The characters of John and Kantuck belong to good friends, without whom this story wouldn't exist. Thank you so much.
Time had no shape. Moonlight glanced off a vast cloudscape stretching in every direction, under inverted mountaintops descending from unseen heights. Among the billowing masses of vapor sailed something smaller, a bulbous shape lined with sharp spiky ridges, trailing a ragged shadow in its wake.
Right behind a pointy prow, little round viewports revealed a circular room. In its center, a ship's wheel sat between brass levers; behind this assembly, gauges big and small protruded from a console, watched intently by a cat.
It was a large Maine Coon, dressed in a uniform that might be at home on a steamship, standing on his hindpaws while he gently steered his charge around the insubstantial obstacles in their path. At length, he turned to look at the taller person standing off to a side: an anthropomorphic doe with long brown headfur, whose space age clothes gracefully admitted Cherokee motifs.
"Status, Monsieur LeChat?" she asked.
"Transfer complete, Captain. We should be able to see Sheridan Station any time now."
Right on cue, the clouds parted, opening a path towards another, much bigger object: a flower of stone and steel, lights shining around the edges of each petal-like wall surrounding the central dome. The doe stared in wonder for a while, before turning towards another person on the bridge. It was a werewolf with sandy fur and a badass longcoat, seated in a chair of appropriate size, next to a board covered in wires and lights. One of the latter was blinking.
"Open hailing frequencies, Chief."
"Aye-aye." The wolf reached for a cable and pulled it halfway towards the nearby plugboard. "Never mind, they were faster."
The doe nodded. "Put it on loudspeakers then."
The voice flowing onto the bridge from unseen horns gurgled and bubbled as if coming from far away, always on the verge of forming intelligible words.
"This is the dream-rider Spirit Walk, captain Nata-Akon in command. We request permission to dock."
There was more bubbling and gurgling.
"Thank you, control. We'll be right there. Spirit Walk out." She turned towards the cat at the helm again. "Slow ahead. Bring us a quarter-wind down and half-wind to port, our berth should be somewhere in the lower spokes."
"I see it!"
Massive cylinders jutted out from under the base of the station, forming sparse rings of sorts. One of them was opening up at its flared-out end, letting light pour out.
"By all means, take us in!"
From outside, the Spirit Walk appeared to unwind, the swirling wisps of vapor around its tail blending back into the surrounding clouds. The dream-rider described a perfect geometric arc as it eased into port.
A solitary presence awaited right inside the access tube connecting the dock with the ship nestled inside to the station proper, by the winches that governed the inner and outer doors: someone in a hard-hat diving suit, who babbled like a mountain spring, waving to the trio.
"Harbormaster!" exclaimed the doe, stepping in front. "How nice of you to come greet us in person. Yes, I have a ship and crew now. Oh, in that case introductions can wait. Lead the way."
She waved her companions along. Cat and wolf looked at each other, then shrugged and followed.
The tube's other end opened into a circular corridor lined with doors: round and airtight on one side, rattling sheet metal on the other. There were many doors, but few people, and the wolf's big boots echoed, a deep counterpoint to the doe's delicate clip-clop. Lamps, spaced too far along exposed power lines affixed to the ceiling, yielded meager light. Some of them flickered. At some point they passed by a radial passage from which blew fresh air, carrying smells of ozone and rubber, if not distant mechanical noises, so faint one could suspect them illusory. The rare passer-by tended to be a human in oil-stained fatigues, or else another diving suit.
"If I may be so bold," LeChat asked as he padded along on all fours, "is it usually so quiet around here?"
Their host turned from the waist to look at him. The suit moved as if filled with liquid; all they could see through the faceplate was miniature versions of the swirling clouds outside the station, lit from inside by unseen means.
"Smaller ships have been leaving in droves due to rumors," the doe said, translating the harbormaster's answer. "For what it's worth, they expect a large dream-liner tomorrow. Ah! We're here."
She followed their host into a cavernous elevator, and her companions trotted along dutifully. It whirred and clanked all the way up, passing from enclosed shafts to open areas that offered glimpses of the station before another wall hid the view. The cab was utilitarian, its sides protected by thin grates, the inside lit every bit as poorly as the earlier docks. At length, it slowed and came to a stop; they walked out into a small room, from which carpeted hallways left in several directions. Varnished walls made the space appear more ample than it was, and just out of sight creaking doors punctuated the stacatto of hurried steps.
The harbormaster appeared to stop and remember the place's layout before leading them towards a door that looked somewhat more imposing than the rest.
It turned out to be a conference room, whose main feature was a bean-shaped table. The wall behind it sported a segmented window overlooking the station's interior. Two people were already seated: an older black woman, and a bipedal fox, wearing identical blue uniforms trimmed with gold. Both got up to greet the guests.
"Captain Nata-Akon!" exclaimed the other woman. "Welcome to Sheridan Station. And thank you for coming on such short notice."
"Kantuck, please. No need to be so formal." answered the doe. "Besides, it's my pleasure to see you again."
Human and fox nodded in unison. "And who are your companions?"
"Oh! This is Chief Sand Wolf, my ship's engineer," she said, indicating the wolf, "and that would be our helmsman, Claude LeChat. Guys, meet Commander Jameson, Monsieur Renard. You already know harbormaster Altun-Bulut."
The hosts gestured towards the handful of chairs scattered around the table. "Please, sit. Drinks?"
"Water for me," said Kantuck. "And me," echoed the chief.
"We-ell... I wouldn't mind a taste of soy milk, if you have any," added Claude.
"It's the only kind we have," Renard told him. "Not much room for farm animals on our little island."
He punched a few buttons on the wall. Whirring and clanking rose nearby only to die down again. Before long, a side door opened, and a mechanical maid rolled in carrying a laden tray. Renard moved it from its arms to the table, and with a slight bow the maid backed away before pivoting to re-enter its closet.
Kantuck sipped delicately from her glass. "So anyway, I hear you're having a spot of trouble?"
"You could say so." Jameson tapped her fingers. Her own drink was thick and brownish, filling the room with warm smells. "Thirty shifts ago, the outpost at Far Star 8 ceased all communication. The aether-graph picks up only noise from their direction."
Claude looked up from his bowl, licking his chops. "Presumably you sent a message torpedo?"
"Two of them," confirmed Renard. "We were about to spend a third, but then during the last full rotation our fast boats caught one coming from our missing persons."
"Except...?" Kantuck took one last sip before also setting her glass down.
"The cylinders were melted." resumed the commander. "Yet the strangest thing was that its on-board chronometer indicated it had been launched before any of ours."
"Let me guess," mused Claude, "despite the name, Far Star 8 isn't quite that remote."
"Indeed," confirmed Renard. "Our own engineers are baffled."
"Maybe Chief Sand Wolf here can see something we missed?" Jameson suggested.
"You can call me John to save time," the wolf said gruffly. "Well, it can't hurt to take another look. Better than rushing headlong into the unknown."
The harbormaster talked again, pointing at the floor.
"We'll be sure to ask, old friend." Kantuck stifled a yawn. "But first we're going to need rest if we hope to be of any use."
"How rude of me." The older woman did her best to look embarassed. "I'll have my secretary call ahead at the Garden Palace. No no, I insist. My treat. No way my friends will sleep on the ship when proper accomodations are at hand."
A clock on the wall ticked away the time, its face divided into twenty-four slices. Right below, in a big cozy armchair, Claude sat with a brush, working his uniform and fur alike. Half a cat's worth of hair had gathered already.
He looked up at the sound of a door opening. John walked in, pulling at the straps of his protective suit. It could have belonged to a mountain climber or aviator. Only right now buttons and buckles hung undone, exposing more of its owner's grey fluff.
"You can't sleep either, Chief?"
"My bed's too small. What's your excuse?"
"Mine's too large." Claude looked toward the third bedroom door.
"Let her rest, Lieutenant. She barely got any shut-eye since we sailed out of Whitewater."
The feline looked mildly surprised. "I have a rank now?"
"Sorry. Old habit from my days in uniform. What should I call you?"
The wolf smiled. "In that case you can call me John. I mean it this time."
"Thank you." Claude hopped down and proceeded to dispose of his discarded hairs. "May I suggest we head downstairs to see if we can discern anything about that message torpedo?"
"That's something to do, I guess," agreed John. He finished tightening his straps and grabbed his longcoat from the hanger. "Lead the way!"
The hotel was one terrace below the commander's offices, and it turned out regular visitors reached the docks by way of two different funiculars, one running under a transparent roof, the other further down though a tunnel. It left them a short distance past the direct elevator, so it was easy enough to retrace one's steps by following door numbers.
"It looks more animated today," said Claude.
"It's certainly noisier," John agreed. "So, where are we going?"
"Let's try this way," suggested the feline. He turned into the radial passage they had passed on the way in, a narrow space lined with ductwork. It wasn't long before they reached an open door, from which echoed the sounds of hammering and welding. Someone backed into the passage, still shouting at whoever was inside. They almost collided.
The man could have been thirty or forty, with new coveralls and long hair in a ponytail. He stared at the intruders for a moment, seeming torn between a desire to slam the door closed and the reflex to run back inside.
"Excuse me! This area is for authorized personnel only," he said at length.
"Oh dear," Claude answered, a purr in his voice. "We must have taken a wrong turn. Could you be so kind and point us at the harbormaster's office?"
The man's expression softened. "You must be from the Spirit Walk." They nodded eagerly, and he continued. "The boss left instructions. Follow me."
Down the hall on the other side was a quieter room, mostly occupied by a long narrow stand. A battered cylinder sat on it, six meters long if it hadn't been unscrewed into multiple segments. John surveyed the scene briefly, hands on his hips, before walking towards the engine compartment. He chuckled as Claude made a beeline for the nose cone.
"I'm afraid it's empty," said the mechanic. "They removed the cylinders first thing."
"What could have caused them to melt, anyway?" asked the cat.
"Presumably the same thing that made the transference coils burn out," answered their host.
"Burn out?!" John leaned in to see better. "They'd have to sustain a vortex for hours..."
"I know, right?" quipped the mechanic. He watched as Claude hopped on top of the torpedo's main body and balanced his way to the tail assembly before poking his head inside.
"Where's this outpost more exactly, anyway?" he asked.
"About two octaves apart from us. You can see why we're baffled. The torpedo ought to have spent the bulk of its time riding the aether quietly."
The cat turned to look at him. "Or not. This baby has the new Type 3 guidance system."
John's eyes grew big and he made an a-ha! gesture.
"I don't see the significance," their host complained.
"You know how they differ from older models, right? The Type 2 can only follow a preprogrammed course. This one knows what phase it's supposed to tune into, and energizes the coils as many times as needed."
"So... what, you're saying this came from farther away than Far Star 8?"
"It has their seal," pointed out Claude. "Maybe Far Star 8 isn't where you last left it anymore."
"Is it now?" asked a new voice from the door. "Wilder things happen in the dream."
All three turned around to watch Kantuck walk in.
"How are things going here?" she asked. "I'm starving."
"Well, we know more than we did an hour ago," John told her.
"We can leave it for now," added Claude. "Thank you very much for the help."
"Certainly," said the mechanic.
"Oh! One more thing." Kantuck turned from the door. "I hear there's an inbound dream-liner?"
"Yes, ma'am! The Regina Maria, finest ship this side of heaven."
"Are they on time?"
"Come to think of it, no. Rumor has it they stopped to fish out castaways."
None of the Spirit Walk's crew said much on the way back up.
Sheridan Station was maybe a mile across, its terraced top side going down step by step from the inclined skyscrapers around the edges to the central dome, at what passed for ground level. Streets covered in transparent arches made a distinction between inside and outside conventional at best. Kantuck led them with little hesitation on a meandering path that often seemed to pass right through cafes and souvenir shops. There were more people near the city's beating heart. More uniforms, too, not all blue and gold. And many kinds of creatures: with scales, horns, or antennae and multi-faceted eyes.
