Jeanette awoke to find her father holding her.

“Was I--” she began.

“No, but I could tell how bad your dream was. Do you want to tell me about it?”

There were reasons not to: it was connected to stuff she hadn’t told him, and he might think it was weird. But she had a pain in her chest.

“I was on the island back at Ambremerine Station, with the dark-haired woman--I’d dreamt of her before. And I asked her why my friends had to die. She said it was to break my heart, and then said I was nothing and no one, and called me Jennifer Random. Then I was there with the Swan blowing up again.”

“Sounds like that’s everything that’s been torturing you come to visit.” He was holding her but not hugging her.

“Dada, you really liked Ngozi, didn’t you?”

“She could be very annoying. Yes, I liked her tremendously.”

“So you--”

“It was like a knife through my heart, Jennifer. I have no optimistic words to make it better, not even a little bit.”

“I wish you had some.”

He hugged her now.

“What we have now is our quest. You know, save the universe and all that.” He said as softly as he could.

“Mm.” She got up.

The others were stirring now too. At least she didn’t feel physically tired. O Tse said, “While it isn’t directly towards our goal by my detector, I think we may make good progress by following this crevice along to its end.” There being no objection, the party took up the track, with O Tse taking point and Lord Elphinstone guarding the rear.

After a few hours, the crevice ended at a squat trapezoidal bunker dug into the ground. The material resembled stained concrete, and there was a studded metal door tilted back into the wall in front of them. It looked worn and old, with edges ground down. On it in low relief was the Decision Tree.

Grandmère said “I don’t think we’re in the market for an interdimensional hop right now.” Capoeira supported her, saying, “What it’s likely to be is another gate to bring us toons here. To our advantage if what we want to do is run away…”

Dr. Ransom said, “But there are a number of other things it could be--including a direct transport to the Redoubt. It has the look of a defensive structure…”

Silvertyger stepped up. “Let me,” he growled, and pushed on the door, it swung heavily inward. Without gloves, there was no danger of him activating a gate. He walked in and the others followed.

The interior wasn’t promising: there was dust an inch thick, over artificial-looking shapes, but that was the most that could be said for them. There was a raised circle in the center of the room, but there were cracks everywhere.

Without disturbing anything if they could help it, the lumpiness of the dust appeared to be bones. They were scattered too much to determine what sort of animal they might be. Tilted slabs might be screens or readouts, but it all looked like cracked grainy cement.

“It could easily be a command post--but how many thousands of years ago?” Asked O Tse. “And were they defeated in battle, or just starved and wasted away?”

“And did they fail or succeed?” asked the tiger.

“Well, screw this,” said Antithyrsis the crow. “I’m going to start messing things up and see what I can find.”

There was not a lot of enthusiasm for this, but Jeanette joined in, and Grandmère and Senhor Capoeira turned up the lamps from the Paradox Swan so that it was at least not inky. The results were mixed: Jeanette found some things that looked like credit cards that had metal symbols that no one recognized, but she also came across a rectangular solid that even at the slightest disturbance of the dust crumbled--that she realized to her dismay was a book. There might be some super-laboratory where the book was reconstructed, she thought--but they didn’t happen to have one with them.

The crows flapped their wings expertly at a heap near the central rise, and cawed in triumph, “Sparklies!” Said Thyrsis through Jeanette’s bracelets. “What are you, two years old?” responded Antithyrsis.

They were either crystals or jewels. All roughly the same size, but of all the colors of the rainbow, and many clear with webs of color. Some were ovoid with colored swirls, and a few were honeycomb-like hollow structures. None of them, on careful examination, would crumble when touch, and the dust around them was uniform gray and not what crumbled crystals would look like.

“Since it’s unlikely for them to be economic, they may be data storage of some sort,” Terence Ransom said.

“Souls of the fallen,” Said Lord Elphinstone, and O Tse nodded in agreement.

“It is possible, though, that these are only ornaments with religious symbolism, exciting though the idea of carrying a battalion in one’s pack might be.” Said the capybara.

Grandmère looked at the heap, “but if they are, this is a far greater number than this bunker could hold alive, from the size of the bones.”

Thyrsis said, “Hm. Wonder if they could be arranged by color.”

Antithyrsis shot back, “Oh you’d love that, wouldn’t you?You are two years old!”

Dr. Ransom gathered them up and dropped them into his knapsack. The crows helped him. “There’s no point in staying here. We have to keep moving.”

As they went out the doorway, Grandmère put a hand close to the Decision Tree symbol. “I wonder what happened here. Can these gateways be destroyed?” She came close to touching him, and Senhor Capoeira grabbed her other wrist. “Let me remind you that none of us as yet have touched the symbol as yet? It might not be dead.”

“Then promise to drag me back if I vanish,” she responded, and touched the symbol. Nothing happened. “Ah well,” the orangutan said.

The idea of souls trapped in gemstones was in a number of her favorite fantasy books, Jeanette knew, and would in fact be very cool--but her father was very probably right that they were data. Maybe if they visited another structure (one not quite so old) they might find a device to read them.

The lamps were switched off when they came out to the darkness, and for a moment she was blind. Then the tiny spots of red glare made the landscape visible again. They climbed out of the crevice and looked around for more hiding places. Not really finding any, they headed out over the dark ground.

Finally they found a declivity that was almost a hillside. Very tired of being exposed, they started to climb down, hoping to follow along its slope.

As soon as O Tse laid foot on the bottom, he vanished. Then Capoeira, then her father, then  Grandmère and Lord Elphinstone.

Jeanette lost her footing, and slid down towards the bottom.


next chapter