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This book is dedicated to:
Nancy and Peter Sieling
[the most supportive, dedicated, and awesome parents a human could have. I wouldn’t be here without you
1. The Multi-Coloured Door 14
2. The Bookseller’s Back Room 29
3. In the Deciduous Woods 43
4. The Square House 52
5. Great Forest on the Bay 64
6. Questioning the Bookseller 81
7. A Dialogue of Worlds 94
8. The Village at the End of the Path 105
9. The Graveyard of Cadrelle 119
10. The Glass Leaf 129
11. The Land of Canaan 139
12. A Wound in the World 156
13. The Other Side of the Bridge 168
14. A View of the Whole 180
15. The Temple of Life 191
16. Out of Orbit 208
17. How Much Can You Bleed? 216
18. The Only Tomb That Matters 229
19. Crushed and Broken 234
As she watched, the arboreal scene began to quiver and shake; the towering evergreens blurred and the needle-strewn ground glossed over, as if an opaque white curtain had fallen over everything. The colours and shapes, hard lines and soft, slowly dripped, as water droplets over glass – except these water droplets did not reflect the same scene as she looked through them, but a world of grey and yellow, of sand and arid soil. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t feel. The next thing she knew, the forest had completely vanished and she stood in an encampment in the middle of a desert.
All around her people shouted and cursed, camels spit, and children laughed and yelled. She gazed in shock at this place, at this nomadic city of sand. She felt different, somehow, more alone than ever before.
The whole encampment seemed to be in a hubbub with people running towards the center, yelling and calling to one another. As she watched, covers were placed over wagons, tents hastily secured, and livestock herded into frenzied groups.
She swallowed and took a step forward. She had no idea how to navigate this overwhelming chaos.
Without warning, a young man stood before her, a knife in one hand and a piece of cloth in the other.
“You must cover your head and come with me,” he said. “The sandstorm is coming.”
“Where am I?” she asked.
“You are in Canaan, and we are the people of Lorall. Please.” He tugged at her sleeve. “You must come before the sand overtakes us.”
She ran with him, past the screaming children, past the irritated camels, and past the many men and women, who continued to hastily cover their wagons and put away all foodstuffs, tools, and utensils. Many had finished the tasks and were running in the same direction – towards the big tent at the end of the encampment.
The young man lifted the tent flap and allowed her to duck underneath it before him. Her jaw dropped. Under the animal skin tarp was a cavern. A massive stone structure had been carved into the mountains of sand around them. It dropped fifteen feet, and grey stone steps led down right into the center. The main part of the room appeared to be seats, and a flat stage occupied the very center of the floor. People in clothes of all colours sat in groups, talking excitedly, and a group of elderly women stood in an intense-looking circle on a platform at the base of the cavern, centered amid all of the seating. Behind them, more and more people streamed through the door, rapidly filling up the strange arena.
She followed the young man down the massive steps, directly to the cluster of women.
“Another one has come here,” the young man said to the elderly women.
“What is your name, dear?” one of them asked.
“I am Kate,” she replied.
“You have come at a poor time,” the elderly woman continued. She, like the other women, wore a cloth wrapped around her head, covering her ears and draping under her chin and over her shoulders. “We are unable to trade as the storm has forced us to shut down our wares and close our gates.”
Kate shook her head, still feeling dazed and confused. “But… but I am not here to trade. I am looking for my brother.”
All seven elderly women turned to look at her at once, their faces grave.
“Your brother,” the woman stated. She sighed. “The prophets predicted that this year would bring much blight. I see it has begun.” She turned to face the young man. “Gilead, please see to this young woman’s protection until the storm has passed. Then we shall consider this problem.”
At once, all seven women turned their circle inwards, with their backs to the crowd, engaging once more in a hushed discussion.
Gilead took Kate’s elbow. “We will sit over here,” he said, “out of the way, until the storm has passed.”
“I need to find my brother,” Kate protested. “I don’t know where I am or how I got here, but I am looking for my brother and I can’t stop searching until I find him.”
“We will help,” Gilead reassured her. “You are not the first with a missing family. Please be patient. We must wait out this storm.”
Taking a deep breath, Kate nodded. “I will wait out the storm, but if you can’t help me, I must leave as soon as I can.”
“The Covey,” Gilead said, gesturing to the old women, “they can help anyone.”
Kate leaned back and considered her situation: in a desert, surrounded by strangers, about to experience a sand storm, and with no idea where her brother might be. She closed her eyes. If waiting was what she had to do, waiting was what she would do.
The countryside blazed by, a blur of green, brown, and blue, with speckles of red and orange. Quin idly wished they would install a Door at the outpost where he was stationed, so he didn’t have to take the train back and forth from Pomegranate City, but it was apparently an unknown security risk. But wasn’t pretty much any door into anywhere a security risk on some level? At least if you thought about it too much.
He shifted in his seat and crossed his arms. The woman across from him was giving him the eyes – that expression which said, “I’m interested in you and so I’m going to twitch my facial muscles around awkwardly until you feel so uncomfortable that you say something to me.” He ignored her and glanced at his watch. One hour into the trip. It was about time for him to take out his book.
“Excuse me, sir,” the woman across from him said.
He looked up, annoyed.
“I would just like to ask you a question.” She shifted in her seat, adjusting her pale yellow blouse and retying her scarf.
He nodded once.
“Have you ever noticed how perfectly everything aligns? The sun, the moon, our planet – the way we are able to cross great distances in a single bound, yet become as one to each living thing as we simply move one step at a time?”
Quin frowned. Not a typical come-on. He stated, “Religion died out centuries ago.”
“I’m not talking about religion,” the woman said. “I’m talking about hope.”
Another woman stuck her head around the seat and stared. She was wearing a green hat. Quin wondered briefly if the hat had a name or if that was all it was – a hat.
“It’s not about hope,” the woman in the green hat interrupted. “It’s about fear. You people proselytize to everyone you come across, not so that you can give them hope, but so that you can terrify them into giving your organization money to support lazy good-for-nothings that—”
“No!” The woman in yellow cut off the other woman. “The future is uncertain – there is much to be lost and gained. I and my brothers and sisters only want to encourage others to focus on taking control of their future, on not fearing death, and on seeking to love each other.”
“You’re a liar and a coward, spreading lies and brainwashing our young people to make poor decisions and spend their money unwisely!” spat the woman in the green hat.
Quin blinked twice and raised his eyebrows. This was getting unexpectedly heated.
The woman in the green hat stood up, glaring at the yellow-bloused woman.
The yellow-bloused woman continued, “You’re close-minded and ignorant, and you only care about maintaining the status quo, and not actually about improving our culture! As we reach out into the universe and meet other races and other cultures, we need to expand our thinking—”
The woman in the green hat simply could not wait any longer. She leaped forward and grabbed the first woman by the throat. The first woman responded by putting her foot in the green-hat’s stomach and pushing her back with all her might. Then a young man from across the aisle became involved, trying to separate the two, but instead found himself kicked in the knee and stumbling helplessly into an older gentleman who sat quietly reading the paper. The older gentleman began to swear loudly as Quin stood calmly, towering a head and a half over the tallest of the brawling passengers, picked up the first offender by her shoulders, and carried her into next car. He deposited the second woman back in her original seat; and he helped the limping man to the train’s medic.
Quin had never stopped a fight on a train before, but he supposed he just could add it to his Experience Portfolio, under Accomplishments. Shortly after he had relocated each of the individuals involved in the altercation, the train’s security arrived. As a regular on the train, Quin knew all of the guards personally.
“Mr. Black,” the security guard, Arthur, stated, nodding politely. “Thank you.”
“Welcome,” Quin replied.
“We’ll need your statement.”
“I’ll write it down.”
The security guard handed him the standard form, and Quin scribbled a few lines before handing it back to the officer.
“I’ll just keep my eyes open,” Quin said, gesturing to the car.
“Much appreciated, sir,” replied the security guard, and he scurried off to the next car.
For the rest of the trip, Quin paced casually back and forth, keeping a close eye on the now tense passengers who read their newspapers and chatted quietly. His height, massive build, and black scowl encouraged good behavior among the passengers. The train conductor came through once, nodding politely and murmuring, “Mr. Black,” in a quiet greeting.
The train arrived in Monapliet Station; hundreds of people swarmed the platform. As Quin moved forward weaving carefully through the crowd, a man to his right threw a punch. Before he knew it, a full-fledged brawl ignited around him, with punching, kicking, and insults. They shouted “non-believer” and “god-hater” and “it’s our god-given right.” After a few moments, Quin stood sweating over a number of brawlers who lay unconscious on the ground. The rest had fled or were being tazed by the Pomegranate City law enforcement.
It was turning into a rather unusual day, Quin thought.
“Officer Jones,” said Quin, reaching out to shake hands.
“Mr. Black,” Officer Jones greeted him. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Quin nodded. “Have a nice day.”
He left the station and began to walk towards his house. A newspaper boy yelled, “Newspaper! One quarter! Pamphlet! On the house!” He threw a coin at the boy, and the boy tossed him a paper. Quin caught it neatly and opened it.
The headlines read “LIFE STARS HOLD CONFERENCE AT TRUCE CENTER,” “YOUNG MAN KILLED IN FOUNTAIN BRAWL,” and “ADMINISTRATOR ADERICK FROWNS UPON RELIGION.” The second and third pages told of the weather, how to safeguard personal residences, and of a missing girl. He flicked the newspaper boy another coin as a tip and strode down the street, stopping only at a vendor stand to pick up some fruit and pre-made sandwiches. He had no doubt that his father’s house was empty of any nourishment.
An hour later he reached the house, a modern construction which showed off the most recent advancements in technology. It sat on a rotating platform, which was programmed to turn different faces of the house depending on the position of the sun. It maximized heat efficiency during the cold months, and minimized heat buildup during the warm months. It also used solar power to fuel its many systems.
Quin stepped into the entry pod, which slid to the nearest door, like a horizontal elevator. He wondered when John was going to show up.
He frowned as he entered his father’s house. The kitchen television was on. As far as he knew, his father had been gone for months, so either the television had been on the entire time, or someone had recently been – or was still – here. He looked around cautiously.
“Life Star proponents have started their own radio station,” the newscaster stated, “and have begun broadcasting shows focused on converting others to their belief system. Their efforts include various shows focused on the politics of planet building, how Door legislation should be broadened to allow citizens to build and maintain them for private and commercial purposes, and proselytizing young adults looking for someplace to turn…”
Quin padded forward quietly, the content from the news show sliding through the back of his mind. Then he heard a small noise and froze as a much smaller person than him came barreling from the other room and tackled him. Quin braced himself so that when the collision occurred, he barely moved.
“Doggone it, Quin!” the gentleman responsible for the attack exclaimed. “Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! You’re as hard as a wall!” He grabbed his arm overdramatically and collapsed onto the nearest chair. “Why is it that I can never surprise you?” Popping back up from the chair cheerfully, apparently uninjured, he held out his hand. “Good to see you!”
“John,” Quin acknowledged. He and John had been friends for over a century, and John was known for staging periodic surprise attacks to “test Quin’s reflexes,” as he said.
“I’m so glad you’re back!” John began.
Quin headed for the kitchen to put away the groceries, knowing he was in for a full-on story.
“So, the Committee has been keeping this secret, something to do with your dad. I figured it out one day when I heard Drake and Tom talking. I may have been listening through a heat vent, but that is beside the point. So I did some digging around – almost got myself caught, too, but not quite – and came to find out it has something to do with Dad’s disappearance!”
“Disappearance?” Quin stated. It always bugged him a little that John called the man ‘Dad.’ He understood that John had basically been part of his family since they were kids, and that Grise was the closest thing John had ever had to a father, but still. The man was a selfish idiot and a traitor.
“Yeah,” John replied. “He said he went on vacation, but he has been entirely off the grid since he left, and he was supposed to come back three weeks ago.”
“So, after some digging around the office and listening at doors (and heat vents), I decided that maybe it would just be easier to come here and dig around and see if I could find anything suspicious. I am your best friend, after all, so I figured if I got caught, it would be fine. You know.”
“You’ll never guess what I found.”
John grabbed Quin’s arm and dragged him towards the living room; directly in the center stood a Door. Quin halted in surprise. This type of Door was not a typical door, not the kind of door which led from one room to another and was indicated by a wood frame of some sort. This Door was of the type which allowed the user to jump massive distances, to travel light years, with a single step. Quin knew a lot about these Doors, as a special agent for the military whose job it was to travel through them every day. But the Doors he travelled through were located in government facilities, hidden in difficult-to-find locations, or at least secreted away in a family basement. This one sat in the center of his living room.
“How did that get here?” he asked.
“I think your dad made it,” John said.
“But…” Quin frowned. Why would he make it and then leave it sitting in the middle of the living room for anyone to find? Unless… he wanted it to be found.
“I also think he wanted us to find it.” John began to circle the Door like a cat on the prowl. “But it’s not just that. Doors are hard to make. And I don’t just mean hard, I mean hard. It’s some of the most advanced science we have today, aside from planet construction. He’s smart enough though. But a Door, I mean, really?”
All of a sudden, John spun around and bolted towards the couch. From behind it he pulled out a small toolbox, opened it, and began to take out instruments of various sorts, commentating all the way.
“We should go through it. To see what’s on the other side. But first I need to make a few measurements – we wouldn’t want to destabilize a solar system, now would we? Or get chopped in half when we jump through!”
Quin frowned, feeling very hesitant, which was odd, as stepping through unknown Doors was something he did nearly every day anyway.
“But you see, there is something very odd about this Door,” John stated, suddenly changing conversational direction, “something very odd indeed. First and foremost it is the wrong colour.”
Quin turned back to look at it, nodding. Instead of a typical Door, which was almost like a blue film hugging onto a thin curtain of air, this Door was multi-coloured, although the effect was very subtle. He could see strings of purple and deep blue blinking amid the nearly invisible haze of light blue.
“Of course, lots of Doors are the wrong colour,” he continued, “but not wrong like this one is wrong. I’ve never seen a wrong Door this wrong before. Wrong Doors – the unstable ones – are usually slightly green, or have a pinkish tint. But this one has more than one colour. Does that make it dangerous, or does that make it special?” He pulled a wand from the toolbox, ran a wire from it to a boxy computer-like instrument and began to scan the Door. The computer began to print out a series of documents slowly.
“Secondly,” John added, “this Door has left a mark on the ground underneath it.”
Quin had noticed that too, but not thought it pertinent. It was a thin black line directly under the Door, almost like a scorch mark in the living room rug.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before.” John pulled away from the Door and looked at the readings on his scanner. Then he stepped over to the computer and pulled out the printed documents.
Quin raised an eyebrow. Whatever he was learning, it probably wouldn’t take long before it came pouring out of his mouth.
John shook his head and rapped the paper with his forefinger. “Well, that’s odd.” A frown settled onto his face as he absently loosened his tie. “According to these readings, this Door does not exist. It cannot exist. Except that it does exist and it can exist, but only because of these three numbers…this coefficient here…” he paused, scanning the sheet rapidly. “Quin, we need to go through.”
“No,” Quin said. “Too dangerous.”
“Quin, we need to go through.”
Quin raised his eyebrows.
John took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “Okay, I will tell you what. I will do some equations while you send some rats through. Then we can go through.”
He went to the hall closet and pulled out a chalkboard as Quin stood and watched. Quin remembered that his father, Grise, had used this very often, but this time it was completely erased – spotless, in fact. This was very odd. If the Door wasn’t evidence enough, that detail also seemed to indicate that he was hiding something.
“Well? Get going!” John demanded.
Quin rolled his eyes and went to where John had hidden the toolbox. There he found a cage with a rat in it. That had been the sound he heard earlier which had alerted him to John’s presence.
“You brought a rat.”
“Of course I did!” John made a face that communicated, ‘Do you even know me?’ and went back to scribbling equations on the blackboard.
Quin removed the rest of the equipment from the toolbox. In included a small leash, electrodes, some wires, and a tiny hat, all equipment which John had once explained as, “a ‘Rat On A Leash With A Camera.’ Clever name, eh? I made a little hat for the rat. A little army hat – I modeled it after yours. You know, the green one? It’s got a built-in miniature video camera with a wireless tap that sends its information back to the Door, which has a modem hooked to it that transfers the information straight to the computer. In addition, I wrote a program which, with wireless electrodes, allows us to monitor the rat’s vitals and take air and dirt samples from anything he touches.” John’s explanations were never simple, but always verbose.
The rats were standard – protocol now, ever since the incident where one of the Globe’s staff members had sent a robot through and confirmed that the location was safe. Then, an entire team went through and never came back. After the fact, it was determined that there was an undetectable gas that had never been encountered before which was poisonous for most living creatures, except for those that evolved in it, of course. Since then, standard policy was to send something through that could actually die, as opposed to a robot only designed to detect what it is designed to detect, and not unknown substances.
Quin taped the electrodes to the rat’s head, and attached the hat and leash. Then, he placed the wireless transmitter on the floor and pushed it partway through the Door. He took the rat and shoved it in, watching carefully as the computer began to transmit data.
Oddly enough, there was a pause before the data began to run.
“It paused!” John exclaimed from behind him. “There was almost a ten second pause before it started transmitting.” He came over and looked at the equipment over Quin’s shoulder.
“Yes,” Quin agreed. “Odd.”
Then an image appeared on the monitor.
“Is that a…” John leaned even closer. “A dump?”
Heaps of junk surrounded the rat. Old bed springs twisted into the air with tufts of grey pillow stuffing clinging to them. Smashed up machines dotted the dirty earth with old plastic bags, batteries, and bottles in scattered heaps nearby.
“Grise built a Door to trash?” Quin commented skeptically. “Seems atypical.”
“That is quite unusual,” John murmured. “Bring Raul back. Make sure he’s okay.”
“Yes, the rat! He has a name too, you know!” John reached out and pulled on the leash himself. It went slack, but the rat did not appear for a full ten seconds.
“He seems fine,” Quin noted, examining the rat closely.
“Maybe he’s going somewhere farther away than we’ve ever been before,” he muttered. “Let’s push him back through, to see if we can figure out where that place was.”
“One second,” Quin said, handing the leash to John. He went into the kitchen and cut up the apple he had purchased from the street vendor on his way home, and brought a small piece over to Raul. The rat ate it hungrily. He then pushed the rat through.
There was another ten-second pause.
The image flashed on screen: the camera bounced up and down as the rat ran forward into a lovely green orchard. The grass was neatly trimmed, and each tree grew equidistant from the next. Deep red fruits peeked through the thick foliage that dressed the branches.
“Trees?” John and Quin chorused. How could he have ended up in two places each time? Doors were… well, monolocus, or so Quin thought.
John closed his eyes, tapping his fingers against his temples. “Trees,” he muttered. Quin watched as the rat scurried around at the end of the leash, straining to escape into the beautiful, lush countryside. The vibrant colours radiated into the room.
“I think those are apples on the trees,” Quin pointed out. “And we just gave him an apple. Coincidence?”
“Oh… apples!” John exclaimed. “Apples, apples, apples! How could I be so thick? Pull him back through.”
Quin yanked on the leash and the image on the screen disappeared for ten seconds before Raul stumbled back into the room.
John bent down, grabbed the rat, and darted into the kitchen. He opened the freezer and dumped the rat in.
“John!” Quin exclaimed. “That’s air tight! Ethics committee!”
“Hush, Quin, it’s only for a minute! And the ethics committee isn’t here.” John frowned. He glanced at his watch. “Another thirty seconds.”
Thirty seconds later he pulled a perfectly fine, if slightly chilly, rat out of the freezer and ran back into the living room, practically tossing the rat through the Door as he skidded to a halt on his knees on the carpet.
They waited for an interminable ten seconds.
Then they saw a bright, clean beach appear before them. A hot, white sun blazed in the blue skies that stretched over a white-capped ocean, and tall, straight-trunked trees rose out of the sand. The rat scrambled over a log that lay in front of it, coming face to face with a lizard.
“Look out!” Quin exclaimed, gesturing to the lizard.
At that moment the lizard opened its mouth and burped. Flames licked along its tongue and over the edges of the log, right into the rat’s face.
“Raul!” John exclaimed, yanking on the leash. The rat stumbled backwards and into the Door. The screen went blank for ten seconds as they waited for the rat to reappear. As soon as Raul fell into John’s arms, the scientist jumped up, dumping the rat into Quin’s arms. “Pop lizards! That was a pop lizard! Those are on Mara!”
“So Grise went to Mara?” Quin frowned. This also seemed like unusual behavior for his father, given that their technology was several centuries behind Sagitta’s.
“No, no, no.” John pushed himself away from the computer, one hand gripping his hair. “No, no, no. That’s not it at all. The first one wasn’t Mara; the dump was filled with metal. Mara isn’t advanced enough to have all that metal.”
He strode over to the chalkboard, shedding his jacket and loosening his tie. “I need to think. If there are two or more places… time differences or possible… differentials…” he continued to mutter, and then trailed off into a series of barely intelligible words. “…cognitive mathematics… insanity… partial influence of the vector… coefficient…”
Quin stood behind him for a moment, watching as John absently erased Grise’s blank chalkboard over and over. Then, he carefully removed Raul’s equipment and placed him back in the cage. He also gave the rat a few more pieces of apple before turning his attention back to John.
“You know those ten seconds?” John drew a picture of a blank computer screen with the number ten. “This is what I would call ‘bad.’ This is unusual, weird, wrong, if you will. But it can’t be wrong, because it exists. But we should be worried. Yes, worried. Or maybe not. Who knows, really? Change is inevitable, after all.”
Quin listened quietly. Eventually John would get to a coherent point.
“But when you walk through a regular Door,” John continued, “do you forget where you are for a moment? No. Do you experience a moment of discomfort? No. Do you experience confusion? Only if you’re getting really old.” John began to pound the chalkboard with the chalk. Little pieces flew into the air and landed in a scattered pattern on the floor. “But the real question is: do you stop transmitting data? No!
“So, the rat left here and arrived there, but, for a period of time long enough for us to discuss his absence, he was somewhere else. Where was he? Where was that rat?” John rapped on the chalkboard once with his chalk and it broke in half, the free half flying sideways and shattering as it hit the floor. “Damn rat.”
He began to pace in front of the chalkboard.
“A moment. A space. Why? Limbo? Dead? Time travel? An invisible world? And Raul went three different places, so maybe that was just a fourth, or woods with ponds…” He gripped his hair as he descended into his mindless chatter once more. Then he spun around and began to scribble rapidly, numbers bleeding from the chalk and dripping down the black surface of the chalkboard.
Quin shook his head. John was gone, at least for the time being, visiting that place only mathematicians ever visited, full of lines and numbers and all sorts of things he couldn’t possibly fathom – nor did he wish to. He tidied up the remaining equipment, filled the toolbox, and placed it all back in John’s hiding place.
He glanced at John as he wandered back towards the kitchen. John was writing with both hands. He smiled, unwrapped himself a pre-made sandwich, and then threw himself into a living room chair where he promptly fell asleep to the sound of scratching chalk.
The bright, white rays of sun piercing the bank of windows on the other side of the living room woke Quin ten hours later, still in his living room chair. John lay sprawled across the floor, clutching a piece of chalk and covered with a tablecloth from the kitchen. Scowling, Quin dragged himself from the chair and stretched.
“Wake up,” he said loudly, nudging John with his foot.
“I got it already though,” John muttered, pulling the tablecloth over his head.
“Time to go to the Committee meeting, genius kid,” Quin added, picking up the tablecloth and tossing it across the room. “Wake up.” He glanced at the clock. “We’re going to be late.”
“Bah. They can work without me,” John rolled over and stretched. Then his eyes shot open. “Oh man!” he exclaimed, abruptly sitting up. “I figured it out! Quin, it’s so simple, it’s genius! Why didn’t I think of this years ago?”
“Can we discuss this later?” Quin grumbled, staring aimlessly into the mostly empty fridge. John had apparently helped himself to some dinner last night, after figuring out the Door problem. A lot of dinner.
“No,” replied John bluntly. “It’s important. So, the Door is a Door that allows you to choose where you want to go. I was so confused for a while until I remembered this psych class I took in high school, where we studied the equations of the brain – you know, cognitive mathematics.”
“You are the only person on this planet who would take cognitive mathematics.” Quin shook his head and held out a handful of grapes. “All the food I have left – thanks to you. Let’s go.”
“But listen, if you were to walk through that Door thinking about Earth, it would take you to a Door on Earth. If you thought about upstairs in the Globe, it would take you there.”
Quin turned and looked at John quizzically. “Really? How does that work?”
John sighed, exasperated as he knotted his red tie covered with bubbles. “Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t want me to explain. Maybe I’ll try after the meeting.”
The two young men stepped out of the house into the bright sunlight. Quin pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, glanced at the encrypted list of directions scrawled across it, and shook his head.
“Crazy scientists, hate these meetings,” he muttered, and began to stroll towards town with John traveling sleepily in his wake. “I hate meetings,” he muttered again.
As they reached the supposed destination, he glanced around. The sign on the door read “William Oliphant, bookseller”; beneath it, another sign read “Closed.” A security sniper perched on the roof of the building across the street. Clearly they were in the right place.
As they entered the shop, a bell jingled. William Oliphant XXXIII puttered about with a duster and a broom. Quin nodded politely in greeting.
“They’re in the back.” Oliphant waved his broom vaguely towards an old wooden door that hid between two large, over-filled bookcases.
The shop was a tidy affair, with books stacked neatly on every horizontal surface. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases stretched along the length of the room, and a maze of stand-alone bookcases made from quartersawn Dokomaya wood divided the main space of the shop. The reddish-brown colour of the shelves peeked through the thousands of books that sat patiently, lined up neatly like row after row of soldiers. Quin ignored the books and moved purposefully towards the old wooden door.
He stopped as a young boy stepped out from the shelves. Quin frowned. This was a private meeting.
“Who are you?” he asked, broadening his shoulder and staring the boy down. The boy seemed to shrink a little and his eyes widened.
Mr. Oliphant scurried over. “He’s with me,” the old man mumbled, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Landon, come along now. I need your help outside.”
Quin frowned as Mr. Oliphant hustled the boy towards the front door, but then let out a deep breath and headed towards the back room. Probably just another one of the hundreds of Oliphants that plagued the city. The family was a bit like rats in that respect.
He nodded at Mr. Green who stood casually next to the door. Melissa, Amy, Tom, and a man in a brown suit sat uncomfortably in William Oliphant’s mismatched, wooden, high-backed chairs. Mr. Drake stood tensely at the head of the table. A red curtain hung against the far wall, next to a set of stairs leading upstairs. John and his red-bubbled tie slid down the wall in a corner and stretched long legs across the floor.
Quin nodded to the gathering.
“Hello.” Tom, wearing a black pinstriped suit, stood to shake Quin’s hand. “Good to see you.”
“Hello, Tom,” Quin replied.
“Quin,” Melissa said, stepping forward, “How have you been?” Three days ago the Committee had celebrated Melissa’s one-hundredth year working in their financial and legal departments. She now held the role of Head Legal and Financial Adviser to the Committee.
“Morning, sir,” volunteered a third man, wearing brown. Quin could never remember his name. “Thought you was on the Outer Rim.”
“Got back last night,” Quin replied, shaking his hand.
“They say it takes three days to get back from there, what with traffic and bison and all that.” Mr. Brown nodded.
“Bit of an exaggeration,” said Quin, shrugging. His suit made a small noise, as though the stitches in the seams cried in fear, holding tightly to each other in the hope that they could simply make it through the day without being ripped to shreds by the explosions that were Quin’s shoulders.
“I vote that Quin can run faster than bison.” John waved his hand idly in the air. “In fact, I would put money on the fact that he could circle this giant pastry we live on three times on foot in the same amount of time it takes us to get to the point of this meeting.”
“Silence,” Mr. Drake interrupted. “We have important business to discuss.”
Drake was an angry man in general, but tended to be very effective when convincing his subordinates to complete tasks. His shoulders stretched seven hands-widths, and his neck looked like a plastic bucket that had been filled with water and then frozen, so as to distort the shape of the plastic in every direction. He and Tom shared the responsibilities of leading the Committee.
Mr. Drake cut right to it: “Your father has gone missing and there is a highly illegal and possibly volatile Door in your living room.”
“I saw the Door,” Quin replied, meeting Drake’s eyes confidently.
“Where is your father?” Mr. Drake demanded.
“No idea.” This was not a new question. Staff at the Globe seemed to think that just because they were related, Quin kept tabs on his father and vice versa. This could not be further from the truth.
Tom, the elderly man in the pinstriped suit, glanced at Melissa, who sat in one of the high-backed chairs. “Two days ago, Quin, we sent a team of agents into your house to try to determine the cause of his disappearance.”
John sat up eagerly. Quin nodded.
“We found two things. The first was this.” He tossed a book on the table. The cover read A Dialogue of Worlds. “This is why we’re here instead of at the Globe. Call in Mr. Oliphant, please.”
Mr. Green stuck his head out the door. A moment later, Mr. Oliphant entered. He gasped and, ignoring the entire group, darted forward and snatched up the book.
“Where did you get this?” he demanded.
“What is it?” Mr. Drake held out his hand as if to take back the book.
William Oliphant hugged it tightly. “This book was the first to ever record the ways in which we might create other worlds.”
The room became silent. The silence skittered about between the floorboards and tickled the ancient mustaches. It moved faster and faster until it broke.
“What?” Mr. Drake’s voice had become dangerously low.
“This is an heirloom, a gem. It’s priceless.” A worried frown tumbled across Oliphant’s face.
“And it mustn’t ever be read,” Mr. Drake finished.
“Because it’s wrong.” John’s voice ground the broken bits of silence into smaller pieces.
Everyone in the room turned to look at John.
John shrugged. “I read a partial transcript in grad school.”
“The second thing we found at your house, Quin,” Tom continued, drawing attention back to himself. “Mr. Oliphant, if you could please leave?”
All heads in the room swiveled to watch as Oliphant reluctantly placed the book on the table and slinked from the room. Mr. Green carefully shut the door behind him.
“The second thing we found,” Tom continued, “was the Door. It’s likely that it is unstable. It appears to have an unusual colour saturation. As you know, unregistered Doors are highly illegal and unstable ones are highly dangerous.”
“Did he use the book?” Mr. Brown ventured.
The Committee began to murmur.
“Wait a moment,” John interrupted, standing. “We can’t start making presumptions. Just because there is a Door, doesn’t mean he used the book. Grise was intelligent and knew basic Door physics. He could have simply created an extra-dimensional room.” John began to shout as the murmurings in the room became louder. “Only after I’ve read the book can I draw those types of conclusions, but—”
“No one cares about the math or the book,” Mr. Drake retorted, loudly. “Tell me – could the Door or the world behind it be dangerous?”
“Yes,” John replied.
“Chain reaction dangerous, if he built it wrong.” John said, wincing slightly. “But that is true of any world or Door we make! And I haven’t done the math on—”
“So what we are implying here,” Mr. Drake began, “is that Grise Black, one of our very own highly-respected Committee members, possibly used an illegal book to build an illegal world that could destroy the universe?”
“I believe that was the presumption,” John said, spitting out the last word. “Which has no basis in reality—”
“Ludicrous!” Mr. Drake roared. “I won’t hear of it.”
“It could be perfectly safe!” John exclaimed. “We just can’t know until I—”
The noise in the room overwhelmed John’s explanation.
Quin raised his eyebrows and caught John’s look over the noise in the room, and he nodded. Clearly, now was not the time to tell them that John had already done most of the math and that they had actually used the Door – even if it was just with a rat.
“Gentlemen!” Tom interrupted, crossing his arms and gazing levelly at Drake, who took a deep breath before sitting down in the nearest chair. “Let’s stay calm. We had our agents do a preliminary scan on the Door and the team is currently running the data through a number of our systems to give us a starting point for the decision making and—” he turned to look at John “—the math. Until we get those results, we can go no further. You will each have assignments on your desk when you get back to the Globe. Until then, remember, this is highly confidential.” He turned to Quin. “We will have men standing guard around the house starting today, but I would appreciate it if you would remain on the premises until that happens.”
“Dismissed,” Tom said, and the quiet room once again became noisy. John slipped past the other members of the Committee and sidled up to Quin.
“So,” he whispered. “How about some pretzels?”
“I have to get back,” Quin replied.
“Yes… but it’s on the way!” John argued.
Quin rolled his eyes and then nodded as John turned Quin around and shoved him out of the bookstore.
“So I was on Wikipedia,” John chattered as the bell jingled behind them.
“You shouldn’t read that nonsense. Just because you’re obsessed with Earth, doesn’t make the stuff on it factual.”
John ignored the chastisement. “I read about this religion. They have this pretend God, on Earth, called the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Well, it’s not really a God, but it’s a parody, and they think pirates are the original believers in this God and it’s supposed to be an argument against intelligent design.” He snickered. “I wonder what they’d say if they knew that we made them.”
“They don’t know so it doesn’t matter,” Quin replied, heading towards the pretzel shop.
“I realize that they are a model for untainted cultural development, but imagine the chaos that would result if someone leaked them that information.” John raised his eyebrows three times consecutively.
“Don’t even think about it.” Quin opened the door to the Panoramic Pretzel.
“My treat,” John whispered as they entered. He leaned conspiratorially towards Quin. “Because I get them for free!” He grinned.
“Peanut Pretzel?” the girl behind the counter asked, smiling at John. “With extra salt?”
“Of course, Elle!” John grinned. “You know me so well!”
Elle smiled and turned to the rack of pretzels. “And for your friend?”
“He’s not having any,” John answered. He turned back to Quin and frowned. “Unless you’ve suddenly changed your diet or something.”
Quin shook his head.
“So what do you think your old man is up to?” John asked as he waited.
“Retirement.” Quin leaned against the counter.
He shrugged. “How am I supposed to know?”
“You’re his son!” John sighed loudly. “I know you haven’t spoken to him in two years, but really.”
“Peanut Pretzel, on the house,” Elle announced. “Here you go, Mr. John.”
“Why thank you, Elle,” said John, reaching out to take the pretzel. “And might I say you look particularly lovely today.”
Elle smiled and blushed. “Thank you, sir.”
“John,” Quin scolded as they exited, “she’s seventy-five years younger than you!”
“And a whole century younger than you, old man!” John retorted. “Look!” He pointed at the sky.
Over their heads the Morning Shadow began to drift onto the streets. This phenomenon, seen only on torus- or ring-shaped planets, took place directly before the sun was eclipsed by the curve of the planet. As the sun moved out of sight, instead of its light shining directly into the city, it bounced off of the ocean on the other side of the sky and back down, creating a strange and ephemeral white light. Quin smiled.
Around them, people began to drift onto the streets, gazing at the sky and murmuring in hushed tones. Two women in matching white gowns stood nearby.
“It’s a sign,” the first whispered reverently.
“God is speaking,” the second added.
“Don’t be silly,” John interjected. “It’s a well-known astrological phenomenon and we can calculate exactly when it happens. In fact, the Atmospheric Association sends out a message every time, so we can all watch. Although uncommon, it’s not particularly special. Obviously.”
“Unbeliever,” the first woman said, smiling. “You, one day, will see.”
“Let’s go,” Quin said, reaching for John’s arm and pulling him down the street.
“So, those women reminded me – I’ve been hearing rumors,” John muttered to Quin as he hurried to keep up with Quin’s rapid pace.
“What kind of rumors?” Quin turned to look at him.
“A new political movement. People want their own worlds, or access to them at least. They think planet construction should be a privately run business, not a government thing.” John carefully straightened his tie.
Quin contemplated this idea as they closed the distance to his house. It seemed like an idea that Grise would have been interested in – even propagated. The entry pod carried them to the living room. John plopped himself into a blue stuffed chair and kicked his legs over the arm.
“Where’d you hear about this?” Quin asked.
“Oh you know. McGray’s Pub. Coffee House Explosion. Holy Donuts.” He draped his arm over the back of the chair. “Just everywhere.”
“What do you think?”
“Hm,” John mused. “If it became private I’d probably start my own business.”
