A second after everyone wearing white gloves hit the floor, Jack Shift phased away and didn’t phase back. Captain Ngozi Makena Odile shut down the detector. The Queen of Broceliande was kneeling among them, feeling their trembling bodies. When she got to Jeanette Ransom, the little girl grabbed onto her hand and wouldn’t let go. She was shaking like a leaf.
“They’re not wounded physically, nor does there seem to be any sort of spell,” the Queen said quietly. After a few minutes, most of the trembling stopped. The first to open his eyes was Senhor Capoeira Capybara. “What happened?” Queen Parise asked.
“I--think I know. What I relived--and I think all of us did--was the onslaught of the Exile that cast us into our separate lives. Can I lie down somewhere?”
“You are lying down,” the Queen said gently.
“So I am,” the capybara said. “I have only fragmentary memories of my life as an FA--a toon, in other words, but the memory of succumbing to that force is all-consuming. My concern is for the Ransoms, who have said they have no memory of anything at all. And Jack, I suppose, though I don’t think we’ve had the truth out of him yet.”
“I’ll put another layer of shielding on the detector, but it bewilders me that you should find it audible--or tangible--” the Captain said.
“I can’t explain it,” said Capoeira.
Lord Elphinstone leaned down by the Queen. “Allow me, Your Majesty,” he said, and picked up Jeanette in his arms.
“Take her to her cabin, Silvertyger,” Ngozi said. “I doubt a session in the dispensary will do any good.”
Dr. Ransom was the last of those remaining to regain consciousness. “What do you remember?” Parise asked him softly.
“An--an overwhelming fear, and a breaking. A terror that I couldn’t stand against. I-I don’t know how to describe it.”
“Something you’d never experienced before?” The Queen asked.
“No. No. How’s Jeanette?”
“Lord Elphinstone took her to her bed. She seems physically unharmed.”
Terence closed his eyes, and was asleep again.
The Pirate Queen’s daughters came with suspensor-driven stretchers, and started moving the three out of the hold. Diotima the lynx climbed up on the captain’s shoulder. “If our friends react that way to the amplification of a microscopic signal--”
“--then how will they react coming up against the real thing? That worries me,” said the Captain. “It worries me a great deal.”
Dr. Ransom awoke to find Jeanette, wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the edge of his bunk. She said, “So, I guess we must really bee toons, then, hunh?”
“Not a startling conclusion, after all, Jeanette,” he said.
“Yeah, I mean--we’ve got the gloves, and can do all these things, and stuff works for us that doesn’t work for other people, but--” she nudged closer to her father, and spoke in a very young voice, “--I guess the thing that scares me is, what if we’re just not who we think we are?”
“I’m not sure I know how to answer that, my darling.”
“‘Cause I like being who I am. A whole lot.”
“I think--” Terence began slowly. “Jeanette, since this whole little field trip began, I’ve watched you change. You’ve grown. You’ve learned. And each time that happens, you’ve become someone else, bit by bit.” He put all the father-comfort he could into that voice, and it might even be true.
He asked then, “You didn’t get a flash of remembering, did you?”
“No, just this big horrible feeling, like--like I don’t know what it was like.”
“It’s just--” and she hunched over, away from him, “--the bit by bit part makes it okay. But way back in the World of the Princess, you know the Rose and the Briar?”
“Well, at night, when you found me the next morning at the graves, I had gone out there, and I touched the rosebush, and--and I all of a sudden saw something that was nothing like I expected. It was a cartoon, and an icky-tacky-girly one. What if I get that? What if I’m a dopey cartoon? What if I’m a stupid frilly cotton candy cartoon? All at once?”
And what if it turns out we aren’t really father and daughter? All at once? The thought that had sat there in his brain since Senhor Capoeira’s very first explanation sat up and squawked.
He wanted to grab her and hold her out of desperation. He wanted to run away from it all.
And he knew how right Lord Elphinstone was to take the black stone away from him. The one that would send her home.
Jeanette lifted the blankets and got into bed with him, the way she’d done when the rats--the mice were loose in their house.
“Jeanette Ransom.” He sad, a whisper on top of his regular voice. “We’ll be us, don’t you worry. We’ll be us with an awful lot to learn, but you’ll be you and I’ll be me.”
They lay there, and he hoped that was true.
Parise D’Avignon stood by the side of Grandmère Hutan’s bed. The orangutan had learned to appreciate the softness and warmth of bedclothes, but had still not quite gotten the hang of them. She still tended to look, when sleeping, like a tree infested with tent caterpillars.
Eventually she became aware of the Queen’s presence. “Go away,” she said. “I’m a useless old piece of shit.”
“Not entirely,” responded the Queen. “I would appreciate you coming with me.”
“What would a splendid example of not being a piece of shit want to do with me?” The three grumbled.
“I want to check on Aventine and, I hope, Jack, and I can’t get through a portal there without you.”
“Very well.” She got out of bed and stood on the deck. “Little girl will probably faint from fright when she sees me.”
“The difference between an immaculately groomed and ornamented orangutan and your present state is not enormous.”
“Too true. Let’s go.”
They managed the gateway without a problem, and found a tense scene. Aventine was seated as she usually was, the only difference being that she had one of Jeanette’s books in her lap. Her face was a map of worry, however. Jack was facing away from her, slumping and slouching as if it were a competition.
“Here now, here now, what’s all this then?” Grandmère hooted.
“Something happened out there, didn’t it?” Aventine said. “Something bad.”
“About as bad as it can get,” Grandmère said with an unexpected tremor in her voice. “At least for the likes of us.”
“Jack?’ The queen asked gently.
“I don’t ever want to go out there again! Ever! And I’m loathsome and a coward!” He said, in a voice cracking in all directions.
“Tell me what you experienced,” Parice asked.
“I knew you’d want to know the details,” he practically spat. “So here they are: it was a fear, an assault that burned right through my muscles and nerves. It ran through my mind like a flensing knife. And, yes, although I swear I had never gone through anything like that in the worst torture-pits, I recognized it. I recognized it, which means that all the gibberish you spouted at me was true. I’m one of those things. One of you.”
“I understand,” said the Queen.
“You bloody well do not!” Jack Shift screeched. “I have just learned that--that I am this--” and he swung his arm in Aventine’s direction, “--and I had to listen to the sound of everything taken away from me! Again!”
Aventine Marie Arouet de Châtelet blushed in a way that anybody who saw it would want to see it again.
“You don’t have to go out,” Queen Parise said. “You can stay here and learn as much of this as you care to. No one is requiring anything of you.” Her voice fell a dew tones and got softer. “All I would request of you, Jack Shift, is that you treat those out there on the other side with respect, for what they are endeavoring to do is confront the thing that tore into you, to defeat it and prevent others from going what you--and they--went through.”
Jack collapsed sulkily, but at least he collapsed next to Aventine.
The next ship’s night, Jeanette stood non-imposingly by her father’s bunk. Terence opened his eyes, since he had not been asleep. He got up and took Jeanette’s hand.
Together they walked quietly down into the hold of the Paradox Swan. The detector still hovered in the center of the space. They walked up to it, and Terence extended his hand and extended his fingers upwards.
Holding each other, they stood there listening to the voice of the Beast.