Further in, foot traffic was gradually funneled into a covered pathway that left all the hustle and bustle behind before emerging into an open space. Gravel paths soon forked and curved out of sight, lined with fruit trees that doubled as natural curtains for the vegetable gardens in-between. High overhead, slowly turning mirrors focused light from outside to bathe the garden in a glacial glow, that belied the warmth rising from the ground.
The doe slowed down as soon as they cleared the entrance, and surveyed the surroundings with head held high and nostrils flaring, while her large fuzzy ears swiveled around.
"Is there something amiss, Kan?" asked John with a concerned look.
"No..." She smiled at him. "In fact this place is better than I remembered."
"But what is it? Farm, or public garden?"
"Why, can't it be both? Room is at a premium around here."
He nodded slowly and looked around. "It is a nice place... Oh look, chickens!" In a moment he was at the fence, panting and wagging.
"And ducks!" Claude crouched low, tail swishing, looking with big round eyes at the pond across the road.
Kantuck laughed delicately, covering her muzzle with a paw. "Come, let me show you two one of my favorite places."
She led the way past an island of berry bushes, around a huge oak tree, and finally among a cluster of small buildings looking like gingerbread houses right out of a fairy tale. The nearest sported a sign above the door, with a head of lettuce painted on it.
"Move along, meat-eaters" she said playfully. "This joint is for herbivores like me."
Indeed, further in, more signs promised different delights. Cat and wolf gave each other a meaningful look.
"Meet you back here in an hour then?" asked John. Claude took a comically oversized watch out of his breast pocket and flipped it open briefly.
"Deal," she said before clopping away. They didn't waste time either.
"Can I ask you a personal question, Claude?" asked the wolf a while later. He finished scarfing down his half a roast chicken, and wiped himself clean with a cloth.
The cat was busy polishing a big fishbone. "What's that?"
"Kantuck says in a prior life you had your own ship."
"A boat," Claude corrected. "Barely a third of the Spirit Walk by weight."
"Even so. Doesn't the demotion bother you?"
Claude scratched his head. With a hindpaw. "We-ell... I don't see it as a demotion. Still doing the work I do best: steering us true. Much like you keep us going in the first place."
John nodded. "And there she is, pointing us at the moon."
The cat started grooming his whiskers. "The two of you must have quite the history together."
"We used to run in the same forests of youth. Though we didn't meet until much later."
"Before the dream?" Claude pressed him.
"You know... I don't remember anymore." The host came by the table, and they paid. "Shall we?"
This time, sleep came easily to all three of them.
Crowds had gathered on the observation platforms along the outer rim of the station, at least those allowing a good view of the visiting ship. The dream-liner was many times larger than a docking cylinder, so it used three of them for gangways, in addition to umbilical tubes. Lifeboats not its own were in the process of being towed inside, of a new model that looked like two bathtubs sandwiched together and painted bright orange.
The station headquarters wasn't in the best position for it, but still afforded a good view of the Regina Maria's elongated teardrop shape, and more so the massive aether-pump housings on either side of its thin tail, right behind the engine room's armored bulge.
"Now that's one fast ship," mused Claude.
"A beauty, too," added Kantuck.
John looked on without saying a word, arms crossed. Moonlight flowing in through the windows silhouetted him against the distant backdrop outside.
"Ah, to be in charge of those engines. Isn't it, Chief?" asked Renard. The wolf cast him a curious look.
Bulut's watery speech rolled through the observation lounge.
"I counted nine too," replied the doe. "At fifteen people per lifeboat, that's in line with the crew of a modern phlogiston rig."
"The Far Star 8 isn't anywhere near the Regina Maria's regular course, if that's what you're thinking," pointed out Jameson.
"You mean it wasn't supposed to be," quipped Claude.
She frowned at him. "What are you implying?"
"Come on, old friend." Kantuck turned to face her. "You know more than you're telling us."
The two women shared a long, hard look.
"Very well. A few months ago, Far Star 8 was sold to the Moonward Isles Company and remade into a research station. Few questions were asked. They're one of the Council's biggest sponsors."
"That's why you didn't simply dispatch a fast boat." It wasn't a question.
"I still think we should have," interjected Renard. John and the harbormaster exchanged looks.
"But why didn't the Company?" asked Claude. "It's their rig now."
"They did. It should have been there around the time both went silent."
Outside, the great ship was falling asleep, floodlights turning off one by one as tugs gradually ceased their back-and-forth. Soon, a slowly drifting cloudscape was the only thing moving outside. At Renard's tacit invitation, they trailed each other back to the conference room.
"What does that sound like to you?" Kantuck turned to her two crewmates.
"Likely not pirates, in any event," Claude pointed out, "since we'd be the entirely wrong people to deal with them even with all the secrecy."
"Nor sabotage," John added. "Sounds safe enough."
"There's your answer." Kantuck looked their hosts in the eye. "I suppose we can investigate for you. Presumably we can count on our expenses being paid?"
"Of course," confirmed Jameson. "And a substantial prize on top of it."
Renard grinned. "We seem to have a deal. I'll go shake up that functionary they sent us for any other tidbits of information he might be inclined to share."
Kantuck stood fuming on the pier, right next to the nose of the Spirit Walk, while overhead a crane danced back and forth, loading crates and barrels through a pressure hatch on top of the ship. From behind her, Claude's bewhiskered muzzle traced the motion not unlike a metronome, while his tail deftly avoided a tapping hoof.
"What's bothering you, Captain?" he asked, and quickly added: "If I'm not too nosy."
She looked down, smiling. "Of course you're nosy, kittycat. It's just, I can't stand people keeping secrets from me like that. Not when they call themselves my friends."
"Or when they send us into danger sight unseen?"
"That too. We're not taking any risks out there, hear me?"
Claude didn't have time to answer. From inside the ship came a heavy thump and a shout of "Careful with that thing!" There was little time to react before someone huge dashed past them, with a voice like water rushing into a tunnel. Bulut all but shoved the crane operator into the shifting, luminous fluid under the ship's keel before taking control and stabilizing the load. Only then the harbormaster calmed down, and walked back to Kantuck, offering a steel box with a thick round window set into its lid.
"Of course," the doe said, ears perked as if to better hear the instructions. "You can count on all three of us to use it right."
She looked small in her friend's hug. Few other things had such an effect. Then Claude blinked as their host extended a gloved hand. He put his fuzzy paw into it, and they shook.
"No need to tell me," he said. "I'll take care of her."
It earned him a pat on the back.
Claude spun the wheel, and the Spirit Walk banked gently, offering them one last look at the station. He pulled a lever, then another, and the ship picked up speed before its nose started to rise. Soon they were high above the cloud cover, so much that they could see lights clinging to the upside-down peaks above. Winking, shifting lights which formed elusive patterns. Another ship passed them by from the opposite direction: longer and narrower, with a hull made of flat panels. Its deep, haunting call reverberated through the bridge, and the feline helmsman reached for a dangling handle to answer the same way.
"Course set and locked in, Captain!" he reported, not taking his eyes off the dials. "Clear aether in three and a half minutes."
"Thank you," she said primly. "John, warm up the coils."
"Aye-aye." The deck plates started humming as the wolf turned a series of rotary switches. "Transference power in five."
"Excellent. Gentlemen, this is our moment. Make me proud."
Silence fell as the clock on the wall ticked down the last seconds.
"Ready for transfer!" the engineer announced.
"Speed holding steady," echoed Claude.
"On my mark then. Energize... Now!"
Outside the viewports, reality shimmered. Luminous waves came spinning from nowhere to wash over the hull, while a high note sang. Details blended into motion blur; distance became an abstract notion. Only the big clock kept going without fail.
Then they splashed out on the other side, aethereal ripples gradually calming down around the vessel.
Elongated rocks many times larger than the latter moved in unison right above, like so many whales swimming towards eternity. Far below this procession which seemed to have no end, clouds circled the moon, in ever-widening rings turning ever so slowly. Distant stars shone through the gaps between them, mirroring those that could be glimpsed towards the zenith.
"Phase transfer successful," Claude announced without prompting. "Bearing zero-three-four mark three-five-five."
"Steady as she goes." Kantuck walked around the helm to a rangefinder perched near one of the viewports. "Bring us level with the reference plane in, let's see... sixteen minutes and forty seconds."
"You have the bridge, Claude. Ring the bell, will you? Just so we know you didn't suffer a nap attack."
"Hmpf!" He looked pointedly the other way, tail flicking, while she crossed back to the ladder and trotted off, giggling. John followed a moment later.
The wolf tossed and turned in his bunk for a while before getting up. He'd felt the ship leveling off on schedule, soon followed by the "ding-ding dong" of the ship's bell. He must have drifted to sleep afterwards, but couldn't remember for sure.
He carefully extracted his large frame from the lower bed. The one on top had its blanket and pillow pulled into a round nest that smelled of cat. A noise drew him outside: the door to the other, unoccupied crew cabin didn't close well. He made a mental note to fix it. Across the corridor, the captain's cabin was quiet and, as his nose indicated, nobody was in.
In the mess half a deck higher, Kantuck was pouring over a pile of aether-grams with a pencil. At her left hand balanced precariously the newspapers they'd bought before departure. A mug of hot cocoa steamed within reach, well away from any written material.
"You can't sleep either, Kan?"
She looked up, big brown eyes seeming very old for a brief moment. "I've been searching for clues as to what we might be dealing with, seeing as our indirect employer was less than forthcoming."
"Perhaps. Phlogiston extraction is down as of late, and with it the profits of companies that dabble in it."
"An odd time to close down a rig."
"Precisely." Kantuck sipped from her mug before continuing. "They must be after something bigger."
John nodded. "Can we find out what?"
"That's where the trail gets cold. But we might have a who." She slid a newspaper across the table. "Vittorio Marchetti, controversial scientist and public figure. He recently retracted a paper from the Journal of Vibrational Physics. Hasn't been seen since, nor any of his usual collaborators."
"No inklings about its contents?"
"Not one clue. It's strange however that it was very well received by the scientific community at the time. So why retract it?"
They looked at each other for a moment. Nearby, the ship's bell went "ding-ding, ding-ding".
"He's taking this seriously," said John.
She nodded, smiling. "And I'm glad you two are getting along. Shall we?"
Claude turned around as they climbed the ladder, almost folding himself in half. "Back so soon?"
"Did you miss us?" retorted Kantuck with a wink.
"Naaah." His purring said otherwise.
"Anything to report?"
"Hardly, Captain. It's been smooth sailing. Not much life here to attract shipping." He pointed out at scattered lights on the underside of those migrating rocks. It took patience to spot them.
"Makes sense. Take the helm for a moment, John. I need this cat in the chart room." She waved Claude over and headed aft without waiting for an answer.
"What is it, Cap... Kantuck?" asked the cat in question, padding curiously after her.
"I need you to calculate a change of course. The one they handed out would drop us right on top of the outpost. Useful if you're a bean counter trying to save fuel, not so much when anything could be lying in wait."
"But you're better at navigation than I am!"
The doe sighed. "Perhaps, but also stressed out. I'll double-check your calculations."
"All right." Claude looked none too sure of himself as he clambered onto the nearby chair. A wood and brass contraption throned on a pedestal, with three or so dials that partially overlapped. They turned and tilted as he cranked wheels, peeking now and then at the map unfurled on a table against the wall or the smaller instruments scattered around.
"There. That should wash us a safe distance away."
