Being at the bottom of a pile, while not terribly comfortable, was actually reassuring to Jeanette. By feel alone, she could make out Lord Elphinstone’s armor (very uncomfortable), Grandmère’s shaggy boniness (also uncomfortable), Senhor Capoeira Capybara’s furry overweight (actually quite comfortable), and her father, Dr. Terence Ransom’s bony elbows (less comfortable but the most reassuring).
They disentangled. As they stood up, they looked around to see where they had been transported to this time. The building seemed to be the same, but that meant little. The little Asian boy was gone, too, but that was also half expected.
So if the tall gentleman in the long robes expected expressed surprise on the part of the group of travelers, he was disappointed. And since he was Asian in appearance, the first thing Jeanette said was, “So you’re the same guy?”
“I am indeed. He is me of a thousand years ago--my inner child, if you will.”
“A thousand years, huh? Okay,” responded Jeanette, still angrily unwilling to let go of the anger at the trap they’d been thrown into. But the ‘thousand years’ did have them looking around at the world beyond the arch.
While the geography of the bowl containing Radiant City was unchanged, the previous version had been a big cluster of glass and metal towers, shining in the sunlight. This version, while on about the same scale, was more like a giant bag of metal, glass and stone fragments strewn about the landscape, as big as buildings but not resembling them in the slightest. The one detail that seemed comfortable to Jeanette and Terence--an array of great white windmills lined along the hilltops surrounding the city--lost their familiarity when they realized they were about twenty times as big as the ones they regarded as heralds of a new era of common sense back home.
Which still cut no ice with Jeanette. “So why’d you lead me on a wild goose chase and right into a trap?” she asked the tall thin white-haired ex-kid.
“Why, didn’t you like it?” He smiled.
“That is so completely beside the fucking point that--”
Terence put his hand on his daughter’s bunched shoulder and stepped forward. He was just as angry as Jeanette, but had acquired more control skills. (Jeanette knew that, though he wasn’t going to reprimand her under the circumstances, she was going to get a talking-to later, and she deserved it.) “We all followed you”--an emphasis on the all--”purely and only because you bear the same emblem as most of us bear.” He raised his white gloves. “You shouldn’t think, however, that this makes us think for a moment that you are on our side, or anything but an enemy and a danger. Why did you trap us and take us a thousand years into the future--if that’s in fact what you’ve done?”
Silvertyger pulled his longsword out of its scabbard, and it rung loudly in the quiet air.
“The ultimate cause is that you are heading into great danger and I want to give you guys a bit of an edge. I hauled you up here because ‘Hi, I’m from the future and I’m here to warn you of a great danger’ doesn’t work even in the most sketchily written fiction. I also want to show you what I can to let you know what might be at stake. And I led you on a chase because while the Radiant City Polizei can be indulgent over high spirits, dragging you here via armed combat would bring the hammer down.”
“He doesn’t talk like a thousand-year-old guy,” said Thyrsis, alighting on Jeanette’s shoulder. “More like a kid wearing a thousand-old-guy suit,” added Antithyrsis, alighting on the other.
The old guy turned and grabbed the handle of a suitcase and slid it across the floor to the tiger. “Here, Lord Elphinstone. You left it behind back there. It’s now worth considerably more as precious antiquities, but will go back to normal when you return. You really should pay more attention to your finances.” The tiger stopped it with an armored foot and said nothing.
Two figures carrying gleaming plates with tall glasses came among them. There were also cookies, and Jeanette took both. The old Asian guy said, “You really should keep hydrated, Jeanette, if you’re going to keep up those splendid racing skills.”
“Could he possibly be more annoying?” Said a crow through her bracelet.
But the figures caught her eye and held it. Looking at first glance like tall beautiful women, they in fact seemed like elaborate crinkles in the air, weightless and graceful, with colors that seemed to come from how far into the somewhere, their brushstrokes went. But they carried the solid trays and glasses.
Mr. Annoying said, “When you develop the ability to look like anything you want to--and then spend the next couple of centuries burning through all your old fleshy preferences and fantasies--eventually you may get to the point that you feel you’re best expressed by a curve or a gesture--in other words--”
“--a toon,” Dr. Ransom finished.
“I have no idea whether there’s a deep connection, or whether it’s just parallel evolution, but I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.”
He now turned towards Terence Ransom. “I remember the Exile a little better than you, Doctor. I was this rambunctious little scalawag who was always getting into trouble, and I remember that my eyes were very large and my hair stuck out in improbable directions. But I was cast away on a strange shore. Much later I found myself thrown backwards and forwards--and probably diagonally--in time. No, I didn’t get a thousand years down the pike by simply growing old, as you guessed. But all the time I was being thrown this way and that, I was wondering if that Exile was just a bunch of bad luck, and we should just get over it. Maybe because I was drawn that way.” He grinned.
“Until I came here. And found out why.”
A wind came up. The motion of the air was accompanied by a change in static charge, and her skin prickled. The light dimmed. Jeanette looked up and gasped.
Descending out of the sky--and still filling most of it--was an object easily a mile in diameter. It looked like an incredibly complex mathematical curve, all thorns and holes and loops through the holes, roughly spherical, glowing and turning. The windmills were all turning towards it--only now the windmills looked like radiotelescope dishes, guiding or responding to its slow descent.
“They always arrive precisely when they mean to,” the old/young guy said with a wan smile.
The thing floated over the city, as large as the city. It moved and yet it didn’t move.
The whole area around the arch was rising and sliding away towards the thing. Jeanette grabbed her father and held him, half in fear and half in indefinable excitement. Grandmère Hutan threw up her arms in a very animal-like gesture. It was incredibly wonderful and twistingly beautiful, and more alive the closer they got.
An opening dilated before them, and a figure stood at the center.
“Tickets, please,’ said the conductor.