getting chased by Cal, and now all this craziness, I just wanted to cocoon under my covers in my room in total darkness, without even the blacklight turned on. “Is it far?” I heard the whine in my voice, the one Mom always snapped at me about, but couldn’t help it, and didn’t care to try.

“Not much farther now,” Howlaa said, and scooped me up, and ran.

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Dream Engine

This story, “Dream Engine,” was first published in Intergalactic Medicine Show in August 2006. The characters Howlaa and Wisp (and the Regent) are major figures in my novel The Nex, so this is a good introduction to their world… though the protagonist of The Nex is an entirely new character, and that story takes place some time after this one. Enjoy!

Dream Engine

The Stolen State, The Magpie City, The Nex, The Ax – this is the place where I live, and hover, and chafe in my service; the place where I take my small bodiless pleasures where I may. Nexington-on-Axis is the proper name, the one the Regent uses in his infrequent public addresses, but most of the residents call it other things, and my – prisoner? partner? charge? trust? – my associate, Howlaa Moor, calls it The Cage, at least when zie is feeling sorry for zimself.

The day the fat man began his killing spree, I woke early, while Howlaa slept on, in a human form that snored. I looked down on the streets of our neighborhood, home to low-level government servants and the wretchedly poor. The sky was bleak, and rain filled the potholes. The royal orphans had snatched a storm from somewhere, which was good, as the district’s roof gardens needed rain.

I saw a messenger approach through the cratered street. I didn’t recognize his species – he was bipedal, with a tail, and his skin glistened like a salamander’s, though his gait was birdlike – but I recognized the red plume jutting from his headband, which allowed him to go unmolested through this rough quarter.

“Howlaa,” I said. “Wake. A messenger approaches.”

Howlaa stirred on the heaped bedding, furs and silks piled indiscriminately with burlap and canvas and even coarser fabrics, because Howlaa’s kind enjoy having as much tactile variety as possible. And, I suspect, because Howlaa likes to taunt me with reminders of the physical sensations I can not experience.

“Shushit, Wisp,” Howlaa said. My name is not Wisp, but that is what zie calls me, and I have long since given up on changing the habit. “The messenger could be coming for anyone. There are four score civil servants on this block alone. Let me sleep.” Howlaa picked up a piece of half-eaten globe-fruit and hurled it at me. It passed through me without effect, of course, but it annoyed me, which was Howlaa’s intent.

“The messenger has a red plume, skinshifter,” I said, making my voice resonate, making it creep and rattle in tissues and bones, so sleep or shutting-me-out would be impossible.

“Ah. Blood business, then.” Howlaa threw off furs, rose, and stretched, arms growing more joints and bends as zie moved, unfolding like origami in flesh. I could not help a little subvocal gasp of wonder as zir skin rippled and shifted and settled into Howlaa’s chosen morning shape. I have no body, and am filled with wonder at Howlaa’s mastery of physical form.

Howlaa settled into the form of a male Nagalinda, a biped with long limbs, a broad face with opalescent eyes, and a lipless mouth full of triangular teeth. Nagalinda are fearsome creatures with a reputation for viciousness, though I have found them no more uniformly monstrous than any other species; their cultural penchant for devouring their enemies has earned them a certain amount of notoriety even in the Ax, though. Howlaa liked to take on such forms to terrify government messengers if zie could. Such behavior was insubordinate, but it was such a small rebellion that the Regent didn’t even bother to reprimand Howlaa for it – and having such willfully rude behavior so completely disregarded only served to annoy Howlaa further.

The Regent knew how to control us, which levers to tug and which leads to jerk, which is why he was the Regent, and we were in his employ. I often think the Regent controls the city as skillfully as Howlaa controls zir own form, and it is a pretty analogy, for the Ax is almost as mutable as Howlaa’s body.

The buzzer buzzed. “Why don’t you get that?” Howlaa said, grinning. “Oh, yes, right, no hands, makes opening the door tricky. I’ll get it, then.”

Howlaa opened the door to the messenger, who didn’t find the Nagalinda form especially terrifying. The messenger was too frightened of the fat man and the Regent to spare any fear for Howlaa.

#

I floated. Howlaa ambled. The messenger hurried ahead, hurried back, hurried ahead again, like an anxious pet. Howlaa could not be rushed, and I went at the pace Howlaa chose, of necessity, but I sympathized with the messenger’s discomfort. Being bound so closely to the Regent’s will made even tardiness cause for bone-deep anxiety.

“He’s a fat human, with no shirt on, carrying a giant battle-axe, and he chopped up a brace of Beetleboys armed with dung-muskets?” Howlaa’s voice was blandly curious, but I knew zie was incredulous, just as I was.

“So the messenger reports,” I said.

“And then he disappeared, in full view of everyone in Moth Moon Market?”

“Why do you repeat things?” I asked.

“I just wondered if it would sound more plausible coming from my own mouth. But even my vast reserves of personal conviction fail to lend the story weight. Perhaps the Regent made it all up, and plans to execute me when I arrive.” Howlaa sounded almost hopeful. “Would you tell me, little Wisp, if that were his plan?”

Howlaa imagines I have a closer relationship with the Regent than I do, and has always believed I willingly became a civil servant. Howlaa does not know I am bound to community service for my past crimes, just as Howlaa is, and I allow this misconception because it allows me to act superior and, on occasion, even condescend, which is one of the small pleasures available to we bodiless ones. “I think you are still too valuable and tractable for the Regent to kill,” I said.

“Perhaps. But I find the whole tale rather unlikely.”

Howlaa walked along with zir mouth open, letting the rain fall into zir mouth, tasting the weather of other worlds, looking at the clouds.

I looked everywhere at once, because it is my duty and burden to look, and record, and, when called upon, to bear witness. I never sleep, but every day I go into a small dark closet and look at the darkness for hours, to escape my own senses. So I saw everything in the streets we passed, for the thousandth time, and though details were changed, the essential nature of the neighborhood was the same. The buildings were mostly brute and functional, structures stolen from dockyards, ghettoes, and public housing projects, taken from the worst parts of the thousand thousand worlds that grind around and above Nexington-on-Axis in the complicated gearwork that supports the structure of all the universes. We live in the pivot, and all times and places turns past us eventually, and we residents of the Ax grab what we can from those worlds in the moment of their passing – and so our city grows, and our traders trade, and our government prospers. It is kleptocracy on a grand scale.

