The Bench of Defense was a suitably grand tall chamber in shades of cool green. There were both clean lines and bands and clusters of ornament that made it look quite elegant. Jeanette and Lord Elphinstone stood before a very tall panel, at the top of which sat three beings. Jeanette had been calling them antelope men, but these three all had thick curled ram’s horns, but they didn’t otherwise look like sheep. They stood, and there was a force that kept her hands down and in the front, but it wasn’t terribly uncomfortable.
“The creature is extraordinarily resistant to most manner of assault, sirs,” said Lord Elphinstone. “It absorbs incredibly powerful energy blasts without harm to itself, and when it suffers a projectile blow that blows out a chunk of itself, it adjusts its form and continues. We’ve had some success with a teleportation beam, but that just delays things. It is implacably focussed on us, and has followed us across many worlds.”
“I see,” said one of the rams. “Very frightening. And you wish help with this thing?”
“Through desperation, yes,” the tiger said. We are reluctant to involve you--or anybody--in this, It has killed the rest of our company, including Jeanette’s father. We continue to run from it, but we can’t run forever, and without additional aid, and at a very powerful level, we will die.”
Lord Elphinstone was being very careful: no talk of toons or agents of the Imagination, Deep Chaos and the Edge of Everything, Decision Tree portals and Avalon and Ys and the Wombflash Forest.To a race having a problem with interdimensional travel, any one of these could be a deal breaker. But the bare bones were bad enough.
He also didn’t mention the thing that freaked them out. As they talked with the judges, the door to the chamber opened up and an antelope man entered the room. None of the rams acknowledged his existence, as he looked Jeanette and Silvertyger quizzically, went to a flat door at the side of the chamber, reappeared on the high bench itself, rummaged around looking for something, passing right in front of a ram as he was speaking, then made his way out again. He had not seen them and they had not seen him. It was hard for either of them not to react to this, Jeanette knew, but even though this looked to be the central fact of this city, they were going to try to keep it simple, at least for now.
“We don’t find any dishonesty in you, and on that basis have put the city on armed alert. We will give you an opportunity to rest and refresh yourselves: we may call on you again for further testimony. This session of the Bar of Defense is closed but not adjourned.” There was a clack of something.
A slender high-voiced antelope (which may have meant a young one or a female one) was at the door of the Bar chamber to escort them. “I heard that! That sounds terribly dangerous! I’m so sorry about your father,” it said.
“Thank you,” Jeanette said. It sounded so basic and earth-like that she began to feel hot and to tear up. She was about to wipe her nose on her sleeve when Silvertyger put a handkerchief in front of her face. She took it and blew.
“I don’t understand, is she ill?” The antelope asked.
“It’s a sign of emotional reaction in her species.” The tiger said.
“Oh,” said the antelope. “I should have realized you were two separate species. I was just thinking that it must be a remarkable transition to adulthood…”
“It would be,” said Lord Elphinstone.
The room they were lead to reminded Jeanette of an ordinary Earth hotel or motel room, with two big beds and not much else. The beds looked awfully inviting to Jeanette, even if they were to short for Lord Elphinstone--but he wasn’t going to use one anyway. She remembered her father saying that, for all the wildness of their adventures, they still managed to get to sleep every once in a while in real beds, and she blew her nose again.
The door opened, and another antelope entered. The first one, who was talking with Silvertyger, took no notice of the other, though Lord Elphinstone certainly did.
Antelope #2 made its way over to Jeanette, who was making a show of sitting on the side of the near bed and taking off her boots. It crouched down to her eye level and said, “We heard about you up on the ridge! It’s so good you managed to make it down into the city! Are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” she said in the smallest voice she could use without whispering. “Can I ask you a peculiar question?”
“Of course!” The antelope said solicitously.
“Are we three the only people in this room?”
“That’s a mighty peculiar question indeed! Yes, just us three! Unless--” it smiled wickedly, “You’re referring to your friend here!”
Gad the beetle finished climbing up onto Jeanette’s shoulder. “I’m pleased to meet you,” she said.
“And so well-spoken, too!” The antelope exclaimed.
Well that confirmed that, Jeanette thought. They really couldn’t sense each other--which meant there was something going on than a futuristic city full of crazy antelopes.
She decided to try something else. She said in a conversational and even loud tone, “We feel guilty about bringing this down on you, but we are fleeing from a really terrible monster, and we could use any help you could give us.”
Antelope #1 continued to talk to Lord Elphinstone, not hearing a word. Which meant that, though she and the tiger could hear and talk to both, the one couldn’t hear an interaction from the other side--if that’s what it was.
“I heard,” Antelope #2 said, “and I’m sure we’ll do everything we can to help you.”
“That’s so good to hear,” Jeanette said. “There’s one thing: I picked this up off the ground on our way here. I can’t read it, though.” And she pulled out the square of gold with the silver writing.
Antelope #2 looked at it. “It says ‘The Balance that is named is not the Balance.’ It’s an old Bible quote. But I think that’s gold!”
A loud alarm sounded in the room. “BATTLE STATIONS! ENEMY HAS CLEARED THE RIDGE! BATTLE STATIONS!”
Both antelopes jumped to their feet. Jeanette slipped on her shoes and her backpack, and Gad slid into her place. They ran out of the room, down the corridor and to an elevator door. They boarded a crowded elevator, Jeanette with Antelope #2 and Silvertyger with Antelope #2.
They got off at the last stop, which let out onto an observation platform extremely high up on the central tower. They went to the edge and looked down. It was the misshapen monster, now very big, heading for a perimeter of guns on wheeled and floating vehicles.
The creature walked through the line of armament as if it didn’t exist.