Chapter 2 - The Threshold

First, there is no universe. Second, there is no lack of universes. What we tend to see as the universe - what lives and dies and sells timeshares around us - is only an infinite and infinitesimal facet of a greater multiverse.


Imagine a diamond, cut and polished, twisting slowly between a kindly old jeweler’s wrinkled thumb and finger. Your perspective of the world beyond shifts as it turns. The light plays inside and across, living a thousand lives of its own, showing them off mostly one at a time, maybe two or three if you've taken it for scones.


Now imagine every twist, every tilt, every errant shard of light creates a new facet in the gem. The diamond never gets bigger. The facets never get smaller. Altogether they turn through dimensions beyond our reach, but the light lives on and out - to dance between shadows of our understanding.


The Threshold is one of these dimensions. It is a space beyond space, and a time between times. Specifically, it is the gap that holds apart the timelines of parallel worlds.


You don’t need to know this to make tea, so most people don’t. For the common person, it just isn’t practical to bother with all the mind-bending, mathy, nonsense involved. Unluckily (she felt) for her, Edna Star had a Master’s degree in Impractical Mathematics (and Related Nonsense).


By now you’ll have guessed she hadn’t intended this. She had hoped, when she went off to school, to become an engineer, like her mother. But Edna will Edna, and somehow had found herself in medical school. To her relief, her family were delighted at the news - she was to be the first of them to become a doctor! Yet, when her schooling came to its close and the dust settled (not yet in her house), the paper they handed her said “Mathematician” instead. Looking back (hindsight being poked in the eyes) no one could trace exactly how this had happened - the best anyone could offer was that it had made loads of sense at the time.


This training, combined with her unmatched experience as a reality-hopping adventurer, allowed Edna to confidently proclaim, “I don’t understand,” as another giant something crashed into their ship. She stumbled, nearly falling to the hardwood floor, but catching herself on the nearby control console. Alarms blared to life, competing with each other for which could be the loudest and least helpful.


Pythagoras grabbed the ship’s wheel in his beak and spun. Captain Long-Name lunged toward the instrument panel where Edna steadied herself. He pressed buttons, threw levers, turned nobs. The alarms died - none of them having won their contest, but everyone having lost because of it.


The pair’s actions were all hurried, but unworried - like they’d practiced at them. The ship lurched one way, then the next, then some other ways, too. Neither Edna, nor her stomach, approved. (Actually they weren’t moving in space at all, but as that is the best analogue our senses have, that is how they perceived it.)


Finally the Captain responded as he continued turning buttons, throwing nobs, and pressing levers, “Ah, yes, well. There is a monster of sorts on my Earth that is ravaging and unraveling time itse—“


“—No. Sorry. I get that part, Captain Lord-Constable Duke Highmond Reffentrem, Twenty-Seventh Heir-In-Wait to the Council of Mim and Such Responsibilities There Entailed, Forever Shall they Weigh,” she tried to say it wrong - to drive home how much she didn’t care - but she knew as she finished that she had failed even that. Edna pressed on anyway, “I suspect that - basically - Saturdays are becoming Wednesdays, Wednesdays are turning to Mondays, and Mondays are out all together. Since all parallel worlds exist in the same points of space, separated only by their timelines, this sort of manipulation could be catastrophic to the whole of reality and everyone eating muffins therein. Pull the wrong thread too far, and it all crashes back onto itself. Am I close?”


He paused from his work of pressing nobs, turning levers, and throwing buttons, taking up Pythagoras’s open-mouthed staring in its place. “I, well—Astounding! Ha! Isn’t she something, Pie?” he called to the turtoid, but awaited no response. “Yes, I’d say you have the measure of it! The effects are a bit more—er, varied than that, but yes! Remarkable, I say.” He trailed off, mumbling more affirmations.


Edna picked it up before he had fully stopped. “Yes, I’m sure, and I think I should need you to tell me all about it later, but right now what I don’t understand - what I know to be utterly impossible,” she paused, having enough experience to predict what would happen next. On cue, whatever was attacking them landed another blow. She finished, “is that.”


The ship settled from the massive whatever-it-was that had hit them. The Lord-Constable pushed his rolled sleeves back over his elbows as he swayed along. “Ah, that!,” he said, “No worries there! Just some blasted, giant wraith. Damned thing lurks in the Threshold and harries us whenever we pass through. We’ll out maneuver it, though! Have no doubt!”


Edna had plenty of doubt. Edna had reserves of doubt for when her main supply rang up short. Edna had scrounged between the folds of her mind and piled up all the doubt that had slipped through the cracks of her careless youth in a doubtful little tin, just in case those reserves proved shy. Edna, in short, ranneth over with doubt, and none of this was helping.


