Alice and A Librarian strolled towards Seven-Twenty’s cliffside docks, where an object not dissimilar to an old-timey pirate galleon was floating on the air, moored off the edge of the cliff at the edge of the cave which Seven-Twenty sat in. She could see along the sides of the Æthership, where rows of pale lilac crystals were positioned and set in some silvery metal, standing out against the dark wood. The ship was silent, hanging in the air-
“In very much the same way that bricks don’t! Good one!” At the sound of the fortune teller’s voice, A Librarian groaned.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, trying and failing to sound less exasperated than he was.
“Myself and Nik are headed for Foyer, same as you two!”
“Nice to see you again,” Alice said, ignoring the dirty look A Librarian shot her. “How’s the future?”
“It’s happening faster and faster these days! Why, it was only four weeks ago that we saw each other.”
“Um, it was two days ago.”
“Yeah, but I’m talking Authorial Time. Muuuuch more drawn out, the lazy bastard.”
Alice raised an eyebrow. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Never mind that, how’s it going with your boyfriend, eh?”
“Ah, see, I’m not interested in-” A Librarian began, but Alice cut him off.
“I thought you were telepathic. Surely you’d know that there was absolutely nothing going on.”
“Haha, not A Librarian, silly. I’m talking about that Red guy I warned you about, remember?”
“Wh- oh. You were telling me about him? And the right hand thi- that was a pun?”
“It sure was. Anyway, you didn’t answer my question!”
“He’s not my boyfriend, and he’s buggered off to some different dimension to sulk about accidentally vowing to get me home and being unable to finish the job.”
“Don’t worry, he’ll be back. Proper Vows are really annoying like that. His concepts will unravel if he doesn’t work hard enough towards fulfilling his end of the bargain, and that will cause all kinds of problems.”
“Like what? And he has to come back? Damn,” she said, attempting to sound disappointed.
It was A Librarian who answered. “Unravelling concepts basically retroactively remove you from existence. Unpleasant, to say the least. You basically fall into the Void and get eaten by Inimical Demons.”
“I keep hearing about Inimical Demons. What are they?”
“They live in the Void and eat the reality of things, making them no longer real.”
“Oh. Sounds scary.”
“They’re ambush predators,” the fortune teller said, “kinda like your lions or your ATM machines.”
At this point, Nik had caught up with his wayward brother, attempting to shepherd him towards the boarding queue of the Æthership, and Alice and A Librarian followed.
“So, what keeps them up?” she asked, looking at the rickety gangplanks that passengers were using to board the Æthership.
“Keeps what up?” A Librarian asked in return, looking puzzled.
“Oh har har. The Æthership; what makes it float?”
“I’m not sure, myself.” A Librarian shrugged. “From what I recall from Physik lessons, it’s something to do with gravity, and lack thereof?”
Nik turned from chivying his brother along to answer. “The crystals along the sides are anchors for local contours in the Æther, which means that it can move along ætheric currents, or be propelled by those sails, which are lined with Aeolian silver. The Æther doesn’t have any gravitational gradients in it, so the ship can appear to float. It’s a semi-illusory effect, but it cancels out because gravity’s mostly an illusion.”
“It’s a metal harvested from the heart of the Storm Eternal, in the Maelstrom, that carries within it fragments of an ancient and primordial wind,” Nik supplied.
“Kinda stinky,” said his brother.
The queue had arrived at the gangplanks, and Alice tried not to look down as she crossed one. Of course there wasn’t any handrail. Darn A Librarians and their perfect balance. The deck of the Æthership gently rocked, like a more traditional boat, and the passengers were heading below decks, so Alice followed.
She took a seat by a window, which gave her a commanding view of what A Librarian had said were the Plains of Simple Truth, where she’d had an encounter with a procession (apparently, that was their collective noun) of censœrs. Nik and A Librarian were sitting up ahead, talking animatedly about some kind of alien science, which had been interesting before the topic veered into something so strange she couldn’t follow. Nik’s brother – who’d continued to refuse to give his name – was sitting cross-legged on the floor, facing her, playing absently with his deck of cards.
A question had been bothering her. “Do you know Red, then?”
He looked up from his cards. “You could certainly say that and not be entirely incorrect.”
“In plain English, please.”
“But we’re on a boat, not a plane. Or a plain. Or a Spain.”
Alice sighed deeply. Why had she assumed he’d give her a straight answer?
“Nah, I’ll give you a straight answer,” he began. How the hell did he kn- oh, right. Telepathic. “I’ve met the guy. Hard to avoid, sometimes.”
“Is Red a human?” Alice asked, “I’m not sure if he counts.”
Nik’s brother snorted. “You’ve got that one right.”
“He doesn’t count?”
“No-one’s sure what he is,” he said, shrugging, before spreading his cards in a fan in Alice’s direction. “Pick a card?”
Alice eyed him suspiciously. “Is this going to be another pun?”
His only response was another of his disconcerting grins, so she sighed loudly, picked a card from those offered and looked at it. It was plain white, with the outline of a black square at its centre.
“Not sure what this could mean,” she said, passing the card back to him.
He glanced at it and winced. “The Zener Square is a portent of… confusion, I suppose.”
“It’s got that right.”
“Sometimes, it’s an indication that you’re being watched by a thought-reading entity.”
Alice squinted at him. “Isn’t that you?”
“Lawks! How could you accuse me of such a thing!” he mock-gasped, “I’m shocked! You can’t just treat telepaths like they’re reading your mind at all times, that’s absurd.”
Yeah, right, she thought pointedly. I have an idea; why is a raven like a writing-desk?
“Well,” he began, before realising his mistake.
She snorted. “Hah, gotcha. Now, answer my question.”
“Certainly, officer. Something hostile or unknown is possibly watching your thoughts, and I am neither,” he said, uncharacteristically matter-of-fact.
He started answering before she finished her question. “If I was truly unknown, you wouldn’t know that I could, and if I was a hostile telepath, it’d be too late.”
She froze. “Too late?”
“Oh yeah. I can hear your thoughts without even really trying, so I’ve got a level of access to your incentives that no-one else has ever had. That’s scary stuff, especially if you’re not used to it.”
Alice blinked at him. That was… actually pretty scary.
“Your face right now is priceless.”
“Brother, are you bullying Alice?” Nik said loudly from over where he was sitting.
“Maybe?” he replied, putting on an expression of serene innocence rarely found outside of the profoundly guilty.
“So! A Librarian, why was it that you didn’t want to go to Foyer?” Alice asked, attempting to change the subject away from, uh, nameless guy’s attempts at being creepy.
“Personal reasons that’ll hopefully never be relevant.”
She had a terrible idea, and turned to Nik’s brother. “So, you can read minds, right?”
He caught on immediately. “I can.”
“Wait,” A Librarian said with sudden alarm, “wait wait wait!”
“But,” said the fortune teller, “I think it’s more fun to say that I know what the secret is, and not tell you.”
A Librarian sighed in relief. “Thank you. Wait… oh no.”
“My premium Not Blabbing Your Secrets plan is available, in just three million easy instalments, at a variety of competitive prices!” Nik’s brother said cheerily. “I take cash, credit, infamy, discredit, anticredit, cheques and non-denominational goats. Now-”
His continued extortion of A Librarian was interrupted by the blaring of the Æthership’s horn, followed by a series of rattling noises as the crew cast off. The floor tilted slightly, but apart from that, there was barely any sensation of movement at all.
“Yarr! We’re away, me hearties! Avast behind!”
Alice didn’t even have a snarky remark – she was too busy watching through the window as the cliff Seven-Twenty was buried in receded, revealing the alien vista of the Plains of Simple Truth.