Part 12 - Basically, That

Edna scanned the distant ground of Earth the Second for obvious landmarks - either from her time here before or that might carry from her own world. Their navigation instruments - as well as radio equipment, exterior lighting, several fuel lines, and Highmond’s fourth favorite cane - had all gone bust from the polite but devastating knocking of the Threshold Guardian. Oh, and the mashed potatoes had spilled.

In response to this news from Pythagoras, Highmond had lowered the zeppelin’s altitude, turned it out from the path of the storm, and asked that they all please have a look for any clue as to where, dear god, they were. Actually, first he’d had a time cackling “wildly” while being silhouetted by lightning, but that, he insisted, would add a lot to the adventure. Definitely more than a sentence or two…

So Edna stood - now with the safety of shoes - atop the zeppelin’s outer-railing, flanked on either side by Pythagoras. The ship was moving slow enough that they’d been able to speak at a comfortable volume to one another, so they’d chatted as they searched. Edna found that, while other robots she’d known had floundered in small talk, Pythagoras excelled. This was good, because she was more like the other robots - the practice easily overwhelming her with anxiety, if she felt it was going off at all.

Pythagoras’s skill proved sufficient to hold their idle chatterings happily aloft for hours - leading and edging their topics just enough to highlight the potential paths of conversation, never so much to feel restricting. If ever Edna showed the slightest hint of social worry or fear of some imagined lacking, the turtoid always found a way to make her laugh. It might switch which body it spoke from mid-sentence or point out that some land feature looked like this human body part or that turtle body part. The whole thing thrilled Edna in a way she hadn’t known such a mundane task could. It was, she felt, a singularly profound conversation, despite its entire lack of profundity.

They were failing their job though. Neither had yet spotted anything helpful - unless you count hills that look like noses as helpful. (If you do, they’d spotted three helpful things.) The best they could say was they were over a large, long island. Not Long Island, much longer. Not Longer Island either, which Edna knew was a place on a few of the parallel Earths.

She sighed and rubbed her eyes, rolling her neck back to push off the building stiffness. Before her gaze could make it back to the endless world below, she spotted something moving across the sky - several somethings. They were already too close for Edna’s comfort, and getting too-closer.

She cupped her hands across her brow to block out the sun, but she did not squint. Squinting does not make you see further. Eventually, when the somethings had gotten close enough to make out some details, she said, “Pythagoras?”

Pythagoras, who had been monologuing about mashed potatoes, stopped. “Yes?” he said.

“Forgive my ignorance, but is there a place on Earth the Second where the police wear tall hats and ride flying dinosaurs?”

“No,” Pythagoras said, still dutifully scanning the ground below, “not normally. Why do you ask?”

“Why do you think?”

Pythagoras thought, then said, “Because that’s where we are?” The turtoid looked up for confirmation and, following Edna’s gaze, got more than he’d wanted.

By now, Highmond and Pythagoras had had time to answer Edna’s many questions about what, precisely, was going wrong on Earth the Second. They’d done this between answering other questions about ‘who they thought they were’ and ‘what gave them the right’ and ‘in my study, of all places’. The last one wasn’t a question, but she’d kept saying it and they’d felt an obligation to answer for it.

Of course, there were no answers they could give that would, to Edna’s satisfaction, excuse them for kidnapping her - beyond maybe ‘it did save your life’, but they’d been smart enough not to try that one. Unfortunately, they also hadn’t been able to give a satisfactory account of the dangers their world was facing.

“Time is sort of, well, jostling around, you see,” Highmond had said, “and breaking apart, and smashing back into itself, and tying up in knots, and just going wrong in every way imaginable.” Then after a pause, “It’s quite the game, I say! Splendidly exciting!” Then another pause, “But for, you know, all the dying,” And another, “And the never having been born.” A final, shorter pause, “Terribly sad, all that.”

Probing deeper, Edna had learned two important things:

The first. Whatever was happening had - as of yet - had no apparent effect on Highmond and Pythagoras. They’d no idea why.

The second. There seemed to be a source from which the madness began. Highmond had taken to calling this The Beast at the Center of Time, if you’ll recall. This source was, conveniently, in Highmond’s home country of Ingland - they only knew it existed because they’d had to escape it in the first place. Less convenient, there was still no telling how far away or in what direction Ingland was. Practically the opposite of convenient, the “Beast” had sealed off much of the country behind an “impenetrable wall of every possible death”. So that would be a bad day, when they got to it.

Looking out to where Edna stared, Pythagoras could see the dinosaur-riding policemen on approach and was sure of two things:

The first. They were actually riding pterosaurs.

The second. Correcting Edna on the matter would not help keep them alive.

From another body inside the bridge, the turtoid asked Highmond to come out, taking control of the wheel. Back on the railing it said to Edna, “So, basically, this is what’s happening,” gesturing at their visitors.

“I see,” was her only response.

One of the pterosaur-riding policemen pulled a little red light from a satchel and sat it on his pterosaur’s head. It spun round, making a faint wee-woo-wee-woo, as they neared.

Highmond came through the door spewing words, “Have you done it then? Haha! Splendid! Just in time, too. We’re dreadfully low on fuel. Losing it every second, you know! Where are we, anyway? The Egyptian Republic of Spanish Netherlands? I’ve been getting a strong Egyptian Republic of Spanish Netherlands feel.”

He stepped toward them on the railing. They parted to give him a better view, but Highmond’s eyes darted from Pythagoras to Edna to other Pythagoras, never landing on large, encroaching reptiles that could be seen between them. He continued, “Do you think they have good dirigible fuels in the Egyptian Republic of Spanish Netherlands? I mean, of course they’ll have hydrogen, but I -- I say, what’s all that wee-woo-wee-woo? Pythagoras is that you? Have you got a screw loose? I’ll run and grab the spanner.”

He turned to walk back inside, but stopped when a voice he didn’t recognize came hurtling at them through a megaphone.

“You are in violation of galactic law 00004! Land your blimp immediately or we will throw rocks at you!”

Highmond turned, finally seeing the pterosaur-riding policemen in their tall hats, and immediately knew two things.

The first. They had not called him out to tell him they were in the Egyptian Republic of Spanish Netherlands.

The second. He was - it was undeniable now - adventuring.

Highmond steeled his nerves, steadied his knees, and stayed his bladder, which wanted to evacuate. Without thinking, he reached his hand into his waistcoat pocket, clutching for the thing that wasn’t there anymore. A pang of sadness grabbed at him, but he banished it with a look at Edna Star. Affecting cool detachment (he hoped), he cleared his throat and said to her, “So, basically, this is what’s happening.”

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