One hundred sixty-three

One hundred sixty-three

She was being held by Lord Elphinstone’s arm, his paw at her waist. The platform was tilted at an angle, and the wind was rushing by at tremendous speed.

“That portal is not only closed but guarded,” he said. “It confirms our theory, but we’re now in imminent danger.”

“I’m waiting for the second bolt, however,” said O Tse. “The question is, did it regard us as a large sea-bird to be warned off, or a reconnaissance mission of an armed force?”

“I may be imagining things, but that beam seemed to be aimed directly at Jeanette. Could that be possible?” asked Senhor Capoeira Capybara.

The platform wasn’t leveling off, and Jeanette realized that whoever was controlling it was keeping its base between them and the area of rock from which the beam had emanated. She let herself be held by her friend the huge humanoid tiger with the mirror armor. In a raw simple way she felt safe, and she held onto it as if it were a treat.

It became clear there wasn’t going to be another beam, so as soon as they were out of direct line of sight, they settled in a lower part of the headland. The ground, even this far away from the fortress, was still littered with fragments of swords and shields, so Jeanette sat on the platform and dangled her legs. Gad the beetle, emerging from who knows where, crawled up and sat on her lap.

“The base problem is,” Lord Elphinstone began, “that it’s impossible to say whether, in Deep Chaos, we are dealing with an intelligence or a primal force. The things that have been thrown against us adapt to situations, and make tactical decisions, but even in the case of that monstrous fleet of ships, were they playing a strategic game? Does it, somewhere, correlate its information? We don’t know.”

O Tse said, “You mean, that once we tripped that alarm, some intelligence somewhere might say wait one minute, these are the same people that destroyed our space fleet on Clerestory, and now they’re trying to get through this ancient portal? If they/it does, then our level of danger has vastly increased.”

“It may be foolhardy to assume that connection hasn’t been made,” the tiger answered.

The capybara said, “But it has known we’re here. We fought the monster and teleported its ass into deep space--all right next door to the portal. A portal that might have been shut down a thousand years ago. The sky may not be falling here.”

Jeanette had been building up her courage to speak, and it was her deep, deep unhappiness that finally pushed her forward. She spoke mostly to Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone, who she both loved and was in awe of.

“I know you--all of you--want to, see it as your duty to, maybe even swore to my f-father to--” (she didn’t, didn’t want to break down now!) “--to protect me and keep me safe. But I don’t think I can stand running away any more, running away, losing, and maybe dying in some corner anyway, but that’s not the point. The point is--the point is--” (she was messing this up!) “--That I want to go into the danger, if it leads closer to the fight, to the answer. I want us to go. Not to be safe.”

Silvertyger bowed his head and looked at his clasped hands. “I once spoke roughly to your father, saying that his love for you made him less courageous, while your love for him made you more so. I am shamed to say that I have been walking down that path as well. I have forgotten that I walk with a little girl with a heart full of courage.”

“Oh no, no--don’t--” Jeanette stammered.

“It’s the truth. Now,” he said, raising his head, “Let us plan our assault.”

True to form, Senhor Capoeira insisted that they sit down and eat something. He spread out a blanket among the broken weaponry in a rather bizarre picnic, but the food and drink was as good as it always was.

“One of the things that struck me is that we were running around under that invisible ship and it didn’t trip that beam--so maybe it was acting as something of a shield,” he said.

Silvertyger said, “Since it’s not simply invisible, but exists in two universes at the same time, id might deflect some things while letting ordinary light pass.”

“It could be. The alternate--that the beam only gets activated at an extremely close proximity--is possible, but makes less sense. So the question is,” he turned to O Tse, “do you think you could cut a panel out of an invisible hull with that multi-purpose pike of yours?”

“It might take some finesse--and a map would help, but I think so.”

“Well then, we’ve got enough light left. Let’s try it,” said the weasel-bear.

“Definitely better than another night in that fortress,” Senhor Capoeira said, which got agreeing murmurs all around.

They were down on the narrow strand of the fjord, and some manipulation of one of the devices of the Cowards enabled there to be a holographic projection of the sensor map that projected a red-lined frame exactly where the ship lay in the water. The first few tries O Tse made with the feathered blades of his pike just sent beams shooting at the rock or into the water, but several adjustments generated beams that stopped where the hull allegedly was. It took about a half an hour of tightly-controlled motions to cut loose a panel that would protect the upper part of the platform, and turned out to be manageable by the two big warriors.

With the invisible shield on the platform, they hunched a little instinctively behind the shield. The platform took the additional weight without a hitch, and they rose up. Jeanette pulled out a gun from beyond the sixth wall just in case their hard-won shield turned out not to do anything.

They took a shallow arc with the sunset on their left, and made for the area of the huge faint Decision Tree symbol. “First threshold crossed--no fire!” The capybara called out.

A minute later, picking up speed, a beam did leap out, causing them to fall to the deck--but it hit the invisible shield and vanished. Jeanette rouse to a crouch, her heart beating furiously.

They were very close now, and hurtling towards a blank stone wall, when a different kind of beam flashed out that went through the shielding, but fortunately over their heads. Jeanette took aim at where the beam had come from, and fired from the edge of the shield. She missed, but her beam reflected off the stone--reflected inwards.

“That’s the reason for the beams!” She shouted as the wall loomed ahead. “They never closed the portal! They couldn’t! It’s STILL OPEN!”

They ran at--and through--the mountain wall.


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