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After a time, he ceases to tense reflexively, expecting the end of the journey, and merely waits as the Lanes flicker by. Eight times eight times more; skies I half-remember and seas I wish I could forget ghost in and out of view. The nonsensical jumps at the beginning are reflex now. I wonder as we flick past a storm of six-legged metal shapes charging a broken wall with shouts of valor and of steam if we are followed - but I cannot see any portals open in our wake. No disturbances of the walls between the worlds as I move them aside brick by mortal brick.
Another quarter-hour and we've reached and passed the deserted broken city. I have time to see the parts of buildings swaying forlornly in the breeze as I slow our flight, the calculations coming new now in my head. My twin moves slightly in my arms, sensing the change in rhythm. One jump. I see a bare grassy veldt with a single pair of footprints in the still air; hint enough. Jump again.
The sign is painted on a wall of rock before my eyes, at just their height, but a mile distant. That I can see the letters is because of two things; they are bright violent chartreuse in this dusty grey world, and they are some hundreds of feet tall.
We both laugh, for different reasons, at the incongruity.
As we trudge towards the sign, looking about us for signs of ambush or clue, I have time to note the two dim stars in the sky and the three equally sullen moons visible. There is a single line of smudges heading towards the cliff which might once have been footprints; there is a breeze here, soft and random, so there is no telling how old they are.
"Has he ever done this before?"
"No." I laugh.
"Should we be concerned, then?"
"I don't think so. Although he never has diverted me, I can't imagine anyone else but him choosing to do so in such a fashion. They would have left a sign near the entry portal; a sign in the structure of the lane, woven into the jumppoint itself where I might feel it as I approached. But not this. It's somewhat elegant."
"The sign is not of this lane. The lane is apparently unpopulated. But it is far from the entry point, such that one would have to actually enter the lane and look in order to see it - and then, likely, make the trek to determine what it meant. Anyone following in his trail along the Lanes would see that the Portal area was undisturbed, both in the Lanes and in the interstitials, and determine that no extraLane message was present, and continue on."
"So why would he have left it?"
"He knows I'm a tourist. He knows I haven't seen this Lane yet in the sequence. Hence, I would have stopped to look, if only for a moment - and hence, seen."
"Ah." He sounds somewhat dubious, but understanding nonetheless.
"Also, consider this. Even if we were not who he is expecting, we have been made to walk a mile or more across open ground towards a known point. If he is not observing, I will be most incredibly surprised."
"That's true." My twin's expression lightened at this further gram of sense. Our steps quickened.
The joke was made complete by the spraycan left discarded at the bottom of the cliff - a spraycan nowhere near enough to have made the sign, but looking as if the ruffians who had defaced the stone had just scampered in panic. I laughed once and looked around from the base of the rise, the bottom of the letters some thirty feet above us.
"You're late." He stepped out of air and closed the pocket behind him, turning back to face us before he froze. I looked sideways; my twin was in activ stance, hand flat. I extended one hand into his field of view, slowly; he relaxed by degrees. My friend waited, hands at his sides with a look of chagrin on his face. "My apologies. Not to startle you."
"Succeeding, for all of that." I drew a breath. "A detour?"
"I think...I shall have to call you each something," he mused. "This is disconcerting enough."
We looked at each other for a moment. I pulled out my deck, and then my twin grinned and did the same. We fanned them simultaneously, pulled out the mismatched cards, and spun them at him. He picked them from the air with each hand and held them up, faces to us, for a moment before flipping them to face him, magician's sudden fingersnap trick. "Perfect." He points to me. "Stalker." To my twin. "Jester."
We look at each other for a moment in shock as we realize what has happened. I thrust down a feeling of panic and can see my twin doing the same. "What have you done?"
"Don't worry." He sails the cards back to us, switching them. I have an ace of Fools; he an ace of Stalkers. "Those aren't your Names. Are they?"
"No." Jester says thoughtfully, looking at me. "They're our roles."
"Precisely. Give me another card."
I spin him a card without looking. He catches it, turns it to face me without looking. "Ace of Beaters," I tell him in complete lack of surprise. His grin is predatory.
"Indeed. Beater, Stalker, Jester." He sails the card back to me. "None of us carry our card. You carry each others' card, to link you. I carry none, as I don't carry a deck. We still have no names. The Lanes remain open to us."
Jester raises a hand for a pause. "Why the detour?"
Beater grins again. "To ensure you came alone, and to show you something."
"What?" My question is eager; I have heard him say that dozens of times before and always has it been worth it.
He points upward. We follow his glance to one of the three small moons, a dark and azure thing. "That."
I squint at it. "What about it?"
"It's covered in water. Well, water-based solution, anyway."
"And it's been slowing down. The orbital dynamics of this system are complex, but it's been losing energy for aeons. It's finally reached a very special point. Follow me."
