There was the sound of furious fighting coming from behind Jeanette’s door. Terence yanked it open, his other hand ready to grab a rifle from beyond the sixth wall.
His daughter was safe, sitting wide-eyed in bed and clutching the covers around her. In the middle of the room was the clockwork lynx, as big as he’d ever seen it, twisting and digging its talons into a pitch-black shape that was bucking and trying to throw it off. He watched, and the shape dissolved and faded, only to have arcs of power crackle out of the lynx’s talons, whereupon the thing re-formed.
Lord Elphinstone and O Tse, flanked by the crows, were the next through the door, followed by Dehingaj Emins, her wings half-spread, even though they were more a hindrance than a help in the limited space.
“A phaser, of all things--!” She said. “Do I have permission to break your security shield, Dr. Ransom?”
“Do it,” he said.
In a blink there was a little boy even smaller than Jeanette in the room with them. He went down on all fours and scrambled towards the entwined pair. He reached a hand out and touched the black thing, and all three vanished amid a puff of hot foul air.
The winged policewoman asked Dr. Ransom, “Do you have experience with these things? Might this thing have followed you?”
“No--we’ve had experience with a human--a Yahoo who can phase, but not like this.”
“I’ve seen one,” said Lieutenant Quintus Octavian, who was bringing up the rear with the Queen and the capybara.
“So have I, but not for a long, long time, and under conditions I’d hoped would never be repeated. The Shift Riots were awful, and they led to the abandonment of a whole section of Storisende--Zero Town--that still hasn’t been reclaimed. The cabal that started the riots somehow got their hands on packs of these phasers, and the young of the city were vanishing by the hundreds until we came up with countermeasures.”
As if on cue, the three figures blinked back. They were now separate: the lynx was now folded back down, the phaser had a grey slug-like thing pulsing on its back, and the boy was standing to one side with similar grey slime covering one hand. The boy had a slightly simian face, with a brow-ridge and a protruding jaw, and he wore a tie-dyed shirt that hurt the eyes. He was smiling, and his eyes were large and dark-lashed.
“This is Oikumene Bol, our Chief of Teleportation at the Department.”
“It’s a good thing Sharon at Central knew where everything was or I’d’ve had a wild night of it.”
“My experience with these things is far more recent,” said the Lieutenant, at which all eyes turned to him. “I was part of a bodyguard detail protecting a key investor in a project I hope I don’t have to tell you the details of. It had already endured brutal attacks in supposedly secure areas, until he was quartered in the Street Called Straight, behind starship-level shielding.”
“I remember the case,” Dehingaj said.
“But even while we had a ring of guards three feet away, a phaser dropped in and out. Fortunately, the investor was a colony organism, and we were able to track and disintegrate the phaser without killing the investor. The deal went through, but we never did find out the identity of the enemy or where he, she, or it got hands on the phaser. Not much help, but that was only three years ago.”
The simian boy had vanished again, and reappeared. “Traces show that the phaser hit almost every room in the hospital before coming into the young girl’s, where it was attacked by the robot.” He raised the arm with the slime on it, and clenched his fist. A seam opened up in the black multi-legged mass, and a pile of objects spilled out, covered in transparent slime. They were mainly metal, but some books, and half a sandwich.
“So it didn’t target Jeanette specifically,” the winged woman said. Dr. Ransom, who had gotten to Jeanette’s bedside at the first opportunity, said, “That’s a relief. There have been too many attacks in my daughter’s bedroom lately.”
“Although it would certainly have ingested her and kidnapped her if it hadn’t been stopped.” Oikumene said.
“It would have tried,” said Jeanette fiercely.
Dehingaj came over to the bed and shook Jeanette’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jeanette Ransom. My name is Dehingaj Emins, and I’m with the Storisende Police. Your father and your friends have told me something of your larger purpose, and I’m not sure whether this is another attack simply because of your current celebrity or your larger struggle, but we’ll help protect you as much as we possibly can.”
“They’re the super-heroes of Storisende,” Terence said playfully.
“Oh don’t make fun of them, Dada,” she said.
“Self-described,” Dr. Ransom responded.
“With your permission, I would like to stay here for the rest of the night, and station my squad members inside. I’d also recommend that no one sleep alone,” Dehingaj said, turning quickly and pointing at the Lieutenant. “I.” She said accusingly, “will stay in the room with her Majesty, subject to her approval.”
The Queen of Hearts smiled and inclined her head. “I can’t say no to such a gallant offer.”
The meeting dispersed. Oikumene Bol popped out and popped back with some silky pajamas for Dr. Ransom, then popped out. After donning them modestly in the bathroom, he got in the bed, and Jeanette snuggled up close to him.”
“You know, I keep thinking , ‘this will be the last bed I sleep in for a while,’ that it will be all foxholes and trenches from here on in, and kept being proved wrong.” Jeanette leaned her head against his side, and was almost immediately asleep.
“Not that I’m complaining, mind you,” he whispered, looking up at the ceiling.
The next morning, breakfast was late, and Dehingaj Emins was the only one of the Flying Squad at the table with them. It was the Queen who spoke to her. “As with other places, much though we’ve enjoyed our stay, and much though we’d like the opportunity to research the clues we’ve been given, we seem to endanger our hosts with our presence. So I think we’d best take our leave of you.”
The winged woman nodded. “I’ll assemble my team to provide you with an escort to the portal that will take you on your path.”
The Queen’s smile broadened. “That won’t be necessary. We have a few trade secrets of our own.”
The table cleared itself, and the group adjourned to Jeanette’s library. There they found an elegant wall which, though handsomely decorated, was blank. Dr. Ransom took out his case of chalks, and the Queen said, we can create our own portal with this. Dehingaj’s eyes opened a bit.Ransom roughed out the black area, then the white hole in the center. With the purple chalk, he drew a crescent moon, then another crescent moon inside it. He was about to draw in the Decision Tree, when the policewoman touched him on the shoulder. “Will this portal stay open?”
“Usually it’s just for one passage, but I can set it up to stay.”
“Please do. I promise to close it--erasing it works, I imagine?--But I have a very strong feeling that you will have need of our help.”
Dr. Ransom drew the red line around the black area and said, “Erasing does it. And you’re offering more than we could ask for. Thank you.”
Lieutenant Quintus Octavian stepped up, back ramrod straight. “Please allow me to go with you,” he said mostly to the Queen. “What little I can do to aid and protect you, that I shall do to the utmost of my ability and with a full heart.”
“Yes, please take him,” Dehingaj said. “It will make my life immensely simpler. Boring, too-but I could use that right now.”
O Tse touched Quintus on the shoulder as Dr. Ransom drew the glyph of the Decision Tree. A wing lowered the temperature of the library at least twenty degrees, and they stepped through, leaving the winged woman looking after them.