Everyone was gaping at the 3D model floating over the mess table of the Paradox Swan. It was left to Jeanette to say “Look at the SIZE of it!”
The ghostly collection of spheres connected by cobwebs was easily ten times the size of the representation of the Swan next to it. “The fuzziness is because this is a composite of the weak force sensor data going back to when we interfered in the starship battle in the Orion Nebula,” said Ngozi Makeni Odile. “It’s been following us for at least that long, but is so hard to detect that this is all we could get.”
“And we didn’t have a clue that it was there,” said Dr. Terence Ransom.
“No gravitational, no electromagnetic, no strong force signatures. Neutrinos are not supposed to be able to form structures--yet there it is. The one good part is that it shouldn’t be able to do anything to us--but I’m not taking bets on that.” She spun the model around.
“It might make some sense that it started following us when we stole the Variant Space canisters. Perhaps this is where the Sprezzatura got the samples from.” Said Lord Elphinstone.
“And we can’t return them to it because we’ve already sold one of them,” said Senhor Capoeira Capybara mournfully.
“I agree that’s the most logical point, but they could have been following us ever since Powhatan. That data that far back is just too noisy to get anything out of.”
Diotima said, “Might this be a shadow of some higher-dimensional structure?”
The Captain pursed her lips. “That’s a possibility. Not sure how we could test for that, though…”
Dr. Ransom said, “We should entertain the possibility that the ship is following us only out of curiosity. It might even be here to protect us from something else. We do know that Deep Chaos has been pursuing us, but we also know of at least one tremendously advanced civilization trying to give us aid. But no, I’m not taking bets on that either.”
The Pirate Queen moved away from the table. “At any rate, now that I’ve taken the ship into account as part of our local environment, I should be able to finish calibrating our tools. That might force the issue, if there is one. I’ll be down in the cargo bay if anyone needs me.”
After dinner, which was surprisingly non-paranoid, Terence came to his daughter and said, “So do you want to pay a visit to you-know-who?” She nodded. “I really want to find about this girl.”
Nothing had changed about Jack Shift’s situation: he still lay there shackled to the table, his blood sugar kept low to keep him from phasing away. Jeanette sat down close to his face. “I want to know about this girl, whoever she is. Tell me about her.
“What’ll you give me if I do?” He asked wearily.
“No deals. Tell me about her.”
Jack stayed silent for a long time.
Jeanette said, “You wouldn’t have mentioned her if you didn’t want to talk about her. Come on.”
“That insight came from your father.”
“Yeah, it did. Tell me anyway.”
Jack smiled. “Very well. Here goes:”
“When I learned how to partially phase, it was still dangerous. Even if I could memorize certain universes, there were some times when I would phase into a very different area of it--very dangerous. A lot of time, deep space. Especially when I had to do it quickly, I could find myself in a really bad place--and withdrawing a couple of times very nearly got me captured. I didn’t see any way out of it, either.”
“I kept experimenting. I learned that if I let my mind go blank, I could get a wider variety of worlds. So I kept dipping into worlds to try and find better places. Then one day I tried a universe that I thought was another deep-space one, and was ready to get out of there double-quick, when I heard a girl’s voice saying, ”Oh, please don’t go.”“
“I stopped, and sitting in the middle of nothing was this girl--more mature than you, and in a dress, and looking at me the way you tend to do. She asked me to stay and talk to her because she was lonely, and I did.”
“It turned out that this entire universe was only about forty feet in diameter, and she was the only thing in it. It seemed like a horrible trap she was in, and I knew all about traps, so I got ready to get her out of there. She stopped me, saying that in a sense she was that universe, and that if she left it, she would completely cease to be. I believed her. But she was just so happy when I talked to her, and when I told her stories of my adventures. She didn’t seem to want anything else,”
“Technically, a nice simple universe only forty feet across was perfect for my purposes: I could phase in and out without any worries. It’s my default universe. And while I thought that her cage was worse than any cage I’d ever been in, and that the boredom would drive me crazy, she told me that it was okay--that the only time she got any older was when she and I were talking.”
Jack’s voice, as it became more emotional, was also getting fainter, and he was asleep seconds after his last word.
As they walked back to their cabins, Terence said, “That was a very strange story. However, we’ve heard stranger ones.”
“I told you he wasn’t really bad. What a sad story! And no wonder he can’t stand being trapped!” Jeanette said.
“That still doesn’t make him trustworthy--in some ways, less. But we’re definitely getting somewhere.”
In the middle of ship’s night, Jeanette was plundering the larder. When she came out with her ingredients, she saw Diotima Urantia Gearheart sitting on the mess table.
“I know exactly what you’re trying to do, young lady,” the lynx said sternly.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Jeanette said as she went about her work.
“If you get in serious trouble again--and you very well might--you’re going to break your father. Not all the way through, but with real damage that won’t just disappear.”
Jeanette refused to meet her eyes.
“This is precisely what I was talking about: a spoiled little girl. Spoiled by danger and peril, but spoiled just the same.”
Now she looked up at Diotima--lynx eyes to lynx eyes, because she hadn’t taken the lenses out. “I have to do this. That girl…”
“I heard everything, and you’re going to have to trust this Shift character far beyond what you should. With your life, as a matter of fact.”
The lynx stalked over to her and stared closely. “I’m going to do whatever I can to help you, Jeanette Ransom, but it may--not--work. And I’m not ringing the alarm bells on you now, because you will subsequently do something even stupider.”
“I’ll be okay. Diotima, this is important. Maybe as important as the whole rest of the quest. I can feel it.”
“Get out of here.”
The light in the dispensary was dim. Jack Shift awoke when she entered. “Knew you’d come.” Then, “What have you got behind your back?”
Jeanette displayed it. “This is a banana split with chocolate and green tea ice cream, because you can’t have everything. I’ve figured that this will raise your blood sugar level just enough to do one phasing.”
“You little demon--I can smell it from here--” Jack threw his head back and forth.
She held it closer. “You’re going to take me to see your friend.”