Another Way first pages

Part Six: The Wither

Chapter Forty One: Midnight Train

It was dark by the time Jeanette boarded the train. She had chosen the late departure so she could sleep during the boring part of the trip, and would be awake when things were interesting.

She had taken a roomette rather than a smaller compartment. It had two bunks but only the bottom one was made up. There was a tiny bathroom, and an even tinier closet in which she stowed her package of weapons. A fold-down table beside the window had a swivel-mounted chair.

She sat on the bunk, feeling the gentle motion, hearing but not listening to the sound of wheels on track. She was wide awake. She turned out the light, went to the chair, and watched the lights of the city go slowly by. There was a moon, which gave some form to houses, trees, and occasional commercial buildings. After a while there were fewer lights, then the even darker suburbs. The train picked up speed when they left the city. The tracks ran parallel to a highway for a while, but the cars, their headlights glaring, were going faster than the train.

This was the first time she had been on a train since the summer she was nine. Her parents had taken her to visit her grandparents in North Dakota. The train part of the trip had been exciting, the movement and the sounds and watching the countryside change as they went from one state to another. The memories had stayed with her.

The visit with her grandparents had been less enjoyable. She was the only child there, she wasn’t allowed to go out by herself, and there wasn’t much to do besides sit and listen to the grownups talk. Her grandparents had few books that she could read and, what utterly surprised her, they had no paper on which to draw or write.

But the train ride had been wonderful. She hadn’t minded being under her parents’ constant supervision if she had a window to look out of, and as long as she was quiet they left her alone.

The movement and the sounds were as she remembered them. The night, despite the moonlight, was too dark for her to see much of the countryside. One tiny town, hardly more than two crossroads, had its three street lights on and she liked what she saw of it, but that was all there was. She decided to go to the club car.

The car behind her sleeper car had an upper level, then there was the empty diner, then two coaches, which were nearly dark, the observation car, two more coaches, and at last the club car, which also had an upper dome. There were two men at one of the large booths on one side, and three women at another on the other side. She didn’t want to sit with them, but at least there were people. She had become used to having company, which she had never sought out before. Steve had always been enough.

She went past the booths and the curving stairs into the narrow passage beside the food counter. The not quite elderly man behind it sold her a split of wine for seven fifty. With the tiny bottle she got a glass and a napkin. “How late will you be open?” she asked.

“The car will be open all night, but I shut down the bar at midnight, local time.”

She took her drink up to the dome, but there was nobody there. She went back down and sat at one of the small booths between the larger ones. There was nobody in the opposite booth. She poured her wine.

Being on a train affects all your senses. It helped her feel removed from recent events, almost like another form of reality, where grief and anger and fear didn’t exist. Or at least didn’t matter. When she was safely home, with no one to answer to or for, then she could deal with all those things, but not now.

Home. She saw her house as if it were just outside the window, the rooms, the yard, the street, right there in front of her. But it was all so far away. The time she had personally experienced had not been all that much, despite the months which had passed here. But she was not the same person any more. She wondered if home would actually feel like home when she got back.

She listened to the quiet talk on either side of her. The two men, across the way toward the back, were discussing business of some sort. They had been there for some time. One of the women in the booth on her side of the car was complaining about some member of her family. The two women with her occasionally uttered sounds of sympathy.

The men ran out of conversation after a while. Then one of them said something about the recent bad weather. Jeanette couldn’t make out much, but apparently it had been extreme all over the country. A lot of their comments were about the incompetence of the weather bureau, which had predicted none of it. One of the men said something about inconvenience, and the other said something that sounded like it was about injuries, but if he mentioned any deaths she didn’t hear it. The freaky weather had returned to normal after the flood which had carried away her parents. That had been her enemy’s purpose after all. Her enemy probably knew that she was in her own world. Did it know that she was on this train? Or just here in general? Maybe now that she was going home, it would think that she had given up. Well, let it think that.

She leaned back and looked out the window beside her. The countryside, dimly lit by the moon, was darker than the sky. All she could see were irregular shapes going by. Sometimes the moonlight cast shadows, which hinted at trees or houses, but they were quickly gone.

