Terence Ransom was, at this particular step along life’s journey, largely over being impressed, though being alarmed was still very much in his repertoire, So when this mysterious shadowy woman said, “we need to talk,” he sat down at the hospital’s dining rom table and said, “Okay, let’s talk. What can I do for you?”
“I simply need to talk about you and your group’s presence in Storisende. To clarify, I am not really here: your hospital’s security is too good for that. But there is a slot cut in the system for municipal security, and I’m using it. My name is Dehingaj Emins, and I’m the head of the Extraordinary Division of Storisende’s Harmony Colloquy--our official title, but nobody calls us that anymore.”
“So you’re the police. Pleased to meet you.” Ransom was still not impressed, and only moderately less alarmed.
“We’re a bit more than that. We’re somewhere between the police, and--let me see what cultural referents come up--the Justice League of America? The Avengers?”
“TV or comics?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what that means--but you recognize the terms, which is good. The current nickname for us is--thanks mainly to me--the Flying Squad.”
Her capacious cloak fell back, and two wings filled the room.
Dr. Ransom had all his sang-froid shields up, however, and said nothing.
“The situation is this, Dr. Ransom. Your Queen makes an impressive entrance--and your daughter a charming one, that cuts through the usual buzz about comings and goings. Shortly afterwards, you seem to unlock one of the most ancient secrets of Storisende, the Library. And early the next morning you are attacked most brutally--and most brutally dealt with the attackers. Now, none of these are crimes or even misconducts, and you have acquired a substantial cheering section--but we’d very much like to know--very much--just what your business and your intentions are here in my city.”
The woman was so imposing--as much so as the Queen of Hearts--so beautiful, and so perfectly and elaborately uniformed, that Terence suspected he was talking to a construct. However, she didn’t bluster or plead. And the hour being late, he made the decision not to try to formulate a cover story (although Senhor Capoeira Capybara could no doubt whip one up on the spot) and instead tell the truth.
He held up his white gloved hands. “Do you know the significance of these?”
Dehingaj Emins did something he didn’t expect: she vanished.
And then nothing.
He waited a minute--five minutes--and just as he was about to give up in bewilderment, a small tone sounded next to his ear: “The front door.,” a whispery voice said.
He went down to the entrance hall, and the voice again said, “the scan is clean, but there is a municipal security override in place. You can deny entrance personally.” He responded quietly, “No. Admit her.”
The person who came in was a shorter, deflated, definitely older, but in some ways more attractive version of the construct, at least to his taste.
“My timing is a bit off. I apologize. It’s a big city, and people will collide their dirigibles at the oddest times. May I come in?”
They sat down at the table again, and Dehingaj said, “You may call down the others, if you want.”
“For right now, this is fine. But please explain,” Dr. Ransom said.
“Many inhabitants don’t remember this, but a few hundred years ago, there was a massive influx of beings--some Yahoo, some sentient animal--all wearing these gloves. They didn’t cause trouble in the ordinary sense, but they were fleeing some great disaster, and many were dying. A number caused a sensation when they crumbled into dust in public places, leaving only these gloves.Others walked into office buildings as if security barriers did not exist; others bought entire city blocks with currency as exotic as world-jewels, only to abandon them days later. Some sang beautiful songs, some screamed horribly, some wept until the non-transients tried to kill them from their own sorrow. This lasted about a year, tapering off slowly. Because there were no catastrophes, and because Storisende is a strange place to begin with, this has fallen out of popular folklore, and rang no bells. But it is part of my job to remember. ”
Dr. Ransom thought for a minute, then said, “It’s of course absurd to talk chronology when dealing with different time streams, but that exodus may have been very recent history for us--we may have even had something to do with it. It may also have been part of a much earlier phenomenon: it’s hard to say. But I can tell you that the purpose of our travels is to find out where they were going, and to follow them.”
The winged woman leaned back. “Storisende is a place where may arcs meet. A lot of them are well -known and much used, which makes it such a delightful place in which to try to keep the peace. But there are others, far older and far less well known. Our working knowledge of these is quite good--but beyond the local adjacents it gets awfully fuzzy. So I’m afraid--”
“Just thought of something,” Terence said, and looked up. “House, please fetch the silver cylinder in my knapsack.”
“We thought we heard voices,” said Senhor Capoeira Capybara. He was flanked by Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone and O Tse with weapons at the ready. As a floating platform with the cylinder came over to Terence, The Queen of Hearts, in spectacular disarray, walked in and sat at the head of the table. She nodded wordlessly at Dehingaj, who nodded back.
From another door (the servant’s quarters, as it turned out) came the Lieutenant, who stopped when he saw the winged woman.
“Oh not you,” said Dehingaj. “Although I should have known it when I heard about a fabulously beautiful woman--pardon me, Your Majesty--”
“No offense taken,” the queen said with sleepy amusement.
“Could you please find another altar to worship at, Quintus Octavian?” She said heatedly.
“I have to point out that he’s been very courageous and useful on our behalf,” said Dr. Ransom.
“Of course he has,” grumbled Dehingaj. “It’s why I can’t simply run him out of town.”
Ransom had unrolled the map and put the little projector on the table. He said to the platform, “Could you please hold the map open flat over the projector?” And the platform sprouted arms and did so.
The holographic map rotated slowly above the table. “Let’s see--” said the winged woman. “Ah. Your last view was of Storisende. That simplifies things.” She spread her hand and the map zoomed in. Repeated gestures brought more detail. There was a nest of lines around Storisende. “This one was the vector along which they traveled.”
The map zoomed out, and the glowing line extended across the map. “The next principal nexus is, let me see, it says--The Moon of the Moon.”
“You can read the script of the Authorized Personnel?” Terence asked.
“They built some of the oldest parts of Storisende.” Dehingaj said. “And from there--past Pegana--across the Wild Reach--these are just names to me--and--
The line faded out in a blank area.
“Right into Deep Chaos,” said the capybara. “I’m beginning to hate maps.”
The winged policewoman was aghast. “Did they all just--die? All those thousands?”
“That is where we take the fight to them,” said O Tse, and stamped the floor with the base of his pike.
There was a crash from upstairs.
“Jeanette--!” Cried Terence Ransom, and ran.