“Oh, and,” he added, “You may call me simply ‘Highmond’, mum. That being my given name, as it were.”


She wanted to be angry at that. She wanted to say, ‘No,’ and call him something pithy like ‘Abductor’ or... ‘Blimp Boy’? (No, she’d probably have gone with the first.) But, for all his sins, this man had saved her - and given her the chance to retroactively save everyone she cared about. Plus he had found her watch, which - she admitted to herself, feeling grossly materialistic - mattered just about as much as the other things.


A few years ago Edna would have convinced herself that anger and coldness were the kinder path, in the long run. Perhaps if she let herself treat him as something other than a person, she would never care if he lived or died - and that would be what saved him. But she had seen that plan fail enough now to know that it was as doomed as any other - and far crueler.


She clutched her watch tighter. It tick ticked softly in her hand. Edna may be numb to fate, but she could feel this.


Fine.


“Highmond,” she began, as another giant whack came across the bow of the airship, “the Threshold is not a place.” Her voice was a level contrast to the chaos that had overtaken her hair (and the rest of the ship, I suppose).


Highmond beamed, “Yes, that’s right! Merely a gap, or a...” he tried to recall what he’d read, “a direction to pass through.”


Edna stared - straight-lipped and silent - her dark eyes prodding him to take the mental leap. Highmond noticed, and his attention left the buttons, nobs, and levers all together. He stammered, blushing at the prolonged eye contact (with the Edna Star!).


Edna realized for the first time how old he was. Grey hairs specked his mustache. Wrinkles took root wherever they could. Until now all of it had kept hidden, somehow belied by his childlike exuberance for - so far as she had known him - everything.


Finally realization slapped him back and forth across his wrinkling old face. He took a sharp breath, like he was drawing the idea through his nose. Before the thought could make the trip to Highmond’s brain and back out his mouth, Pythagoras chimed in. The ship’s wheel still held tight in its jaw, the turtoid spoke in a constricted, muffled voice that Edna was sure was an affectation. “Fa wraif duzzin liff ‘ere.”


Highmond eyed Pythagoras, disappointed he hadn’t been the one who got to say it. Still, he carried the notion onward dutifully. “No, I suppose it can’t live here.” He looked back to Edna for help, “Why then, is it always here when we arrive?”


Instead of answering, she asked, “What have you traded with the Guardian?” which - she could tell by the questioning gaze he passed from her to Pythagoras and back - meant about as much to Highmond as it does to you. She sighed, not unsurprised, and started limping toward the long hall back to the room where she’d awoken. Her pain called out to let her know it was still here, thank you, and it would not leave her side until it was sure she’d be alright.


Edna was reaching toward the doorframe to steady herself when Highmond snapped suddenly from his stupor, “Ah! Oh! No! Ms. Star! Wait!”


Edna had seen enough of these moments that she knew to freeze where she stood. There would be a creature about to drop on her head, or an invisible wall of magical, sciencey stuff ready to cut her in two, or perhaps she had an untied shoelace. “Edna will do,” she called back, one arm held out motionless in front of her, “What is it, Highmond?” Pain called from her feet to remind her she wasn’t wearing any shoes. Not the laces thing then.


The zeppelin shook with another huge blow. Sparks flew - adding drama and urgency to the scene, but having no apparent effect on the ship’s ability to fly.


“I—Well, when I heard you were awake, I was—you know, I can be quite loud, I’m aware…”


“Get to it, Captain.” She peeked up without moving her head, trying to spy anything that might drop on her.


“Right, yes—it’s only—well, I turned on a noise shield, so I wouldn’t wake you. I can…” he trailed off and she heard him fiddling around with some buttons, nobs, or levers behind her. There was a sudden hum of electricity in front of her, accompanied by a soft blue glow from what had seemed like empty air. (Why were such things always blue?) Just as suddenly, it fizzed out, apparently gone. Magical, sciencey stuff, it had been.


Edna unfroze, straightening up, her hand falling back to her side. She had been trying to come through this door earlier, and Highmond had had no idea. “Highmond,” she said softly, “What would have happened to me if I had gone through that field?”


“Er, well,” he was sheepish, “I suppose you would have been, well, vapo—“


“—Vaporized. Yes, I thought you’d say that.” She paused, then said, “Highmond. Why didn’t you just, I don’t know, close the door?”


“Well, that wouldn’t be very adventuresome of me, now, would it?”