But sometimes we grasp too hastily, and the great snatch-engines tended by the Regent’s brood of royal orphans become overzealous in their cross-dimensional thieving, and we take things we didn’t want after all, things the other worlds must be glad to have lost. Unfortunate imports of that sort can be a problem, because they sometimes disrupt the profitable chaos of the city, which the Regent cannot allow. Solving such problems is Howlaa’s job.

We passed out of our neighborhood into a more flamboyant one, filled with emptied crypts, tombs, and other oddments of necropoli, from chipped marble angels to fragments of ornamental wrought iron. To counteract this funereal air, the residents had decorated their few square blocks as brightly and ostentatiously as possible, so that great papier-mâché birds clung to railings, and tombs were painted yellow and red and blue. In the central plaza, where the pavement was made of ancient headstones laid flat, a midday market was well underway. The pale vendors sold the usual trinkets, obtained with privately-owned low-yield snatch-engines, along with the district’s sole specialty, the exotic mushrooms grown in cadaver-earth deep in the underground catacombs. Citizens shied away from the red-plumed messenger, bearer of bloody news, and shied further away at the sight of Howlaa, because Nagalinda seldom strayed from their own part of the city, except on errands of menace.

As we neared the edge of the plaza there was a great crack and whoosh, and a wind whipped through the square, eddying the weakly-linked charged particles that made up my barely-physical form.

A naked man appeared in the center of the square. He did not rise from a hidden trapdoor, did not drop from a passing airship, did not slip in from an adjoining alley. Anyone else might have thought he’d arrived by such an avenue, but I see in all directions, to the limits of vision, and the man was simply there.

Such magics were not unheard of, but they were never associated with someone like this. He appeared human, about six-feet tall, bare-chested and obese, pale skin smeared with blood. He was bald, and his features were brutish, almost like a child’s clay figure of a man.

He held an absurd sword in his right hand, the blade as long as he was tall, but curved like a scimitar in a theatrical production about air-pirates, and it appeared to be made of gold, an impractical metal for weaponry. When he smiled, his lips peeled back to show an amazing array of yellow stump-teeth. He reared back his right arm and swung the sword, striking a merrow-woman swaddled all over in wet towels, nearly severing her arm. The square plunged into chaos, with vendors, customers, and passers-by screaming and fleeing in all directions, while the fat man kept swinging his sword, moving no more than a step or two in any direction, chopping people down as they ran.

“The reports were accurate after all,” Howlaa said. “I’ll go sort this.” The messenger stood behind us, whimpering, tugging at Howlaa’s arm, trying to get zim to leave.

No,” I said. “We were ordered to report to the Regent, and that’s what we’ll do.”

Howlaa spoke with exaggerated patience. “The Regent will only tell me to find and kill this man. Why not spare myself the walk, and kill him now? Or do you think the Regent would prefer that I let him kill more of the city’s residents?”

We both knew the Regent was uninterested in the well-being of individual citizens – more residents were just a snatch-and-grab away, after all – but I could tell Howlaa would not be swayed. I considered invoking my sole real power over Howlaa, but I was under orders to take that extreme step only in the event that Howlaa tried to escape the Ax or harm one of the royal orphans. “I do not condone this,” I said.

“I don’t care.” Howlaa strode into the still-flurrying mass of people. In a few moments zie was within range of the fat man’s swinging sword. Howlaa ducked under the man’s wild swings, and reached up with a long arm to grab the man’s wrist. By now most of the people able to escape the square had done so, and I had a clear view of the action.

The fat man looked down at Howlaa as if zie were a minor annoyance, then shook his arm as if to displace a biting fly.

Howlaa flew through the air and struck a red-and-white striped crypt headfirst, landing in a heap.

The fat man caught sight of the messenger – who was now rather pointlessly trying to cower behind me – and sauntered over. The fat man was extraordinarily bow-legged, his chest hair was gray, and his genitals were entirely hidden under the generous flop of his belly-rolls.

As always in these situations, I wondered what it would be like to fear for my physical existence, and regretted that I would never know.

Behind the fat man, Howlaa rose, rippled, and transformed, taking on zir most fearsome shape, a creature I had never otherwise encountered, that Howlaa called a Rendigo. It was reptilian, armored in sharpened bony plates, with a long snout reminiscent of the were-crocodiles that lived in the sewer labyrinths below the Regent’s palace. The Rendigo’s four arms were useless for anything but killing, paws gauntleted in razor scales, with claws that dripped blinding toxins, and its four legs were capable of great speed and leaps. Howlaa seldom resorted to this form, because it came with a heavy freight of biochemical killing rage that could be hard to shake off afterward. Howlaa leapt at the fat man, landing on his back with unimaginable force, poison-wet claws flashing.

The fat man swiveled at the waist and flung Howlaa off his back, not even breaking stride, raising his sword over the messenger. The fat man was uninjured; all the blood and nastiness that streaked his body came from his victims. His sword passed through me and cleaved the messenger nearly in two.

The fat man smiled, looking at his work, then frowned, and blinked. His body flickered, becoming transparent in places, and he moaned before disappearing.

Howlaa, back in Nagalinda form, crouched and vomited out a sizzling stream of Rendigo venom and biochemical rage-agents.

Howlaa wiped zir mouth, then stood up, glancing at the dead messenger. “Let’s try it your way, Wisp. On to the Regent’s palace. Perhaps he has an idea for… another approach to the problem.”

I thought about saying “I told you so.” I couldn’t think of any reason to refrain. “I told you so,” I said.

“Shushit,” Howlaa said, preoccupied, thinking, doing what zie did best, assessing complex problems and trying to figure out the easiest way to kill the source of those problems, so I let zim be, and didn’t taunt further.