She finished her wine. The bartender was cleaning up and asked if she wanted another. She didn’t. He spoke to the two men. They wanted another round. The women had finished and went out past the bar toward the back of the train.

At last she decided she could sleep. She put an extra dollar on the table and left.

There were a few reading lights in the coach, but most of the people were trying to sleep. There were the sounds of heavy breathing, a few snores, occasionally the rustle of a page turning, and the subtle noises of people trying to get comfortable in the reclining seats. Jeanette was glad that she had chosen to pay for a roomette.

She went through the accordion connector between the cars into the vestibule of the next coach. She tried to not disturb people as she walked past them. It was very quiet. There was no rustling, no snoring.

She went through the door at the other end and paused on the jointed floor between cars. It was noisy here, but the sound and the motion were reassuring, almost soothing. It was familiar, in a strange sort of way, even though her last experience of it had been — what was it now — more than fourteen years ago. She had had another birthday since she had been gone. But this was her world after all, and despite everything it felt good to be back.

She went into the dome coach, past the luggage compartments and the rest rooms to the first section of seats. It was awfully quiet. The people around her were sleeping very soundly. Out of curiosity she went up to the dome. There were only a few people there. She went back down, then past the three little lounges in the middle of the car. They were empty. The people in the last four rows of seats were as quiet as those in the first three had been.

She was half way along the next coach before she realized that there was no sound here at all. She looked at the people behind her. They were completely motionless. Even those with reading lights were frozen in place.

What had she been saying to herself, about being back home at last?

The woman in the aisle seat on her left appeared to be asleep, her chair pushed back as far as it would go, a blanket draped across her legs. Her mouth was open, but she was not breathing. The woman next to her had her face turned away. The man on the right wasn’t breathing either, nor was the child sitting next to him.

A chill touched her between her shoulders. These people weren’t dead, it wasn’t that simple. She hurried to the next lit seat, where a man was reading a paperback. She leaned toward him and said softly, “Excuse me.”

He did not respond. His eyes did not flicker. He was not breathing. She waved her hand between his face and his book. He did nothing. He could have been a mannequin. She reached out to touch his arm but couldn’t bring herself to do it. She looked at all the motionless people behind her, went to the next connector, but stopped before entering the vestibule ahead of her.

The noise of the wheels against the rails seemed somehow distant, as if it were coming from a block away. The swaying and bouncing of the train was slow and gentle, a motion that would have been soporific if it hadn’t been frightening. She went into the vestibule and looked through the window in the outside door. She could see nothing at all. She felt for her enemy, but there was no sign of it, whatever it was.

The next coach was so silent it made her hair stand up. And there was no light either, though she could see everything clearly. She hurried through the car and stopped in the connector. There was no sound. There was no motion.

Time had stopped. Or her perception of it had. She could move, and breathe, and think…. What might her reaction have been, if this had been her first experience with the greater reality? The thought almost made her laugh. She was very changed indeed.

The tables in the empty dining car had not been set, only fresh cloths had been put on. Her ticket included meals. She wondered if it mattered.

She sat down at one of the round tables. Time had stopped, but her knees brushed the table cloth aside as it normally would. Whatever was causing the time effect, she was outside it. She tried again to feel her enemy, but she couldn’t. She tried to perceive the fabric of reality, but she couldn’t. That didn’t make sense.

She shivered again. If it wasn’t her enemy who was doing this, then who was? It wasn’t her guide, who had never done anything more than give her hints and suggestions and clues. If you didn’t count opening portals from one world to another. But she had been doing that herself, her guide had just nudged her, showing her the way.

Whatever was doing this, she wasn’t yet where she was supposed to be. She looked out the window beside her. There was nothing. It was not dark, there was just nothing there.

She went through the first sleeper to the next connector. There was no more train beyond that. Her car and all the train forward were gone.

This car’s part of the connector floor butted up against a small platform that was not a part of the train. It was about six feet on a side. It was hard to tell exactly. At first she thought it was white, but really it was no color at all. At first she thought that the void in which the platform and the train were suspended was black. But really, it was no color at all.

