Jeanette rushed over to Grandmère holding the still white-gloved figure. The orangutan was splashed with blood. The figures face was the face of a young man, long-nosed, wide-mouthed with irregular teeth, and black disordered hair. His eyes were shut and his skin was dead white.

The Captain walked up last, and spoke to her three daughters. “Bring him to the dispensary. Fix his heart and oxygenate him, but make sure he doesn’t regain consciousness. If he wakes up, we could lose him again in an instant.” Seeing Jeanette’s haggard expression, Ngozi said, “Just because we stopped him quickly doesn’t mean he didn’t have bad intentions. And stopping his heart was the quickest and least destructive way to stop him. Paralyzing him might not have prevented him from phasing away.”

Wynken, Blynken and Nod shouldered him and took him belowdecks.Jeanette walked over to her father and took his hand. She didn’t want to say anything: She had been under high stress at least since being at the Court of Miracles and maybe at the fight between the two starships, and her reactions were crossing each other. The young man looked to be a toon like her, and the Pirate Queen of the Night shot him--but she was the one who screamed the alarm in the first place. She was tired of her own opinions arguing with themselves--and that translated into simple tiredness.

Her father carried her the last leg to her bunk.

She didn’t sleep long, however, and (clad in more sensible clothes and with the makeup scrubbed off) she was down in the dispensary. The young man was shackled to the examination table (and of course a pirate ship would have shackles on its examination table), and Diotima Gearheart and Grandmère Hutan were sitting watching him. He was awake, and there were a pair of Diotima’s four-dimensional pendulums clicking away, one on either side of his head.

“Who am I? What’s my name? What am I called?” he said. It wasn’t a terribly pleasant voice: kind of high and kind of nasal. And whiny, which could be chalked up to being interrogated. “Nobody’s ever called me anything, so there’s the answer to that. But a long time I decided to call myself Jack Shift. Whether that qualifies as my name, you’re free to discuss among yourselves.”

Diotima said, “Suppose you tell us your story.”

Maybe because Diotima was a lynx with very sharp claws sitting quite close to him, Jack had the good sense not to cop an attitude. But, Jeanette thought, maybe this was the first time he’s ever told the story.

“I had my first aware thought in the Fou Ha Specimen Compound on Suq, where we were being prepared for everything from sexual receptors to advanced culture mediums to amusements. We were taught language by machines, fed proper nutritional slop, and restrained from mutilating ourselves.”

“It was one night of fear, as machines were going among us harvesting, that I discovered my ability to phase into another dimension. It became a terror of a different sort: I was free of the Compound, but in a bleak landscape with snow, lichen, ghost-like distant mountains, and a cluster of stars in the place of a single sun. I had no idea that I had done this transportation, and wandered around nearly dying of cold, until in my fear of  death I shifted again. Whether it was sheer blind luck or some part of my capability to this day I don’t know, but I found myself back on Suq, and out of the compound,”

“I started a career as a thief--on Suq, a common occupation--and I wasn’t very good, though I survived. Experimenting with my phasing ability was terrifying: unlike my first try, if I phased out, it was sometimes a dozen phases to get back. And then halfway across the planet. Long story short, the turning point came when I found I could phase partially. As long as I didn’t enter the other world completely, I could return easily. A little refinement and I could phase through any wall, reach inside any vault, and once I had it down to a razor thin sliver.”

I did very well now as a thief and even, on occasion, an assassin, though that was more trouble than it was worth, unless the money was extremely good. But I came to hate Suq all the same, and wanted to be free to explore the universe. The problem with that was, with only partial phasing, I had a distance limit of about a kilometer--and so my first phase aboard a starship was a nightmare all over again. It took me two years to return, scrambling like a rat aboard a foul transport.”

“So when I saw what was probably a dimensional gateway, I figured this might be my chance. Instead it was just another ship. No offense.”

There was a pause as they digested. Then Grandmère said, “And your white gloves?” She waggled her own. “Do they have any special significance?”

Jack shrugged. “Just part of my personal style, along with the basic black. I picked them up somewhere along the way.” But it was clear he was trying to remember, and couldn’t.

The orangutan adjusted herself. “In lieu of any assurances that we mean you no harm, which you would ignore as a matter of course, I’m going to tell you a very strange story in all its complexity. I’d appreciate it if you’d entertain it as possibly true. This isn’t pretense: it’s why we’re here, and perhaps why you are too.”

Jack tried looking solemn, and probably was not, but at least he was receptive.

“Those of us who wear these gloves, we have come to think, were originally entertainment embodiments of civilizations, like household gods or--”

“Toons. Cartoon characters.” Jeanette interrupted. “Do you know what cartoons are?”

“Of course I do,” Jack said. He narrowed his eyes. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Grandmère said. “But something happened to us--a catastrophe we call the Exile. We were cast out through cosmic infinity, and when we landed, were wrapped in a fictitious life story, with the illusions of a childhood and an environment. Some of us remember something of that toon life, others nothing. But we share certain things: one of them is that we either possess or respond to these white gloves; another is that we have certain powers. One of them resembles your ability quite strongly.”

Grandmère reached beyond the sixth wall, and there was a very big knife in her hand. Jeanette pulled out an oversized mallet. Jack tried to keep a stone face, but his pupils dilated.

“We think you are a fellow victim of the Exile. Our quest is to find out what happened to us, perhaps to save others, and even more perhaps to counteract it. We would much rather have you join us than try something stupid.” The orangutan said.

“I see,” said Jack. “It’s a wild story, but it does--”

He vanished.

The next instant, he was behind Jeanette. There was a thin silver blade between his fingers, and it rested on Jeanette’s jugular vein.

“One move and the girl dies,” Jack hissed.


next chapter