Friday, 31 January 2014

The Mirror Queen

<< < Chapter Five > >>

It was the wintertime on Earth, in the lands nearer the North Pole, and those who cared to celebrate the season were kept warm and comfortable within their homes; but beyond the heavens, in the deep vacuum of space, the surroundings were cold, the darkness was stark and within its depths there flew a grand starship.
The ship was a kind of flying saucer, at least forty metres in diameter. It had a grey, segmented, metal dome in the centre of the ship, fifteen metres across, with a complicated system of silver panels and delicate machinery revolving in a ring around the dome which made the ship look like a clockwork snowflake. It flew with the apex of the dome pointing towards the earth, as the complex arrangement of thrusters on its base propelled it upwards towards the earth, the thrusters glowing electric blue and leaving a wispy cloud of icy particles trailing behind the ship as it sped through the emptiness.
As it flew through the infinite black, there was a flash of bright light in the distance and a second ship - a shuttle that was shaped like a winged, dark, grey cylinder with sloped sides on the front and rear - slipped out of hyperspace. The shuttle flew towards the starship, from behind, and as it drew nearer, it powered up its weapons with a yellow glow. A single small, yellow missile with a wriggling tail shot from within one of the shuttle's stabilizer panels and, glowing like a brilliant star, flew towards the snowflake starship.
The missile flew quickly, aiming straight for the centre dome. But as it flew, a silver mass seeped out of the flying saucer. The living liquid quickly sluiced out from the underside of the starship and pooled into a silver orb. With a silent splash, the missile penetrated the weightless pool and jolted to a stop within the liquid. Then, after a moment, the missile shot back out towards the shuttle, glowing dimmer due to the patches of silver that coated it as it returned to the ship that had fired it. The shuttle tried to escape, but the missile sheared straight through the middle of the hull, shooting out the other side. With urgency, the shuttle struggled to fly away, but it wobbled as it flew towards the blue planet, destined for a crash landing. Meanwhile the missile looped back and returned to the pool of silver, which in turn slinked back inside of the flying saucer. Nothing left to stop it as it set off towards the Earth . . .

The sun was setting over the city, sending a brilliant afternoon glow over the snow-laden streets of the Nyhavn docks in Copenhagen. By the waterside, the boats were mooring, the merchants packing up shop and the residents were in their homes out of the cold. It was pleasant, with only ambient mutterings of passers-by and the gentle sloshing sounds of swaying boats in the water; until, out of nothingness, there was a harsh scraping, whooshing sound. With a steady rhythm, the sound grew louder and an ornate wooden box appeared out of the nothingness. It was 2 metres tall, made of mahogany with brass detailing, had mesh windows and a small, metal hatch-wheel on the front of the door to open and shut it.
With a thud the box was fully integrated. Then, with a little ding! the front door swung open and a tall, dark-skinned man wearing a full-length leather coat, known as the Duke, stepped out into the snow. He inhaled deeply.
  "The past . . . oh, it's been so long since I've been here."
  "You've been here before?" asked Officer Edison, a London Metropolitan Police Officer, as he stepped out into the snow.
  "Before is relative, my dear Inspector; as is here. I've been on this planet previously, but I've never been in this specific place or moment or any time earlier," said the Duke as an olive-skinned Hispanic girl with a clubbing outfit joined them. "Of course, in the future, I could conceivably travel to a time further in the past; meaning I may eventually have been here before, although I haven't yet."
The Inspector raised an eyebrow.
  "Where is here?" asked Anise, "it don't look any different to Hawaii."
  "Norway," said Edison, looking around.
  "How do you know that?" asked Anise, looking around. It looked like an ordinary street, although old-fashioned.
  "There's a map on the console," said Edison, pointing back towards the ship, "I did geography in . . . uh, Duke, why does your ship look like a wooden closet?"
  "It's not a closet, it's an elevator . . ." said the Duke
  "It's camouflaged," explained Anise, matter-of-factly, "it's so that it blends into its surroundings."
  "You three!" called a voice across the street, making them turn to see a man with a stern face, and a receding hairline calling after them before he crossed the street sharply. As he stopped in front of them, the trio could see he wore brown trousers, a white shirt covered by a blue vest and brown jacket with a black neckerchief & his face had a prominent nose and heavily-lidded eyes.
"How in the name of Christ did you do that?"
  "Pardon?" said the Duke.
  "I saw you from my window," said the man, as he pointed to the building behind him "with the whir of some invisible machine, you appeared out of the aether in that wooden box!"
  "Oh," muttered the Duke, "this hasn't happened before . . ."
The three stared blankly at the man for a moment.
  "Magicians!" offered Edison, "we're travelling magicians, this is our amazing vanishing box trick."
The Duke raises an eyebrow as he slowly turns his head to look at the policeman.
  "Magicians?" muttered the man, looking at the three of them, "that's astounding! Out of thin air?"
  "Yes," continued Anise, "It's one-of-a-kind, this trick. We've even gone to America with it."
As she spoke the man looked at her, saw her smooth, swarthy legs and thin top and gasped at the sight, raising a hand to his mouth.
   "Heavens, child! What's become of your clothes?" he said, shocked. After a moment, he quickly removed his jacket and walked up, holding it in offering. "here, take this, it's much too cold out here without a jacket."
Anise took it with a smile.
  "Thank you, Mister . . . ?"
  "Andersen," said the man, averting his gaze as she slipped into the jacket. Once she was dressed, Mr Andersen spoke again.