Kantuck peeked over his shoulder before reaching for ruler and compass. She used both to draw a second set of lines on the map, stopping now and then to fiddle with a slide rule. "Good work, kitty! Let's tell John."
"The currents are strong up here," the latter informed them as soon as they were back on the bridge, "and I thought I saw Hesperids. This moonlight is playing tricks on me."
She eyed the compass before heading over to the rangefinder again. "Let her drift spinward for now, we're taking a different route in." She explained the plan while Claude took the helm again.
"Sounds good to me." John rubbed his eyes. "How long?"
"An hour and change before we have to get ready. Get some rest."
They headed below decks together. Neither heard the next bell, or the one after that.
The Spirit Walk splashed out of the vortex, scattering luminous ripples across the aether. The deck plates ceased humming, only to let the thrum of pumps be felt again. On either side flowed streams made of a reddish mist; deep down, icebergs floated over scattered clouds lit from below by the moon, while up high sprawling nebulae in shades of blue and purple gathered around brilliant stars that winked and sparkled.
A large chunk of twisted metal narrowly missed the ship. Then another.
"Whoa!" The deck pitched sharply as John strained against the controls, dodging a third.
"Easy on the wheel!" meowed Claude, clinging to a grate with claws out.
"I know!" The wolf relaxed his grip somewhat even as he swung the ship in a wider arc, scouring the viewports for more incoming missiles.
Kantuck braced herself on steady hooves, clinging to a nearby grab bar. "They all orbit a central point. Hard to starboard and up, Chief! We have to ride this one out."
He forgot to reply as one hand twirled the wheel while the other tugged at the pitch controls. The ship obeyed with little protest, plunging into the red mist. Small impacts clanged against the hull, soon replaced by a pitter-patter like hail. Then even that subsided.
"Can either of you see anything?" whispered John.
The doe shook her head. "Not a thing."
"Me either," confirmed Claude after a moment. "This soup is too thick."
A strong furred hand reached for the siren's handle, then withdrew. More time ticked by. At length, the mist started thinning. They emerged from a stream that continued to flow undisturbed under their keel.
A slanted ring of debris went on and on in circles, above one stream and under another, crossing both near their inner edges. Further in, bigger debris formed a second ring. And at the center spun a steel spider that dwarfed the Spirit Walk many times over, both streams becoming turbulent around it only to calm down again after a while.
"How did you know?" asked John, not taking his eyes off the scene.
"Feminine intuition," quipped Kantuck.
"More importantly," Claude pointed out, "what keeps them spinning? It's been a while now."
"Good question. Bring us a little closer, John. Carefully."
Details became apparent during the approach. A gaggle of fuel drums. A boiler. A small life boat, hatch open, with a humanoid body tethered to it, frozen stiff.
"No lights on the platform, either," noted Kantuck. "Let's hail them."
"Aye..." nodded John, handing her the helm. The engineer fiddled with his console for a while before declaring: "How strange. There's a lot of noise on the waves. I'm not sure whether this is normal out here."
"But no signal?"
"Nope." He took the helm again and steered the ship in a high arc.
"Did you turn on the coils?" Claude asked suddenly.
"Of course not. Why?" The wolf noticed the instruments. "Something's sucking us in!"
"Get us out of here!" bleated Kantuck.
"Right!" He pulled the throttles sharply. It didn't have the desired effect.
There was a hole through the middle of the platform, and from it spiral waves of light shot up at them, or rather they were being pulled downward into it. The vortex was skewed, a broken water slide twisting one way then the other with no respite. The hull groaned, drowning out the drumbeat of pumps for a moment.
"Stop the engines!" Claude shouted. "They're making things worse!"
"Make it so!" added Kantuck when John hesitated. At last he pushed the throttles upright and grabbed the wheel instead.
The ride became smoother. Ghosts of a lost world passed them by, just out of reach. Then another, and another.
"Should I turn on the coils after all?" asked John. "If a message torpedo got out of this, so can we."
"Perhaps." Claude didn't sound confident either. "We don't know what awaits us at the bottom."
"We're about to find out," Kantuck pointed out. The path straightened out, luminous rings passing them by at regular intervals. "Any moment now."
They splashed out among indistinct shapes, that the pale moon above only just releaved. Deep below, shifting points of light dotted some unseen landscape.
"Aye-aye, Captain." He let her have the helm before walking over to his console.
A forest of monoliths with oddly regular shapes grew around the Spirit Walk, gleaming in places where the electric glare reflected off the polished surfaces. Here and there a cloud played hide-and-seek among them. Faint echoes reverberated through the hull. And somewhere ahead lurked another ship.
"Friend or foe?" asked Claude.
"Let's find out." Kantuck replied, restarting the engines.
Above and behind them, glowing ripples disturbed the aether anew, bringing a rain of tangled steel.
"Uh-oh," added the doe, leaning hard on the throttles. The ship protested but lurched forward, as a beam longer than its hull shot through the space they had occupied seconds before. The dream-rider ran, narrowly dodging more missiles. Then something imploded back there, sending shockwaves over them. The bridge rocked, but it didn't last long.
The other ship turned out to be an oblong box with rounded ends and a single screw in the way of propulsion. It drifted slowly at an angle; there was not a light on anywhere, and many signs of disrepair even before counting several gashes in the hull, frozen plumes trailing out of them. A name could be seen clearly near the prow: El Corcel.
"That's one less mystery," said Kantuck, leaning against a viewport to see better. "Poor people."
"They must have been right below the platform when disaster struck," Claude commented.
"Want me to start the crane?" asked John.
She shook her head. "I don't see anything worth recovering. We'll mark the spot. After we figure out where we are, anyway."
"Something's out there," interjected the cat.
A moment passed before they could all see it clearly: a kind of mechanical turtle, that could have filled their bridge with ease, circling the wreckage cautiously. Its positioning lights blended into the background at a distance.
"A boat?" whispered Kantuck.
"It's teleoperated," John answered in the same tone, holding up an earpiece.
"Maybe we'll get lucky and it won't spot us, then," Claude suggested.
The machine picked that moment to face one of their floodlights. It promptly turned and ran.
"Follow that turtle!" shouted Kantuck, pointing dramatically.
"On it!" Claude pounced the wheel. A moment later, they were engaged in a high-speed chase among monoliths.
"You said not to take any chances, though," the feline reminded.
"That's true," she replied, eyes on the viewport. "Sorry, kitty. This may be our only lead right now."
"Fast little bugger," commented John. "I'd like to meet the engineer who built it."
"Looks like you'll get the chance soon," noted Kantuck.
Indeed, the rock spires were growing thinner and less regular even as the intervals between widened. With more moonlight reaching the unseen bottom, the distant foxfires gradually made room to countless translucent filaments undulating in aethereal currents. Soon there was nothing else between them and the rare clouds passing overhead.
Nothing, that is, apart from a shadow looming ahead of them, like an angry prehistoric mother to the machine they pursued. Just the central dome on its back could have covered most of Sheridan Station, and more dotted that shell, connected by arcades and bridges. Countless lit windows covered the cityscape in criss-crossing geometric patterns while other, smaller lights sailed around the structure.
"Full stop!" ordered the doe.
"You don't need to tell me twice." Claude grabbed the throttles. "I mean, aye-aye, Captain!"
It was quiet for a while. The floating island didn't seem to be going anywhere either.
"We're being hailed," announced John without warning. "Double signal."
Kantuck facepalmed. "On speakers."
"Unidentified ship, state your intentions." It sounded polite, but firm. Then a different voice added, "I'm guessing you've come across our new toy. Hope it didn't cause you any trouble."
"Excuse me," the doe said loudly. "Who am I talking to?"
"Oh! Sorry! I'm Layton, from the Morpheus Institute," answered the second voice. The first one interrupted: "No, this is the City of Milliers port authority. Professor, what are you doing on a reserved frequency? We've discussed this a billion times."
"This is the dream-rider Spirit Walk, captain Kantuck Nadie Nata-Akon in command. We were investigating a disaster, and got... forcefully diverted."
There was a pause at the other end while several other voices seemed to argue in the background. "Do you require assistance?" resumed the first one.
Wolf and doe exchanged looks. "We could use a chance to assess damage, thank you," the latter confirmed.
Another pause followed. "Very well. I have a berth for you in dock 5. Simply follow the beacon. Welcome to Milliers, Spirit Walk."
Half a dozen rail tracks emerged from tunnels spreading out in different directions to converge under an arched ceiling before they ended on the edge of a concourse dotted with kiosks. At the far end, a row of bay windows was topped by the words "Terminus Plaza" in big fancy lettering, followed by "sortie" below, like an afterthought. Trains occupied half the tracks, with small tubular cars attached to locomotives like bullets on wheels; a throng of people flowed out, heading towards the exits. Among them, three rat-faced individuals in shabby clothes ran carelessly, laughing as they shoved others left and right. A cry rose behind them. "My bag! Stop!"
One of the thieves made the mistake to glance back for a split second, and promptly hit a wall. A leathery one, lined with fur. It was a werewolf in a badass longcoat, watching with a neutral expression as the runner collapsed. His accomplice backpedaled, only to trip over a large white cat. The last of them launched in a desperate jump over both prone forms, tail lashing at empty air. A long hand with fingernails like tiny hooves clenched aroud her collar, ending the race.
Somebody else got through the crowd at last: a catgirl in her mid-twenties, out of breath, brightly-colored skirt suit in disarray.
"Oh, thank the moon!" she exclaimed, a trembling hand trying to put glasses back on a face framed by golden curls.
"I'm guessing this belongs to you?" asked Claude, indicating the briefcase he sat on. The thief he'd tripped scurried away, forgotten.
"Why, yes, thank you so much... er..."
"Name's LeChat, Claude LeChat at your service."
The girl had regained her composure somewhat. "Noelle Machin, reporter at the Daily Aether-graph. Delighted."
The doe extended a hand. "Kantuck Nadie. Likewise." Unfortunately that required her to release her own captive, who wasted no time vanishing.
Noelle shook hands awkwardly. "And you, sir?"
"I'm Sand Wolf," John informed her. He slapped the remaining rat upside the head just as the creature was getting away.
As foot traffic dwindled to a trickle, Claude reluctantly gave up his seat.
"Want us to walk you somewhere, Mademoiselle?" asked Kantuck.
"I'd be honored," their new friend answered, "but my fiance should be waiting. Ah, there he is. Henry! Henry!"
With that she ran towards the exit, where someone waited between a newsstand and a street food vendor: a catboy maybe ten years older than she was, his plaid suit topped by a flat cap. He hugged and kissed her, and the girl told him something excitedly. They returned to the trio together, the young man extending a hand.
"Henry Layton,", he introduced himself. "Allow me to thank you again."
Kantuck smiled, returning the gesture. "Small world. We spoke on the wireless just earlier."
"Oh!" His face displayed several emotions in quick succession. "Where are my manners? Did you have lunch already? Perhaps we could get properly acquainted over a full plate."
Claude perked up and licked his chops, tail making figures eight in the air.
"How could we say no?" Kantuck winked at John, who nodded gravely. Only his ears were doing the same dance as Claude's.
The automat sported thoroughly streamlined decor, all chrome and vinyl over a checkered floor. They found a table near the windows, looking out at the swept curve of the train station's roof across the square. The long horizontal lines of surrounding buildings all pointed at it like so many arrows. A steam clock towered at the center of this cityscape, splitting the mostly two-wheeled traffic around it. Now and then blimps sailed low over the rooftops.
"So, what brings you to Mille Ville?" asked Layton amiably.
Kantuck flicked an ear. "Mille Ville?"
"It's less of a mouthful than City of Milliers, don't you agree?" interjected Noelle. She fished into her salad bowl with a fork.
