It hurt so much, Jeanette couldn’t stand it. It felt like her body was made of fabric and it was being torn into strips. Her joints were screaming that they were being bent the wrong way.
Was that it? Was the Court of Miracles going to kill her to see if she would come back--again? That wasn’t ‘you won’t have to do anything but look cool,” as the captain said.
But she couldn’t show it. She was being tested and she had to stand it. She couldn’t so much as cry.
Damn it, she shouldn’t have thought about crying…
And. It. Was. Getting. Worse.
She held herself in the searing light beam, proud and graceful (right? She had the clothes and the makeup!) And threw her anger out at these evil criminals lying on their cushions and watching her.
Then she realized something: just like when the Captain slapped her across the face, this wasn’t for her. This was to see what the others would do with their ‘princess’ being tortured. This was maybe to try and find out who the real leader of the group was. Who would break and call out to stop the little girl from being tortured.
Well, good thing we’d all had a dress rehearsal on this.
Of course, that meant that standing there and taking it wasn’t enough. She had to do something a little girl fake princess wouldn’t do. So she took a step forward.
She didn’t think it was possible, but the pain doubled. It felt like her leg had fallen apart. It felt like her chest was cramping, and to take a breath would pull apart like raw wires.
So she took another step.
She was out of the light, and out of the pain, and it felt so different she wanted to collapse. But she made a slow turn to face the members of the Court.
(She had bitten the inside of her cheek, and was tasting blood, but that was when she came out of the beam.)
Diotima in her arms said, “Well that was uncommonly rude! It’s a wonder you get any customers at all in this shabby place!”
There was a fat human the color of old copper, who was wearing something like what Gandhi wore. His legs were in a tank before his low chair, and they ended raggedly with no feet. Things swam in the tank.
“You didn’t seek us out because we are amiable. No one ever does.”
Diotima said, “Is there a place I can sit--or did you put a fart cushion on the chair?”
Another one, who looked human except for a scrambled face, said, “We’ve been greeted with all manner of attitudinal display. Yours is not the most clever.” But he pointed at an empty niche with a chair in it. She went and sat down in the chair, wishing that she knew how to fart on demand, and her friends grouped around her.
The lynx adjusted herself into Jeanette’s lap, and said, “You know, I’ll bet that I’m one of the few entrepreneurs coming here who actually meet your absurd criteria.”
“You’d lose that bet,” said Mr. No-feet. “What to you have that would interest us?”
Lord Elphinstone stepped forward with the canister raised high, and Dr. Ransom said, “A sample of Space⁹.”
That caused no conversation, but bodies shifted in chairs, which qualified as the equivalent.
“You know what power and what danger this embodies. You also know how desperately every interstellar empire or quasi-empire would do to possess it. Unending war to put it to uses it should never be put to.”
Diotima took it up. “We came to you not only because you alone can give us what we want, but because you are not mad.”
A jovial panda-type with long human hands said, “If you know what a quantity of Variant Space can do, what do you want? Certainly not money.”
A thing that looked like a pile of garbage under a carpet said through a wheezing translator, “If a deal of this significance is to be done, you must explain yourself to our satisfaction.”
This was, by arrangement, to be Grandmère’s subject. She ambled forward. “Ours is a simple, if colossal, madness: we are searchers after Deep Chaos.” Seats shifted again. “It’s what has bound this unlikely band together. It’s also the reason why Young Jeanette meets your qualifications. That’s what we seek--and you may rest easy that we have no desire to enter into the games bent on acquiring administrative privileges of this spiral arm of the galaxy.”
“You will, in all honesty, probably never see us again,” contributed Senhor Capoeira Capybara.
“And your demands?” Asked the panda.
“Do you have a bonded surface?” Diotima asked.
“Sorry, we’re fresh out,” grumbled Mr. No-feet. “What an insulting question.”
“Let’s not go down that route, sir.” Diotima said. A couple of simlarly clad yet intact humans came into the center area and held up a thin slab. Dr. Ransom started to recite a list:
“A Crystal In Balance;
Six kilograms of CCM--completely calibrated matter;
A Superposition Drill;
A square micrometer of asymptotium;
And a Variable Engagement Lathe.”
“Plus 12 and a half billion standard credits for taxes and fees and as a penalty for torturing our Jeanette,” the capybara added. Lines of green appeared on the slab in some script or other.
A hooded figure who didn’t seem to be bilaterally symmetric said in a lazy voice, “You know, a Sprezzatura Maximum Craft was attacked by a Bravura dreadnought fairly recently and something extremely valuable was taken. Now the Sprezzatura claim the Bravura did it and the Bravura said the Sprezzatura, and they are threatening yet another all-out war. The possibility seems rather remote, does it not, that a third party might have gone in and gotten away with some unimaginable treasure. What are the odds, do you think?”
“I think it would make a splendid cartoon,” said Senhor Capoeira.
Jeanette had no idea what the items on the list were (although she had heard the term asymptotium where? Oh, yes, a couple of million years in the future). She was still surprised that the human flunkies brought out only three large metal briefcases. One of them handed a credit card to the capybara, who bowed.
Then there was a ritual that reminded her of a crime movie: Lord Elphinstone brought the canister forward, and the Panda and Mr. Scrambleface got up out of their chairs. Dada, Grandmère, and Senhor Capoeira also came down. Silvertyger extended the canister to the two members of the Court of Miracles, so all three were holding it at the same time. Dada and her two friends leaned down and grabbed the handles of the suitcases but didn’t move them. Then at the same moment Lord Elphinstone released the canister and the three pulled the cases back. Everyone bowed, and Jeanette joined them, a little out of sync.
Panda and Scrambleface put the canister in a big clamshell device with lots of cabling, and Jeanette turned to go. She didn’t look back, but she really, really wanted to. But her job of looking cool wasn’t over, even though everybody else’s was.
Or maybe not: they walked through the wall into chaos. Sirens were going off, red explosions--fake ones, it seemed--were going off like fireworks above everybody’s heads, and there were overlapping voices over PA systems saying: LOCKDOWN LOCKDOWN! THIS IS A WAR WAR ALERT ALERT! ARMED COMBAT UNITS INSIDE THE MARKET! SHELTER SHELTER IN PLACE PLACE AND DO DO NOT NOT FIRE BACK BACK!
“What are the odds, do you think?” Her father quoted. They all broke into a run.
Naturally everyone was firing weapons in random directions. Thyrsis and Antithyrsis flew ahead, but only by a couple of feet, guiding them to the tunnel. Diotima extricated herself from Jeanette’s arms and they both ran faster. There was the sound of coordinated footsteps behind them.
For a second, they all stood before the tunnel. It had occurred to Jeanette that it might be possible that if they didn’t all go through together, someone might just bruise their nose on a painted wall. But Terence grabbed his daughter’s hand: simple as that. Holding hands or paws, they jumped.
They fell through into the captain’s cabin of the Paradox Swan. Grandmère dropped her case and immediately used her immense arm spread to erase the chalk drawing.
Ngozi Makena was smiling. “In case you’re wondering, I left the Mall of Orion the second Sprezzatura ships appeared on the extended scanners. We’re now more than a light year from the Orion Nebula, and I think we are all happy to see the last of it.”
Everyone relaxed--but not Jeanette. The cabin was crowded and loud, but there was something wrong. Then she remembered the jump: had there been two touches she felt--or three?
“Someone’s here,” she whispered.
She felt an unmistakeable breath on the back of her neck.
“SOMEONE’S HERE!” She screamed.