The Causeway glimmered, its myriad possibilities scintillating as they shifted before her.
“So you’re sure it’s going to work this time?” she asked, half-joking.
She felt Red’s steadying hand on her arm. “Hey,” he said. “It’ll be fine.”
“Hmmmmm,” she hmmed sceptically. “Pretty sure you said something similar to that last time something went wrong.”
“Well, I can’t speak to the last time something went wrong, but I think I’ve said something similar at least once, related to the times things have gone wrong.”
She smirked. “At least.”
He raised his voice a touch, turning toward a technician of the Causeway. “Everything’s looking okay, yes?”
<Absolutely, sir,> said the Masquerade, who was using callipers and dividers to closely examine the sheet of parchment scribed with Alice’s Realmic signature. <We’re making final adjustments. It’s taking a bit longer than usual, because she’s from Materia — a Realm without a corresponding Causeway.>
Nearby, Aidra, Twelfth, A Librarian and Nik stood — they weren’t going to be coming with her on this final leg of the journey, they didn’t look nearly as human as her and Red. Zkrith had gone her own way earlier, to check on her boat, down in the drydocks, and had thanked Alice for her brief stint as part of its engine.
“Don’t worry, Alice!” Aidra exclaimed. “If you die, we’ll never know!”
She turned back to face him, smiling gently, and gestured rudely in his direction. He cackled in response, and Nik buried his face in his hand.
[Causeways Are Reliable To A Degree That Is Almost Beyond Peer, And There Are No More Impediments To Your Journey,] said Twelfth, who had returned from the mechanic-priests’ workshop with a veritable spring in her step and newly-polished gloss to her parts. [Do Not Listen To Him.]
“Heh, as if I’d make that mistake more than once.”
Aidra had produced a monogrammed handkerchief from up his sleeve, and was waving it in the air. “Remember, we’ll always have Foyer! Actually filmed in an airport near Los Angeles!”
“Okay,” he replied, “maybe that was a bit of an overextended reference, but I thought it was funny, and that’s what matters.”
“I’m sure it does.”
“From a certain point of view!”
Alice took a step away from the Causeway, towards her friends. “I’m— I’m really going to miss you guys.” She fought to keep the wibble from her voice, and mostly succeeded.
‘Mostly succeeded’, however, mustn’t have managed to fully conceal her expression. A Librarian spoke up. “I mean, I think it’ll be possible for you to visit. Red walks the Void, he’ll be able to go and see you, even though your Realm doesn’t have a Causeway.”
“Yep,” said Red, “I think I’ve even been to that same Earth before.”
“Frequent flyer,” said Aidra.
[Then It Need Not Be A Painful Goodbye, But A Promise Of A Future Meeting.]
Alice sniffed, gently refused Aidra’s offered handkerchief, and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “Thanks, thanks everyone. I’ll try to stay in touch.”
“Alan gave you a phone can, didn’t he?” Nik asked.
“A phone ca— oh! I’d almost forgotten that.” She fished around in one of the impossibly roomy pockets of her Realm-purchased trousers and pulled out the tin can. “Do these work from Materia, then?”
“Uh.” A Librarian frowned. “I… don’t know? They definitely work across Realms, but from inside a low-magic area… Following Vorton’s Eighth Law, things of magic removed from their home Realms retain their properties unless acted on by an overlapping paradigm, and those wouldn’t normally exist in…” he continued to mumble as he and Nik split off from the rest of the group to compare notes.
“So,” said Alice as she watched the pair colonise the other end of the table that the Causeway-person Masquerade was working at, “I’m hearing a solid maybe on the phone can working?”
“Sounds like it,” said Red. “I’ll still see about visiting, especially if they don’t work from Materia. You won’t be getting rid of us that easily.”
“We’re such a charming cast of characters!” Aidra added.
Alice smiled at that, despite herself. “Well, okay then. I’ll speak to you guys soon, then. And Aidra, if I absolutely have to.”
“Seriously, I’ll miss you too, you weirdo.”
He beamed. “And I’ll miss the person who gets the joke, sometimes!”
“I don’t know what it says about me, you know, psychologically, but I think I’ll actually miss those jokes.” She saw his expression. “Slightly. Very slightly.”
“I’ll take it!”
She snorted, rolled her eyes and turned to Nik. “Look after your brother, okay?”
He smiled. “No need to tell me.”
“And you—” she pointed at Aidra — “look after your brother.”
“… Yeah, I’m not getting my deposit back on him.”
She moved on before she could get mired in that particular argument. “Twelfth, I— you went to so much trouble on my behalf, you literally got dismembered.”
[And I Have Since Been Repaired. Better That It Was I, Than Someone For Whom That Would Be Significantly More Terminal. It Was A Privilege To Join You On Your Adventures, And I Will Hopefully Have A Chance To Meet You Again.]
Hugging Twelfth was like hugging a coatrack, but she did it anyway.
“You’re all being very sweet, and I’m already sad!” she muffled into Twelfth’s layered garments. They smelled fresh, like she’d had them cleaned at the repair chapel.
Twelfth patted her gently on the back. [There, There?]
She detached herself from Twelfth, and turned to A Librarian.
“The first time we met, you saved me.”
He looked momentarily flustered. “I mean, I was just in the right pl—”
“You weren’t just in the right place at the right time. You saved me, and I’ll never forget that.”
“Unless you run into some more censœrs,” Aidra added to the heartfelt goodbye moment.
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, apart from that.”
She gave A Librarian a quick hug, and then one to Nik and, after a pause to glare at him, Aidra. It was just as the conversation had lapsed, and she was starting to think of something to say to break the silence, that the Causeway technician broke the silence with whatever the telepathic equivalent was to ‘clearing one’s throat’.
<The Causeway is ready, um,> said the technician. <It’s actually been ready for a little while, but you seemed to be having a moment, so…>
“Right, right, thanks,” said Alice. “We won’t keep you hanging around any longer, sorry about that.”
<No problem. Step this way.>
The Causeway continued to gleam. It looked much the same as it had for the entire conversation, a not-flat not-plane of not-anything at the centre of the Causeway gate, a rippling in space at the boundary between Is and Is-Not. The concentric shells and rings of etched stone shifted and slid past each other. Glyphs on their surfaces flashed, afterimages hanging in the air, scribing a vastly complex diagram in quickly-fading lines of light and letters of fire.
She’d expected it to look a bit different, changed, somehow new or more reminiscent of home. But she’d used the Causeways before, and they’d always seemed like this.
Taking Red by the hand, purely for reasons of sticking together despite the transition between Realms, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and took a step forward.
Everything ceased to be.
And then it started being again.