"Good point," agreed the doe. She dove into her own bowl with great pleasure. "To answer your question, would you believe our little prairie house was picked up by a tornado and carried all the way to this wonderful land?"
Their hosts laughed politely. "What a plastic description. Isn't that right, Henry?"
"I'll let you be the judge of that, darling," he answered. "Literary matters are your domain."
Claude looked up from his own bowl, in which well-disguised cubes of meat shared a thick sauce with perfumed leaves. "If you'll indulge a cat's curiosity, what is it you teach, Professor?"
"Why, archaeology," Layton said amiably. "You wouldn't believe how many artifacts human beings have produced during their short time in the dream."
"It's new," noted John.
"The shipwreck back there."
"Ah." Layton's ears drooped. "But then where did it come from? Shipping lanes have long moved outward along with people."
"That's a long story you might find hard to believe," explained Kantuck, "and part of the reason why we are here."
"Might it have something to do with this?" asked Noelle. She rummaged into her briefcase and came up with a thick pile of bound pages.
The doe's big brown eyes grew even bigger. "That's the Journal of Vibrational Physics, issue #345!"
"The one with Marchetti's paper?" asked Claude. The women nodded. "Wait... if that's what you had in the bag, why would anyone want to steal it?"
"They probably thought it was something more valuable," offered Layton.
John appeared to notice for the first time that his plate had emptied a while ago. "What now?" he asked.
"We were going to deliver this to the institute," Noelle explained while packing up the journal again. "Why don't you tag along?"
"A brilliant idea, darling." Layton turned towards the trio. "My colleagues from the department of engineering might even take an interest in your story."
The taxicab drove leisurely along geometric streets. People startled as the electric six-seater snuck up on them and hurried out of the way, while the driver waited patiently. Building styles grew more varied away from the center: glamorous Art Deco towers that almost poked through the dome; multi-story houses with naval motifs; strange, daring shapes of reinforced concrete. People were equally eclectic, from ordinary humans all the way to furred and feathery types. More than a few were in diving suits.
"Aethereals appear to be at home in Mille Ville," remarked Kantuck.
"We're a college town," explained Layton. "Who else can teach students about the dream better than its native denizens?"
"Besides," chirped Noelle, "they have their own rumor grapevine. But shush!"
Past a covered bridge that crossed a canal on the turtle's back lay a smaller dome, in good part occupied by a park. From the circular edge road where the car dropped them, a twisty staircase descended among trees and fences that seemed to compete as to which was older. It continued along a dirt path winding its way among bushes, over an expanse of grass and flowers. Long, low buildings zig-zagged across it, with facades reduced to rows of glass panes separated by flat slabs of concrete. They all pointed at a grand hall in the middle, whose main feature was a rooftop shaped much like a reflection of the majestic arches above them, painted azure with just a hint of clouds.
Into this hall they went, passing two sets of glass doors. Inside, a couple of hallways intersected at different levels; a chilly air current blew without pause. Young people in colorful clothes sat in clusters on the steps separating sections of the floor. Some of them shuffled aside to let them pass. There was room enough anyway.
Up a flying staircase, and through an antechamber buffered by soundproofed doors, was a well-lit office, all clean lines and soft colors. Its only occupant didn't immediately react to the polite coughs of his visitors. Louder knocks on the doorframe worked however, albeit rather startingly.
A pile of paper flew through the air like so many butterflies, two strong arms flailing about in a vain attempt to catch a few before they landed on those spread all over the coffee table, increasing the chaos. The owner of said arms wore a sweater vest over a shirt with its sleeves rolled up, and comfortable pants. His graying hair receded from the forehead, but still flowed around a face with vivid eyes that only now began to focus on the new arrivals.
"Henry! You're back so soon? Help me up with these, will you?"
"I've been away for a few hours," noted Layton, but walked in to lend a hand. "Have you made any progress?"
The host waved dismissively. "Bah! Whoever drew these plans was mocking us. Look here. What are we supposed to make of it?"
"Dad will be disappointed," Noelle chimed in. She didn't seem upset.
"Why didn't you tell me we have guests!" The man's face lit up. "Still chasing that big story, young lady?"
She smiled. "Always, sir. And in the mean time I have something for you."
The man all but danced with joy seeing the journal. "Now this should get us on the right track! All we need is a ship to test the new model. I don't suppose you happen to have one?" he addressed the crew of the Spirit Walk, appearing to notice them at last.
"By the way, these are some new friends," Noelle told him. She introduced the trio. "Everyone, this is Professor Nikos Georgas, engineer extraordinaire."
"Any friend of yours is welcome here," he answered graciously. "What can an old tinkerer do for such brave riders of the dream?"
Kantuck looked at her crew before answering. "Well, sir, since you asked... We can't reveal too much, but do you happen to know what could make a phase vortex stretch across nine octaves or so, and last for as many rotations?"
"Nine octaves?!" Layton's jaw dropped. "That's almost clear across the dream!"
"That's right! Do you know what that means, Henry? That devil, Marchetti, has actually done it!"
"And there's been no word on the waves?" interjected Noelle. "I could be the first to interview him!"
"It might prove difficult." Claude looked up at Kantuck. "Sorry, Captain, but we're going to need help. Marchetti is missing, and the circumstances of his disappearance do not bode well."
"Hey," Noelle admonished him playfully, "I'm a reporter. I don't reveal my sources."
Georgas was about to speak when the phone rang. He stepped over the coffee table to get at his desk. "Hello? By sheer coincidence, yes, he's right here. It's for you, Henry."
The latter look puzzled as he picked up the handset. "Layton. Same to you, Ma'am. She's with me. Certainly."
Whoever was on the other end could be heard well enough in the room by the time Noelle took over. "Yes. Of course, boss. I have the story you wanted, and a bigger one on top of that. But I told... All right. You'll have it on your desk within the hour."
She slammed the phone down. "That woman, I swear! We had a deal for today. Can I borrow your teleprinter, please?" she asked their host.
"Of course! Room 18, down the hall. I'll walk you there."
"Oh, you don't have to." She laughed. "It's hardly the first time, remember?"
"I was going to take some air anyway," Georgas answered without missing a beat. "Coming, everyone?"
"And this is how we ended up with the wireless boat," the same was telling John, who listened carefully, as they climbed the stairs to get back inside. "My colleagues and I made it work, but Henry came up with the idea and even much of the overall design."
"I was only thinking of the benefits to archaeology," Layton confessed.
"My wise lover," said Noelle. She was just coming down the hallway to meet them. "How was the walk?"
"Wonderful, thank you," answered Kantuck. "Such lush gardens. And the conversation was most..."
"Did I forget to lock the door again?" Georgas interrupted her.
"No no, you locked it. I made sure to remind you," Layton assured him.
They filed in carefully, trying not to disturb anything. The antechamber was mostly as they had left it, but the office was another story. Around the upturned coffee table was a conspicuous absence of scattered notes and blueprints. Desk drawers were hanging out as well, but little else had been touched.
"The journal is missing too," noted Claude.
"Why would anyone steal it?" asked Layton. "Worst case, we can get another copy over aether-graph once we're back to civilization."
"Someone's in a hurry," stated John.
Georgas rubbed his bald spot. "I... I suppose we should call the police."
"They're not likely to do much about the theft of some academic scribbles," pointed out Noelle. "Let's ask some questions first."
The receptionist resembled a foxy version of Noelle. She gave the troupe a cursory look from behind the window protecting her desk, before focusing on the two academics. "How can I help you, Professors?"
"Did anyone look for me while I was out?" inquired the older of the pair.
"Na, ja," she answered matter-of-factly. "Herr Barnett, from Barnett Motors and Shipping. I told him you weren't in, but he insisted to call your office anyway."
"That man. Did he go upstairs as well?"
The woman shook her head. "Not this time, sir."
Both academics looked at each other in puzzlement. Layton scratched his head, tail curling into a question mark. "Wait. Was his assistant with him, by any chance? Slim, hairy fellow, moves quietly?"
"You know," she said, lifting a finger, "now that you mention it, I... I'm not sure anymore."
She seemed terribly puzzled for a moment. Then behind her, a tube hissed and popped, releasing a small capsule. She picked it up deftly, forgetting about the group for a moment. "Is there anything else?" she added, seeing they were still there.
"No, no, thank you." Layton pushed everyone towards the exit. "You've been very helpful."
"Well, we have a lead," concluded Noelle. "Now to see what else we can find out about this Barnett."
"Oh, I know where he lives," Georgas told her with a twinkle in the eye. "Why don't we pay him a visit? It's not far. We can take the department car."
The minivan was shaped like a bar of soap and slid like one too, smoothly gliding down the road. It took them from the open spaces of the institute and into cramped corridors lined on both sides with two- and three-story buildings that sagged against each other. Hardly anyone seemed to fix windows when they broke, or for that matter the pavement; the local cats didn't seem to mind. Women in colorful dresses looked on from small balconies lined with flowers while hanging laundry out to dry above painted store signs.
It was many twists and turns later that they emerged into a different space, streets widening between ornate walls overhanging with plants. The mansions that could be seen behind them rivaled even the institute's lofty halls. Some of them were even in the same style, all flat rooftops and rows of garages in front. It was hard to tell them apart.
At last, Georgas pulled in front of a gate and honked. The man who came to open was very short, with a Lincoln beard and a prehensile tail; somehow he made even a tailored suit sit sloppily on himself. His expression upon recognizing the guests was priceless; they scrambled out of the car in a hurry to follow as he ran towards the back of the house, shouting something indistinct.
A much bigger man sat on the porch, sweating in a thin pinstripe suit with jacket wide open. A homburg sat on the table, next to a bowler hat; around them were spread numerous sheets of paper.
"Mister Georgas," he greeted, once his eyes focused on the guests. "To what do I owe the intrusion?"
"Why, I'm simply returning the visit, Barnett," replied the latter. "I'd like my plans back now, if you don't mind."
The host puffed. "I'm shocked. This sounds like an accusation. Why do you think these are yours? When you wouldn't sell the design, I went and talked to a different engineer."
"You think I can't recognize what I've been staring at for the past week?"
"It's my word against yours," Barnett pointed out, "even if your claim wasn't completely ridiculous."
"His assistant smells like our thief," Claude hissed discreetly. John gave a small nod as Noelle glanced at them and earflicked, a hand on Layton's elbow.
"When you took the briefcase," she asked looking squarely at the hosts, "did you remember to check the inner pocket? That's where I had my press card."
Barnett's grin slowly faded, and he turned to his assistant without a word. The little man shook his head, looking down.
"Oh well." His boss shrugged and started gathering the scattered paper. "No harm done, am I right? We got ahead of ourselves and borrowed the plans to take a look. Sorry about that. Let me know what sum of money would settle the matter."
He put everything back in the briefcase and handed it over, while Layton seethed. "Why, you..."
"Tut, tut," added the industrialist, "don't say anything you might regret later. As for you, Mr. Georgas, do you really know what these plans are for?"
"What do you mean?"
"I'll give you a hint: Marchetti isn't after fast travel. Regrettably, in my opinion; figuring out how to cross the dream faster would bring huge profits."
"Then what?" asked Kantuck, and added quickly, "If you don't mind me asking."
Barnett regarded her carefully. "I'd really like to know myself. Maybe we can help one another. Do you have any leads as to his whereabouts yet?"
"You think we're trying to find him?"
"Come on," the man laughed. "Three strangers coming to town in the middle of nowhere and keeping this kind of company?"
Kantuck looked at him from the side. "And if you were right?"
"Suit yourself. Just remember this is a big shark you're after. And he wants something equally big. I don't know; a superweapon or something. Careful out there, lady."
It was quiet in the mess hall of the Spirit Walk, but for the ticking of a table clock, punctuated now and then by the ship's hull bumping against the pier: aether never quite stood still even in a closed dock.