She stood for a long moment without thinking. A two-foot wide walkway extended beyond the little platform into an infinite distance. It had no rails, and no supports as far as she could see. 

She wanted to go home. She really wanted to go home. 

She turned back to the pneumatic door which had opened so easily when she had come out. She reached out to touch the plate switch and paused. How had it been able to work, if time had stopped? She touched it. The door slid open, all but silently. The hall elled to the left the way it was supposed to. There were only roomettes on this car, unlike hers which had a number of smaller compartments as well. She did not go through the open door. She didn’t want to commit herself to that. If she went back, if time returned, would she lose her only chance to do what was being asked of her? Or would she be stuck on a timeless train forever?

She turned away from the door. It hissed shut behind her. The platform in front of her was unchanged. The walkway leading away from it was unchanged. The black but colorless void was unchanged. She shivered.

It was always her choice, to stay or go, to drop the rock or not. And since it was her choice, she was sure that this was not her enemy’s doing. And if it was not her guide, then it had to be some power behind it. And whatever that was, it had gone to an awful lot of effort to let her know that she was needed.

She took a step onto the little platform. It held firm. She crossed it to the walkway, narrow and without rails. She took a breath — even here she had to breathe — and started walking. After a few minutes she turned to look behind her.

* * * * *

Chapter Forty Two: The Center of All Things

The walkway was a thread back to the train, to her world infinitely far away. Time flowed normally there. She had been taken out of her world as well as out of time, leaving it in a direction which had no meaning in mundane physics.

She looked down at herself but there was nothing to see. She was still on the train, in the connector between cars, in mid-stride. If there were anybody there, they would see her going from one car to the other without interruption. However long her time here might seem, the only time that would pass there would be from one step to the next. She was Schrödinger’s passenger, her state determined by an outside observer.

The walkway extended before her into an infinite distance. At its other end was the convergence of all worlds.

She couldn’t get anywhere by perceiving the ultimate reality at this level of abstraction. She needed a metaphor. If she thought about her situation in a certain way, she was standing on a narrow, colorless walkway that wasn’t white, extending from her train into the weave of reality in a colorless void that wasn’t black … that wasn’t working.

Her boots were black. Her belt was black. Her ring glowed blackly, a source of energy or a channel or a link. She felt the dagger hanging between her breasts but she didn’t take it out. It, too, was more than real. If she had brought the Tash Griaf with her, it would be the same.

She drew nearer to the cloud of reality until it filled nearly half the void around her. If she looked at it in a certain way, it was composed of countless walkways in a multi-dimensional matrix, each of them a connection between multiple worlds. Like M. C. Escher’s famous woodcut of infinite stairs, where the walkways intersected, at whatever angle they did, there were platforms, floors, standing places, locations rather than ways. They could be interpreted that way, so that was what she saw. When she went from world to world, she went from platform to platform, across the warp and weft of reality. Her own world was not outside this weave, that was just a matter of perspective. Somewhere in there were each of the worlds she had visited, and the world to which she had now been summoned. She didn’t know where they were. She was outside, not inside, and her peculiar point of view prevented recognition.

There was something out here with her, though she perceived nothing other than the thread from which she seemed to dangle above the fabric of reality. But it was there, and it was frightening. Her presence here was due to whatever it was that was behind her guide. The intrusion of which she was now aware was her enemy.

It came to her, as if on wings, from a different direction, in a place where there was no direction in the first place. She didn’t have time to think, she just ducked. The evil, which she had felt flickering in the interstices between the worlds, missed her, but it did not miss her thread. Her connection to her own world was severed, and she fell, translated from a multi-dimensional void adjacent to the weave of reality, to the surface of an infinite plane covered with dust, below a black sea of space, in which hung just one green star. Its light cast her shadow on the dust. The evil wings which had precipitated her here had gone. They could come back, and she would have to be somewhere else when they did.

What she perceived was just her interpretation. She thought, for an instant, about seeing the white space plane and the blackest sea as something else, using a different metaphor, but the idea terrified her. That way madness lay. And in her madness, her enemy would have its victory. The problem with this particular metaphor, was that there was no way to get from one world to another. That was what her enemy had intended.

