Terence Ransom sat at his daughter’s bedside with his hand resting on her forehead. All he would have to do was take off her gloves and her orchid and she would be back on Earth, and safe. She would remember nothing.
God, did he have the right to do that?
Did he have enough courage to take the coward’s way out?
He knew Jeanette: if she remembered anything, he would hate her forever, because she had more courage than ten of him. If her memory were gone, that hatred would be too, but did that make the hatred any less real? And wouldn’t that be just another form of death, to erase that Jeanette, who fought pteranodons and yetis, who walked beside a giant armored tiger and the 50th Druidic Stilyagi Combat Wing? Erase that, just because it killed her?
Erase that, just because he was unable to save her from dying?
The King of Ys was certainly good at playing the devil: suddenly a quest to find out who they really were, and what evil power, they had been shown, would destroy the array of universes of Cosmic Infinity--all that was called into question: was it as important as a good, safe childhood for his daughter?
His daughter stirred: he withdrew the stone.
"Hi, Dada.” She was still so weak.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Aah, this town is kind of boring.”
“I’ll bet you five dollars you haven’t looked.”
He let her smile.
“You should ask King Oberon about the Redoubt. He might know something.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“Was I dead?”
“For a little bit. Oberon brought you back.”
He couldn’t think of the right thing to say after that, but she was already drifting back to sleep.
“Oh but by all means, you should take a walking tour of the city!” Senhor Capoeira Capybara said to him later. “And not just for therapeutic reasons either, even though you could use some. There are small enclaves or niches--you might call them shops if the concept of buying and selling weren’t vastly different here. Somewhere between a store, the wing of a museum, and a dojo. The rule seems to be it will be given free if you can figure out what it is. Otherwise you get a steamed bun.”
So Terence went out into the main plaza from the gates of the palace. He was glad the capybara had filled him in, since he would have been unsure that the places he passed by--some in trees, some in the buildings between the trees--whether they were residences or something else. He went so far as to take a ballpoint and notepad out to draw himself a map, since Avalon made Boston look like a grid.
He saw one shop that looked irresistible to him. It was folded into an enormous tree, but between the roots was a fantastically elaborate gearworks that was moving dowels topped with various jewels in a variety of periodic motions. He walked into the store crowded with mechanical devices. The scent of steamed buns filled the air.
He thought he recognized clock mechanisms and music boxes--although nearly none of the devices were covered up, which was fine with him. Some were unbelievably tiny and delicate, and some were made out of unfamiliar materials.
Towards the rear, he saw a stool, and on it was a lynx. It had on a headpiece with a number of lenses at different angles, so he assumed this was the proprietor and not a pet. The odd thing was (by now his definition of ‘odd’ had been thoroughly rewritten a number of times) that it wasn’t an anthropomorphic lynx, but a lynx lynx, without opposable thumbs or much digital flexibility at all. Obvious questions needed to be asked.
The lynx stopped grooming the back of a paw and looked at him. “Welcome! I am Diotima Urania Gearheart, and you are Doctor Terence Ransom the hero. I am honored. What brings you to my nook?”
Terence swept his hand around--restrainedly, because there wasn’t an enormous amount of space. “One of my fascinations is with clockwork. I repair clocks and watches as a hobby. And this is amazing.”
“If by clocks and watches you mean devices that measure out time, then I have to say you don’t know the half of it. It was how my fascination started, many thousands of years ago. From mechanisms that measured out time to those that measured out music, to those that measured out spacetime, to causation, to regularizing coincidence--it’s been no end of fascinating study.”
Terence smiled ruefully, “I feel definitely outclassed then.”
“Oh don’t be! It’s all a matter of opportunity. I have no doubt much of your life has been taken up in procuring food, competing for secure professional positions, adventuring, exploration, and raising young, like your astounding daughter Jeanette. How is she, by the way?”
“She’s mending, thanks.” Terence said surprised (and with guilt deep in back.)
“I was just lucky to stumble into Avalon not long after developing abstract sentience. Nothing but opportunity here.”
“What are you working on now?” Terence asked, pointing at the impossible elaborate assemblage before her.
