The diving board springs to assistance
Throws you off from the shore
Telephones ring in the distance
There are lifts getting stuck between floors
A truck turns into a cul-de-sac
Springtime turns to ice
Rucksacks turn into hunchbacks
Musclemen turn into mice
In a painless panorama
With its perpendicular might
The women are going bananas
And disappearing from sight
-John Cooper Clarke, "Valley of the Lost Women"
The two hitchhikers looked like an escaped mental patient and an exiled evil prince. She loomed skeletally over him as he performed the humiliating ritual of this hellworld.
Up the highway came a dusty sedan driven by a grizzled astrophysicist distracted by the mouselike nuzzling of a birdlike federal agent.
"Pull over," Perceva said.
He slowed. "No rational person would pick them up... But I will!" He drew past the deviants and glid to the shoulder.
They got in, the dark elf behind the wizard and the black prince behind the knight.
The car merged with the echoless emptiness and moved on.
"Where are you going?" asked the knight.
"Anywhere," said the prince.
"Good answer," said the wizard.
The dark lady said, "Did you fart?"
"My princess, that was your own malodorous beacon."
The scenery changed, subtly at first. "I don't remember seeing that on the way down," Crafton said.
Perceva said, "I'm sure I would remember a fruit stand shaped like a watermelon."
"Especially since watermelons don't grow here."
Around the next bend, the desert road plunged to a humid valley and they caught the sticky scent and saw the swelling rinds of the fieldbound globes.
In back, Pareidolia drowsed while Shadrach's eyes possessed her.
Crafton turned on the radio.
"The university remains in total lockdown, even though authorities insist that the 'song from space' has earthly origins. But don't take their word for it. The song has been leaked online, and here it is! And coming up, Fleetwood Mac."
The sonic starburst engulfed them. They drove through shadows of the sand-carved spires of the Cornucopia Wasteland on Na-il 6-3. They drove the woven viaducts and ramps of some motorway city in fiveline Ladbroke. They rode a golden straw gondola through the mapless streets of a faeward Scroll canal town. They were mites on a bird in a swerving summer flock. They were rivers of hydrogen in the mantle of the sun.
The tires blew. The car spun, scattering caltrops, and plowed the gravel of the shoulder. To both sides, sagebrush-dotted plains receded to long ridges like raised scars. Dwarfing the western ridge was a monumental thunderhead, black and pulsing with electrical menace.
From her lair at the mouth of a storm culvert, a demonic figure emerged. In desert camo like a snakeskin gymnast she danced to the midroad dash and raised a horsecock dagger as black as nothing over a white-slashed face hot with fury.
Perceva rolled in the rocky scree and came up on one knee with both hands on the gun.
"Go ahead," said the battlewitch. "Test me."
The agent shot for the knee and the blade whirled to swat the bullet like a poshball. She targeted the shoulder and the virago sidestepped and swung the unholy racket to cup the lead in crytpocarbon and throw it back, flattened, at the agent's feet.
"I've got this." Pareidolia hobbled from the car door and rose to her full height, chest out like a dodgy soldier. She coughed.
"Half-sister," Cataria cried, "with the authority of the Scroll and for the sanctity of the dungeon, I will unravel your irksome hex on this planet, not mine nor yours, by severing your cosmocallosum!"
"I know why you hate me." Pareidolia dropped her head. "And I agree." She fell to her knees. "Let it be known that I consent to the execution."
Quicker than quantum decay, flatter than a neutron star horizon, smoother than deep space, and so fast as to backstab the music of the spheres, Cataria swung the blade — not through the neck but the skull: the thalamus, the amygdala, the silver thread between one and all.
That plane-flat halfcircle flashed blue with the blade's passage, and Pareidolia put her hands to her head. Her skull was intact, but her face collapsed in astonishment.
"It's not a prison for the mind," she said. "The mind is the prison."
The storm broke. Through the crisp whiff of ozone and petrichor fell bullets of life.
Cataria dropped to her knees and lightning struck.
On a tower by the sea, a little yellow-haired girl said goodbye to her sister, a gloomy adolescent double her height.
"I go faeward this morning."
"Will you be gone long?"
"I'll be back in six years, to see you into space."