“Really?” Quin raised his eyebrows.
“Maybe,” John said, shrugging. “There are several things our Committee could do very differently and more efficiently. Of course, some decisions are law, and others are just leadership decisions. I wouldn’t just jump into it, naturally. At very least, I would probably go work for a private firm.” He chuckled. “I’d get paid more.”
He turned his attention back to the Door standing awkwardly in the middle of the room. Quin watched as John rose slowly from his chair, his eyes and body language locked on the Door, and walked slowly towards it. He stopped directly in front of it, putting his nose so close that it almost touched the haze.
Quin frowned, and then strode forward and pulled him back.
“Hey!” John exclaimed. “I was just looking at it!”
“No,” Quin replied. “You were hoping that you would just happen to get dizzy and topple forward through it. Or that I would trip and knock you in.”
“Maybe a little,” John admitted. “I think we should go through it.”
“You heard Tom,” Quin replied. “Not until the research is done.”
“But I already did the research!” In protest, John reached up and ripped his tie from around his neck, throwing it to the ground in defiance. “And I did the math and I barely slept all night because of it!”
“Then explain it.” Crossing his arms, Quin looked expectantly at John.
John’s body snapped to attention. He picked up his tie from the floor and tied it with precision. Then, he strode over to the blackboard and slapped it three times with his palm, picking up a piece of chalk with his other hand.
“Cool,” he said. “The Doors. Are very cool.”
John carefully drew a perfect rectangle. Flipping a piece of chalk into the air and pacing between Quin and the blackboard, he began to speak lecture-hall style. “Previously, a Door would take you to the other side. Monolocus. If I walked through the Earth Door, it would take me to Earth. If I went through the Mara Door, it took me to Mara.”
John spun around and smacked the rectangle-Door.
“You think this is a regular Door,” he said, scribbling over the perfectly drawn Door. “But it’s not! This Door can lead anywhere. Anywhere!” He spun back to stare dramatically at Quin, and stabbed him in the chest with his finger. “You. Imagine that you are contemplating your current project on the multicultural diversity of Earth. You step through the Mystery Door in this living room, thinking it will take you to your Grandmother’s house, and BAM. You’re on Earth.” John grinned excitedly. “It’s all about cognitive mathematics. Where you think you want to go, is where you will go… or I assume to the Door closest to where you want to go. Polylocus.”
Quin’s facial expression didn’t change.
“Now wait!” John said, holding up a hand. “Your next question will be: ‘Then why are not random people coming through every Door everywhere?’ The answer is: not any Door will take you anywhere. Only specific Doors can take you anywhere. But any Door can take you to a specific Door.”
“What?” asked Quin, frowning.
John drew three more rectangles on the board.
“This,” he said, pointing to the first one, “is the Mystery Door in your living room – a polylocus Door. It will take you anywhere.” He pointed to the second rectangle. “This one is Mara Door, the third one is Earth, and the fourth one is on Pagent – all monolocus Doors. If you walk through your polylocus Door, it can take you to either Mara or Pagent or Earth. But if you walk through Mara’s monolocus Door, it can only take you either to your living room, or to its other side in the Door room over on the third floor of the Globe. The same is true for the Doors on Earth and Pagent. They can take you to your living room, or to their other side.”
“So the massive logistics problem is likely to end up in my living room.” Quin sighed. “I see.”
John tilted his head. “Well, yes, I suppose that’s true.”
“And you don’t think we should mention this to Mr. Drake?” Quin raised his eyebrows.
“If we mention it to Drake…” John paused and took a series of deep breaths, and replied with gritted teeth: “Then we will not be able to go through ourselves.”
“John, we can’t!” Quin argued. “The Door is dangerous. We don’t know what’s on the other side. What is the point of going through?”
“To figure out what’s on the other side!” John slapped his forehead and began to walk in fast, tight circles. “Don’t you see, Quin? Every Door has another side. This one has successfully protected its other side, by enabling you to choose where you go based entirely on what you’re thinking about. But wherever the actual other side is… that’s where your father is!”
Quin shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t prove it. We do it the right way.”
“Fine then.” John scowled and stomped over to a chair on the opposite side of the room.
Shaking his head, Quin turned to go into the kitchen, but paused. Would John really give up that easily? It seemed unlikely. He turned just in time to see John sprinting towards the Door with a large backpack.
He leaped forward and grabbed John just as he disappeared through the Door.
Quin found that he couldn’t let go of the backpack as he was sucked into the enveloping blackness. There was not even a hint of light – of white or grey or shades of black. Just an all-encompassing darkness and the thundering of his own heart. The ten seconds during which they couldn’t see the rat was real; he floated in space, in an absence of sensation, feeling a rising sense of fear.
He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, couldn’t hear – all of his senses were numb and all understanding faint. He couldn’t take a deep breath to calm himself, but as the ten seconds grew longer and more difficult to endure, he focused on one thought that slid through his mind repeatedly: “Only ten seconds more, only ten seconds more.” It wasn’t much, but then they stumbled into the woods.
Simultaneously, he and John took a deep gulp of air. Ten seconds wasn’t long to go without breathing, but as it was unexpected, it was also unsettling.
John was, as usual, the first to speak.
“Woods. All that and we ended up in the woods!” He sighed loudly and straightened his tie. “I was hoping for something a bit more dramatic.”
“Earth,” Quin replied. He took another deep breath – Earth had a very distinctive scent: a little bit of trees, a little bit of dirt, a little bit of carbon monoxide.
“How do you know?” John raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, your awesomely functioning nose, of course.” John made his expression of mimicked snobbishness.
Ignoring John, Quin looked around. It appeared to be a typical North American deciduous forest, with the basic hardwoods – maple, oak, butternut – and some softer woods – pine, mostly. The undergrowth wasn’t too thick. He quickly identified a variety of young trees, ferns, and some jack-in-the-pulpit. “Upstate New York – 1537880.”
“You memorized the codes?” John wrinkled his nose and then looked around them. “I hope you know that I’m not a big fan of trees. I mean, look around! We’re surrounded! What if they come to life and start throwing apples at us?”
“These aren’t apple trees.” Quin crossed his arms and stared at John. “Let’s go back.”
“No!” John took off.
Catching him wouldn’t be hard, of course, but it would get very annoying if he kept doing this every five minutes. Quin waited a moment, until he heard the crashing and whining stop – and it wasn’t very far away, at that. He quietly ducked through the trees and peeked around the trunk of a rather large oak.
“AH!” John exclaimed, startled, as he came into view around the tree. “I hate it when you do that! How do you always – always! – surprise me?”
“We need to go back home.”
“Here’s the problem,” John said. “I’m not sure I know how to get back.”
Quin raised his eyebrows.
“The thing is, I don’t know how we got here. I understand the theory behind the Door, but you know how your brain works – always thinking a million things at once! I thought I was thinking about Dad, but then we ended up here. Unless…” John straightened up and looked excited for a moment. “…he’s here! Wouldn’t that be lucky?”
“Unlikely.” For years Grise had grumbled about his ambassadorial trips to Earth – it smells funny, they talk funny, they’re stupid people – even though his trips had been largely secret, and he hadn’t been allowed to communicate with actual Humans. He had only ever conversed with agents that lived on the planet studying the cultural development, and had apparently hated every minute of it. He wouldn’t be here. “But we can let Wolf find us before we go, and see if he’s heard or seen anything.”
Frowning, John reached up to straighten his tie. “Wolf is scary. And how do we know where he is?”
“He’ll find us.”
“That doesn’t make him any less terrifying. In fact, it may actually make him a little scarier.” John paused for a moment. “He’s not Human, right? Or am I remembering incorrectly?”
“Melfisian.” Quin looked at John and then pointed at the backpack.
“Oh, please and thank you!” John exclaimed, and handed it over. “It was wrinkling my suit.”
Quin rolled his eyes. He imagined that the branches and moisture in the forest wouldn’t do much for the suit either.
“Before we go—” John reached out and opened one of the side pockets on the backpack. “We should put these on.”
He pulled out two small ear pieces. “These are still in the testing phase,” John explained, “which is why you don’t have them on base yet, but we’re trying to make a communication device that can at least translate basic ideas. It’s based on the same cognitive mathematics that the Door operates on, but it has the effect of translating everything you hear. In addition, it sends out a signal so that anyone within fifteen feet of you can also understand what you’re saying.
“Side effects?” Quin asked.
“Ah, yes, well, first of all, it doesn’t translate colloquialisms. It doesn’t translate words that don’t have a translation between the languages. It doesn’t translate manners and customs.”
“It can also cause nausea. And sometimes if it comes into contact with the right catalyst, it can start either beeping loudly or cause a piercing high-pitched note to sound in your ear.”
Quin frowned. “What kind of catalyst?”
“Um… well… water?” John shrugged sheepishly.
Shaking his head, Quin inserted the device into his ear, turned, and walked off.
The sticks and dead leaves cracked and groaned under his feet as he strode into the gloomy, silent, forest around them. The ground was moist, and the scent rose up with each step they took. The sun was low in the sky – evening, it seemed – and Quin used the shadows to guide their direction. Wind brushed against the treetops, causing them to murmur and sing. John followed closely behind him, grumbling under his breath about the crunching sticks, the spider webs, the bugs, the smell – everything. John didn’t like the woods. Finally, Quin paused and turned around.
“Do you want me to leave you here?” he asked. The complaints were beginning to interfere with his ability to focus on the world around them.
“No.” John scowled. “But if I had known we were going to end up in the woods, I wouldn’t have worn dress shoes.”
“You brought a backpack,” Quin pointed out. “You were planning on something, but you didn’t think to bring better shoes?”
“You know what?” John exclaimed, irritated at the criticism. “I am going to leave you behind this time!”
He began to jog forward into the woods. Quin scratched his neck and smiled. John had no idea where they were going, and he had no idea that Wolf had set snares all over the woods. In fact, they had passed only a few feet from one not ten minutes ago. Slowly, Quin tailed John through the woods. About twenty minutes later, he paused. The hairs on the back of his neck shivered as the scents in the woods altered slightly. He crouched and listened.
Quin didn’t move.
“Quin!” he yelled. “I’m hanging upside down! Get me down from this contraption!”
A wide grin spread across Quin’s face briefly. He wished he could see. He tuned out John and focused on the other sounds that danced around him: the wind in the trees, the twitter of birds and squirrels, that strange silence of that comes from an absence of people, the cracking of sticks… someone was walking towards him.
He stood and turned.
A broad-shouldered, hirsute, scowling man pointed an arrow at him.
“Wolf,” Quin said.
“Quin Black-man,” Wolf responded.
Quin turned and strode towards where John hung from one of Wolf’s traps. He knew Wolf would follow, and he knew Wolf would not shoot.
John hung upside-down from a rope strung up a tree. His face was red, his arms flailed, and he looked furious.
“Get me down!” he demanded as Quin stepped into the clearing.
Quin heard an arrow release behind him. It sliced through the air and through the rope that held John. John tumbled to the ground in a ball of arms, legs, and high-quality fabric.
“Ow,” he groaned, picking himself up from the sticks and leaves that stuck to his suit and tie, which made him look like a well-dressed Sasquatch.
Without changing his facial expression, Quin grinned inside. He wished he had a camera.
“What was that?” John demanded.
“A trap,” Quin replied succinctly. Then he turned to Wolf. “Greetings. We seek Grise Black.”
“You hunt your father?” the man replied.
Wolf stared at Quin for a moment. “The Door in the woods has turned strange.”
Quin nodded. He knew that if he provided too much information, Wolf would get annoyed and leave. Wolf didn’t appreciate verbal communication particularly. He was half a wild animal.
“We know about that!” John butted in. “We’re trying to fix it! And we think—”
John stopped abruptly as Quin held out his hand towards Wolf. Wolf leaned down and sniffed it and then offered his own hand to Quin. Quin bent forward and sniffed Wolf’s hand: it smelled of dirt, and woods, and dead leaves, and there was a slight hint of hot rope. John must not have been the first one to get snared that day, which meant Wolf must have been having trouble with people in his woods – likely due to the changes in the Door.
“You came through,” Wolf said, “and you knew about the Door.” He nodded to himself and then crouched down on the ground. He picked up a green oak leaf and handed it to Quin. “He was here but now is gone. When you find Meriym, give this.”
“Do you know where my father is?” Quin asked.
“I will give information when I find it.” Wolf pounded his chest. “Do you need more?”
“The favor is now yours.” Quin bowed in the traditional Melfisian style of submission.
Wolf nodded once and bounded into the trees.
Quin turned to John. “I’m leading this time. Unless you want to step in another trap.”
“Why is he leaving traps everywhere, anyway?” John grumbled.
“To protect Earth from random idiots like you,” Quin replied. Wolf was the best guard the Globe had hired. He kept the area safe, protected the Door, and completed all of his paperwork.
John was fuming now. It had been some time since Quin had gotten him riled up like this. He was quite enjoying it.
“I am not…” John sputtered. “I have… I… I am… am way smarter than you!” He crossed his arms and fell back so he was walking slightly behind Quin.
“The traps are placed to trap any unknown that steps through the Door. Apparently, he has been having some trouble with that, probably due to this new polylocus Door, and is trying – in his own way – to protect Earth from random people appearing on their doorstep.”
“What about the other Doors on Earth?” John asked.
“I assume their guardians are doing their best.”
“How do you know all that? About the people coming through.”
“He told me.”
John shook his head. “Melfisians really are on the outskirts of my knowledge and understanding. They’re so… animal.”
“And usually right,” Quin added.
“How do you know him again? Just through the military?”
John clearly didn’t understand the concept of walking quietly through the woods.
“He’s working for us for the time being, as he is exiled from his home. He reports to my supervisor on base. We sometimes nod at each other. Sort of a loner though, an independent contractor of sorts.”
John was quiet after that. They walked silently for the better part of the hour, until John said, “are you sure you know where you’re going?”
“Yes.” Quin pointed. The Door lay directly in front of them.
“So,” John said, frowning at the Door, “how do we do this?”
“You’re the expert.”
“There are two options – we can think about your living room and hopefully end up back there, or we can think about your dad again, and see if it takes us back here, or if it takes us someplace new.”
“We should go back.”
“Okay,” John said. “I’ll go through first. Put your hand on my shoulder, though. I’m not sure how it works, but I imagine it will just drag us through. To be safe, make sure you’re thinking about staying with me. I wouldn’t want it to dump us in two different places.”
Reaching out, Quin placed his hand on John’s shoulder. He listened for a moment and turned his head. Wolf was watching them silently from within the trees. Quin nodded at the hirsute guard, and then took a deep breath as he followed John through the Door.
The greens and browns of the woods swirled and meshed into blackness, and slowly, as Quin watched, melded and folded into a grey sky and dirty green field of waving grass. Black birds soared in the sky, circling in spirals that drew them closer and closer to the ground. Their feet had landed on a sturdy wooden bridge, underneath which flowed a deep, vibrantly red river. Wind raced quietly through the sky. The distant trees wobbled and swayed, and their leaves skipped around like kites on a string.
John stepped forward, craning his head in all directions to take in the world around them. Quin followed suit, stepping off the bridge and onto the dry soil. The dirt blossomed around his feet. A large, eerie bird glided overhead, its shadow falling briefly over Quin’s face. Far ahead, on the trail, a wooden hut rose from the trembling blades of grass that buckled under the wind.
“This is not your living room.” John gestured towards the scene in front of him. “Where are we?”
Quin shook his head and carefully listened to hairs on the back of his neck. They were silent.
“We’re safe for now,” he said. “I’ve never been here.” He turned and looked at the Door; his eyes widened as he saw that there was not just one Door, but two. “John.”
John turned and looked back. “Two Doors!” he exclaimed, a bit giddily. “Which one did we come out of?”
“I need the backpack.” John scampered up the bridge and began to examine first one Door and then the other. He tilted his head sideways and upside down, doing a little dance that communicated that he really wanted to get close to the Door, but not too close, in case he got sucked through.
“It won’t suck you through,” Quin said, walking up the bridge with the backpack. “You know that.”
John pulled a series of instruments out of the backpack. “I hope these work here,” he muttered.
Quin recognized the resonator, the calibrator, and the ossilometer, but the rest of the tools were beyond him. He turned to gaze out at the world again. The strangest thing about the scene in front of him was that it was so average. The wind blew. Birds flew around. A house sat in a field. There was nothing on this world to differentiate it from any other world he had been on. Grass. Trees. Birds. A house. Even the house was made from a non-distinct type of wood, with no paint: it could have been rural Earth, rural Mara, rural Pesinter, or rural Sagitta, for that matter. He frowned. There was something off about this planet. It was too… normal.
“Looks like they’re both the same!” John said. “Both weird Doors, like the one in your living room. I don’t know which one we came out of. Don’t know why anyone would build two right next to each other. Don’t know why they’re here. But I do know that they’re the same. Do you think Dad built these ones too?”
“We can’t predict anything Grise does,” Quin replied quietly.
“So what should we do?” John asked. “Do you want to try to get back to your living room, or do you want to look around?”
“Let’s go to the house.” Quin strode off the bridge without waiting for John’s reply.
A moment later, John ran up behind him. “You could have at least given me enough time to pack the bag,” he complained.
Quin didn’t respond. Together, the two walked towards the house; Quin squinted to see it more clearly. There was something odd about this house. Then it hit him: it was square. Each side was perfectly square, and the four sections of roof peaked together in perfect isosceles triangles. Each side contained two windows and one door; the door was placed exactly in the center and reached all the way to the top of the wall. The doorknob stuck out in precisely the middle of the door. The only thing that was not symmetrical in every direction was the set of steps that led up to each door on each side of the house.
Despite the uncomfortable balance of the building, the steps had begun to rot, and small tufts of grass grew through their weakened wood. Shingles lay broken on the ground. Quin looked even closer: it almost appeared as if the house had grown straight up from the ground – as if it were a part of the earth itself.
John skipped forward and knocked on the door. Quin stayed back, looking around and listening. He was noticing something, but was not sure what it was. Something familiar.
After a moment, the door creaked open. A woman in a simple dress stood on the other side. She had the general look of a Cadrellian.
“Hello!” she greeted them. “Can I help you?”
“Where are we?” John asked politely, smiling up at her.
The woman laughed. “You would not believe how often I get that question. Are you looking for someone who has gone missing, too? We’ve had half a dozen of those in the last week.”
“No, just exploring,” John replied. “Does this place have a name?”
“We call it Path, usually.” She shrugged and smiled pleasantly. “Because of the path there, that leads from the Bridge. It’s the first thing anyone sees when they arrive.”
“Are there more people here?”
She laughed again. “Of course! There’s a city over the vale, and a few more settlements beyond that. It’s still being newly populated, you see.” She looked back at Quin. “If it’s okay with your friend, you should come in. I was just about to sit down for dinner – there is plenty for everyone.”
Quin sniffed the air. That was it – a familiar scent. Wolf. How did he get there before they did? “He’s here.” Quin stated.
John gave him his sad-eyed look. “Food? Please?”
Nodding once, Quin stepped forward and entered the house behind John and the woman.
“My name is Meriym, by the way,” she said.
“Meriym!” John exclaimed. “We have a message for you—” He stopped abruptly as he saw Wolf standing beside the dinner table.
Quin bowed politely to Wolf, and offered his hand in a gesture of submission. Wolf sniffed at it and growled acceptance. It was as if they hadn’t just seen one another less than ten minutes ago.
“Oh, you know each other!” Meriym seemed pleased. “Wolf has been a big help around here, splitting wood, making sure we have food, you know.”
Reaching into his pocket, Quin pulled out the leaf Wolf had given him and offered it to Meriym.
“Wonderful!” she exclaimed, an odd smile crossing her face. “I have not received one of these in a while. Thank you.” She looked up at Quin, her eyes glittering.
Quin turned his attention back to the table. Next to Wolf sat a small boy.
“This is Kip.” Meriym introduced him.
“Hello,” said John.
The little boy nodded but didn’t speak.
Meriym smiled and said, “He doesn’t speak. He is mute. He can understand, though.”
John pulled out a chair and sat down across from Kip. “Well, Kip,” he said. “My name is John. Have you ever invented a language?”
The boy shook his head.
“I would like to show you how.”
A look of confusion crossed Kip’s face. A smile split John’s. He held up his hand.
“This is my hand,” he said. “It is very good for pointing, yes?”
“What if you want to indicate something but it isn’t in the room?” John twisted his hand into a shape that looked altogether painful and then wiggled it. “This means ‘tree.’ It means tree because I decided it did.”
Holding up his hand, Kip copied the gesture.
John clasped his hands together over his head. “This means ‘hat.’”
Kip copied him again, a small smile lighting up his lips.
Quin tuned them out and turned to look at the other two standing in the room. Meriym was smiling broadly as she watched Kip with John. Wolf stood, gazing out a window at the grass dancing in the light breeze.
“Is he yours?” Quin asked.
“Oh no,” Meriym replied. “He appeared here a few years ago, scared and bleeding. The townsfolk thought he was a demon – silly people – so I took him in. No one has come looking for him yet, although people have come looking for plenty of others.”
“What do you mean?”
“There seems to be an epidemic of missing youths. They tend to be between the ages of ten and sixteen, and their families are on the hunt. A couple of times a week or so another person appears from over the bridge and asks if we have seen Jeremy or Josh or J’loshian.”
“Oh no, plenty of girls, too. I haven’t seen any pattern – not an obvious one at any rate.” She turned and began to slowly stir the pot of soup that sat on the stove. “It’s really sad, especially since no one knows why children are being taken. Families imagine the worst possible scenarios – I of course prefer to imagine that they simply got lost and are now living with a lovely new family, but there are too many of them for that to be the case all the time.”
Steam rose up from the pot of soup, and following it with his eyes, Quin noted the many herbs hanging from the ceiling – basil, heartleaf, plentiweed. Many he recognized and many he didn’t, but one thing seemed obvious: not a single one came from the same planet as another. More inconsistencies began to pop out at him – the refrigerator was hooked to a generator; the fireplace was burning high density logs from a wooded city called Winaparkamu which lasted a long time and produced a lot of heat; the furniture was reminiscent of the rectangular and oddly linear furniture from Bakourna; and there was a door placed exactly in the center of every wall of this strange little house, with a doorknob in the center of the door.
“Why are the doorknobs in the center of the doors?” Quin asked.
John’s head spun around, Wolf turned to look at him, and Meriym sighed.
“You know,” she said, “everyone asks me that. I don’t know, but it is rather odd. It seems to work, though, however the mechanism is designed.”
“They’re from a planet called Great Forest on the Bay, where Wolf is from.” John turned his body slightly in his chair so he could see both Quin, who stood behind him, and Meriym. “One of the primary religions on that planet places a great deal of importance on balance. That idea, at some point in their long and extremely arduous history, translated into perfectly balanced buildings, with exact measurements all exactly the same – perfect squares and perfect spheres. In fact, this entire house – well, the outside, anyway – seems to have been built in that style.” He turned around again to face Kip.
“Do you mind if I look around?” Quin asked.
“Go ahead!” Meriym smiled at him.
Wolf growled and gestured towards the door at the opposite side of the house. Quin followed him.
They stepped out into the clean-tasting air. A breeze wrinkled a tarp draped over a several cords of the logs from Winaparkamu, and a small rodent – white with grey stripes – sprinted from under the tarp to behind a small, grey-sided shed. It appeared to be made of wood, with a bark roof, but something about it felt odd. Quin squinted and stepped closer to the shed. He reached out to touch the side.
It wasn’t wood. It was stone – stone which was finely layered to look like wood, but was clearly not. The roof was tied down with ropes.
“What?” Quin asked.
“Stone hut grew,” Wolf replied. “I added roof.”
“Hut here forever. Roof added four years ago, when Meriym came.”
Kneeling, Quin dug at the soil at the base of the shed. He didn’t go very far, but it did appear to vanish into the ground. He stood and walked back towards the house, stunned to realize that the house – although much more complicated – was the same: stone, grown to look like wood. It seemed to have grown its own roof, however, unlike the shed.
“How?” he continued in his vein of questioning.
“Don’t know. Hope Mr. John can explain.”
Quin shifted his focus to beyond the buildings. The field seemed to stretch out endlessly in all directions except one. The road that had led them towards the house continued past over a rise. In that direction, a hedge lined the field. It was made up of large, dark-looking trees. Quin had an odd feeling about this place; it was both as if he knew it and as if he were afraid of it. Déjà vu and fear. He clenched his fists once and then turned to look at Wolf.
“What is beyond the field?” he asked.
“Woods, and one village. Have not explored further.” Wolf walked in three tight circles and then crouched down. He pulled a leaf from among the waving grass. Quin mimicked his movements.
“You,” Wolf growled. “Give to Meriym.”
“Why do you keep telling me to give her leaves?” Quin asked.
“You have same smell.”
Quin frowned, his eyebrows knitting together in what he knew was their weird wobbled pattern. “Do the leaves mean something?”
“Faith,” Wolf replied. Then he sprang up from his crouch and darted back towards the house. Pursing his lips, Quin followed slowly behind.
Quin was surprised by the drastic change between the inside and the outside of the house. Inside was warm and welcoming; the orange couches, with yellow, knitted blankets draped over the back suddenly standing out to him. A rocking chair creaked, apparently rocking itself next to the fireplace, and Meriym, Kip, and John were laughing about something in the kitchen. In contrast, the outside seemed far more grey, cloudy, and cold than Quin had remembered it actually being, and he wondered if it was the strange feeling he had about this world, or the people inside the house, that made the difference.
“Quin!” John said as Quin walked in. “We made up a sign for you! It goes like this.” He put his hand on top of his head, and rubbed it back and forth furiously, making his hair stick up, while simultaneously sticking out his tongue. Kip burst into silent peals of laughter, his smile wiping out all other emotions and his hands grasping his belly as he breathed a rasping laugh.
A small smile flitted across Quin’s own lips as he watched the scene.
“I think the sign for ‘John’ should be this,” Quin replied, taking his left hand, sticking it into one side of his cheek and moving his tongue to make it appear that he had stuck his finger through his face. If it were possible, Kip laughed even harder, until he fell out of his chair.
Meriym intervened at that point, smiling and laughing. “Now, now, boys,” she said. “The soup is ready, and I don’t think you can eat it when you’re laughing, or you’ll be spitting it all over the house!”
Kip sat up and climbed back into his chair. He was still snorting a little bit but he was clearly trying to calm down. Wolf growled from the corner.
“That’s fine,” Meriym responded. “There will be leftovers, I’m sure, if you want any later. Be safe!”
The next moment a draft filled the house as Wolf opened the door and disappeared into the grey world outside.
Pulling out a chair, Quin sat down at the table. He caught John’s eye.
“I quite agree,” John replied to his silent suggestion. “Meriym, as soon as Quin and I are done eating, we need to head back.”
“Speaking of that,” Meriym said, “where are you from?”
“We are from the planet Sagitta, the city Pomegranate,” John replied formally. “What about you?”
“Sagitta?” A cloud crossed Meriym’s face.
Meriym crossed her arms. “There was a man that came from there. He offered me protection, but he caused much suffering to other people. My world has been destroyed because of him.”
John bowed his head. “I am sorry to hear that. May I ask who it was?”
Quin shook his head sharply.
“I prefer not to discuss it anymore.” Meriym placed a bowl at each of their places.
“I understand.” John bent down and slurped his soup up rapidly.
Eating more slowly, Quin broke the awkward silence. “What is in this soup?” he asked.
To his surprise, Meriym blushed slightly. “It’s a potato soup my grandmother always used to make. She said it would make men healthy and strong.”
Nodding politely, Quin drank some more of his soup. “Delicious,” he said.
John nodded eagerly. “It is wonderful! Thank you so much for being a wonderful host.”
A slight smile crossed Meriym’s features and immediately the atmosphere in the room relaxed. It even seemed to get a little bit warmer. Quin frowned. Could one person have such a huge impact on the feeling of a room? He stood and lifted the backpack. John stood as well, and took his dishes and placed them by the sink.
Meriym came over to them and held out her hand in the traditional Cadrellian goodbye gesture. Quin grasped it and then turned and left without another word. He heard John come running up behind him.
“You barely said goodbye!” he protested.
“It’s traditional,” Quin countered. “You’re the one that didn’t follow her lead.”
“Psh.” John punched the backpack that Quin had slung over one shoulder. “Where to next?”
“Great Forest on the Bay,” Quin replied.
“Well, there has to be a reason this place looks like that place, right?” Dust plumed around Quin’s feet as they neared the bridge.
“I thought you thought we should get back,” John said, a look of hope crossing his face.
“We already broke the rules,” Quin said. “We might as well learn something useful before we face Mr. Drake.” He came to a stop as he gazed at the two Doors in front of them. “But which Door do we use?”
“Either one,” John replied. “They’re both polylocus. You go first.”
Quin’s steps on the wooden bridge sounded hollow, and then he heard nothing at all as the ten seconds of weightless, senseless emptiness enveloped him.
The first thing Quin noticed were the two burnt red suns hanging from opposite ends of the sky, angrily glaring at one another across the sea of clouds between them. A third stood higher, burning bright white and mediating their angry stares. Beneath the beautiful, wonderful sky was a bustling city. Wagons drove by; children laughed and shouted; people walked and talked with each other.
Then the street went silent as all eyes turned to look at the two men stepping from the Door. A voice beside them announced loudly, “Attention, citizens. We have visitors.”
Quin tensed as all around them the people fell to their knees and bowed their heads.
“Oh, don’t do—” John began, but was quickly silenced by a large man in a black leather vest.
“You must be silent, and you must wait.” His was the voice that had initially announced them.
Shifting his weight, Quin crossed his arms in front of him and turned to look at the man, who subsequently refused to meet his eyes. This was a strange way to protect a Door, and one he had never experienced. In addition, their backs appeared to be against a wall.
The entire street, including all the people, children, animals, and John and Quin, stood in silence for nearly ten minutes. Then, a large litter decorated with gold thread and tassels was carried into view by – presumably – slaves. Resting on the litter was a beautiful woman with olive skin and black hair, bangles on her arms and ankles, and enough earrings to sink a ship. Lying by her side was an enormous black panther. Next to the litter strode a tall, elegant servant carrying a staff of some sort.
She turned to look at them. A cat-like smile slid across her lips. Her litter carriers turned to walk closer to where Quin and John stood, stopping two litter-lengths away. Quin watched with mild shock as the servant with the staff bent down. The woman lifted one ankle gracefully from the litter and stepped on his back, using him as a living set of stairs. She walked towards them, stopping with her face inches from Quin’s.
He looked her in the eye, but paid attention to his peripheral as the cat slinked between the bowing citizens, closer to him and John. Quin recognized the move. The woman would distract them, while the cat got into an offensive position.
“I know you,” she said.
Quin said nothing, focusing instead on the movements of the panther.
“You’re just like he described you.” Her laugh chimed. “And you,” she turned to John, “I suppose you are the other one.”
“Madam,” John said, bowing elegantly. “It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance. But you have me at a disadvantage. May I ask your name?”
She laughed again, ignoring his question. “You certainly are the other one.” A scowl flew across her features. “But I find I am displeased. It is not even lunch time and already we have had three visitors. In one day! That is more than we usually get in a year! What is the meaning of this?”
“Three visitors?” John asked. “I only see two.”
The cat had ascended a staircase on one of the nearby buildings. Quin risked a glance. The building had an upper terrace which jutted out towards the road. From that position, the cat could jump down directly on top of them. Quin shifted his stance into a defensive position that would allow him to absorb the impact and shield John should the cat decide to jump from the ledge.
“Men!” the woman called over her shoulder. “Bring the girl out.” She turned towards John. “I was going to kill her, for amusement purposes of course, but since you asked…”
A group of rough-looking soldiers dragged a wooden cage forward. Inside was a young girl with matted hair and torn leggings under a dirty tunic – and she was spitting mad.
“Bastards!” she yelled. “Let me out of here! Fight me like a man. If you win, I die. If I win, you die!”
“What language is that?” John asked.
“Melfisian. And some Blenin and Roumatid cursing.” Quin crossed his arms and looked at the woman. “Don’t kill her.”
“But Betsy was so looking forward to it!”
“Is Betsy your panther?” John asked. “Because if so, that is very anticlimactic. I mean, she’s beautiful and all, sitting up there like a black shadow under the clouds which look like ribbons of jewels, but Betsy?”
“You speak beautifully,” the woman replied, “but are arrogant.”
“Don’t kill her,” Quin repeated.
“I will make a bargain with you,” the woman replied. “I wish for you to come meet my family.” She stepped forward and drew her soft fingers down Quin’s cheek. “If you agree, I will let her come with us. If you all leave my palace successfully, she may go with you.”
“Deal,” John said.
“I was talking to Quin,” the woman said.
Quin’s eyes flashed. “How do you know my name?”
The woman burst into a peal of laughter, which sounded like a chalkboard being peeled with a potato peeler.
“You do not know? Well, you are friends of my brother. He speaks well of you.” She turned away. “Do we have a deal?”
Glancing at the girl in the cage, Quin replied, “Yes.”
“Bring them to the palace,” the woman commanded to no one in particular, and then stepped delicately onto the back of her servant and lay against the pillows. The panther slinked back through the crowd and leaped into the litter; the servants braced under the sudden weight.
“What is your name?” Quin asked suddenly.
“You may call me Isabel.” With that, the servants carried her carefully away.
As soon as Isabel’s litter disappeared from sight, two large men appeared on either side of John and Quin. Obligingly, Quin and John began to walk in the direction in which they were being nudged; nearby, a group of men picked up the cage with the angry young woman.
“Hey,” John said, waving at her. “Hey! What’s your name?”
“What’s it to you?” she asked, grabbing onto the bars of the cage and spitting on the cobblestones.
“Well, we basically just saved your life…”
“Maybe,” she said. “You maybe saved my life. Or you got me into worse trouble. How am I supposed to know?”
“Well, it’s better than nothing. I’m John. This is Quin. How did you get here?”
“Came through the Gate,” she grumbled, “like it matters to you.”
“Seriously, relax!” John said sharply. “We’re nice, I promise. I’d show you my honor badge, but one of these kind gentlemen would probably bean me on the head if I tried to reach for it.”
“Yeah,” she said, “well, I guess I can say that I’m Kate. But that’s all. No more information.”
“Kate!” John exclaimed. “What a lovely name! Now gentlemen, if you don’t mind, the lovely Isabel has agreed that Kate is with us, so would you mind letting her out of that cage?”
As if of one mind, everyone marching down the street stopped. The cage was opened, and Kate stepped out. She stretched and turned to John.
“Thanks,” she said, and everyone began marching once again.
People swarmed the cobblestone streets. Quin noted that there seemed to be an obvious class differentiation in this world. Those that rode in the litters wore elegant clothing and jewels, and each had an animal of some type. The people that walked wore simple garments and had no animals. As they passed, faces turned to stare, especially at Quin. He stood a head and shoulders over everyone else, and his shiny bald head reflected the light of the suns. John’s clothes also seemed to attract attention. No one around them wore colours brighter than a dull blue. Fingers reached out to touch his spotless white shirt.
The other thing that he noticed was the style of buildings. The majority of the houses, restaurants, and businesses in the town were built in even proportions – similar to the house in which Meriym lived. The doorknobs were in the center of the doors, the windows were spaced evenly in each quadrant of each wall, and the roofs met in perfect isosceles points. A few of the buildings, however – the ones with columns, elaborate carvings, or other indicators of wealth – did not seem to follow this tradition. He wondered if it was a forced, religious, or voluntary style choice. He guessed that it was not the latter.
Kate walked in front of them, head held high. Quin could see the bulge of a knife hidden in her garments – at least he assumed it was a knife. As he had no idea where she was from, it could have just as easily been a small firearm of some sort or another type of weapon.