"Pardon my curiosity, but if you are travelling magicians, do you have lodging for this evening? It's getting quite late."
  "We've just arrived," replied the Duke.
  "Truly? Then, gentlemen - and madam - could I be so bold as to invite you to tea? It would relish the opportunity to speak with illusionists of your calibre."
  "Of course," said the Duke with a smile, "I love a man of refined diction. Anise? Inspector?"
  "It sounds lovely," said Anise.
  "If it's alright with you, Duke," said the Inspector. "So long as it doesn't interfere with . . . this time."
  "Of course not," said the Duke, "lead the way, Mr Andersen."
  "Alright," said the man, turning to cross the street, "Oh, and please, call me Hans."
  "Wait a minute," interrupted Officer Edison, "Hans Andersen? As in Hans Christian Anderson? The famous storyteller?"
  "Yes," replied Mr Andersen, "you've heard of me?"
  "Heard of you? You're world famous!"
  "I don't know about all that, but it's wonderful to meet one of my readers. This meal is promising to be quite an enjoyable one, indeed."
Mr Andersen continued across the street and the three followed, but as they did the Inspector walked beside the Duke and whispered to him,
  "Are you sure this is alright, Duke? That man is a historical figure, we could be interfering with the history books."
  "Calm down, Inspector. Just because something was written down in a history book does mean it is more or less stable in the history of this timeline. More importantly, we are fast approaching a fixed point in time, there is little that we can do to change the coming tides of history."

Mr Andersen lead the trio inside and into the dining room. The place was neat and well-kept. Although there was little furniture or decoration it was a beautiful home with dark, wooden floors; white-painted walls & white linens, doilies and tablecloths on most of the surfaces.
  "Mr Andersen, could you tell me the date today?" asked the Duke.
  "It's the Eighteenth of December," replied Mr Andersen.
  "What of the year?"
  "Eighteen Forty-Three. Why do you ask?"
  "When you travel as I do, it's hard to keep track of the time."
  "This is amazing," said Anise, looking at the modern furniture, now antique.
  "Oh, it's nothing so grand," said Mr Andersen, gesturing dismissively. "I lodge here with Miss Larsen and she takes care of it, it's a fine home, but I would prefer somewhere of my own."
In the dining room table, Mr Anderson bode they sit with a gesture so Duke sat at the foot of the table, while Anise and Edison sat at the side; Mr Andersen remained standing for the moment.
  "Forgive my manners, I haven't asked your names," said Mr Andersen.
  "My name is Anise Trevino," said Anise, then she pointed to the two men, "This is Chester Edison and Duke."
  "It's a pleasure to meet you all. Are you hungry? I have smoked ham and cheese, perhaps some rye?" he offered. "Mulled wine?"
  "If it's okay," said Edison as he glanced at the Duke.
  "Sounds lovely," said Anise.
  "Alright, give me a moment," said Mr Andersen, and he disappeared off towards the storeroom. As soon as he vanished, Edison spoke up.
  "This is exciting, isn't it?" said Anise, "we're dining with history."
  "No, this feels very wrong," replied Edison, "How do we know that this won't change the past? History never talked about Hans Christian Andersen having dinner with three 'so-called' street magicians."
  "History does not remember everything. Stop panicking, Inspector."
  "But he noticed us. He saw us come out of thin air."
  "It's alright, you told him we're magicians and he bought it," said Anise, "and we're really lucky we ran into someone that speaks English. I think the Brothers Grimm are German or somethin' . . ."
In response, the Duke cleared his throat.
  "Actually, he's not speaking in English."
Anise and Edison glance at the Duke, confused.
  "What? yes he is." said Officer Edison, sounding annoyed.
  "He's really not," the Duke repeated.
  "But I can understand what he's saying!"
  "That's the T.T. Capsule. The translation circuit has adjusted your psychic field so that you can understand what he's saying," said the Duke as he clasped his hands together on the table front of him. "In fact, you're not speaking English either, you're speaking the same language as Mr Andersen. We're in a different country and a completely different time, this system makes it easier for us to interact with the locals."
  "Well, that explains a lot," muttered Edison, "although . . . why can I see his lips making out the words in English?"
  "What?" asked the Duke, raising an eyebrow.
  "When he talks, I can see his lips moving to make the words, and he's saying it in English," explained Edison.
For a moment, the Duke looked very confused.
  "Really . . . ? That's fascinating. It must be a mild form of agnosia."
  "In simplest terms, your brain can't handle the truth, so it's perceiving another one."
  "Right . . ." muttered Edison, "this is really confusing."
  "Welcome to time travel," smirked the Duke.
Mr Anderson returned with a small platter of sliced ham, a block of cheese & half a loaf of bread in one hand, and a bottle filled with dark red liquid as well as a bread knife in the other, all of which he placed on the table.
  "If I knew I would be entertaining guests, I would have provided a larger spread."
  "Don't worry, this is plenty," said Anise, looking at the plate. With a smile, Mr Andersen went into the kitchen and returned with four glasses.
  "Wine?" he offered. All three accepted, and he filled each glass half full.
"Now, I must ask, how do you manage to perform that trick?"
  "I'm afraid I can't divulge that," replied the Duke as Mr Andersen walked over with the glass. But just before he handed it over, he turned to the other two.