"But I'll only be twelve!" Her heart balanced on the risky edge of joy. "They won't let me go."
"They'll let you go, because they're letting me go, and they'll see what I did."
"What will you do?"
"Just you watch."
The tall girl tousled her sister's hair and leapt over the edge.
Kneeling in the rain, Cataria felt her sister's fingers again in her hair, and kept her head down, tears washed by the rain, just to feel that touch for a few more seconds before looking up and seeing, after all, there was no one there.
The storm passed. Out of the fog and thunder of indeterminacy emerged a new land, similar in contour, but the ridgelines were clean diamond and the concave plains grew with cross-spiral crop patterns of nitrogen fixers and predator attractants, edible and decorative respectively, but supporting the main crop — cryptomercury bioaccumulators — of the extreme eyeward Scroll.
At the side of the solarbrick road, their Ford was now an Orderfab Six, and repair drones were already descending on its busted gravbearings.
Shadrach sat in a daze, lost without his one object of focus.
Cataria kneeled indifferent to the outside world, pondering her heart and its mysteries deeper than space.
Perceva, having already suspected it during the song, remembered herself, and knew her home.
The human viewed his new enclosure with curiosity.
Up the road came an icecream racecar, a two-seater with its top rolled back to a tiny carnival wagon cabin, streamlined and jingling with the family anthem of the midscroll baron who had lent it to the driver.
Out stepped, of course, King Paracelsus Meerschaum.
Perceva ran to him. He bent her over in a theatrical deep kiss, and then flung her aside like a ballerina.
Cataria, exhausted, slumped down in her father's passenger seat.
Perceva looked back at Crafton.
"Catkin," the King said, "meet your mother."
Mining some obscure nugget of strength, the Princess Cataria faced her progenitrix. "Nice shooting, mom."
"Does it hurt your arm, moving it that fast?"
"I acknowledge your motherly concern. But you know that a level five bends time. Did you think I was doing that with a level four? Sorry, mother, if I needed a level five to catch fucking bullets."
"And I'm sorry I shot you. But you know, the real insult would be implying that you had used a level six." She patted her daughter's shoulder. "I just think there's nothing you can't do."
"Let it be known, the eyeward icon Wyzzyx Perceva admits at least the metaphorical existence of a level six."
The King laughed. "Now that you two have completely settled your differences... who's that guy over there?"
Loudly Perceva said, "He's my outscroll boyfriend. Crafton, come over here and meet my estranged family."
"We're actually very est-normal."
"Dad, for that you should be shot."
Crafton said, "Do Earth bullets even work here?"
"At last," the King said, "you've found a man with good questions. All I have are answers. Chemistry is everywhere the same, except on Avalon, but all weapons leaving the dungeons are transmogrified."
Perceva squirted a blood rainbow of cherry juice over the road.
"Watch out," the King said. "She's going to drag you through far eyeward high society, showing off her diamond in the rough."
"I'm great at parties," Crafton said. "A space always clears around me."
"You'll fit right in here."
"The dungeons. What happened to them?"
Solemnly the King said, "Your homeworld no longer exists. It exults!" He leapt in the air and sang:
Transeyeward does your planet rise
It darkens farthest faeward shade
For past the Fae and past the Eyes
No wall has our creator made
But stretched from every trashbound soul
A sketchy bridge to round our Scroll
"So this was your plan all along."
"I'm sorry, Catkin, for it to work you had to not know. The final seal can only be broken by an eldritch blade merging purest hate and love to demi-deify a wicked princess. It's been that way for a million years."
"Eight hundred thousand," her mother said, "and the old way was harder."
"And yet," her father said, "the people of old succeeded more often."
Shadrach got in the driver's seat. "Let's sully this immaculate island with the dust of our leaving."
"Don't tell me," Cataria said. "I remind you of someone."
"You're nothing like her. I want to forget her. Ride with me now into the nascent Backscroll."
"I'm not going to fuck you."
"Then you will eclipse your sister perfectly."
The picaresque landship roared off the eyeward edge.
"Well," the King said, "that was over much too fast."
His old lover wasn't listening. She waved her wayward child into the sparkling and gave her eyes to the boy.