They materialized inside an area that reminded Jeanette of the inner hotel of the Last Train Out, except that it was filled with people. There was applause, and whistling from those who didn’t seem to be built for applause. A group of three--a very large golden-skinned Yahoo, a dragon who seemed to be made of onyx, and a leopard-spotted bear, stepped forward to meet them. Everybody but everybody was wearing white gloves.
The dragon said in a beautiful female voice, “This is a day of rejoicing throughout the entire Fleet, that the legendary, almost mythical Ark of Infinity has joined us. We know only a small part of the perils you’ve braved to find your way here, and hope that we can do you the honor that is due you.”
Captain Ngozi Makena Odile, in another amazing outfit, spoke in an even tone that nonetheless carried throughout the immense room. “With us today are the veterans of the outpost commanded by the woman Rhea, who need and deserve rest after the brutal encounter with Deep Chaos. You can honor us by tending to them.”
That earned more applause. The travelers (including Wynken, Blynken and Nod) waved to the crowd, who shouted a mishmash of languages. The welcoming committee ushered them out of the main chamber and in to a smaller room.
“The first thing we should do is give you these,” the leopard bear said, handing the Captain and Lord Elphinstone pairs of white gloves. The golden man gave petite versions to the captain’s three daughters. Ngozi took them, but said, “The Earl of Maurya and I are not Exiles.”
“That’s actually not that rare in the Fleet,” the bear said. “It is a sign of our solidarity with you, and we hope you’ll accept them. They have a few functionalities, like translation--just not the full gamut it gives to an Exile.”
“We are honored,” said Lord Elphinstone.
“We are going to be holding a fleet-wide celebration and banquet at the end of next watch honoring your arrival across all ships not actively engaged with the Enemy. We’ll be taking you to quarters where you can freshen up--and we hope you’ll indulge us takin gyou the long way round so we can show off our ship,” the dragon said.
It was Senhor Capoeira Capybara who said “Really, now--we’re just one ship.”
The golden Yahoo said, “Oh, you’re more than that,” but didn’t explain further.
The vast interior of the streamlined ship was in fact something to be seen: it contained hundreds of smaller craft more conventionally designed, heavily armed and armored. They blinked in and out without ports, and were serviced by busy crews. Down the center of the inner space was a crackling column of machinery. “This is a major weapon we’re developing that we hope will make a difference. Not ready yet, I’m afraid,” said the leopard-bear.
Despite her trying to stay close to her father, Jeanette got bundled into her own cabin. Fortunately, the cabin had more in common with her one on the Paradox Swan than the football field she had aboard the Ark.
Well, this is it, she thought. The successful end to her quest, where she gets greeted with joyous celebration--so why didn’t it feel more wonderful? Maybe it was because the joyous celebration had to have tables set up and The crews in the kitchens working overtime--or maybe after palling around with an angel--and before that, the Queen of Hearts and the wizard-king of Avalon, she was just getting hard to get swept away. And it was a successful entry into another war, after all, which was a little different from happily ever after. Plus, freshen up? It wasn’t as if they’d hiked here…
Someone called out ‘knock knock!” and the door dissolved into nothingness. She said “come in!” To the figure who was already in. In a cosmos full of strangeness, he was odd in a different way: he was a short, balding Yahoo human with bright green skin and pointed ears. He looked like nothing so much as an unimaginative Halloween costumee. His face was pleasant, though, and she relaxed and even apologized internally--was any of that his fault? Please!
“I’m Bleep,” he said, and paused for a second. Then he went on, “I just came by to see if you needed anything, or had any questions, or anything.”
His nervousness was odd, but she diid have questions. “This ship is amazing, but it’s like, built as if it needed to go through the atmosphere. Is there a reason for that?”
“That has to do with our captains. Pre- Exile, they were space heroes on an adventure show--their names were Captain Onward and Captain Upward, and their ship looked like this.”
“Yes, I know, it’s really hokey and all that--but they were brilliant and courageous and extraordinarily powerful. So when their memory cleared and they decided to simply stick with their pre-Exile names, nobody minded. It stirred a chord with many of us--of them.”
“Okay, I can see that.” She paused. “But you know, rather than sitting around freshening up, whatever that means, what I’d really like to do us see more of the ship.”
A mischievous smile lit up Bleep’s face. “Would you like to see the bridge? I can get you up there, no problem,”
“Sure,” she said.
“Well then, let’s go!”
It was fun: Bleep lead Jeanette through pipe-lined corridors, and between big machines. They climbed narrow staircases and, once, Bleep typed in a very long series of numbers on a security keypad, that opened a very heavy door. Finally they stooped to go through a small service port, and ended up in a corner of the ship’s bridge.
It was about two steps up from the magnificent bridge of the Ark of Infinity. Where the Ark had the captain’s wheel on a platform arching out over the main space of the bridge, this one had six, all occupied with folks sitting at consoles. There was a view tank and a wraparound screen on the slanted forward wall.
Standing a few feet in front of them were Captain Onward and Captain Upward. And even prepared not to like them with those names, she caught her breath.
They were tall and magnificently well built, and the handsomest humans she had ever seen. The man had some of the lines of age and there were stripes of white at his temples, but he had piercing ice-blue eyes under dramatic eyebrows. She had a gorgeous heart-shaped face, and her hair was a dramatic storm of light brown. Their costumes--they were costumes, but they weren’t hokey: they were dramatic slashes of ruby red, silver, and dark purplish black. While Jeanette had known the Queen of Hearts, Captain Upward was noble and serene where the Queen was sensual. She was, to use her father’s phrase, bowled over.
They saw Jeanette and Bleep, and they broke into dazzling smiles. “Hello, Jeanette! Bleep, you brought her here, didn’t you?” the man said.
"Hello,” Jeanette said meekly.
“We’re so happy you finally made it,” the woman said with soft concern. “We can only imagine the dangers you must have gone through to join us here in the Fleet.”
They were so handsome and beautiful and genuinely friendly--but these two incredible people were looking at her funny. There was--what?--A sadness?
Bleep said, “Well, I guess we’ll see you at the celebration.”
Captain Onward said “Of course,” and wouldn’t stop looking at her.
Jeanette allowed bleep to turn her towards the main lifts--not the way they had come. These were big and modern--and Bleep stood further away from her than on the way up.
Finally, walking down a corridor, Jeanette came out with, “I don’t get it. As my friend said, we’re just one ship. And while we went through an awful lot to get here, there’s no way you could know about any of it! And why does it matter? Fleet-wide celebration? Why? Why are you--why are they doing it?”
Bleep stopped walking, looked at her with a sad smile. “They can’t help it, Jeanette. You’re their daughter.”