  "Oh, is it alright if I give him wine?" asked Mr Andersen. The other two looked at one another for a moment, frowning, before Anise gasped and clasped a hand to her mouth. After a second, Edison understood as well.
  "Oh . . ." Edison murmured awkwardly, "Yes, of course. He's not our servant."
  "Ah, I see," said Mr Anderson, handing over the glass, "my apologies."
  "You're forgiven," replied the Duke, raising an eyebrow as he took the glass. "Just don't make the same mistake again . . ."
Mr Anderson went and sat at the head of the table and the group helped themselves to the food.
  "Well, I must confess, one of the reasons I so wanted to meet you was to ask about your profession," said Mr Anderson, slicing some bread. "Travelling, seeing the world and performing such astounding tricks sounds like a marvellous adventure. Perhaps your exploits could even inspire a story."
  "I don't know about that," said Edison, "Being a magician isn't all it's cracked up to be."
  "Indeed," interjects the Duke, gesturing towards Edison, "my good friend here knows better than most that it can be quite dangerous. When you enter that mystery box, there's always a possibility that you won't be coming out alive."
  "Dangerous?" asked Mr Anderson, fascinated.
  "Very dangerous," said Anise, choosing her words carefully. "One time, someone stole the 'box' from us. We had to fight to get it back in one piece."
  "And when you travel, you'll be taken from your home, perhaps to never see it again," said the Duke, with a sip of mulled wine. "If you're on your own, it can get very lonely out there . . ."
  "My goodness," muttered Mr Anderson, "if it's so harsh and dangerous travelling around the world, then why do you do it?"
The table was silent for a moment, but Anise and Edison's eyes all focussed on the Duke, whose own eyes were staring into his glass. Finally, the Duke spoke.
  "I continue to do it for the simple fact that - despite all of the danger, pain and loneliness - I still find satisfaction in it. Because if I didn't perform these . . . miracles for people, then my existence would not be worth enduring."
  "You must truly enjoy your work then, Mister Duke," said Mr Anderson. But the Duke didn't reply.
  "What about you?" Edison asked, "what's it like being a writer?"
  "Well, I can honestly say that it's not dangerous unless I forget to eat or sleep," said Mr Andersen. "But it too is truly enjoyable work, despite the effort, long hours and inconstant income. Have you read any of my stories?"
  "Of course!" said Anise. "My Dad used to read them to me when I was a child."
  "A child?" asked Mr Andersen, frowning.
  "Yes. I remember The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl . . ."
  "Alright. Well, I wrote the first two, definitely, but I you must be confusing me for someone else as to the third. I've never heard of that story before. Perhaps you're confusing my work for the Brothers Grimm."
  "No, it was in the same book and all about a poor homeless girl that dies in the snow. I remember it vividly, because it made me cry as a little girl." said Anise, "What kind of fairytale is that? Killing a little girl."
  "I assure you, I've never written a story about a child dying alone in the snow," Mr Anderson insisted, "I would never write anything so morbid, unless it had a point; but I know that I wasn't publishing stories when you were a young girl . . ."
Before Anise could speak, Edison leaned over towards her.
  "He hasn't written that yet," Edison whispered in her ear.
  "Oh," muttered Anise. "Sorry. Never mind. It must have been a Grimm fairytale."
  "Grim, indeed," muttered Mr Andersen.
  "But I really do enjoy most of your stories," said Anise. "They're very good."
  "Well, thank you. It's nice to hear it from you. Most people in Denmark haven't heard of me, let alone Copenhagen, it's only my latest publication that's become popular in this town. Even then, so few seem to understand that I write them for adults, such as yourself, as well as children. So thank you very much, I appreciate your kind words."
There was a minute or so of silence as the four of them ate the remaining food before Mr Andersen spoke up again.
"Oh, I almost forgot. You say you three don't have lodgings?"
  "Not really, no," said Edison.
  "Well, it's quite late to be finding a room, especially so close to Christmas, if you need a place to stay I have room for this evening. Some of you may have to sleep on the floor, but it's better than the cold outside."
  "Thank you, I would love that." said Anise.
  "That sounds great," Edison said as he nodded alongside her.
  "You want to sleep?" asked the Duke. "There's so much for us to see."
  "Duke, I've been awake since Saturday," said Anise.
  "And I felt like I was walking for days on that ship of yours" added Edison. "I need to sleep."
  "I'm so sorry," muttered the Duke, looking apologetic, "we've been so busy, I didn't notice. Yes, of course, we'll stay here."
  "Excellent," said Mr Andersen.

It was beginning to grow dark outside when Mr Andersen led his guests to their room. After dinner and clearing the table, they went downstairs and found an empty room with a bed and a small sofa.
  "The lady can take the bed," said Mr Andersen, "and I can find blankets, rugs and cushions for you two gentlemen."
  "I just need a blanket," said Edison, removing his high-visibility jacket and sitting on the sofa. "This will do me nicely."
  "What about you, Duke?" said Anise, walking over and sitting on the bed. "Where will you sleep?"
  "I'll remain awake," said the Duke. "Will you two require sleepwear? I could retrieve some from the ship."
  "I suppose I'll need some," replied Edison.
  "Yeah. I want to wash this make-up off, though."
  "The wash-basin is here," said Mr Andersen, as he walked over to the wash stand. He opened the cupboard and withdrew a basin and pitcher, which he placed on the bench of the stand, along with a white cloth.
  "Thank you," said Anise, heading over to it. "Duke? Would you mind getting me a nightshirt? I don't care what, it just needs to cover me, while I sleep."