After nearly fifteen minutes of walking, a huge palace rose out of the ground in front of them. It was surrounded by a tall fence, and strangely-shaped towers rose elegantly from a cluster of buildings. The towers each had five roofs, one jutting out from beneath the previous. The rectangular grey stones rose, layer after layer, from a carefully manicured green lawn. A red stone path led from the gate to a series of steps; at the top sat a large wooden door with faces carved into the surface. Isabel’s litter was nowhere to be seen. As they passed a massive hedge of oddly shaped bushes, Quin reached out and subtly plucked a leaf, slipping it into his pocket.
“This way,” one of their guards ordered, leading them down the front cobblestoned path, up the massive set of stairs leading to the front door, and ultimately into a huge lobby. The lobby contained two elaborate staircases, one on either side of the room, leading up to a balcony on the second floor. Under the staircases, another large door led farther into the house. A chandelier made of black rock dangled from the ceiling, and benches lined the wall on either side of the door.
“Wait here,” the guard commanded, moving towards the inner door.
Quin took a careful look at the room – shiny floor, huge staircases, and lots of glitter. But the stairs were bothering him – they didn’t go anywhere. At the top was a balcony, true, but there was only a wall behind it with no doors, and there didn’t appear to be any halls leading away. Perhaps this was like a false storefront, like the old Western towns on Earth had in the movies John made him watch.
He turned towards John and Kate.
“You okay?” he asked Kate. She nodded and moved to sit on one of the benches, a scowl wrapped across her face.
“How do you know their language?” John asked, turning to look at her. “I mean, if you’re not from here.”
“I’ve been traveling for almost five years,” Kate muttered sullenly. “You pick a few things up here and there.”
“Why did you come here?” Quin asked.
“What are you, Maxim’s governors? I told you I wasn’t going to give you any more information!”
“It’s fine, I think I can guess,” John said. He sat down next to her on the bench and linked his fingers across his stomach, gazing at the ceiling. She scooted a few inches farther away from him as he began his explanation. “Five years ago you set out searching for something and your search led you through a Door – or a Gate, as you call them. You began traveling through a Gate and then traversing the landscape of each new planet to find the next Door.”
Kate’s eyes narrowed, and Quin tried to decide if John was hitting any soft spots.
“One day, you popped through a Door – a familiar one, if I had to guess – and you ended up not where you thought you should be but on…” he paused, his fingers rubbing his chin, “…probably on a bridge over a red river?”
Eyes widening, Kate’s body language seemed to relax just a little. “How could you possibly know that?” she demanded.
“Confused, you popped back through the Door, I mean Gate, and ended up here.”
At this point, Kate’s jaw was hanging open. “How could you possibly know that? It’s so… specific!”
“Deduction, my dear Kate, is a man – or woman’s – best friend.”
Her scowl deepened. “Well, you’re right about some stuff, but I’m not telling you which part!”
John turned to look at Quin. “You were right, my good man. We’re going to have a serious logistics problem soon.”
“Not us,” Quin replied. “Committee.”
Chuckling, John stood up and glared down at Kate. “You may not tell us anything, but we’re going to help you and that’s that!”
“You tell her,” Quin said dryly. As if it made sense to help someone they knew nothing about. She could be a fugitive, for all they knew. But John, as logical as he could sometimes be, could also be a bit dense.
To both of their surprise, Kate laughed. It was a sharp change from the angry scowl that had graced her face since their initial meeting.
At that moment, the large door under the stairs swung open. Isabel stood on the other side with her panther sitting elegantly behind. Kate’s laugh ended abruptly.
“Do all rich people on this planet have a panther?” John asked, rather impolitely.
Isabel ignored him and said, “Come this way, please.”
The three followed as she led them into the hallway. Along the walls down the length of the room, tapestries hung in a row. They featured various men and women with their animals at their sides accomplishing mighty feats. One man grasped a baby in one arm while he held onto the feet of his eagle as they soared just out of reach of an angry mob. An armor-clad woman and a large grey bear held up the pillars of a collapsing building as white-robed women fled in a blatant panic. A young boy and a squirrel hid in the roots of a tree as an invading army burned down a nearby cottage.
Just past a tapestry with an albino girl and an albino vole digging a hole in a large field, Isabel made an abrupt left through a door. After Quin, John, Kate, and the panther had filed through it, she crossed her arms and turned to look at them.
“As it so happens,” she said, “my mother is not in the mood for guests, even if you are friends of my brother. That said, you only have two options: you can either fight each other to the death, or you can escape.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa back up,” John said. “I think maybe we might be mishearing you.”
“You mean I can go from being in a cage into a frying pan?” Kate exclaimed. “This is ridiculous.”
“In a fight to the death, Quin would win hands down, except I don’t think he could kill me – psychologically speaking, of course—”
“—and I’m only here by accident, so it hardly seems fair. What did I ever do—”
“—could just let us sneak back through the Door and no one will ever have to know—”
“Who is your brother?” Quin said quietly, his voice overwhelming the panicked quibbling of the other two.
John and Kate quieted, and Isabel laughed.
“You mean you don’t know?” Her laughed was as painful as ever – the constant grating of industrial Velcro on the side of a pottery bowl. “It’s Wolf.”
Quin nodded once.
“Man, that guy gets around!” John commented.
“I… I know him, too,” Kate stuttered. “He saved me, on that one planet, with the cars…”
“Earth,” John supplied.
“Yeah.” Kate reached up and began to twirl a piece of hair. “So can we go back to the two options again – either escape or death?”
“What kind of woman is your mother, anyway?” John added.
Isabel spun towards him rapidly, her hair flying and a twisted scowl darkening her angry features. “She is the kind of woman,” Isabel hissed, “who has a companion that is an eight-hundred pound grizzly bear, who could wipe the skin right off of your face with an accidental nudge of his massive paw. She is the kind of woman who has only to look at someone and they cringe and then commit suicide for not being able to read her mind. And she is the kind of woman who enjoys putting strangers into a pit with her bear and watching them disappear.”
John gulped and stepped back. Kate’s eyes were wide and she had unknowingly gripped the edges of her tunic so that her knuckles were turning white.
A little vicious smile crossed Isabel’s lips.
“I hear rumors of your wonderful library,” Quin said, interrupting the now overwhelmingly tense atmosphere.
“What?” John and Kate both exclaimed, jolted out of their terrified awe.
He ignored them and stared into Isabel’s eyes. They didn’t have time for these types of distractions, and he hadn’t been friends with Wolf all these years and not paid attention.
“I don’t think that was one of the options,” John interjected.
“If you choose to fight to the death, you will be allowed to see the library before you die.” Isabel’s panther was sitting close to her, leaning in and sniffing the air, as if it could taste the three strangers that stood in front of it.
“We choose to fight to the death,” Quin stated simply.
“Quin!” John exclaimed. “I hardly think that is a fair determination for you to make!”
“I don’t even know you two and I can already tell you’re insane!” Kate added. “Don’t you think it makes sense that I should have some say in this decision, since I’m going to die?!”
“I will return for you in precisely two minutes,” Isabel said. “Prepare to go to the library.”
“Quin,” John said as soon as Isabel and her cat had vanished from the room. “As much as I love libraries, and I think that we can all agree here that I love libraries and am delighted that I get to be in one right before my impending death, I would have liked to maybe try the escape method first, before agreeing to a fight to the death.”
“We are,” Quin replied.
“Going to escape.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense! You just agreed to a fight to the death, which, as far as I understand the language we are communicating in, has nothing to do with escaping! It means fighting! And death! And dying! And I have so many plans, so many things to do!”
“Maybe if you quit whining,” Kate interrupted, “Quin might be able to explain what he means. Because he clearly has a plan of some sort which neither you nor I are aware of, and I for one would like to hear what it is.”
“I see your point,” John said, “but I just have to ask one thing – will we have time to look around this library before we escape? Because I just had a thought about a book I would like to get my hands on.”
“Yes,” Quin replied, but before he could say anything else, the door opened again and Isabel stood gesturing for them to follow.
“The library is one of our favorite attractions,” Isabel commentated as they walked along cold stone corridors, which were covered with hundreds of the relatively disturbing tapestries. “We own over ten thousand volumes, some of which are as old as the city itself. In addition, each time a book comes through the Gate, we confiscate it and add it to our collection.”
“Glad I didn’t bring any of mine,” John muttered.
“On the other hand, reading of any sort is forbidden to our people,” Isabel continued, “and as a result, our library is less of a library and more of a prison for literature.”
She pushed open a rather short and stocky door, which led into a dusty, cramped room. It was dark, even dank, and it smelled of rotting wood. Bookcases filled the room; they stretched from floor to the relatively low ceiling, leaving no space for bats to hang, and were crammed with books of all shapes and sizes. The bookcases seemed to make a maze that led through the library, and Isabel led them down one row, then another, and another. A rat scurried under their feet, and Isabel’s panther didn’t waste a moment, but growled and disappeared into the shelves. Not a moment later, it reappeared, with a tail hanging out of one side of its mouth.
“This is a terrible place to be housing books,” John commented, and then added in a whisper, “And how are we supposed to get out of here again?”
Quin ignored him, paying attention to his senses. A slight breeze seemed to be crossing his face every time they passed slightly diagonal rows of shelving, and the breeze carried with it a strange scent. Then, the group stepped into what could only be described as a clearing. It was a big open space in the back of the room, with one tiny window visible near the ceiling. Circular shelves curved along the back wall. A huge table stacked high with books and papers filled the empty – at least in comparison with the rest of the room – space, and a group of teenagers sat at a large round table. Quin squinted. An older gentleman sat among them; he seemed to be directing the conversation.
“Mr. Oliphant?” John asked, surprised.
The older gentleman turned around hurriedly, shaking his head to signal John to be silent. He stood up and tiptoed over to them.
“Shhh,” he whispered. “You mustn’t say my name here. They know me as Professor Q.”
“Well that’s not a suspicious name or anything,” John commented dryly. “What are you doing here?”
“I am… I am working, of course. This place…” He wiped a drop of sweat from his forehead. “…is one of my… my workspaces.”
His hands were shaking in addition to the stuttering and sweating; Quin wondered why he was so nervous. He glanced at Isabel. Her eyes were blazing and she seemed to be taking deep breaths.
“Where,” she hissed, “is Stone?”
Mr. Oliphant gulped. “He is in his office, madam.”
“STONE!” Isabel screamed. “What are these people doing in this library?”
A rather short and stocky older man came running out of the maze of bookcases. He was breathing heavily, and wore an atrocious orange and teal argyle sweater and kilt.
John tsked, raising his eyes at the outfit. “A rather unfortunate example of mixing cultures,” he murmured to Kate. Kate glared and crossed her arms.
“So sorry, so sorry, madam,” Stone huffed. “It was just for a few minutes, they asked and I couldn’t get them to leave. So sorry!”
The panther growled and began to stalk forward. The teenagers began stuffing their work in bags, and hustled in the direction of the light breeze Quin had felt earlier – in the opposite direction of the panther.
“Please don’t hurt them,” Mr. Oliphant pleaded. “They are only children and they are my responsibility.”
“And he is my responsibility,” John proclaimed, stepping forward and pointing to Mr. Oliphant.
Everyone turned to look at him.
“Well, he is! I work for the Sagittan government, and he is one of our citizens, and I apologize to your people for this intrusion. We will remove him from the premises immediately. Quin?”
The panther was now at Oliphant’s feet, growling quietly. Mr. Oliphant was frozen in place, staring in fear at the large cat. It began to gnaw on his shoe.
Isabel held up her hand, and the panther abruptly stopped and began to scoot backwards – rather undignified for a cat, but oddly, the movement did not diminish the power of the cat’s presence.
“In that case,” she said, “you may have your look round the library, and then he shall be sentenced to death with the rest of you. I will be waiting at the door of the library. If you do not return in fifteen minutes, I will send my beautiful warrior after you.” She vanished into the shelves, followed by her cat, who looked balefully over its shoulder at them.
“So what’s the plan?” John asked.
“Go look at books,” Quin replied.
“Don’t have to ask me twice!” John bounded forward and began to shuffle through the heaps of books stacked on the massive table.
Turning to Mr. Oliphant, Quin scowled. “Where is my father?”
“I… I don’t…” Mr. Oliphant was quaking.
“He showed you that book before he left, didn’t he? A Dialogue of Worlds? The one the Committee found in my house?”
Mr. Oliphant bowed his head. “Yes, he showed me. But I swear I don’t know where he went!”
“How can I find him?”
“I don’t know,” Oliphant said sullenly. “And he shouldn’t have left that book just lying around. It’s careless! I would’ve taken care of it for him if he’d asked.”
“The book,” Quin repeated. Could the book have been a hint telling him where his father could be?
“You mean this book?” John’s voice cut into his thoughts. He held up a copy of A Dialogue of Worlds. “The illegal one? The stupidly dangerous one?”
“It’s a different copy!” Oliphant exclaimed, stomping over to John. “It’s my copy!”
“Why were you sharing it with teenagers then?” John asked.
“That is none of your business.” Oliphant jumped up and down, trying to reach the book that John held high over his head. Oliphant was just short enough that he couldn’t reach, but still managed to look extremely silly in the attempt.
“We’ll bring it with us,” Quin decided. “We should go now. Where’s Kate?”
“She went that way.” John gestured into the shelves.
“I will find her. Wait here.”
Quin took off, jogging through the shelves and memorizing the maze as he went. The further into the corners of the library he moved, the darker and dustier it became. Animal droppings of all shapes and sizes covered the floor and the books; holes had been gnawed in the floor boards, and in one corner sat the biggest mouse nest he had ever seen, made of shredded pages of books. The light was dimmest in the far corners, and he could barely see where he stepped. One aisle after another after another, and yet there was no sign of Kate.
Finally, he began to slow, intending to head back to John and Oliphant, when he rounded a corner and saw Isabel standing before him. He cursed silently as she turned towards him.
“Are you ready?” she asked. “To fight to your death?”
Quin froze, staring at her for a moment, and then, reaching out for a bookcase with one hand, said, “I need to go get John and Mr. Oliphant. They will get lost in this maze.”
“I will come with you,” Isabel stated.
“I think I will be fine,” Quin replied, keeping his eyes on the cat, who had moved from sitting to a tensed-to-run position.
“No,” Isabel hissed. “I am coming with you.”
The panther growled.
“Well, okay then,” Quin replied, and yanked on the bookcase. It didn’t fall, as he had hoped, but a shower of books came raining down on Isabel and her cat. Quin didn’t waste a moment, but sprinted towards the back of the room. Behind him, he could hear Isabel yelling and cursing while the panther growled and hissed. He knew it would only be seconds before they were chasing him. In front of him, he could hear John and Oliphant arguing over the book.
“I know it’s valuable,” John exclaimed, “but if this book got into the wrong hands… I mean, what if someone tried to use it? Disaster!”
“What if someone has already tried to use it, hm?” Oliphant taunted John. “What would you do then? Tell me that, genius boy.”
John paused. “That is actually a very good question, one which I will have to put some thought into. But not right—”
“Now!” Quin bellowed, interrupting John’s statement. “The panther is after us!”
John and Oliphant’s eyes sprang open and surprise, and they each grabbed their bags and took off after Quin into the bookshelves.
He followed his nose, looking for that strange scent and leading them down the only aisle he had ignored. And there it was, barely visible in the dim light and dusty air: a Door.
Seconds before they reached it the panther appeared in front of them, growling and baring its teeth. Quin spit on the ground in front of its paws and it began to stalk forward.
“Um, Quin?” John’s voice quavered.
All in one motion, Quin leaped forward, grabbing the cat around its neck.
“Duck!” he hissed, and as John and Oliphant bent down, he lifted the bulk of the animal and tossed it over their heads. Its claws raked against his arm as it flew through the air, and Quin gasped in painful surprise. But immediately, he put the burning wound out of his head, grabbed John and Oliphant by their arms, and bolted through the Door before the panther could come after them again.
The grey, unforgiving bleakness of Path bled into sight, with the scarlet river blazing in sharp contrast to the unsaturated greens and browns of the rest of the world. The three men stumbled onto the bridge, the hollow sound beneath their feet resounding in the quiet air. A cloud cover blanketed the sky and the same black birds as before drifted eerily overhead, still circling.
“Why did you bring me here?” Oliphant demanded. “I want to go back to my store!”
“How do you usually get there?” John asked.
“Through the Door in Stone’s office, not the random one that you just wandered through.” Oliphant crossed his arms huffily. “This is ludicrous.”
Quin winced as the cool air of Path brushed against his bleeding forearm. He reached into his backpack and pulled out gauze, wrapping it tightly around the wound. He noticed John deliberately avoided looking directly at the dripping blood, and the effort he was putting into ignoring it amused him.
“Well, we’ll take you back to Dad’s house, and you can walk to your shop from there.” John was frowning, a rare expression which usually meant he was about to start a tantrum.
“Not a good idea,” Quin interjected. “Guards. They’ll have them at my house by now.”
“Where are we supposed to go then?” John glanced at Oliphant and then said hesitantly, “I mean, we only have two choices, right? This one that goes to your living room, or we can head back to Stone’s and go through the one to Oliphant’s bookstore.”
“Okay, okay,” Oliphant exclaimed. “This is stupid. I know that some of the Doors can go to multiple places, okay? Grise told me. Ended up in your living room a few times myself, by accident.”
Quin and John turned to look at him.
“What else did Grise tell you?” Quin demanded. He stepped around Oliphant and placed himself between Oliphant and the Doors.
“I’m not saying another word until you let me go home.” Oliphant turned his face away and looked over the river.
“We have to go back to look for the book that Drake has anyway,” John said. “And we’ve been gone for ages. They’ll be looking for us. And I very much want to change my shirt.”
“Thirteen hours,” Quin agreed. “But we can’t go back.”
“Oh, so now you want to be here!” John exclaimed, crossing his arms and scowling. “At first you’re all, ‘no, John! It’s a bad idea!’ And now you’re all, ‘we can’t go back yet! I’m having too much fun!’” He made his voice pitch up as he mimicked Quin’s voice.
Quin rolled his eyes. “I’m not having fun,” he replied. “I want to find Grise.”
“Well, yes, I can understand that.”
“And I think Oliphant, here, knows more than he’s saying. We can go back, but not until we find out what he knows.” He took a deep breath and crossed his arms. “If we go back, Oliphant has no motive to tell us anything.”
“Yes, that makes sense.”
At that moment, Oliphant made a run for it. He jumped forward and tried to duck past Quin. Quin stretched out his arm, and Oliphant’s face slammed into a mass as solid as a brick wall. He dropped to the ground and groaned.
“How do I get myself into these things?” he muttered, rolling over and clutching his face.
“Maybe Meriym will let us use her living room to question him,” John said.
“Get up!” commanded Quin, nudging Oliphant with his foot.
With much complaining and groaning, Oliphant picked himself up off of the wooden bridge and began to trudge behind John up the path and towards the house. Following closely behind, Quin listened carefully to the world around them. He heard animal sounds, wind, and some rustling in the grass, but it felt as if there was something missing. Like an office without the roar of the heating and plumbing systems. He frowned, still uncertain of the noise that was absent, but decided to put it out of his mind for the moment.
John knocked on the door of the apparently stone house, and waited.
“You’re back!” Meriym exclaimed. For the first time, Quin noticed that although the dress she was wearing was simple, it was made of extremely high-quality fabric, and it had exquisite embroidery around the neckline. Her hair was piled on top of her head. Frowning once more, Quin adjusted his focus to their environment. It seemed that Wolf wasn’t home, but Kip was peeking out from behind Meriym’s gown, signing to John.
John beamed and signed something back. Quin supposed he would have to learn this newly invented language at some point.
“He has been so excited about the language you taught him!” Meriym exclaimed. “He is constantly telling me things and making up new signs. It’s a good thing I was paying attention to the lessons you were giving him! And who’s that standing with you?”
Moving to the side, John introduced Oliphant. “He’s someone we found and we were wondering—”
“Mr. Oliphant!” Meriym exclaimed, suddenly angry. A dark shadow crossed her eyes. “What do you think you’re doing here?”
“They dragged me here,” Oliphant mumbled.
“Oliphant is a bane on the people of this world!” Meriym proclaimed. “What do you want with him?”
“He has information that we need,” Quin explained simply.
“Well, you can do it here, but only if you torture it out of him!”
“Whoa,” John exclaimed, apparently as surprised by this sudden vehemence as Quin. “Why so angry?”
“Come in and I’ll give you some information about him, why don’t I?” Meriym replied, stepping back so that Quin could usher Oliphant into the living room.
The room was warm and a fire blazed in the fireplace. Quin noted that Meriym had replaced the yellow blankets on the couch with red ones. As he walked by her, she gave a harsh intake of breath.
“What happened to your arm?” she demanded. “You’re bleeding!”
“I’m fine,” Quin said, hiding the bandage against his arm.
“No,” Meriym exclaimed. “You will let me dress that right now – properly!”
“Let her,” John said, finally acknowledging the wound. “So we can stop not looking at it.”
Oliphant stumbled forward as Quin shoved him towards the couch. Quin sat down beside him.
Meriym returned from the kitchen with a bowl of warm water, clean gauze, and tape. Quin obediently held out his arm so that she could bandage it.
“How long have we been gone?” Quin asked, as she began to cut off the wet, bloody gauze he had used down by the bridge.
“Only about eight hours or so,” she replied. “But if you were traveling through the Doors, there is some weird time stuff. One gentleman explained it to me as losing five minutes every time you step through a Door, and if you go through a lot of Doors, that’s a lot of time.”
John met Quin’s eyes – that had never been a symptom they had experienced ever in the history of Doors. It must be an effect of traveling through the new Doors – an effect of the ten seconds of utter nothingness that was so disturbing and unpleasant.
Quin noticed that Meriym’s hands, while soft and warm, were deft and calm – she clearly knew how to bandage a wound. She could probably stitch as well, if he had to guess. He pushed these non-pertinent thoughts from his mind and turned his attention to Oliphant.
“You,” Quin commanded, “are going to listen, while Meriym tells us what she knows about you.”
“Kip, I want you to go upstairs and play while the grownups talk.” Meriym looked up from her work and gave him a stern look.
Kip scowled, but made his way towards the center of the room. He clapped his hands and a square section of the ceiling slid back. A rope ladder fell down from the center of the second floor. He slowly climbed up and disappeared into the trapdoor. The trapdoor then disappeared as he slid it closed.
After watching in surprised silence, Quin and John turned their attention back to Meriym.
“Here’s what I know,” Meriym began, turning her eyes back to Quin’s arm. “He is a henchman of the gentleman who gave me this house, but who has done irreparable harm in the village.”
“Do you know the gentleman’s name?” John asked.
“No. We just call him Mr. B.”
“Hm.” John looked at Quin. Quin could feel his frown growing.
“Mr. B set this house up for me when he found me bleeding and alone down by the bridge. I was escaping from horrible things that were happening on my planet – a massive war involving many different species from many different planets who could suddenly access my planet, although no one was quite sure why. Many of the refugees came through the Doors on the bridge and set up their settlement here, but when Mr. B came back, they blamed him for the war. So he helped me, but I’m not sure if he’s really kind or not. Maybe he just felt guilty. Anyway, this man was with him, and he went through the town and confiscated all of the books that people had brought through the Doors, including books on medicine and building that we needed!”
“I think we can get those back for you,” Quin said, glaring at Oliphant.
Oliphant squirmed and sank deeper into the couch.
“Well, that wasn’t the last time he came wandering around. One time, a fire just happened to start in the apothecary. Another time, priests started sacrificing animals right after he left. And the last time he was here, he started rumors that me and the others that come and go from this house regularly were responsible for the war back on my planet! Now the townspeople only come here to see Tobias.”
“Who is Tobias?” John asked.
“He is a doctor and his base is here. He travels through the Doors to other places that are in dire need of assistance, and then one day a week he sets up shop upstairs and people who need help can come receive medical care.” Meriym straightened her skirts and then finished Quin’s arm. “There you go. It’s too bad Tobias isn’t here. He would do a much better job than me. You should be all set!” She tidied her materials and threw away the bloodied bandages.
“It’s perfect,” Quin replied, examining her work. He couldn’t have done it better himself, and he highly doubted Tobias could, even if he was a professional doctor.
She moved forward to sit down in the rocking chair by the fireplace, next to John. Quin turned to face Oliphant, body tensed should Oliphant try to make a run for it.
“I think it’s time we started asking Oliphant some questions now,” John said, turning to face the short and stocky little old man.
Oliphant gulped, and if it were possible, sank even lower into the couch cushions.
“Question one,” John stated. “Who is Mr. B?”
“Mr. Black, of course. Grise.” Oliphant didn’t seem to mind answering that question much.
“I guess that’s not too surprising,” John replied. “Question two. What is Dad up to?”
“I don’t know,” said Oliphant sullenly. “He doesn’t tell me anything.”
“Question three. How long has he not been telling you anything?”
This question gave Oliphant pause. “You mean, how long have we been friends? Centuries. How long since he began this silly scheme? About two decades. And I’m not saying another word.”
“What’s the scheme?” John leaned forward eagerly.
“I don’t know.”
Quin cleared his throat and leaned closer to Oliphant. Oliphant looked up at him with a nervous glance; his hand was starting to tremble.
“Um, well…” Oliphant stuttered. “I mean, I guess it won’t hurt if I tell you a little.”
Quin leaned in even more closely, until his nose was only inches from Oliphant’s.
“Okay, okay, so he wanted to share knowledge between worlds and then the Committee didn’t like that so he just decided to do it himself. But that’s all I know, I swear. And sometimes he sends me to fetch books or other literature that he thinks is valuable. And I don’t know anything else. Nothing!”
“Is A Dialogue of Worlds one of the books Dad sent you to fetch?” John continued.
“Give me some examples of some other books Dad has sent you to acquire.”
“Umm… mmm… let m-me think. A World in a Stone, and Medicine to Cure the Dawn of Sin, and Stripping the Planetary Core, and um, well, there was Reason and Space Combined…”
Quin watched as John’s face grew darker. The wrinkles on his forehead grew deeper, and his pupils began to dilate, almost as if he were becoming afraid.
“…and there was Massive Science of the Third Century: the Planetary Edition, and everything by Vladimir Voskovechev, and Once it Rained Dinosaurs But Not Here, and The Building of Earth: A Documentary Companion…” Oliphant seemed to be getting slightly more comfortable until John cut him off.
“Enough!” John exclaimed. “This is insane. Most of these books are centuries old, presumed lost to time, or filled with completely inaccurate information. And you mean to tell me that Grise is collecting them?”
“Y-yes.” Oliphant had shrunk so much at this point, that he was nearly invisible in the couch.
John looked up at Quin and met his eyes, communicating something very loudly. Unfortunately, Quin was only adept at reading John’s looks when he knew what was going on, and he was clearly missing something here.
“Meriym,” Quin said. “Do you have any rope?”
“Of course!” During the conversation, Meriym had sat looking interested, but seemed slightly unsure of where it all was going. “I’ll get it.”
“Oliphant,” John continued. “I think you should have a serious conversation with yourself about where your loyalties lie. I have known this man for a very long time, and if I have judged him correctly – which I have – he will not hesitate to leave you out to dry should something go wrong. And something will go wrong. Very, very wrong. And that something will be me.”
Meriym returned with the rope and handed it to Quin. He noticed, oddly, that though she did a lot of work around the house, her hands seemed very soft.
“Up,” Quin commanded Oliphant, and then guided the quivering man to a straight-backed chair. Quickly and adeptly he wrapped the rope around Oliphant and tied it securely in place. “Meriym, John and I need to have a private chat. Oliphant here shouldn’t cause you any trouble, but would you mind just keeping an eye on him?”
“Of course,” Meriym replied.
John had already begun his aggravated stalk towards the back door of the house, and Quin rapidly followed him outside into the grey, lifeless world.
“We have a serious problem,” John said as soon as the door was shut behind them. “There are only two possible reasons one person would want all of those books. The first is that Dad has suddenly turned into a book collector.”
This seemed unlikely. Grise had been one of the major proponents of the paperless revolution during the last century, and as a result, only kept around books that were of sentimental value to him. The books that Oliphant was collecting would have no sentimental value to him.
“The other reason is that he’s using them,” John finished.
“What do you mean by ‘using’?”
“Every single book Oliphant mentioned – whether he realizes it or not – is a book about building planets. Now, Pomegranate City, as you know, is one of the only worlds that has the capabilities to do this and we have very strict regulations and rules about it for a reason. One poorly-constructed element could mean a collapse of, well – worst case scenario everybody dies, everywhere.”
“I am aware of the consequences,” Quin replied. “How do the books relate?”
“Half of the information in the books is wrong! It would take an extremely educated scientist to be able to decipher which pieces of information are correct and which are incorrect!”
“A scientist like Grise?”
“Well, yes. But what if he is giving those books to someone who is not qualified? Oliphant said that Dad wanted to share knowledge, but what really happened is that he wanted to make planet-building a commercial activity. He said that if regular people could build planets, it would be a huge boost to our economy. But the rest of the Committee felt that the risks outweighed the gains.”
“So you think he’s giving other civilizations the ability to build planets?”
“Possibly! And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that he seems to have been involved in the Cadrellian war!”
“Which we know nothing about,” Quin added.
“We’ll have to stop by there and see what’s going on.”
“This seems extremely complicated.” Quin crossed his arms and looked out at the massive field that stretched out in front of him. He imagined that a monstrous beast was lying in the grass somewhere, waiting to devour anyone that strayed from the path. It made the grey, lifeless scene before him seem even more dank and depressing.
“We should also check out the town and see if we can get a vibe on Dad’s plans or whereabouts,” John mused, “or we could see if Wolf has any thoughts on the Cadrellian war. He’s what? On Earth now?”
“I think we should get the book first,” Quin suggested.
“A Dialogue of Worlds, the one Grise left for me in the house that the Committee confiscated.”
“Why?” John asked.
“I think it may have been a message for me,” Quin answered. “Remember my fourteenth birthday, when I woke up in the middle of the woods with only a knife and a book? What if this is the same game? But this time he left me a Door and a book.”
“Why would he do that?”
Quin raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah,” John said. “My guess is as good as yours – better probably. So we head back to Sagitta, then. How do we get past the guards?”
Raising an eyebrow, Quin turned back towards the house.
“Don’t look at me like that!” John exclaimed. “I know how the Doors work – I was just checking to make sure you did!”
“We’ll go through Oliphant’s door,” Quin decided.
The two gentlemen stepped back into the house. Meriym was in the kitchen, and Oliphant was still tied to the chair.
“This is ridiculous,” he was saying. “They could be out there for hours and you’re just going to leave me here?”
“Yes,” Meriym replied.
“I’m not exactly a young man anymore. I have back problems! And arthritis! This chair isn’t exactly comfortable, you know, and these ropes don’t help any. You’re just going to leave me tied up like this? In pain and suffering? Old and decrepit?”
“Yes,” Meriym repeated.
“Well, I’m going to have a word with Grise about this, I can tell you that for cer—”
“Oh shut up!” John interrupted. “We’ll untie you ourselves. And you deserve to be tied up now and again!” He walked over and began to untie the ropes binding the old man.
Quin walked over to Meriym. He reached out and took her hand, palm up, and placed the leaf in it. He watched as a bright smile lit her face, and then he turned, picked up the backpack, and left the house.
“Wait up!” John called from behind him. “Do you really want me to be the one guarding our prisoner?”
“One nerd to another,” Quin called back. “And he’s not our prisoner anymore.”
“Of course he isn’t,” John muttered. “Well, we’re going back by way of your shop, just so you know.”
“Who would’ve guessed?” Oliphant asked disdainfully. “You treat me like a villain, and then a prisoner, and now you expect me to play host to your crazy schemes!”
“Remember when we used to be friends?” John asked. “You used to tell me stories, and take me down into your bookshop to bind books together.”
“Of course I remember! But all my influence didn’t prevent you from turning into a damn bloody idiot, now did it!?” Oliphant huffed.
“Well, just try to remember me like that when you go to prison,” John spat back.
They now stood at the base of the bridge.
“Try to be nice, now,” Quin said. “We don’t want the police coming after us because someone calls in a domestic dispute on Mr. Oliphant’s bookstore.”
The two men grumbled, but quieted.
Then, without hesitation, Quin led them up the bridge and through the Door.
The first thing Quin noticed as the world bled into view around them was the smell of dusty books, paper and ink, and brown – as if a smell could also have a colour. Mr. Oliphant’s store wasn’t dank and moldy like the one in Isabel’s castle; it was warm and comforting, even if it was run by a madman. This room didn’t have any books in it – it was the meeting room with the table and chairs – but the scent permeated every inch of the place.
“First things first,” Quin said, directing his attention towards Mr. Oliphant. “You’re going to give back all the books on medicine you took from the people on Path.”
Oliphant grumbled and shuffled into the front room of the shop. “I don’t have them all, but I’ll give you what ones I can,” he replied. He began to collect books from various shelves and made a stack on the counter.
“I am going to sneak home and get a clean shirt,” John said. “Meet you back here?”
“Two hours.” Quin nodded. “Don’t get caught.”
John slipped out the door of the shop and the little gold bell dinged behind him.
Turning to face the little bookshop owner, Quin straightened his back and broadened his shoulders as much as he could, deliberately increasing his overall level of intimidation. “We will be using your shop to come and go. You will not stop us.”
Mr. Oliphant’s face contorted, twisting as he seemed to shrink. “Of course not,” he whispered.
“If you see my father, as I’m sure you will, you lying sneak, tell him that we will find him and he will wish we hadn’t.” Quin crossed his arms and glared at the terrified bookstore owner.
“If I see him,” Mr. Oliphant muttered.
“I want you to put those books in a bag of some sort, and leave them on the counter. I will be back and if you have done anything…” Quin didn’t finish the sentence. He wasn’t planning to actually do anything to the terrified bookseller, since he didn’t have the authority to do so, but most people filled in the blanks themselves. People tended to believe implications as much as or more so than actual statements.
The tactic was working on Oliphant. He nodded rapidly and wrung his hands, swallowing in large gulps and stuttering incoherent words. Quin ignored the gestures and quickly exited the building, leaving Oliphant’s mind to do the rest.
The sky was mostly dark and clouds were drifting aimlessly, casually blocking out the arc of the opposite side of the planet, which glowed slightly as it reflected some of the light of the sun. Quin kept to the shadows and made his way carefully and quietly down the street towards the Globe. No doubt the book was in the building, probably locked up – but then again, if it were being studied, it might be in one of the labs.
Quin frowned as he considered what he was about to do – break into a government building, steal an important piece of evidence, and then take it back with him to some unknown planet. He should have had John come and just read the bloody thing, so they didn’t have to worry about stealing it.
The back door of the Globe was a legend, but unfortunately a true legend. A large statue in the gardens – of a naked man with a hedgehog – guarded the entrance. Most of the legends indicated that the other statue – the one of the woman and the porcupine – was where the door was hidden, but Quin and a select few others knew the truth. He walked up behind the statue and pulled a stone out of the wall that contained the water, causing it to split in half and open just enough for someone to enter. The most unfortunate element of this entrance was that opening it caused a waterfall to cascade into the tunnel. Quin ducked in and closed the entrance behind him.
Rarely used, the tunnel was filled with cobwebs, and of course water. A few emergency lights flickered, creating just enough light for Quin to be sure no one else was down there. Hopefully, at this time of night, the large majority of Globe staff would be out of the building – probably at his house, in fact.
He was right. As he slipped down the halls of the Globe, all was quiet. He kept to the most disused corridors, and hoped that security had not been informed of his absence. For a moment he was glad that his constant pressure on the Committee to increase the quality of the security systems and security staff had not yet been heeded. The next lab was the artifact room, the most likely location for the book to be hidden.
He pressed his ear against the door – the room wasn’t large, and only the artifacts that were being worked on were left in here. The rest went in the vaults. He seriously hoped they were working on the book. The other side of the door was silent, so, taking a deep breath, he quietly pushed open the door.
It was empty, but the tables were piled high with all kinds of junk. The artifacts team must be working on a big project. He began to peruse the tables; one had a massive machine on it that looked a bit like an oddly-constructed robot. Another table was stacked with little metal cubes – mountains of them. Another table had papers scattered across it, and pens that used ink made from the Madroquelo trees on Patrilnor. Everywhere he looked there were books, papers, utensils, and stuff. This mission had been a poor decision – they should have travelled to Cadrelle to learn more about the war.