#

Before we entered the Palace, Howlaa took on one of zir common working shapes, that of a human woman with a trim assassin-athlete’s body, short dark hair, and deceptively innocent-looking brown eyes. The Regent – who had begun his life as human, though long contact with the royal orphans had wrought certain changes in him physiologically and otherwise – found this form attractive, as I had often sensed from fluctuations in his body heat. I’d made the mistake of sharing that information with Howlaa once, and now Howlaa wore this shape every time we met with the Regent, in hopes of discomforting him. I thought it was a wasted effort, as the Regent simply looked, and enjoyed, and was untroubled by Howlaa’s unavailability.

We went up the cloudy white stone steps of the palace, which had been a great king’s residence in some world far away, and was unlike any other architecture in Nexington-on-Axis. Some said the palace was alive, a growing thing, which seemed borne out by the ever-shifting arrangement of minarets and spires, the way the hallways meandered organically, and walls that appeared and disappeared. Others said it was not alive but simply magical. I had been reliably informed that the palace, unable to grow out because of the press of other government buildings on all sides, was growing down, adding a new sub-basement every five years or so. No one knew where the excavated dirt went, or where the building materials came from – no one, that is, except possibly the royal orphans, who were not likely to share the knowledge with anyone.

Two armored Nagalinda guards escorted us into the palace. That was a better reason for Howlaa to change shape – Nagalinda didn’t like seeing skinshifters wearing their forms, because it meant that at some point the skinshifter had ingested some portion of a Nagalinda’s body, and while their species enjoyed eating their enemies, they didn’t tolerate being eaten by others.

We were escorted, not to the audience room, but into one of the sub-basements. We were working members of the government, and received no pomp or ceremony. As we walked, the Nagalinda guards muttered to one another, complaining of bad dreams that had kept them up all night. I hadn’t even realized that Nagalinda could dream.

We reached the underground heart of the palace, where the Regent stood at a railing looking down into the great pit that held the royal snatch-engines. He was tall, dressed in simple linen, white-haired, old but not elderly. We joined him, waiting to be spoken to, and as always I was staggered at the scale of the machinery that brought new buildings and land and large flora and fauna to the Ax.

The snatch-engines were towering coils of copper and silver and gleaming adamant, baroque machines that wheezed and rumbled and squealed, with huge gears turning, stacks venting steam, and catwalks criss-crossing down to the unseen bottom of the engine-shaft. The royal orphans scuttled along the catwalks and on the machinery itself, their bodies feathered and insect-like, scaled and horned, multi-legged, some winged, all of them chittering and squeaking to one another, making subtle and gross refinements to the engines their long-dead parents, the Queen and Kings of Nexington-on-Axis, had built so many centuries ago. The orphans all had the inherent ability to steal things from passing worlds, but the engines augmented their powers by many orders of magnitude. The Queen and Kings had been able to communicate with other species, it was said, though they’d seldom bothered to do so; their orphans, each unlike its siblings except for the bizarre chimera-like make-up of their bodies, communicated with no one except the Regent.

“I understand you attempted to stop the killer on your way here,” the Regent said, turning to face us. While his eyes were alert, his bearing was less upright than usual. He looked tired. “That was profoundly stupid.”

“I’ve never encountered anything my Rendigo form couldn’t kill,” Howlaa said.

“I don’t think that’s a true statement anymore. You should have come to me first. I have something that might help you.” The Regent stifled a yawn, then snapped his fingers. One of the royal orphans – a trundling thing with translucent skin through which deep blue organs could be seen – scrambled up to the railing, carrying a smoked-glass vial in one tiny hand. The Regent bowed formally, took the vial, and shooed the orphan away. “This is the blood of a questing beast. You may drink it.”

“A questing beast!” I said. “How did you ever capture one?”

“We have our secrets,” the Regent said.

Howlaa snorted. “Even questing beasts die sometime, Wisp. The snatch-engines probably grabbed the corpse of one.” Howlaa was pretending to be unimpressed, but I saw zir hands shake as they took the vial.

Questing beasts were near-legendary apex predators, the only creatures able to hunt extra-dimensional creatures. They could pursue prey across dimensions, grasping their victims with tendrils of math and magic, and chasing them forever, even across branching worlds.

“Wherever the killer disappears to, you’ll be able to follow him, once you shift into the skin of a questing beast,” the Regent said.

“Yes, I’ve grasped the implications,” Howlaa said.

“Then you’ve also grasped the possible avenues of escape this skin will provide you,” the Regent said. “But if you think of leaving this world for frivolous reasons, or of not returning when your mission is complete, there will be… consequences.”

“I know,” Howlaa said, squeezing the vial. “That’s what my little Wisp is for.”

“I will be vigilant, Regent,” I said.

“Oh, indeed, I’m sure,” the Regent said. “Away, then. Go into the city. The killer seems to favor marketplaces and restaurants, places with a high concentration of victims – he has appeared in five such locations since yesterday. Take this.” He passed Howlaa a misshapen sapphire, cloudy and cracked, dangling on a thin metal chain. “If any civil servant sees the killer, they will notify you through this, and, once you drink the blood of the questing beast, you will be able to ‘port yourself to the location instantly.”

Howlaa nodded. I would go wherever Howlaa did, for my particulate substance was inextricably entangled with zir gross anatomy. Howlaa uncapped the vial and drank the blood. Zir body, through the arcane processes of the skinshifter race, sequenced the genetic information of the questing beast, the macro-in-the-micro implicit in the blood, and incorporated the properties of the beast. Howlaa shivered, closed zir eyes, swallowed, and whined deep in zir throat. Then, with a little sigh of pleasure, Howlaa opened zir eyes and said, voice only slightly trembling, “Let’s go, Wisp. On with the hunt.”