  "Alright. Come with me," The Duke said and Edison followed him out the door. As they did, Anise wetted her face and wiped at the make-up.
  "M'dear, I don't mean to pry, but I was wondering what is that on your face?"
  "This?" muttered Anise, showing him the glitter she'd wiped on the towel.
  "Yes, it looks to be some kind of powdered crystal. It's fascinating."
  "Oh, it's just glitter," said Anise, "I put it on so that it sparkles in the lights when I'm dancing."
  "It must be quite a show that you three put on," said Mr Andersen, picking up Edison's high-visibility jacket and looking closely at the reflective material.
  "Oh, uh, yes. It's amazin'."
  "Do you always wear such short, uh . . ." Mr Andersen turned his back to avert his gaze from her slender legs. "Do you always wear so little?"
  "This? Only when I'm clubbin' . . . I mean, y'know, "dancing"."
  "I'm just saying, it's something of a shame," said Andersen, sitting on the bed, facing away from her. "You have such a wonderful show; one that's dangerous, marvellous and travelling the world. Do you feel the need to expose yourself to the lechery of men, just to draw them to your magic?"
Anise looked down at her clothes, then wiped more make-up off her face with the cloth.
  "I dress like this because I feel comfortable in it, around so many strangers, all lookin' at me, I feel confident and beautiful."
  "You are more than beauty, Miss Trevalore."
  "It's Trevino. And I know what I've got. I dress for me, not for anyone else."
  "Miss Trevino, the blood of men is like a mad animal, yearning for flesh and the passion of a woman. No matter the reasons, the way you dress affects the way men treat you. I've only seen women dressed so provocatively in the houses of Paris, never in the open streets of Copenhagen. I worry for you, and the attention you would receive from men. You are a beautiful creature, Anise, but moreso a lovely girl; I shudder to think you would stray down the path of sin for the way you dress."
Anise was a little confused, but none the less she finished washing her face and turned to her host.
  "It's nice that you're concerned," she said with a half-smile. "But I'm a good girl, Mr Andersen. I'm not a sinner, and I can take care of myself. The only man that's getting into my pants, is the man I want there."
  "W-What?" stuttered Andersen, turning around on the bed. Anise placed a hand on her hip just as Edison and the Duke returned through the door.
  "What's what?" asked Edison, holding a pair of briefs in his hands.
  "I . . . uh, I," Mr Andersen looked between the three of them, then walked out of the room, looking embarrassed.
  "What was that all about?" asked the Duke.
  "Nothing. We were just discussion fashion, and moral Christian values."
  "Then why'd he go running off?" asked Edison.
  "Oh, he's just a bit of an old fuddy-duddy, but he's sweet, really."
  "Alright, then," muttered the Duke. He walks over to Anise and hands her a large, baby-blue shirt that he had draped over his arm. "Here, your nightshirt."
Anise took it from him, and held it up against her body, testing the size. It was basically a very big shirt which hung to just above her knees. It had a printed image of a pink, chibi jellyfish on the front.
"Is it suitable? There weren't many with appropriate length."
  "It's perfect and adorable. Thanks, Duke."
The Duke smiled, almost imperceptibly, in the corner of his mouth.
After Hans Christian Andersen had snuffed out all the lights and the Duke's companions had changed into their evening wear, everyone went to bed except for the Duke. Instead, he headed downstairs and outside, and spent his time aboard the timeship, keeping himself company until morning . . .

The next day, before sunrise, the doors of the timeship opened again and the Duke stepped out, locked the door behind him and wandered back into Hans Christian Andersen's home. It was frosty outside and blanketed in snow, but inside there was only the slightest chill to the air.
The Duke quietly walked upstairs to check on his friends. He stood in the doorway of the guest room and found Anise and Edison still sleeping. He saw Edison, bundled up in blankets with just his head sticking out, and he wasn't exactly snoring but he was on his back with his mouth open breathing loudly. Meanwhile Anise was lying on her side, eyes closed, with her hair tangled up above her head and her hands curled up in front of her face. She looked peaceful as she snoozed, moving just slightly with each, quiet breath, and the Duke leaned against the doorway and smiled as he looked at the two of them. After a moment, he turned away and headed off to Hans Christian Andersen's room. Peeking through the doorway, he saw that Mr Andersen wasn't in bed, but rather he was wearing a shirt, trousers and socks and was sitting at a desk, writing in a little book.
  "Good morning, Hans," said the Duke. It startled Mr Andersen, who jumped then turned to see his intruder.
  "Oh, it's you Mister Duke. Sorry, I woke early, so I was writing to pass the time."
  "Writing? Is this one of your famous stories?"
  "Oh, no, nothing like that. It's a diary, I write down the events of the days, it helps me to write if I keep up the pace between books."
  "A diary?" muttered the Duke. After a moment, he walked up beside Mr Andersen and swiftly ripped the page out of the open book.
  "What in God's name are you doing?!" said Mr Andersen, panicking. The Duke glances at the page, reads the words vanishing box then kneels down to look Hans in the eye.
  "You cannot write this down, do you understand me?"
  "What? No. Give me back that page!"
  "This cannot be a part of history," said the Duke more forcefully as he shook the page in Mr Andersen's face. "We did not happen. Inspector Edison tells me that nothing of this will be written and nothing will be remembered; Do you comprehend what I'm saying?"
  "Not entirely. What are you hiding from?"
