A second later, he fell to the floor in a dead faint.
Grandmère Hutan climbed down to feel Jack Shift’s pulse, as Jeanette put her hand at her throat. “Well, that was disappointing, but at least we have a useful data point.” The orangutan picked up the shiny blade he had threatened Jeanette with and snapped it in two. “I’m sorry about that, my dear, but that blade wouldn’t have penetrated your skin. We planted all these scalpels.”
“At least we know that his phasing requires a certain level of effort,” Diotima said. “We could just keep his blood sugar level sufficiently low and he wouldn’t be able to escape.” Neither the lynx nor the orangutan seemed anything but sour.
“If he didn’t appear to be one of your kind, I’d simply space the bastard,” said Captain Ngozi Makena Odile, who had appeared at the doorway to the dispensary. She was carrying her gun. “Had his chance to prove himself, and failed.”
“With a few mitigating circumstances, it certainly seems that way. But the secrets he embodies may be absolutely vital. After that…” Grandmère sighed. “...The nearest inhabited planet is what we should do.”
Jeanette made her way past the Captain and walked back and up towards her cabin. She felt miserable about this: it seemed all wrong, but she couldn’t tell why, let alone argue it. So instead she headed for Dada’s cabin. She was not going to tell him about the knife, because that would just upset him, and--it was kind of a complex thought--that wasn’t the kind of comfort she needed.
He was alone in the cabin, and was reading some floating text in the air. “Hi Jeanette! What’s wrong?” He patted on the bunk for her to sit next to him.
She told him, minus the part of him putting the knife to her throat. “It’s just--I don’t think he’s evil, not really. He’s just trapped, and he’s got no reason to trust us. And with his powers, he’s just a little too dangerous. If we could just--but I don’t see any way to reach him.”
He brought her onto his lap. “So, Jeanette Ransom, do you believe in saving everybody?”
“I guess,” she said in a small voice.
He hugged her around the shoulders, “Well, so do I. Let’s think.”
The Pirate Queen was in the cargo bay down by the hull. She, Senhor Capoeira Capybara, Thyrsis and Antithyrsis, and Wynken Blynken and Nod, were looking at the three open suitcases and the two canisters of Variant Space before them. They were all wearing mirrored safety goggles, except for the crows, whose eyes were silvered. Ngozi had long opera-type gloves on.
“I did wonder that we went through an awful lot of trouble for such a relatively small amount of booty,” the capybara said.
“The Superposition Drill and Variable Engagement Lathe are two of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery in existence--but there’s no sense in toting around the couple of hundred kilograms of mounting brackets with them. Not that that brought the price down any.”
She stood back and fingered one of her necklaces. A hum began in the air, and there was a rumbling sound as doors at the rear of the bay opened to the slowly moving stars of space.
The capybara and the crows started and the crows flapped their wings, and the Captain cautioned, “We’ll be dumping a lot of impure matter out the back as the machines grow, but we’ll be replacing it, so don’t worry. For your information, you’ll be breathing oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and argon with absolutely no isotopic variants. That’s necessary for the building process. You’ll feel a breeze, but that will be all. But you two,” and she turned to the crows, “had best not start flying around, because there’s a power feed from the engines going down the center of the bay.”
The breeze started, and on either side of the bay, the foot-long machines started to unfold. Senhor Capoeira unpacked a bag of snacks and handed them to Wynken. She leaned forward and said “We knew we could always count on you.”
Terence and Jeanette came into the dispensary. There were four pendulums around Jack now, and he turned to look at Jeanette with dreadfully tired eyes. “You,” he said.
Dr. Ransom said, “I’m Jeanette’s father and, among other things, I’m here to tell you that we’ll be dropping you off at the first decently inhabited planet we get to. We’re not interested in keeping you prisoner, especially since we’re going off on a dreadfully dangerous quest that we may not return from alive.”
Jack Shift gave a weary smile. “But,” he said.
“We just want to give you a few things to think about. Grandmère Hutan gave you a whole big lump of indigestible weirdness all at once, and I could tell you were just waiting for her to be done. I’ve got it down to a science, myself. But--wherever you go, whatever you decide to do, we want to tell you that you’re probably not who you think you are.”
“And somewhere down the line that could make a difference,” Dr. Ransom said. “Look, we’d like you to trust us, but we know that’s up to you.. So that’s the last I’ll say about it.”
“Good,” said Jack.
“But here’s the thing. You said you were taught language in the compound. But we’re from a planet 1500 light years from the Orion Nebula, and we’re speaking a language called English right now. How is it you understand us?”
“That’s enough for now, Dada. I have one question, though--just one. And it’s when you started to tell your life story, I thought that this was probably the first time you’d ever told it to anybody. But as you were telling it, I could tell it wasn’t. Who’d you tell it to before?”
Jack just stared at her. Something had changed (as she hoped it would.) Now he looked troubled.
“You don’t have to tell me. I’d really like to know, but you don’t.”
Jack licked his lips. He opened his mouth, then shut it. Jeanette stared at him steadily.
Then he closed his eyes, “You remind me of her.”
Dr. Ransom got up. “We’ve troubled you enough. We’ll go now.” Jack made a feeble nod.
They walked away, and climbed the stairs to their deck. “Wow,” said Jeanette.
“I definitely agree,” said her father.
When the two machines were big enough to occupy a third of the cargo bay, the Captain walked up to the nearer one. “The next part is far more boring. Both of these have to be calibrated. On planetside that would take a month or more, and require additional equipment. But since it’s hard interstellar vacuum out there, and I’ve got a detailed profile of the ship down to the ghosts in the Dead Man’s Chest, it should only take a couple of hours.”
“You seem to have an awful lot of expertise on some very rare machinery,” the capybara said, trying to strike an amiable tone.
“Real women read manuals,” she said, holding up a small transparent pane.
A forest of floating numbers and graphs sprang up around her head as she stood before the machine. She made a series of hand gestures, and said “Hunh.” She made another set and said “Shit.”
“Did we get cheated?” Nod asked.
“It makes no sense. I’m getting ‘Unable to Calibrate’ repeatedly, but the diagnostics come through clear.” She gestured again. “There doesn’t seem to be any problem with the profile either. Unable to Calibrate.”
She went over to the second machine, activated a second set of floating readouts. “It’s the same over here. Unable to Calibrate. What the f--”
(Was saying ‘fuck’ in front of her daughters forbidden? Capoeira thought.)
Then Ngozi turned and ran for the front hatch, and the rest followed her. She ran up to the stern deck, where the suspended circle that took the place of an old pirate ship steering wheel stood. She started turning the circle this way and that, tilting it as she did so.
“All the sensors were registering clear and neutral for light-seconds around us, or I wouldn’t have started--gravity waves, electromagnetism, Pauli exclusion--all zip or minimal. But--ah.”
A list of numbers started to march down inside the circle. “My, my, my. Nobody in their right mind wastes time with a weak force scan, not edging hyperspace. Because it’s a mariner’s myth. Impossible, implausible, impractical--and we’ve got one.”
They all waited for her dramatic pause.
“It’s a neutrino ship.”