Edna frowned. He was one of those. That made sense, given the everything about him. So many in her profession had this nasty habit of disassociating ‘adventure’ from ‘acting like a person’. They might break a chair they don’t own across an enemy they don’t need to fight. Or else they might speak only in short, twisted sentences, hoping to sound impressive at any passing bards who could go on to tell their tale. Or, as in Highmond’s case apparently, they might ignore simple solutions like closing doors for complex ones that involved things called ‘archon arrays’ or ‘nodal capacitors’ or ‘not doors’.


She turned back around, ignoring the question she knew he wouldn’t like her answer to, and said, “Pythagoras, can you bring my bag from the room?”


“Certainly,” he said, letting go of the wheel just long enough to say it.


Highmond, returning to the confusion at hand, piped back in, “But please, what is this Guardian? What of the wraith?”


“There is no wraith,” she said, “only a toll you owe yourself.”


“A toll I owe myself,” he spoke the words back as slowly and clearly as he could, hoping his mouth’s work at forming them would help shape the nonsense in his mind. It didn’t.


“Really,” Edna continued, “you aren’t wholly to blame. If this is your first time crossing, your Adventuring League should have told you what to do.” Another hit slammed across the ship, but no one payed it any attention, even the alarms seemed to have given up.


“Er, yes, well,” he looked to still be having trouble, “you know how these things go.”


That was the first thing he’d said to which she totally agreed. She did know how these things go.


There was a bit of an awkward silence then, punctuated by a few quick blows across the port side of the ship, but Pythagoras soon saved them - from the awkwardness, not the unrelenting monster - by walking in with her bag. It was the Pythagoras with the apron that Edna had met in the hall. She had the turtoid set the duffle on a table, thanked it, and unzipped the bag.


“Let’s see, where is it?” she was pulling things out, piling them to the side. A rope, a bedroll, some lanterns, a few changes of clothes.


Highmond blushed, “I— er,” he cleared his throat, “thought you said this bag was for me.”


“What? You don’t wear underwear?”


His face caught on fire, or it might as well have. He tried and failed to start several sentences. Edna, pleased with herself, decided to save him. “The bag was for me too, in case I ended up on whatever adventure it went on. Now where is…” she trailed off. She was pushing things around inside the bag, digging in each new spot. When she thought she’d checked every inch of the thing (at least seven times), she gave up and dumped it out. “Ah. Here we are.”


She pulled a rolled up news paper from the pile and began toward the door she’d come in through - the one that led to the railing round the outside of the ship. “Come with me, man and turtoid. It’s past time you met your Threshold Guardians.”


“Er, but what about piloting the ship? Shouldn’t Pie, or one of us, I mean—“


“—As I’ve said, Captain, we aren’t in space. The only reason to pilot the ship would be to evade the attacks,” she reached the door, turning the wheel to open it. The effort sent another sharp pain through her midsection. It pleaded with her to lie down, rest, eat some peanut butter. She grunted on through the rest of her thought, “Seeing as that’s impossible - and besides, I’m about to save us from that particular danger anyway - there’s no need.”


Yet again delightful curiosity won inside Highmond, defeating, for now, his ailing befuddlement. He raced over to Edna. Pythagoras shrugged (not easy in a body like a tortoise) and joined them.


Edna’s bare feet let it be known they would refuse any order to step onto that grate again, so she motioned for the other’s to do so instead, leaning through the door as much as she could bear. If she had to describe the character of their ensuing gasps (and someone does, apparently), she’d call them ‘quizzically awestruck’.


The Threshold is a lightless, darkless void without void. (I know, but do stay with me.) The whole place (that isn’t a place) is filled with a kind of pressurized nothing. In essence, it is ‘room-temperature’, permeating and perpetuating through the other senses.


Then there was the wraith - at once separate and a part of the everything that was nothing. It flew along beside the ship - or seemed to. “Why!,” Highmond exclaimed, in shock, “It’s me!” At the same time, Pythagoras made a similar declaration - though with less surprise, being used to seeing itself outside itself.


“You’r both wrong, of course. She’s me,” Edna chimed in. Then she spoke to the Guardian. “Hello again, love. I brought you another crossword,” she said, holding out the paper. At once - and from all perspectives - the Guardian reached out. Highmond flinched, Pythagoras retreated into its shell, but the Guardian only accepted the paper, smiling at Edna.


Highmond’s mouth was moving, even making sounds, but none of them were words. Edna offered some, to help. “This, is the Threshold Guardian. They are always here when you are, because they are a reflection of you, and anyone else crossing through.”