As he wandered through the tables he grew more and more impatient, and more and more tense. The longer he spent in this room, the higher the risk of someone coming in and catching him. He could only hope that if someone did walk in, it would be students doing late night work, and not Drake, Tom, or another Committee member.
He was about to give up when he noticed an empty table in the back of the room. That was odd. The other tables were covered with artifacts, but this table was empty. Walking towards it, he paused, listening. Did he hear something outside the room? Rapidly speeding up, he headed quietly towards the table. When he was only a few feet away, he heard another sound – this one was definitely from outside the door. He darted forward and ducked underneath the empty table, hoping that no one would make their way to that corner of the room, and then wonder why a Committee member was hiding under a desk.
“She’s such a prick,” a voice said as the door to the room opened. It was female, but low pitched. “She thinks she can just tell us all kinds of crap and forgets that we might actually be intelligent, too. I mean, we’re here after all.”
A second voice chimed in. “She used to be nice, I swear.” This voice also sounded female, but was higher. “She started being witchy when she got involved with that new wacko group – the Life Stars?”
“Yeah, the ones that think that magically, after centuries of an entire civilization not believing in God, he’s waiting for us to come back.”
Quin listened intently. Their steps seemed to be moving towards the opposite side of the room.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” the second voice replied. “I think people can believe whatever they want. But I do have a problem with her attitude. She can’t go around acting like we’re stupid, and that anyone that doesn’t share her beliefs isn’t valuable as a person.”
“Where did all that religious stuff come from anyway? I know it’s recent, but…”
“It actually started as a political movement. I was reading about it today.”
“Politics turned religion. How… fitting.” The first voice pitched irony.
The desk over his head was of odd dimensions, Quin noticed in the back of his mind. He felt like he was hunching down more than he needed to be, but he didn’t dare straighten up, in case he bumped his head and the students heard him.
“A bunch of people wanted planet building to be legal commercially, and not a closed science.”
“But it’s not even, I mean, we can’t have people going around making planets all over the place! It could disrupt the universe’s equilibrium.”
“Well, that’s why the government has held it down lock and key. But people say it’s because they want to keep the profits for themselves.”
This conversation was interesting. Quin remembered hearing about the Life Stars in the news – they were making quite a splash, doing demonstrations all over Pomegranate City and graffiti-ing in public bathrooms. They had also been causing fights everywhere deliberately – like the ones he had cleaned up on the train.
The first voice seemed a bit louder and Quin could hear footsteps. Were they moving towards him?
“Did you grab the artifact?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s right here,” the second voice confirmed. “We just need the papers.”
“You know, my dad got caught up in one of those fights the Life Stars have been starting all over the place. He says they have people planted to start an argument, so they can claim they were just acting in self-defense.”
“How is that supposed to help?” the second voice laughed.
“I don’t know – you’re the expert!”
Both students laughed, and a moment later, Quin heard the door open and shut. He held his breath and waited a few minutes to ensure that they didn’t come back in. Then he looked up at the desk and noticed one key feature: a drawer. No wonder the dimensions had seemed weird.
He opened it and there lay the book.
To steal it or not to steal it? He still had not come to a conclusion about this.
Then the door to the room burst open loudly.
Quin froze, tensed and ready to fight.
“I knew you’d be here!” John exclaimed. He now wore a black button-up shirt with a green tie. The tie had little monsters all over it, with googly-eyed buttons that opened and closed when he flopped the tie around. “Why on Sagitta didn’t you ask me to come with you? You know we can’t steal it.”
Frowning, Quin looked down at the book in his hand.
“Luckily, you have me!” John reached into his bag and pulled out the other copy of A Dialogue of Worlds. “We can just swap them.”
A broad grin spread across Quin’s face. Why hadn’t he thought of that?
“Oh, I like to see those!” John exclaimed, waving his hand at Quin’s face. “It’s a rare day in paradise when you actually smile.” He strode over to the empty desk and handed Quin the second copy, taking the first and slipping it into his over-the-shoulder leather bag – which was apparently not too hard on his suit.
“Do you think they’ll notice?” Quin asked.
“Not at first,” John said, “but if they’ve started cataloguing already, they’ll notice when they do their second read-through. But let’s not worry about that. Hopefully we’ll be back by then anyway.” He opened the book and flipped through the first few pages, stopping on the title page.
“Damn,” he muttered. “Leave it to Dad to put our messages in code. And one I don’t recognize. We’ll have to do this later.” He shook his head and looked up at Quin. “Let’s get out of here before we get caught.”
Quin nodded and led the way to the door of the room, and took a left. It figured that they would go to all of this effort, only to not be able to read the message. Why couldn’t Grise have used the code from Quin’s childhood? They would have understood that.
“Where are we going?” John whispered.
“Secret tunnel,” Quin replied. “Do you think you can figure out this message?”
“I hope so,” John replied. “But honestly, I don’t know. Looks like he’s made up a new one.”
Quin ducked through a utility door and pulled open a panel behind some brooms, and the two gentlemen scampered into the recesses of the Globe building.
The evening was warm, and the clouds that drifted across the night sky created a pleasant atmosphere in the city. Many people were out and about – having late dinners, going to clubs, and shopping. John and Quin worked to stay in the shadows, and quietly made their way down the street towards William Oliphant, booksellers.
“Maybe we should tell Tom and Drake,” Quin said. “Instead of sneaking around.”
“We only just started sneaking around,” John replied. “All the other stuff was my fault.”
“So we should tell them.”
“No.” John sighed and slowed his pace. “Quin, I need to tell you something. When I was on my way over to the Globe to find you, I took some time doing a recall of the books that Oliphant mentioned – well, the ones I’ve read at any rate.”
“You mean a photographic memory recall?”
“Yes. And I’m worried about what Grise is doing, and I’m afraid that if we tell the Committee what’s going on, they’ll tie us up and gag us with red tape, and then take so long to get around to doing anything that Grise will… well, possibly explode a planet.”
“What planet?” Quin’s tension was quickly rising.
“Whichever one he’s building – or built,” John replied. “There is this other book, called Antony’s Journal: Years Eight Through Ten. It’s actually a journal.”
“I guessed as much.”
“But it comes after all of those other books were written – I mean, it was written later. And Antony D’Marko studied the results of the other scientists’ experiments. Keep in mind that they didn’t live as long as we do now, and studying planetary evolution is a big deal and takes a long time.
“Anyway, he made one crucial observation which impacted the way we developed planets forever after: using the incorrect mathematical algorithm to determine the placement and makeup of atoms in the planetary space, the planet – if it was created at all – would be unstable. The planet Antony was studying – Catalor, it was called – actually exploded, killing everyone on it. It also caused a massive crater where the one Door connecting the two planets sat, and killed everyone and everything in a three mile radius.”
“So if Grise did something wrong, it could have huge consequences.”
“Not only that, but this new Door he’s created – we don’t know what consequences that would bring if the planet on the other side exploded. It could impact every Door ever created. Our entire planet could disappear.”
As they started walking again, Quin took a deep breath. He supposed that if the options were people dying or people not dying, it was better to risk the wrath of his supervisors and prevent people from dying. And if Drake and Tom needed help, they would come and get it.
“How are we supposed to fix it?” The other question that had been plaguing him seemed impossible – fix an entire planet? Maybe they could just shut down the Doors on the planet or evacuate and then shut down the Doors – depending on how much time they had.
“I have something I’m not supposed to have,” John replied, patting his bag. “It’s a tool built by Antony’s son, which has never needed to be used since we started following the new rules. But if what I think he’s done is true, then this will be the perfect opportunity to use it.”
“What’s it do?”
William Oliphant, booksellers came into sight as they rounded the corner.
“It fixes it, I told you!” John replied. “Let’s get going.”
Shaking his head at the vague answer, Quin followed John into the dark shop.
“Oliphant!” Quin called. The duffel filled with books was on the counter, and his backpack on the floor next to it. He picked up both. “Oliphant!”
There was no sound.
“I’m going to check,” Quin said.
“Okay, but we better not hang around,” John said. “He’s not reliable. And we probably shouldn’t come back through this Door again.”
Quin took a quick peek around the bookstore. There were books everywhere, of course, and it was impossibly clean, but he saw no signs of Oliphant.
“What do you suppose he’s up to?” Quin asked John.
“I don’t know,” John said, “but he’s probably just some innocent bystander that your dad managed to manipulate.”
“Possibly,” Quin said, looking behind the counter. On the floor, he saw a stack of books, shoved hastily into a corner. Probably nothing, he thought, but he bent down to look anyway. He picked up the first one and opened the front cover. Inside it was stamped “Path Temple.”
“John,” Quin said, “what do you think this means?”
John looked at it. “Is that our Path? As in the world Path?”
Quin shrugged. “Let’s take it with us. We can ask.”
John nodded. “Good plan.”
Burdened with books, tools, and supplies, Quin and John stepped into the back room. The Door was there, peeking out from behind the curtain hung to hide it. Then they each took a deep breath and, with John’s hand on Quin’s shoulder, stepped through.
For the first time since they had begun their journey through the Doors, Quin looked down as he stepped through; he saw the moldy grey-brown of the wooden bridge and the blazing red liquid that streamed underneath despite growing darkness as night drew near; and it finally occurred to him to wonder: what is flowing in the river?
“What substance is that?” Quin asked, as John came stumbling through the Door behind him.
Before John could answer, Quin suddenly realized: the odd thing that bothered him every time they came to this world – he knew what it was. The river. It made no sound. No bubbling or gurgling, no rushing or roaring, no babbling or even dripping – not a single sound.
“It doesn’t make any noise,” Quin said, speaking over top of whatever John had started to say. “It doesn’t make any noise.”
They both bent to look over the bridge railing. The liquid was ridged and bold, and glittered, giving the impression of movement. But it wasn’t moving. It was as still as the bridge itself. A look of confusion crossed John’s eyebrows.
“I can’t imagine any good reason why you would make something that looks like a river but isn’t.” John bounced down the bridge and waded through the grass to the river’s edge. “There’s a steep embankment. I don’t think I can reach.”
“Maybe it would be a good time to head down to the village. We could ask the people there,” Quin said, “and find a place to sleep?”
“I bet Meriym would let us bunk at the house,” John suggested.
“Yes, but sleeping in town would give us a good excuse to poke around. We can pretend to be travelers.”
John grinned broadly. “Undercover! I love pretending! I’m a fan. Let’s deliver these books and then head into town. How long has it been since we were last here?”
“About four hours,” Quin replied. “Give or take whatever the time differential is.”
The grass crunched under John’s feet, but to Quin’s amazement, it seemed to pop right back up as soon as he passed through it, as though John’s feet had never been there.
They set out towards the house. It was almost dark, with the cloud cover blocking the stars and the dim light making the house nearly invisible in the distance, except for the glow that emanated from the windows on both floors.
When they knocked on the door, it was answered not by Meriym, but by a man they had never met.
“Can I help you?” the man asked.
“We’re here to see Meriym,” Quin replied.
The man smiled and gestured for them to enter the house. Meriym was sitting in the living room with a rather large group of people; several children played in the corner, an elderly couple sat close on the couch, and still more stood here and there in small groups.
“Quin and John!” Meriym exclaimed as they entered. “I wondered when you would be back! This is Tobias.” She reached out and touched the shoulder of the man who had let them in. “He’s our resident doctor, about to do his nightly examinations.”
“Nice to meet you,” Quin said, shaking the man’s hand. John did the same.
Quin lifted the large duffel bag filled with books. “We brought you the books,” he said.
“The books?” Tobias asked.
“The ones that Mr. Oliphant took?” Meriym asked.
Nodding, Quin set the bag on the kitchen table and unzipped it. Meriym squealed with delight and darted around the table to give Quin a hug. John’s eyebrows nearly leaped off his face as he watched. Quin glared back at him. He hadn’t been hugged in a long time. Most people were too afraid of him.
“This is incredible,” Tobias exclaimed, lifting one book at a time from the bag. “I can’t believe it – you got them all back! I have been missing them, as I’m sure you can imagine, and we don’t have the resources to trade for new ones.”
John stepped forward and began to sift through the books as well. “We had Oliphant pull them from his shelves, but since we didn’t know everything that was taken, we couldn’t be sure he gave us all of them.”
“Well it doesn’t matter,” Meriym replied. “This is going to be a huge help.”
“We should keep these here now,” Tobias decided. “I can make room for them in my lab.”
“I would like to set up a library, eventually.” Meriym began to stack the books neatly in piles on the kitchen table. “But I agree, for now they will be safest here. I will get Kip and the other kids to help you carry them upstairs.”
“We are going to head into town,” John explained, as children began swarming around the room and taking books from the table. “But we will probably be back tomorrow.”
“That would be lovely. Perhaps you could join us for breakfast or lunch.” She smiled, and Quin noticed that when she smiled, the left corner of her mouth was a little bit higher than the right.
“We’ll do our best!” John replied. “All right, Quin, let’s get out of here.”
He performed a Cadrellian goodbye – properly, this time Quin noticed – and then Quin copied, slipping another leaf, which this time he had taken from a bush in Pomegranate City, into her hand. He turned and left without a word.
“Nice hug you got there,” John said smugly, as the door closed behind him.
“I have no control over the behavior of others,” Quin replied.
“You do too. You subconsciously encourage them to stay away. Who was the last girl that hugged you? Besides your housekeeper, I mean? Linda Cavaroti, the mob boss’s daughter that asked you out, if I remember correctly.” Grinning, John gave a little hop and skip.
Ignoring his taunts, Quin pointed to the base of the house. “Before we go,” he interjected, “I want you to take a look at the house. Wolf says it grew out of the ground.”
“Oh my,” John exclaimed, bending forward to peer at it more closely. “This is stone, not wood. It does look grown.” He crouched down in the grass to get a better look. “It’s like it just popped right out of the ground! Amazing!” His neck craned backwards as he gazed at the roof. “That grown too?”
“Yes,” Quin said, “but not the roof on the shed in the back. Wolf made that one.”
John’s thinking face appeared, resting in his eyes and brows. “I’m going to need to think about the possible meanings for this. Let’s head towards town, and if I can think of anything, I’ll let you know.”
The path was wide, and as they walked, Quin noticed that not a single blade of grass grew inside it. The line dividing the path from the grass was straight and clean, and remained so all the way to the hedge. When they reached the top of the hill, an astonishing and beautiful sight greeted them. The village was built into the opposite hill; its houses were made of mud and crafted into exquisite shapes. In addition, they were vibrant colours of all shades – reds, blues, yellows, and greens spotted the little town. All of the houses seemed to be of similar dimension, except for a few buildings down in the bottom of the valley. Quin guessed that they were probably community buildings – like the temple Meriym had mentioned earlier, and a town hall. Hopefully, one of the buildings was a hotel.
Between the houses and along the roads, lights glittered – spheres set equidistant from each other. Their light spread out in a soft circle on the ground around them, giving the entire city a fairytale-like, ethereal feeling. It was the sort of place a person dreamed about going into, and would never want to leave. He wondered if the people in the town matched the fairytale atmosphere, or if they were instead the opposite – angry, irritable people.
“I don’t know about you,” John said, gazing at the uniquely lovely city that spread out before them. “But this is one of the most gorgeous and strange villages I’ve ever seen. I mean, this world is so bleak – but those colours stand out like… like… neon signs! And it’s nearly dark!”
“We should head down to the center of town, and ask for lodgings.” Quin set out down the steep path leading into the village. The path began to diverge as they walked down, but its tertiaries were smaller – the main path seemed to be heading directly into the center.
As they drew near, they began to see people – sitting at cafés on the street, walking quietly between houses, and chatting casually in small groups. Each individual they passed turned to look at them – clearly they were strangers, unknown to the people of the village.
The town square was a large open area paved with wide flat stones. A well sat in the middle, and people were in line to fill up their buckets.
“Excuse me, sir,” John said, tapping a nearby gentleman on the shoulder. “We’re looking for lodgings. Could you direct us?”
The gentleman turned around. Hair – almost fur – covered every inch of his face. His eyes were deep brown, and his eyebrows nearly covered them. Two ivory horns peeked out of the brush covering his head. John stepped back in surprise, but Quin reached forward and touched the man’s forehead with one finger.
“K’amat ‘ala,” he intoned, and then bowed.
The hairy gentleman raised one hand in the air and placed on Quin’s bald head, and repeated, “K’amat ‘ala. Welcome to our village.”
“Thank you,” Quin replied, bowing again. “My friend does not know your customs.”
“It is of no offense,” the man replied. “Many here do not – we work to learn each other’s.” He reached out, smiling, to shake John’s hand.
John smiled, and clasped his hand firmly.
“So,” the man said, turning back to Quin. “It is lodgings you seek. I think I can provide you with the assistance you need. Madam Barooth is the innkeeper in our small village and she has rooms to let. I will guide you there – it is not far.” Turning, he began to walk away, with Quin and John following.
He didn’t lie. It wasn’t far. Thirty seconds later they stood in front of a building that appeared to be larger than the other houses.
“Madam Barooth is the lady of this house and the five above it.”
Quin glanced up the hill; five houses sat on a hill so steep that they appeared to be nearly set on top of each other. Then he noticed that the gentleman had stepped inside.
The inside of the inn was warm and brown. There were potted plants, woven chairs, and colourful blankets and rugs.
“Madam Barooth,” the man said, “these kind strangers seek lodging.”
Madam Barooth was a tall woman, standing eye to eye with Quin. She wore a blue, light, cotton-like fabric that draped over her form softly but revealed nothing.
“I have a vacant room,” she replied, turning her gaze onto John and Quin. “But only one.”
“Fine,” Quin replied.
“What have you to trade?”
Slipping off the backpack, Quin reached in and pulled out an old book – the one he had taken from Oliphant’s place before they left. Madam Barooth’s eyes widened as she reached out to take the book. It was on plants and botany.
Opening it, her eyes grew wide. She traced the stamp that said, “Path Temple,” on the inside of the cover.
“This is a jewel,” she said, “far too valuable for my rooms. There is no way we can thank you for returning this volume to us – the rest of our collection is completely lost to the hand of that evil, foul Mr. Oliphant. But for this you shall receive lodging and dinner and anything else you require.”
“Thank you,” Quin said. He glanced at John, who was starting to droop. His eyelids were heavy and it appeared to require great effort to keep them open. “I think we would like to start with a room.”
“Of course,” Madam Barooth replied. She lifted a large key from the wall of keys behind her and gestured for them to follow her. She led them up four sets up stairs. “This is my best room – it has a beautiful view of the city, it is warmed by the rooms below, and it has a discreet side exit, should you need it for any reason.”
Pushing open the door revealed a medium-sized room with two large beds, made with heavy blankets from the wool of a presumably large animal. The floors were carpeted with the same material, and a painting of a massive white bear hung on one wall. The window looked out onto the city below, with the spherical lights glistening under the cloudy sky.
John stumbled into the room and fell onto one of the beds, muttering to himself.
Quin smiled at Madam Barooth as she handed him the key. “Thank you,” he said. “We will let you know if we need anything.”
“Your wish,” she said, “is mine to give.” Smiling, she backed out of the room and closed the door behind her.
Quin locked it and then checked the “discreet side exit,” probably included as some sort of escape route for concerned patrons. It was nearly vertical – a quick slide but a difficult climb, and easy to defend. The door had a dead bolt, which he engaged. When he was certain the room was as safe as could be expected, he collapsed onto the second bed and was unconscious before he could count to two.
“Wake up. Wake up. Wake up,” was the general sound of the music that woke Quin a few hours later. He opened one eye to see an incredibly cheerful John bending over him, and reached out to swat the hand that was poking his chin.
“Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.” John chanted, ignoring Quin’s growls of irritation. If John didn’t shut up soon, he was going to wish he hadn’t decided to jump through the Door so thoughtlessly.
“So, I thought we could poke around for a couple of hours and then make it up to Meriym’s for lunch.” John had moved away from the bed and seemed to be rummaging through the backpack. Quin rolled his eyes as he watched John pull out a toothbrush.
“I want to go to the town hall,” John continued, “and find out where all the people around here are from and why they came and what they all do around here all the time. They must have some kind of economy, right? Which means they must have trade, because as far as I can tell this planet is relatively useless for anything.”
“And I know how much you love Meriym,” he turned and raised his eyebrows three times at Quin, “so that would make a nice midday break, and then we can pop through the Door to somewhere else to help us solve our mystery of the missing father.” On the last five words he made his voice deep and dramatic.
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Quin sighed. A voice inside his head was calling him stupid repeatedly, for getting himself into this. Now he and John had been gone for over twenty-four hours, and the Committee members had to be having multiple cows simultaneously and then dying so they could roll over their graves. Synchronized, probably. It could be a new sport. Synchronized grave rolling.
He stood. This was good. Soon the blood would start flowing again and he would be… well, awake.
Then someone knocked on the door. His sleepiness immediately vanished as his muscles tensed and his brain called all limbs to action.
“Good morning!” Madam Barooth’s voice called. “I brought you up a breakfast.”
Quin relaxed a little as John went to pull open the door.
“Croissants!” John exclaimed. “And tiny pats of butter! And toast! And jam! This is wonderful! Thank you!”
“You are very welcome. I got it from the best baker in town. We hope you enjoy it and your stay here. Please let me know if you need anything at all.” She turned and closed the door behind her.
John carried the tray over to Quin.
“You can have the boring bread,” he said. “I’ll have these delectable croissants. Mmmm, heavenly.”
Taking a deep breath, Quin ate the two slices of toast in four bites. He then stuffed everything John had pulled out of the backpack back in, and strode towards the door. “Meet me downstairs,” he said tersely, and shut the door behind him.
Madam Barooth was at the front desk. She shrank a little as he stalked forward.
“You have tours of this town?” he asked.
“I can get one for you!” she exclaimed. “Give me five minutes.”
Quin waited in the empty front room of the hotel; John came down a few minutes later.
“I was right,” he said. “That chocolate croissant was positively delectable. Too bad you don’t eat sugar.”
Quin only scowled.
Not a minute later, Madam Barooth scurried back into her hotel. “Timothy will take you around the town. He’s only a teenager, but he knows the history of the town by heart. He’ll be leading us one day, I know it! He’s waiting for you outside.”
“Thanks,” Quin said.
“Hello there!” A boy greeted them as they walked out into the overcast morning. The houses looked just as bright and cheerful as they had the night before, but this morning their radiance had nothing to do with the lights spreading soft rays across them.
“Madam says you want to know a little bit about the town. It’s not very big, so I’ll give you a quick run-down.” Timothy began to walk clockwise around the square. “This building on your left is the town hall. Chosen on the day of the first arrival, the town hall has served as a meeting place, a government foundation, and a place of security to all residents. Beyond that, you will see the armory. This building was chosen less than a week after the first arrival, with the intention of ensuring that the families of all living here would be safe.”
“Excuse me,” John interrupted. “But what do you mean by ‘chosen,’ and what do you mean by ‘arrival?’”
“Well,” the boy replied, “the people here have all come from different places – usually places they wish to avoid. They have come seeking safe refuge. The first group was several families all from different places who came over the Bridge at close to the same time. That is what I meant by ‘arrive.’ And the buildings were here when we arrived. They were empty, of course, or we would not have lived in them, so that is what I mean by ‘chosen.’”
“And when was the first arrival?” John asked.
“It was five years ago today! We are preparing a grand celebration for our five-year anniversary tonight.”
“You say no one was here when you arrived? Have you met any other villages or towns?”
“No, sir. There are other groups of houses and buildings, like this one, but they are all empty, like ours was. We believe that the gods have created this place as a sacred home for our people, safe from the wars that plagued us.”
John clasped his hands behind his back, his features knitting slowly into his thinking face.
“Gods, you say. What else do these gods tell you?”
“The gods provide for us,” Timothy replied, “all that we need. They instruct that we should treat others with care and compassion, that we should love others, and that we should share all knowledge and seek the truth. We should be open-minded and willing to learn from others. That is why it was so hard when all of our books were stolen.”
“Yes, we heard about that.” John pursed his lips. “Does your religion have a name?”
“We call ourselves the Life Stars – life because we believe that were it not for the grace of God, we would not be receiving the gift of life, and stars because we believe he intends for us to venture out into the stars to spread the hope of his name.”
“Life Stars,” Quin repeated. He frowned, remembering the conversation he had heard in the Globe.
“And that temple there – that is where you worship these gods?” John continued.
“Yes, sir.” Timothy smiled. “And all are welcome – please, come tomorrow for our big service!”
“I think we just might, Timothy,” John replied. “I think we just might.”
“May I ask about the wars you mentioned?” Quin asked.
Timothy lowered his voice. “The wars are difficult for many people to discuss. I myself lost my mother and my father. They say there was a great man, or a devil, who entered each of a thousand worlds and gave them the power to take from other worlds. This power consumed many a man and beast, and their struggle to be the greatest led them all to the poor, desolate world of Cadrelle. There, thousands of armies poured forth from other worlds and wrought havoc. They say the sky rained fire and the earth quaked and died. And in punishment, they say the gods took from them their children – first- and second-born, all under the age of twenty. Those that survived came here. They say that no one won the war – they either died or they ran.
“So now, here on this uninhabited planet, we want to start a world that is built on peace, shared knowledge, and compassion. And we want to do it together.”
“That is a chillingly beautiful rendition of a horrible event,” John said.
“Thank you!” A smile blazed across Timothy’s face.
“I think you know where we need to go,” Quin stated quietly.
John nodded and bent down to Timothy’s height.
“Timothy,” he said. “You are one brave kid. Thanks for telling us all of this. We really needed to hear it. Go tell Madam Barooth that we want her to get you one of those delectable croissants, and tell her we’re leaving for a little while, but we will be back – hopefully with more books.”
An even brighter smile lit Timothy’s face as his young legs flew towards the hotel.
Quin and John silently began the trek back up the hill towards Meriym’s house. About halfway up, John sighed loudly.
“I think we have a serious problem.”
“I agree,” Quin replied. “Let’s go to Cadrelle first and see what we can find out about that war. Lunch isn’t for several hours anyway.”
Not long after, they stood in front of that Door again, and Quin felt, for the second time, a flash of déjà vu, and a flash of fear. Something was happening, he didn’t know what it was, and he didn’t have control of anything. In addition, he and John were about to enter into a potential warzone.
“Me first,” Quin volunteered quietly.
John stepped back, and taking a deep breath, Quin strode confidently forward into the unknown.
Blues of every shade burned into Quin’s eyes as he stepped through the Door; glaucous and cerulean, sapphire and indigo all streaked across the frozen icy landscape that cascaded from their feet forward into the deep, vivid landscape. As he breathed in and out, a bubble of clean air formed around his face for a moment. Quin gazed at grey, snow-saturated sky for a moment and then closed his eyes and listened.
This place had a dark and powerful history; it was as though he could hear it whispering to him from a distance – an echo of the past – the sound of guns and screams and of horses’ screams; and there were children running, and blood and fear—
“Quin, are you okay?” John interrupted.
“Can you hear that?” Quin asked. “Close your eyes.”
They both closed their eyes.
There it was again, the fear, and this time he heard something deeper, something louder – it was almost a thunder, but it came from beneath his feet – a roaring deluge of sound rumbling and rippling closer and closer—
“Nope. I got nothing.” Taking a deep breath, John scanned the world around them. “It’s surprisingly not that cold,” he commented.
A frown settled over Quin’s eyebrows as his other senses rose to the surface – not cold at all, in fact.
“There’s a lot of ice for it being above freezing,” John noted. “And snow?”
Stepping a few feet away from the Door, Quin bent down and touched the ground. His eyes widened as a realization hit him. “John,” he said, looking behind him. “This isn’t ice. And that isn’t snow.”
“Do you smell that?”
It was an old smell, like the sounds that drifted in from the past, a scent of death and ancient memories and smoke.
“Barbeque?” John said, sniffing and craning his head in all directions, as if a revelation would just pop out and introduce itself.
“That is ash falling from the sky,” Quin replied solemnly, ignoring John’s inappropriate levity. “And this ice is actually glass.”
John’s eyes widened immensely, and he immediately fell to his knees and brushed away some of the ash. It was indeed glass – beautiful glass of shades of blue, streaking in lines that seemed to narrow, all pointing in the same direction.
The two men continued to take hesitant steps forward, ignoring the ash that lighted gently on their shoulders. The ash in the sky had a rippled effect, like low clouds calmly drifting, but instead of a blue sky behind it, there was simply more grey ash. Every ten feet or so, Quin noted a strange lump in the ice. Each lump was about two feet tall, and shaped oddly – like a mushroom cloud with a smooth sphere in place of the cloud.
“What do you think those are?” John asked, pointing at one.
Quin shook his head silently. There was something about this place that made him want to leave. It wasn’t the odd fear that he felt on Path. It wasn’t the dread he experienced before 4 AM fitness drills. It wasn’t the desolate emptiness or the peculiar nature of the ash and glass. It was a sense that simply by stepping into this strange, eerie, and silent world, they were desecrating a sacred place. He bent down and brushed some more of the ice away; they seemed to be walking perpendicular to the lines in the glass.
“We should follow the lines,” Quin said.
“I just have a feeling.”
“A feeling? Since when do you go by feelings?” John raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“Since I stepped foot on this planet.” Quin swallowed.
John frowned. He was staring at Quin with his head tilted sideways, curious and concerned. “What is bothering you about this place? It’s a little creepy, yes, but it’s just glass and ash. They probably had a volcano and a thunderstorm or something.”
“A volcano and a thunderstorm,” Quin repeated dryly.
“Or some other meteorological event! Tell me – what’s wrong?”
“I can hear someone whispering,” Quin replied quietly. “It sounds like the past, like it’s trapped.”
“That would be disturbing,” John mused. His eyebrows knit together. “Why do you think you can hear it and I can’t?”
“Ah, of course. Superior senses. That’s why I’m the brain guy and you’re the beat-em-up guy. What are they saying?”
John took a sharp breath but didn’t reply. They walked in silence as John pondered this, the concerned expression evicting his usually cheerful grin. They left footprints in the layer of ash as they walked; each step kicked up a little cloud of white. Then John made an abrupt left turn.
“We follow the lines,” he said.
Without reply, Quin turned and followed him, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other. He tried to focus on himself – feeling the way the nearly imperceptible particles of ash brushed softly against the skin of his head, face, and hands. He tried to focus on the wrinkles in his shirt, the clinking of the zippers from the backpack, the feeling of the sweat that dripped down his back. But the screaming was too loud – it was only one constant sound, but his ears could pick apart the many voices that sang in pain together. There were men and horses, women and children, voices he had never heard and never would, insects, bears, cats, and wolves…
“Wolf,” he whispered, clutching at his temples.
“What?” John asked, reaching out to touch Quin’s shoulder.
“Wolf,” Quin repeated. The screaming was getting louder. Each step they took towards wherever the glass would lead them. The voices… he could hear nothing else, only them, screaming to the beat of his own heart.
“What about Wolf?”
“He doesn’t have one.”
“Doesn’t have one what?”
And then Quin fell to his knees, clutching at his head, which pulsated with agony with each breath that he took. His elbows smashed into the glass with the force of a million voices, and tears began to stream from his eyes. In the distance, he could hear John calling his name, begging him to listen, but all he could hear was the screaming.
He peeled his eyes open and looked at the ground, and there he saw, at that spot exactly, that all of the streaks came to one, angry point – a point that was piercing his thoughts, hijacking his senses, and burning up all the energy that he kept stored in his body and mind.
Then everything went silent and dark.
A fog, a haze. Slowly lifting. Sand and grey clouds; he could feel the grit of the sand grinding against his feet. It was everywhere. In his shoes, in his shirt, in his hair. Wind whipped wildly around him; he could smell sweat and iron and fear; horses whinnied and screamed. People ran by, fleeing in every direction, a veritable chaos of pain and terror: this was what they called war.
And he was the only one – the only one, they said – who could stop it.
In the center of the field was his objective: a large metal machine which he didn’t understand, and which didn’t know him from Adam. But between him and that machine were the mechanical soldiers of the Torialles, marching to an unpredictable rhythm, shooting at everything that moved, and proving nearly impossible to destroy. There was only one way to get past them, and it broke his heart.
He pulled the cloak over his head, and drew the bag of crystals from his pocket. The sand, the storm, and the crystals – they were all that he needed. A tear rolled down his cheek. It would not only be the enemy that lost, but also his own people, and everyone that fought needlessly on this great battlefield. He wondered if anyone would remain to write about him. He wondered if anyone would remain even to write about this horrific battle which had destroyed so many souls.
Waiting, he looked at the skies as the mechanical soldiers drew nearer and nearer, each metallic step adding to the symphony that sang to his own death. He had only to wait for one thing – the man that was rescuing the children. He had a machine, he said, that would save them from this nightmare, if only he had a little more time. So the parents and grandparents, the aunts and uncles and friends had dived into the battle wielding frying pans and pitchforks, spoons and hearts of steel.
He could see the last of the children hurrying, running, disappearing over the rise, but then he couldn’t wait any longer. The cloak wrapped itself tightly around him as he willed his own body to survive the oncoming storm, and he spoke in words deep enough to command the thunder, rich enough to envelope the rain, and powerful enough to wield the fire in the sky.
“I give you my life,” he said. “I sacrifice my soul.”
One crystal, she had said, one crystal is enough to stop them.
So he withdrew a handful and without another pause or thought, flung them to the ground.
The earth began to rumble, a deep and terrifying sound, a distant sound but one that rapidly drew closer. So he ran. He sprinted past the mechanical soldiers that stumbled on the unsteady ground. He flinched as lightning began to strike all around him – a shower of sparks and flame. The soldiers began to collapse, one by one, and all he could think was, I hope the children are safe. Then came the thunder and the rain, but still he ran, as fast as he could, ignoring the ripping pain of his lungs clamoring for air; ignoring the gnawing sense of fear and desperation that clawed its way up his belly; ignoring the shoots of pain that tightened their grip around his legs and his arms and his chest.
Millions of lives already lost. Billions of souls taken, stolen, destroyed. And his would be just one more. But they would feel his revenge. They would pay. And he would have justice.
The metal machine rose in front of him, rusty and old, but protecting the one thing which he knew could stop this battle for good. He leaped onto the top, feeling the power of his words course through his body. With unnatural strength he ripped the metal panels from its surface – one layer and another and another.
And there it was.
For a moment, the world around him seemed to fade away. It was him versus this old, powerful beast which was nothing other than a small, cylindrical cell filled with some sort of chemical – a chemical of insanity, perhaps. A chemical of hate. He lifted it, turning it over and over in his hands. It wasn’t heavy, didn’t look like much, didn’t feel like anything. But this was it.
Destroy it, they said, and you will have saved the world.
He set it down at his feet, and then carefully climbed down from the giant, metal beast. And as he called to the powers of the sky, a thought crossed his mind. He thought, why did it have to be me? Why me? Then fire rained down, burning, melting, destroying the machine and its now-naked power cell.
Sobbing, crying, he fell to his knees. The world seemed more distant, more cold than ever. The rumbling and roaring was right underneath him and as he watched, the sand and the lightning melded as the power of the earth rolled underneath – and all was turned to glass.
Blood made the glass slippery – was it his? – and he slipped until he was face down, crying tears into the ocean of glass. He gripped the ground with the last of his strength, and spoke the last words of the battle and of his life.
And the ground and the sand and the lightning replied by streaking forward from all directions, peaking at the point of his death, and overwhelming him in a moment and preserving him forever in glass.
Then Quin took control of the dream. Backwards, he urged. Go backwards. The glass receded and then there was the machine… the sprinting… the glass receding away from him, uncovering all it had enveloped. The cloak and the crystals, the mechanical soldiers marching, pounding their feet into the sand… the clouds and the lightning… there were people all around him, running, fleeing. A child carried over his mother’s shoulder; an eagle diving in to attack the head of a metal soldier; swords and guns flashing and booming… and then his vision narrowed in on one man, crouched over a figure that lay on the ground and weeping.