#

The killer did not reappear that day. Howlaa and I went to the Western Outskirts, one of the few safe open spaces in the Ax, so zie could practice being the questing beast. It’s dangerous to loiter in empty lots in the city proper, because the royal snatch-engines are configured to look for buildings that can fill available gaps. Thus, a space that is at one moment a weed-filled lot can in another instant be occupied by an apartment building full of bewildered humans, or a plaster-hive of angrily jostled buzz-men, or stranger things – and anyone who happened to be standing in the empty lot when the building appeared would be flattened. But the Western Outskirts are set aside for outdoor recreations, acre upon acre of playing fields, ramshackle wooden sky-diving platforms, lakes of various liquids for swimming or bathing or dueling, obstacle courses, consensual-cannibalism hunting grounds, and similar public spaces. Howlaa chose an empty field marked off with white lines for some unknown game, and transformed into the questing beast.

As one of the bodiless, dedicated to observation, it shames me to admit I could make little sense of Howlaa’s new form; too much of zir body occupied non-visible dimensions. I saw limbs, golden fur, the impression of claws, something flickering that might have been a tail pendulum-swinging in and out of phase, but nothing my vision could settle on or hold. Looking at Howlaa in this form agitated me. If I had a stomach, I might have found it nauseating.

Howlaa flickered back to female human form and spent some minutes curled on the ground, moaning. “Coming back to this body is a bit of a shock,” zie said after a while. “But I think I get the general idea. I can go anywhere just by finding the right trail of scent.”

“But you won’t go anywhere. You won’t try to escape.”

Howlaa threw a clod of dirt at me. “Correct, Wisp, I won’t. But not because you’d try to stop me – ”

“I would stop you.”

“– only because I don’t like being tossed aside in a fight. I’m going to follow this fat bastard, and I’m going to chew on him. You can’t lose a questing beast once it gets its claws in you.”

“So… now we wait.”

“Now you wait. I’m going to drink. One of the advantages of wearing a human skin is that something as cheap and plentiful as alcohol provides such a fine buzz.”

“Is this the best time to become intoxicated?” We bodiless have a reputation for being prudish and judgmental, which is not unwarranted. I can never get drunk, can never pleasantly impair my own faculties, and I am resentful of (and confused by) those bodied creatures that can.

“Which time? This time, when I might be killed by a fat man with a golden sword tomorrow? Yes, I’d say that’s the best time for intoxication.”

#

The next morning, we went to a den of vile iniquity near the palace. While Howlaa drank, I observed, and listened. I learned that a plague of nightmares was troubling the city center, and many of the bar’s patrons had gone to stay with relatives in more far-flung districts in order to get some sleep. At least Howlaa and I wouldn’t be called upon to deal with that crisis – bad dreams were rather too metaphysical a problem for Howlaa’s methods to solve.

After a morning of Howlaa’s hard drinking, the sing-charm the Regent had given us began to sound. Howlaa was underneath a table, talking to zimself, and seemed oblivious to the gem’s keening, though everyone else in the bar heard, and went silent.

“Howlaa,” I said, rumbling my voice in zir bones. Howlaa scowled, then skinshifted into a Nagalinda form, becoming instantly sober. Nagalinda process alcohol as easily as humans process water.

“Off we go,” Howlaa said, and rushed into the street, transforming into the questing beast once zie was far enough away to avoid inadvertently snagging any of the bar patrons with extra-dimensional tendrils.

We traveled, the city folding and flickering around us, buildings bleeding light, darkness pressing in from odd angles until I was hopelessly disoriented. Seconds later we were in the middle of the Landlock Sea, on a floating wooden platform so large it barely seemed to move. The sea-market nearby was in chaos, fishermen and hunters of various species – Manipogos, Hydrans, Mhorags, others – running wildly for boats and bridges or diving into the water to get away from the fat man, who was now armed with a golden trident. He speared people, laughing, and Howlaa went for him and grappled, flashing tendrils wrapping around the fat man’s bulk, barely-seen limbs knocking aside his weapon. The fat man stumbled, staggered, and fell to his knees. Howlaa’s ferocious lashings didn’t penetrate the man’s impossibly durable flesh, but at least he’d been prevented from further acts of murder.

Then the man vanished, and Howlaa with him, and I was pulled along in their wake, on my way to wherever the fat man went when he wasn’t killing residents of the Ax for sport.

#

For a moment, I looked down on the Ax, which spun as sedately as a gear in a great machine, and other universes flashed past, their edges blue- and red-shifting as they went by at tremendous speeds, briefly touching the Ax, sparks flying at the contact, the royal snatch-engines making their cross-dimensional depredations. Then we plummeted into an oncoming blur of blue-green-white, and after a period of blackness, I found myself in another world.

#

Wisp,” Howlaa hissed as I came back into focus. I had never been unconscious before – even my “sleep” is just a blessed respite from sensory input, not a loss of consciousness – and I did not like the sensation. Our passage from the Ax to this other plane had agitated my particles so severely that I’d lost cohesion, and, thus, awareness.

Now that my faculties were in control of me again, I saw a star-flecked night sky above, and Howlaa in human-female form, crouching by bushes beside a brick wall. I did not see the fat man anywhere.

“What – ” I began.

“Quiet,” Howlaa whispered, looking around nervously. I looked, but saw nothing to worry about. Grass, flowerbeds, and beside us a single-story brick house of a sort sometimes seen in the blander sections of the Middling Residential District. “The fat man got away,” Howlaa said. “Only he actually melted away, or misted away, or… My tentacles didn’t slip. He didn’t slip through them. He just disappeared. Nothing can escape a questing beast.”

“Perhaps the legends exaggerate the beast’s powers,” I said.

“Perhaps you’d best shushit and listen, Wisp. There’s an open window just over there, and I can almost hear…”

I did not have to settle for almost. I floated above the bushes a few feet to the window, which opened onto a bedroom occupied by two humans, neither of them the fat man. The man and woman were both in bed, illuminated by a single bedside lamp. The man, who was pigeon-chested and had thinning hair, gestured excitedly, and the woman, an exhausted-looking blonde, lay propped on one elbow, looking at him through half-closed eyelids.

I listened, and because Howlaa is (I grudgingly admit) better at data analysis than I am, I let zir listen, too, by extending a portion of my attenuated substance down toward zim, a probing presence that Howlaa sensed and accepted. My vision blurred, and sounds took on strange echoes, but then I found my focus and stopped picking up residuals of Howlaa’s sensory input – but zie would see and hear everything as clearly as I did.

