Professor Cortese Malatesta Macedoine, a thin elderly physicist in a costume that seemed to be all clashing blue rectangles, stood before Jeanette and her fellow travelers, and was extremely cross in an extremely polite way.
“I must say that I’m disappointed. I’ve been working on the detection of non-relativistic neutrinos for--well, longer than I’d care to mention, all this was extremely exciting and, I thought, an unprecedented step into the unknown--and then you say that it’s a ship that’s been following you around! I know it’s not your fault, but it has completely spoiled an extraordinarily good mood!”
She took a deep breath. “There. I said it and I feel tremendously better. I of course apologize.”
Senhor Capoeira Capybara waddled forward and said as mildly as possible. “We do wonder whether there are any insights you might have as to the nature of this--thing. We’re worried that this is a manifestation of our enemies.”
This seemed to settle Professor Macedoine a bit, and she said, “The one thing I can tell you is that there is no conceivable way a neutrino assemblage could stay together on its own. From what I gather you first encountered the phenomenon while traveling through hyperspace, and a collimation of neutrinos might be possible from a sufficiently coherent origin event--but not in pseudo-orbit around Grammar. It may be an observable effect of a larger non-observable phenomenon, but as to what that is, I couldn’t say. And while it happened while you were searching for traces of Variant Space, about all I can say is nod my head, say ”Interesting,” and hope that impresses you.”
Jeanette liked that little part at the tail end, but the most she could get out of the rest was that she couldn’t help them. Dada would probably get more out of it, despite his saying “I’m just a mediocre chemist,” but he didn’t have anything to say at all to the professor. Not good.
Grandmère Hutan spoke. “All of us think that the ship finding us again is very dangerous, and that we should leave as soon as possible. And since we obviously can’t leave by space, we’ll try to leave by a Decision Tree portal.”
Professor Cortese brightened quite a bit. “That’s something I would very much like to witness! Would you mind if I accompanied you?”
Grandmère hesitated. “In view of the danger…”
The professor cocked a large gray eye at her. “As I understand it, the way you find a portal is, you tromp around through the landscape until you stumble on one. Am I right?”
“Well--yes. That describes it,” the orangutan admitted.
“I think I can help with that.”
So it was that, minutes later, they stood in front of a thin platform hovering above the grass. It was surrounded by a thin elegant handrail. Professor Cortese, wearing a white blouse and khaki shorts that left her spindly legs bare, passed among them with a silvery handkerchief waving it in front of each of their faces. Sir Elphinstone and O Tse bent down obligingly, and Thyrsis and Antithyrsis, already perched on the handrail, allowed their whole heads to be covered.
Then they boarded, bags a little heavy-laden with Grammar Militia donated equipment. The platform lifted gently and silently, and as soon as they were a fair distance from All Soul’s College, they were surrounded by a cloud of white butterflies.
Jeanette leaned over to look at them, and reached out in the hope of touching them, but Professor Cortese touched her shoulder. “They’re not actual butterflies, though they are almost. What I did back there was to sample your sensoria, combined them according to a weighted average, and bestowed the composite on them. They are spreading out looking for a Decision Tree Portal the way you would. It should save us quite a bit of time.”
“Oh. What becomes of them?” Jeanette asked.
“They tend to evaporate after a day and a night. ‘Resolve themselves into a dew’ is, I believe, the technical term.”
Soon enough the butterflies had spread out for miles, into the woods and off over the hills. Somehow Jeanette didn’t think they’d find either the portal they came by or the rabbit hole of the Queen of Hearts: the one maybe didn’t even exist any more, and the other was firmly in the Queen’s control.
The platform began to sway and turn gently. “It will pick up some false alarms at first,” the professor said. Soon, though, it began to bear upward up a long slope. They crossed a rise, and were out of sight of the College completely.
“Yes indeed, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this walk,” said the capybara.
The platform began to speed up, and the butterflies began to lose the illusion that they were real as they sped up to match the platform. It was many miles before the platform began to slow, and the floating white tops of mountains began to appear in the distant sky.
Then they landed in a small hollow at the foot of a steep hill. They got off, looked around--and could find nothing.
Professor Macedoine refused to express any dismay, or even appear vexed. This was not true of the travelers. They parted the grass, felt around--all without finding anything.
Jeanette said, “I want to try something, and she took her necklace and pressed the center stone.
The world was white with blowing snow, and the wind whistled. A man in thick furs trudged irregularly through the drifts. One arm was strapped with many brown strips to his chest. Another brown strip was over one eye. He was heavily bearded, and there was ice under the nose--but the ice was red.
The wolves came at the run down the slope and leapt on him. There were many of them, and they brought the man down with their pile. They proceeded to tear him apart. It didn’t take long for him to die.
Jeanette removed her hand from the jewel, and it was spring again.
“That,” breathed Professor Cortese, “was well over two thousand years ago.”
Dr. Ransom answered, because Jeanette’s breath was coming in gulps and she was shaking, “The jewel shows the worst thing that happened in a location.” He held Jeanette to him.
Senhor Capoeira Capybara came up, and Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone and O Tse flanked him, longsword and pike ready. He bent down and touched the place where the man’s hand had reached out.
When the capybara’s white gloves touched the grass, it rustled and formed itself into the shape of the Decision Tree. He kept the pressure, and a chill blast arose from the ground.
The travelers grouped together facing the wind. Professor Macedoine clutched her blouse at the throat, and raised her hand in caution.
Senhor Capoeira looked at her and clicked his tongue. “Not the most inviting marker ever, but what are you gonna do?”
They waved to her, walked into the wind, and vanished.