  "Time," replied the Duke. "And I will do everything within my powers to keep us out of this immediate history. For reasons you will never fathom, I cannot be a part of this timeline."
Mr Andersen stares, looking dumbstruck, as the Duke stands, tears the page into four neat pieces and puts them in his pocket. Then he walks swiftly out of the room and towards his sleeping companions. He stood in the doorway to the bedroom in which they slept and tapped loudly on the door with his knuckles. Edison immediately began to shift and sit up, but Anise just moaned and turned over, tangling her hair over her face.
  "Inspector, get dressed. We've overstayed out welcome and are vacating the premises," said the Duke, walking over to Anise. He leaned over to her, placed a hand on her shoulder and gently rocked her side to side, to wake her.
  "Anise?" he whispered, his voice getting smoother and deeper with the low tone. After a moment, she inhaled, turned and gasped when she saw his face.
  "I'm sorry, but I need you to be alert and dressed."
  "What?" she murmured, pulling her hair off her face and rubbing her eyes. The Duke stood and spoke so that they both could hear him.
  "We're dangerously close to a fixed point in time, and I do not want to be a part of it. We have to leave."
  "Why?" asked Officer Edison, as he starts to pull on his trousers.
  "Something is coming," said the Duke.
  "What's coming?" asked the Inspector, doing up his pants and grabbing his shirt.
  "I don't know," the Duke replied, speaking low while Anise rubbed her eyes, "I despise being vague, Inspector, if I could identify it I would tell you. But it will be here within the hour."
  "We're in the past," murmured Anise, "we're safe here."
  "I'm afraid not. Now please, get dressed."
  "What? While you two boys are watching?"
The Duke and the Inspector glance at one another, then the Duke leaves the room. After grabbing the rest of his clothing and equipment, Edison follows him and closes the door.
  "So, if you don't know what this is," said Edison, sitting on the floor to put on his socks, "then how do you know it's dangerous?"
  "Because I was warned of this," said the Duke. "After we arrived, this unidentified object targeted us, and is approaching at an unnatural velocity. It was only brought to my attention last night, but this coming danger is intrinsically linked with the eminent, fixed point in time; I don't know why they're connected, I'm sure it's fascinating, but under the circumstances I would prefer to leave and never intend to find out."
  "Duke?" called Anise from inside the room. "Duke! Come here!"
Without hesitating, the Duke threw open the door and marched inside.
  "What is it?" he demanded.
Anise was dressed and standing by the window, there was a fancy brush in her hand which she was pointing out the window.
  "What's that?" she asked. The Duke looked out to see something on the horizon. It looked like a metal snowflake, flying through the morning sky and approaching very fast.
  "That's . . . very unfortunate. To the ship! Quickly!"
The Inspector hesitated, but when he saw the Duke grab the discarded nightshirt in one hand and Anise's wrist in the other he lead the way as the three of them ran out of the house.
  "What's all the commotion?" called Mr Andersen behind them, but they'd already run out the door, so he followed them outside. The Inspector was a few steps ahead of the other two, so he quickly ran through the front door of the ship. The Duke was just a few metres from the doors when something fell out of the flying saucer in front of him with a thud and a pwang, the Duke came to such a sudden stop that Anise ran into the back of him. The Duke had found himself staring at his own reflection. He took a few steps back to see what it was, and laid his eyes upon a shard of metal, perfectly polished like a mirror, that was several metres tall with straight but uneven sides.
  "Drat," said the Duke.
As he watched, the centre of the mirror rippled, then molded forward in the shape of a woman. The woman was wearing a draping dress, and she had perfectly formed features, however she was made of the same reflective material as the mirror, so she looked like a polished statue, and the strands of her draping dress lead back into the shard of metal, as the mirror and the woman were one and the same.
  "Do you own the time machine?" spoke the creature, her voice sounded strange, like a chorus of women speaking in unison. After a moment, the Duke responded.
  "Who is asking?"
  "I am the Slyph." she replied. It was strange that although her mouth moved, the rest of her face remained so very still.
  "Duke . . . what's a 'sliff'?" asked Anise.
  "I'm not sure, but it looks to be some kind of gynoid, constructed of aqueous metal." said the Duke, glancing up at the flying saucer above them, "To what purpose did you seek out my timeship, 'Slyph'?"
  "Time travel," replied the Slyph.
  "I don't understand," said the Duke, "You are not native to this time. You must already be capable of time travel."
  "Our time machine was imperfect; malfunctional. I require a more advanced system."
  "And you wish to utilize my ship to travel through time?" asked the Duke.
  "Affirmative . . ."
  "I'm afraid that's impossible. I'm going to leave now; I recommend that you also leave this planet and look for temporal passage elsewhere."
  "I cannot leave without your ship," replied the Slyph; as she spoke, horns grew out of her head like a strange form of crown, each tipped with a glowing light and she rose off the ground. "Give it to me or we will take it."
  "Are you threatening me?"
  "I am warning you."
  "Then I'm threatening you . . ." growled the Duke, retrieving his laser spanner from his pocket; a device like an electronic tuning fork. "If you try to take my ship, I will break you, tear you into pieces and cast you into oblivion! Cross me, and you will rue the day you heard the name "Duke of Rathea"."
After a second's pause, the mirror shard warps and melts, forming into smooth, silver tentacles. They grasp the ship, and the Slyph's female figure rises up towards the ship, morphs into a claw-like shape and grabs onto something on the underside of the saucer.