Three plumes of steam rose into the air from as many cups, each carrying its own delicious smell: cocoa for the doe, tea for the wolf, and for the cat, soup that might have had chicken in it at some point.
"Options, gentlemen," prompted Kantuck.
"I say we cut our losses," John said slowly. "Go back, tell our employer what we learned so far. It's a long enough return trip already."
"Dunno," spoke Claude. "Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back."
"What are you saying, kitty?" the doe asked gently.
"Our new friends seem honorable enough," explained the feline. "It's not like we can find out much more without sharing some information. Who can we trust with it if not a journalist?"
She nodded. "Well, we do have another day or two until the local shipwrights make time for us. It's not like we can stay cooped up on the ship until then."
"I did want to buy a good multimeter, come to think of it." John drank from his cup. "And a new door lock."
"And I want only the best for my ship," said Kantuck, "so we should check out the stores we saw downtown."
"It would be a nice coincidence if we happened upon the offices of the Daily Aether-graph, too, while we're at it," added Claude, and started lapping at his own cup. The doe smiled and drank more from hers.
Their steps rang hollow through the nearly empty train station. In the crude light, janitors took advantage of platforms largely free of foot traffic. The trio dodged heavy vacuum cleaners, hopping over hoses, on their way to the exchange office, then past the newsstand as they headed to the exit.
"Last copy!" Kantuck announced cheerfully, waving a folded paper with the words Daily Aether-graph visible at the top. "We're in luck!"
All three of them gathered over the pages. There were mostly local news that made little sense to them. Noelle's article was another story: ships had been disappearing one after another in more remote areas. People blamed everything from pirate activity and freak storms to secret weapons being tested in advance of a war. El Corcel also received a mention near the end, but few conclusions were apparent.
The big steam clock out in front whistled the hour as they walked by, its faces momentarily obscured by puffs of vapor. It was mid-morning, and even the blimps passing overhead looked sedated. Vendors along the nearby street mall were all too happy to have customers given the time, like the humanoid magpie running a small but well lit hardware store, bits of well-polished metal stuffed in every corner. It still took a good deal of haggling to get what they needed, while Claude sat pretty, ignoring sideways glances of mistrust directed at him.
They were crossing the street towards what looked like a bookstore when the ground shook. A deep rumble swept the space below their feet, making it hard to stay upright. High above, the dome rang.
"What was that?" asked Kantuck, disentangling herself from John's arms. "Something blew up?"
"There was no initial shock," he pointed out.
"Then what?" she insisted. "An earthquake? We're nowhere near land."
Claude's tail waved in front of them. "That can wait. Look!"
Not far from them, people were running and shouting towards a plume of black smoke going up over rooftops. They went the same way, slowly at first then running down side streets. Tucked away out of sight was an old lodging house. It was cheaply built, and had seen better days. Doubly so now that a big chunk of its front half was scattered onto the pavement, floors and walls reduced to piles of rubble while the intact portions burned with open flame. A mismatched group of people scrambled to form a human chain, and bring buckets of dirt and gravel. It wasn't very effective.
"My baby!" screamed a woman in a threadbare housedress, face covered in grime. "Help me!"
"Where?" asked Kantuck, extending her arms in support.
"Down there!" A trembling hand pointed at a hole into the basement, mostly covered by a large chunk of masonry.
Claude promptly poked his head in it. "I can't fit! Is there another way in?"
Without a word, John stepped forward and strained against the obstruction. It moved... a little bit. An aethereal walked over ponderously and lent a hand, diving suit rippling and bulging. The crawlspace widened noticeably.
The feline dashed into it and went out of sight before anyone could react.
"He'd better be all right," Kantuck said, narrowing her eyes. John put a hand on her arm. Then another scream drew their attention.
Just under the roof was an old man with goat-like traits clinging to half a collapsed balcony, while flames raged out of a nearby window. Kantuck's eyes darted across the facade, drawing a route.
"Give me a boost," she told the wolf. He joined his hands together for her to step on with a hoof before launching into the air. She landed precisely on top of the rubble pile only to jump again, and again.
"Come on, I'll carry you," they heard her say from the street.
The old man looked equal parts terrified and exhilarated by the time they returned to ground level. "Just like back in the day! Thank you, young lady!"
Kantuck didn't have time to answer. More of the building's internal structure collapsed noisily, flaming bits spreading inside the ground floor.
"Did Claude come out yet?"
They could only wait. The heat grew and smoke thickened; more people gathered on the pavement. At length, a fluffy tail could be seen inside the opening, followed by two paws that scraped the rubble with extended claws to gain traction. There was a thumping noise, then a baby started crying. The feline reared out of the hole, fur no longer white. He favored a front paw.
"A little help here, please?" he meowed.
With precise movements, John took off his coat and handed it to Kantuck, who wasted no time draping it around Claude and picking him up. By then the wolf had already reached down the chute. He didn't have to rummage inside much before pulling out the source of the crying: a well-wrapped baby, covered in soot but sounding quite healthy.
The mother fell to her knees, holding her child. She only allwed the elderly goat to move her our of the way at the approaching siren of a fire engine: a water tank on huge spoked wheels, its crew dangerously perched wherever there was room for a little platform. They hopped down before the motors stopped whirring, and set to work extending hoses.
"Small town," said a voice behind the reunited trio. "Does trouble follow you around, or the opposite?"
"Noelle!" exclaimed Kantuck, turning around. She gently set Claude down before returning John's coat. "Isn't it below your pay grade to cover this sort of incident?"
"I'm grounded," explained the catgirl. "Besides, aren't you getting the impression there's more of a story to unearth here?"
"There's a lot of stuff buried in the area, that's certain," Claude quipped.
Noelle only then seemed to notice his condition. "Monsieur LeChat! What happened to you?"
"I had a run-in with a failing furnace."
"He saved my baby." the woman told her tiredly. "How can I ever repay that?"
The old man winked at her. "Oh, I can guess what our heroes need right now. Follow us. We have friends who will be happy to get you clean and proper."
"Go!" Noelle waved them away. "I'll find you soon as we finish here."
With that she pivoted on her heels to join a lanky man in a trilby who was busy taking pictures of the scene with a camera the size of his head, and looked for someone to interview.
"Our colleagues in the geology department say they don't know what can cause tremors like the one we experienced," explained Georgas. The band had gathered in his office again, seated however they could around the coffee table. Alone, Claude peeked out from under it, tailtip swishing slowly on the opposite side. "In fact, they've asked for our help to pinpoint the source."
"Is there any way we can help?" asked Kantuck. John tilted his head at her.
"As a matter of fact, yes, there is. We're short on ships, you see."
"You have a deal." She turned towards John. "I know, I know. Call it a hunch. We might all be looking for the same thing."
"What would that entail, though?" inquired Claude.
"Simply installing a measuring apparatus at the bottom of your cargo hold," explained Georgas. "I should probably say it doesn't involve drilling any new holes in the hull."
Noelle shifted. "Is there anything we can do in the mean time?"
"As a matter of fact there is. I hate to say it, but maybe put in a good word with your father? We could use the support of City Hall. An expedition of this sort strains even the institute's generous budget."
She nodded. "Maybe I can sell him on this being in the public interest. But he won't like it."
"The feeling is mutual, my dear. You have my thanks regardless. And, Henry?"
"You have the most experience with the little turtle so far. Why not take it back out to where that extraordinary vortex deposited our new friends, and see about uncovering any other clues. Anything could be of help."
Layton smiled like a cat on the hunt. "I'm sure the Head of Archaeology will see it as an opportunity to locate more old sites to study."
"It's settled then." Noelle gave him a kiss before getting up. "If you'll excuse me, I have someone to visit."
"Want me to come with you, darling?"
She shook her head. "You have more important business right now. But... To be honest I could use a little moral support."
The catgirl was looking at the Spirit Walk's crew as she said that. John nodded. "Certainly."
City Hall was an airy structure, all glass curtains and chrome pillars. Stairs swept upwards in daring spirals. Platforms hung in mid-air. From the atrium's upstairs gallery, a maze of corridors grew outward. Noelle led the way assuredly to a relatively quiet corner, with fewer clerks milling about. The doors she pulled open almost blended into the wall paneling, much like the secretary waiting inside looked like an extension of her desk, all stiff and angular.
"Bonjour, Madame," greeted the catgirl. "Is my father in, by any chance? It's kind of important."
"The mayor," was the cold answer, "is out of the office. I don't suppose you can be persuaded to leave before his return? He doesn't need the aggravation."
Noelle took a deep breath.
"Now, now, Matilde," came a voice from the corridor. "My daughter is also a citizen of Milliers, and has every right to request an audience. Unless it's the journalist visiting me today?"
A man seemed to fill the room as he walked in, dressed in a fairly plain suit and a matching fedora. His mane of sandy hair framed a strong face radiating dignity.
"And you must be the city's new heroes," he added, seeing the Spirit Walk's crew. "I can't wait to read the whole story in tomorrow's newspaper."
"That's kind of why I'm here, dad," Noelle explained. "We think something big is going on that can threaten the city, and we're going to need help locating the source."
"Hrm. Is the Morpheus Institute involved?"
"As a matter of fact, yes, they are."
"Let's talk in private," he said, and led her into his office. "If you'll excuse us."
The trio could only stand around exchanging looks with the secretary. It didn't take long before voices started rising behind the closed door. Soon they could easily make out the words.
"What do you have against Henry anyway, dad? You don't like that he's dream-born? Well, newsflash: so am I!"
"That's different. You're my daughter."
"One would be fooled." Noelle's voice approached the door. "Sorry for wasting your time."
She stormed out, followed by the mayor's voice: "I'll place a few phone calls. Just stay safe, you hear me?"
"Well," she said once the door was closed and she had composed herself. "I have three big damn heroes to protect me now, don't I?"
"Right you are," Kantuck assured her, and they walked into the hallway together, Claude flicking his tail at the secretary.
The shipwrights arrived the very next day. By then the trio's story was all over the news, so the job was done thoroughly. It turned out to involve little more than tightening bolts and re-sealing a couple of viewports.
"I've never seen a tougher ship in my life!" exclaimed the master shipwright, and gave them a very good price.
The two academics also arrived towards evening. Layton wasted no time climbing to the highest point on the Spirit Walk, and sat there to watch everyone else from above.
"You're such a cat, Henry!" shouted Georgas from the pier.
"Try it sometime!" the younger man retorted.
Both were equally impressed with the inside of the small vessel, the catboy gushing over the state-of-the-art wireless while the older engineer needed ample willpower to refrain from going all over the machine room with his hands. John ended up playing host, to Kantuck's amusement.
"You're well stocked," remarked Georgas after failing to squeeze into the ship's not exactly spacious hold. Claude snuck past him and in-between crates stacked two deep, only to peek back out with shiny eyes.
"The perks of doing work for someone with deep pockets." The doe winked. "Some of this will be needed to set up your contraption. To make more room we could donate the surplus to those people who lost their homes."
Their new friends in town tried hard to seem excited about the gift. After all it did earn them a free warm meal, along with other unfortunates. And house repairs are much the same as boat repairs... if you have a house where to use the supplies at all.
Noelle met them for dinner at The Woods, a small family-owned restaurant that also kept a handful of rooms to rent on the floors above ground level. They couldn't afford to host anyone for free, nor for long. Not even the old goat. But they could lend a hand, like they had when the neighborhood's new heroes needed to clean up after the fire.
"I can't complain," Kantuck told her. "Getting extra drinks on the house is always welcome."
"It's good stuff, too." Noelle took another sip. "Have you seen Henry?"
"He must be in his office, busy scouting with the little turtle. But they're both supposed to drop by the harbor today again for measurements."
