The corridors of the Bathyscape varied – they didn’t really ever get too small for Alice, but she noticed that Twelfth – by far the tallest member of their group – occasionally had to stoop as the ceiling got lower.
The passages they took led them meandering through the beautiful intestines of the city, walkways of copper and glass that alternated between the claustrophobic and the acrophobic. It could be a closed-in, tight passageway of solid metal one second, and then a glass floor would reveal the drop down into the maze of passages and looming buildings, and it almost made Alice’s head spin.
There were many things to see there, too – the group took a walk through a massive garden park filled top-to-bottom with arrangements of neon-glowing bioluminescent flora. With some coaxing, Alice tried some honestly radioactive-looking ice cream from a stall in the park that turned out to be surprisingly delicious, and entirely non-dangerous, as she was repeatedly assured. Next, they browsed through a frankly beautiful shopping centre, all art-nouveau shapes of coloured glass and metal, coiling together like the trunks of vast artificial trees. Though Red winced at the prices, he did buy a couple new changes of clothes for her, and paid for her original set to be repaired by a humanoid swarm of spiders. She was definitely getting used to the Realms in general – she didn’t even flinch when that particular swarm-tailor started talking in a chorus of helium-pitched voices. Her new clothes were practically cloud-soft, apparently made from the harvested wool of uncountable Dream Sheep, and she made sure to get wet weather and cold weather gear, just in case. At a different store, she got a small bag to keep all her stuff in – it was far bigger on the inside than on the outside.
“Right then,” she said, once they reconvened, “everyone done shopping? Where to next?”
“I suggest,” said Red, “we get the Seeper Train, which will take us from here to the Western Spiral overnight, and then through to Brobdingheim, there to take the Causeway back to the Library.”
“Brobdingheim’s another Bioterra?”
“Yep. One of the largest in the local Geocluster – significantly larger than Aqua Regionis and the Smoglands combined.”
She frowned. “Brobdingheim… what’s that a stupid-pun reference to?”
“I’d argue that the things you think are ‘references’,” said A Librarian, “are actually multi-Realmic congruent echoes of ideas and concepts across the Materia Realm Membrane, and-”
“It’s all a big mystery!” said Aidra, with a level of glee that was deeply suspicious.
Since a glare didn’t dislodge whatever joke Aidra was making, she turned back to Red. “Where do we catch this – eugh – seeper train?”
“It’s in the Second Dripstrict,” he replied, deadpan.
“The Second Dripstrict. That’s what it’s actually called.”
She was pretty sure her inarticulate groan of dismay was loud enough to be heard outside the city.
– – –
Seeper Trains, apparently, travelled through tubes, running on stilts above the sea floor. As she watched, the next Seeper slid into the station, a set of jointed cylinders with propellers in between each carriage. The whole thing was radially symmetrical, and Alice found herself wondering if, on the inside, there was an ‘up’ or ‘down’.
“Are these trains alive too?” she asked.
[I Am Confused By The Notion Of Trains Not Being Alive.]
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“These particular trains,” said Nik, “aren’t actually related to other trains you’ve seen – it’s actually an example of convergent evolution. These are, I think, a type of burrowing worm that eat sand and make burrows out of the resulting glass – burrows that are here repurposed into the travel tubes.”
“Oh, like those boring machines they make underground tunnels with?”
“They’re in the same genus.”
“That makes about as much sense as anything else does, here,” she replied. “What’s more important, however, is whether that’s our train or not.”
“Er,” said Red, squinting at the tickets he had purchased, and then at the train, “yep.” He started shouting. “Twelfth! Grab everyone! This is our train!”
As was becoming somewhat familiar, Alice felt Twelfth’s bone jointed hand grab her around the torso and heft her into the air, followed by a squeak of indignation from Aidra, and alarm from Nik and A Librarian. A few jumbled moments later, and they were inside the train, in one of the Seeper’s sleeper compartments.
Instead of having an ‘up’ and ‘down’, the inside of the train was… radial. In each of the two adjoining compartments, three beds stood equidistant around the inside of the cylinder. Gravity seemed to act outwards, and it was very weird to look up and see the floor.
“Is it time to go to bed yet?” she asked. It was weird to be in a place with no visible sun, a little bit like being jetlagged whenever she visited her grandparents, over in Hong Kong. That, the swimming, and the walk around the Bathyscape, and she felt like she’d been awake for three days straight.
“Give it a couple hours,” said Red, “I think there’ll be a dining cart shortly after we start moving.”
“Ooh. Dinner sounds good. More unidentifiable seafood?”
– – –
Dinner was indeed unidentifiable seafood, and she was asleep practically as soon as she settled down into the surprisingly comfortable Seeper Train bed, the rhythmic vibration of the moving train lulling her to rest.
She’d been used to bleak dreams, recently. Hatred in Crimson apparently blocked most things from her dreams, casting her mindscape in shadow in much the same way that the moon eclipses the sun, but this time things were different.
She stood in a horizon-spanning plain of rough russet crystal, cracked and faceted, glimmering scarlet mountains visible in the distance. Above her, the sky was dark, cold and empty.
She spun around, but no-one was there. Just an eternity of crystalline landscape, stretching on forever.
“Uh,” she said, “hi?”
“I apologise for my earlier actions,” said the disembodied voice. “I acted rashly, but that intruder was not malign. I should have been aware.”
“Oh. Oh!” Realisation dawned. “You’re Hatred in Crimson! Where are you, anyway? I can’t see you.” She looked around again, but they were nowhere in sight.
“You are standing on me.”
“I am the crystal that sits beneath you. That is the entirety of my physical form.”
“You’re… a planet?”
“I do not orbit a star, so I do not believe I qualify. However, I am comparable in mass with some small planets. Would you prefer to speak to a proxy? Lower Sentients such as yourself tend to prefer to speak to something their own size.”
In a burst of flame, a familiar empty suit and skullfaced mask appeared before her. “Is my apology adequate?”
“Yeah? It was a bit startling, and I think… I got some kind of psychic backlash, that hurt a bit, but I’m fine.”
“That is good. I now owe you a favour, if you accept it. My mother suggested that I seek to give you restitution.”
She blinked in confusion. “Uh, your mother? Who’s that?”
“I believe she introduced herself to you as ‘Gyran Triskelion’. She occasionally reprimands me if I call her my mother, but I prefer to do so.”
“Oh. I mean, I wasn’t aware, um, you’re different types of creature, I think? Uh, well, thank her too?”
“You are confused. I am not a Smoke Elf, as she is, I am a mineral faery. However, since she killed my parent, she is technically my mother.”
“Er. That doesn’t make it less confusing, also she killed your parent? I don’t think that means she gets to be your new mum?”
“I am confusing you further. Gyran killed the being known as the Frozen Red Tears, my direct progenitor. One of the pieces of its shattered husk was ‘alive’ enough to regain sentience. I am that piece. Thus, by killing the being known as my parent, she caused me to exist, and I would not otherwise be alive.”
“Oh… kay. I’m still confused, but thanks for apologising.”
“I am not used to doing so. I have met the Nameless Walker, I should have recognised him. I acted rashly, and should he wish, he is welcome to return. I could not prevent him returning, but I will not make him leave.”
“Huh. I thought you could keep everything out?”
“Everything except Walkers.”
“Well, that’s weird. I guess I’ll ask Red what a favour entails?”
“That would be informative.”