Quin watched as the mechanical soldiers drew near, desperate to run, desperate to scream, but he was trapped in another man’s memory.
And as the soldiers drew near, the hirsute figure rose up with all of the power and might of a legion, and slayed each soldier that drew within twenty feet of the bloody corpse which lay on the ground. Mechanical arms, legs, heads lay strewn across the ground as Wolf laid them to waste. And when he was no longer surrounded, he bent down, heaved the cold body of his beloved companion across his back, and disappeared through the Door.
Then Quin woke up, gasping, choking, sobbing tears of remorse, of fear, of pain. This world that surrounded him was a graveyard of innocent souls, destroyed by the simple invention of a lonely old man. It wasn’t the machine that killed all of these people. It was the Doors. The Doors and the insatiable greed of those that used them.
John stood over him with a worried expression. He twisted his hands, unsure of how to respond to Quin’s highly unusual emotional display.
Blinking rapidly, Quin cleared away most of the tears and swallowed. He tried to sit up. The pain in his head had receded, and the whispers and screams were very faint, and becoming ever more distant. John helped him scoot back to lean against the nearest column of glass.
“It’s a graveyard,” he whispered. “A graveyard for all who died here.” He then briefly relayed the dream to John, who sank down next to him in shock and awe.
“I can’t even imagine,” he whispered. “How long have these Doors been here?”
“I think… I think he made the first one five years ago,” Quin replied hesitantly. “I think he caused all of this.”
“Don’t lay the blame too quickly,” John said firmly. “We don’t know anything yet. Well, we know a lot. But not enough to place blame.”
Quin nodded and looked around. Now that the screams were still, he could see that the landscape was very beautiful. The glass and ash that covered everything gave the world a holy, ethereal feel. It was a fitting grave for the men, women, families, and animals that had given their lives that their children might live. Then he saw, not too far away, a bush which had not been completely destroyed by the battle, and was preserved in glass.
Standing slowly, Quin pointed. “We need to go over there.”
John followed him, as he walked slowly, painfully towards the bush. His muscles ached, his brain cried out – but it was nothing compared to the suffering he had just witnessed.
When he arrived at the bush, he reached out and grasped a glass-encased leaf. “May I take this as a gift for one of your own who survived?” he asked, directing his question at the grass, the sky, the ash – anything that might listen.
The air was still and quiet, so he very gently snapped off one leaf from the bush.
The ground did not quake. The clouds did not rumble. Fire did not fall from the sky.
Soberly, Quin and John slowly and reverently returned to the Door. Before stepping through, Quin turned back, calmly, and gazed at the world behind him – the ashen grey sky, the slippery streaks of blue glass, the mushroom cloud tombs of the dead, the powerful story that echoed in the devastation left by the war – and he committed it to memory. He hoped never to return, but he also intended never to forget.
The dull grey-brown scene of Path was a welcome relief compared to the overwhelming emotional power of Cadrelle. Quin stumbled onto the bridge feeling weak and tired in a way he had never experienced before. He felt as though someone had taken his soul and stuck it in a wheat grinder and then wrung it out and tried to put it back together again. He grasped the rail of the bridge and took a few deep breaths of air, feeling useless and despising himself for not being strong enough. He looked at the sky, where a few black birds flew in lazy circles, and realized that he had never seen the sky – it had been cloudy every time they had come here.
“We should have Tobias take a good look at you,” John said.
“No,” Quin refused. “Don’t want to go there like this.”
“What, afraid Meriym might think you’re a baby? Well too bad. I’m the boss now, and we’re going to get you some food and some sitting-in-a-chair time, and you are going to do exactly as I say,” ordered John defiantly.
Quin took a deep breath and stepped forward, focusing on his posture, calming the shaking of his hands, and ensuring that enough oxygen was reaching his brain. They were traveling through Doors and facing the unknown at every turn. He needed to be strong, needed to be ready in case something jumped out from around a corner. Once his posture was under control, he readjusted his senses. The world around him was quiet as ever, with most of the right noises, but missing the sound of the river. He had forgotten to ask about that. The wind caused the tall grasses to wave as usual, and the birds floated and hovered in the sky. It lacked any real smell – he hadn’t noticed this before, and wondered why.
“Come on,” John said, tugging on his arm. Apparently he had only moved one step.
Each step he took became easier, as his emotions calmed, his mind focused, and the scene around them solidified. He realized that the vividness of the dream had caused the real world to seem unreal – but as the dream faded, his senses took over.
They reached the house a few minutes later and Meriym answered the door with a gasp.
“You look terrible!” she exclaimed. “What happened?”
John pushed Quin up the steps and into the house, and forced him to sit on the couch.
“Is Tobias here?” he asked.
“Upstairs,” Meriym replied. She went over and opened the trap door. The rope ladder fell and John scrambled up.
Meriym came over to Quin, concern written all over her face. “What happened? Are you okay? Do you need anything?” She sat down beside him on the couch.
Taking a deep breath, Quin reached into his pocket and pulled out the leaf encased in glass. He placed it carefully in her hand.
“What is this?” Meriym asked. “It’s beautiful.”
“It comes from Cadrelle,” Quin replied.
Meriym’s eyes widened and then began to well up with tears. “I haven’t… haven’t been back. What… is it…”
“Everything is encased in glass,” he said simply. “It is one massive tomb, built to honor those that died there.”
The tears that had started in her eyes began to flow down her face. Quin reached out, feeling inept, and placed his large hand awkwardly on her back. He was not good at comforting. He wished John would hurry up and come back.
“Do you… do you know what happened?” she asked.
Quietly, Quin told her all that he had seen and experienced in the graveyard of Cadrelle, until Meriym’s sadness began to overwhelm him and he didn’t know what to do. So he drew her into his arms and held her while she sobbed.
After a while, she began to calm down, and Quin began to wonder where John was. He had probably found a bookshelf or something.
Meriym sat back and gave Quin a wobbly smile. “Sorry,” she said, “for crying all over your shirt. You were the one to experience it all, not me! And here I am being the watery one. It’s just that that’s where I was born and grew up – everyone I ever knew was on that planet, and when I escaped, I didn’t even do it on purpose. I was just running, and ended up here.”
Nodding, Quin patted her back.
She wiped her nose with her sleeve. “And this leaf – it’s so beautiful. It’s so… thank you.” She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “I will treasure it.”
“Coming down the ladder!” John announced suddenly. His voice was a jarring contrast to Meriym’s soft, sad voice. “Hey, Quin, guess who I found!”
Behind him on the ladder, Kate began climbing down. She seemed to have bathed – her hair was no longer in knots, and she now wore an outfit that was not tattered and in rags.
“Oh, Kate!” Meriym exclaimed. “You look wonderful. Do you feel better?”
“Thanks, Meriym,” Kate replied. “I feel amazing. Thanks for letting me borrow some clothes.”
“How do you know John and Quin?”
“We convinced Isabel – Wolf’s sister – to let her out of a cage.” A grin split John’s face. “Glad we managed to get out of there alive!”
“A cage!” Meriym exclaimed. “Well, Wolf’s sister is very dangerous. How did you escape?”
“She let us,” Quin explained.
A brief frown crossed Meriym’s face. “She did? Did you meet Althea? Her mother?”
“No,” Quin replied.
“That seems very unusual,” Meriym said with a confused expression. “When Wolf comes back, we should ask him what it means. Normally, you would have to convince Althea to let you go, or fight to the death.”
“That was one of the options,” Kate added. “But now that you mention it, after making such a big deal about me being a stranger and a servant of the devil, she did let us escape pretty easily. Our two options were what? Fight or flee? With the end result of either being death?”
She and John took seats around the room, as Tobias began to climb down the ladder. He smiled at Quin and then said, “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Quin stated.
“I’ve had a few people come back from Cadrelle who have had similar experiences to yours, but who have great difficulty remembering their visions. The memories left there seem to be most accessible to those who rely on their senses for most of their environmental information, and you are a prime example of someone like that. Wolf, too. He would die if he tried to go back there.”
Quin glanced at John, who met his eyes, as they remembered Wolf’s horrible experience.
“At any rate, the experience has never left long-standing physical effects. I’ve seen some nausea, headaches, shaky muscles, that sort of thing – but the effects seem to fade rather quickly. If you experience anything serious, let me know immediately.”
“You do look better since you got here,” Meriym said. “Let me get you a bowl of soup to give you some energy. John, would you like some too?”
“I’d love it!” John exclaimed.
Meriym stood and reached down to pick up the glass leaf from the table.
“What is that?” Kate asked.
“It’s a glass leaf,” Meriym replied. “Quin brought it back for me from Cadrelle.”
“May I look at it?”
“Of course!” Meriym smiled and handed it to her, before turning and heading into the kitchen. “Kate, I’m going to make a pot of tea. Would you like some?”
“I would love some,” Kate replied.
“Count me in,” Tobias called out.
Kate turned the glass leaf over and over in her hands. She held it up closely to her eyes, trying to look through it. She examined every side, angle, and edge.
“What are you looking for?” John asked. “It’s just a leaf from a bush encased in glass.”
Frowning, Kate tapped the leaf with her index finger. “I feel like I’ve seen something like this before, but I can’t figure out where.”
“It seems like it would be a pretty unique object,” John said. “I would be very interested to know where you saw it, if you can remember.”
Quin leaned back on the couch and drank in the warmth of the room around him. He found it odd that the world outside was so wrong and uncomfortable, but when he was in this house, he felt warm, content – at home. Meriym came back into the room carrying a tray. She set it on the low table between the chairs, and proceeded to pass out mugs of tea and bowls of soup all around. Each person smiled, said thank you, and took a deep breath, smelling the comforting scent of the food.
“Delicious,” John mumbled with his mouth full of soup.
“This tea hits the spot,” Kate added.
A murmur of agreement moved around the room.
“Where is Kip?” John asked.
“Oh, he is playing with some of the boys from the village today. One of the mothers wanted to host a party, and he was invited. It was one of the mothers that Tobias sees regularly, so the boys play together a lot.” Meriym took a sip of her tea, and settled onto the couch next to Quin. She smelled like some kind of flowers, Quin noted, and her eyes weren’t red from the crying anymore.
The group began to chat casually, enjoying the few moments of comfort and the camaraderie of those around them. Then the front door opened, and Wolf entered. A cold draft blew in. He began to walk forward, and then sniffed, and turned to look at the group in the living room.
“Hello,” Meriym said pleasantly. “Would you like to join us for—”
A short, harsh growl cut her off. His eyes flicked from one person to the next, and then he began to stalk forward, his gaze slowly narrowing on Quin. He growled again, and sniffed, stepping closer and closer to Quin.
Quin looked down at himself and realized – his scent – ashes. He set down his soup and stood, moving away from the couch. Then Wolf leaped forward and tackled him. The two huge bodies hit the stone floor of the house with a boom, causing the room to shake. Growling back, Quin reached up and grabbed Wolf by the throat, baring his teeth and throwing Wolf off of him. He jumped forward again, landing on top of Wolf, who growled and spit angrily. The two rolled over and over across the floor, knocking into furniture.
“Make room, make room,” he heard Meriym say, though she sounded rather far away. His attention was focused on Wolf. He knew he had to let Wolf win, but he had to do so without being killed. Around him, he heard the sounds of furniture screeching across the floor. They were making room for the two of them to wrestle without destroying anything else. Blocking out all other sounds and sensations, Quin returned his attention to Wolf. He looked up and met Wolf’s eyes. They were burning with anger and hatred and fear. Finding himself underneath Wolf again, Quin had an idea. He reached up with his one free arm and wrapped it around Wolf’s neck, pulling his face down so that they were close together. He held him there, as Wolf struggled, and as soon as he wiggled his arm free, he wrapped that one around Wolf too, until Wolf was held in an iron-gripped hug.
“I know,” Quin whispered. “I saw it. I’m sorry.”
With those words, Wolf began to relax a little, settling his weight on top of Quin, as if every last scrap of energy was pouring out of him. He weighed far more than Quin realized, and after a few moments, Quin began to find it hard to breathe. He gathered his strength and heaved Wolf off of him and onto the floor. Wolf didn’t move, but simply lay there, breathing, eyes closed. A tear slipped through his eyelid and rolled in one solitary trail down his cheek.
When Quin looked up, the others were standing by the wall, watching the scene before them. John’s eyes were wide and he looked terrified. Kate seemed interested, even entertained. Tobias wore an expression of fear mixed with sorrow, and Meriym was crying. Tears poured down her face. She knew – he could tell – she knew what Wolf was feeling and why, and she was feeling it every bit as much as Wolf.
Quin stood slowly, looking down at Wolf. After a moment, Wolf opened his eyes.
“Thank you,” he whispered, and Quin reached down a hand to help him stand up.
The others began to move about, rearranging the furniture.
“Wait, wait!” Meriym said, wiping away her tears. “As long as we’ve moved the furniture, I’d like to sweep the floor underneath.”
Tobias chuckled, and the tension in the room began to alleviate.
“I’ll help.” Kate ran into the kitchen and pulled the broom from the cupboard.
Slowly, the room was put back together – the floor swept; the chairs, couch, and tables picked back up; the blankets refolded and set in their place; and, finally, a fire lit in the fireplace. In only a few short minutes the room was organized, cleaned, and once again feeling warm and comfortable – like home. Then they all settled back into their chairs.
“So, could someone explain to me what just happened?” John asked.
“He smells,” Wolf stated.
Kate laughed. “Agreed.”
“Like ash,” Quin clarified.
“Ohhh.” John nodded, indicating his understanding.
Quin wondered if he had not been there, if Wolf would have tackled John, or if maybe, because he had experienced the memory, that he smelled the strongest.
“Um, I have to tell you,” Kate spoke up, “I remembered where I saw this leaf.” She held it up.
Wolf growled as he saw it, and threw an angry glance at Quin.
Quin only shrugged.
“A long time ago, when I first started traveling, I ended up in a land called Canaan,” she explained. “There, I met a group of elderly women, called the Covey. Each one had a glass leaf that looked very similar to this tied around their necks. I don’t know where they got it, and I never really thought about it until now.”
John frowned. “A group of old women?”
“They were the leaders of a tribe of nomadic people living in a desert,” Kate explained. “They decide the laws there.”
Quin looked at John. Would this be a valuable place to visit? Would they find any clues there?
“So, if their leaves are the same as this one,” John said, “then they would know more about the war, and they survived.”
“Yes,” Kate replied. “Presumably. And they know a lot about the missing children, too,” she added. “They have helped a lot of people in their search.”
“Should we check it out?” John asked Quin. “I mean, it’s a stretch, but if they know about the war and the missing children, they might know about Dad, too.”
Nodding, Quin finished the last of his soup. He looked at Meriym and stood. “We’ll be back,” he said, “and one of these days, we will figure out what is going on.”
“Please,” Meriym replied, “come back here to rest. We have plenty of room.”
“It’s true,” John exclaimed. “I didn’t tell you about the upstairs, but it’s amazing. Beds everywhere!”
“It is a safe house for refugees,” Meriym explained.
Quin lifted the backpack and slung it over his shoulder. He took Meriym’s hand briefly, in the Cadrellian fashion, and then turned and strode out of the house, with Kate and John right behind.
“Lucky meeting you, eh?” John said chattily as they walked towards the Door.
“Not sure if that’s good or bad,” Kate said, almost harshly, “but if you’re friends with Meriym and Tobias, then you are probably – probably, mind you – okay.”
As they reached the bridge, Quin turned and looked at Kate. “You first,” he said, and they stepped through the Door once more.
Colours blazed – a brilliantly blue sky flamed with orange and purple clouds that streaked across the horizon; the darker blue on the opposite end of the sky from the sunset slowly grew deeper and was dotted with stars and moons; the white and soft yellowish-brown mountains of sand stretched out in every direction, rippled by the wind. A village of tents was set up on top of the acres of sand. Hundreds of fabric structures spotted the landscape – yellow, blue, green, white…they looked like very large sprinkles on a very large donut.
“Welcome to Canaan,” Kate said in a straightforward manner, striding forward. The people in this village seemed to know her; they waved and shouted out, smiled and hugged her. “Please find Gilead,” she said to one of the little girls that ran about.
“It’s hot here,” John commented, loosening his tie and unbuttoning the top button of his shirt – which Quin noticed was beginning to look a bit dirty.
Shifting focus away from John’s disheveled appearance, Quin made note of the situation around them. There were a lot of people, but none of them seemed immediately dangerous. He didn’t see any guns or obvious military presence. Most stayed away from the group that had stepped through the Door, but he could see eyes peering at them from behind the flaps of the nearest tents. They seemed to have an organized watch, at least, ensuring that they always knew who was coming through the Door; and, if Kate was right and this Covey was aware of the war on Cadrelle, he was certain they had taken measures to ensure the security of the community.
“I thought they were nomadic,” John said.
“They are,” Kate said, “sort of. They don’t move, but the land moves underneath them. The Door is their access to trade and supplies.
“Who do they trade with?” John questioned, wiping a drop of sweat from his forehead.
“A place called Fjord, mostly,” she answered. “And sometimes others, when they find us.”
“Fjord?” Quin asked. The hair – he kicked himself for not realizing it before – she had Fjordian hair and he hadn’t even noticed. Yellow streaks underneath a layer of brown. “You’re from Fjord. Aren’t you?”
At that moment, a young man jogged up to the group, smiling broadly. He picked Kate up in his arms and spun her around, kissing her soundly on the lips. Kate’s face broke into a smile and she laughed.
“You’re back!” he said. “It’s been ages!”
“I know,” Kate said. “I’m sorry. I missed you.”
“I missed you, too. Who are your friends?”
“I would hardly call them friends,” Kate replied, raising an eyebrow. “This is Quin and John. They’re looking to talk to the Covey. John and Quin, this is Gilead.”
“Good sir,” John exclaimed, bowing. “We commend you on your admiration of Miss Sour Pants. She has been a huge asset to our team, and a huge pain as well.”
“John!” Quin exclaimed, elbowing him. “I’m sorry, Gilead. Thank you for your welcome.”
Gilead burst out laughing. “She can be both of those things, at that, John. And you are most welcome, Quin.” He turned to look at Kate. “The Covey is in conference for the moment, but I will have Chicha tell them of your arrival as soon as possible. Please, come with me and we will find a place for you to rest. Would you care for some food?”
“We just ate,” John said. “But thanks.”
“May I ask what you want to talk to the Covey about?” Gilead asked. “It might speed their interest. Sometimes it takes them days to get around to talking to someone.”
“A glass leaf,” Quin replied.
Gilead frowned slightly. “Will they know what that means?”
“Yes,” Kate interjected. “I want to see them, too, and they’ll see me at any rate.”
“Well,” Gilead said. “Why don’t you start by coming to the waiting area outside of their tent, and I will find out when they can see you. If it is going to be a while, we will find you a place to relax while you wait.”
“Thank you,” John said.
They followed Gilead through the tents. People bustled about. There appeared to be a well in the center of town and people carried buckets on yokes slung across their shoulders. Barefoot children skipped and played in the sand. Wind pulled at the tarps of the tents, and men and women carried wares about, beat animal skin rugs and blankets, and peeked through their tent flaps at the group as they walked by.
Suddenly, a scream sounded.
“Gilead! Gilead!” A little girl sprinted towards them, kicking sand up with every step.
“What is it, Chaya?” Gilead asked.
“I saw one! A sand monster! Like you described!”
Gilead frowned. “Where were you?”
“I was watching because it was my turn and I was on the fourth rise and I saw one and it was spinning and coming this way!” She was breathing heavily and looked as if she was about to cry.
Looking around, Gilead called to one of the older boys. “Fivel! I want to you to run as fast as you can to the fourth rise and see if the sand is coming. Go, now!”
A tall boy wearing a white tunic and cream trousers dropped what he was doing and sprinted back towards the Door. Around them, the bustle of people increased to a buzz. People began picking up their wares, rugs, blankets, and possessions and putting them inside tents. Then, one by one, they formed a parade, heading down towards the far end of camp.
“Liesl,” Gilead called to another girl. “I want you to go to the Covey and tell them we have a suspected sand storm. Run, now!”
Then Gilead turned back to them. “I’m sorry about this, but your meeting with the Covey is going to have to wait. Kate, you know the procedure. I want you to take them to the cavern and ensure their safety.”
Quin was surprised to see that Kate was smiling. Gilead seemed surprised, too.
“Why are you smiling?” he asked her.
“It’s like the first time we met,” she replied, and stood on her tiptoes to kiss his chin.
He smiled back. “You’re right, it is. Now get going.”
“This way,” Kate said, leading them in the same direction as the parade of people.
Before they had made it very far, Fivel came sprinting back. “It’s coming!” he shouted. “It’s coming and it won’t be longer than fifteen minutes. We have to hurry! Hurry!”
At these words, more teenagers took up the cry, running between tents and shouting that a sand storm was coming.
“Where are we going?” John asked over the noise of the crowd that grew larger by the second.
“The cavern,” Kate shouted back. “You’ll see.”
Soon, hundreds and thousands of people had joined in the trek. The crowd seemed to be disappearing over a particularly large dune of sand in front of them. All of Quin’s senses were on red alert; hundreds of people crowding, bumping, and shouting was a security guard’s nightmare. You’re not security right now, he reminded himself.
As they came over the rise, an incredible sight greeted them. A huge tent – the biggest tent they had ever seen. As they moved into the tent, the sight became even more incredible. The ground dropped away as a huge cavern appeared in front of them, with massive stone steps leading down to a flat stage-like area in the bottom center. The room looked to be set up like a large theater.
“People have assigned seats,” Kate said. “Visitors over here.” She led them down the stairs to the very bottom, on the opposite side of the stage. “That way we can make sure everyone is safe, and if someone doesn’t make it, we know who to look for.”
“But how on earth does this hold the sand out?” John asked. “It’s like a basement. Doesn’t it get buried?”
“Of course,” Kate said, “but the objective is not to avoid getting buried, but to avoid dying. The Covey has a piece of technology that creates a solid bubble over the top. That gets covered with sand, but we have a team that digs us out at the end. It’s not fun, of course, but everyone lives. And there is food down here, too, that gets rationed if the storm lasts for more than a day.”
They sat and watched as people filed in. One woman carried a screaming baby on each hip, and was followed by a line of more children – like ducklings. She counted them by placing her hand on each of their heads as they filed by to sit in their seats. A short gentleman with a bow and arrow was using an arrow to direct traffic – or trying to at any rate. The people seemed to largely ignore him if they could get away with it. A man in brightly covered clothes carried a parrot on one shoulder and a bird cage with several other birds in it in his opposite hand. From a different entrance, several men herded in a tribe of goats and three camels, and fenced them into an area on the other side of the cavern that seemed to be made specifically for livestock.
Then the Covey appeared at the entrance. Everyone in the room stood respectfully as they filed in. The group of old women walked down the stairs, directly to the center of the cavern, and stood in a circle with their backs to the crowd. As soon as they were no longer looking towards the people, everyone sat down and began talking again with normal vigor.
“Can we go and talk to them now?” John asked. “I mean, they’re not doing anything.”
“They’re busy,” Kate said, “preparing to protect you from the storm! They’ll come talk to you if they want to.”
The room was becoming fuller and fuller by the minute. People were crammed into every square inch of the place. It seemed to Quin that if this place was designed to last for several days, it should have been made slightly larger.
“There are a lot of people in here,” John said, echoing Quin’s thoughts.
“We’ve had a population boom in the last few years,” Kate said. “One of the things the Covey is working on is finding a way to make this place support more people – or possibly to build a second one.”
“It is an amazing feat of engineering,” John commented.
They watched as Gilead came skipping down the stairs. At the base, he bowed formally to the Covey. One woman turned to look at him. They whispered back and forth for a few minutes, and then he pointed to John and Quin and she turned to look at them.
She was wizened, so old that her skin was nearly dripping from her face, but her eyes were blazing hot stones of fire, and Quin knew in that instant that if he had to fight against her, he would lose. Just before she turned away, he noticed a glass leaf dangling from around her neck, and he knew that she knew exactly what he wanted to know. It was as if the leaf was speaking to him, the same way the glass had spoken to him in the graveyard of Cadrelle.
She turned away and he released his breath.
“That was odd,” John said. “She stared at you like she was trying to set you on fire.”
“She has the information we need,” Quin stated simply.
Gilead made some additional hand gestures and comments and then left the Covey, striding towards Quin and John. Behind him, one at a time, each member of the Covey turned and looked at them sitting quietly in the corner.
“They want to talk to you,” Gilead said, “and that was the weirdest they’ve ever been. I’ve never seen them look at anybody the way they looked at you, Quin. I suppose the whole ‘glass leaf’ thing must mean something to them. But first they need to secure the cavern.”
“Did everyone make it inside?” Kate asked.
“No,” Gilead replied, “as usual the Dauber twins are missing. But they seem to have figured out some system of surviving, as this is the fifth storm they’ve been out in.”
Quin glanced over at John. He was making the thinking face, rubbing his chin and squinting at nothing in particular.
“I think I can help the Covey,” he said suddenly. “I think I can find them an acceptable solution to their problem of having enough space. But I want to see what technology they’re using to secure this place first.”
“They have been very open to suggestions thus far,” Gilead replied. “But most haven’t been feasible. And you won’t have to wait long to see what they’ve got going. They’re starting.”
Quin turned his attention to the group of elderly women in the center of the room. They held their hands in the air and began speaking in unison. It wasn’t chanting – it was nearly singing. A lyrical poem of sound, drifting from their lips and cascading over the crowd.
“Noooo…” John whispered. “Really? Really?! You have got to be kidding me. Ridiculous.”
“Hush,” Kate hissed, elbowing him. “You’ll distract them.”
“This is just… just…”
Quin elbowed him harder and John let out a burst of air.
“It doesn’t matter,” Quin whispered, “as long as it works.”
John scowled and crossed his arms, leaning back against his chair and slouching down sullenly.
As the lyrical singing continued, the tent over their heads drew back to show the massively darkening sky. The sun was still setting, and the clouds were still lovely, but the deep blue of the encroaching night was invisible above the angry swirling clouds of dust that rapidly moved towards the cavern. All eyes gazed upwards as the circumference of the cavern began to sparkle and flicker and a bluish barrier slowly grew in a dome-shape over the top of the cavern. It was beautiful… and then, as soon as it sealed overhead, the storm hit, smashing against the barrier. It was amazing to watch – like a glass ceiling.
Then the entire community began to sing a song of loyalty, community, and faith.
The visitors listened respectfully, a captive audience, and John sat up into a more appropriate position.
As soon as the song ended, the crowd began to talk in normal voices.
John gestured to the barrier. “It is pretty impressive, I guess. But really, the pomp and ceremony is unnecessary.”
Quin raised his eyebrows.
“And I can definitely help them solve their space problem if this is what they call a barrier,” he added defensively.
“You had better be quiet,” Gilead hissed. “The Covey – they’re coming.”
Quin and John turned to see seven elderly women walking towards them, wielding the immense power of their age, and creating one of the most intimidating armies Quin had ever seen. He stood formally, and bowed, nudging John to do the same.
“We hear you have a question for us,” the woman in the center said. She wore a red sash draped across a white tunic that fell to her knees. “We have an answer for you.”
“What do you know of the glass leaf?” asked a second woman, with a blue sash.
“We visited Cadrelle,” Quin replied. “And the glass spoke to us.”
“It spoke to you?” asked a third. She wore a yellow sash.
“Perhaps we should all sit,” a fifth one, with a purple sash, suggested. “Follow.”
The group of women walked stiffly back to the center of the room and sat in a circle on the floor, leaving space for Quin, John, Kate, and Gilead.
“By the way, Kate,” the sixth said (green sash), “it is lovely to see you!”
“And you, too, Mistress Taylor.”
“We know what the glass said to you,” the first one continued.
Quin noted that the seventh woman, who was wearing a black sash and was the one who had stared at him so harshly, had not said a word during the entire exchange.
“The glass speaks to us also. What are you seeking?”
“We are seeking my father,” Quin replied. “Grise Black.”
All of the faces of the elderly women went blank. It was eerie – exactly the same expression on each face.
“I see.” The first woman pursed her lips and took a deep breath. “We have no information on him. Why do you seek him?”
“He is…” Quin paused, considering how to explain. “He is a fugitive from our home.”
“And they sent you to find him?” the woman asked.
All of the women nodded at once – another eerie thing to watch. It was as if they all acted from the same mind.
“Do you have a glass leaf?” she asked.
“I gave it to someone,” he replied.
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? Do you know the Cadrellian custom of leaf-giving?”
“Is the one to whom you gave it Cadrellian?”
All of the other women raised an eyebrow simultaneously.
“And you gave her a glass leaf from Cadrelle.”
The elderly woman took a deep breath and leaned forward. “This custom is slowly dying,” she explained. “Because most of those from Cadrelle are dying or dead. We encourage your efforts to keep the old tradition.” She reached out and touched Quin’s knee. He flinched; it felt as if an electric current flowed through him.
“I am Lydrielle,” she said slowly, as if she were beginning to tell a story. “I am from Cadrelle, but was sent from my home with my sisters at a very young age. The prophets predicted that the end was coming, and to preserve the customs of our people, they taught us, and then sent us away. We were raised by a hermit who lived in the desert, guarding this Door. He died long ago.
“Five years ago, people began to appear through the Door. They were from all over, places we had never known or heard of. And most of them were refugees – fleeing as their world was invaded by alien races. We welcomed them here, and began to build a community.
“Then, one day, we heard tell of a great battle that was taking place. This battle was miles wide – no one could see one end or another. Thousands of people were dying – hundreds of thousands. And not all of the same species. People from all over the universe were losing parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles – they were terrified that those that waged war on this planet would come to theirs.
“Then we found out that the world was Cadrelle. And when a young Cadrellian man came to us, we made a decision no one should ever have to make. We gave him the power to end the battle, but in doing so, to destroy everyone that fought, including himself – and to ultimately destroy the planet itself.”
Quin bowed his head.
“He is the one that spoke to you,” the elderly woman continued. “The technology we gave him turned the planet to glass, and preserved him forever. His memories are bleeding through.”
John was sitting forward, rapt. Kate and Gilead were holding hands tightly, eyes wide in mirrored expressions of awe and fear.
“How does this help me?” Quin asked.
“We heard word of a man who appeared near the end, to save the children,” the second woman chimed in. “He is a legend, a mystery. We have not seen nor heard from those children. But the last time they were seen was on an unknown, uninhabited planet to which we send many refugees that cannot withstand our environment.”
“Path,” John whispered.
“But we fear,” the third woman said, leaning forward. “This unknown planet does not speak to us. We cannot hear its soul. We cannot hear its purpose. We cannot feel its place in the universe. It has no future and it has no past. It is both young and old, existent and non-existent. We believe your search will end there.”
Quin nodded. He hoped John had memorized everything they had just said, because he was feeling emotional again. It was probably the leaves that hung around their necks having a similar effect on him as the glass planet did.
“Now, you must repay us,” the fourth woman commanded. “What have you to give in return for our information?”
Quin looked down at his hands. He hadn’t anticipated this.
“I can solve your space problem.” John’s voice rang out clearly.
All seven faces turned to look at him. He didn’t even flinch.
“You see, that barrier you’ve got up there is lovely and all, but the way it works is that it is just a really large Door which – I assume – leads to an inter-dimensional space. The only awesomely-shaped Doors I’ve ever seen lead to inter-dimensional space. All you have to do is expand the inside and then put people in there. And if you design the inside nicely enough, you could have beds, living space – an entire city if you wanted! Well, I mean, there are limits – but you get the idea, right? Just put the people inside there. There’s no reason why you only have to put people underneath it.”
All seven sets of eyes blinked at him in unison. Then they turned to each other and started babbling in a foreign language.
John frowned and tapped at his ear piece. Why wasn’t it working? Quin poked at his, too.
“Is that a language?” he asked Kate.
“Sort of,” she replied. “They operate on the same wavelength… I mean, they can read each other’s minds, so sometimes when they want to look like they’re talking they just make nonsensical noises to fool people while they talk telepathically.”
“Oh.” John grinned. “I bet it drives people nuts!”
“People like you, anyway,” Kate muttered.
The women stopped talking.
“You are correct,” the first woman in the red sash agreed. “And we thank you for your insight. We have many ideas and are looking forward to implementing this concept.”
“When the storm is over,” the fourth woman said, “you are free to go with our blessing.”
Kate’s eyebrows shot up.
“Thank you,” Quin said. John echoed him.
“Now you mustn’t sit with us any longer or our people will think we are showing you favoritism,” red sash said, pointing them to their original seats. “If we have any more thoughts, we will tell you before you leave.”
The four young people stood up, and turned away, heading back to their seats. As Quin was about to step down, he felt a bony hand grasp his wrist. It burned like fire. He turned to look – it was the seventh woman, the one who had never spoken. She yanked and he bent down.
“Boy,” she hissed in a voice that sounded misused, “when you find your father, not all will be as you expect. Be prepared to choose the opposite of what you think is true.”
“What does that mean?” Quin asked, but she abruptly dropped his hand and turned back to the group, ignoring him. He frowned and stepped down from the platform. What could that mean?
The storm only lasted two hours, and a minimal amount of sand ended up remaining on the dome. John spent the time staring at the swirling clouds of dust above them and doing complex mathematical equations in his head. Kate and Gilead cuddled in the corner, and Quin was left to his own thoughts.
He thought about the beginning, when John had decided to leap through idiotically and how he had grabbed the backpack, and wondered if subconsciously maybe he had wanted to go through the Door too. He wondered how much he really cared about his father’s misdeeds – were they his responsibility to clean up? What would the other Committee members say if they knew what he and John had been up to? They hadn’t broken every rule in the book, but they had come pretty close. What was it that kept dragging him into one unprofessional decision after another?
Then there was Meriym. He felt compelled to keep giving her leaves, although he knew almost nothing about her – she came from Cadrelle, she wasn’t afraid of him, and, according to Wolf, they smelled the same – whatever that meant. But the leaves made her happy, and he liked it when she smiled. It seemed very odd that so much could be going on inside his head that he couldn’t control.
He felt his body begin to relax, slowly, drifting – ignoring the voice in the back of his head saying, don’t sleep, there are too many people around. Further and further into sleep he drifted, when suddenly it started: the screaming. It was the same screaming he had heard before – the melody and harmonies of a hundred thousand voices blended in simultaneous agony. He jerked awake and the screaming stopped.
“What is it?” John asked.
“Nothing,” Quin grunted. “Just need to pay more attention.”
He looked around the room. People talked and whispered, slept and cuddled. One group on the far side of the cavern sang. Cows mooed. They were definitely not in any apparent danger.
“They can’t do anything in here,” John said. “No one can escape.”
“Suicide bomber,” Quin replied.
“Really? Really? You come here, to ask them questions, and suddenly, from nowhere, you come up with ‘suicide bomber’? I think you need to get some more sleep, Quin.” John shook his head and leaned back again. “Oh look,” he said. “It’s clearing up.”
A thin layer of sand covered the dome, but where streaks of it had blown away, a blue sky peeked through. The people in the dome let out a cheering roar, and the Covey stood up in the center of the dome and began to chant. They opened a small gap where some sand came pouring through, and a group of young men and women with shovels jumped up and began to dig out the entrance. When they had made more headway, the Covey lifted the dome more, causing sand to cascade down on all sides; then the crowd began to slowly stand and stretch, and make their way from the cavern.
Quin and John followed Kate and Gilead out. Some of the tents had been knocked down, others were several feet high in sand, and still others seemed to have disappeared entirely. The people that swarmed from the cavern got to work immediately, setting up fallen tents, dragging out blankets and shaking off the sand, dumping buckets and pots and pans. The children swarmed the well, digging it out and doing something with the water.
“Well, thank you,” Quin said, turning to Kate. “We appreciate your assistance, and we will leave your village to its cleanup.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Kate answered. “I’m going too.”