“It’s amazing,” the man was saying. “They get more real all the time. I know you think it’s stupid, but lucid dreaming is amazing, I’m so glad I took that seminar. It’s like living a whole other life while I’m asleep!”

“What did you do this time?” She leaned back and closed her eyes.

The man hesitated. “I was in a sort of fish-market. There were fish-people, mermaids, selkies, things like that, and ordinary people, too, all buying and selling things. There was a lake, or an inland sea, and we were all on a wooden platform floating on the water…”

“You get seasick just stepping over a puddle,” she said.

He looked at her, mouth a tense line, eyes narrowed, and I think if she had seen his expression she would have leapt from the bed in fear for her life. Unless long association with this man had dulled her awareness to the dark currents in him I saw so clearly.

“My dream body doesn’t get sick,” he said. “It’s part of my positive visualization technique. My dream body is impervious to harm.”

“And I bet you look like a movie star, too.”

Another hesitation, this one accompanied by a troubled frown. “Something like that.”

I wondered what his dream self really looked like – his father? An old enemy? A figure from a childhood nightmare that he could not escape, but was eventually able to embody?

He continued. “The only problem is, I can’t seem to control where I go. The teacher at the seminar said that was the best part, being able to go to the mountains or the beach or outer space as easily as thinking it. But I just find myself in this city full of strange people and creatures, and…”

“Do you fuck any of those strange people?” she asked.

“No. It’s not like that.”

“What good’s having control of your dreams if you can’t wish yourself into a sex dream? Seems like that would be the best part.”

“I want to go back to sleep,” he said. “I want to try again.”

“You don’t have to ask my permission. I was sleeping fine until you sat up and started yelling. Doesn’t sound like lucid dreaming is doing you much good – you’re still having nightmares.”

“The nightmares are different now,” he said. “I’m in control.” But she just turned over and pulled the sheet up to her neck.

“He’s the fat man,” Howlaa said, speaking silently into me, able to share thoughts as easily as we shared senses. “He goes to the Ax in his dreams, and he kills us for pleasure. That’s why the questing beast couldn’t hold the killer, why he melted away, because he has no substance beyond the borders of the Ax.”

“Madness,” I said, though Howlaa’s intuitive leaps had proven right more often than my resultant skepticism.

“No, I think I’ve figured it. The Regent has consulted with many oneiromancers, lucid dreamers, and archetype-hunters over the years – I know, because I was sent to kidnap and press-gang many of them into civil service. I never knew why he wanted them before. I think that, with the Regent’s help, the royal orphans have constructed a machine to steal dreams. A dream engine, that grabs mental figments and makes them real. But they locked on to this mad man’s dream, and now his dream-self will keep coming, and killing, until this world spirals too far from the Ax for the engine to reach, which could take years.”

“A dream engine,” I repeated. “The activity of such a machine might explain the plague of nightmares in the city center.”

“I doubt the Regent would worry overmuch about properly shielding any strange radiations,” Howlaa said. “This is a new low for him. It’s not enough that he grows rich through the orphan’s thefts – now he wants to pillage our dreams, too.”

The man lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. Despite his words, he did not seem eager to sleep again. If Howlaa was right, the man had just been chased out of his fantasy of infinite strength by the monstrous questing-beast, which would be enough to give any dreamer pause.

“If you’re right, we have to kill him,” I said.

“Or not,” Howlaa said.

Howlaa severed our connection, swirling my motes, and so it took me a moment to realize zie was transforming into the questing beast again – and I knew why. To jump away from this world, to another plane, adjacent to this one but not necessarily adjacent to the Ax. A few dimensional leaps, a little time, and Howlaa would be far beyond the Ax’s influence, beyond the grasp of even the greatest snatch-engines.

But I still had a chance, this brief moment between transformations, to strike, and I did. I performed the one act that Howlaa could not resist, the power I was given permission to use only in circumstances as extreme as these.

I took possession of Howlaa’s body.

#

Howlaa fought, and I batted zir efforts aside, then simply reveled in having a body, especially a body as sensitive as the questing beast’s, seeing into higher dimensions, seeing colors that only exist between worlds. I wanted to fly through suns, roll across jagged stones, immerse myself in lava, feel feel feel this forever.

Howlaa was laughing at me, a tinny internal sound. “Shushit,” I said, not speaking aloud. I didn’t even know if this body had vocal cords. “You didn’t escape. You failed. We’re going to kill this man, and then return to the Ax.”

“Go on then,” Howlaa said. “Best of luck.”

I attempted to take a step forward, and everything blurred. My head rang with odd chimes, and bizarre scents assailed me. I had never been in a body so sensitive to smell – each scent was like a line attached to me, tugging me in one direction or another. I paused, and the chaos of sensory input lessened. I took another step toward the dream-killer’s window, and this time a whole new set of sensations struck me, making me fall to the ground.

“This form will not do,” I said.

“Why not? Because you have no finesse, Wisp? Because you can control gross motor functions, but the intricacies are lost to you? In the questing beast’s form, even the most trivial movement is intricate. Then why not take another form, a simpler one?”

I felt rage – glandular rage, pumping up from somewhere in this body, a biological response to a mental state. I never get used to that, the feedback loop of mind and body that the corporeal undergo constantly, and I tried to dismiss its effects. I couldn’t shift into another form. That was far too intricate a task for my understanding of how to control a body. If Howlaa had been in a human form, I could have broken into the man’s house, stabbed him with a knife, and walked out again – such simple physical manipulation was within my powers. But as the questing beast…

“We have reached an impasse,” I said.

“And what do you propose?”

“Kill this man,” I said. “And I will not report your attempt to escape.”

Howlaa laughed. “Oh, please, don’t report me. What will they do? Sentence me to another lifetime of servitude?”

“Just kill him! That’s why we came.”

“I came to kill an invulnerable fat man with the golden weapons, Wisp, not a mentally disturbed human in his bed.”

