LYSS DIDN’T think they would survive. Too many anti-imaginationists in the salvage lot had seen Dodge hurry her into this rotting smail-transport to avoid the Club soldiers . . .
We’ve a few steps head start at most.
... and now he was leading her up a buckled aisle to the pilot’s station, pushing a hand under the sleeve of his jumpsuit to touch the keypad strapped to his forearm.
“Deal the decks!”
He’s wearing his ammunition belt.
“Alyss has been recognized! Lord and Lady of Clubs on premises! Deal the decks!”
The general’s voice sounded from somewhere beneath Dodge’s jumpsuit. “Decks dealt! Decks will—”
The transport shook. Outside, Alyss could hear the metallic wheeze of unfolding cannonball spiders, the scuffle of running feet, panicked voices.
“This transport’s positioned against the lot’s outer fence,” Dodge said, pulling an AD52 from under his jumpsuit, “so if we can just . . .”
He aimed his weapon at the side of the pilot’s station and hit the trigger.
Fith fith fith fith fith!
Razor-cards embedded in the wall, forming a rough circle.
Everything’s moving so quickly and yet so slowly . . . Dodge kicking at the wall panel outlined by his razor-cards, and there, a Three of Clubs entering where we did just a gwormmy-blink ago. Has it only been a gwormmy-blink or—?
Before the Three of Clubs had even planted a second foot in the transport, Dodge somehow armed himself with a crystal shooter and sent out a swarm of luminous bullets. The soldier fell, but more were coming, shoving aside the lifeless Club and scrabbling into the ruined vehicle, their mauler rifles spitting shards of quicksilver.
Dodge pulled a slender rod from the top of his boot, and—
The rod opened like an umbrella from Earth, its webbing shielding him and Alyss from incoming shards.
“Get that off,” Dodge said, nodding at the would-be escape hatch and handing Alyss his AD52.
He sent a steady spray of crystal shot around the shield, aiming at anything and everything. Only enemies were on the other side of the shield.
Alyss kicked at the pilot station’s wall.
. But it was hard
trying to conjure, as she’d been forced to do in past battles with Redd’s card soldiers and Glass Eyes, swaddling herself and her forces in a cocoon of deflective NRG. She had to sharpen her attention to a pinpoint while still kicking at the—
A mauler shard whistled by her head.
“I can’t hold them off much longer!” Dodge said.
Alyss stepped back and held down the AD52’s trigger until the ammo cartridge clicked, empty. At least three decks of razor-cards outlined a circle on the pilot station’s wall. She aimed her foot at the circle’s center, kicked as hard as she could.
The wall panel came loose, clattered to the floor.
The outer fence.
She could reach out and touch it, but pressed up against its other side, blocking any chance of escape: the solid win dowless side of another transport.
“What’s wrong?” Dodge shouted. “Go! Go!”
He backed toward her, shield still held to their advantage and crystal shooter spewing its life-ending spatter. Club soldiers continued to advance, sheltering behind rusty benches, progressing cautiously up the aisle to the pilot’s station.
Then Dodge saw it: the second transport.
But in the quarter-instant he and Alyss stood staring at its impenetrable side wall, with mauler silver ricocheting dangerously around them, swatches of it began to vanish, swiped into nonexistence by an unseen hand, like figures being erased from a blackboard.
A man’s face appeared in the opening—the man with mutton-chop sideburns who’d been roughly escorted from the salvage lot.
“I thought I heard something,” he said.
He was holding what looked like a kaleidoscope, no longer than his forearm, the larger end of which he now dragged back and forth against the fence that separated the two transports. Wherever the instrument touched, the fence faded to nothing.
“You’re both welcome on board,” he said. “Although I doubt you’ll like where we’re going, it
be safer than staying here.”
The man’s transport jerked into motion. Alyss and Dodge had no time. Mauler shards were pinging and bouncing off the pilot station’s controls. Dodge’s jumpsuit had already been sliced through in several places. Another few paces and the Club soldiers would be upon them.
They jumped out of one transport into the other, landing awkwardly in the aisle, and Alyss immediately found herself attacked by scarves, blouses, a hooded cloak: imaginationist-prisoners offering what they could for further disguise.
“They’ll be looking for you dressed as a farmer’s helper,” the sideburned man explained, inclining his head and adding an almost inaudible “Your Highness” to indicate that he knew who Alyss was. He moved his kaleidoscope-like instrument back and forth over the hole in the side of the transport. Wherever the instrument passed, the wall re-formed until the transport was entire again. Up and down the aisle, prisoners had gathered in twos and threes to prevent the Club soldiers in the heavily partitioned pilot’s station from noticing the disturbance, but they now settled quietly into the shadows. Alyss and Dodge sat among them as if they had been there all along.
“Where are they taking us?” Alyss asked the whiskered Wonderlander.
“I couldn’t tell you the exact location, but my guess—and my hope—is that we’re going to one of the limbo coops.”
The limbo coops.
Dodge—surreptitiously tapping at the keypad on his forearm, transmitting tracking codes to General Doppelgänger—looked at her. They had heard unsubstantiated rumors of limbo coops, in which imaginationists were being imprisoned. But they had known for sure only that Wonderlanders were being routed from their homes and deposited
. . . if not suffering worse.
