She wasn’t sure which way she was running except that it was away. She ran away from the feeling inside her, wanting to run instead of think. She finally reached an area of large machines, stopped, and hid in the narrow space between them and the bulkhead.
He knew, she thought. The angel knew. Of course he did, he told her so. He even warned her against it. She hated him anyway, because it was easier.
From the day that Senhor Capoeira Capybara came into their lives, told them they were really toons, toons in exile, this had been waiting. With absolutely no memory of that life, she and he could have been anybody, not known each other, strangers or enemies or anything, and that would be the truth and this thing that they’d been living was a lie.
And now these--these super-heroes were her real parents, and not Dr. Terence Ransom, that she had just brought back from the dead and who was now erased. Not true. And the most terrible thing of all was that there was something in her that said yes to those beautiful powerful people. She was traitor, and an evil creature, and not even Jeanette Ransom any more.
The panic started to leave her, but that was horrible too, because she didn’t want reason to take over and figure something out. She knew she would, and then she--the she that was crouching here--would be gone.
That’s when she thought of the stone.
That was the answer, wasn’t it? All she had to do was take off her gloves, her necklace, and Oberon’s orchid and hold it to her forehead, and she’d be home. Back on Earth, not remembering anything of all this. And even if her father didn’t make it back with him--even if somehow she was living with Mom--she would still be Jeanette Ransom, about to go into middle school, and know herself to be the daughter of Dr. Terence Ransom for the rest of her life until she died of old age.
She got up then, arranged her dress, and made her way back to her cabin. It wasn’t that hard. Her hand was wrapped around the black stone in her pocket every step of the way.
She tried to figure out how to lock the door, wasn’t sure she’d done it right, and shove a chair in front of it, just to give Bleep or whoever a hint. But she was ssimply too agitated to sit on the bed. So she walked around the room.
Walther the angel had said it--something about going for the truth rather than what you want, and that being a toon made making what you wanted real. And maybe that was what this stone the King of Ys gave her father did--not a teleporter but something that would wrap her in what he wanted--home.
“And maybe this is the real challenge,” she said out loud.
For the time she had it, the choice was go to safety and abandon your friends, and that had been easy. She’d never do that. But this time not using it would abandon her father. This was the choice--and this was what she was afraid of when she was crouching behind the machine. Just a few hours ago she had, she thought, triumphed, with an angel pulling her friends and her father back from death. Now the truth would take it all away. She was someone else.
“No.” She said softly. She wasn’t someone else. Damn and Fuck and Shit and Damn again.
She felt alone and scared and both ways seemed wrong and right and strong and weak. And if she could call on Walther what would he say other than I told you so?
An idea hit her. She put the black stone down very carefully on the bed. Then she picked up her backpack and shook all the contents out on the other side of the bed. There were Skittles and random chunks of metal from Haven and the books she hadn’t had time to read; devices from Grammar and from the Cowards; a brown curled leaf from the Decision Tree; her phone and tablet and power bank; even some Earth change. She found it--a red stone, no longer tiny and dull, but not as big as it had originally been. She picked it up and held it firmly. She wished very hard, with no idea whether that was at all useful.
It worked, after a fashion: standing before her was the Queen of Hearts. The only thing was, she wasn’t the tall magnificent sexy woman she had known and, frankly, wanted--but a little girl her own size. She was an incredibly beautiful girl with dark eyes and lustrous black-red hair--but now indication that puberty had taken hold. She smiled at Jeanette’s startled reaction.
“It was touch and go there for a while--I had nearly depleted my energy so that I couldn’t come back. As it was, I had to go right down to your template and have slowly, slowly been recuperating.”
“I kind of like it,” Jeanette said honestly, “though I’d hate you like crazy if you were in class with me. But I have a question.” She mustered up some courage. “When you were reconstructing yourself, did you see anything that might indicate--well, that I’m someone else?”
The little Queen frowned. “No, nothing. This is very important, isn’t it?”
So she told her.
“I see. Wow. Captain Underpants and--”
“Captain Onward and Captain Upward.”
“I’m sorry: that’s a name from your template, though.” She thought for a few minutes. “Well, it doesn’t bother me that I’m you in addition to being me, so I’m not sure I’m helpful. But what I can tell you is that your father is graven deep in who you are. It may not be real, but it’s you.”
“Ms. Ransom?” A new voice said, and the little Queen vanished instantly. A young crew woman appeared, walking around the chair. She was carrying dresses on hangers. “I’ve come with some dress suggestions for the party. If you want to wear what you have, that’s perfectly okay too--though there are some stains that I can take out instantly--”
“No that’s fine,” she said. Together they looked at the dresses, while a voice inside her said why should you hold on to looking the way you looked before?