Still a bit shaken, Highmond said, “Oh yes. Oh, I see. Quite right,” and to the Guardian, “Well met, er, me.” After a pause he whispered to Edna and Pythagoras, “He is… a little off though. A sight younger than me, you know. Or you don’t. I don’t know. Do I know?”


“Hmm,” began the turtoid, knowing to ignore the question, “mine is exactly like me, but bronze.”


“Yes,” said Edna, “and mine is a great, animated, marble statue, sitting in a nice, comfy chair. I gave her that chair,” she added proudly, after a pause. “They’re not a reflection of you, but of every possible you.” Highmond nodded along - and then too long - until he was just nodding and turning back and forth from the Guardian to the others. His mouth started moving but didn’t form any words for awhile.


Finally Highmond said, “What, well, only — meaning no offense, of course, it’s just, er — what is it?”


“Right,” Edna began, “There’s no real answer to that question, so I’m going to pretend you asked, ‘Why is it?’

To which I’d say: when we cross between parallel worlds, we weave a new thread in a complex tapestry of possible lives. But the tapestry is full to bursting, so to add such a thread we have to make room - we have to remove another. The Threshold Guardian is here to make sure we do that.”


She paused, to see if they understood. Highmond’s eyebrows were in danger of contorting off his face. Pythagoras had cocked its head practically upside down. They looked to each other, seeing their own confusion mirrored back, and did what any swash-buckling, foolhardy adventurer would: they pretended. “Yes,” they said, and, “sure” and “of course,” blustering in confident agreement.


Edna rolled her eyes at her Guardian, who smiled back. Eventually, Highmond said, “He’s stopped attacking us. Have we won?”


“She hasn’t stopped attacking, because she never was attacking,” Edna said, “The Guardian was only ever trying to get your attention. You’ve a toll to pay, you two, before we reach the end of the crossing.”


“Right…” trailed Pythagoras.


Highmond picked it up, “And that would be…” There was a moment as they stared at each other, at Edna, at the Guardian, at each other again. Highmond sniffed a great, big sniff.


“…A thread?” the turtoid finished.


Edna sighed, squeezing her watch for patience. “The toll is a life not lived, a choice not chosen.” When that changed nothing, she snapped, “It’s just anything that represents something you’d like to do but don’t, or can’t. I gave her a crossword puzzle, because I’ve always thought I would enjoy them but I never sit around long enough to do one.”


This did the trick, and soon they were rushing about the ship - well, Highmond was, Pythagoras was already everywhere - to find offerings. In short order, they’d come up with four a piece - one for each of the two crossings they’d taken on their way to Edna and the same return trip. Pythagoras went first, offering as tolls the chef’s hat, apron, and monocle Edna had seen various hims wearing, as well as a stethoscope she hadn’t seen. These were all graciously accepted.


Highmond went last, handing to his Guardian a baton and a menacing cowl first. Then, once these had been approved, a worn, old book. Edna couldn’t see it well enough to tell what its title might have been. Finally, Highmond pulled a locket from beneath his shirt. He unclasped the chain with one hand, rubbing the pendant with the thumb of the other. “I… don’t know — I mean, this isn’t quite the same…” He breathed a heavy, painful breath. He let it out, without making another move.


Edna had seen his age written on the lines of his face, but for the first time she saw it coming up from within. He was probably only fifty or so, but he seemed as old then as anyone she’d ever met. She thought she understood.


Without a word, she grabbed his shoulder, squeezing gently. He started to turn but stopped himself. She could hear him inhaling short, sharp breaths through his nose. “It’s okay,” she finally said, “this will do beautifully.” He wiped his face with his sleeve and she added, “But you can always find something else—“


“—No,” he cut in softly. “No, I — I think it should be this.” Without another word, Highmond handed the locket up to the Guardian, who took it silently and disappeared.


***


The journey through the Threshold was calm after that. Highmond was quieter for a while than Edna had ever seen him, but soon enough he was bouncing back around - laughing, babbling, making repairs.


Edna took the opportunity to change into some of the other clothes she’d brought - pants she had thought were brown (they proved green in this light) and a buttoned shirt she’d hoped was plain (but had faint pinstripes). She let Pythagoras rewrap the bandages beneath these. Her vest was a little stained, with a small hole through the front, but she put it back on anyway - it would only get worse on the adventure - no sense in ruining another.


Shortly, they could see clouds in front of them, light flashing through. The distance was impossible to judge, but with every bolt of lightning it seemed closer than they had realized before, until finally they were in it.


The Threshold was gone and the turbulence back. Highmond laughed a mighty - if insane - laugh from the wheel and said, as loudly as ever, “Welcome, Edna Star! to Earth the Second!”


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