“This is my latest obsession: teleportation, See, if you set up two opposing nested gear mechanisms designed for space metrization, and slave it to an active pivot escarpment here--pardon me for a second, but I see something…”
The lynx wrinkled her nose, and down from the ceiling dropped a small green mantis on a silvery thread. The lynx twitched her whiskers in a complex fashion, and the mantis climbed into the works and out of them again. At his surprised look, the lynx said, “I assure you that my associates are well-paid and lack for nothing.”
Teleportation struck a chord in Dr. Ransom. He did think about pulling out his set of chalks and asking Diotima for advice, but she might have been miffed at being asked to talk about something not run by gears. But the thought didn’t leave him.
“This has been such an honor, Dr. Ransom. Please, what can I give you as a token of your visit? Something for your daughter, perhaps?”
“That’s an irresistible offer. I really don’t know what to ask for.”
“How about something to make her wishes come true?”
He stood there with his mouth open for a second, then closed it and stammered, “You--you can do that?”
There was laughter in Diotima’s voice. “Up to a point. My devices aren’t yet able to teleport anything alive or anything charged with magic.” The lynx got off her haunches and padded over to a small delicate piece of clockwork that seemed to be studded with butterflies. “But if Jeanette has a real longing for something material--a favorite sweetmeat from her home universe, say--she just has to focus on this assembly here. It’s a basic analogue of a microphone, but this is far prettier, don’t you think? And after a while it’s delivered between these two clasps. It works beautifully for books as well.”
Terence hesitated to touch it. “It’s so delicate--I’m afraid--”
Diotima said, “It’s quite indestructible in normal use, I assure you. The King of Ys,” and her voice sounded for the first time like a predator with claws, “could no doubt shatter it, but being jounced around won’t affect it. Take it, please, as a tribute to your daughter’s courage.”
“Thank you,” Terence said. A bubble formed around it, and it rested lightly in his hand.
He was sure to take a business card from the holder at the entrance, even though he couldn’t read it.
When he returned to his room in the palace, Dr. Ransom was met by a young man who said that the King had returned and wished to see him. Ransom deposited the wishing device on his night table and accompanied the messenger.
Oberon was waiting for him in the conference room they had used before. The King didn’t look like he’d been on a trip, but there were what looked like Hazmat goggles on the table. “I have been deep into the Wombflash, and beyond, as far as Swaylone’s Island. The suns are different there, and even I walked there with difficulty. That monster should never have gotten here--but I’ve said that before. The problem is, Dr. Ransom, that there’s enough power at work--power I can’t immediately categorize--that I’m afraid you and your companions may be pinned down in Avalon. It’s quite a pleasant place, but it will still be a cage.”
"I’m not going anywhere until Jeanette is better. But that brings up something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.” He pulled out his packet of chalks, and explained--blushing a little at the sheer wildness of the story told matter-of-factly--that they were from millions of years in the future, and keyed to the gloves of his kind--and what they did.
Oberon asked for them, turned them over in his hand, and returned them. “I sense nothing.”
Terence took the stick of black chalk out. “The tabletop, frankly, seems to be the only non-ornamented area here. Do you mind if I use it?” And Oberon said “Go right ahead.”
He drew a circle on the table and began to fill it in, letting the chalk itself complete the task. Then the white chalk with which he drew the symbol of the Decision Tree, telling Oberon its name. He plunged his hand into the resultant hole. He pulled it out immediately because it was dreadfully cold. With eyebrows raised, the King put his own hand in. He spent a longer time with it down the hole, but pulled it out again.
“It’s a very neat trick: If I draw another opening--in perspective--inside the black, it becomes a tunnel to somewhere else--the other side of a mountain, or a different universe. Pretty nifty--but of limited usefulness when you have no knowledge of good contact points in other universes, which is the case with everyone in our little group. So any information you might have would be gratefully received.”
For a moment, King Oberon stood there contemplating the hole in his table. But before he could say anything, a voice filled the room, coming from the hole.
“Help me--help me--oh please help me--help me--” it said over and over.
Terence swallowed hard, and after a minute or two of repetition, said in a strangled tone, “That’s my wife’s voice.”
An arm thrust up from the hole into the room, a long slender female arm. It was naked--
--Except for a wedding ring on its fourth finger.