“They are the same!”

“They are not the same. This man is mad, but he is not the killer – he simply dreams of killing.”

“But… his dreams are evil…”

“You would hold us responsible for our dreams now? If so, I am a regicide a thousand times over, for in my dreams, I rip the Regent and his orphans to wet bits every night. The Regent is the guilty party in this – he has made a machine that steals dreams, and he brought the killer to our city.”

“What do you recommend?”

“Fixing this problem at the source. Which is what I was trying to do when you so rudely possessed me.”

“You were trying to escape.” I said.

“No, Wisp, I was trying to return to Nexington-on-Axis. Sorry I didn’t consult you – my understanding was that you’re an observer, here to lend me support.”

“I am here to make sure you serve your duty,” I replied, wondering if zie was telling the truth.

“I will. But my duty is not to the Regent. I serve the welfare of Nexington-on-Axis. Come, Wisp, and I’ll show you I do have a sense of responsibility. Such a strong one, in fact, that I won’t kill an innocent madman for the Regent’s crimes.”

I gave up control of Howlaa’s body, and with more shifting, we returned to the Ax.

#

We appeared in the Regent’s private chambers, which should have been impossible, as there were safeguards against teleportation there. The Regent sat in a wingback chair, holding a ledger in his lap, and he raised his eyebrows when we appeared.

Howlaa shifted to female human form, only swaying a bit on zir feet in the aftermath of being the beast. “Huh,” zie said. “I wondered if that would work. It’s said nothing can stop a questing beast from coming and going as it pleases.”

“Mmm,” the Regent said. “I trust you solved our problem, and disposed of the fat man? I’ll see you get something extra in your next pay allotment. Now, go away. I’m busy.” He looked back down at his ledger.

Howlaa cleared zir throat. “Regent. I require your assistance in the fulfillment of my duties.”

The Regent looked up. “You didn’t kill the fat man?”

“My investigation is ongoing. I need to see the new snatch-engine, the one that steals dreams, and I may have some questions regarding its operation.”

The Regent set his ledger aside and stared at Howlaa for a long moment. “Well,” he said. “You are not famed for your powers of deduction, Howlaa Moor, but for your powers of destruction. I had not expected you to make inquiries, and I did not ask you to. You are dismissed from this case. I will assign someone else to deal with the fat man.”

“Respectfully, sir, you may not interfere with any legitimate inquiries I care to make in an ongoing investigation. My contract prohibits such interference. Again, please have me escorted to the new snatch-engine, and provide someone knowledgeable to answer any questions I might have. Or do you believe this line of inquiry is without cause? If so, I would be happy to bring my evidence before the magisters.” Howlaa smiled.

I was in awe at zir audacity. To confront the Regent this way! And zie had no evidence, just intuition and inference. If the Regent called the bluff… But no. He didn’t want any evidence Howlaa might possess brought before the magisters and, indirectly, the citizens of the Ax.

“I am the Regent, Moor. You take orders from me.”

“Indeed. But my contract states that I serve the city, and not the ruler. You may not lawfully inhibit me. Break my contract, if you like, and I’ll not trouble you again. Otherwise, you are obliged to cooperate.”

“I could have you executed for treason.”

Howlaa bowed. “You are welcome to try, sir.” Skinshifters could be executed, but it was difficult, since a long-lived member of the species would have forms resistant to most obvious methods of execution. “But if you choose not to execute me or break my contract, then I must ask, for the third time, that you take me to the dream engine and provide –”

“Yes,” the Regent snapped. “Fine.”

I was astonished. Howlaa’s bluff had succeeded. Zie was too valuable for the Regent to dismiss from duty or kill, and his own laws prevented any other action.

The Regent couldn’t simply disregard these laws, for they were the source of his power. Without his laws, there would be no city of Nexington-on-Axis, just a giant junkheap full of things snatched at random by the orphans, indiscriminate slaves to their magpie impulses. “But I am about to show you a state secret.”

“That’s fine,” Howlaa said. “My contract gives me any necessary clearances to fulfill my duties –”

“I know what your contract says, Moor. I wrote it myself, so you would be forced to serve the city in perpetuity, even in the event of my death. Now shut up about it. I’m taking you where you want to go. If you speak a word about this device to anyone, you will be executed for treason. We have methods designed for your kind. There’s a special chamber in one of the basements for disposing of skinshifters.”

“I serve the state,” Howlaa said. “I will not betray it.”

I wondered what kind of execution chamber the Regent had that could hold a questing beast, since the safeguards on his private chambers had been insufficient to keep the beast out. I didn’t think the Regent realized what kind of power he was giving Howlaa by letting zim drink the questing beast’s blood.

We set off down the shifting opalescent corridors of the palace, and the walls groaned around us as they moved.

“You think the killer is a dream-being, snatched here by the experimental engine,” the Regent said as we walked.

“I’ll submit my report when my investigation is complete,” Howlaa said. “Along with my recommendations for how to rectify the problem.”

The Regent scowled, but kept walking. Finally we reached a door of black iron. The stone around it was discolored and cracked – the substance of the palace apparently had an allergy to iron, but the heavy metal had certain shielding properties that made its use necessary on occasion. The Regent knocked, a complex rhythm, his unbreakable adamant signet ring clanging against the metal with each rap.

The door swung open silently, and the Regent ushered us into the dimly-lit place beyond.

“This is the dream engine,” the Regent said. “Not what you expected, I wager.”

“No,” Howlaa murmured. “It’s not.”

Unlike the snatch-engines, there were no gears here, no oiled pistons, no sparking ladders of electricity, no bell-shaped domes of glass, no miles of copper pipes for coolant. There was only a throbbing organic mass in a web of wires, a red-and-green slick thing with no visible eyes or limbs, though it did have vestigial wings, prismatic like a dragonfly’s, which drooped to the floor. A royal orphan, pinned in a web of wires.

Howlaa crossed zir arms. “So it’s psychic, then.”