She started walking, but after a few steps she paused and looked back. There was the disturbed place where she had first appeared, and her footprints to where she was now, and nothing else. She went on. She didn’t know if she were going in the right direction. Maybe it didn’t matter.

She came across another set of footprints going in approximately the same direction. Whoever had made them had been running. They were boot-prints, very much like hers, but somewhat larger. They ran in a more or less straight line, the faint markings lost in the near distance in both directions. Whoever had made them had to have been someone like her. She didn’t think that some random person could have been plucked out of some mundane reality and just dropped here by chance, in this very place, in this very particular metaphor. 

There was no reason for her to not follow this line of prints, so she did.

She came to where they suddenly changed direction for a few steps, then just as suddenly changed back again, as though the runner had tried to avoid hitting something coming toward her. Or whatever it was that was chasing her.

She stopped, suddenly frightened. Her predecessor had been fleeing something which had almost caught up with her, something, perhaps, like the dark wings which had separated her from the thread to her world. She felt a chill, sharp and intense. 

She went on. The dust became subtly mounded until she was walking across long, low dunes. The running footprints had become uncertain in their direction, as if harassed and tired out. Occasionally, on one side or the other, the dust was disturbed, as if blown aside by the wind of wings. She felt another chill, worse than the first.

She came to a place where the maker of the footprints had run more easily. She knelt beside the marks. It was strange dust that could hold so clear yet light a print. But these footprints had dust in them, the dust of days and years long dead. How long ago had this happened, in any sense in which time made sense?

The footprints staggered up the long, gentle slope of a dust dune. At the top, a mark like a knife cut across the last footprint, and there were no more. Her predecessor had not escaped.

The woman in the cave of flames had not escaped. The woman from whose bones Jeanette had recovered the boots had not escaped. There was no guarantee that she would escape either.

She looked around. There was nothing except the white space plane, herself, the low mounds of dust, and this line of footprints, sharply cut off. There was no body, no desiccated mummy, no skeleton. Whoever her predecessor had been, she had been killed here, but she had died at home.

The blackest sea above her was equally empty, except for that one lost green sun. There was a point of some kind beside it.

There was, in one direction from where she stood, a change in the nature of the white plane. It descended, ever so slowly, until it merged with the sea of space. She went that way.

The surface on which she walked changed. The dust became less firm as it became coarser, until she was leaving only vague depressions in fine white sand. Like a beach. And so it was.

There were no waves on the sea. The sand became coarser and more widely distributed. She could see down into it a way. Further on she could see further through it, though it still supported her weight. Further on she began to sink in, and there she stopped.

She heard something and turned, expecting to see black wings wielding a sword as sharp as sound, ready to cut her own footprints short. It wasn’t that. It was delicately colored like mother of pearl, and coiled like a snail but in more than three dimensions. It was alive, moving along the crest of the nearest dune, some distance away yet, but coming more or less in her direction. She could not tell how big it was, beach-ball-sized, or elephant-sized. It was singing, like the most delicate crystal wind chimes. She knew that, as long as she could hear it, she was safe. This was not an intelligence like her guide or her enemy, but it was not mindless either. It was not a part of the conflict between Jeanette and her enemy. It could not be affected by her enemy, and that enraged her enemy. Whatever damage the evil and the power behind it might cause in the mundane worlds, or even in the fabric which wove them together, it could not touch this, this essence of something, in any way.

It went past her, so close that she felt as though she could almost touch it, yet she still could not tell how big it was, or how small. Or maybe it was so far away. The sand where it passed was not disturbed.

The straight green rays of the lost green sun cast her shadow behind her on the beach and across the blackest sea. Something by the sun twinkled, or so she thought.

This whole beach business was just a metaphor. She was lost and she had to get back to the weave of reality. There was somewhere she had to be, and her enemy had successfully distracted her from it.

She became aware that she could no longer hear the crystal singing. But now she heard something else. It did not sound like the flapping of wings, but that was what it was. It was not her enemy, but something sent by it. Her enemy would not condescend to approach her itself. She didn’t try to look for it, she just ran toward the blackest sea until the sand thinned, and she fell through it, and turned somehow in another direction.

