“We will of course not argue about your chosen course. We will give you what aid you need, to the extent that we can give it. But we must tell you that the army you are seeking to join may no longer exist.”
The travelers greeted the statement with silence. There was little they could say in response: their whole effort had been fueled by surmises, guesses, and and a couple of maps. And all the mysterious encouragements they had gotten didn’t work against the idea that they had somehow screwed up and come too late.
The Queen of Hearts spoke. “We’ve come for resistance and revenge, but a great part of the fire in our hearts is for knowledge. With this huge a community of our people, I’d hope that you haven’t given up hope of the knowledge of our lives before the Exile. Am I wrong?”
“That, at least, we can assure you, we’re still pursuing,” The huge ram’s-horned figure answered. “We started, once our diaspora began to end, of recording our testimonies, but we soon made a discovery, that we dreamed two levels of dream--even those of us with no memory of pre-Exile life. We think that it may be the one scar of being folded into our receiving worlds. Though none of them are obvious, we are building something in our Common Dream that eventually may give us entry--of a sort--into that world. If you’re bored while we’re re-fitting your ship, we’ll be happy to take you to a location.”
“I’m sure we all would love to see it,” said O Tse, “but if you could give us further information on what lies ahead, we could better make our decisions. The only thing we know about the Clear Star is its rather poetic name.”
The coiffed Asian man responded, “the origin of the name’s a bit more banal, in that it was the only Star we encountered clear of Stardrakes, and therefore with planets we could use. But we discovered some strange qualities there, like its anomalous core, which are hard to describe without some considerable mathematics. It was from there the Armada was launched, when the Great Ship arrived in the Escape from the Redoubt.”
“Yes,” Jeanette said without thinking, then grew red as she realized that she had at least hinted at something they maybe should have held back. Now that she had done it, she might as well admit it. “We were there--most of us. We saw it leave.”
This caused a stir among the greeters. The one from the screen said “Of course. It shouldn’t be strange, with the time slippage from universe to universe. But to us that was a legendary event. We shouldn’t dare to talk of our cowardice to even witnesses of such heroic events…”
“No,” said Dr. Ransom. “We’re not legends or heroes.”
“Well, hold on there, Doctor. Speak for yourself,” squawked Thyrsis on Jeanette’s shoulder, translated by her bracelets.
“Yes, some of us are pretty legendary,” said Antithyrsis. “Not him though.”
This seemed to disconcert the Committee rather than amuse them. The Queen stepped forward to the coiffed man. “Please,” she said with a low vibrancy in her voice, “We are one people, inheriting one tragedy. You may be right that we will go on ahead, but don’t let that divide us.”
Jeanette could feel the force of her charisma from where she stood. The committee calmed down. “I didn’t catch your name,” she said to the coiffed man, who was taller than her but looked smaller.
“He didn’t throw it,” said Ram’s-horns. “He’s Tloikara um Baroch, and I’m C’dallasophin. They’re both mouthfuls. I call him Butch, which he hates, and he calls me Soapy in revenge.”
“I don’t hate it,” said Butch.
“And you can call me Your Majesty,” The Queen said with a broad smile.
That, finally, got a laugh.
“She pulled that out of the fire for you,” said Thyrsis to Jeanette.
“Yeah,” she said quietly.
The screen guy (who introduced himself as Alfonso Esgueva de Valladolid, but whose voice the gloves translated without an accent) started talking in a professorial manner, “ The Clear Star is toward the leading edge of this arm of the Wild Reach, but is also the closest point to a hyperdimensional boundary, on the other side of which is the domain of Deep Chaos. The Edge of Everything is now deep inside that area. You can’t see any of that in ordinary space-time on any of the planets of the star, but believe me, you can feel it. The most Voss-like planet--excuse me, Earth-like planet--Clerestory, is surrounded by enormous stations and docks used for the Armada, and more at the Trojan points. All feel haunted.”
Jeanette dimly remembered hearing the term Trojan points, but had no idea what it meant. She’d ask her Dada.
“In all these structures, you may find some of our kind still living, or, more likely, some reference machines. We’ll provide you with keys and passwords that will work on all of them. The direction to the barrier varies with the orbit, but the safest path is when the Star is between you and the barrier.”
“That’s enough,” rasped Soapy. “Let’s take them to a Dreaming Station.”
Jeanette wondered who of them was in charge--but then thought of her own group. They were, after all, toons.
They were led down a lane lined by heavily-laden fruit trees (Jeanette couldn’t bring herself to pick one of the yellow fruit, although they looked inviting) to a modest house. They walked in to find an interior as unimposing as the SpacePort Terminal/garden shed, but with a lot of chairs of different sizes, a couple of things that looked like a cross between a dentist’s chair and a recliner--and in the center, a hovering light that looked like abstract blue fairies dancing.
This time it was Butch who spoke. “One of the most significant discoveries we made is that we have two levels of dreaming: the kind common to most sentient and a more elusive sort. It may be the last trace of our incarnation after the Exile, though we’re not sure of that. The thing is that we never, ever remember these dreams when we have them, but they can be read by the Apparatus. So here, and on the other asteroids, they are visited all the time, and the whole corpus is being analyzed by our very best machines. We would dearly love to record you, but it’s not a quick process.”
Jeanette looked with pleasant fascination at the complex blue light, and felt something stir within her. Very deep.
By the time they walked back to the ship, though, they were ready to go. There had never been any question, really, and they all knew it.
After a comprehensive round of handshakes, the travelers boarded the ship, and the engines powered up. Jeanette was in her cabin bunk, once again very tired, and felt drowsier by the gentle lift-off.
And then, like the vividest of dreams even though she was still awake, she saw Jimmy Newman five hundred feet tall over the castle of Broceliande--and getting transparent. Jimmy looked down from a thousand feet, but there was no doubt about it: he was looking right at her.
“Bye, Jeanette: it was great meeting you,” he said like distant thunder, taller than the world.
“See you later.”
And the sky winked at her.