  "No!" screams the Duke. He runs for the timeship and grabs the closed doors, but several of the tentacles were wrapped around the locking wheel. "Inspector?! Open the door!"
  "I can't!" Edison calls from inside, his voice muffled by the doors. The Duke points the laser spanner at a tentacle, but suddenly the timeship is lifted into the Slyph's flying saucer out of reach.
  "No, no NO!" roars the Duke. He starts adjusting the controls on his laser spanner.
  "Duke! They're taking Edison! They're taking the ship!" screams Anise, panicking. As she speaks, the Duke takes a few steps towards the ship, which was beginning to rise faster and faster, about to blast off into space.
  "They obviously don't know who they're dealing with . . ." mutters the Duke, pointing his spanner at the Slyph's ship. "I'm the Duke of Rathea!"
A crack of thunder fills the morning silence as green lightning spikes from the Duke's spanner up to the ship. It contacts one of the blue thrusters on the base of the ship, which ignites and flares, making the ship start spinning wildly. The ship tilts sideways and starts flying quickly off towards the horizon. The Duke turns back to Anise.
  "Now, we have to follow that ship," says the Duke, grabbing Anise by the shoulders, "Anise, can you find us a car?"
  "What? A car? Not in this century."
  "We need to move. I've disabled one of the engines, it's bound to crash-land, but that machine can surely repair it in short order. I need transport, and you're my guide on this planet. Find me a vehicle!"
Anise looked around and saw Mr Andersen, wide-eyed and pointing dumbly at the ship as it disappeared into the sky.
  "Hans!" Anise said, standing in front of him, "We need to follow that ship. Do you have a . . . cart? Or a, uh . . . a horse? Something?"
  "No no-no, nothing like that," he stammered.
  "We need to move, fast."
  "I-I-I'll fetch you a cab. Wait here," he said, and he ran inside. He came out less than a minute later wearing a coat and carrying a little coin-purse. He walked quickly down the road. Anise turned back to the Duke, who was watching where the ship had vanished, behind the tops the buildings.
  "A cab's on its way," she said. The Duke didn't respond, he was staring intently in the direction of the ship.
  "It's travelling latitudinally, perhaps several hundred kilometres . . . if we can reach it in a day, we'll be able to get to her before she can get her own ship working again."
  "What about Edison?" asked Anise, "will he be alright in your ship?"
  "I don't know," said the Duke, placing the laser spanner in his trouser pocket. "and I'm afraid he's not inside my ship. As a security measure I locked the doors into the console room, nothing will get through there. Our dear Inspector will be stuck within the real-world interface."
  "The what?" asked Anise.
  "That's what you've named 'the lobby' - the little room between the outside world and the inside of the ship - Edison is in there. Now, if he's as resourceful as he's proven to be on occasion, the Inspector will lock the doors behind him. However, at this rate, he'll still be stuck in a very small room for a very long time . . ."
A moment later, a black, horse-drawn carriage, pulled by two white stallions covered in black spots, comes trotting around the corner. The carriage stops at the street-side, the door opens and Mr Andersen leans out, motioning with his hand
  "Quickly now, get in," he said, looking at the Duke and Anise. The two of them run inside and close the door. Anise and the Duke sat across from Mr Andersen, who was facing towards the back of the carriage.
  "Where to now, sir?" asks the driver.
  "Where are we going?" whispers Mr Anderson.
  "Several hundred kilometres in that direction," said the Duke, pointing out the window.
  "Several hundred? We can't get that far in this," stammered Mr Andersen
  "That's where we're headed," replied the Duke jabbing his finger towards the horizon, sternly.
  "Oh, eh . . . to Helsingør, please driver," Mr Andersen called to the driver, and the carriage rattles forward.
  "This is dreadful . . ." said the Duke. "This is exactly what I wanted to avert."
  "The 'fixed time' thing?" asked Anise.
  "Exactly. We can't alter this time-stream, we have to maintain the course and hope that we are all destined to survive it."
  "What the devil are you two jabbering about?" asked Mr Andersen.
  "We're time travellers, Mister Andersen."
  "What are you doin'?!" Anise interjected. "I thought we couldn't tell him, since it would alter history!"
  "We're passed that now, Anise," explained the Duke, "He witnessed the Slyph, he's a part of this. We can hope that, since he's native to this time and has historic precedence, then his assistance will be invaluable."
  "I don't understand," Mr Andersen interrupted, leaning forward. "Is this some kind of elaborate magic trick?"
  "No," said the Duke, "We are time-travellers, and that 'box' was our vessel. This was intended as a mere sojourn into history, but now we are complicit in an unalterable chronology."
  "Who was that argent woman?"
  "That wasn't a woman. It's a machine, called the Slyph, comprised of nanites," said the Duke, but as he saw Mr Andersen's confused expression, added "All you need to know is that it has purloined our time machine and that we need to retrieve it."
  "Alright alright, I understand . . ." said Mr Andersen, hesitantly, "you are time travellers, she is an automaton & we are giving chase to as to retrieve your magic box before she has the chance to misappropriate it. But there's yet one thing that I cannot understand."
  "What's that?" asked Anise, leaning forward.
  "Why didn't you stop her?" asked Mr Andersen, looking at the Duke. "In the time I've spent with you, I've heard wondrous stories and seen with my own eyes that you can appear from nullity and even conjure the power of lightning! Why did you not fight this creature?"