"Can I come too after work?"
"Sure you can!" John and Claude said at the same time. They all shared a laugh.
They sat in the chart room when she did, overlooking the hold. Through the viewports came the sound of voices and thumping noises. Outside, Claude crouched near the open hatch, watching the activity below with big round eyes. Various smells drifted in, of engine oil mixed with rotting wood and fresh baking. One of their neighbors must have been running the kitchen.
"The Spirit Walk is a most unusual ship," Noelle remarked. "I'm sure it has a fascinating story."
"Hardly," Kantuck told her. "It was an experiment, designed to cut nets and clean up harbors. It can even double as a tug in a pinch."
The catgirl nodded. "Seems built to last."
"That was part of the package. It must be able to withstand nearby explosions. Phlogiston took many lives early on."
Awkward silence followed, until John clambered out of the hold and came to one of the open viewports.
"They're almost done," he told the doe when she head-tilted. "Tomorrow they can bring in the new equipment."
"Are the boys behaving?" Noelle asked him playfully.
"I'll eat them if they don't!" he answered mock-fiercely.
Three ships left the docks of Milliers, racing the aether. One spiraled upwards, reaching for the clouds that passed in front of the moon. Another headed outward, to a horizon where gigantic shapes swam by each other slowly. Alone, the Spirit Walk headed back, near the forest of stone pillars. They could clearly see it go in a wide curve, now that they came from the opposite direction. Smaller piles of rock that gradually grew into small columns, all glowing with little stars clustering together, announced the transition from those grand plains where the floating city awaited.
"Steady as she goes, Claude. John, what's our status?"
"The measuring apparatus is powered on and transmitting. Engines are handling the load easily."
"Can you hear the little turtle as well?"
He turned a knob. "Loud and clear. Its course is roughly parallel to ours."
Silence fell for a while. On closer inspection, they could see damage from the tremor clearly enough. A pillar, larger than most, had broken along an oblique line, its upper half presently wedged between two others. A crystalline internal structure could be seen, bubbles clinging to the maze of hollow spaces within, while filaments like those on the distant ground already grew where shadows no longer reached.
"There are more of them," Claude noted. "Deeper in, too."
"Aren't we close to where that freak vortex dumped us?" asked John.
Kantuck walked over to the rangefinder and turned it towards the pillar line.
"How strange," she said. "There's a trail of destruction, not a circle as you'd expect. And yes, we must be."
Claude rubbed his chin. "You think Le Curieux can see any better from their vantage point?"
"Good question. Let's hail them. John?"
"Hailing frequencies open," the latter confirmed. "They're picking up."
"Jones here," said the voice from the speakers. "Go ahead, Spirit Walk."
Kantuck flicked her ears. "From our angle it looks like the blast was focused in a narrow cone. Can you confirm?"
"That's one way to put it. If the trumpet of the gods had blown across the worlds announcing the end times, it should look like this. We can't even see where it started from, it's too far."
"Good thing Mille Ville wasn't directly in the way. Thank you, Captain Jones. Spirit Walk out."
"Wait. Think we should go in, take a closer look?"
"Negative. I advise we complete our sweep as planned and return to base."
"Mmm. All right, you got it. See you in..."
Indistinct shouts rose on the other end, and the signal started breaking up.
"Spirits... hear me? There's another... Get... here! It's... fast!"
Then it broke up, but they could all see it already, climbing from behind the forest of pillars: a mass of twisted, frothing aether, scattering finned and betentacled shadows in its path.
"Turn tail and run!" Kantuck pointed at Claude. "We have to ride this one out!"
He was spinning the wheel even before she finished speaking. The engines spun up, and suddenly they were going way too quickly. It still wasn't enough.
The hand of a titan picked up the Spirit Walk and hurled it like a child's toy across the vast expanse ahead. Turbulence covered the viewports; flashes of light passed them by. The deck rocked and swayed; under their feet, overworked pumps howled like a waterfall. After a while, it seemed like the world was tilting sideways, and the starboard viewports began to clear. Claude started adjusting the throttles, but then the ship lurched and turned its nose back into the churning nightmare.
In the blink of an eye, Kantuck was there, straining against the wheel to keep the ship straight.
"The port engine has stopped!" John got up, balancing on his big boots, and walked to the ladder. "I'm going down there!"
"Be careful!" Kantuck called after him.
"Bring tuna!" added Claude.
Another moment passed. The weakening shockwave gradually pushed them sideways, until at last they could see through the surrounding aether again. The moving shapes weren't so distant anymore. Far behind them, countless pillars of rock still loomed. Somewhere off to port, the lights of Milliers flickered.
At length, the deck plates started vibrating again, and soon John was trotting back up the ladder, looking tired yet proud.
"We're being hailed," he noted, chin pointed at the blinking light on his console.
"Thank the Moon you're still there," said Jones's voice in the speakers when they picked up. "Thought you were goners when that thing hit. Everything all right?"
"We had some engine trouble, but we can limp back into port," Kantuck told him. "Thank you. And yourselves?"
"Just peachy. The Lady Luck on the other hand wasn't so lucky. They're dead in the water far as I can tell from up here."
"All right, we'll take a detour. You call ahead. Things don't look good back home, either."
"Right you are. Jones out."
A small crowd gathered on the wharf to watch the Spirit Walk pull into port, the Lady Luck in tow. John was on the deck as soon as there was air, to throw dock workers the mooring lines. Soon, Claude too climbed out the forward hatch, fur all ruffled, followed by Kantuck. She leaned against John's shoulder tiredly, and he wrapped an arm around her waist. Onlookers cheered.
It wasn't so simple with the other ship. More workers hooked it up until a few of them managed to climb aboard and moor it properly. It was a while before a door opened, and sailors emerged only to collapse on deck. Luckily by that point the plank was down, so medics rushed from shore to take care of them.
The trio stood and watched for a while as people milled over the bigger vessel, with its squarish shape and tall tower.
"Oh, by the way," Kantuck said at length, "we should probably rewind the cable at some point."
"Later, Captain," John chided gently. "We're all barely standing right now."
They went ashore carefully, while in the back a tall man took photos over the heads of onlookers. There was paperwork to fill, explaining to do, work to organize... But that came later, after Le Curieux also returned and they'd dragged Jones over to The Woods for a pint.
Late next day, they even found the time to visit the institute. They dressed up for it, Kantuck in a dress version of her futuristic uniform, with a leather case on a shoulder strap, while Claude ditched his greatcoat for a fancy cape in the same style. John had a proper shirt for a change, and a bolo tie to go with it. On his part, Georgas looked much the same as when they'd first met. Layton too, except in a different suit.
"My friends!" exclaimed the host. "I'm so glad to see you in one piece. We've been worried after hearing the news. Drinks?"
They accepted gratefully.
"What about you?" asked Kantuck after they sat down with glasses. "This blast was bigger than the last one."
"Ah, but it passed higher, and we were ready for it."
"So it wasn't aimed at the city?"
Layton shook his head. "After seeing the early data, we doubt it was aimed at all. Too clumsy to be a weapon."
"Then what?" John asked.
"Better yet, who?" added Claude.
"We were hoping you could help with that."
Kantuck's ears perked. "Oh! You wanted us to analyze something?"
"That's right," confirmed Georgas. "We need an outside perspective. The institute can be an echo chamber at times. Help me out, Henry."
They moved the coffee table out of the way, only to make room for a steel crate. Layton opened it to reveal a broken crystal that gave the impression of floating in the darkness within. Now and then, flashes of light washed over it, spilling out into the surrounding air briefly. Eyes on the item, Kantuck felt around for her leather case and took out a large handheld device, flipping its lid open to reveal a round screen flanked by lights and buttons. The device chirped and buzzed as she held it over the crate.
"Odd," she said. "Looks like it was carried across phases without the benefit of a transference field. Where did you get it?"
Georgas pointed at the ceiling. "It fell on top of the dome. Literally."
"From the passing blast?" She was answered by a nod. "But that would mean it originated an octave deeper."
"Deeper?" Claude climbed down from the backrest of the couch to better look at the crystal. "Aren't we at the center of the dream?"
"Oh, no," Layton assured him. "There's one more layer."
Silence fell over the room for a moment.
"So is there still a threat to the city?" asked a new voice. They all turned to look at the mayor, who loomed on the threshold. "Apologies. The door was open."
It was Kantuck who answered: "Not just the city, sir. If we're right, this threatens the entire dream."
"Hmm. Then there's no point in running away I suppose. Might as well play the big damn heroes, as my daughter would say."
"If you're looking for her, sir..." started Georgas.
"No, no, in fact I'm here for a meeting with the dean." The massive man waved a hand. "I'll see myself out."
Outside the window, birds chirped. The floors vibrated briefly. A gust of wind shook branches in the yard.
"What's the plan?" asked John.
The automat was largely deserted. Outside, in the plaza, traffic faltered. Only the ceiling fan overhead kept spinning, its reflection in the wall-sized mirrors constantly nagging at one's attention.
"And after that," Layton finished his story, "we went to the best physicists in town. Nothing brings rival colleges together like an existential threat. Even if it's to one-up each other."
"And what did they say?" asked Noelle.
The catboy turned to Kantuck hesitantly. "You can probably explain better."
She smiled. "Thank you, dear. To summarize, someone has figured out how to induce phase collapse on a wide scale, causing uncontrolled energy releases."
"In French, please?"
"The dream gets squished, then hollowed out," Claude explained. "Makes a big boom, and also leaves us without a world to live in."
"Why would anyone do that?! Where do they plan to live afterward?"
Layton shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine."
"This is awful." The girl wiped her glasses absently. "Is there any way I can help?"
"Get the story out," offered John.
"We're yet to hammer out the details," resumed Kantuck, "but chiefly: the city will jump a couple of octaves out, for all the good it will do. By that point, we'll have upgraded the Spirit Walk's transference coils to the new model devised by Professor Georgas. If we're right, that should let us get to the center of things..."
"Literally and figuratively," added Claude.
"...And with any luck, put an end to this farce," the doe finished.
"While we reach the nearest settlements by aether-graph and raise the alarm." Noelle clapped her hands. "All right! Let's do this."
The dream-rider raced away, trailing a moire pattern in its wake. Astern, the city's domes grew smaller, their myriad lights steady once more. Soon, only a forest of broken shadows kept the ship company.
The bridge was alive with a steady thrum of engines under the deck plates.
"Course set and locked in," reported Claude. He squinted at an indicator. "Clear aether in... three minutes."
"Right on time! Warm up the transference coils, John."
"Aye-aye," the wolf said, turning switches. "Transference power in... two?"
She turned halfway towards him. "That's a big improvement."
"Between the new coils and overall tune-up..." He shrugged. "It better hold though. We've just left."
"Our new friends seem to know their stuff," pointed out Kantuck. "Speaking of which, we ought to say hi while we still can. Open a line to the institute."
He nodded. "Hailing frequencies open. On speakers... now."
"Layton here," the familiar voice said. "Go ahead, gang."
"How are things looking back there, Professor?"
"We're bracing for tranfer. Mille Ville doesn't move as smoothly as your nutshell. By the way, how are those upgrades working?"
"I'm impressed. My compliments to the engineer extraordinaire."
"He'll be thrilled. Use them well. We're counting on you."
"Kind thanks, and see you on the flipside. Spirit Walk out." Kantuck took a breath and straightened her uniform. "Status?"
John took off his earpiece. "We're ready for transfer as of half a minute ago."
"Almost there," added Claude. "Clear aether in twelve seconds. Nine... six... three..."
The dream-rider leaped.
