It was a terrifying moment: they were standing in front of an unfinished Gate, with the Pilgrims, who had been all powerful reassurance abruptly vanishing. Now the planet was shaking and the air full of roaring menace. It was the definition of unfair on top of all of that.
Sir Elphinstone and O Tse towered over the rest of them, sword and pike at the ready, and Jeanette was ready to press the--what was it? Luster? Rulership?--The jewel that generated a physical force shield, but she needed to know whether it was a monster or something, more, well, impersonal. The roar said yes, the earthquake said no. The light around them got very very bright, and the heat became intense. In discussing this with her father, he warned her that there was a possibility of being cooked inside a force shield.
But she was ready to push the panic jewel (she had come up with that one by herself) when the heat subsided, though the light and the shaking did not. The shaking was not the kind you get from the footprints of a big monster, but coming from beneath.
“I’m waiting for the force shield, little girl,” Thyrsis said through her bracelet, sounding nervous enough for the entire group.
Then the Pilgrims were back.
Jeanette was beginning to decipher their facial expressions, even though their huge owl eyes were still disconcerting--and they didn’t seem worried. In fact, their mobile mouths were smiling. And though the light was so bright you could barely make out the shapes of the trees, she had absolutely no problem at all seeing them.
“We apologize: we had to make sure things were stabilized for the transit. We were so interested in our discussion with you, we nearly forgot.”
There was one word that stood out: transit.
“Transit?” Jeanette asked.
“Oh yes! This planet--it may be unique--threads its way in a very complex orbit among many suns here at the center of this galaxy. It’s atmosphere is extremely insulating and reflective, or lead would be molten on its surface. But the truly remarkable thing is, once every hundred orbits or so, it actually goes through the atmosphere of one of the stars. It has its corona torn away, so the photosphere is not all that warm. We were here to experience Transit again: it’s well worth seeing more than once, and we’d like you to accompany us, if you choose to.”
“Of course,” said Dr. Ransom, meaning I will fight the rest of you if you say no.
It was clear to Jeanette that Senhor Capoeira Capybara was not transitioning quickly from cold fear to excited enthusiasm, but he nodded in agreement. She was skidding a bit herself, but once again Dada lent her the strength she needed.
They were surrounded by ghostly tree trunks that seemed to grow out of the earth lifting them into the upper air. The Pilgrims moved among them waving their strange fingers in front of their faces. “Lens filters so you will be able to see.” (Jeanette thought of her lynx contact lenses from Diotima with a rush of sorrow) The forest cover sank below them, and they reached the opaque sky. They rose through it for a very long time, and finally emerged into space.
The Orion Nebula had been the most breathtaking sight Jeanette had ever seen, but it was nothing compared to this. Hundreds of stars from yellow to blue-white--sheets swirling gases of all colors--here and there a patch of filtered dark--and before them a huge semi-transparent globe of yellow white, full of cells and swirls and rising columns of streaming gas that must be as wide as this entire world.
They entered, and the edge of the star moved over their head, and they were in the middle of a dance of fire that made everything she had ever seen seem insignificant. There were alphabets of glowing gas--landscapes of fire--swashes drawn with the hands of giants, and Jeanette watched as it all passed in review.
Finally the surrounding curls and flames faded, and the cluster of ghostly trees began to sink through the miles of insulating clouds. Jeanette closed her eyes and, being of the time and space she was, decided that when this was over she would buy her own Imax theater and watch that trip whenever she wanted.
They reached the ground softly. “We couldn’t leave without having seen this again--but leave we must. This place is not safe for you in the long term,” the Red Pilgrim said.
O Tse bowed low before them. “Thank you. If everything fails from here on in, I will at least have seen that.”
“We will do what we can that you do not fail, O Tse. But is a great thing that we have shared that sight.”
The grey one said, “Now please, break your camp and make ready to travel. ”
Jeanette packed her backpack, which was by now quite an assembly of stuff. She sought out the box with her lynx-eye contact lenses, and was glad to find them still there. She once again thought about eating some of the Skittles--after all, they couldn’t be magical and have come through the wish-teleporter, now, could they? But she still got herself ready in time.
They started to walk. Jeanette looked up: miles of heavy shielding, and the suns still shone through. She was still thrilling from the sight, and felt entirely the way O Tse had said.
She was beginning to wonder what interdimensional walking was going to be like, and was also beginning to be disappointed that it was taking so long with them still on the same planet.
The leaves began to fall around them, and se realized that they were different leaves. The path moved upward, and the trees began to thin out. It was most satisfactory: they were now climbing a gentle mountainside with fewer and fewer bushes and short grass, and white mountains in most directions.
When they ended up walking along a little mountain stream, she thought it almost look a little familiar. One of the Pilgrims in the lead, said, “Don’t step into the stream or over it, and certainly don’t drink from it!” Senhor Capoeira Capybara, who looked like he was going to do just that, refrained.
They stopped at no particular place, high enough to feel the chill and the thinness of the air. They sat down and the capybara immediately handed around hard-to-identify sandwiches and perfect juicy peaches.
After the meal, the Pilgrims passed among them. It was the redone who knelt in front of Jeanette. He handed her a small leather bag with a drawstring. “Use this at the time your weapons fail.” Then it drew a small circle with the claw-tip of a finger on her forehead. “This will make you far more difficult to kill.” And then it drew a line from cheek to cheek. “And this is for when the time that you do die, that you go where you need to go.”
“You’re scaring me,” she whispered.
“You are a Warrior of the Imagination, and you will prevail.”
The Pilgrims gathered in front of them.
“Here is the Civitate Rhei, one of our greatest discoveries. Do not try to enter until you have figured out how, and hide none of your feelings or thoughts when you do enter. You can find power and guidance,” the gray one said.
“And now we must actually leave you, being unable to go any farther into our own future,” said the red one.
“Friends. Heroes,” they all said together, and vanished.
The travelers sat looking at the narrow mountain stream.