The Duke stared grim-faced at Mr Andersen for a moment before responding,
  "It's not my duty. I am not the man to dictate the course of history and play the role of a capricious god." The Duke sat back in his seat, and folded his arms. "Where I'm from, we have a name for that kind of meddlesome blackguard . . ."
  "Sorry, sir," Mr Andersen muttered quietly. The Duke's icy disposition left the passengers of the carriage in an awkward silence.
  “Well, uh, how much longer until we get to Helsing?" asked Anise.
  "Helsingør," corrected Mr Andersen, "is at least four hours away."
  "Oh boy . . ." Anise said, with a sigh.

As they rode along, Anise rested her head on the Duke's shoulder and fell asleep. Meanwhile, Mr Andersen was writing with some spare papers from his pocket and a square Faber pencil. Once he had assured the Duke that he wasn't writing anything relevant to aliens or time travel, he was left to his own devices; clutching the paper close to him, shooting the occasional furtive glance at the Duke, to be sure he wasn't going to tear away any more of his pages.
As the carriage came to a stop, Mr Andersen stuffed three pages of writing into his pockets, and the Duke gently roused Anise to wakefulness.
  "We're here, Anise," he said, as she stretched.
  "Where?" asked Anise.
  "The docks," said Mr Andersen, "we'll be crossing the sea."
  "We've reached the ocean?" asked the Duke. Before hearing his answer, the Duke hopped out of the carriage. After glancing around for a moment, he saw the port and strode up to it, his leather coat trailing behind him with the speed of his stride. Mr Andersen got out to talk to the driver while Anise ran after the Duke. She caught up to him at the water's edge.
The dock was a stone floor with no railing. It was as though the city itself stopped with a straight drop down into the water, and the Duke stood on the very edge.
  "Duke?" Anise asked, as she spoke, the Duke raised both of his arms stretched out, tilted his head back and inhaled the salty air; then he sighed and turned to his companion.
  "It's astounding" he said, smiling, "I haven't seen anything like it."
Seeing his grin, Anise giggled.
  "I wish I had a camera," she said, "I've never seen you so happy."
  "On my planet, we don't have oceans," he said, turning back to face her. "I've never seen so much water in my life . . ."
Anise joined the Duke, holding onto his arm as she looked across the dock. On the horizon, they could see the shores of Sweden, a thin sliver of snow-capped green and ships in the water, and in the waters by them, there was a docked steamship.
As they stared at the water, The Duke felt Anise shiver, and so he removed his leather jacket, revealing his neat-fitting, black shirt underneath and wrapped the jacket around her shoulders.
  "One of these days, you will need to dress more warmly," he said.
  "You have a time machine, can't you just take me to summer?"
  "Mister Duke?" interrupted Mr Andersen, behind them. The pair turn to face him.
  "Hans, of course. We must cross the river," said the Duke, pointing at the steamship. "Will this vessel take us there?"
  "Not unless we have a ticket," said Mr Andersen.
The Duke just scoffed and marched towards the ship, with Anise and Mr Andersen following close behind him. The trio walked up beside the large steamboat, pushing through the throngs of people and towards the gangplank. The Duke marches up the walkway and onto the ship. As he stands on the deck, a man in a uniform stops him.
  "Wait your turn, sir," said the man. “If you want to go any further, you’re going to need a ticket.”
  "Anise, can you come here for a moment?" asked the Duke. Anise comes over, and the Duke reaches into the inner pocket of his jacket, which Anise was wearing. He pulls out a slightly worn, maroon, leather-bound pocket notebook with a circular symbol and a stylized emblem - that looked like an octopus or a squid - stamped in gold on the front. He opens the book to a page which was marked by the attached ribbon bookmark.
  "This will suffice," he said with authority, holding it open in front of the man. The ticket officer squinted at the page, which was covered in more alien writing, complex circle diagrams, unusual seals and a signature, then he frowned.
  "What the hell is this?" he asked
  "I'm the Grand Duke of Rathea," said the Duke, tapping the page with the index finger of his free hand, "freedom is an implicit right of royalty."
  "Now listen here, you swindlin' moor," said the ticket officer, "you ain't no duke, and if you want passage, you're gonna need a ticket!"
The Duke's face falls, and he slowly closes the notebook and places it in his trouser pocket as he frowns.
  "Why, you . . ." growls the Duke, stepping closer to the officer. "I am the Duke of Rathea, you insipid, feeble little peasant. Whether you have the acuity of mind to understand that is immaterial. All that matters is that I have the right as sovereign, and if you neglect the freedoms that entails I will personally lock you in a Capitol jail cell. Have I made myself clear?"
Before the officer could answer, Mr Andersen stepped between them.
  “Gentlemen, please,” Mr Andersen said, “Let’s be civil, here. Look, we urgently need to get to Sweden, but we hadn't the time to buy a ticket. Surely we can arrange something. What’s your name, sir?”
  “Lars Frost,” said the ticket officer.
  “Right. Well, Lars, I do apologize for my friend, here. My name is Hans Christian Andersen, perhaps I can offer you something in return for passage.”
Ticket Officer Frost frowns for a moment, then raises his eyebrows in surprise.
  “Wait a minute . . . no. You’re Hans Christian Andersen? You wrote that new book of fairytales?”
  “Nyr Eventyr? Yes, that was me.”
