At the center of a tight circle of their armed companions, in a wrecked house lit only by flames of its burning wreckage, Terence Ransom kept administering CPR to his daughter with the tormenting voice in his head that she had to be dead. She couldn’t be alive after all this time, it said. She’s still not breathing. While the Paladins, the tiger, orangutan and capybara were still hacking away at the tubular mouths of the attacking monster, surely they must be thinking the same thing, coupled with “Poor guy…”
But whatever that goddamn voice said, he kept on pressing down on his daughter’s chest, focussing on nothing else.
That was why he didn’t pay attention when the middle of the night abruptly turned to day.
Not a searchlight or a beam, though it was brighter than all but the most brilliant days would seem to be. It belonged at a beach with blue waves and a ceramic-bowl sky, and not a dense thick canopied forest.
The monster began to shrivel, and its black ichor began to cake and crack. It began a piteous whine that no one within earshot had any sympathy for.
But when Sir Ogier put his hand on Dr. Ransom’s shoulder, he shrugged it off violently, because for him that contact meant--could mean--only one thing: “She’s dead. Stop.” When Sir Ogier made the contact again, he lost all strength, and his eyes teared up with surrender. Sir Ogier and Sir Huon brought him to his feet , which he couldn’t have done on his own. His hands flapped weakly as if they no longer had a purpose, and he looked away from his dead daughter--
--to see King Oberon in his green frock coat. “It took a bit of time to bring my friend the Sun from out of his habitual ramble to provide some help, and I can see it was a very near thing.” He cradled in his arms a small baby, not too removed from being a newborn. The baby had crooked in her slight arm (it was a her) an orchid. “And while I was in those fields I happened upon this one wandering around, not sure of where to go.”
Oberon looked down on the baby, “I told you you were mine.”
He leaned forward and lowered the baby into Jeanette’s fluid-spattered body. Jeanette’s chest began to rise and fall. Oberon put his arm around Terence’s shoulders and leaned his head. “There will be no dreams,” he whispered. Dr. Ransom nodded.
When King Oberon made his entrance into the golden city of Avalon, He was accompanied by Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone, Sir Amadis, Sir Ogier, and Sir Huon, all astride winged horses sent from Broceliande, two chariots bearing Grandmère Hutan and Senhor Capoeira Capybara (and huis well-ordered mice), and a third chariot with a bed built up in it carrying Jeanette Ransom, being held up by Dr. Terence Ransom so she could see everything.
Building and giant boles of trees were closely interwoven, and green leaves and colorful roof tiles were blended together. It was a tall city, and the building seemed to be mostly window. There were humans in brightly-colored clothes, but there were also stags with golden antlers, bears with elaborate chest-patterns, towering thin cranes in all the colors of the rainbow. The crowd threw circles of flowers towards the processions, and most of them were caught by the sword points of the four flying knights, though Jeanette’s bed was soon covered with them.
For all her happiness and excitement, Jeanette’s eyes were closed by the time they reached the gates of the palace.
Jeanette slept all the next day, and the day after that, waking only to be fed on broths and purées. In the mean time, Oberon met with the companions in a room that didn’t look all that different from Queen Parise’s.
“The monstrosity you fought was a singleton from deep in the Wombflash Forest, a place where somatic evolution is insanely rapid and dangerous. The thing was not born into that form, and would have assumed many other forms before its dissolution. It should not have survived the trek to Avalon. It was sent, and I am endeavoring to find out by whom.”
“From what I have gathered,” and the king gestured to many pages of letters spread out on the table, “There is a power that has been after you in many different world and in many different times before your coming here. It seems to be aimed specifically at Jeanette, and at separating her from your company. Though I will say that it’s probable that she has been singled out because she is simply the most vulnerable among you and not for any hidden reason.”
“That would be reassuring,” Dr. Ransom said, “provided it’s true.”
“Just be apprised that even those Theravader ships of yours would have a frustrating time against the powers of Avalon. And I will tell you that if and when you set out on your journey of discovery, you would have well over a hundred paladins of Broceliande as your escort. Jeanette has become quite the favorite.”
“But,” he said more brightly, I think I can give you some explanatory information about your map.” He opened it, and Terence and Grandmère helped him extend it over the meeting table. “One of the principal mysteries of your journey has been this remarkable route of the Last Train Out, as it’s come to be called. It’s as much news to me as it was to poor Chancellor Acquin, but it corresponds to some of the things I have learned about Cosmic Infinity--the grand scheme of things as a whole.”
He got up, picked up a silver tray with tall glasses and dishes of decorated cakes. “I suggest you fortify yourselves, since this is one of my favorite subjects.” Everybody took a glass and a dish except Terence, and the capybara took his.