“You are?” Gilead and John said in unison – although John’s statement was more in surprise, and Gilead’s more disappointment.
“The Seventh told me to stick with you if I really wanted to find my brother,” she replied.
“When did she tell you that?” John asked.
“Don’t ask,” Gilead said. “She might have said it today or ten years ago. The woman is terrifyingly real.” He turned to Kate and picked her up in a bear hug. “I hope you find your brother, I really do. But I also hope that you hurry up and come home.”
Kate smiled and leaned up to kiss him. “I’ll miss you too,” she said.
At that, she turned and strode off rapidly towards the Door. “Coming?” she called over her shoulder.
“We’ll do our best to bring her back,” Quin reassured Gilead, shaking his hand.
“I’d appreciate it,” he replied.
Then they turned and followed Kate into the future.
He wasn’t sure if it was different this time, or if his eyes were changing in perception: the grass was a rainbow of greens – apple green, chartreuse, teal, forest, aquamarine, olive, moss, peacock, viridian, pine, lime, jade, malachite, beryl. He wasn’t sure he had words to name all of the greens springing out at him. The browns and greys were gone too, replaced by slate, silver, russet, and stone, and bronze, chestnut, cocoa, and mahogany. It was Path, but it wasn’t.
“Oh my,” John said. “When did this place get painted?”
“It’s beautiful!” Kate exclaimed. “Maybe the sun came out while we were gone.”
“You’ve never seen the sun either?” Quin asked.
“Nor the stars,” she replied. “No one on this planet has even seen the stars, so we can’t place where we are in the universe. Once the economy stabilizes, Timothy is hoping to get a flying machine to go above the clouds and figure out where we are.”
A pensive look invaded John’s delight. “No one knows where this place is,” he repeated.
“Nope,” Kate confirmed, and stepped from the bridge.
“Wait,” Quin ordered. “Be quiet.” He listened. There was the wind, the rustling grass… and the river. It was running!
“The river!” he and John exclaimed at the same time. “You can hear it now.”
“Oh, you’re right,” Kate said. “I never noticed that before.”
“Something really important is happening,” John said, “something that shouldn’t be happening with people on the planet. Although, I could be wrong, which I am usually not, but if I am right, which I usually am, we need to do some math quickly, or else we may not have much time. This may be another Briny Creek Day or Custard’s Landing or Pompeii.”
“What are you talking about?” Quin said. John’s babbling was usually difficult to understand, but this wasn’t making any sense at all.
In reply, John took off, sprinting to the house in the distance.
“I guess we’d better keep up,” Kate said, and took off after him.
Quin let them get a bit ahead, so they would all arrive at the same time, and then began to run, rapidly closing the distance between them. He passed Kate on the path, and then caught up to John as they reached the steps of the house. John was gasping for air, but didn’t pause, stumbling up the front steps of the house and banging on the door.
“What’s wrong?” Meriym asked, a concerned expression resting on her features. Her cheeks were a little pink, Quin noticed.
“Need… blackboard… chalk…” John gasped.
“Of course,” Meriym said. “Tobias has some upstairs for doing presentations for people about preventative care. Please…”
But John had pushed past her and clambered up the rope ladder to the second floor.
“Sorry,” Quin said. “He gets like that.”
“Oh, it’s fine! Is everything all right? Hello, Kate.”
“Hey, Meriym,” Kate replied, putting her bag on the floor by the door.
“Not sure,” Quin said. “But if he’s panicking for a blackboard enough to run, probably not. I better go keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn’t start writing on the walls.”
Meriym laughed, and Quin climbed up the rope ladder.
The upstairs was very simple. It was one large, square room. Beds covered half of the space, but one corner had what looked like hospital beds with curtains, and the other empty corner was filled with three large chalkboards and many chairs – a classroom of sorts. John had already found chalk and was scribbling numbers and symbols across the board with both hands. Whatever it was that had him riled, it must be important.
Quin sat in a chair and waited. There was no telling how long this could take, but he thought that the result might be important enough to wait for. It wasn’t long before Tobias came climbing up the ladder, with Kip right behind him.
“What’s going on?” Tobias asked.
“We noticed the colours changed outside,” Quin replied, “and that the red river is now running. As a result, John felt the need to do some math.”
“I see,” Tobias said. “Well, now that you mention the river, many people have had thoughts on that. One boy tried to break a piece off, and it caused an earthquake. Based on that, people think it’s one of God’s veins – it’s how he keeps an eye on new followers. Other people think it’s a wound in the planet – an old pain caused by a sin or, well, who knows.”
“A wound in the world,” John said, his back still to them and hands still writing. “If I am right, and I usually am, that is an excellent way to describe it. But it has nothing to do with God, no matter what the Life Stars believe. It has everything to do with stupidity and arrogance.”
“Are you blaming this on Grise?” Quin asked.
“Not necessarily. But I am blaming it on someone!”
“How can one person be responsible for a geological problem with a planet? That’s like saying one person is responsible for exploding Mount Vesuvius and causing the death of everyone in Pompeii.” Tobias crossed his arms and frowned.
“One person can absolutely be responsible,” John replied, “and, for your information, one person was responsible for Pompeii and he got fired and possibly put in jail. I think he’s dead now.”
“Look,” John said, still not turning around, and his hands continuing to write. “If someone is screwing with planetary science, they can kill a lot of people by making one mistake.”
All at once, his hands stopped moving, and he stepped back from the board, examining it closely.
Then he swallowed audibly and sat down on the floor with a plop.
“What is it?” Quin asked, standing up.
John turned and his wide eyes gazed up at Quin from the floor.
“Imagine for a moment,” he began, “that Grise – or someone – wanted to build a planet. To retire on, for example. A planet where all of the houses were prebuilt. A planet where anyone from anywhere could feel comfortable. A planet of his very own. And imagine that that planet is this planet. Path.”
Quin nodded slowly.
“Now imagine that people started moving onto that planet before it was completed. Before he had worked out all the kinks. Before he was sure the planet wouldn’t explode.”
“Are you saying that Grise is still working on this planet while we’re standing on it?” Quin took a step back and looked at the floor where he had been standing. He knew it hadn’t changed, but his perception of everything around him changed, and the floor, the house, the ground on which was standing became a lot less safe.
“Probably,” John replied. “It’s likely. And if so, it’s likely that he is on this planet somewhere, too. We just need to figure out where.”
“Maybe Gilead is right,” came Kate’s voice from behind them. Quin turned to see her sitting on the edge of the trapdoor. “Maybe I should just go home. This is too weird.”
A wealth of emotions began to well up in Quin. He wasn’t used to this. Damn Cadrelle for making him feel things. “If… if Grise is still working on this planet, and something goes wrong…”
“It’s like driving a car while fixing the carburetor,” John said. “It just doesn’t work.”
“But then Meriym isn’t safe. Or Kip. Or Wolf. Or Madam Barooth or Timothy or anyone that lives in that village or any of the other settlements. We need to evacuate.” Quin’s mind began to race with evacuation procedures. If there were any other Doors on the planet, they could usher them into his living room and the Committee could provide temporary accommodations until things were resolved. Or perhaps they would have send out runners to get everyone to come to the bridge – that process could take days or weeks. And who knew how long the planet would last? They needed to start now.
“The problem with that,” John interrupted his thoughts, “is the new Doors. We don’t know what kind of impact an exploding planet would have. Remember what I told you about the planet Antony was studying – it blew up and the other side of its Door blew up in a three mile radius. These Doors connect to everywhere. Every Door in the universe could be destroyed and thousands and millions of people with it. Think of how many Doors there are in Pomegranate City alone! People have them in their basements and closets and back rooms – illegally, of course, but there nonetheless. Even if we could get back, we might not have a planet to go back to!”
He looked back and forth from Tobias to Kip to Kate. “And the same goes for you too. And then Meriym would lose a second home, a child, and her life this time.”
“So what do we do?” Quin asked.
“Simple,” John replied. “We find Grise, and we solve the problem. We fix the planet.”
Four sets of unblinking eyes stared at him.
“But first we eat!” And in a moment, John’s smiled had replaced the intensity of his revelation and he was scrambling back down the ladder to the kitchen.
Tobias and Kip followed him down, and Kate had moved before John had even reached the ladder, so Quin stood alone in the upstairs of this strange little house. Fixing the planet. John made it sound like it was the easiest thing in the world, but Quin had no idea how to go about doing that, and he was forced to believe that John did. This whole thing seemed to be turning into a contest of beliefs – it was his belief in John versus the Life Stars’ belief in the gods. They believed that this place was safe, given to them as a gift. If he and John fixed it, they would probably go on living in ignorance, believing the same thing. But then again, maybe John was God’s gift to the Life Stars, too, to stabilize the gift of home.
Quin shook his head rapidly and wandered over to a window. The upstairs had four on each wall; if the outside of the house were divided into squares, then the windows would fall directly in the center of the square. This side of the house looked out towards the hedge, towards the village. The trees were crisp silhouettes against the cloudy skyline. He walked to another window. From here he looked out over the field which stretched infinitely away from the house – except, from this high up, he could see the tops of trees peeking over the edge of the field’s offing.
Turning, he headed to the next set of windows, to look over the red river and the bridge. The river was vibrant among the green; it drew the eyes so powerfully it was difficult to look away. From this distance, Quin could not see the Doors sitting side by side on the bridge, but he could see the bridge – and then he noticed something very odd. Whenever he tried to look at the other side of the river, his eyes seemed to slide right back down to the river itself. If he tried to focus beyond the bridge his mind told him that it was just more grass and trees and that the other side of the bridge was unimportant.
He stared as hard as he could, but could not figure out what he was looking at. If he looked at the bridge and then paid attention to his peripheral, all he could detect was a sort of grey haze. If he focused on the spot where the grey haze was, he imagined – but didn’t see – that there was green grass, and then his eyes dropped down to look at the river.
This time he looked up, at the clouds. His eyes followed them into the distance – the far distance, and when he looked down he could make out a faint line. When he concentrated on that line he could see that the clouds went over top of something that he couldn’t see, something that dragged his eyes right back down and convinced him that nothing was there. He frowned. What was so important that they weren’t allowed to see what was on the other side of the river? What was on the other side of the bridge?
Quin scrambled down the ladder to find Tobias, Kip, Kate, John, and Meriym sitting at the kitchen table, dishing out cooked vegetables from a bowl.
“Oh, there you are,” Meriym said, smiling. “Would you like a plate?”
“No thank you,” Quin replied. “I’m not hungry. But I do have a question.”
Everyone at the table turned to look at him curiously.
“What is on the other side of the bridge?”
Their faces turned from curious to confused.
“What do you mean?” Meriym asked. “It’s just more grass and trees, isn’t it?”
“I guess I’ve never actually been over there,” Tobias said. “It never seemed necessary. But yes, trees and more field.”
Kate and John looked at each other and shrugged.
“Is it important?” Kate asked.
“Yes,” Quin said. “Because if you look at it, and I mean really look at it, there isn’t anything there.”
At that moment, Kip began shaking his head rapidly and reaching out from himself as if he were trying to protect himself. A terrified expression covered his face, and his rapid hand gestures caused him to fall out of his chair. Meriym jumped up to help him.
“He says, ‘don’t go there, don’t go there. The bad man is there and he won’t let you go home,’” John translated.
“You mean he has been there?” Quin asked.
“It would appear so, and it would appear that he didn’t like it.”
When Kip was sitting upright in his chair again, they could see that he was crying.
“Oh honey, oh honey,” Meriym said. “Don’t worry. We won’t make you go over there, I promise. We’ll keep you safe here! It’s the festival in the village today, remember? We’ll go down there and I’ll buy you a donut, and everything will be okay.”
Kip nodded, wiping snot from his nose and taking a few gasping breaths of air.
“Can I ask you a question, Kip? Just one,” Kate said.
Kip nodded reluctantly.
“How did you get there in the first place?”
Kip signed back five quick hand symbols and then put his face down on the table covered by his arms, refusing to look at anyone any more. Meriym stroked his back.
“He says, ‘the bad man took me from my mom and dad,’” John translated.
“A kidnapped child,” Kate breathed. “If ‘the bad man’ took Kip, maybe he also took my brother and all the others! We could find them! Save them!”
“It is entirely possible,” John replied, stroking his tie. “Likely, even, given all the information we’ve found so far. And Kip was probably so traumatized by the experience that he quit speaking.”
“I wonder what the bad man did,” Kate mused.
“Hush,” Tobias chimed in, finally. “If he is suffering from psychological damage, chatting about his situation at the dinner table is not going to help fix anything! Let’s finish eating, and then you can all go find out what is on the other side of the bridge.”
John lifted his bowl and quickly shoveled the vegetables into his mouth. “Delicious,” he said. “Meriym, you are a wonderful cook.”
“I agree,” Kate added, setting her plate down, emptied. “Can we go now?”
In response, Quin reached down, picked up the backpack, and slung it over his shoulder. Kate and John stood, grabbing their things, and they strode from the house.
The bright colours of the grass and sky and river bothered Quin a great deal. As he walked through, all he could imagine was that the tendrils of grass were living, and would reach up to grab his ankles to drag him down and suffocate him. Or that the river would grow hands of blood and drown him. Or the birds in the sky would dive down from on high and peck out his eyes. He glanced up.
“Have you ever seen any of those birds perched?” John asked.
“No,” Quin replied.
“No,” Kate confirmed.
“I think the clouds and birds might be a smokescreen of sorts – a projected image so that you can’t see outside.”
“What’s outside?” Quin asked.
“Well, if the planet isn’t done, he’s probably got it stored in an inter-dimensional workshop, like the ones we use in Pomegranate City. And if that is the case, we are nowhere.”
“How long can a planet last in an inter-dimensional space?” Kate asked.
“A maximum of five years,” John said. “Then we have to put it in orbit, or it screws with the physics.”
“Why five years?” Quin asked.
John gave him an irritated look. “Do you really want me to explain it to you? I mean, the truth is, five years is a formality – could be more or less. But—”
“Wait,” Quin interrupted. “I don’t care. But today is the festival.”
“So?” John raised an eyebrow.
“A five-year celebration of the first arrival.”
Kate and John’s eyes widened.
“That… that means…” John took a deep breath. “He’s probably planning to move the planet today.”
They walked the rest of the distance to the bridge in silence, each absorbed in their own fears and worries. When they arrived, they stopped and stared at the two Doors which took up all of the space on the bridge.
“How are we supposed to get across?” Kate asked.
Quin leaned out and looked around the Door, but his eyes kept wavering, faltering, as if there wasn’t anything there, but his brain didn’t quite want to believe it. He frowned and looked around the other side: same thing.
“I don’t think I can climb around,” he said. “I’m afraid my brain would drop me in the river.”
“Not to mention that I definitely can’t climb around,” John added. “And it would hardly be fair to leave us behind!”
Kate crouched down and peered closely at the Door, tilting her head sideways. She stood slowly, staring in the pool of coloured haze, and reached out to poke her finger at it.
John drew in a breath, but she didn’t get sucked in.
“She won’t get sucked in,” Quin said in an annoyed tone.
“I know the science!” John exclaimed. “It’s all cognitive mathematics – you have to intend to go in. But that doesn’t make it any less scary in real life!”
“Oh, is that how they work?” Kate asked. “As in, you have say, ‘I want to go to Markel,’ and it drops you there?”
“More or less,” John confirmed.
“Well, why don’t we just walk across the bridge then?”
“Huh?” John’s face twisted into a confused frown.
“I mean, just tell the Gate we want to go to the other side of the bridge.”
The look on John’s face blossomed into one of pure amazement. “I… I… you’re… incredible, is what you are!” He began to bounce up and down excitedly.
“That assumes there is a Door on the other side of the bridge,” Quin interjected. “What if there isn’t?”
“There is! There is!” John was practically giddy. “Think about it! All of the clues we’ve found point us to the person responsible being your father. And he’s gone to a lot of effort to make the other side of the bridge imperceptible to anyone looking. But he still needs to be able to come and go, doesn’t he? And what better place to set up operation than on his own planet? No one will find him there! That’s got to be the answer. It’s exactly what I would do!”
“Great,” Quin said wryly. “Are you implying that you’re going to turn into my father?”
John chucked. “Not for a few hundred years at any rate. Who knows what I’ll do when I get bored? Can we go now? You first.”
Taking a deep breath, Quin adjusted the backpack, and then slowly and deliberately stepped through the Door.
They stood on the bridge, looking at vibrantly green grass and a silver-pebbled path leading up the hill. Grey clouds covered the sky, and black birds drifted on the air currents and cawed. On this side of the bridge, there was no square house, only the path leading up and over the rise. Had the house been there, it would have been a mirror image of the place from which they had just come.
“It looks the same,” Kate said.
“What do we do?” John asked.
“Follow the path,” Quin replied, striding forward. He felt tense, ready to spring at any surprise or intrusion. He sensed that while this side of the bridge might not reveal his father, it would at least give them enough information to find him.
The next fifteen minutes or so felt no different than walking to and past Meriym’s house. Hard lines separated the path and the grass; vivid greens blazed in the fields around them. It was cool, but not cold, and a light breeze brushed by every so often. But as they began to crest the hill, things changed. In front of them was not the colourful village with the pleasant village people. There were no spherical lights placed equidistant along the path, and most of all, it was not calm, quiet, and peaceful.
The first thing he noticed as they reached the top of the hill was sound. He could hear laughing and talking, machines and roaring and wind. When he looked down, he could see these things too: a bustling city built of tall red brick buildings rising up on all sides, flashing florescent lights, people of various descents scurrying to and fro. In his immediate vicinity he saw Humans, Bandians, Second Galaxy Police, Madrians, and members of the Militant Army moving rapidly, heads down against the wind which swept their hats into the street and wrapped cloaks around their ankles.
But for the moment, no one saw them. It was as if they were invisible.
“Look,” John said, pointing down. In front of them was a dark line, laid perpendicular to the path, and stretching as far as they could see in both directions.
“It must be the wall that prevents us from seeing across the river,” Kate said.
“Yes,” John replied. “He’s used it to protect the Door.”
“How do we get through it?” Quin asked.
“Walk through, I imagine, and then blend in with the crowd as quickly as possible.” John stepped over the line. Nothing changed, so Quin and Kate followed him through.
The wall caused a strange tingling sensation, Quin noted, but it didn’t hurt. He wondered briefly what technology Grise had used to build it.
Moving rapidly forward, the three continued into the town. It appeared that the population here seemed to be largely made up of youths and young adults. Occasionally they saw an adult, but they seemed to be much fewer than younger individuals. Groups of teenagers swarmed the streets, laughing and talking.
“It’s like a college town,” John whispered to Quin, “where they stick all the young people in one place and hope they learn stuff.”
“Where are we going, though?” Kate asked. “Do we even know what we’re looking for?”
“Let’s just walk around first,” Quin replied. “See if anything stands out.”
The farther they walked into town, the more congested the streets became. The buildings, crammed together, appeared to contain several stories. On the first floor were cafés and eateries; the second floor seemed to house clothing and goods stores; and the third, fourth, and fifth floors looked to be housing. Here and there a building was closed off and labeled “Labs.”
“I wonder if their ‘labs’ are the same as ours,” John mused. “If so, it would appear that there are community science buildings – which is awesome.”
Quin noticed that Kate seemed distracted. She peered closely at every face that walked by, her own becoming more and more concerned.
The next impressive building they came upon was a library. It stood several stories higher than the other buildings, and was decorated with elaborate gilded columns, carvings of wood and of stone, and a detailed imbricated roof. John allowed himself to be jostled close to the building and then tripped – purposefully.
“That wasn’t very subtle,” Quin muttered, grabbing the back of John’s shirt and hauling him to his feet.
“These buildings seem to have been grown,” John replied, shaking free of Quin’s grip. He brushed off his shirt and scowled. “On the other hand, these buildings are far more elaborate and elegant than the ones on the other side.”
“Also more thought out,” Quin added.
“Maybe the buildings on the other side were just practice ones,” John continued, rubbing his chin with his fingers.
“We should split up,” Kate said suddenly.
“No,” John and Quin said simultaneously.
“Too dangerous,” Quin added. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
“Well, you two can stay together, then,” Kate said. “But I have to go look for my brother. Bye.”
Quin reached out to grab her, but he was too late, and she ducked into the crowd surrounding them and ran off.
“Go after her!” John exclaimed.
“Can’t.” Quin shrugged. “You and I need to stick together if we’re going to be able to deal with Grise – assuming he’s here, that is. Kate can take care of herself.”
“Fine,” John replied, and took off into the crowd in the direction they had been heading.
They walked for about ten more minutes, carefully avoiding being trodden upon by the masses, and looked everywhere for any signs or clues of what this town was about.
“We need to stop and ask,” Quin stated with finality. “We can just pick a café and say we’re new here or something.”
“No!” John exclaimed. “We can do this without help. And if we need it, we should go to the library.”
“We’ve been here a while,” Quin argued. “Rather than stumbling about aimlessly, we need to get information.”
They rounded a corner and stopped, surprised expressions crossing both of their faces.
“There’s our information,” John observed, pointing at the massive building in front of them.
A huge set of stairs let up to a colonnade, featuring a row of twenty-foot tall ionic columns. The roof peaked high into the sky, several stories higher than any of the surrounding buildings. It was more elaborate and beautiful than the library by far; the roof itself was gilded, and each carving featured a young face. Elegant designs of curled leaves and flowers were painted exquisitely on the enormous wooden doors, and young people streamed in and out sometimes sitting on the front steps with books open on their laps.
Quin’s mouth dropped open. “It’s… it’s…”
“What is it?” John asked.
“My mother…” Quin was having trouble speaking. “…she was… an… an architect.”
“I remember,” John said. “But didn’t she die? A long time ago?”
“Yes,” Quin replied, emotions roiling in his chest. “But… but… this was her last design. She was working on it for the school of Magna Tel, over by the Great Ocean.”
“Really?” John asked. “I never knew that. That was a big project – Steven D’Arlen finished it. And it doesn’t look anything like this.”
“She never finished the design,” Quin said, still at a loss. “She died too soon.”
“Well,” John replied, reaching out to put a comforting hand on Quin’s shoulder. “I think that settles any doubts we might have had. Grise made this place, for sure.”
Quin nodded and a scowl draped over his features. This building was a magnificent tribute to his mother; that he couldn’t deny. But Grise had done it in a way that endangered civilizations all over the universe! Not only that, but how could Grise do something like this and never even bother to mention it? Selfish old bastard, Quin thought to himself. Never gave the time of day for Quin after his mother died. Sure, he paid the bills. Sure, he made it possible for Quin to get an education. But beyond that? Nothing. Quin’s childhood was one of near abandonment. And then Grise went and did this.
Swallowing, Quin made a decision. “We’re going in.”
“Wait, wait!” John exclaimed.
“I need to change my shirt.”
Quin’s scowl deepened.
“I’m serious!” John exclaimed. “And you should, too. We look like we haven’t bathed in days, and while that may be a fact, we don’t have to go around advertising it – especially in a place like that. You wouldn’t want to disrespect your mother. Over there is a spot.” He pointed to an alley over to their left between two buildings. “It will take us two minutes, and then we’ll look like we’re supposed to be there, and not bums that wandered in by accident.”
It made sense, from a strategic standpoint, but Quin also knew that part of it was just John itching to change his clothes.
“Fine,” he said, striding rapidly towards the alleyway. “Two minutes.”
When they emerged two minutes later, Quin had to admit he felt better. The clean clothes were a confidence booster, and ensured that he didn’t have to worry about people thinking he looked out of place. John clearly felt better as well, as a new smile was blossoming over his face. The second tie that he brought with him was his planets tie: starting at the knot, planets of various sizes got bigger and bigger as the tie got wider. This was one of John’s favourites – but then again, every single one of John’s ties was one of his favourites.
Shouldering the backpack, Quin led John up the steps. Students rushed past them in all directions, laughing, chatting, and some even reading. Quin was beginning to feel a little conspicuous, purely because of his age.
“These kids look cheerful,” John commented as they neared the colonnade. “If they’re the stolen ones, they at least appear to be happy about it.”
Quin didn’t comment, only nodded.
The colonnade was quite wide, and the floor molded from some type of marble. Statues of children with books, test tubes, and other educational equipment were placed evenly across the outside wall of the building.
“Well, those are creepy,” John muttered, glaring at one. “They’re about twice the size of an actual child, and is that one holding… a gun?”
Turning his head slightly, Quin glanced at the statue. It was, in fact, holding a gun.
“That is not usually a scientific instrument!” John exclaimed, “at least not for children!” He shook his head and crossed his arms. “If your father had anything to do with this, I’m having a word with him!”
They strode forward towards the large front doors, which were propped open by rocks. Most of the youths seemed to be going in through one of the doors and out through another, so they followed suit.
As soon as Quin stepped through the door, an alarm began to sound. Red lights flashed and Quin altered his stance to ‘ready.’ The kids around them looked around and whispered to each other, quickening their pace away from the building. They seemed to be afraid, as if this had never happened before.
“Not a fire drill,” John muttered, shifting his shoulder bag.
Then, armed guards filed into the hallway and marched towards John and Quin. The remaining kids fled, carefully staying out from under the feet of the guards. The lead guard stopped right in front of Quin.
“Quin Black,” it said in a monotone voice, “your presence is required in the control room.”
“Says who?” Quin asked angrily. He hated being singled out.
“Our orders come from Grise Black.” The guard pointed his gun at Quin. “You will follow. Please place your hands on your head.”
Quin’s eyes rapidly took in the scene around him. There seemed to be about twenty visible guards, although there was no telling how many waited in hallways, hidden alcoves, and rooms. Behind him was clear, but if he turned and ran, they could simply shoot him in the back – unless Grise had told them to take him alive. He thought about that for a second – he didn’t know if Grise would do that or not. Other options: he could pull out his pistol, but then they would all start shooting and he would be dead. If he used John as a shield, he could probably get away, but then John would be dead and that would hardly be fair. If any of the kids were nearby, he could use one of them as a hostage… but no, they had all fled. Finally, Quin simply took a deep breath, and placed his hands on his head. John copied him.
“This way,” the guard intoned.
The other guards took up positions around them, with guns aimed in their direction. Quin hoped they were well-trained enough not to accidentally pull the trigger. He wasn’t sure he trusted Grise to ensure that his men had received the appropriate training.
The inside of the building was lovely – polished marble everywhere, grand sweeping staircases leading into the upper floors of the building, carvings and decorations on every flat surface. As they walked, John muttered about historical and anatomical inaccuracies of the statues while the footsteps of the guards echoed in the halls around them.
Rounding a sharp corner, the guards in front of them moved out of the way, revealing another large door. This one was painted a simple black, and bore no carvings or designs of any sort. It opened automatically from the inside, and the guard behind them nudged Quin in the back with his gun.
They stepped forward.
“I see you made it,” Grise said. He looked older, with far more wrinkles than Quin remembered. His hair made a silver halo around a growing bald spot in the center of his head, and he sat at a large desk, elbows planted firmly on its surface and fingers laced. A young man stood directly behind Grise, his hands clasped behind his back. He looked vaguely familiar, but Quin focused his attention on his father.
“You were expecting us,” he stated, not particularly surprised. It was all a game to Grise. A scowl crossed his features and stayed there, with no intention of leaving.
“Of course!” Grise smiled. “I left you directions, after all.”
“Oh, the book!” John exclaimed. “I forgot about it!” He began to rummage around in his shoulder bag, finally pulling out A Dialogue of Worlds. “Here’s the thing though: it’s not helpful when you leave your messages in made-up languages.”
“You didn’t figure out the code? Do you mean to say you found me without the book?” Grise’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “You are smarter than I had anticipated, son.”
Quin’s scowl deepened. Typical. His father had never been able to understand that ‘not book smart’ and ‘stupid’ weren’t the same thing. “What do you want?” he demanded.
“You, of course.” Grise stood slowly and began to pace back and forth in front of the desk. The young man behind him stayed put, hands still clasped behind his back. His face maintained the same expression, but his eyes darted about nervously.
“You are, in fact, my only heir,” Grise continued. “I have created a wonderful world, and I wanted someone to share it with. Logic, of course, dictates you. But, should you refuse, I have many other wonderful young people to choose from.”
“Ahem,” John said, raising a finger. “I only have one problem with your previous statement.”
Grise turned his eyes towards John with a look of mild amusement. “And what is that, John?”
“You said that you’ve created a wonderful world, but the thing is… well, I noticed a few malfunctions.”
Grise’s eyes darkened. The younger man that stood next to Grise stiffened as his face grew a concerned expression, and his eyes fixed on John.
“For starters – that river has serious problems, largely that it’s virtual and not related to any known geological formations… which means, essentially, there’s a hole in your science which you’re trying to hide. Also the colours changing, the birds never landing, and the buildings being grown from the ground up, not to mention the very odd clouds… this planet is still in an inter-dimensional space, and if you try to move it with all of these people on it, you risk killing them all!”
Slowly, Grise walked towards John and looked him in the eye. “Young man, I have been building planets for over five centuries – far longer than you have been alive. I think I know what is safe and what is not.” He turned to look at Quin. “Now, if you’ll all come with me – you too, Landon.” He gestured to the young man. “I have one more thing I wish to show you all before Quin beats up my guards and runs off. Again.”
A small smile crossed Quin’s lips as he remembered the last time his father had spoken with him. Grise had hired four bodyguards, and all had been standing close by, a precaution he had taken when telling Quin of the truth behind his mother’s death.
As a child, Quin had been told that she had gotten sick, but in reality, she had been a victim in a home intrusion and shooting. Grise had proceeded to explain that an angry politician had hired some thugs to break into their house and steal Grise’s research in order to sell the secrets of planet-building and Doors on the black market.
This detail had simply been the final lie on a steaming pile made of decades of untruths. It had been a lifetime of secrecy and disappointment. Quin couldn’t take any more of it, especially not from the one person who was supposed to care about him the most.
As soon as the story had left Grise’s lips, Quin had calmly strode forward, knocked out the first guard with one blow of his massive fist, tripped the second guard, flipped the third over his head and down on top of the second and then elbowed the fourth in the solar plexus and incapacitated him with a sharp blow to the back of the neck. Then he had turned his back on Grise, and walked out.
They hadn’t spoken since.
Behind the desk was a large blank piece of wall, with no paintings, carvings, or any sort of decoration – similar to the door to his office.
“You may recognize this technique,” Grise said calmly as he walked forward and disappeared through the wall.
Quin and John glanced at one another – the Door in Oliphant’s bookstore was hidden in the same manner: in plain sight. Then the young man, named Landon apparently, also vanished as he quickly followed Grise.
“Move!” the soldiers commanded, and Quin strode quickly forward and stepped through the Door.
It was excruciatingly green, the kind of green that makes you want to squint with its brightness, its vividness, its greenness. So Quin squinted, and as he gazed at the sight in front of him, other colours began to appear – some browns, some greys, little black hovering dots, and one vibrantly red stripe that carved down the middle of everything. The entire planet floated before him, in a bubble of grey – it appeared that the so-called ‘clouds’ which they had looked at from the surface of the planet were, in fact, the walls of the inter-dimensional space in which the planet floated.
The room that they stood in was a planetary-development control room. It was different than the ones they used at the Globe; those were crisp and clean, the very definition of modern technology, but this one seemed to have been cobbled together from used and broken parts. Wires were visible everywhere, and keys had broken off the keyboards. Motherboards for the computers were visible, not safely hidden inside of their casings.
“A bootlegged control room,” John noted coolly, a thin smile crossing his lips. “I would have thought you could have done better than this, Dad.”
“It wasn’t necessary,” Grise replied, ignoring John’s pompous tone. “I wasn’t planning on having many visitors.”
Quin glanced behind him. The guards hadn’t followed them through. Landon stood awkwardly next to a computer, looking back and forth nervously from John to Grise.
“Take a good look, Quin,” Grise continued, “because this is your inheritance. All the money your mother left, all the money I earned from my inventions, all the money I’ve put aside for you over the years I poured into this wonderful, beautiful—”
“Horrifically stupid idea that’s about to blow up in your face and several thousand million other people’s faces!” John interrupted harshly. “How could you do this? I mean, you’ve clearly been working on this for years, for a long time! But it only took me a few days of wandering around aimlessly to figure out what a mess you’ve gotten yourself into! If you don’t get this thing into orbit, Dad, it’s going to tear itself apart at the seams. And the polylocus Doors! What on earth possessed you to invent those?”
Quin watched as John’s face got redder and redder and his voice louder and louder.
“You know what happened to Antony’s planet – I know you do! It’s not like you haven’t been around the block a few hundred times or so! So what do you think will happen with these new Doors? We can’t possibly develop risk management scenarios for every single Door in the universe! It’s impossible! You know what, Dad, you’re insane, completely and utterly insane,” John gripped his hair with his fingers, “but for some reason, I think I’m going to end up saving your sorry ass, and then you know what? You know what? You’ll get away with it. Because that’s what you do. Get away with things. Yeah.”
John’s voice petered out slightly as he gazed at the planet below. “And… and, just tell me – exactly how much time do we have?” A sudden quaver appeared in his voice.
Grise took a deep breath. “Well, you’ve come just in time. I’d estimate approximately two hours.”
John fell over – quite literally fainted.
Quin didn’t move, but stared angrily at his father. Out of his peripheral, he noted that Landon took a nervous step backwards.
“Why?” Quin asked harshly. “Why did you leave us messages, hoping that we would come and find you, while risking the lives of millions of people, assuming that we would make it here in time and be able to fix your bloody idiotic mistakes? Why didn’t you just ask?”
A sad look crossed Grise’s face. “I didn’t think you would come,” he said. He turned to gaze at the planet below them. “I thought you would be too angry. About your mother. About me. About you.”
Anger was the tip of the iceberg of Quin’s feelings. He was angry, yes – furious, in fact. He was also sad, disappointed, and violently, crushingly afraid, in a way he had never, ever experienced. He clenched his fists and began to take slow, deep breaths. This issue was no longer about him and his father. It didn’t matter what he thought or how he felt. All that mattered was that they solve this problem and spare the lives of millions of people from his father’s arrogant idiocy. And it appeared that the responsibility for this this nightmare now lay at the feet of him and his unconscious genius friend.
“I am angry,” Quin stated. “At you.”
He bent down and began to slap John’s cheeks gently. John groaned and his eyelids fluttered.
“Wake up.” Grabbing John’s shoulders, Quin shook him.
“Don’t want to,” John muttered. Then, all of a sudden, he sat straight up and began talking. He didn’t seem to be any worse for wear. “Less than two hours. Damn. Dad, you’re an idiot. I need paper, chalkboard, something. Tell me your whole process. Where are your numbers? I need everything and I need it as fast as you can possibly give it to me. Actually, that’s not true. I already figured out your base structural components – or something close to them – back at Meriym’s house. Did you build a moon? What star system are we going to? I need your Faucet Numbers and the linear equations you used to graph the geographic infinity codes. And you better hurry before I run out and hop on a plane into the middle of a desert somewhere!”
Grise didn’t say anything, but simply gestured to Landon. The young man stepped forward timidly and handed John a book.
“It’s all in here?” John asked. “How convenient.” He flipped it open and scowled. “Grise Franklin Black. This is in CODE. How the hell am I supposed to fix all of your problems and figure out how to read your bloody code in less than two hours?” He turned and angry stare towards the old man.
“Oh, Landon will help you. That’s why he’s here,” Grise said nonchalantly.
John turned to look at the boy standing over him. “You can read this?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy replied.
John took a deep breath and handed the book back. “Fine, since we have no other choice. You hang onto this and stay close.” He pulled himself up off the floor and turned back to Grise. “Okay, now where are the controls and how are you manipulating the switches? Also, Quin?”
“Sorry, but we’re going to have to get down to the surface as soon as it’s programmed. Not sure where though.”
“Temple, in the village past Meriym’s,” Grise answered. “I tried to make it easy.” He then turned to a series of computers against the far wall and began to pull up some programs. After a moment, John took over, his fingers flashing on the keyboards and his tongue hanging out one side of his mouth. Landon stayed close, peering over John’s shoulder, eyes riveted on the screens. Grise watched for a moment, eyebrows raised, and then stepped back to stand by Quin.
