Terence got down on one knee and hugged his daughter, as the others scattered again, searching for Grandmère Hutan. Jeanette felt--there was something wrong with her, as if she was just a doll or a dummy of Jeanette Ransom, that she couldn’t cry or hug her father because she was made of wood or plastic, that stuff in her was just gone. Surely Dada had to feel that, had to feel that there was something wrong with the little girl she was holding, that this was a lump of something and not his daughter.
He didn’t stop, however. It just kept feeling more and more wrong, but he didn’t stop.
Holding her as tightly as he could, he asked her, “What happened back there, Jeanette?”
She swallowed, and it hurt to swallow, so he picked a packet out of his knapsack, unfolded and pinched the straw, and gave it to her. It was cold and fruity and soothed her just a bit. She told him then about the mist, and what Grandmère had cried out, and about seeing the Decision Tree itself, and feeling its evil. She finished with “I don’t think we’ll find Grandmère Hutan, dada.”
Terence Ransom leaned back then, still holding her, so she fell forward, and to her knees, and some of the stiffness left her. He put one hand on her head and stroked her hair.
She asked him--and she recognized the tears in whoever it was that was speaking--”What if something’s wrong with the entire universe, dada? Universes? What if it’s been taken over all the way down and all the way to the center? What do we do?”
There was a long pause, and he said, “I--I think you were made to feel that way, dear Jeanette. I think that that was the thing’s intention.”
“Yeah, but what if?” She cried. “What if?”
Senhora Capoeira Capybara was by their side, and he gently but firmly pulled Jeanette away to him. She sank into his warm furry side, and realized that she would have yelled at her dada until he yelled back, or broke, or both.
“I’m not sure, darling girl, that I know what your father doesn’t , but I think it’s this:” he took a big soft breath. “If we’re really agents of the Imagination, and it’s all rotten down to the center, then what we have to do, as agents, is become a new center. Alone, if it has to be that, but together if we can. That’s what if.”
He gave her a chocolate cookie, and picked up her juice-pack where she had dropped it.
Lord Elphinstone and O Tse returned. “We must come to the conclusion that Grandmère Hutan has been taken. Interdimensionally or something similar. There are in fact traces of her--she being a rather fragrant old lady--”
“Boy I’ll say,” said Thyrsis through Jeanette’s bracelets.
“Ha! Look who’s talking, Mister roadkill-for-breakfast,” responded Antithyrsis,
“--There’s nothing like a track of a vector in the remnants of mist. I do not think she was destroyed, because the only incineration seemed to be a small mechanical device. It grieves me to say this, but we have no way to pursue her or rescue her. We must lay all hope in her valor and intelligence, with which she was amply supplied,” said the mirror-armored tiger.
“Is,” said Dr. Ransom. The tiger bowed his head in acknowledgment.
Dr. Ransom recounted what Jeanette had told him, and asked, “I don’t suppose you sensed anything like a force shield or dimensional fold?”
O Tse answered “There has been a low-level vibration coming from this road ever since we came through the Gate. It would mask any similar trace.”
“Then we might be under some sort of illusion even at this point,” said the capybara.
“Quite possible,” said Silvertyger, “but O Tse and I have left the causeway regularly, and have detected no anomalies.”
“Nonetheless, I think we should get off this damn track as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Ransom.
“I agree partly, but maybe the best way to get out of here is through that:” and Senhor Capoeira point at the Gate standing on the rolling hills about two miles distant, with the causeway extending wide and flat up to its mouth.
Thyrsis the crow said, “There seem to be no roads or buildings for almost a hundred klicks in any directions. The way out is the way through.”
Reluctantly they set out. As they walked along, Terence made sure Jeanette was close by Senhor Capoeira Capybara and himself. And just as deliberately, after a decent interval, he started talking.
“This may be just a feeling, but it seems to me that we’re heading backwards, if not linearly backwards, in time. The planet of Grammar was very advanced, but I’ve been thinking it a bit peculiar that they had no idea of us, the Decision Tree portals, or the Exile. It might be that it was at the very beginning of our history--maybe even before the Exile itself. Then the portal was a 2,000 year old one--that had us at the very beginning of the Theravaders taking over a predecessor of the portals. Then we jumped--and here I’m assuming that what you saw, Jeanette, wasn’t simply an illusion--more thousands of years to the very beginning of this old gate network. We may be very deep in the past--and going farther.”
“It doesn’t sound ridiculous,” said the capybara. “What I’ve been thinking, Jeanette, about your encounter with the Decision Tree itself, and your feeling of its evil, might have been you coming up against a barrier meant to keep you from making contact with the Tree rather than the Tree itself. Things might not be as black as doubtless they seem now.”
“Thanks,” Jeanette said listlessly. “I--thanks.” She had been thinking about the dream from Ambremerine Station, where the Goddess predicted that Grandmère would betray her. Was this it? She would rather that she came back and had another stab at it, but it felt enough like betrayal to make that unlikely.
The columns finally failed before the huge Art Deco circle. They paused only to inspect the gateway for any markings or controls--there was nothing--before they walked through.
They emerged in quite a non-majestic forest, with a road leading away into a denser part. Lord Elphinstone, O Tse and the crows deployed themselves immediately, and the others looked around the gate itself.
Immediately, the crows spoke at Jeanette’s wrists. “Strongly suggest you find a place to take a look at the sky. Strongly.”
So Jeanette found a place where light came through the forest canopy, and gasped. “You weren ‘t kidding. Look!” She shouted, pointing upwards.
The sky was pale and nearly white--what there was of it. But studded across the daylight expanse were dozens of suns of all sizes and colors. None of them blazed the way the sun of Earth did: they were all dimmed by the whiteness of the sky.”
They spent a long time watching the sky, since some of the stars moved quite quickly--but then a rodent-whistle came from Capoeira.
They followed the whistle to where the capybara stood in front of a sloppily put together shack. Senhor Capoeira was rocking from side to side with glee.
“Planet near the core of a galaxy, of course. But did you ever wonder what sort of construction shed God might have made while She was building the world? Well, behold!”
And as Terence and Jeanette walked into the frankly shabby structure, Dr. Ransom laughed out loud.
There, alongside a few metal implements, were a heterogeneous pile of chalk blocks, white, red, Black, green, purple, and others. There was a blackboard with a number of squiggles in various colors.
“Everything you need to make a transdimensional gateway system across cosmic infinity,” The capybara laughed.
The three of them sat on the twigs and leaves to wait for the rangers to return. ”If your theory is correct doctor, we’re deep enough in the past to be present at the beginning of the gate system.”
The travelers had a good dinner, and since there was little possibility of the light turning to night, pulled blankets over there heads (those who were not on guard) and slept.
Jeanette couldn’t just paper over what had happened over with new experiences, however fascinating, She thought about a book, but instead decided to listen to her necklace. She hadn’t had much chance lately--things were moving kind of fast--but she thought she was getting the knack of listening to the lowest levels of journal-voices--below the mantis-princess, lower tha the healer of Haven.
She pressed the proper jewel, heard the voices and tried to tune both layers out, listening for the very faint music.
But what she heard was a thin, thin voice that says, “We hear you!”
She jumped up.
“We can hear your voice! Do not be afraid! We are coming!”