The moon was lower towards the horizon, and the stone pillars grew together into arches and walls. Long deep shadows stretched across distant plains, pointing like bony fingers at roiling clouds too far to reach. And then there was the Spirit Walk, a speck of dust in the empty vastness between.
"Transfer complete, Captain. Speed holding steady. Engines within nominal parameters, and responding well."
"Thank you, Claude! And the transference coils, John?"
"They're running a little hot, but nothing to worry about."
"Good work! Anything of interest out there?"
John fiddled with his knobs. "The waves are quiet, Cap."
"Same here." Claude checked his dials again. "No, wait. Sensor blip off the port bow."
Kantuck earperked and walked over to the rangefinder, which she proceeded to sweep across the forward viewports. "Looks like the little turtle. No wonder they couldn't find it again."
"Layton will want back what's left of it," pointed out the wolf.
"Good call. Half ahead, Claude, and quarter wind to port."
"Aye-aye." He worked the controls, smoothly bringing the ship about.
The doe looked on for a while before declaring, "Seems dead all right. Let's stop nearby. Mille Ville can't be far behind."
In the distance, waves of light came spinning out of nowhere to merge into a shimmering tunnel. At length, the city of Milliers emerged in its ponderous glory. It was much closer by the time it managed to slow down.
"Just leave it," Layton told them when they could talk again. "The mayor wants us to get on with it already. He's already passed orders to navigation."
"Understood," Kantuck answered regretfully. "Any last-moment instructions?"
The young academic hesitated. "They asked if you're sure about this. You can still come with us. Let the proper authorities handle it."
"We both know there's no more time. Whatever happens must be soon."
"You're right. Good luck, gang. Layton out."
They stood in the quiet of the bridge for a moment, looking at each other: a steely-eyed doe, a big wolf watching her with compassion and worry... and a cat whose head went tick-tock between them.
"Let's go, then, Claude. Straight into the dragon's maw."
"Right away, Captain." The deck plates started vibrating again, and soon the Spirit Walk was on the move. They circled the floating city once more before heading into the petrified forest, up the path of destruction carved by the blasts, and were out of sight by the time Mille Ville jumped away.
"Turn up the cooling pumps. I want us to pull a one-two and get there before anyone's the wiser. Stealthily if we can."
"Sure thing." He got up and headed for the ladder. It wasn't long before the engines' thrum changed subtly and he was back, rubbing his hands. "All set."
"Warm the coils." Kantuck nodded to him from the rangefinder, before calling out another course adjustment.
There was little more to be said before time came for the dream-rider to leap again... then again.
The moon hung directly overhead, bright and clear. On either side stretched endless rows of towers with polished sides, reflecting a distorted image of the Spirit Walk as it sailed by. Small clouds adorned cracks in their structure. Below, almost too far to see, the flat ground was littered with metallic ovoids in various colors. Panels perched everywhere still showed the ghosts of smiling faces among lettering too faded to read.
"Transfer complete," announced Claude quietly. "We barely made a splash."
Kantuck didn't answer right away, as she looked out the viewports, transfixed. "Where are we?"
"Down the rabbit hole." John snorted.
"Except the rabbit breathes fire," pointed out Claude. "Which way now?"
The doe looked through the rangefinder again. "Into the eye of the storm."
It was soon visible to the naked eye: a parabolic dish dwarfing their ship took up an open space where two wide canyons crossed. Above it hung strange devices, suspended from a net of tension cables held between steel poles.
"Great Maker," said Kantuck. "Tell me it's not about to fire."
"The waves are clear, for what it's worth," John assured her.
"Nothing on sensors either," added Claude, "except for these echoes."
"Silent running!" she ordered suddenly. "Eyes on the flanks."
There it was, close by on their port side: a dome with arched windows all around, resting on a concrete platform; beyond it, a rocky landscape replaced the forest of towers. There were few lights, and no obvious places to dock.
"Keep going, kitty. Let's not startle them now. John, with me." Kantuck waved the wolf over as she headed into the chart room.
"I hoped we wouldn't need these, but..." She moved a chair to open a discreet cabinet which in turn revealed the ship's safe. The key was on a chain around her neck. There were two holsters with guns in them: one, all curves and soft lines, had a small nozzle on the business end; the other was a ridged cylinder with blocky grip and magazine. She kept one and handed John the other; both checked theirs carefully before strapping them on. There were also a handful of spheres made of colored halves. The wolf held them while she locked up.
"Good call," said Claude once they were back on the bridge. He stuffed each sphere in a different pocket.
Kantuck examined the last item she'd brought out with her: the harbormaster's box. She traced a string of flowery decorations surrounding its lid, that were almost but not entirely unlike a script. It went in her carrying case.
"Now, where were we?" she asked.
"I found a passage that might just bring us behind the dome," answered Claude, waving at the viewports.
"Good thinking! Any objections, John?"
He smiled broadly. "Trust the cat when it comes to sneaking up on people."
"You're right. Make it so!"
The passage was wide enough early on, then narrowed down and became twisty. More than once it seemed like they'd have to turn back, only to find another way forward behind a tower growing in their way. At long last, they emerged over the rocky ground behind the dome. It was littered with remnants of industrial machinery.
"There!" Kantuck pointed at the back of the platform. "Those are docking bays."
"The doors are open," pointed out Claude. "Smells like a trap."
The wolf rubbed his chin. "Maybe not. They're hanging from the hinges. The dome must be older than it seems."
She nodded. "So, we'll have an easier time getting out. Take us in, Claude."
It was a motley crew that met them inside the dock: half a dozen humans, most wearing lab coats, and two Aethereals in diving suits which had seen better days. They were led by this older man with piercing eyes and carefully trimmed beard. He watched, standing with his arms crossed, while the trio approached.
Kantuck tugged at the lapels of the flak jacket she'd donned on top of her uniform. "What do we tell them?" she whispered.
"Allow me," meowed Claude, and walked gingerly towards the group, tailtip pointed at them like a periscope. "Dottore Marchetti, I presume? So glad to find you in good health. It was rather worrying when we dropped by Far Star 8 and they couldn't tell us where you'd gone."
"Trust the cat to make it look like he belongs anywhere," asided John.
Marchetti arched his eyebrows at the feline visitor. "Were they in working order, then? Last I heard there was some damage."
"It's nothing that can't be fixed."
"I see! And who might you be?" the scientist inquired.
"Oh! How distracted of me. Name's LeChat. Claude LeChat, at your service. I believe we have an employer in common."
"There must be some mistake. My team and I resigned recently. But I don't blame you for the confusion -- it was a bit of an explosive situation."
Claude scratched behind his ear with a hindpaw. "Glad we cleared that up, then. We'll be on our way now, right, Captain?"
"Captain?" interjected Marchetti.
"Captain Nata-Akon of the Spirit Walk." Kantuck advanced in turn, "and this is Chief Engineer Sand Wolf. We've heard much about you, Doctor."
Marchetti exchanged glances with his companions. "I'm flattered. But where are my manners? You must be tired after your trip. Come on in."
He stepped aside and gestured towards a door in the back wall. It led to a gallery overlooking some sort of machine room, largely silent but for the unseen activity taking place somewhere deep inside. The gallery widened near the door, letting the scientists and their assistants file in after the trio. Two of them pulled gun-like contraptions.
"By the way," added Marchetti, "Your weapons, please."
John and Kantuck complied, giving each other resigned looks.
"Please open your bag, too," their host insisted.
The doe rolled her eyes as she did just that. The two Aethereals stood straighter, but didn't say anything.
"And what is this?" asked Marchetti. A younger man leaned towards him and whispered something. "I see! Very well, you may keep it."
He gestured again, towards the stairs at one end of the gallery. It took the group into the dome proper, one floor up. There was a circular hallway with rooms on both sides; at one point they passed by a corridor that went all the way to the center of the structure. More people could be seen clustered around complicated control panels. It all had the same industrial look as the space below; by way of contrast, the lounge they ended up in tried hard to look welcoming, with fake leather couches and potted plants on top of small filing cabinets. On the wall hung Native American artifacts. Blades looked sharp.
"So what is it you're really working on, Doctor?" Kantuck asked bluntly. "I'm told fast travel isn't your real goal."
Marchetti's eyes narrowed. "How much do you know about it?"
"Let's say the neighbors have been complaining," interjected Claude. "About noise and such."
"Neighbors? What neigh... Naaah!" The scientist grinned widely. "Don't tell me they brought Milliers this far inward. I was wondering what became of my old notes. Tell me, who got ahold of them? Barnett?"
"Charming fellow, isn't he?" quipped Kantuck.
"That he is!" Marchetti didn't seem to notice the sarcasm. "Pays well, too. We almost went with his offer. But it didn't work out."
"How come?" asked Claude. John head-tilted.
The scientist regarded them curiously. "Why, the man thinks too small! Fast travel, really? I can do better than that!"
"Better?" came Kantuck's question.
"Better! How about travel back out of the dream altogether?"
"Out of...? With energy from where?! It requires way too much."
"Aha! You, my dear lady, seem equipped to understand. Yes, it does, if you confine yourself to the dream. But poke a hole in it, and the trickle soon turns into a flood."
"Which will wash all of us away," pointed out Claude.
"Yes! Isn't that wonderful? We can be free again at last!"
"Free." John said flatly.
Marchetti's expression turned somber. "Yes, free. Not that you'd understand. You must be, what, third or fourth generation?"
"No. We're not dream-born, Doctor," Kantuck informed him. "Not one of us."
The scientist opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again.
"And what about them?" asked Claude, indicating the two Aethereals. John took a better look. Their suits were patched too many times and didn't inflate properly, while the inner lights shining through helmet viewports flickered like candles.
"They?" spat Marchetti. "They can keep what's left after we're gone."
"That will be very little," underscored Kantuck.
"Little?! We've brought them civilization!" The human stopped to wipe his brow. "But enough of this. We have work to do. A few more hours and none of this will matter anymore. You'll thank me later."
He gestured to his assistants, and they prodded the trio to their feet, then out the door.
Two empty storerooms faced each other near a pressure hatch in the dome's outer wall. The short corridor between them was patrolled by two robots: squat cylinders on six or eight wheels, domed heads and stubby arms ending in emitters of some sort. Harsh light shining down on them contrasted with the gloom inside those impromptu cells; there were no doors.
John paced around the cell for a moment, then bent down after a piece of wood. He threw it lightly into the empty room across from them; it never made the distance. Both robots pivoted on their axes, only to shoot beams of light that scorched the woodblock, scattering sparks and leaving marks on the wall. The wolf pulled back from the doorway in a hurry as the machines idled again.
"That must use a lot of energy," said Claude.
"They only need to hit each of us once," John reminded him.
"Maybe we can blind them?" suggested Kantuck. "Their scopes need good light to work."
"Maybe." The wolf sounded doubtful. "You still have your little toys, Claude?"
"I have a better idea," answered the cat. "Those scorch marks on the walls are all at waist level. Or crotch level for the two of you."
The plan was simple. Not a minute later, Claude darted out the doorway, tail so puffed up, it could be used for a feather duster. The robots promptly gave chase, their shots passing right over his head. The shooting stopped briefly when they came to face each other, and Kantuck rushed the one that had turned its back on her, kicking swiftly with her hooves. Something snapped inside the casing, even as the machine toppled, a plume of smoke drifting out of its vents. She transitioned smoothly into a barrel roll, ending her move inside the opposite cell just as the other robot started shooting again. But by then Claude was jumping straight up, paws akimbo. He landed on the machine's head and promptly started clawing its lenses. It spinned around confusedly, then John was right behind it, ripping its head off. He didn't even bother to first remove the cat.
"Oh, hi there," said the cat, and hopped down, tail swishing.
All three were halfway back around the dome when voices from around the bend ahead made them duck through the nearest door. It led into the now-empty lounge; John wasted no time grabbing a tomahawk from the wall, but the voices moved away again.
