If the conductor on the immense starship was the same one they had met on the Last Train Out, he gave no sign of recognizing them. He had the same ethereal pointed-eared face and the uniform was the same, but Jeanette didn’t feel qualified on the fine points. The group, including her, all pulled out their tickets from their first truncated trip (truncated because of her, she reminded herself), and if he looked a little bit more closely at the jewelry she was wearing, that could have been her overactive imagination.
Terence paused and said to the conductor, “This is good for a round trip, I hope?” The conductor answered, “since we are under current conditions unable to make trips to the end of the line, we will compensate by a return trip on these tickets.”
“That’s very generous of you,” said Terence.
“We appreciate the compliment,”said the conductor, bowing and retreating.
The interior of the ship was bright and mostly featureless, but at least there were seats. Jeanette was finally beginning to feel the effects of her breakneck race across Radiant City. Her father and Senhor Capybara sat on either side of her, and the latter offered her a little bite of pastry filled with something spicy that melted in her mouth. Had it really been that short a time since they were by the lake at Ambremerine Station, or did goodies pilfered from the Gods possess an extended shelf-life?
Their suspicious thousand-year-old host was in lecture mode, but what he said was kind of startling. “A lot of theorizing about how to go across the universe faster than light has talked about folding space, or space-time, but these ships do something like the opposite--they travel by unfolding space-time. The convolutions of the sphere that you no doubt found so impressive when it came down are, kinda sorta, packed wrinkles in space-time. In reality, this ship isn’t a separate thing at all--just a gathering up of the fabric of the continuum. Once we are outside the atmosphere, the ship blossoms and smooths out--and we are everywhere at once, again kinda sorta. When the ship convolves again, we are at our destination.”
The capybara made a little snort, as if he had just woken up from sleep. He gave Jeanette a look that showed he hadn’t, but he had made his criticism of the presentation known.
The old/young Asian guy soldiered on, though. “ In this case, we are traveling great spans of space and time which is just as easy as one or the other. We have gone tens of millions of years into the future, and are now close to the center of our galaxy.”
About a third of the featureless wall in front of them went dark. There was a ship, far less abstract and far more like a warship, immediately to their left and down. There were things that might have been antennas and might have been blasters pointed at the darkness ahead of them. As the lights inside the ship obligingly dimmed, Jeanette could tell that, while there were stars on the periphery, the blackness they and the ship were facing was total.
Lightning then leapt from the ship to either side, and then in three other direction. As it extended out, it gathered at another focus at a great distance, then leapt further, until there was a network of sparking triangles off beyond their ability to see.
“Twenty eight billion ships, from millions of civilizations, many manned by the last representatives of their races. All maintaining a barrier formed of an exotic material called asymptonium, nearly infinitely thin and nearly infinitely strong. All to block the thing that once was our galaxies central black hole, but is now something far worse.”
“What is behind that barrier is creating Deep Chaos, which will eventually and inevitably break through. You may know chaos as random vvariations of the motions of matter and energy. Deep Chaos randomly changes the very rules of reality, the way chance occurs, the metrics of time and space, the rules about the rules. It destroys everything--hell, it destroys the idea of everything.”
“And the thing that has taken over the center of the galaxy is the thing that destroyed Haven and precipitated the Exile. And in this timeline, all that can be done is to stand in defiance as long as possible--to maintain the Redoubt.”
That caused Jeanette to sit bolt upright. The capybara had in fact, now fallen asleep, and she wanted to poke him, but she found she couldn’t move with fright. Yes, it was fright.
A low voice spoke behind her. “It was named after a similar hard-held defense in the distant past. They are not the same.” It was the conductor.
“Along this timeline--and yes, this is a contingent future, as was the one I brought you to the first time--it is too late. It was too late when the first Redoubt fell. That must not happen.”
The conductor intoned, “we must go. It is no longer safe.” And the guy nodded.
The wall became featureless, and the white-haired Asian in the elaborate robe collapsed in a seat. Despite what she had seen, Jeanette still thought his draped pose was too much like an actor. One look at her father told her he thought the same thing.
Jeanette got up and stood before the conductor. He obviously didn’t want to talk, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her.
“Excuse me, but--are you from Haven?”
“Does it bother you that I’m wearing this jewelry? I’ll take it off if you like. I got it off a bug. Is it wrong to wear?”
She was in littler-girl mode again, and it seemed to work again. The conductor smiled a smile put in a back pocket somewhere.
“No, there’s nothing wrong. It’s quite a common set, though usually worn be, em, maturer women.”
“That’s good, then. I was worried.”
The conductor Leaned forward. Jeanette had charmed him, and she could tell he wanted to say something, but was under orders not to. Searching for a safe subject, he finally said, “You should clean them, though. They’re exceedingly beautiful when they’re clean.”
“I will. Thank yo! It was a pleasure meeting you!”
And she bounced her little girl bounce away. God she was awful.
Mr. Bad Actor was surrounded by her companions, which may have given him a clue that he hadn’t won them over. Lord Elphinstone was saying, “You spoke of giving us an edge. What is it?”
“A few things, but this is the principal one.” He held up a plastic pack full of various colors of chalk. To the scowls he said, “You have all of you, no doubt, travelled via the Decision Tree portals, no? Well this chalk allows you to easily and simply construct your own!”
He held up the black chalk. “Draw a whole on any flat surface. You should make it large, but don’t worry, you can’t use it up. Then use this--” he held up the white chalk, “--to draw a decision tree, and presto! Dimensional gateway! Then add this--” red chalk to make it a one time gateway. Your pursuers will find it’s only a drawing!”
Dr. Ransom said with a quizzical smile, “I think I’ve got the concept. And the other colors?”
“Blue for setting up a password--”
“Like ‘speak, friend, and enter’...” Terence said, and the Asian guy looked at him oddly. “Yes, like that. The others are for more advanced functions, but I’ve included them anyway.”
“We are arriving at the station,” said the conductor.
“Right. And in addition--” he handed cards around, “Railpasses! Twenty years! Good on any branch!”
The tiger said “This falls short of a mighty weapon,” with a growl.
“Wait,” said the capybara. “Don’t we get a choice as to where we’re let off?”
“I’m afraid not. The rules for travel to a possible future is to return to the exact moment and place you left, and it includes a ‘but was it all a dream?’ codicil. Me, I’ll be glad to have this alternative erased, and me with it. Very depressing.”
They walked (and flew) through the opening, and found themselves, interestingly enough, not in the thousand-year Radiant City, but in the first version, before the same archway.
Waiting for them was the little boy version of their host. He was smiling and eager.
“Well?” He said. “Did the future me talk to you about it?”
“About what?”asked Grandmère.
“About me coming with you. Can I?”
Dr. Ransom moved forward, cutting off Jeanette’s explosion. “I’m afraid, not a word.”
“Damn! Damn damn damn!” The boy said. “Can I anyway? Huh? Can I?”