The Regent smiled. “In a way. It sees dreams. More importantly, it covets dreams. And what the royal orphans covet, they get. Much of the process of governing Nexington-on-Axis is making sure the orphans want things the city needs. They don’t care what happens to the things they snatch. They simply live for the process of snatching. This one is no different, except for the sorts of thing it snatches.”

“You haven’t been successful making this one want things the city needs, since it pulled a madman’s murderous dream to this world.”

“You’re certain of that?” the Regent said.

Howlaa just nodded, and the Regent sighed. “I’ll have to spend some time tuning the process. It’s still experimental. I trust you found and killed the dreamer, to prevent another incident?”

“I did not,” Howlaa said. “If I had known for certain about the existence of this dream engine, I would have tried, but I only had suspicions. When I grabbed the fat man, I was carried to another world, surrounded by houses filled with sleeping humans, with no sign of the fat man anywhere. That’s when I began to suspect that I’d grabbed a dream-figment – I remembered your studies with various experts on dreaming, Platonic ideals, the collective unconscious, things of that nature.”

“You have quite a memory,” the Regent said.

“I drank the blood of an elephant once,” Howlaa said, and I almost laughed. “Since I wasn’t sure the killer was a dream-thing, I came back here to inquire further.”

“We should talk in the hall,” the Regent said abruptly. “Vibrations disturb the engine.” Indeed, the vestigial wings were flickering, weakly, and we left the room. Once in the hall, the Regent said “How do you intend to proceed?”

“When the killer appears again, I’ll grab him, and when he sweeps me back to the human world with him again… well, I think it’s safe to assume that the dangerous dreamer will be somewhere in the general vicinity of the place where I land. I’ll simply kill everyone within a mile or so. It will take time, but I have some forms that are suited to the task.”

I was stunned. I knew Howlaa was lying. We knew very well who the dreamer was, and Howlaa had shown no inclination to kill him. So what was zie planning?

“Very good,” the Regent said. ” But if you mention a word about the contents of that room, I’ll have you flayed into your component atoms. Understood?”

“The authorities appreciate your cooperation,” Howlaa said. The Regent sniffed and walked away.

“Come, Wisp. Back to our eternal vigilance.”

“Back to the bar, you mean.”

“Just so.” Howlaa grimaced, touching zir stomach. “Shit. I’ve got a pain in my gut.”

“Are you all right?”

“Probably something I ate in another form, that doesn’t agree with this one. I’ll be all right.” Howlaa shivered, stretched, and became the questing beast. We traveled.

* * *

I tried to get some sense out of Howlaa at the bar, before zie drank too many red bulldozers, primal screams, and gravity wells to maintain a coherent conversation. I slipped a tendril into zir mind and said “What is your plan?”

“Assume what I told the Regent is true,” Howlaa said, smiling at the human bartender, who looked appreciatively at Howlaa’s human breasts as she mixed drinks. “If things work out, it won’t matter, but if things go badly, you’ll need all the plausible deniability you can get. No reason for you to go down with me if I fail. This way you can honestly claim ignorance of my plans.”

“You want to protect me from getting in trouble with the Regent?” I said, almost touched.

Zie laughed aloud and gulped a fizzing reddish concoction. “No, Wisp. But on the off chance that they imprison me instead of putting me to death, I don’t want to be stuck in a cell with you forever.”

After that, zie wouldn’t talk to me at all, but had fun as only Howlaa on the eve of potential death can.

Zie vomited more often than usual, though.

#

A day passed, and Howlaa was sober and bored at home, playing five-deck solitaire while I made desultory suggestions, before the fat man reappeared. The singing gem keened at mid-day. Howlaa cocked zir head, taking information from the gem.

Zie became the questing beast, and we were away.

This time we landed in the city center. The fat man sat on the obsidian steps of the Courthouse of Lesser Infractions, face turned up to the sun, smiling up at the light. He held a golden scythe across his knees, and blood and bodies lay strewn all over the steps around him, many wearing the star-patterned robes of magisters.

Howlaa did not hesitate, but traveled again, this time appearing directly in front of the fat man and lashing out with barely-visible hooked appendages to grasp the killer. Then Howlaa traveled again. We reappeared in the racing precinct, startling the spectators and scattering the thoroughbred chimeras. The fat man struggled in the hoof-churned mud, his weapon gone.

I had barely overcome my disorientation before Howlaa traveled again. I knew it was Howlaa controlling the movement, for the sensation was quite different from the swirling transcendence that came when the fat man dragged us to that other world. This time we appeared in another populated area, the vaulted gray halls of the Chapel of Blessed Increase in the monastic quarter. We flickered again, Howlaa and the fat man still locked in struggle, and flashed briefly through another dozen places around the city, all filled with startled citizens – in the adder’s pit, the ladder to the stars, the moss forest, the monster farm, the glass park, the burning island. We even passed through the Regent’s inner chamber, briefly, though he was not there, and through other rooms in the palace, courtrooms, dungeons, and chambers of government. There was a fair amount of incidental damage in many of these instances, as the fat man rolled around, kicked, and thrashed.

Then we appeared in the dream engine’s chamber, and everything in my full-circle visual field wobbled and ran, either as an aftereffect of all that spatial violation, or because bringing a dream into such proximity with the dream engine set up unstable resonances.

Howlaa and the fat man thrashed right into the pulsing royal orphan in its tangle of wires. The orphan’s wings fluttered as it broke free from the mountings, and the ovoid body fell to the floor with a sick, liquid sound, like a piece of rotten fruit dropping onto pavement. The fat man broke free of Howlaa – though that wasn’t possible, so Howlaa must have let him go. He attacked Howlaa, who flickered and reappeared on the far side of the weakly pulsing royal orphan. The fat man roared and strode forward, a new weapon suddenly in his hand, a six-foot polearm covered in barbs and hooks. He tread on the royal orphan, which popped and deflated, a wet, ripe odor filling the room. The fat man swung at the unmoving Howlaa, but the weapon disappeared in mid-arc. The fat man stumbled, falling to one knee, then moaned and came apart. It was like seeing a shadow-sculpture dissolve at the wave of an artist’s hand, his substance darkening, becoming transparent, and finally melting away.

