One hundred seventy-three

One hundred seventy-three

There had never really been any question: Jeanette drew the last figure in the diagram and stepped through, her heart dead inside her.

This world--this greater world--held nothing for her now, but her home on Earth held even less--all the emptiness minus memory. Better to be torn apart by the monster like her father and her friends.

She had drawn the figure of a keyhole as the destination symbol, and knew it was a bad idea, and would get friends (and not-so-much-friends) in trouble, but the others were sure death, and worse. And the worst part of this for her would be to be forced to explain this--all this--to a sympathetic friend. Oh, why couldn’t she just turn to wood and play this out?

When she walked through, she was surprised--though she figured it was logical. When she had left, the universe had been about forty feet across, and now there was a gorgeous of rose-pink plaster, white columns, and green vines. There was as yet no sun, but all was bright and warm.

She walked along the path edged with shite stones, rounded a corner and there they were. Jack Shift, now minimally stylish in a jacket with embroidered edges, leapt up in alarm but Aventine Marie Arouet du Châtelet turned around and her eyes lit up with delight. “Jeanette! Oh, Jeanette!”

Although she had to remind herself that Aventine was thoroughly democratic, she made a perfect princess. She was an older girl, and mature, and looked even more beautiful than before. “Hello, Aventine. Hello, Jack.” Her voice sounded like somebody else’s, and unpleasant.

“Come here, Jeanette, and sit down. You’re hurt! And you look so tired!” Aventine patted a chair next to her.

It was at that moment that Gad the beetle, whom she had utterly and completely forgotten about, decided to poke out from between Jeanette’s back and backpack. “Hello,” she said through Jeanette’s bracelets.

“Hello! Aren’t you pretty!” Said Aventine delightedly.

“You’re very pretty too,” answered Gad.

“This is Gad,” said Jeanette, sounding dull and morose by comparison to the two. Aventine sat up and patted her lap, and Gad flew over and sat there, looking emerald and golden.

Aventine looked at Jeanette now. Her face was full of concern. Whether or not she could take it, Jeanette said, “They’re all dead. All of them, and i’m in a lot--terrible tanger.”

She looked shocked, and Jack half got out of his chair. “Oh no, Jeanette! Your father too?”

“Him too. Everybody.”

“Do you want to--” Aventine began.

“She obviously doesn’t,” Jack said. “Why have you come here and what can we do,” he added in an accusatory tone that said he meant the first part of the question and not the second.

“The monster was sent after us by Deep Chaos. It’s fixated on us, and has tracked us across dozens of universes. Usually, when we build a portal to travel through, it becomes useless afterwards, but this thing seems to follow us through them. It’s kind of indestructible: We could smash its limbs or even its head, and it puts itself back together again. We can take huge chunks out of it, and it just gets smaller, and then grows again. It doesn’t have beams or flames or anything like that, but is tremendously strong.”

Aventine handed her a glass. It was lemonade, and Jeanette drank it greedily. The last of the salt water taste left her mouth.

“The reason I came here is you, Jack, are a phaser. You cross universes in a different way than we do--you were able to find this universe, and Aventine, where nobody else could. This is maybe only a chance, but if you shift me somewhere, far off in a different direction, it might break the trail. And that might not save me completely, but I might have some time to find some of the powers out there that could destroy it where we’ve failed.”

“I think you’re overestimating my abilities,” Jack said sullenly.

“I may be,” Jeanette answered. “But it’s the only chance I was able to think of.”

“Please,” she aid nakedly.

“Do it, Jack,” said Aventine. “As you love me, do it.”

Jack bowed low towards Aventine. “I will,” he said, but as he turned to Jeanette his face was full of anger. “I am not going to carry you all over Cosmic Infinity in order to find someplace safe.”

“Jack!” Aventine’s voice rose in reproof.

“It’s okay. One unfamiliar jaunt should be enough. Either it works or it doesn’t. And either way, I’m in your debt.” Jeanette said, unable to raise any emotion towards him.

Jeanette got up. “I should be on my way quickly. I’m sorry I can’t stay, but I’m a danger to everyone around me.” There was just a leak of self-pity in those words, that if she didn’t clamp down would become a flood she couldn’t stop.

“I wish there was something I could do for you,” Aventine said.

“You could help me by letting Gad stay with you. You’d like it here, Gad,” she added.

“I would be most happy to have you as my guest,” Aventine said, the embodiment of grace.

“Thank you very much,” said Gad through the bracelets, “but I want to stay with Jeanette so she won’t be alone.” And Aventine bowed her head. Gad opened his wings and flew back to Jeanette.

Jack Shift got up. He strapped on a blaster and a belt with energy charges. “We should make our first step using whatever the method is that you make the portals. If the monster can’t follow my phasing, that would leave it stranded here, and that would be intolerable.”

“I agree,” Jeanette said. God, he was ready to pick a fight over anything from his tone of voice! But he was also completely right. She stooped down, then changed her mind and walked back to the beginning of the pathway to the porch, and as close as possible to where she’d come in. With any luck, the creature would just step through.

Jack came over and watched her as she drew the portal. Using the purple chalk, she drew the wavy lines of a river. Then the Decision Tree. Grabbing Jack’s hand, which at least he had the decency not to try to snatch away, she stepped through.

It was night on the mountainside, and as Jeanette had figured, the palace of the Civitate Rhei wasn’t in evidence. But even if she couldn’t make contact with the being who called herself Change, maybe the monster would get in trouble mucking about in the area.

Jack whirled her around, bent down to get right in her face. “You little self-centered shit,” he said so that spittle flew. “You jeopardize her safety by giving this indestructible monster a clear pathway right into her universe--her tiny universe--and you expect me to help you? I should just leave you here to rot or be torn apart like your fucking friends and go back and defend the woman I love!”

“Then do it,” Jeanette said, “nothing but a void in her chest and heart. She spat at him.

He hit her. His fist connected with her cheekbone.

He turned around and vanished.


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