The black shape came down at them. It did occur to Jeanette that it might be a holographic part of a record, but the smell and the pressure and the feel on her skin all said it was real.
She had screamed before any of that. But before she had a chance to complete her thought, Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone had swung his longsword in a mighty arc and cloven the thing in two. They were all splattered with its decay-scented blood. O Tse had whirled out in front, speared both parts and pinned them to the floor of the rotunda with his pike, and the feather-shaped blades of the weapon glowed with searing energy.
Before anybody could do anything else, the great cylindrical hall was filled with red light, and a klaxon sounded. The pulsing horn became nearly intolerable, and there was an overwhelming feeling of static electricity. Jeanette was shaken--but she knew that to touch anything or anybody would give off a discharge that would kill her.
She crouched but looked up, because the opaque ceiling many stories above her was glowing. AS the bellowing reached its peak, a giant column of red, the width of the building, speared up into the sky, which had turned dark purple by contrast with the beam. There was an overwhelming feeling of release.
Then she straightened up, and the big open space was quiet, cool, and smelling of flowers. So was she, it turned out: not a drop of the awful ichor was on her. She felt as if she was wearing freshly-laundered clothes and had had a pleasant shower.
Lord Elphinstone, Lieutenant Quintus Octavian, Captain Tchulik Vakayaga Chresti, and the crows Thyrsis and Antithyrsis, were on the floor, unmoving and unconscious.
“We thank you for your patience during this Deep Chaos Emergency,” said the same calm Siri-like voice that had greeted them upon entry. “If you would like to vouch for the entities before you, administrators, as part of your appanage and under your protection, please touch them with your gloves and say ‘authorize,’ and they will revive without pain. Otherwise they will be disintegrated as a safety precaution.”
Jeanette hurried over to the mirror-armored tiger, touched him and said ‘authorize.’ Her father and Senhor Capoeira did the same for the Captain and the Crows, and the Queen of Hearts knelt down, and said ‘authorize’ over the Lieutenant with a smile on her face that would have killed him all over again with ecstasy.
When they were all awake, they had a chance to look out the towering windows, where they saw that the adobe-like buildings spread out toward the scrubland and toward the central spires of the city were studded with red lights, bright even in the daytime.
The air wrinkled in front of them, and a reassuring deep voice said “Summary report of the Post-Exilic landings on Clerestory. All rights reserved.”
“ The first landing on Clerestory by one of the Exiles was by one Cwm Callavan, pre-exilicly known as Captain Quest, aboard an exploratory craft, but while he left an entertaining diary, it is not connected to any further contacts.”
There was a cartoon of a big muscular guy with a sea-captain’s cap and an impossibly big smile.
“The next contact was by a group of Exiles pursuing legends of the Ark of Infinity. They discovered a stone on a headland with engravings in the script of the Chorus, which has naturally not been translated, but they detected an area of many square kilometers close to it with a complex pattern that was only detectable by the weak nuclear force. It resembled a city plan, and so was dubbed the Ghost City. It’s been difficult to determine details or function, but it has been thought significant during subsequent Deep Chaos incursions that the area was never touched.”
“A contingent was left on Clerestory, and was there to great the next great group, which was the refugees from the Night Land, when the Redoubt became too dangerous for non-combatants. The waves of refugees crossed the barrier into the Wild Reach, and while most Exiles settled on Clerestory, there also arose the schismatic group calling themselves the Cowards. The division was by and large without rancor except among a few small groups, and that for personal reasons, and trade continued, since the asteroids explored all corners of the Wild Reach, and their wars with the Stardrakes were of mutual advantage.”
“A great deal of research was performed on the nature of the higher-dimensional barrier called the Edge of Everything, behind which Deep Chaos and its creatures gathered and grew. The mythological tale that the Edge is the outline of the first Angel to fall in the war, or as others call in, the Sleep, of the end of the One Reality, is hardly subject to research, except on a literary basis, but it is undeniable that the Edge is a complex and arbitrary curve, snd not describable by any known systematic equations.”
“Those investigations came at a price. While at that time Deep Chaos’s main point of expansion was against the Night Land, it took interest in the movement on its flank, and Clerestory was assaulted many times. It was at that time that a cult gathered around an Exile named the Very Great Grandfather--his pre-Exile character name--who claimed to have had contact with the Ark of Infinity. It was largely derided, but the group delivered a number of technological breakthroughs that helped Clerestory survive.”
“The influx of Exiles was a constant process over many centuries, as some visionaries guided Exiles to the Wild Reach and the Clear Star even as others--the majority--guided them to the Night Land and the Redoubt.”
“With the fall and the escape from the Redoubt, the population of Clerestory increased enormously, but the massive movement all at once brought down the forces of Deep Chaos, starting the First Galactic War and the blockage of the path into the Wild Reach.That prompted the Decision for the construction and deployment of the Armada.”
“End of report.”
The disturbance in the air subsided with some faint music.
Jeanette asked her father incredulously, “Is that the Looney Tunes music?”
“I think so, though you would know better than me,” Terence answered.
The capybara came up. “That was highly informative, but I would just as soon return to the Wooden Shoe for some food and rest--and return more heavily armed.”
There was no objection, so they returned to the ship. And after a nice comforting meal, Jeanette adjourned to her cabin, intending to do some reading, but falling asleep instead.
She was dead and tiny and naked and walking in a bright beautiful land. She wondered where she would go next. King Oberon then came to her and said, “You are still mine.”
And then he called her by a name that had her bolt upright in bed and crying out in fear.