Oberon sat down. “Most if not all of you have originated in a universe that originated in a Big Bang--although the better metaphor might be a blossoming rather than an explosion. As it was for four-dimensional spacetime, so it is for the higher--and different--orders. To simplify a great deal, although your train-line doesn’t form one on the map, and to the traveler it doesn’t resemble anything at all, this line follows the edge-arc of a great explosion. Specifically it is the edge of the creation of the Gods Without Names, who created Life throughout Cosmic Infinity. This is not a two, three, four or five-dimensional bubble, and I dare say you’ll get a headache at even my attempt to describe it. But the practical result is that the stops on the Last Train Out’s line all have to do with the edge of Life as it interfaces with something greater. Along this line, originally laid out by the race of the Pilgrims, each focus has a certain flavor of what many worlds call the Afterlife to it. Broceliande is no different: the warriors and magicians were not born there, and fight and die and live again--most of the time.”
“Um,” said Senhor Capoeira.
“Exactly,” said King Oberon. “The more difficult question of what that might have to do with your sodality is less clear--but I theorize that your Jimmy Newman of the godlike power landed near Broceliande because it resembled the line between life and death, since the power was seeking, after a fashion--burial. The forester’s cot does seem to be precisely on a line of power. What this all means requires much more work.”
“And Avalon and Ys?” Grandmère asked.
“We are well beyond the realm of life and afterlife: our axis is stasis and change. But when a force great enough to bring something out of the Wombflash Forest is at work, lines shift.”
Terence had followed all this, he thought, pretty well. What he found himself doing, though, is turning things into arrows on a chalkboard: the Edge of Life became the Edge of X, and the fall of Jimmy Newman became Trajectory Y. He was sure that it had strong consequences for his life--and for Jeanette’s--but then again, while he could agree that string theory explained physical reality, he couldn’t think of his world in those terms. It was why he was a chemist.
And a father. He left the meeting (which was pretty well over anyway) to sit at Jeanette’s bedside and watch her sleep.
Two days later there was a commotion and worried whispers throughout the palace. Many of the men and some of the women now walked around with weapons, and many of the animals vanished into the woods.
It turned out that the King of Ys was making a state visit to Avalon.
Terence was decidedly interested in seeing this, and was admitted to the throne room upon his request. It turned out that he stood between Grandmère and Lord Elphinstone: the press was too great to see whether Senhor Capoeira was somewhere in the crowd.
The throne room of Avalon had a lot of stained glass, but it was far less orthogonal than that of Broceliande. It was a tangle of golden branches and leaf-shaped windows. Up the aisle came the King of Ys, alone.
The two of them might have been relatives of a sort: the King of Ys wore the same frock coat and legging as Oberon, but Ys was all in black, with a white shirt front. His face was rounder and more full lipped, but they seemed about the same age. His gloves were black.
Oberon came down to meet him, standing across from him over a bowl on a pedestal. Oberon extended a hand: “Brother,” he said. Ys took it: “Brother,” he said.
Then Ys took out from under his coat, a very thin tall lantern, dimly lit. He opened it up and took out a tall candle as thin as a piece of straw. He held it up, then plunged it into the shallow bowl, where it went out. Oberon pulled out a thin twig. He plunged it into the bowl; when he withdrew it, it was lit.
And much to Terence’s disappointment, that was it: they went off by themselves. No invitation for them, even though they were doubtless the principal subjects of discussion. He went back to Jeanette’s room.
Jeanette was spending a little more time awake, but Terence was careful not to push things. She talked excitedly about Avalon, but only for about five minutes. He still mostly watched her sleep.
He was severely startled when there was a knock on the door. He got up to open it--and it was the King of Ys. He seemed more dour and stiff than Oberon, but perfectly cordial. He asked for permission to come in, and Terence granted it. There were two chairs at a remove in the generous bedroom, and they sat facing each other.
“First, you should be assured that I am not Oberon of Avalon’s enemy, nor am I yours. Little Jeanette’s plight grieves me as much as my counterpart, and I am equally concerned about the changes in the forest.”
“However, I see things differently than Oberon does. More to the point, I see things he does not. I see a father tormented by the fact that his daughter is walking along a path of dreadful danger, in peril--in more than peril--of her life. Oberon sees a valiant spirit--two valiant spirits--out to penetrate mysteries, and will happily send you on your way into more peril, with a bunch of trinkets to fight, defend and search with.”
“I, on the other hand, see fear and guilt and regret. None of this, you think, should be happening to her.”
He pulled a black stone out of his pocket, and held it out.
“The trinket I give you, however, will send her home.”
Wide-eyed, Dr. Ransom took the stone and looked at it in his palm.
“It’s very simple: Remove her orchid, take off her white gloves and her jewelry, and press this on her forehead. She will return to Earth, to where she was when this all started, with no memories of the nightmares and griefs she has experienced. Take yours off, and you will be with her. Further, you will be shielded so that no one similar to the rodent will detect you. If you feel the quest is too important, keep your gloves on and she will return to a life with her mother, who, as you well know, still loves her.”
The King of Ys got up. “She doesn’t need to be in danger. And it’s true that I’ve ripped away the false comfort that relief from it is impossible. But I am right to do so, and the only one who will.”
He left the room, and Terence Ransom stared for a very long time at the stone in his hand.
He got up and sat down in the seat by the bed.
He looked at his beautiful little girl, who had been swallowed by a monster and killed, and saw her reading a book at home about wizards and monsters and deadly dangers.
He put his hand on her forehead.