She was very far away from the matrix of worlds and connections that was the weave of reality. There was no thread for her to follow to reach it, or to reach anywhere else. Behind her, like a thin cloud, was that which was supposed to be her destination, but there was no way to get to it.

How much control did she have over the metaphor? Could she adjust her perception so she could get closer to her objective? She tried to open her awareness, to get some hint or clue from whatever it was that was her guide, but there was no response. She looked at the distant matrix, getting ever more remote, and tried to imagine herself drawing nearer. It didn’t work. Imagining herself swimming back to the beach she had just left didn’t work either. Her guide was unresponsive. The power which had brought her here was unknown. Then where could she turn for help?

She didn’t know how to change metaphors. She didn’t know how to move in this one. She had traveled from world to world on her own power, but she didn’t know how she did it. There was no one to call on. Aside from herself, there was only her enemy. She had to do this alone.

She turned inward, into a house of mirrors of memories, all transparent, and not arranged in any order. She did not know what she was looking for. She had never thought of herself as strong, or brave, or competent, or self-reliant, and yet she had discovered that she was all those things. She could remember no hint or premonition of them. She had never thought of herself as unhappy, but she knew that she had been subtly but constantly frustrated, smothered by her parents’ over-protectiveness. And yet she had some quality, some characteristic which had made her guide, or the power behind it, choose her to be the hero.

When she was very small she used to pretend that she was something like a cross between a pony and a butterfly, golden with huge rainbow wings. She could fly away from the confines of her parents’ need and fear. It wasn’t that she actually went anywhere, she just went away.

The desperate childhood fantasy of escape was not what had singled her out. Too many children had similar fantasies, and the need to escape from families and situations that were far worse than hers. But something tingled at the back of her head as she pursued the memory of that fantasy. There was something there, like a tiny candle in the vast dark. It marked her as different. Made her different. Was a sign of the difference. A consequence. Whatever. Did it matter? Could it help?

She didn’t have eyes, so they couldn’t have been closed, but it was as if she had opened them. A warp of space, around the edge of which was a rainbow glimmer of distant stars. A sudden thrust of movement outside the star-lines and space-lanes. A reformulating of concepts of body and mind and self. Without any transition, she was on a narrow walkway at the edge of the Escherean matrix of place and connection.

It was not the only walkway extending into infinity. The polydimensionality of the lines and surfaces that made up the weave of location and relationship was so complex that she could not recognize or remember any part of it. All she knew was that where she was supposed to be was somewhere ahead of her. In there.

She went toward it, as colorless herself as the walkways and platforms, except for the blackness of her boots, belt, and ring. She had thought that she was right at the edge of the complex but that was not so. The lattice filled up more and more of the void, but still she did not come to an intersection, a meeting, or a platform. She did not actually enter it. The non-material construct stretched out in an infinite number of directions, as far as the white plane had done. 

She had a vague memory that she had experienced something like this before. She didn’t want to think about it, but was compelled to try to remember whatever it had been. Little flickers of something invisible crossed her mind, and that didn’t help. The inside of the back of her head felt strange, so she stopped thinking. There was an odd sensation across the front of her shoulders, and along the back of her neck. Her arms and legs didn’t belong to her any more, they just hung off her body. The compulsion to remember became stronger until it was impossible to think of anything else.

She was looking at the palms of her hands, but she didn’t know why. There was something glowing blackly on the first finger of her left hand. She turned her hand over, and saw the bezel of the ring. The symbol within it was profoundly meaningful. She couldn’t quite grasp it, but it was good, she knew that. It was her link to something far greater than she.

The pressure in the back of her head eased up somewhat, and she began walking again. She paid no attention to the structure around her, she just kept focused on the walkway under her feet. She came to a platform from which two other walkways extended. She chose one and went on. She did not count the number of platforms she came to. They were merely representations of something else, and their number was meaningless. In a way, the whole lattice was platforms, and in another way, it was all walkways, and in yet another way it was neither.

She didn’t make a conscious choice when she came to a place where there were different ways to go, she just went. Sometimes, instead of straight or left or right, there was up or down or some other angle. Whichever way she went, she was always upright.