“He’s good,” Grise said. “Better than I ever was.”
Quin didn’t respond.
They stood in awkward silence for a few more minutes while John worked.
“Don’t supposed you would want to come by for the Tree Festival this year? Thought we could look at some lights and then have dinner.”
Quin still didn’t respond.
After a few more minutes of awkward silence, Grise said, “well, I guess I’ll see if John needs help then,” and he stepped away from Quin.
It was getting harder, Quin noticed, to shove down his feelings. Cadrelle, he was sure, had broken some sort of dam inside his head. This mission would be impossible if he kept getting distracted by things – like how his mother smelled, or the time she let him make s’mores in the gas fireplace in their living room, or the way Meriym smelled… See? he said to himself. You’re just getting distracted. Focus. Another little voice in the back of his head pushed its way forward.
You know, it said, there’s another way to make feelings less bothersome.
What’s that? Quin thought.
Address them, the little voice said insolently, and then disappeared.
Quin scowled at his brain. Yes, that could work, of course, but he wasn’t sure now was the time. The planet could explode at any second, and kill, at minimum, thousands of people, and at worst, millions or billions. This was not time to be giving himself a psychiatric evaluation. He decided to distract himself.
“Grise,” he said with a steady voice.
Grise turned around hopefully.
“Why so many youth?” He gestured towards Landon who was still gazing with rapt attention over John’s shoulder.
“Oh yes,” John called from the depths of his work. “I’d like to know that too!”
“I thought perhaps one of them would be brilliant enough to save the planet,” Grise replied calmly. “I invited thousands of young men and women from all planets to come and join my school, where I would teach them and train them to be the best and the brightest. In exchange, they would gain valuable life skills that they could take back to their homes with them – once they finished their education, of course. Landon here is, of course, the brightest, and so became my assistant.”
“What planets?” Quin asked.
“Great Forest on the Bay, of course,” Grise said. “And Torialles, Mara, Cadrelle…”
Scowling, Quin noted that all of the planets he had named so far had been involved in the Great War.
“Needhar, Closian, New Song of Four Moons…”
“Stop.” Quin shook his head, feeling suspicious. “When were you planning on letting the children go home?”
“When they finished their schooling, of course,” Grise said, acting confused as to the line of questioning.
“Did you come across any other particularly promising students? Besides Landon?” John interrupted. He didn’t seem to be suspicious of Grise’s story at all.
“There was one young boy,” Grise mused, “but he was young, probably too young to be of use. And he ran away. He didn’t seem to like it here.”
“Where was he from?” Quin asked.
“What was his name?”
At this, John turned to look at Grise with extreme curiosity written all over his face.
“Why, if I remember correctly, I believe it was Kip.”
There it was again – the anger. It was roiling and boiling inside of him, a raging power that threatened to overwhelm his good sense and behavioral control. If he couldn’t control his behavior, he didn’t deserve to be respected by even the lowliest of the low. He took a deep breath. If the emotions couldn’t be hidden and contained, than the little voice was right – they had to be addressed.
“Grise,” Quin said softly. “I think that you are a sorry excuse for a person. Your values and morals are twisted and misguided. You consistently step on the heads and faces of other people just to advance your own goals – and those people include myself and my mother.” His voice slowly got louder and more confident. “You never cared for anyone but yourself, and at the point at which I needed you most, when Mom died, you decided that your new girlfriend, your job, and your alcohol were more important than me.” Quin took a deep breath and realized that some of his tension was easing.
He continued. “And this… this scheme that you’ve somehow pieced together is the lowest you have ever come. It is a despicable example of how inconsiderate, selfish, and arrogant you have become. That you would steal children from a war zone and force them to be educated in your school. That you would open up gates to worlds that others didn’t know existed in exchange for information; that you would sell the secrets of Door technology so that immature cultures could rape and maim other cultures in their quest for power and money. I find you detestable. You gave me life, food, and a place to live, but you are not and never will be a father to me.”
All of the colour had drained from Grise’s face.
“If I didn’t need you,” he hissed. “I would have you killed instantly. You think you can speak to me that way? I am your father, whether you admit it or not, and I demand that you respect me. You don’t know as much as you think you do. You have no idea what I’ve done or why I’ve done it, and I have done nothing that shouldn’t have been done years ago. You are the one who is inconsiderate, selfish, and arrogant, and you are still young and stupid to boot! You far less intelligent than I ever was, and you have absolutely no right to judge me. Whether you believe it or not, I always loved your mother.”
This was it, Quin realized. This was the conversation they had never had after mom had died – the one where Quin had said, “I need you, Dad,” and the one where his dad had said, “I need you, too.” But that conversation had never happened, and so instead, they were having this one, in which Quin said, “How could you, Dad?” and Grise said, “How could I not?” Quin also realized that he was disappointed. Up until this point he had harbored hope that his father’s intentions had been good, clean, and honest. That he had really wanted to share knowledge, and that he had wanted to save lost children. But the more angles that Quin saw it from, the more people he saw hurt – parents looking for their lost children; Kate desperately searching for her brother; Meriym thrown from her home as her family and friends were killed; Kip psychologically abused at Grise’s hands; the people in the village and in this city of knowledge unaware of the imminent doom which awaited them in less than two hours.
There was no other way to put it: his father was selfish, greedy, and a malignant sore on the face of intelligent life. He wondered if Grise deserved to die.
After several more deep breaths, Quin managed to calm his wildly erratic emotions. Grise was still staring at him with anger and frustration, waiting for Quin’s reply. Instead, Quin turned to John.
“When will it be ready?” he asked calmly. In his peripheral, he saw Grise’s face reddening, and the vein in his neck beginning to throb.
John was not working any more, but gazing wide-eyed at Quin and his father. Beside him, Landon’s eyes were also wide, and he looked terrified and more than a little confused. He looked like a mouse caught between two tigers, unsure of whether to sit perfectly still or to run as fast as he could.
“Oh, uh… two minutes, give me two minutes.” John turned back to the computers, and his fingers began to fly once more.
Quin stood calmly, waiting. He felt relieved that he had admitted his feelings towards his father, but he felt uncomfortable – he had been blatantly disrespectful, and although he believed all of the things he had said, he wasn’t sure that he should have said them. Despite this, the important thing was not his relationship with Grise. The important thing was fixing the planet. The important thing was preventing the death of millions.
“Ready,” John said, interrupting Quin’s thoughts. He stood and held out a small black box. “This needs to be plugged into the central input to the planet’s data core. After it is plugged in, it will need to be configured with the correct mathematical formulae, allowing the planet, the inter-dimensional space around us, and the computers to correctly align the position of the planet in orbit around the sun. You probably didn’t notice, but it is already spinning,” John gestured towards the planet below them, “but it will jerk when it drops into orbit. That plus the movement through the Door – which is how it gets placed into its solar system – will cause earthquakes and other natural disasters.” He turned to Grise. “You are responsible for ensuring that the people in the city are secure – Quin, I want you to raise the alert when you get to town, so that Meriym and all the other people get to their safe house. Of course, there is no guarantee that they’ll survive, but it’s better than nothing.”
Quin nodded, feeling his muscles tighten. It sounded like he was in for a jog.
“The central input to the planet’s data core is in the temple in the middle of the village. Dad?”
Gritting his teeth, Grise looked at Quin. “Walk down the center aisle to the dais. In the center of the dais is a table. Beneath the table is a lock. The key code is 11256731. Landon, you go with him. You know where it is.”
Landon nodded silently.
Quin frowned at the sequence of numbers. “Mom’s birthday,” he muttered.
“Correct. When you have entered the key code, a small arm will slide out, at the end of which you will see a jack that aligns with the jack on that black box. Hook them together. Then John will have to configure the box.”
John nodded at the book that Landon held.
“Take that with you, too, and Landon, be ready to start reading as soon as I get there. I have to build the switch box and set it up on this end before I can meet you there. I want everything to be ready when I get there. Can you handle that?”
Raising one eyebrow, Quin simply nodded.
“Yeah, yeah,” John muttered. “Don’t look at me like that. Just get going! You too, Dad– get the people in the city into safer places.”
Without a word, Grise turned and stepped through the Door.
“Are you sure this will work?” Quin asked.
“No,” John said shortly. “But let me tell you, if it does, I am going to personally murder your father.”
“I’ll help,” Quin replied, tucking the black box under his arm. He gestured to Landon, and then followed the young man through the Door.
As soon as Quin’s foot hit the wooden bridge, he began to run, barely noticing the strange and brilliant hues of grey and brown and green that surrounded him. The rushing wind blocked out most other sounds, and he focused on each lungful of air he breathed in and out. The birds flew high over his head, and the river still gurgled and bubbled, but his mind was on reaching Meriym and making sure she was safe, and then healing the broken planet on which he stood.
Behind him, Landon did not even try to keep up; he just jogged in Quin’s wake, the distance between them rapidly widening. Quin had no concern for him. He would catch up eventually.
The house stood comfortably on the hill, and Quin reached it as fast as he could. He banged with his fist on the door, but no one answered. Probably they were all down at the festival, as they had talked about earlier in the day. He hoped everyone had gone to town, because it would be easier to ensure their safety that way… or would it?
He left the house and began to sprint towards the colourful town, past the green blades of grass, past the hedge that lined the hill, past the cheerfully coloured houses and the spherical balls of light. The village seemed to be oddly quiet for a festival, although as he reached the main part of town and began to slow down, he noticed that the lamp posts and store fronts were decorated with green and silver streamers. There were even a few balloons here and there. But there were no people.
Swallowing nervously, Quin made his way towards the temple. His fear and déjà vu had tripled, and he began to sense that something was wrong, but he knew that fixing the planet was the only way he would be able to find out what the problem was. Without a planet, there would also be no him, no Meriym, no problems at all. When those were his options, he preferred the problems.
He slowed, sweat dripping from his bald head, and strode forward silently. The temple was a tall stone building with smooth walls that had grown from the ground just like the other buildings. It had a tower rising from the center with a bell in it, and compared to the other buildings, this one was far more intricate in terms of architecture and design. This was not, however, a good time for dwelling on beauty. The doors creaked open slowly, and inside the church he saw hundreds of people sitting quietly, staring at the stage. As he stepped inside, each and every face turned to look at him.
“Finally,” a woman’s voice proclaimed. “You have decided to make an appearance.”
The first thing he noticed standing on the dais was a bear – seven feet tall standing on its hind legs and easily eight-hundred pounds. Beside the bear stood a tall, regal woman in a long elegant gown – the one who had spoken. On her other side, Quin recognized Isabel and her panther, Betsy, who stood growling at Quin.
“What are you doing here?” Quin asked.
“I have come for you,” the woman with the bear said.
“This is Althea,” Isabel said. “My mother.”
Quin was confused about a few things. For instance, why had they come here? Why were they waiting for him? And how was he going to get past them to complete his objective? He decided to take the most direct route.
“The planet is about to explode, and I don’t have time for this,” he exclaimed, stepping forward.
The bear and the panther both growled deep in their throats, and Quin halted abruptly. He definitely wouldn’t be able to solve the problem if he was dead.
“I’m sorry,” Althea said, stepping off the dais and moving up the aisle towards him. “But you owe me a fight.”
“A fight?” Quin asked. “Isabel gave us permission to leave.”
“But you didn’t take it. You took the fight.” A small smile slithered across her lips and a gleam of excitement shone in her eyes. “That means you fight.”
“How did you know I would be here?” Quin asked. He stared at her high cheekbones and glittering eyes – this was the face of a madwoman.
She laughed and the sound bounced off of the high ceilings and walls. “Oh, my dear boy – you don’t think we didn’t know who you were the second you stepped into our kingdom, did you? You are Grise’s son, and he told me you would be here.”
“He told you.” Quin was growing concerned. He wasn’t sure he could fight a bear and a panther, and still get the black box plugged into the data core in time for the crisis. What had Grise been thinking? Blast the old man.
“Yessss,” she purred. “Of course, he told me to wait until this afternoon, but who am I to take orders from a little old man?” She laughed again.
Quin had thought that this building would be the safest for the people of the city, but now it appeared to be the most dangerous.
“How about we let all of these nice people go finish their festival in the armory,” he suggested. “And then I’ll—”
“No!” A sneer wiped all other expressions from Althea’s features. “These people are my hostages! I will do as I please with them, until you agree to fight.” She snapped her fingers and her bear lumbered down from the dais and, in a very human-like manner, grabbed a small child from the audience. Quin swallowed. It was Kip.
“Let him go,” Quin hissed.
“Agree to fight or I will begin chopping off fingers.”
Kip was crying now, fighting against the bear, and Quin could see Meriym in the front row, reaching out her arms to Kip and encouraging him to be silent. As his eyes scanned the room, he could see expressions of fear, hope, and confusion on the faces of the villagers. He picked out Tobias, Madam Barooth, Timothy, and the man with the horns from the crowd. He turned his attention back to Althea.
“Why?” Quin pushed. “Just tell me why.”
Althea’s eyes narrowed as she leaned towards him. “Insolence is not tolerated! I need not explain myself to anyone, let alone those that were created for my entertainment. You agreed to fight and I demand that you fight! My prey will not get away from me that easily!”
Quin was astonished by the vehemence in her voice, and again thought, just for a moment, that she might be crazy. His mind began to process the scene around him rapidly. There were too many people – he had to get them out, or at least take the fight away from them. He also had to get the black box to the stage and Kip away from the bear.
At that moment, the temple doors flew open and slammed closed behind a small figure.
“Well, if it isn’t my little terrier,” Althea breathed, grinning. “I am so glad she will get to witness this wonderful occasion.”
“Quin,” Kate yelled. She was gasping for air, as if she had just run a long way. “Don’t…”
The temple door opened again, cutting her short. Landon strolled through. He frowned and looked around at all the people.
“On the dais,” Quin stated, hoping Landon would understand; then, shifting his attention back to Althea, he said: “I will fight.”
Twisting her hands in glee, Althea grinned. “In front of a crowd, in front of my terrier, and in front of Grise’s best man – this is better than I could have dreamed.”
“What happens if I win?” Quin asked.
He could hear Kate yelling, “Quin, don’t fight!” but he ignored her.
Althea’s laugh bounced off the walls and ceiling, and this time Isabel’s cheese-grater-on-cement laugh joined in.
“Win,” Althea repeated, breaking into peals of laughter. “This has never happened. Now, forward!” She pointed towards the front of the temple. Quin set the black box on the ground and looked back at Landon. The young man swallowed and nodded.
Quin stepped towards the dais.
The table Grise had spoken of was indeed in the center of the room. If Landon was brave enough, he could plug the black box into the dais while Quin distracted the bear and the crazy queen of Great Forest on the Bay. Also in the front of the room were several large stone chairs, a chandelier which hung low from the high ceiling, and several implements which he imagined were for some sort of incomprehensible ritual. In front of the dais were five more chairs with lower backs, and in them sat frightened-looking priestesses. One of them looked familiar. Quin squinted and then realized – the women from Pomegranate City that had commented on the rainbow – they were the leaders of the Life Stars and they were here.
Grise’s conspiracy had deeply rooted itself in his own culture at home on Sagitta. A rush of anger surged, but he pushed it down and turned his attention to the eight-foot-tall bear.
“Let go of the boy!” Quin commanded striding forward.
The bear listened this time, and swatted Kip back into the arms of Meriym.
Meriym gasped, and reached out to grab Kip as his small body collided with hers. She tumbled to the floor, holding him in a tight embrace and looking back towards Quin with a terrified expression on her face.
He jumped up onto the dais and moved forward until he was face to face with the bear. Isabel and Betsy stood off to one side, but Quin had no doubts that they would move in to finish him off if Quin managed to beat the bear.
For thirty interminable seconds, Quin stood nose to nose with the bear. It snuffled and snorted like an animal, but Quin could see a deep intelligence lying behind its eyes. It knew what was happening and it was hungry for blood, yet still wanted to please its master. The poor animal. Quin turned and looked at the audience, keeping his attention focused on his peripheral, on the bear.
“Let them all leave,” he requested again.
“No!” Althea screamed.
“If you don’t, I will lie down and let your bear kill me without fighting.” Quin hoped that she was insane enough to want the fight more than the kill – that she wanted the terror, the fear, and the adrenaline too.
He could see her face turning red and her hands clenching into fists. She was angry and Quin was making her angrier. Then, a door on the side of the room opened, and William Oliphant walked out.
“Where have you been?” Althea demanded. Quin began searching for an opening while her attention was focused on the rotund bookseller.
“Doing what you told me,” he muttered.
“We have him,” she said, gesturing violently towards the stage. “He’s negotiating to let our prisoners leave.”
As Oliphant leaned forward and whispered something in her ear, Quin noticed Landon slipping up the side of the room towards the dais, black box in hand. Kate was right behind him with a very strange expression on her face.
His attention snapped back to the Queen as a sneering smile bled across her lips.
“Isabel,” she commanded, pointing at Meriym. Isabel nodded, and she and the panther jumped down from the dais and made their way rapidly towards Meriym.
“She is my hostage now,” Althea stated, turning back to Quin. “You will fight the bear and these people will watch, or she and the boy will die.”
Quin could see Meriym rapidly shaking her head in the front row.
“Don’t do it,” she mouthed, clutching Kip tightly in her arms. The panther sat at her feet, staring up at her and growling deep in its throat. Kip was crying.
Quin turned back and faced the bear, who slowly rose up onto its hind legs. He couldn’t let Althea hurt Meriym. It looked like fighting was his only option.
At eight feet, the bear’s face was more than a head and shoulders over Quin. He gazed up into its eyes; they were angry and hostile, and it was clearly ready to spit and claw and bite. Stepping back, Quin shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet and began to circle around the bear. Presumably, while the bear was quite experienced at ripping people apart, it was not good at Kramandu Stealth fighting or any other sort of martial fighting styles. Of course, he shouldn’t assume this either – it was Althea’s bear, and you could never know how much training it had, although you could be reasonably sure that all of its trainers were dead.
The bear began to circle as well, and Althea let out a howl of laughter. She really was insane, Quin decided, and probably ought to get locked up. Darting forward, Quin reached up and smacked the bear across its nose, and then hurriedly backed away. It growled and snorted, baring its teeth at Quin. It shifted the position of its arms – the next time Quin came within distance, it would grab him in a quite painful hug which included extraordinarily large and sharp teeth and claws.
They continued to circle, Quin watching the bear’s every move and the bear waiting for him to go on the offensive. Finally, Quin heard Althea sigh loudly, and with that as his only warning, the bear dropped down onto all fours and lunged forward. Quin leaped backward just in time, the bear’s teeth coming within inches of his leg. Quickly, he shifted his weight forward and brought his knee up quickly, hitting the underside of the bear’s jaw with a powerful blow. The bear growled angrily deep in its throat, and Quin winced, stumbling. It felt like he had slammed his knee into a brick wall – this bear was solid. He heard Meriym gasp from her place in the audience over top of a rustle of sounds that came from everyone else in the room.
The thought brushed through his mind that these people were amazingly calm for such a large group being held hostage, though a few children cried and whimpered in the audience. He wondered what Althea had done to terrify them into submission before he had shown up.
Quin took a few steps back from the bear, but it was lunging towards him again. This time, Quin sidestepped the bear and swung one leg over its back, latching on like a rider. He grabbed it around the neck and squeezed as hard as he could. The bear responded by rising up on all fours and trying to throw Quin off. It reached up with its claws and Quin felt them rip open the skin on his arms. He held on more tightly, trying to restrict the bear’s breathing. The bear dropped back down on all fours and began to shake wildly, like a wet dog. Quin’s whole body was rammed back and forth. He grimaced, but after a few moments his grip began to slip and he was thrown across the stage.
He slammed into the floor with a painful crash. Though slightly dizzy, Quin scrambled to his feet as the bear turned and began to run towards him again. When the bear reached him, Quin was ready, and kicked him sharply in the face. The bear turned aside, growling ferociously, and then swung around to face him again. Again, Quin kicked him in the face, then reached out and poked him in one eye. Without hesitation, the bear lunged forward and clenched his large teeth down on Quin’s arm. Quin gritted his teeth and froze, unsure of how to proceed. He couldn’t rip his arm away, couldn’t punch the bear, couldn’t…
At that moment the doors to the temple burst open wide, and John wandered in saying, “Quin, did you get that thing taken care of? We only have—”
He broke off in mid-thought as he gazed at the tableau in front of him: Althea giddily watching the fight before her; Isabel and Betsy guarding Meriym and Kip; and Quin’s arm clenched in the jaws of a massive grizzly bear. John apparently decided to take the most ridiculous approach he could think of. He laughed.
“Oh how amusing,” he commented, striding forward until he came face to face with Althea. “Putting on some sort of show for the folks of the village. How entertaining. But really, Quin, you should know better – we have important things to accomplish.” He glanced around again. “Oh good, I see Landon is at least making an effort to get this problem fixed!”
Quin felt a brief moment of relief, despite the wave of pain hitting him like a tsumami. He gritted his teeth and held his breath. He began to wish desperately that John wasn’t so verbose, that he would hurry up and figure out a way to release Quin from the bear.
Althea glared at John.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“I think I should be asking you that question!” John responded. “Tell your bear to get his big dirty teeth off my friend or I will blow up this planet!”
A sneer crossed Althea’s face. “You can’t do that,” she said confidently.
The ground began to rumble. Althea frowned andturned a shade paler.
Quin could see beads of sweat beginning to pile up on John’s forehead. John was obviously feeling nervous that he wouldn’t make it in time.
“Shows how much you know,” he retorted. “Now tell your bloody idiot dog to let go of my friend!”
She stared at John angrily, but the earth rumbled again. She swallowed, and snapped her fingers; Quin felt the painful pressure ease as the bear released his arm. Deep gouges from the bear’s teeth crisscrossed his skin and muscle, and he gritted his teeth as the blood came rushing out. He pulled off his shirt and as carefully as he could, wrapped it around the wounds. He noticed, as John moved forward, that Oliphant was quietly slipping towards the back of the room.
“Now that we have that settled,” John brushed past Althea and climbed the steps until he stood on the dais. “Where is the…?” He looked at Quin meaningfully.
Quin pointed at Landon as he finished bandaging his arm.
The young man had opened the compartment and was attaching the black box.
“I don’t remember the code – I’ll need it again to activate.” John walked over to the large table in the middle of the room and bent down. He pulled out the designed by Anthony D’Marko’s son, stolen from the Pomegranate City government, and attached it to some wires sticking out of the box. People in the pews of the temple began to whisper in hushed voices.
“11256731,” Quin replied through gritted teeth. He stood up slowly and, pushing the aches and pains of his battered body out of his mind, walked over to where John knelt next to the marble table. Landon was holding the book open.
“Just let me know when,” he said softly to John.
Quin looked at Kate, who stood behind Landon with the strange expression still on her face.
“Kate,” Quin said quietly, “we’re going to need to keep these people calm.”
She nodded and headed down towards the rows of people.
The ground rumbled again, this time more loudly. People began to whisper and shift around uneasily.
“Excuse me,” John said loudly, standing up. “I know you are all technically prisoners anyway,” he said as he shot Althea a glare, “But for this next bit, I think you will be safest if you stay inside. Don’t run away. If you have any problems, ask that nice woman right there.” He gestured at Kate, knelt back down again next to Landon, and plugged in the code into black box. The box opened to reveal a series of switches.
“Okay, Landon,” John stated. “It’s time for the book. Quin, you take care of things here. This should only take a few minutes, but we have to hurry.”
Quin nodded and turned to face the queen again.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” he said, gesturing towards Meriym and Kip, “letting them go?”
“No!” Althea exclaimed. “You still owe me a death and they are my collateral!”
The ground shook again, this time for a longer duration and with more intensity. The chatter among the people in the room grew louder. The bear began to click its teeth together, and backed towards to the edge of the stage until it was closer to Althea.
“Uh oh,” John muttered, fumbling with the little black box.
“What’s wrong?” Quin whispered, bending back down.
“I don’t know if I can do the math fast enough. I know Dad said we had a full two hours, but by my estimate, we have about five minutes.”
“What can I do?”
“Just… make sure no one bothers me, and try to keep people calm. The earthquakes are only going to get worse before they get better.”
“Can I help?” Landon asked.
“Can you read to me from the book and do math at the same time?” John asked.
Landon shook his head. “I’m sorry – doing math in my head was never my strong point.”
“Okay,” John replied. “Well, just do the best you can with the book.”
The ground began to shudder without stopping. It was as if they were standing on top of a massive, shivering beast. People were crying and holding each other in fear. The bear leaped off the stage and went to stand close to Althea. Then, as Quin watched, Isabel and the panther both turned to look at Althea, who had begun petting and crooning to her bear. Their focus had completely shifted away from Meriym and Kip.
Kate appeared suddenly, leaping up onto the dais.
“Quin,” she said. “We may have another problem.”
“What is it?” he asked tersely.
“I overheard Isabel and one of her advisors planning a coup. I thought she might wait until after the fight, but now that everything is chaos, it makes sense that she would move while the opportunity is ripe.”
He nodded. “Thank you. Keep your eye on them if you can. And try to do something about that screaming child in the back row.”
“Not sure much can be done,” she muttered, but leaped off the dais and began to jog to the back of the sanctuary.
The shaking and rocking of the ground began to worsen. The chandelier high above their heads swung back and forth. Quin watched it nervously, hoping that the chain that fastened it to the ceiling didn’t have any weak points.
He began a scan of the room, but something caught his attention. It was Althea, nodding subtly to Isabel. Immediately Betsy leaped onto stage, heading directly for John. Without even thinking, Quin moved, dashing towards the rapidly moving panther and slamming his shoulder into her as she flew by, with all of the force and strength he could muster. The two bodies went crashing into the wall, and for a moment, all Quin could see was black.
As his consciousness returned, he heard Meriym and Kip screaming. The panther was underneath him and he felt her shift.
“No,” Quin hissed, desperately hoping that the panther could both hear him and was capable of making her own decisions. “The planet will explode without John. He isn’t causing it.”
The panther shifted again, and this time wobbled to its feet, knocking Quin to the floor. Quin drew his strength together and pulled himself to his feet as the panther took off again. But this time he was annoyed to see the panther moving quickly towards Althea instead, who was not paying any attention. Isabel had left Meriym and Kip and was headed their way as well. It looked like the coup was about to begin.
Here we go, Quin thought, and turned to see Meriym and Kip and rushing onto the stage. Meriym flew into Quin’s arms and hugged him tightly around his chest. He kept his eyes on the animals and their mistresses over Meriym’s head. Kate had been right; they were watching and waiting for the other to make a move.
“Are you okay?” he asked, still watching the royal situation that was about to explode.
“We’re fine,” she replied. “But what about you? That awful animal bit you! And you were unconscious!”
“I’ll be fine. How about Kip?”
Meriym turned to see where he went. He was crouched on the floor next to John and Landon, listening to the older boy and signing. Unfortunately, John was too engrossed in his work to notice Kip’s signing. Quin let go of Meriym and moved closer. He bent down to get John’s attention, when suddenly he heard, “Twenty-seven. Forty-two. Eight-thousand-ninety-one.” Kip was speaking!
Meriym gasped and put her hand over her mouth in surprise, not wanting to interrupt.
“How do you do that so fast?” John asked. His fingers moved across the switches as fast as Kip could say numbers.
“Three-hundred-seven. Four. Ten-thousand-twenty-five. Sixty-one.”
“No, wait, go back. You forgot the Hamstead coefficient on that one.”
“Seventy-one,” Kip amended.
Quin shook his head. John thought Kip was fast, but he was calculating just as quickly, or else he wouldn’t be able to check Kip’s math. He glanced over; Althea and the bear were huddled together and Isabel and the panther looked as if they were about to strike.
“What is happening?” Meriym asked, looking around with a very concerned expression.
“I think Kip has found a way to be useful, despite the earthquake and the coup…” Quin trailed off, as another massive quake shook the floor.
This time, people screamed, and Meriym grabbed his good arm so she wouldn’t fall over. The bear roared and the panther leaped forward to attack it in its fear-stricken state. At the same time, Isabel attacked Althea head on, and the two began to engage in a very dramatic and artful style of hand-to-hand combat. Feet and hands flew and were blocked by arms and legs. Both scowled fiercely, but Isabel, being the younger and stronger of the two, seemed to be pulling ahead. As he watched, Althea suddenly turned the fight around, mimicking a weakness in her left side and luring Isabel to attack. As Isabel went for it, Althea brought her elbow down on the back of Isabel’s neck. The daughter fell to her knees, coughing, but was back up on her feet a short moment later, once again dodging kicks from her mother.
The panther and the bear began to roll over one another, growling, scratching and biting. It was a strange sight; due to the difference in size, the panther seemed to crawl all over the bear, almost like a snake. People in the audience began to stand up and move away hastily, trying to avoid being an accidental casualty in a battle for sovereignty. Kate ran around directing people into the safer places in the room and helping them avoid the worst of the chaos.
The building began to shake even harder, and Meriym ran over to Kip, putting her body over top of him to protect him from any falling rubble. Quin watched as all of a sudden, the floor cracked in two. The bear and the panther were thrown across the room and slammed into the wall. People screamed and ran, trying to avoid being crushed by an 800 pound animal. Isabel and Althea were more graceful, and leaped away from the crack, landing in more defensible positions. It was as if the fact that the planet was breaking apart at the seams didn’t matter at all to them.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Quin heard John mutter, shaking his head. “I don’t know if we’ll make it. Come on, come on!” His fingers flew, equations streamed from Landon’s mouth as he read from the book, and the numbers coming from Kip seemed incomprehensibly fast.
Quin gazed out at the people before him. Everyone was terrified, screaming and clutching at one another. One man ran to the doors and opened one, but the sky was an angry torrent of blue wind and impossible weather. He shut the door quickly. Some people crouched down beneath the pews. Others bent their heads in prayer.
“What is happening?”
Quin turned to see the priestess from Pomegranate City standing next to him. Her white gown was covered in dust, and she looked furious.
“What have you done to anger the gods this way?”
“Nothing,” Quin said. “That out there isn’t the work of gods, but of men. If there are gods, and they care about you, then you will be alive when all of this is done. If they’re not there, you may survive anyway, or you may not, and that is just the way of the world.” He couldn’t believe he was having this conversation in the middle of an earthquake.
He braced himself against another rumble, but she toppled over, and then crawled back towards her seat. He wondered what she thought of his answer.
Then he heard John shout, and there was an interminable blackness and suddenly he felt as though he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t hear, couldn’t see – all of his senses were muted as he floated in the dark, endless nothingness of time.
It was exactly ten seconds – Quin counted – until the blackness disappeared and the steely grey stone walls of the temple loomed before him once again. A huge gasp of air filled the room as everyone took a simultaneous breath. It was the first time Quin had travelled through a Door and yet managed to end up in the same place as before. The priestess who lay on her stomach near him gasped, breathing in a deep lungful of air. She climbed to her knees, coughing.
He turned to look at John. John was grinning wildly, his hair a mess and his tie askew, but he was happier than Quin had ever seen him.
“Alive!” he shouted, doing a little jig from his seat on the floor. “Woohoo!” Next to him, Landon collapsed, exhausted, and Kip wore a brilliant grin which revealed two missing front teeth.
Quin smiled a little and then turned back towards the room. Isabel and Althea had fallen apart as they moved through the Door, and Althea had sunk to the floor, grasping her chest and gasping for air. Quin watched as Isabel stood and went to her mother, but before he could even react, she pulled out a knife and stabbed her mother in the heart – once, twice, three times. Althea was dead.
The bear let out a howl of agony. It was one of the most dreadfully heart-wrenching and terrifying sounds Quin had ever heard.
Screams filled the room, and the innocent captives made a break for the door of the temple, suddenly less afraid to face the storm outside than a murderer and an angry bear inside. But when they opened the door, the sky was a vibrant blue and the sun shone warmly on their faces. They streamed out in hordes, and in no time the temple was empty, except for a few stragglers.
Quin jumped off of the stage and ran towards Isabel. He halted as she waved her knife at him.
“You stay back,” she hissed. “I have rightfully succeeded my mother as Queen of Great Forest on the Bay!”
She snapped her fingers and Betsy was by her side in an instant. Quin tensed, ready to fight.
“I’m leaving,” she said, “and you are never, ever welcome in my kingdom again!”
Then she threw the knife at Quin. He dodged and they ran towards the open door; but when he looked up, a dark figure stood in the doorway, blocking her path.
“Get out of my way, you defective son-of-a-miserable-witch quilk,” Isabel spit.
Quin wondered what quilk meant. It probably had to do with Wolf not having an animal.
Wolf growled deep in his throat. The sound was both a warning and an acknowledgment. “What have you done?”
“I have rightfully taken the throne,” she replied. “Now get out of my way or Betsy will take care of your sorry face once and for all. You are lucky that this family has tolerated you for this long!”
Wolf’s growl this time was deep and threatening, angry and sad all at once, but he moved out of her way, and Quin watched as a murderer disappeared into the new, innocent world of Path.
It was at this moment that Quin noticed the bear. While it had been relatively quiet during the exchange between himself and Isabel, it now slowly picked its way around the massive crack in the floor until it reached Althea’s lifeless body. It sniffed for a moment, and nudged her with its massive paw. Then it let out a howl like no howl Quin had ever heard, and began to stomp its feet. Harder and harder its paws slammed against the stone floor, until it went berserk, flinging its head back and forth, running and leaping across the pews, and smashing anything it could reach. It was frothing at the mouth, and the noises it made were nearly demonic.
Quin stepped back in awe of the massive physical power pouring from the muscles of the bear and the intense emotional power evident in its screams. Behind him he heard Meriym let out a muffled sob and he shook his head in frustration. Meriym, Kip, Landon, Kate, and John were the only people left in the temple, and they were, as it turned out, the only ones he cared about. Then the bear turned and began to make its way towards him. Swallowing, Quin adopted a wrestling stance, and waited as the bear thundered closer. He had to stall it long enough for the other three to get out.
“Run!” he shouted over his shoulder. There was no telling what the bear would do once it got past him.
But the bear never reached him. Wolf leaped from the pews onto the bear’s back. The wolf-man and the bear began to wrestle, rolling and growling around the room, angry and angrier. Wolf bit the bear on the neck, and Quin saw blood begin to flow. The bear returned the gesture by swiping its paws against Wolf’s back, drawing three bright red stripes. Wolf howled and spun around to face the bear again.
For years afterwards, Quin replayed this fight in his mind, certain he had gotten something wrong, because the next thing that happened was that the bear lay down. Wolf’s fist flew forward, smashing it on the nose, and then the bear lay down on its back and crossed its arms. Wolf straddled the bear, crying and sobbing and beating its chest. Then, still crying, Wolf reached out and used his massive, animal-like strength to cover the nose and mouth of the bear, suffocating it.
Horrified, Quin stood frozen, realizing that this must be what they did to the animals whose people died. The bear seemed to accept it, in a strange way, though its body jerked and twisted as it tried to breathe. A few moments more and Wolf released the bear’s head, and then lay down next to the bear, whispering to it.
Pushing down an overwhelming sense of sorrow, Quin turned to see Meriym, John, and Kip peeking over the table in terrified awe at the scene before them. Landon and Kate were hugging each other, eyes wide. Meriym had tears streaming from her eyes and John had reached over – too late – to cover Kip’s eyes.
“We need to go,” Quin said as a general statement to everyone.
Kate cleared her throat, and Quin turned and looked at her and Landon, still hugging.
“Thank you,” she said.
“This is my brother,” she whispered calmly, but her eyes were brimming with exhaustion, happiness, and love.
Surprised, the tall, black warrior gazed at them for a moment, and then let a small smile cross his lips. Who would have guessed that something so good would happen amid the most ridiculous situation he had ever experienced?
“Congratulations!” he said.
John cleared his throat and said, “Oliphant.”
“Where?” Quin turned.
