The Wooden Shoe glided into the mouth of the hollow asteroid on a tractor been, tiny against the spread petals of its open mouth. The curved world was a sprinkling of night lights, beginning to change into dawn as the column at the center began to reillumine the interior.
In the daylight the outer skin was a map of farmland, lakes, villages, and the occasional large structure that reached up towards the center.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen science-fiction pictures like this,Jeanette,” her father said, “but this was thought of as a way to live in space. The asteroid spun to create gravity, so that everyone down their feels as if they’re standing up. Solar power is collected in the center column to be the sun.”
“Never seen it,” she said in a small voice.
“Neither have I,” said the Queen of Hearts. “How beautiful.”
If it was rotating, then so were they, because they were slowly descending to an area that looked like an airport from above. As they neared the ground, Jeanette broke away from staring to run back into the refresher, because her fingers were sticking together. If these were her own people--toons or what have you, she had enough sense left to want to make a good impression. (Of course, she thought, all she would have to do is stand next to the Queen, and nobody would look at her.)
The ship settled into a cradle that seemed to be set in a vegetable garden. Figures in coveralls wheeled a mobile staircase out of an old movie up to the hatchway. They came down with Lord Elphinstone and O Tse first, making it creak.There was a group at the bottom to meat them, the most string of which was a figure nearly as tall as Silvertyger and twice as wide, with short scarlet fur except for a heart-shaped white face patch and a magnificent set of ram’s horns. They were all white-gloved, and Jeanette felt with a thrill that she might be among her own kind at last.
Then she went cold as she remembered the last time she had been in this large a group--in the embattled bunker in the Night Land, among a desperate courageous group that she next saw slaughtered. She wasn’t going to a reunion, but to a war.
The Queen said, “Our friends who aren’t of our sodality have nonetheless dedicated themselves to our cause, and have proven their steadfastness.” Lord Elphinstone and Lieutenant Octavian bowed their heads, while Captain Chresti stood a little bit apart and nodded (and the crows had the good sense to keep their comments to themselves.)
There was a ritual of everybody shaking everybody else’s hands, which was more than just a formality, since Jeanette’s gloves and hands were tingling at the end of it. It did make her glad they weren’t sticky.
“This is quite a--structure. On my world, thee were people imagining things like this, but they were considered rather, well, extreme,” Dr. Ransom said.
A tall man with somewhat asian features, tall and broad-shouldered, with a mass of carefully-coiffed hair threaded with curlicues of white, responded. “It’s all because of the beings you’ve encountered--the Stardrakes. They’re the dominant species of this whole arm of the Reach. They live in the stars but consume their planets for heavier elements, and their appetite is prodigious, practically stripping out solar systems of most planets. As a result, all we’ve had to work with have been planetoids. We have been able to turn them into effective destroyers of these monsters.”
The red ram-horned one said in a rough, scraping voice, “It’s pretty remarkable to see you here, friends. Visitors have slowed down to nothing since the Enemy crammed a galaxy up our ass.”
“It was a pretty exciting transition,” said Captain Chresti. It didn’t escape Jeanette’s notice that their reception committee were just a little bit startled to hear one of their non-gloved number talk, and that didn’t make her happy.
She felt it was time to bring up the topic that was bothering her. “When we said that we’d come to join the fight against Deep Chaos, you said you were afraid of that. What did you mean?”
“That will take a bit of explaining,” said another one of the group, whom Jeanette recognized as the face on the communications screen. “Will you come inside so we can sit?”
“All of us?” said Dr. Ransom. So her father had noticed the same reaction!
“We’re sorry,” said the screen guy. “When there have been gloveless members of a party, they’ve most often been synthetics. We apologize for our rudeness. Will you all come in?”
The inside of the small building revealed it as more a large garden shed than anything else. There were machines, including hoes and rakes, and smelled pleasantly of dirt. Noticing Jeanette’s reaction, he smiled and said, “In order to make a small ecology like this support a population, very little surface is wasted. It is necessary to cultivate our garden.”
“Voltaire,” croaked Thyrsis from Jeanette’s bracelets, causing another jump from the reception committee. Jeanette sheepishly held up a bracelet and explained, “The birds can speak, but only through these.”
There were chairs, and they sat, with Thyrsis and Antithyrsis deciding to perch on Jeanette’s shoulders. The screen guy spoke. “When we came to the Reach after the abandonment and escape from the Redoubt, we fought our way through many perils until we reached the Edge of Everything, so-called. Facing the seemingly infinite face of Deep Chaos, a group of us didn’t see, not only how we could win against it, but how we could even fight it. Some of us--and we called ourselves the Cowards, because that’s what we were--quailed at just throwing all of our lives away. At least not until there was some sign of hope that we wouldn’t all perish.”
“The parting was without rancor, and we cowards retreated back beyond the Clear Star, where we decided to build some sort of life for our kind. We did promise, however, that if the Warriors called us, we would come.”
The Cowards all put their hands to their throats and lifted out glowing jewels on thin silver chains.
“For over seven hundred years we have heard nothing.”