They emerged on a beautiful green hillside sloping down to a vigorous blue river, with white-capped mountains building up from foothills in front of them.
“This is Grammar,” said O Tse. “It smells like it, and we even passed this place looking for a portal. My memory is good on these things.”
“Whew. I was worried there for a moment,” Jeanette said. Then she said “Hey!” as something landed on her back.
She twisted and tried to bring her arms to her back both from the top and from the side, twisting as she did so. Then something pushed off, batting at her hair. When she brought her hands arount to look at them, something big landed on them. She shouted “AAH!”
It was a bug the size of a bird--the size of one of her crows. She shook it frantically off her hands and was looking at it lying on the short grass. It was too big to stomp, and uncertain whether to ask one of the others to kill it.
Then her bracelets said “Please don’t kill.”
“You’re alive? I mean--aware? You can talk?” Instantly she saw it as having Pretty glossy purple-dark hard wings over delicate semi-transparent folded tissues beneath them.
“Do you have a name?” She asked.
“No. Most do not.”
At a loss of what to ask next, Jeanette paused. The beetle lifted its hard wings a little more and moved around. “This is such a pretty place,” it said. “All the colors. It feels good too.”
“You can see in color?”
“Yes. I have seen color. This is all bright color. So pretty.”
“We are very sorry, but we can’t take you back to--your world. You may be parted from your kind forever. I don’t think there are insects here your size, or with minds.”
“I’m not sad about that. This will be new and different.” The voice over the bracelets was high and had a lilt to it. At first Jeanette thought that it was only the function of the translator, but she could hear that there was real stress and, well, music to the voice. She switched from it in her mind to her.
“What was your life like there? What did you do?”
“I dug, I deposited eggs. My own eggs and others’ eggs. I moved poop. I ate and I drank. When the call came to fight the monster that had eaten the Emperor-God, I went. I didn’t get there, but came with you.”
“Was it all work? Was it a terrible life? Were--there things you liked about it?”
“It wasn’t all work. When I was tired, I rested. I liked eating things that weren’t poop. Sometimes I talked, but not much, because we weren’t tired at the same time. This is a lot of talking for me. I like that. Best of all I sang.”
Jeanette realized that they should really be going to find All Souls’ College, or someplace like it, but she couldn’t help herself. “Would you sing for me--for us?”
The beetle’s wings trembled. It leaned forward on its front four legs. It was very thin and very high, but Jeanette could hear that it rose and fell.
But then the bracelets kicked in, and the sound dropped down in the hearing range, and became sweeter. There were also lower, softer sounds, and they were in changing harmonies. It wasn’t just wavering, but notes. And there was resonance and force of attack and smooth glides: it was strange and beautiful.
It came to an end. “The bracelets make it sound like I hear it, inside. It’s a very good thing.”
“It’s beautiful,” she said. She got to her feet. “We have to get going now.”
“Can I come with you?”
“Yes, but the way we’re going is very dangerous. You’d probably live longer by leaving us.” She could feel the edge of hurt in her own voice.
“I’ll come with you. You’re all very pretty, and I like talking.”
They started walking, downhill at O Tse’s instruction, since he remembered the search for the portal as being mostly uphill. Senhor Capoeira Capybara came alongside Jeanette, and said close to her bracelets, “Welcome to the group, little one. Do you mind if I call you Gad?”
“Of course not,” the voice of the beetle said, obviously pleased.
Jeanette walked along for a few minutes, and then stifled a laugh. “Gadfly,” she said. “Except she’s not a fly.”
“Well, my only other idea was Thria, which is way too erudite, and easily confused with our absent friend Thyrsis,” the capybara said. “She does seem to be a gadabout, though.”
“I really don’t know what either of those words mean,” Jeanette confessed. “I’ve only heard them.”
“I tend to keep forgetting just how young you are, my darling Jeanette. Though it’s easy to do.”
A long way into an extended vocabulary lesson, they came over a rise, and Jeanette gasped a little. Below was the solitary tower and outbuildings of the College--but the tower was a ruin, with its side collapsed.
O Tse went to all fours and ran ahead, with Lord Elphinstone behind him. Senhor Capoeira stayed with Jeanette, who was running full out. This is what I get for my hand jumping when I drew the Tower, she thought. What dreadful thing had happened?
When she got close, it was clear what had happened: it was age. The stones had not been knocked down, but had fallen down. They were smoothed and lichen-covered, and the door-lintel sagged.
“How many years down the line are we? Five hundred? A thousand?” Jeanette said in self reproach. She didn’t know how to travel strictly in time, or even if that were possible.
They walked inside, and the interior was surprisingly fresh and well kept up. “This has the signs of an automated housekeeping system,” Silvertyger said. “Not applied to the outside, evidently.”
It did in fact look like Master Giancarlo Federici Tedeschi Overend-Watts still lived there, with some additional ventilation. There was one difference Jeanette noticed: all the bookshelves were empty.
Empty, except for one book inside one glass fronted cabinet. She opened it--it wasn’t one of the ones needing a key--and took it out.
It was a large thick book. She couldn’t read the script on the spine, and the front was nearly filled with embossed letters in a variety of alphabets, none of them familiar in the slightest to Jeanette. When she let her bracelets run over them, she got nothing either, until over halfway down the cover.
“A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PLANET GRAMMAR:
From the rise of agriculture to the Ascension
By Master Giancarlo Federici Tedeschi Overend-Watts,
Master of All Souls College
Ad Maiorem Deo Gloriam”
The character at the bottom of that, as Jeanette looked closely at it, looked suspiciously like a smiling emoticon.
“So,” growled Lord Elphinstone, “No Overend-Watts, no over-armed militia, and probably no world-girdling particle accelerator.”
“And look,” Said O Tse, pointing through the doorway.
Far in the distance--the second rise back, where the air was blue, was a large dark mass.
“It’s followed us here.”