There was no time here. It didn’t matter how long it seemed to take her to get to where things began to be different, because it didn’t take any time at all. Once she got there, it felt as though she had just started out.

The matrix was less dense here, but she had not gone all the way to the other side. She had come to the center. There was no telling how big it was, other than that it was infinitesimal compared to the greater structure. No walkways crossed it. Only one platform, very small, hung in the middle of it. And the way to get to it was not where she was.

It was over there. She could not see a way to it. When she traced her walkway back to some other intersection or platform that might lead her to it, the ways always seemed to go off somewhere else. When she followed the walkway from the central platform back into the maze, she could see no connection between it and the platform she was on. And while there was no time here, retracing her steps to some other point from which she could find a way would be tedious beyond endurance. And there would be no guarantee of success.

There was a platform that was somewhat below her, as it were, with a walkway that led to another platform, which was not that far from an intersection, which…. 

Standing on a surface was just an illusion. She had stood on surfaces at right angles — and worse — to the one on which she had walked away from the train. What would happen — the thought frightened her somewhat — if she stepped off the platform on which she was now standing, and tried to jump, or fall, or whatever to that platform that seemed to be below her? Well, if she fell all the way through the maze and wound up on that mystic beach again, she would just have to come back for another try.

She stepped off, aimed herself at her target, and landed on it with no more force than as if she had just taken a step. The weird feeling of compulsively trying to remember something that had never happened increased until it became excruciatingly uncomfortable. The intensity of it made her crouch down, her arms across her chest, her hands clutching her shoulders, as if that could somehow relieve the bizarre sensation in them. At the same time there was a feeling of exhilaration, not strong at first but growing. She was not confined to the rules of this place.

She focused on that, and succeeded in pushing the compulsive memory search into the back of her mind. She stood, looked around at the places and connections, found another platform nearer to where she wanted to be, and went to it without using any walkways. It took her only a few more transitions, an indeterminate number but not large, to get to where she could actually walk to the final platform.

It was in the center of everything. All around her was the weave of reality as seen from the inside. Beyond that, if such a term could be used for something that was essentially infinite, was the white dust, equally infinite. Or maybe it was a larger infinity, aleph one instead of aleph null. Or something. Beyond that was the ultimate void. If there was anything beyond that, she had not yet experienced it. She hoped she never would.

The walkway to the center was narrower than the others, but she had no fear of falling. She didn’t really need walkways any more. Given a little practice, she could get to any platform she could see, under her own power alone. What those platforms represented was another question. Somewhere out there were the worlds that she had visited, but she could not see them, and she probably wouldn’t recognize them from here.

This last platform was smaller than any of the others, no more than four feet on a side if it had been physical. It was the center of everything, the focus, the central knot. Though there seemed to be only one walkway leading away from it, it was connected to everything else.

The sense of weirdness increased. She couldn’t ignore it but she didn’t have to pay attention to it. She knew that this was the center, and she focused on that knowledge. The closer she looked at it, the greater the weirdness became. It was, in some ways, similar to the false sense of memory, of knowing something of which she had had no experience.

It was this knowing that she wanted to understand. She concentrated on the feeling to the exclusion of everything else. It seemed as though she had it almost within her grasp. The sensation of weirdness increased until she seemed to turn inside out. There was only herself and nothing more. Except another presence.

She did not pursue it. She did not know whether this other presence was her guide or something behind it, but now was not the time to find out. Her guide was a sentience, a personality, not an automaton. And behind her guide was another sentience, vaster, stronger, not directing but guarding. And behind the guardian was — she couldn’t see. The sense of weirdness became increasingly intense, and so achingly uncomfortable that she finished the movement which had turned her inside out and came back all the way around to herself on the central platform.

The complex multi-dimensional maze of places and relationships around her was as it had always been, but her perception and understanding of it had changed. If she were summoned into the fabric of reality again, she would not need to walk the lines to go from place to place. She would just go.

The platform on which she symbolically stood was tiny compared to the others, as was the world which it represented. Now that she was here, she knew that she didn’t have to travel to that world. She was already there.

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