With that, he raises his arms, and Jester and I glance at each other, nodding. As he vanishes, both of us grasp hold of his metaphysical coattails and dance through the portals in his wake.
We re-enter the same Lane, but some distance away - inside what I am astonished to realize is a spacecraft of some sort. The flicker of gammashine fades from the compartment we have entered, and Beater looks at both of us with his finger to his lips. We nod. Slowly, he opens the compartment hatch, admitting some small light.
I have time to note the smooth textures of the surfaces; no discernable walls or deckplates, just the biological asymmetry of a gut, membraneous and slick. We drift through the hatch into the passage. There are sounds from one direction; Beater leads us in the other, some twenty or thirty yards into another hatch which he closes and fiddles from the inside. Jester and I look around -
My mouth opens before I can stop it, but no words come-
-even mighty Herakles cannot match this. We are standing in empty space, the blazing jewels of starshine all around us. The hatchway fades away as Beater finishes with it and turns back to us, beaming as we stand in shuffling awe, spinning in place to see the colors of Chaos and of Light made hard and lethal by the Engines of God.
"Observation dome." Beater, damn him, has no poetry in his soul, or has submerged it just to maintain his air of irritating superiority. He points again, and we follow his finger to see the small azure moon - this time from an apparent vantage point of some hundreds of miles above its surface. It has escaped our notice because it is a vast dark shadow; we are apparently orbiting out into its dayside, and an arc of blue is widening at its edge.
"This moon has been cooling forever, you see. Orbital energy dropping, planetismal dynamics gone, rotation dying...it's just been getting colder. It missed starting life because there probably wasn't enough warmth, not enough energy in the system to jolt the broth, who knows? I'm still not sure why it has water; it's almost Earth-sized, but it shouldn't have retained the water, really. It has a shell of an atmosphere around the water vapor. It's not really a moon, but a fellow-traveller planet, you see...too big to be a moon. These several bodies orbit a common center in some byzantine repeating pattern."
"There's a point here, I know it." Jester's tone is dry but bright. He's fascinated too.
"Of course. The point is this. According to the instruments on this ship, which is owned by a nearby starfaring race named the...well, nevermind, I can't pronounce it, this past orbit has seen the temperature drop below the point where the surface ocean is significantly below freezing. For some reason, though, it hasn't frozen. The ocean is astonishingly smooth; there are no particulates in it at all, nearly. There's a metallic base at the bottom, and almost no particulates in it at all. As a result, there's been no seed for ice to form around, since the oceanic currents are just enough energy to keep it from freezing - rather like stirring a supercooled drink."
We start to grin at each other. I look at him. "What happens now?"
His grin is enough to light the room. "We don't know. But something does. In..." - he closes his eyes, opens them - "two minutes, eighteen seconds. Just there." And he points again, to a spot perhaps forty-five degrees up the shoulder of the nameless world.
We wait, breathless.
At nearly the last moment, there is a bright shock of light just where he'd pointed, and he laughs and claps his hand. "Of course! Meteorite. It didn't make it to the surface, but exploded...but it seems pieces of it will. I wonder what it's made out of, and how the ocean's reacting?"
We don't have time to wonder. There is a sickening lurch in the view as the surrounding starship's observation systems catch an anomaly and home in on it. Suddenly the ocean is a mere few miles below, and something's wrong - there's a gigantic patch of it that is turning gunmetal gray before our eyes, and it's spreading for the horizon at what looks like a snail's pace from here but must be an incredible speed.
We all let out breaths we didn't know we were holding, and then Beater says "COME ON!" and drops Lane again, with us in tow. Without thinking, we follow, and find ourselves standing on a vast plain of ice. Before I can wonder how I will breathe, I feel a shock and see Beater withdraw his hand from my belt. A yellow field springs into life and vanishes into obscurity, cycling upward as sound into supersonic, and suddenly there is air and sound...we look towards the world-breaking noise and have just time to see the icefront vanishing into the distance with the thunderous sound of structure roaring out its dissonant vanquishing of chaos, drinking in the heat of crystallization. Winds are roaring around us as the local weather is disrupted by the sudden change of state at the surface, and before I can notice Beater has gone, he's back, with what can only be described as an airsled, and is waving frantically. We jump on, tricycle seating, and he guns the motive power to fire us into the air.
Laughing, then, chasing the icefront across the surface in the dizzying vortex of a storm born in the gust and shout of a planet surrendering to its own confinement; the thews of molecular bonds flexing and shattering the surface into wondrous temples, mountains, hills, pillars, artwork, shapes, valleys, canyons, calderas. For a time, there is no room in my mind to think about the fact that we are hunted, nor about the fact that we know not by who; there is only the wonder of having all space and time as our playground, and the alien singing whine of our jets as we head sunward in a race to see the last living water before the night.
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