The noise of the salvage lot was growing faint and, as the smail hummed through darkened neighborhoods toward the Clubs’ extensive land holdings, Alyss studied the diminutive hairy-cheeked man. He had a single eyebrow nearly as coarse and bristly as his sideburns. Squiggles of hair pushed out from his shirt cuffs, and tufts of the stuff grew thick on the first digit of each of his fingers. The only place he didn’t have hair, it seemed, was on top of his head, which resembled the rounded point of a gwynook’s egg. And unlike Dodge who, finished with his keypad, sat as tense as wire, and unlike the others in the transport, the man’s status as a prisoner apparently did not weigh heavily upon him; he wore an expression of pleasant anticipation.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Again, he inclined his head ever so subtly. “Just an average tinker who makes his living by traveling the queendom, offering for sale the modest gadgets I design and manufacture myself, and which I trust either amuse and educate my customers or make their daily chores a touch easier.”
“But you have a name, I take it?”
“My name is Mutty P. Dumphy. But as I said, I’m a simple tinker who lives by what modest wit and imagination I possess, as all of my kind must.”
“You live by your inventiveness, but you subscribe to the Clubs’ anti-imagination propaganda?” Dodge asked.
“I don’t subscribe to it at all, sir.”
“Then why were you at the salvage lot to hear them speak?” asked Alyss.
“I see no harm in my tinkering with ideas as I do objects, if only to better understand why I don’t believe what I don’t believe. But mostly I was there in hopes of getting myself reunited with any number of friends who’ve been taken to the limbo coops. I can’t be sure to which coop I’ll be taken, of course. I don’t even know how many there are. But I can’t help being optimistic. I trust I will meet at least one of my friends, yet if not, others might benefit from seeing me, as I have encouraging—”
The smail-transport came to a sudden stop and Mr. Dumphy, who’d been standing in the aisle, went tumbling into the pilot’s partition. Ordered to disembark, the prisoners filed out on to an unpaved street, both sides of which were crowded with ramshackle structures that appeared on the verge of collapse—multi-level, if none-too-well constructed lean-tos complete with slanting floors and out-of-plumb corners. Around all, sheer walls of dolomite rose to unseen heights.
“Welcome home!” a Six of Clubs mocked from a guard tower, his mauler rifle aimed at the imaginationists. “Congregating on the street is not allowed! Idling is not allowed!”
Limbo coop residents had shuffled from buildings to prevent the newcomers from settling into already overcrowded rooms. Slowly, not knowing what to do or where to go, Alyss, Dodge, and the tinker walked the gauntlet of broken, defeated Wonderlanders, Dodge half a step in front of Alyss and using his body as a shield. Alert for threats, he returned the goggle-eyed stares of families—dirty, hungry, and growing more haggard by the hour; he scanned the cramped street, the condemnable buildings, and the imposing dolomite walls rising into the night sky . . .
“Why would anyone
to come to a place like this?” Alyss murmured.
The tinker glanced about to make sure no one was near enough to hear but still spoke as softly as he could: “Your Highness, I was trying to tell you I have encouraging news, and it is this: I’ve reason to believe imagination is returning to Wonderland.”
T SHOULD have been an uneventful journey from Talon’s Point to Hatter and Molly’s new flat in Wondertropolis’ Gimble Lane. The skirmishes that intermittently flared up between Wonderland card soldiers and Redd’s retreating forces were nowhere near the Snark Mountains. It should have been nothing more than a plodding trek from the lower slope of Talon’s Point to one of the public hikers’ cabins in the foothills, where Hatter and Molly could enter the Crystal Continuum and travel quickly to the capital city. Instead, they didn’t even make it to the base of Talon’s Point before—
about?” Molly asked, waking with her father next to a bushel of shady greens, the faint stink of caterpillar in the air. They had not been unconscious long. “I knew oracles were big, but . . . do they always act so weird?”
“Not always,” Hatter said.
He’d been as still as a fossil—he, who knew precisely what to do when facing an enemy of terrible violence and power, had made no move and uttered no sound as Blue confronted his daughter, issuing his one-word prophecy. Never before had a caterpillar revealed itself to a Milliner not in company of the queen, let alone a halfer whose confidence in her abilities had been shattered by a conniving king. Whether Molly didn’t remember being singled out by Blue or didn’t care, Hatter couldn’t determine. Without a word, she got to her feet and started down the mountain again, sullen, uncommunicative, her eyes on the uneven ground. As if nothing had happened. As if she didn’t care whether he followed her or not.
The hikers’ cabin was equipped with two looking glasses. The first, unfocused, provided access to the elaborate crosshatch of sparkling passages that made up the Crystal Continuum; entering it, father and daughter would be able to go anywhere within the queendom so long as their destination was equipped with an exit glass out of which they could be reflected. The second mirror was focused, bypassing the continuum’s major arteries and communicating directly with a few locations in the capital city, including Genevieve Square.
“Not Gimble Lane, but it’ll get us close enough,” Hatter said, referring to the focused glass.
“You shouldn’t have left us,” Molly pouted suddenly.
She was staring at her reflections in the mirrors—
not his. Hatter was taken aback. He thought Molly knew better. He hadn’t left them so much as he’d fought to prevent Redd from murdering Princess Alyss. At the time, there had hardly been a “them” to leave.
“I had my duty to Queen Genevieve,” he said, “to the queendom and to the Millinery. Your mother understood—”
“You should have come back for us. You should have stayed.”
That stopped him. She
know better, but knowing it didn’t help. He could not, he realized, reason Molly out of her feelings. And maybe she was right. He shouldn’t have jumped into the Pool of Tears and spent thirteen years on Earth, searching for Princess Alyss. Impossible for him not to have done it, yet he shouldn’t have done it, shouldn’t have left Weaver. He couldn’t have known about Molly, yet he should have known. He should have known and returned to his family.
“Do you have a lot of experience in looking glass transport?” he asked, which only seemed to give support to Molly’s complaints; he knew too little about her, not even if she was familiar with Wonderland’s most efficient means of public transportation.