Terence Ransom couldn’t help himself. “You look awfully familiar,” he said to the man before him.

“That’s probably because in my previous life I was an older authority figure in a number of interlocked cartoon series. In some of the later ones I wore an eyepatch. But then the Exile came.” He looked at Terence closely. “You look like a scientist I worked with.”

“I have no memory of anything pre-Exile,” Dr. Ransom said. “But we’ve come a long way to fight the thing out there. Put us to work.”

The man looked them all over carefully. “The crows sentient?” He asked.

“You bet your ass we are,” said Thyrsis.

“Which means ‘yes we are, sir,’ in his peculiar dialect, sir,” said Antithyrsis.

He looked at Jeanette carefully, but not in surprise, she noted.

“You seem to be a unit,” he said after the inspection. “And you smell like dragon. I like that in a group.” He paused. “This is a crucial time. We’ve lost all contact with the Redoubt proper, and the last communication was that they were evacuating. So we have to assume that it’s fallen. They were our nexus, which means the outlying posts like us can’t talk to each other. We’re trying to fix that. But what we desperately have to know is what condition the Redoubt is in, if there are people left behind, and if there are any resources left. I need a cohesive team to get in and get out, and you qualify.”

Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone looked down on the man and said “We stand ready.”

The man said, “Right. There’s a few things you have to understand. Pulling weapons out of The Conditional--”

“--we call it ‘breaking the sixth wall,’” said Senhor Capoeira Capybara.

“That’s clever. It won’t work in the space from here on in. All dimensional barriers are hardened. But we can supply you with some weaponry better than what you can get there, projectile as well as energy. The projectile weapons will run out of ammunition, however. And while there were a lot of Decision Tree portals going into the Redoubt, the enemy has mapped them all out, and they’ve become lethal traps. You have to go overland. Do not use them even to try to escape. Finally, you can replace your gloves with these:” He held up a pair of gloves that didn’t look any different. “We call them Nemesis Gloves, and they actually have power to adversely effect Deep Chaos organisms--if a bit short of killing them. Keep your old ones, of course.”

He stole a look at the mirror-armored tiger. “I am not of your sodality, but am pledged to this fight to the end.” The man gave a nod.

“The unpleasant part here is to say that it is important that one of you return. That is what we desperately need.”

Dr. Ransom stepped up and shook his hand. “We understand.” Then he smiled. “Dr. Terence Ransom, by the way.”

The man smiled back. “If I told you my name was Ostensibility Brown Henriksen, it would have impeded the course of this briefing, wouldn’t it? It was quite a world I landed in.”

Others now came up with gloves and weapons. They quickly demonstrated the guns and handed both out. Silvertyger and O Tse were persuaded to take substantial sidearms, while Jeanette was handed a reduced-size rifle-stock weapon. Then there was a commotion at the other side of the large room, and Hendriksen was drawn away.

A floating white light appeared above their heads, and began to move to a corner. They followed.

When they went through the door, the look and feel of the place changed.  It was almost (and it started a spark of suspicion in Jeanette’s mind) like suddenly being taken backstage at a theater. The ceiling was taller, there were piles of unidentifiable things all around, and most of all, there were scores of tall panels leaning against the walls. The light was dimmer, and everything felt a lot warmer.

They moved off in the only direction open to them, and the panels followed them. As the tunnel lowered its ceiling, the panels moved from vertical to horizontal. They started closing off the tunnel behind them at a speed that made them walk briskly. The panel was loaded with conduits and complicated shapes, but nothing looked advanced--but that scarcely mattered as the panels started lining up on the walls by them, and soon ahead of them.

They came to a tall cylindrical chamber with a circular platform in the center. There was a simple guardrail around its edge. Jeanette started as she heard slamming sounds behind them and saw that the tunnel opening was now shut with a panel. They got on the platform--and the hovering panels now formed a circular barrier around them, as they went back to vertical format.

Then the panels came to life. While they had been nearly featureless before, with minor variations of tint and tone, now color started flowing across them in complex raised channels, crossing, blending, unblending, diverging and converging. And with a mighty surge, the platform started to rise.

The speed increased radically, and there was a subtle vibration. It went on for minutes, as Jeanette wondered just how deep inside the planet they had been. And still they rose.

The panels finally opened like petals beneath the roiling black sky, proclaiming a brief colorful defiance at the overall darkness. It faded as they stepped out onto a narrow gray apron.

Before each of them except the crows was a tangle of thin pipe and four small nodes. It looked like nothing at all, but Jeanette noticed that two of the nodes looked like they had spaces for shoes. When she stepped on them, the rest of the pie untangled and the other two nodes moved to hand height. When she grabbed them, she began to rise into the air. In a moment, the rest of them followed her example..

It was as naked flying as you could get and not be doing it like a super-hero. They sped along sometimes only inches above the black ground, and if she leaned forward they sped up. Experimenting, she found that she could let go of the hand controls and she didn’t fall or wobble, and that she could maneuver with the pressure of her feet. She wanted to laugh.

But the world had stopped being black. It started becoming brown, then orange, then angry red ahead of them. They climbed a rise, and suddenly it was brighter than day.

Before them was an erupting volcano made completely of fire, throwing off blobs and explosions and wet missiles of light. And around it was an army of black flying things, twisted and distorted shapes plunging into the fire and bursting out again amidst a shower of fiery spray.

With a roar clearly audible over the tumult, Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone drew his longsword, and set his frame plunging into the fire.

With a mental shrug, Jeanette unslung her rifle and followed him in.


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