Jeanette decided, when the first bell rang, to try to get up to the bridge ahead of the others and have the scene particularly without her father there. So she hustled along in something blue and sleek and ruffly for the main lift and pushed the up button numerous times.
When she emerged onto the bridge, she saw that it had been transformed, now holding a long table replete with china, silver, and glass. The space over the main bridge was filled with colored spheres. Captain Onward and Captain Upward were there, big capes added to their costumes. But next to them was a holographic figure that was a foot taller than either of them--and she recognized him.
“Hullo, Jeanette Ransom!”
“Hello, Jimmy Newman. The last time I saw you you were the size of the sky.”
“Only a bit smaller now. I said ‘see you later,’ and here we are.”
There was also a small figure, also holographic that surprised her more profoundly.
“You made it! Hooray Jeanette!”
“Tekeli Li. But you were dead.”
“So were you. Three times, I think. Life is strange. Welcome to the fleet!”
Jeanette’s surprise and joy evaporated as she turned and walked towards the two Captains. They looked at her with the same expression as before, until Captain Upward saw the sombre expression on her face.
“Why, what’s wrong, Jeanette?”she asked.
“I want to--I can’t just--I don’t know what to--I’m sorry--” Jeanette said as all her thoughts tried to tumble out at once.
“What is it, Jeanette?” Captain Onward bent down to her.
“I mean, I may be your daughter, but I can’t--”
They were both startled. “It was Bleep who told you. I’m going to kill him,” Captain Upward said angrily.
“Please don’t--” Jeanette said.
“He screwed the whole thing up, and it would have been so good,” sighed Captain Onward.
It was at that moment that the lift open and the travelers, including Dr. Ransom stepped out. Jeanette felt everything start to collapse around her, as Terence Ransom looked alarmed at the tableau.
“Let me tell you the story,” Onward said loud enough to be heard all over the bridge. “It is true that we raise this girl Jeanette as our daughter until the time the Exile took us all. But we did so after the tragic death of our chief technologist, D. Isaax Newton Randomfactor, in a very special episode of Galaxy Patrol. Jeanette was little more than a year old when this occurred, and since Dr. Ransom’s death was not due to the Exile, we were unsure what would happen. But now it seems that what happened was that, though his story was different, and may explain his complete lack of memory, his powerful love for his daughter drew her to the same timeline. And now they are both here, and we are at last reunited!”
The roar that filled the bridge was greater than the people there--it was the cheer of the whole fleet. Terence broke from the group, and picked up Jeanette in his arms. “My baby girl,” he whispered in her ear.
The banquet proceeded with great joy, as scenes from other ships appeared and disappeared. They were eating dessert when a black figure appeared--a Black cat’s head atop a humanoid body clad in black and silver.
Captain Upward said, “What news, General?”
“Another reversal on the left flank. Twenty-seven ships out of commission, and the perimeter moved back again.” He looked at Jeanette and Terence, and said, “It is good to celebrate the return of the commander’s daughter, but she may return only to a losing battle.”
His voice rose. “We’ve been fighting and drawing back, fighting and drawing back, with Deep Chaos out powering us. Successes have been temporary, and we count successful retreats as victories. Ships now come seldom. We greet each one with hope. After all, the angels and the Daughters of Change have promised that the fight will tilt towards us. And we wait.”
"The power we lost, the power whose disappearance caused the Exile, the power that ultimately brings Imagination power and reality--this they promised us, and with each new ship, the promise wears thin. So excuse me for spoiling your fine dinner: I have the wounded and the dying to take care of.” The cat vanished.
Terence asked the Captains, “What thing is he talking about?”
“The Excelsior Stone. He’s correct that its loss caused the Exile. And it is true that Angels and daughters of Change have said it wasn’t destroyed.”
A power to turn what you want into reality, Jeanette thought.
She pulled the black stone out of her pocket and set it on the table without a word.
Both captains stared at it. “Walther the Wacky Angel--and the King of Ys--say hello.”
Carefully Captain Upward took the Stone and walked over to the main console on the bridge balcony. There was, to one side, a receptacle that Jeanette noticed was shaped like an orchid. She put the black stone in--
--and the light changed. On the big curved front screen, the light of the star-field that was 50,000 ships against the Face of Deep Chaos grew brighter--and continued to grow.
“You’re welcome,” said Senhor Capoeira Capybara.
Across the Fleet of Exiles, hundreds of thousands of hands raised up, high in the dark.
“EXCELSIOR!” Came from as many throats.
Jeanette held her father’s hand.