When Jeanette triumphantly opened the map, a couple of things fell to the floor. Since that was common practice for her, she pointed to the map for the edification of the crows.
“This can’t be anything but a railroad map, with Haven at the bottom. I’m making a few assumptions here, but I think they’re OK. First: this probably has the route of what’s now the Last Train Out. Second: when my father got up on the train and noticed I was gone, he probably raised holy hell and demanded to be let off at the next stop. I’m sure he would have tried to get the train to turn around, but that probably wouldn’t be possible. Plus, he’d be back and he isn’t. Therefore, he and Third, I assume my friends, are at the first stop of the line. So what we have to do is follow them, and we’re good.”
She had channelled her scientist father, she thought, to perfection--and was therefore highly miffed when she saw that the crows weren’t looking at her.
They were staring in particular at a little glass phial with a white cap of some sort, that had rolled into a corner. It had a label with a couple of strange characters on it.
“Go ahead. We’re listening,” said Thyrsis, at her sudden silence.
“No you’re not,” Jeanette said, and went over and picked the phial up. It was about the size of the final joint of her thumb. The glass was a little cloudy.
“You’re scared of this, aren’t you?” She waggled it.
“Not a bit,” said Antithyrsis. “We just figured you were the best one to pick it up--opposable thumbs and all that…”
“Oh,” Jeanette said, and started to open it. The cap didn’t seem to be on too tightly.
The crows both squawked an untranslatable sound. It was too loud, considering they were in the heart of the bug fortress. “All right, all right!” Thyrsis said. That label is in very old Haven characters, and what it says is ‘tears.’”
“As in crying?” Jeanette had gotten the cap off. It had one of those throats that only allowed one drop at a time. She shook a drop onto the palm of her white glove. It was a little thicker than water, and sat in a round droplet on the glove’s material. Then it rolled off and onto the floor.
Where the drop had landed, the floor had changed from black stone to a glowing translucent surface.
The last time she had seen this was in the ghostly lobby of the Last Train Out.
She shook another drop into the stone corner. The stone turned translucent again, and where the edges met, there was a delicate right line--a little misty.
She looked at the bottle. It was still full.
“Restoring the whole fortress will take quite a while at this rate,” she said calmly. She turned to face the crows. “You didn’t know what this stuff was going to do?”
“Just that it was powerful,” said Thyrsis.
“On a level far beyond what we’d encountered before,” added Antithyrsis.
“Then I don’t think our mantis friend knew either. Maybe she couldn’t even read Haven script.”
“And that means, in turn, she probably couldn’t read the map either. I don’t think she never opened it, but it was stuck together enough that she hadn’t looked at it in a long, long time.” God her father would be proud of her!
“Of course, neither can you,” Antithyrsis said, taking her down a peg.
“That’s where you come in.” She reached for the map.
“I highly recommend that you put the phial back in the box, after making sure it’s securely closed.”
With the map spread, the crows leaned over it eagerly. “Oh, this is old--very early days. Look! Golgonûza! Pegana! Cinnabar! Look here--the Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth! Who goes there anymore?” Thyrsis said.
“I’ll bet this is from before Cynosure was even built!” Antithyrsis answered.
“But look over here,” Jeanette pointed. “That’s the platform from where the Last Train left, if I’m counting correctly. And there’s the line!”
“Unlike the other ones, it just sort of fades out, though…” Thyrsis said cautiously.
“What’s that sort of scrawled up at the top of the map?”
“Not an educated hand, that’s for sure…” Antithyrsis said. “It says--newer characters-- ‘Redoubt.’”
“Readout?” Jeanette scowled.
“No, no, no, Redoubt. How to explain...A fortress, small, sometimes square, with the overtones of ‘secret place’. Doesn’t seem to point to anything on the map, though…”
“Secret place…” Jeanette said. “Anyway.” She got up, folded the map up a little less than gingerly. “Let’s get going!”
As it was on the way in, it went without a hitch. Jeanette was standing at the head of the train platform where she had stood the night before. (The remains of the mantis were nowhere in evidence.) Cars were being attached to an engine for a new train, but she managed to walk forward and wave her hands, and the loading stopped, and all the bugs scuttled away. She mounted the train, crows on her shoulders, and those inside the train left in a hurry.
She was in the car right before the locomotive. “I think we might need the cooperation of the engineers, or whatever they’re called. Beyond waving, I mean.” The crows waited. “Now I know that my gloves give me a sort of all-purpose translation verbally, but I’m wondering whether that might interfere with the authority the jewelry gives me. Or whether the jewelry will do all of it: I never saw the mantis do that.”
“Don’t look at us,” said Thyrsis.
“This is NOT the time for petulance, pouter pigeon!” Said Antithyrsis.
“She should be careful of moving too fast,” the other crow said petulantly.
“Well, there’s one way to find out,” Jeanette said, and stepped through the door.
The engineers were of the same species as the ones she had met before: shapeless and with heavily folded skin. They didn’t seem to be bugs at all, but her knowledge was limited. Whatever they were, they straightened in shock, then bowed low.
What was the phrase? “As you were,” Jeanette said. “This is a very important mission, and I want you to know--to know that I value your service.”
“We are honored beyond description to serve the Heir Apparent, and assure her that our lives are at Her service.”
Well, THAT put a spin on things, she thought.
“It may be dangerous--extremely dangerous, in fact, and I hope--I expect that you will obey orders without question.”
“Slow it down and keep it simple,” whispered Thyrsis.
“That is all,” she said, turned, and went back into the car. She fished in her backpack and oulled out the map. “Now what does this say?’ She pointed at a dot, the first on the fadeaway line.
“Ambremerine,” said Antithyrsis. “No idea what that is.”
“Well, it’s our destination.”
She went back up front, where the temperature had become twenty degrees higher.”
“I would like to stand where I can look ahead,” Jeanette said, and the engineers deferred. She climbed up where she could just see through the engineer’s window. She could have used an additional box, but that might have given something away.
The train started: a heavy lurch , and then a steady growth of power. They left the fortress station, and began to pick up speed as they ran up the ramp into the sky.
The crows were once again on her shoulders, giving them, she noted sullenly, a better view than she had. The sky brightened, and then darkened, and a star or two began to come out.
Antithyrsis said, “Uh-oh.”
Jeanette responded, calmly and regally for the sake of the engineers, “What?”
“The track is making a big curve away to the right.”
“It’s straight on the map,” Jeanette said, holding on harder to her cool.
“The map is not the territory,” opined Thyrsis.
“Except that in this case, the map may be more the territory than the territory is,” answered Antithyrsis.
Jeanette said, “Engineer--what is the next stop after this curve?”
The engineer folded his brow more than it already was. “Galactic Nexus Ninety-Seven, your Highness.”
“Built recently? Within the last hundred years?”
“In the previous nesting, Your Highness, yes.”
“Accelerate, then.” She said.
“What are you doing?” Whispered Thyrsis.
“I’m going straight.”
“Highness!” The other engineer warbled.
“What is it?”
“This acceleration is too much for this track.”
“We call it--Dead Man’s Curve…”
“Of course you do. Accelerate! Accelerate!”
“Yes, your Highness.”
She saw a cord over her head, and hoped it did what she thought it might. She pulled it and the steam whistle sounded across the starry vacuum.
“Straight on ‘till morning!” Jeanette shouted.