Howlaa became human, fell to zir knees, and shivered. “Feel sick,” zie said, grimacing.

I was terrified. The Regent might kill us for this. We’d stopped the fat man, yes, but at the cost of a royal orphan’s life. “We have to go, Howlaa,” I said. “Become the questing beast. I won’t try to stop you – let’s flee across the worlds. We have to get away.”

But Howlaa did not hear, for zie was vomiting now, violently, zir whole body heaving, red and milky white and translucent syrupy stuff coming from zir mouth, mingling with the ichor from the dead orphan on the floor.

The door opened. The Regent and two Nagalinda guards entered. “No!” the Regent cried. “No, no, no!” The guards seized Howlaa, who was still vomiting, and dragged zim away. I floated along inexorably behind. The Regent stayed, kneeling by the dead orphan, gently touching its unmoving rainbow wings.

#

“Feeling better, traitor?,” the Regent said. Howlaa sat, pale and still unwell, on a hard wooden bench before the Regent’s desk.

“A bit,” Howlaa said.

The Regent smiled. “You didn’t think I’d let you be the questing beast forever, did you? I couldn’t risk your escape. Wisp is one line of defense against that, but I felt another was needed, so I laced the blood with poison and bound their substances together. When the poison activated, your body expelled it, along with all the questing beast’s genetic material. You’ve lost the power to take that form.”

“I’ve never vomited up an entire shape before,” Howlaa said. “It was an unpleasant experience.”

“The first of many, for a traitor like you.”

“Regent,” I said. “As Howlaa’s witness, I must inform you that you are incorrect. Howlaa did not mean to harm the orphan. The fat man appeared and disappeared, and Howlaa and I were simply carried along with him. Surely there are others who can attest to that, testify that we appeared all over the city, fighting? Howlaa held on, hoping the fat man would fade and we would be taken to the world of the dreamer, but before that could happen… well. The dream engine was damaged.”

“The orphan was killed,” the Regent said. “You expect me to believe that, by coincidence, the last place Howlaa and the killer appeared was in that room?”

“We could hardly appear anywhere after that, Regent, since the dream engine was destroyed, dissolving the fat man in the process.” I spoke respectfully. “Had that not happened, I cannot tell you where the fat man might have traveled next.”

“He was a lucid dreamer,” Howlaa said. “He’d learned to move around at will. He was trying to shake me off, bouncing all over the city.”

The Regent stared at Howlaa. “That orphan was the result of decades of research, cloning, cross-breeding – the pinnacle of the bloodline. With a bit of practice, it would have been the most powerful of the orphans, and this city would have flourished as never before. We would have entered an age of dreams.”

“It is a great loss, Regent,” Howlaa said. “And we certainly deserve no honor or glory for our work – I failed to kill the dreamer. He killed himself. But I did not kill the orphan, either. The fat man tread upon it.”

“Wisp,” the Regent said. “You affirm, on your honor as a witness, that this is true?”

My honor as a witness. My honor demanded that I respect Howlaa’s elegant solution, which had saved the city further murder and also destroyed the Regent’s wicked dream engine. I think the Regent misunderstood the oath he requested. “Yes,” I said.

“Get out of here, both of you,” he said. “There will be no bonus pay for this farce. No pay at all, in fact, until I decide to reinstate you to active duty.”

“As you say, Regent,” Howlaa and I said together, and took our leave.

#

“You lied for me, Wisp,” Howlaa said that night, reclining on a heap of soft furs and coarse fabrics.

“I provided an interpretation that fit the objectively available facts,” I said.

“You knew I was the one dragging the killer around the city, not vice-versa.”

“So it seemed to me subjectively,” I said. “But if the Regent chose to access my memory and see things as I had seen them, there would be no such subjectivity, so it hardly seemed relevant to the discussion.”

“I owe you one, Wisp,” Howlaa said.

“I did what I thought best. We are partners.”

“No, you misunderstand. I owe you one, and I want you to take it, right now.” Howlaa held out zir hand.

After a moment, I understood. I drifted down to Howlaa’s body, and into it, taking over zir body. Howlaa did not resist, and the sensation was utterly different from the other times I had taken possession, when most of my attention went to fighting for control. I sank back in the furs and fabrics, shivering in ecstasy at the sensations on zir – on my – skin.

“The body is yours for the night,” Howlaa said in my – our – mind. “Do with it what you will.”

“Thank you.”

“You had the right of it,” Howlaa said. “We are partners. Finally, and for the first time, partners.”

I buried myself in furs, and reveled in the tactile experience until the exquisite, never-before-experienced sensation of drowsiness overtook me. I fell asleep in that body, and in sleep I dreamed my own dreams, the first dreams of my life. They were beautiful, and lush, and could not be stolen.

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Novel Starts September 6

Starting on September 6, 2010 I’ll begin serializing my short science fantasy novel The Nex. It’s set in the world of my novelette “Dream Engine” — which I’ll post here next Monday, to give you a little taste, though the novel is quite different in tone — and will run for 18 weeks, with a new chapter going up every Monday until it’s done.

Like my previous online projects Bone Shop and Broken Mirrors, this is a reader-funded serial. I’ll be posting it for free, but donations are welcome (info over in the side bar). There will be some fundraising prizes for donors who give a certain amount, though not as many goodies as I offered for Broken Mirrors (hey, The Nex is a shorter book). When the serial is done, I’ll follow up with a print edition and e-book editions for sale.

Unlike my other serials, this one isn’t an urban fantasy, and doesn’t take place in an existing series (though it does share a setting with a story, as I mentioned). It’s a novel narrated by a precocious 13-year-old who finds herself a long way from home with some disreputable people in a dangerous world.

The book has shapeshifters, giant robots, aliens, kleptomaniacal monsters, heroism, shoplifting, terror, lecherous cyborgs, personable tyrants, steampunk submarines, subterranean tunnels, rustic French cuisine, a cult of teenage girls in fairy wings and leotards, teleportation, and people who get punched so hard they disappear. I hope you all like it.

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