The pudgy bookseller stood in the doorway gazing at sobbing Wolf and the still bear in horror.
“I… I…” he stuttered. “I was only gone for a few minutes!?”
“Gone where?” Quin demanded.
“Just telling Grise that his plan was succeeding.”
“He wanted me to fight the bear?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. He only told me to make sure you made it here. And you did. What happened?” His face was confused, worried, anxious, and upset all at the same time.
“Isabel has succeeded Althea, I believe,” John explained, crossing his arms. “And I would imagine that access to their library is going to be severely limited for you for the time being. Forever, if I have anything to say about it.”
“No, but, what happened?” he asked again, this time gesturing broadly to the entire world around them in general.
“Oh, that.” A bemused expression crossed John’s face. “Yeah, well, you see, Dad probably didn’t tell you this, but he sort of mis-planned this whole ‘build a planet’ thing, and accidentally let people on it before putting it in orbit! Bloody idiot.” He shook his head. “And you—” He stalked down the aisle until he reached Oliphant and poked the bookseller in the chest with his index finger. “—you didn’t help! You gave Dad all of the illegal and protected material he needed to build a non-functioning planet and risk the lives of everyone on it, in addition to everyone within three miles of any Door anywhere. If you’re lucky, it’ll just mean some jail time.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” spat Oliphant, scowling. Then he turned and bolted out of the temple, running through the town towards the Door.
“Quin?” John asked, turning.
“I got it,” Quin replied. He was beginning to feel the pain in his arm and his aching muscles again, so he pushed it down and turned to Kate. “Will you be okay?”
Kate smiled. “We’re going home,” she said.
“Thanks,” Landon said.
“And you?” he asked Meriym, reaching out to touch her arm.
She nodded and smiled, holding Kip close. “Go.”
“I’ll be right behind you,” John called out, as Quin disappeared through the temple doors. “Well, sort of.”
Quin ran. It felt good, oddly, after all of the fighting and bleeding and fear of the temple collapsing, to run – his anxieties, his anger, his frustration all seemed to flow out of his fingers and into the world around him. Sweat ran down his back and his face, the breeze cooled his bare chest and neck, and he matched his breathing to align with the rhythm of his pounding feet. He let Oliphant run for a while, keeping a steady distance between them, knowing that he could easily overtake the little man whenever he chose to do so.
Above him, the sun was shining and the birds were no longer hovering eerily in the sky. The clouds now drifted instead of hovered, and somehow the world felt right. The strange sense of uncomfortable déjà vu had completely vanished.
He realized that as a child his father had taken him to an inter-dimensional space to look at a planet – which was why this place had felt wrong and familiar. But now that it orbited a sun, it fell right and familiar. This planet was an oblate spheroid, he assumed, since he couldn’t see and celestial clues to indicate otherwise, and his smile grew. This would be the perfect place for Meriym to raise Kip – if they couldn’t find his parents.
The two running men crested the hill above the village, and the Door was now only a short jog away. Oliphant was gasping and Quin wondered if he could have made it to the Door without Quin chasing him, but he picked up his speed anyway. There was no need to risk it.
He caught up a minute later, and reached out to grab the back of the bookseller’s jacket. Oliphant just collapsed.
“I knew I would never make it,” he gasped, breathing heavily. “But I had to try.”
“Well, if you tell the police everything,” Quin replied, “hopefully they won’t blame all of Grise’s crimes on you.”
“He took the kids, not me!” Oliphant blurted. “And I didn’t help with the planet building or the Pomegranate City propaganda either! I only got books, I swear! And taught some stuff.”
“We’ll see what the jury has to say about that.” Quin pulled his last pair of cuffs from his pants pocket and slapped them on Oliphant, hoisting the short round man to his feet.
They stood and waited for a few minutes.
“Is this some kind of ancient form of torture?” Oliphant whined. “The waiting game or something?”
Quin rolled his eyes. “Waiting for John,” he answered, and a few moments later John came hustling over the hill.
“You got him!” he exclaimed.
“Of course I did,” Quin replied.
“So…” John hesitated. “Do we have to… go back now?”
“Your shirt is quite dirty,” Quin pointed out.
“Yes…” John grimaced. “But Mr. Drake is there.”
“We’ll probably be arrested,” Quin said. “But then we’ll explain and they’ll let us go. It’s fine. It’s not like we’ve never been arrested before.”
John nodded, a slight grin crossing his face, and they turned and headed towards the bridge. Everything looked new in the sunlight, like a sparkling clean house or a new set of dishes.
“There’s going to be nice weather systems on this planet,” John commented. “Aside from Dad’s ‘oops I didn’t move it correctly’ mix-up, he actually did an excellent job designing and building Path. And the grown buildings are a stroke of genius that will save huge amounts of money on natural resources like wood.”
“What about power?” Quin asked.
“Once they build a grid, it will be easy enough to run conduits into each house – and they can just bury them so it won’t even be visible. Great place to get a new start, I think, provided they implement a well-structured form of government. First few winters are going to be rough, though.”
As they reached the bridge, Quin turned back to look at Path. He could feel the anxiety start to well back up in his stomach – he and John had broken about a hundred rules over the past three days, they were bringing back a criminal for whose crimes they had no actual evidence, and he had no idea how long they would be detained if he would ever be able to come back. This saddened him a bit, and silently, across the few miles that lay between himself and Meriym, he wished her well.
Then he stepped through the Door.
Given the number of years Quin had spent in this house, he was always a bit surprised by how little he felt at home here, and never had he felt this more acutely than he did as he stepped through the Door and watched the greens and creams bleed into view. His living room was large and looked exactly as it had when his mother lived here, except for one thing: the people.
Mr. Drake was the first person he noticed, red in the face, a vein throbbing in his massive neck, and the muscles in his face twitching as he prepared his offensive deluge of anger. Then Tom stepped forward, shoving Drake out of the way and offering Quin and John a hand with a look of genuine concern. Melissa was there, and a number of graduate students whose names Quin couldn’t be bothered to remember. Mr. Green and Mr. Brown were also there, talking in hushed tones about programming and testing – probably something to do with the new Doors.
But despite the number of individual people, all commotion in the room stilled as they stepped through, and every face swiveled in their direction. It seemed fortunate, Quin reflected later, that they had brought Mr. Oliphant. A quiet gasp sounded as he stumbled through after Quin, ashen, scared, and mumbling. Then John came through, looking tired, and everyone smiled a little. Quin thought that all of them were beginning to feel Door travel fatigue.
“Oliphant?” Tom asked, surprised.
“What is the meaning of this?” Mr. Drake demanded. “You have been missing for days! And when you finally decide to show up, you come with a highly-regarded citizen of our lovely city in handcuffs through a Door which we so far have determined is volatile and highly dangerous, and without a sign of Grise! He’s the one we were after this whole time, you dimwits! Not a harmless bookseller from downtown!”
John and Quin glanced at each other wryly.
“My fault,” John spoke up. “Quin just came through to save my sorry ass. Good news, though – we’re not all going to die! Before you arrest us, do you think someone could grab me a clean shirt from the stash I keep in Quin’s closet?”
“Quin, are you okay?” Melissa rushed forward, and Quin glanced down at himself. He realized then that he wasn’t wearing a shirt because it was wrapped around his arm, which was bleeding heavily. His muscles ached and suddenly he felt a little light-headed and thoughts seemed to scamper in a less and less logical order. Perhaps crashing into a wall on top of a panther had been a little bit harder on him than he thought. Then again, it could have been the fight with the bear. Loss of blood? Concussion? He was beginning to feel calm, and then he felt nothing at all.
“Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.”
Quin groaned in irritation and swatted at John’s hand as it poked him repeatedly in the skull.
“Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. I am not going to go away until you say, ‘Well, hello, John, how lovely to see you.’”
“Okay, close enough.” John sat back and stopped poking him in the forehead.
They were in a white hospital room, and Quin blinked at the brightness of the light.
“How long,” he mumbled, wondering if he was even coherent.
“Oh, about twenty-four hours,” John replied. “It was the funniest thing watching you faint. You know, I’ve seen you fall over hundreds of times, but it’s usually because someone is punching you in the head or ramming you in the stomach with their shoulder. This time it was just as if an invisible brick fell out of nowhere and knocked you right on the noggin. And then what was even funnier was that – well, you know how everyone is just a little bit afraid of you? Well, they’re even more afraid of you when you’re unconscious! They must think that you’re going to magically wake up and start strangling them or something. They even strapped you down in the ambulance. But by the time we got here I convinced them that you wouldn’t strangle anyone and you didn’t. Which I appreciate.”
Quin tried to nod, but a piercing pain zapped right through his head.
“They gave you the White Lady,” John said. “You know – the tranquilizer? They were pretty scared. Sorry I couldn’t prevent it. It kept you asleep for a long time while they patched you up. The Doc said you’re going to have some nice scars.” He reached over and picked up a cup that was on the table next to the bed. “Here, drink this. I’ll call a nurse.”
The next few hours were torturous. His brain cleared out about thirty minutes after the detox John gave him, and then the nurses and doctors came in and poked and prodded and read his chart and yammered on about unintelligible and unimportant things. The doctors wanted to keep him under observation for three days.
When Quin protested, the doctors gave him a load of hogwash about resting, and staying calm until his injuries had healed fully. He would have none of it.
“I’m fine!” he exclaimed. “There is nothing wrong with me that hasn’t been wrong before.”
“Your ears are bleeding!” the doctor scolded. “You may have had gunshot wounds and bear bites and torn muscles before, but bleeding ears is serious. It appears to be a ruptured eardrum, but it’s the strangest we’ve ever seen and we can’t let you out until we are sure you will be fine.”
The doctor strode out of the room as Quin looked accusingly at John.
“What?” John asked, dabbing his own ears gently with a cotton swab. “I took yours out before anyone saw!”
Quin narrowed his eyelids further.
“What do you want from me?” John protested. “I’m a mathematician, not a doctor!”
Raising his eyebrows, Quin tilted his head slightly. “What happened?”
“As near as I can figure, the translation devices are making our ears bleed. It doesn’t appear to have affected my hearing, and it probably won’t yours. But I’ll have to make some tweaks to the design.”
“What do you think is causing it?”
“I’m not sure, but the next set I make will just translate for the wearer and not send a wave outward. That might be putting extra stress on your eardrums… I’m making things up here. I told you – I’m not a doctor!”
“Well, maybe you should consult a doctor before letting someone else stick those things in their ears,” Quin muttered.
“I left them in your pocket in case you want to use them again,” John said, waving towards Quin’s clothes.
Quin shook his head and changed the subject. “Grise is already far enough off. If I let the doctors keep me here for three more days, we’ll never find him!”
“We probably won’t ever find him anyway,” John said. “I mean, we found him once, but we won’t ever find him again.”
Quin gave John a look. John could never resist the look.
“Okay, okay, I’ll get you out of here.” John ran over to the door, looked down the hallway both ways, and then turned back and shook his head. “Too many people.” He then ran over to the window and looked out. “Second floor?” He looked back at Quin.
“When’s my next checkup?”
Throwing the blankets into a heap on the floor, Quin grabbed his pants, which had been cleaned, folded, and placed in a drawer. His shirt was nowhere to be seen – probably because it had been wrapped around his bleeding arm. It seemed likely that the hospital staff had decided to burn it.
John looked out the window again. “I think I’ll just go out the front door, then.” He walked out the door, closing it behind him.
The windows were made to stay closed, so Quin picked up a chair and threw it through. An alarm sounded. Ignoring the broken pieces of glass, Quin hoisted himself through the window and began to climb down the wall. A few people gasped and pointed at him from the ground, but he didn’t see any authorities or anyone who might arrest him close enough to stop him from escaping. As soon as he hit the ground, he began to jog, heading for the Globe. He passed John coming out the front doors of the hospital.
“Way to set off all the alarms!” John called out as Quin sprinted by. “That is going to cost you some serious cash!”
Not long after, Quin entered the Globe, shirtless, bleeding again, and dripping with sweat. The secretary, Bob, looked up.
“Hello, Mr. Black,” he said without blinking. Quin was pleased by the fact that the man didn’t even glance at the gash across his stomach. “I will tell Mr. Drake you’re here. Head on up.”
Quin nodded and made his way to the elevator. Twenty-seven floors later, the doors slid open and Mr. Drake stood looking at him angrily.
“Somebody get this man a shirt!” he yelled at no one in particular. A passing graduate student scurried off, either to acquire a shirt or hoping that no one had seen him. “What the hell game do you think you’re playing, Quin? The hospital just called to say you’d escaped!”
“Next time put the guards in my room, not outside,” Quin replied. “I have information. Need to hurry if you want to catch Grise.”
“It’s too late for all of that. He’s gone,” Mr. Drake said. “Come with me.”
They walked down the oddly-decorated hallways of the Globe, and into Mr. Drake’s office. Tom stood by a window, gazing out. Drake gestured to a chair and Quin sat.
“Your father has contacted us,” Tom said immediately, turning around to face them, “although we are unable to determine his location. He has given us some rather useful information.”
“Combined with the story John gave us – which I assume will be rather similar to yours – it appears that the only actual rule you broke was going through the Door in the first place, which John assures me was his fault – not hard to believe, of course. Unless there was something else that happened?” He turned to look at Quin, one eyebrow raised.
Quin frowned. He could mention the fact that he chose to not go back when he had the chance, that he broke into the Globe and stole the book, ruined the Pomegranate City relationship with Great Forest on the Bay, made decisions that were above his pay grade, discussed confidential issues with civilians, let his father get away…
“No sir,” he replied. “There was nothing else.”
“We understand the severity of what Grise tried to do,” Tom added, “and realize that your decision-making was based on extreme circumstances. We of course will not be awarding you any honors—”
“—and we will be taking some minor disciplinary measures, but we will not be punishing you for too long. John will be restricted for longer, due to his part in the initial venture through the Door, but I doubt that will bother him much as he will probably spend the time figuring out how Grise made the thing in the first place.”
“What about Oliphant?”
“I highly doubt he will get off with less than a life sentence. If Grise were here, he would be tried the same – as a traitor, stealing government secrets, spreading said secrets – you get the gist.”
Drake stood at this point and slammed a book down on the desk in front of Quin. “And since we’re on the topic of that two-faced bastard, he gave us this. It’s from Grise. Some sort of message our cryptologists couldn’t figure out.”
The book was A Dialogue of Worlds. Probably the same copy he had originally left in Quin’s living room – the one that Quin had stolen from the artifact room. They must have left it on Path somehow – or the old geezer had stolen it. Then again, maybe it was a different copy entirely. Enough of them seemed to be lying around.
“It looks exactly the same as the copy in the artifact room,” Tom said, “but that one is still there.”
Quin nodded and opened it to the third page.
There, plain as day, was the message. It was in Grise’s old shorthand that no one but Quin and John could read, though undoubtedly with enough time a cryptographer could figure it out eventually. It seemed that Grise had decided that using his newer code was ineffective.
The note said, “Midday, 12-12, cold grey.” Quin swallowed, uncertain of what to say to Mr. Drake and Tom.
“I…” he paused. He could tell them what it meant, but it wasn’t as easy as that. It would also mean explaining pieces of his past that he wasn’t sure he was comfortable doing. “I don’t know what it says. I’ll need to look at it for a while and compare it to some old notes to see if I can decipher his old code.”
“Well, take the damn thing with you,” Mr. Drake roared. “And don’t come back until you can give us some bloody answers!”
Tom shot a look at Mr. Drake, which clearly was some sort of scolding, but Quin couldn’t precisely read it.
“Quin,” Tom interjected. “You’ve had quite a traumatic few days. I think you should take it easy for a little while. But take the book, and if you have time to think on it, please do. Let us know if you find anything. Within the week we want to take a team through to this new planet, so we can interview some of the residents about what happened and get testimonies for the case against Oliphant. We also want to attempt to find Grise if at all possible, although I’m sure he is out of reach by now.”
Quin nodded, conflicted. He could lead them directly to Grise, but…
He stood, holding the book. “Thank you, sirs.”
“Oh, and stop by the med room and get that looked at.” Tom gestured to Quin’s stomach wound, where blood was dripping down his skin and was beginning to stain the waistband of his pants.
Nodding, Quin saluted and exited the room. As soon as he closed the door behind him, he heard Tom and Mr. Drake begin to argue. Not wanting to know exactly what they were saying, he strode quickly away. On his way back towards his office, he ran into John.
“You are bleeding again!” John exclaimed, throwing up his hands in defeat. “It’s like you’re never going to get better.”
“It was the climb,” Quin muttered.
“So now you’re blaming me!” John shook his head. “You decide to climb down the building and suddenly it’s my fault you’re bleeding! Some friend you are. Come with me!”
Rolling his eyes, Quin allowed himself to be dragged towards the Globe’s med center – a place where they kept test subjects, stored doctors and medical technology of all sorts, and conducted experiments which Quin chose not to think about. He assumed they were ethical, but didn’t want to know the details – he imagined that any medical research they were doing in this building was probably too gruesome to think about.
The doctors there knew John, and before long, Quin was sitting on another hospital bed being bandaged up by his friend. John had not stopped talking since grabbing Quin’s arm, but he seemed to be winding down.
“…so I think we should go back and see how much information we can get from Tobias and Meriym about the different cultures that have all conglomerated on Path and how many of them are refugees from the Cadrellian War. I also want to talk to Kip more – did you hear him talking!? – because he’s a really, really intelligent kid. Reminds me of me when I was his age.” John sighed reminiscently and then continued. “And then we need to figure out what’s happening with all those kids Dad kidnapped – if he really kidnapped them – and if we can’t find their families, we need to make sure they are provided for in terms of food, organization, education, and all that good stuff. Are you still with me?”
Quin nodded. Something in John’s last spew was niggling him. It was as if he was supposed to remember something – supposed to feel something. He frowned.
“Also I want to get some more of Meriym’s soup!” John added as he finished taping Quin’s stomach. “Delicious!”
A passing doctor looked at John strangely, as he had been talking at Quin’s stomach.
Meriym. That was what Quin had been trying to remember. He wanted to see her again. Soon.
“So where are you going next?” John asked, washing his hands.
“Home,” Quin stated, standing up.
“Want me to come?”
Quin shook his head.
“That’s good. I’m on probation anyway. Need to grab a few things before the security folks get around to locking me out of some of the labs. Don’t want to be short on equipment!”
They went in separate directions as they exited the medical room.
This next part was not going to be easy, Quin thought. He took the elevator down the twenty-seven flights instead of running, waved at the secretary, and walked out of the building. He didn’t bother to hail a cab, but instead walked straight through town. The William Oliphant, bookseller store was blocked off with tape and scientists were gathered in huddles outside. There were transportable labs parked outside, and gawkers peered from behind books and whispered in groups.
It was, at least, a beautiful day for gawking, if that was something you enjoyed. He walked right past, nodding politely to the scientists and police officers that he recognized, and headed out of town. It took about forty minutes at a slow pace to reach his house, but long before he arrived, he could see that guards were still posted around the house. Scientists were probably in and out as well.
He stepped into the entry pod and waited patiently as it took him to the door. The crowd had greatly lessened since he had stepped through from the other side, but a few graduate students still stood there with their machines and pencils. Mr. Brown and Mr. Green were there as well, leading the pack.
Stopping just inside his living room, Quin frowned a little. He didn’t like having all of these people in his house.
“Hello, Mr. Black!” Mr. Green exclaimed. “Good to see you!”
Quin nodded. He looked around again and then said, “How long are you going to be?”
Mr. Brown turned to look at him, seeming confused; then his face cleared. “Oh, this is your house! I forgot!” He and Mr. Green looked at each other.
“Well,” Mr. Green said, “we will still need to use the Door for research purposes, but with the help of Mr. Drake, I think we can arrange a schedule that will allow you privacy until we can move the Door back to the Globe. Would that work?”
“Thank you,” Quin replied.
“And,” Mr. Brown added, “since you are still recovering – we all saw your dramatic entrance! – I don’t think Tom would be too upset if we cleared out for today and worked with you tomorrow to set up the schedule.”
Quin noticed that Mr. Brown didn’t mention Mr. Drake – probably because everyone knew exactly who would be upset at this interruption.
“That would be great,” Quin replied. “I’ll just be upstairs if you need me.” He took the stairs two at a time and then threw himself on his bed. He wasn’t sleepy, but if he kept running around like this, he would never stop bleeding. He debated grabbing another shirt, as well, but fell asleep before he could make any decisions.
When he woke up it was dark outside. The house was silent, indicating that the scientists had gone. He climbed groggily out of bed, pulled a shirt from the closet, and stumbled down the stairs. He noticed that he had fallen asleep with his shoes on. Flipping on a light, he saw the Door sitting there as inconspicuously as ever, but somehow still glaring angrily at him. Quin glanced at his watch. It was almost time.
He stood in front of the Door, this time filled with trepidation and hope, and stepped through.
Whiteness blinded Quin as he stepped through; it was cold here, and snow drifted down from the skies. He was glad it was real snow this time, and not ash. The powdery white precipitation lay across the ground, cold and beautiful, with shades of blue and grey blended smoothly with the white. Rounded grey tombstones peeked through the snow at even intervals in all directions as far as the eye could see.
Stepping forward, Quin looked down at the print his foot made in the snow; for a little while, this world would know that he had been there, but then this faint memory of him would disappear, blown away by distant winds and new snowfalls. This thought had frightened him every time he came here, ever since he was a boy – not only that he would be forgotten, but that he would forget her, his mother, Rose. He wished he had thought to bring a rose to place on her grave. Sunset roses were her favourite, orange that bled into yellow on the edges of the petals; they looked like sunsets, like fire, like passion.
A lonely figure stood gazing down at a stone in the distance. Quin walked rapidly towards him, knowing that there was something he needed to say.
Grise was wearing a well-tailored suit and looked sad – really sad, not the fake kind he had used when Quin was small and trying to confide in him.
“Hello, son,” Grise said quietly as Quin approached. He held out his hand – in it was a rose. He held a second rose in his other hand. “I thought you might not have time to get one.”
Silently, Quin reached out to take the flower, and then kneeled in front of the tomb of his mother and bowed his head. He often found it difficult, on this planet of a thousand million dead, to believe that his mother’s memory would ever live beyond him. He placed the rose softly on the ground and stood, moving so that Grise could do the same.
Grise stayed kneeling longer, and as Quin gazed down at his back, for the first time he saw a small man, alone and fighting to survive and desperate to be remembered. He might be a little crazy, a mad scientist with a skewed version of right and wrong, and not have any respect for other people, but he was a sad little figure to look at. Maybe the old woman from Canaan was right: his father was not exactly as he seemed.
It was strange standing here next to him. They had been at odds for so long – and still were of course, although Quin didn’t feel angry any more – that he wasn’t sure what to say or do. He remembered when he was just joining the military how his father had looked so proud during the ceremony, but still a bit disappointed that Quin hadn’t chosen to go into science. The same thing had happened when he went to college to major in the fighting arts and planetary travel – proud, but not entirely. That was how it had been his entire life. He had always worked to please this man who didn’t care about anything but satisfying his intellectual cravings, who only wallowed in his own sorrow, and who never gave a damn for anyone else – even his own son.
Standing, Grise clasped his hands in front of him and gazed down at the tombstone.
“I decided to build Path right after your mother died,” he confessed. “I wanted to escape – to go somewhere that was far away from anything or anyone I’d ever known. Including you. You know you have your mother’s eyes, don’t you? When you were small, every time you looked up at me it was like your mother was looking up at me. That’s why I sent you away to school. You made me feel guilty for your mother’s death.”
Quin didn’t say anything.
“Thank you for fixing the planet,” Grise stated after a few moments of silence.
“Althea is dead.”
“I know. Isabel contacted me – she was furious with me because I had mentioned at one point that I would be sending you down, but didn’t tell them that the planet might explode. They probably wouldn’t have been there otherwise. I’m sorry you got hurt.”
Quin grunted and then said, “I have to arrest you.”
“I know,” Grise said. “I will come with you.”
“Before we go, did you… did you really kidnap those kids?”
“Not exactly,” Grise replied. “I went looking for kids who were lost or unhappy and encouraged them to join me. Some of them may have been… mistakes, I suppose.”
“All of them, you mean.”
Quin tensed and turned to see John running towards them from the Door.
“What do you think you are doing?” he asked, gasping for air as he neared. “You’re wounded, and the tactical team is supposed to bring him in for questioning, not you!”
“I was going to. Don’t need them,” Quin replied, irritated. “What are you doing here?”
“Came looking for you. Saw the book in the living room and read the message Dad left you. That was a third book, by the way – I still have the second one.” He took another deep breath and bent over. “How many of those things do you have, anyway?”
“Only one left,” Grise replied. “Good work with the planet.”
“Yeah,” John muttered. “You’re one lucky – and evil – old bastard. If I hadn’t come along, you’d be toast! And everyone else would have, too!” He straightened up and looked down at the tombstone that they stood in front of, and waved. “Hey, Mrs. Black,” he said casually. “Good to see you.” Then he turned back to Quin. “If you’re done with your family reunion, can we go now?”
The two Black men stared at him.
“What?” John looked back and forth between them. “Okay, fine. I’ll go wait by the Door. Dad, you had better not run off or I’ll blow your whole bloody planet up. After I get the people off of it, anyway.” He turned and trudged through the snow slowly. Quin and his father turned and looked back at the grave one more time.
“I really do miss your mother,” Grise said. “I’m not sure how I’ve lived this long without her.”
Quin grunted. “So you’ll come to jail then?”
“I’m considering it,” Grise replied. “She would not have approved of my mistakes – of almost blowing up Path and hundreds of thousands of people.”
“No,” Quin replied. “She wouldn’t.”
Grise took a deep breath and sighed. “Well, I suppose we had better get this thing over with. I just ask – no handcuffs, please.”
The two men walked slowly back towards the Door, where John stood waiting impatiently. He was making funny movements with his lips – trying to turn his breath into the shapes of animals.
“Let’s go,” Quin said. “John first.”
John disappeared through the Door. Then Grise stepped in after him. And as Quin moved through, he realized that he was not touching Grise, and that meant Grise might be going anywhere. And then the world faded into nothing.
It was a different world, Quin saw as he stepped through; the blues of the sky now melded harmoniously with the brilliant shades of green and brown that made up the grasses and trees. White clouds floated across the sky and the ominous greyness of the wall of the inter-dimensional space had vanished. As he stepped through the Door, Quin turned his head to look at the Door next to him, and he saw that he had chosen the correct place to follow Grise, except that Grise’s foot was disappearing faster than Quin could catch it. He had no idea where Grise would go and no idea how to find him.
He stood and stared at the two Doors standing side by side on the bridge, and cursed them slowly and silently in his mind. Grise had been in his grasp but he had lost him. John was nowhere to be seen – he had undoubtedly headed back to Grise’s house, as had been the original intention, and would soon be wondering where Quin and Grise were. Quin took a step towards the Doors and then glanced over his shoulder. He was here… why not?
Abandoning his responsibilities – temporarily, of course, he told himself – he began to jog towards Meriym’s house. The sooner he got out of sight, the smaller the chances of John coming and looking for him. He reached the house and gazed up at it, a small smile crossing his features. Then he knocked on the strange door with the doorknob in the middle.
Meriym opened it and a bright smile lit her face.
“You’re okay!” she exclaimed reaching out to hug him.
He winced slightly, involuntarily.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” she exclaimed immediately. “Of course you’re still wounded – how stupid of me!”
“Not stupid,” Quin said.
“Come in, please! How are you? What is happening?”
Quin shrugged. What was happening? They had saved the planet and then gotten arrested and thrown in the hospital for a day; he had chased after his father and visited his mother’s grave; and now his quarry was gone and he was standing in the only place he wanted to be in all the universe.
“Nothing’s happening,” he said.
“Oh don’t be silly! And come sit down.” She led him to the living room and the two sat down on the couch. “You fought off that monstrous bear while Kip and John did math equations or something, then you ran off after Mr. Oliphant, covered in blood and filled with holes, and then you disappeared for two days! I was starting to think you had died! Where’s John?”
“John is at home,” Quin explained.
“So…” Meriym raised her eyebrows. “What exactly happened then?”
“Grise, my father, built this planet but did a bad job so it was going to explode, so John fixed it, but we ran into a few problems called Mr. Oliphant, Isabel, Althea, Betsy, and the Bear. Then we arrested Oliphant and they stitched me up but Grise got away.” He fingered the leaf that he had in his pocket, and wondered how to change the topic.
“Oh, Quin,” Meriym said. “That sounds insane and I don’t really understand it. But I’m so happy you’re okay.”
“Meriym,” Quin began. He pulled the leaf from his pocket and held it tightly in his fist. “I…”
“Quin Black!” The door burst open and John stomped through angrily. “How the hell was I supposed to know you and Dad were coming here? And where is the old man anyway? Did you let him get away?”
Quin sighed inwardly and turned to look at John.
“No. I realized too late that he wasn’t touching either of us as he went through the Door. Then he escaped.”
John slammed his forehead into his hand dramatically. “Of course it would end this way! Travel across a dozen worlds to find the old man, fix all the idiotic problems he caused, and then he just gets away! Are you sure it wasn’t a psychological slipup on your part?”
Quin didn’t reply.
“Well, Meriym,” John said, looking at the beautiful woman sitting next to Quin. “It’s lovely to see you again.”
“You too, John,” she said pleasantly, smiling. “Would you like some tea?”
“That would be wonderful.” John wandered into the living room and fell sloppily into one of the chairs across from Quin as Meriym stood to go make tea. “Lucky there was no one in your house yet. Made it easy to turn around and come right back here.”
“We’re going to get a double dose of discipline,” Quin commented. “You should go back, stall them.”
John looked at him suspiciously and then at Meriym and then back at Quin. His eyes widened, and he grinned mercilessly. “Why, you old dog. As soon as I have my tea, I will be out of your… bald scalp, you can count on me.” He grinned widened as he stared at Quin. “I do believe that my dear old friend—”
“Meriym?” The door burst open again. This time it was Kip.
“We have guests, dear,” Meriym said.
Kip turned towards the living room. “John!” he exclaimed. “Quin!”
“Kip!” John replied. “You were amazing, helping with those calculations back there!”
“I know! Meriym says if we still can’t find my folks now that everything’s calmed down and the bad man is gone, that I can go to the big fancy school across the river! And I’m going to keep our secret sign language and only teach it to my best friends.”
“That sounds like a great plan! Maybe you can come visit me sometimes – I bet I have some pretty cool stuff I could show you.”
A smile split Kip’s face.
Meriym came in, handed John his cup of tea, and sat back down next to Quin. “Were you all right after the ruckus the other day?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” John assured her. “Quin though, as soon as we got home, just sort of fell over like a building being demolished and we had to get a crane to move him to the hospital!” He laughed as Quin glared at him and made quiet signals for him to hurry up and drink his tea. His hand clenched more tightly around the leaf.
“My!” Meriym’s eyes widened and she looked back at Quin. “And you told me you were fine.”
“I am.” Quin scowled at John again.
“Meriym,” Kip said. “I saw Kate on my way up here. She said she might need some help – another set of parents or something.”
At that moment, the door burst open again, and it was, in fact, Kate. She had in tow a family of four – a mother, father, and twin girls. Meriym stood, smiling, to greet them.
“This is the Bunting family,” Kate explained. “They’re looking for their oldest daughter, Agatha. I told them they might be able to stay here for a few nights, just so they had enough time to visit the city and ask around. Do you have room?”
“I do!” Meriym exclaimed. “Welcome! I’m afraid we don’t have a lot of space, but we do have places to sleep and can provide you with some meals.”
“That would be wonderful,” the mother said gratefully. “We are extremely hopeful about finding our daughter. We’ve heard so many other families talk about their reunions!”
“I know. I hope you find her! Please, come in and set down your bags. I just made a pot of tea.”
The family moved into the house, placing their bags against the wall and introducing themselves to John, Quin, and Kip.
“How are you?” Kate asked pleasantly, sitting down on the coffee table.
“Oh just peachy keen,” John replied, grinning. “Glad we got all that nonsense over with.”
The door opened again, and Landon strode in and sat down next to his sister.
“Good to see you!” John exclaimed. “Glad to see you’re no worse for the wear.”
“Thanks!” Landon replied. “Feeling great, and hoping that Kate and I can help these kids find their families.”
“How’d you get snagged by Grise, anyway?”
“He came and promised me a job that would help me take care of my family, but then he wouldn’t let us contact them or send the money – but I kept it and I learned a lot, so at least I have something to show for it all. Not sure if it was worth it.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Kate said. “We’re back together and Gilead and I are getting married. Landon is going to be my best man.”
“Congratulations!” John exclaimed.
The family sat on the floor in front of the fireplace. Meriym returned to her seat next to Quin. The room now buzzed with chatter as John and Kate talked, Kip made friends with the twin girls, and the mother and father relaxed in front of the fireplace.
Quin looked around the room and watched as everyone chatted about life, the changing winds, and other uninteresting topics. Everyone seemed relaxed, and even John didn’t seem like he was going anywhere anytime soon. He was pleased that things had turned out so well, given the circumstances that had brought these people together. He was starting to feel overwhelmed, though – so many people, so much noise; it wasn’t mixing well with the pain.
Quin stood and excused himself, and headed out the back door of the house.
The weather still amazed him; the strange sense of weirdness was gone, the gloom and darkness vanished. In its place were real birds and animals, healthy growing grass, trees that would soon turn into forests… even the river now flowed with water. The buildings still stood, despite the massive earthquakes caused by the moving of the planet, and he realized how fortunate it was that so few people lived here, so they hadn’t had to suffer from volcanoes, tsunamis, or other geological phenomena caused by the event. He hoped no one had been injured, and decided that he should ask, so that he could put it in his report. After breathing the fresh air for a few minutes, he turned to go back inside, but his path was blocked. Meriym stood in the doorway.
“Quin,” she said. “What are you doing?”
“Looking,” he said, gazing into her eyes.
She blushed and came down the steps, not looking him in the eye. “Well, I can see that.”
He smiled, never having felt so happy before.
He opened his hand to reveal the crushed and broken leaf. “For you.”
“Where is this one from?”
“From the flower I placed on my mother’s grave.”
“Oh.” Her eyes widened as she looked up at him.
“I can’t promise you anything,” he said, looking down into her eyes. They were green, like the grass and the trees – they belonged here, on this world. “I can’t be here all the time.”
“I don’t need anything,” she replied.
“I don’t have any hair.”
She laughed, and stepped forward, fitting into his arms as if she had always been there. “I have plenty.”
He bent down, and their noses touched.
“Quin!” John bellowed from the door. Then he caught sight of the pair. “Oh. Oops. Well, you have five minutes before Drake’s men get here and we get arrested again. Make it quick!” The door slammed closed behind him.
“Arrested?” she gasped.
“Doesn’t matter,” Quin said, and bent down and kissed her quite firmly. It was about time, after all. And the leaf that he had held onto so tightly slid from his grasp and floated to the grass – and although it lay crushed and broken on the ground, Quin had never felt so whole.
Try the next book in the series, The Clock Winked!
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I’m not sure I can say thank you enough times to my parents, so they get to be in the dedication and the acknowledgements. Nancy and Peter Sieling are going to get sick of reading about how awesome they are, but I would be remiss if I didn’t tell the whole world. Thanks Mom and Dad.
Zoe Cannon also deserves a huge helping of thanks. She painstakingly edited my book, in addition to piecing together my cover, which looks brilliant. A fantastic writer in her own right, Zoe has been a huge asset in the production of this book, and I couldn’t have done it without her.
Evan. Evan Sieling is an amazing human being. This book would not be here if not for his encouragement, support, and hard work. From the first time I called him, panicking about cover designs, to the incredible soundtrack he pieced together for my book trailer, Evan has been cheering for me all along. I couldn’t have done it without him, nor would I have wanted to.
Finally, I would like to say thank you to Bernice Tozier has let me live with her (again), allowed me to use her electricity and internet, and simply been my biggest cheerleader throughout the whole endeavor.
Thank you, everyone. I couldn’t do this alone.