"Where to now?" he whispered.
She didn't answer on the spot, and then a side door creaked. Someone came in. He failed to notice the intruders before he was fully inside, too late to retreat. So he ran for the other door instead. Quick as lightning, John threw the tomahawk, which embedded itself in the wall paneling, right under the man's nose. The wolf followed, almost as fast as his weapon, pinning his stunned opponent against the wall.
"Don't hurt me! I can help you!" the human managed to blurt.
They eyed him more closely: barely out of his teens, with blue eyes and messy hair, in a lab coat one size too big, a mix of fear and admiration on his face.
"Nice throw, by the way," he breathed. "Where did you learn to do that?"
"In the Marines," John deadpanned. He released his captive and recovered the weapon.
"Who are you?" asked Claude.
"Name's Julian. And I didn't sign up for this! We were going to make the dream a better place, not ruin it!"
He clamped up at the sound of steps and voices outside. Kantuck was the first to react, all but shoving them through the side door right as the other one opened. It found Claude still in the room, and he swatted one of his spheres through the opening before dashing after the others. With a flash and a bang, the space beyond filled with a thick cloud of cat hairs.
"Wait," Julian said. "Your guns."
It was a well-appointed office they had walked into, dominated by a large desk. The young man kept speaking quickly as he clumsily handed them said guns from a bottom drawer.
"Listen. We only wanted to blackmail the rich and powerful. Could have used that money to help the downtrodden and finance exciting research no company would. We just needed a big stick to deter them from retaliating. That was all a big lie, I see it now."
"So how do we stop it?" asked Kantuck.
"You have to disable the trans-phase vibrational collider. However you can."
Claude head-tilted. "That's the big radar dish out in front?"
"Exactly!" Julian grew agitated. "Go! I'll delay them."
He left for the hallway just as the door to the lounge opened. Claude expertly sent another sphere through it before they all ran into the next room.
Filing cabinets lined the walls, and in their midst there was a table overflowing with binders and boxes. Kantuck only needed one look.
"There are several years' worth of compromising documents here," she told the others. "On more or less every Council nation and major company out there."
"We can't do much about it," John reminded her.
"Not much," she echoed before drawing her gun. A beam of light as intense as it was thin struck the table with a sizzling sound, instantly turning to ashes all that was on it.
"Whoa!" The wolf jumped back. "Overkill much?"
"I forgot the lighter in my other pants," she quipped, and led them into the hallway. There were no other doors left.
"Good thing nobody came up with a way to detect smoke yet," mused Claude.
The stairs were just past a slab of acrylic going from wall to wall with no visible seams. A beam from Kantuck's gun passed through it harmlessly; repeated hits with the tomahawk didn't work much better.
"Stand back." John pulled his own gun. It crackled angrily, peppering the door with holes. It shattered after a couple of strong kicks, and John fired another burst in the opposite direction, making their pursuers beat a hasty retreat. Claude added one more sphere for good measure, then they were down the stairs. Kantuck only stopped to melt the lock on the next door.
"There are stairs over there too," John reminded her.
"Then let's hurry," she answered.
Nobody was in the docking bay, and the ship seemed untouched. Claude was first to vanish down the main hatch. "I'll get the engines started!" he announced as wolf and doe coordinated to release the moorings. Then they stopped and looked at each other.
"Wait, who's going to operate the pressure field?" they asked at the same time.
Both froze for a moment. After that the two Aethereals burst in. One stayed back to hold the door closed against heavy slams from the opposite side, while the other went straight for the controls, gesturing at them to climb in.
They didn't wait to be told twice.
The Spirit Walk reared out of dock for maybe a couple of ship lengths before reversing course and shooting over the dome. Their objective grew huge in front of the viewports, much too soon.
"So how do we sabotage the doomsday machine?" asked John.
Kantuck looked at him fiercely. "We cut its strings. Hear that, Claude?"
"Aye-aye." He grinned like a Cheshire cat. "Now you're talking, Cap!"
They came in fast, banking to better use the sawblades built into the ship's flanks. Steel cables groaned horribly under the onslaught, and the towers they attached to started leaning inward. Claude deftly steered into a tight turn. There was time for another pass before a nearby power station lit up, and all the machinery around and above the dish began to awaken. By then it hung low, at an angle, and parts of it didn't seem to work.
"We've done all we can," Kantuck decided. "Let's go!"
The feline helmsman didn't need to be told twice.
"Full speed ahead, Claude," the doe continued, "And never mind clearance. John, warm up the coils and energize when ready."
Two minutes passed like a long, lonely watch shift while they raced between vertical walls that indifferently reflected their own image back at them. A deep rumble grew, and flashes of light pierced the aether, soon merging into one bright beacon.
"Now is a good time!" Kantuck reminded urgently.
"Brace for transfer," announced John. "In three... two... one..."
They were already in transit when the blast caught up. The ship rocked, Claude struggling to keep it centered into the vortex, but that was nothing compared to the earlier occasion. They ran with the storm. Time passed.
"What's taking so long?" asked Kantuck right before they splashed out among familar-looking arches of stone.
"Woo!" cheered John. "We've skipped two octaves in one go!"
"And the world didn't end," added Kantuck. "Good work, gentlemen!"
"Captain." Claude's ears were flat. "The fuel gauge."
The doe turned around and tapped the dial. It stubbornly stayed low.
"Maybe it's just the sensor," she offered.
"Look behind us." John shook his head, pointing at a rear viewport. There was a purple trail stretching back to their point of egress, where it cut off. "The blast must have broken the intake valve clean off."
"Full stop!" she ordered. "Get Mille Ville on the wireless."
"Aye-aye." He turned to his console and fiddled with it for a good while. "There's no signal. Complete silence, Captain."
She nodded slowly. "They must have moved on like we planned. The nearest settlement is an octave away and some distance around the moon."
"What now?" meowed Claude.
"Go downstairs with John. We need to know how we're doing."
There was so much quiet on the bridge while the doe waited, pacing around in the slow clip-clop of hooves. She placed her hands on the ship's wheel, tilting her head at the idle dials, and looked at John's console. What she wouldn't have given to see a light blink. But they didn't.
"We've got good news and bad news," Claude told her, coming up the ladder with the sound of John's boots close behind.
"Do tell, kitty."
"All we have is the spare drums for the generators, and whatever we can dredge off the bottom of the tanks."
"Oh. Can we jump on auxiliary power?"
"You know it doesn't work that way," said John, poking his head up.
"Look on the bright side," resumed the feline. "The air scrubbers work, and we have intact supplies. That's several weeks to go."
"We... we can work with that," she said weakly. Her knees buckled, but she stood straight again. "Let's get some rest, we're all tired."
They met in the corridor between their cabins: Kantuck with her hair down, in a knee-length tunic with short sleeves and fringed ends, John barefooted and bare-chested, wearing little except for comfy leggings.
"You're looking good," he said.
"You're not too shabby either."
He grinned wolfishly. "Just shaggy. Come on, let's freshen up a bit."
By the time they made it to the mess, Claude was already there. He meowed and came to rub against their legs, fur all ruffled and moving like an old cat.
"Come on, deer, let's make the kitty a good breakfast."
"It's the middle of first shift," she pointed out.
"There's no better time," he joked. Claude meowed again, purring approvingly.
Wonderful smells drifted around the table while pots sizzled on the cooking range. and the air had warmed up noticeably.
"I owe you both an apology," Kantuck said after a while. "You didn't sign up to die in deep aether where no-one will find our bodies."
"We didn't sign up to save the world either," John said matter-of-factly, "yet here we are."
"Besides, we're not dead yet," Claude reminded them. "Cats have nine lives. I can lend you a couple."
She giggled and placed a steaming bowl in front of him. The feline dug in, giving up attempts at speech for the moment.
"But what can we do?" she asked once they were all seated. "Mmm, this is good."
"We can probably rig a more powerful emitter," suggested John.
"And charge the batteries enough to crawl into a better position," added Claude.
"It beats sitting around," she mused. "Just don't go too far. Any ship that comes to investigate what happened back there will have to pass through here."
"You think anyone will come?" The feline didn't look too confident about that.
The engineer pondered. "I don't know... we can't count on it."
Kantuck nodded slowly, enjoying her meal. "I know I can count on you two, and that's enough for me."
The aether looked peaceful from the bridge. In the long shadows shone more lights than ever. Now and then one darted around, if one looked closely enough to catch it.
"At least someone's grateful," noted John.
"Too bad we can't do much more than say hi," added Claude. "Which reminds me! What's in that box the harbormaster gave you, Cap?"
"Oh!" She looked surprised. "I completely forgot about it. You know... I'm not sure. Aethereals speak in poetry and metaphor."
She waved them into the chart room and retrieved the box. It reflected the lights with a dull gleam; they couldn't seem to get through the window set into the lid, but for glimpses of a starry pattern that could have been their imagination.
"This better work," she said, and flipped it open.
Later they'd have a hard time saying what exactly they saw inside. Fractals within fractals, glittering in multifaceted shapes that curved in on each other until the eye lost track. Beams of light shot from the box and out the viewports, bathing the aether into a fiery glow. Around the dream-rider, shapes started coming out, shadows swarming around points of light that zipped back and forth, trailing small clouds. They surrounded the ship, moving faster and faster, waves of light forming into a tunnel that pulled them in, buoyed by a cushion of bubbles.
And then they were in a different place, and lights were blinking on the engineering console.
Commander Jameson's office on Sheridan Station looked unchanged. She was there with Renard, in their uniforms, seated opposite from the Spirit Walk's crew, all dressed up; at the far end of the table was a bearded man in a black suit and top hat, scrutinizing both groups through a monocle.
"I should have you arrested," he addressed the trio at length. "All this publicity was precisely what we were trying to avoid."
John straightened up in the chair, letting his longcoat slide open as if by accident to reveal the gun holster underneath. Jameson made a shocked face, but Renard only nodded slightly.
"You are way out of line, sir," he said calmly. "This station is neutral territory. We were doing you a favor."
The man's only answer was a scowl.
"I suppose there's no point in asking how much you really knew," said Claude.
"Or claiming our reward," added John.
Jameson hesitated. "Sorry."
"In that case we'll be on our way," concluded Kantuck, getting up. "Thanks, old friend."
Cat and wolf followed her out without another word. The station's public areas were noticeably busier, now that shipping was back to normal. But none of them felt like taking in the sights this time. So they rode down, and down again.
Halfway to their pier a familiar figure waved them over: the pony-tailed mechanic, his coveralls not looking so new anymore.
"We've replaced the intake valve, and filled your tanks while we were at it. On the house. Word goes fast on the waves."
"Why, thank you," answered the doe. "We're good to go then?"
"Sure! Just one more thing."
He led them into the same side room as before. The message torpedo was long gone, replaced by a set of crates on handcarts. Inside were plans, computation tables, and some very strange devices.
"Recovered from the wreckage of Far Star 8," he explained. "None of it was on any manifest."
"We know someone who can figure these out for you," offered Claude.
"Perfect! You can have it. Off the records, naturally." He smiled broadly. "The boss left instructions."
The Spirit Walk left port a couple of hours later, sailing low over the clouds. Far on the horizon, stars shone as brightly as ever, framing the shapes of passing ships. More than a few greeted them with sirens.
"Where to, Captain?" asked Claude, purring in tune with the thrum of engines through the deck plates.
"Why, Monsieur LeChat, we have some new friends to catch up with." Kantuck turned back towards John, who nodded, panting happily. For a moment, her eyes seemed focused on impossibly distant shores, then she was all there again. "Where else? To the moon, and beyond!"
Bucharest, 9 March 2021