  “To hell . . . I put my children to bed with your stories! Niel won’t go to sleep without it. Thank you, sir,” he said, offering his hand. Mr Andersen shook it with a smile, as the Duke watched, with a confused frown.
  “Well, I’d offer you a copy, but you must already have it. Perhaps I could sign it for you?”
  “Oh, that would be grand, although . . .” he said. Then, he took what looked like a ticket out of his pocket. “Perhaps you could write something for my children? They love your stories.”
  “Oh of course, of course. . . what’s this?” he asked, taking the piece of paper.
  “A forgery. I sent that blighter off, but if you would write something on the back.”
  “Oh, fabulous!” he said, taking the Faber pencil out of his pocket.
Anise and the Duke stood back and watched as the officer and Mr Andersen walked over to the wall and leant against it to write.
  “I’ve also a daughter,” said the ticket officer, “named Nanna.”
  “All right then,” said Mr Andersen. He pondered for a moment, pencil in his mouth, before returning to the page to continue writing. After a moment, with a flourish, he signed the forged ticket and handed it back for Mr Frost to read. After a moment, he smiled and chuckled.
  “You make this job sound like a noble profession," he said.
  “It is. Especially in the eyes of your children,” said Mr Andersen. “Now, sir, if you don’t mind, perhaps you could grant my friend’s and I an exception?”
  “Hmm . . . alright, then,” muttered Lars, the ticket officer, “So long as you keep that boy in line.”
  “Oh, yes, of course,” said Mister Andersen, “thank you.”
With that, the officer gave Hans a nod and walked passed them, heading for the gangway.
  “‘Boy’ . . .” sneered the Duke, as Mr Andersen turned to his friends.
  “Well, that worked surprisingly well,” he said, returning the pencil to his pocket.
  “That man had no respect,” said the Duke.
  “He’s just performing his duty,” offered Mr Andersen, meekly.
  “You can’t blame 'im,” said Anise, “you weren’t much better yourself, Duke.”
  “I’m The Duke, he’s a ticket inspector.”
  “You’re not a duke to him,” said Anise.
The Duke shook his head, and angrily walked down the deck of the ship. Anise made to follow him, but Mr Andersen grabbed her shoulder.
  “Don’t,” he said.
  “Why not?” asked Anise, confused, “He’s upset.”
  “His pride is wounded, he needs a moment to himself. Give him some time, Miss Trevino.”
Anise sighed as the Duke walked to the bow of the ship, and disappeared around the corner.

The ship slowly filled with people, then the gangplank was retracted, the horn blared and the boat slowly turned and aimed for the distant shore, chugging steam and splitting the waves as it sailed towards Sweden.
The Duke stood by the railing, near the front of the ship, he stood with his hands behind his back and staring off at the island, as though his longing for the return of his ship would make the boat sail faster. Anise stood further back, close enough to see the Duke’s back, but still far enough that he couldn't see or hear her. She leant on the railing, staring at him.
  "You love him,” said Hans Christian Andersen, leaning against the railing beside her. She glanced at him with a frown, but he smiled. “Do not deny it, I know that kind of ache, fluttering in your heart."
  "How d’you know?" she asked.
  "I can see it in the way you look at him. I have felt that way before, and I recognize it reflected in you."
  “Is it really that obvious?”
  “It is to me. I believe all of the great writers have felt it, and now so have you.”
  “Well, what about him?” Anise asked, pointing at the Duke. "Can you see it in him? Does he . . .?"
Mr Andersen’s frowns and glances at the Duke, then sadly shakes his head.
  "I'm afraid not. All I see in his heart is darkness and anger. He cares for you, that's obvious; but more akin to the ways that a father cares for his daughter. Or a brother to his sister. No, I fear your love is unrequited."
Anise glanced back at the Duke and sighed,
  "Am I just stupid?" she said, her voice quivering a little.
  "No, my dear, of course not, just because he doesn't feel anything doesn't mean you shouldn't"
Anise looked back at him.
  "Are you saying it's pointless?"
  "Of course not, I'm sorry," he said, with a sigh, "how can I explain it? I'm much better at writing than talking." Suddenly, he clicked his fingers and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a pair of scissors, as well as a piece of paper that was barely scribbled on.
  "What are you doing with that?" she asked.
  "Oh, this is just a little hobby of mine. You see, paper isn't just for writing on, Miss Trevino . . ." He leant over the edge of the railing, folded the paper in half and began snipping at the paper with the scissors as he talked. "I once felt as you did, fell for a man."
  "A man?" asked Anise, glancing up.
  "Yes . . ." said Mr Andersen, bringing the paper closer to his face so that he could cut in finer detail. "Judge not, that ye be not judged."
  "Sorry, I was just surprised."
  "Well, so was he. When I told him that I wished to be more than just acquaintances . . . I was rejected."
He punctuated his words with a dramatic snap of the scissors which threw the waste paper from the ship into the sea, where it would dissolve into pulp. Then he revealed the cutting, it wasn't much bigger than his palm and was a strange shape with a round top and a pointed base, and atop it stood the paper silhouette cut-out of a single, dancing gentleman. "I felt as though God had destined me to be alone, so I was very upset. But then fate gave me another chance. I fell for another, and when I asked us to be closer, he said yes . . ."
Hans Christian Andersen returned the scissors to his pocket and unfolded the piece of paper, as he did the shape became a heart, now with two figures standing atop it.
  "That's beautiful, but I don't understand . . ."
  "Look closer," said Mr Andersen, holding up the piece of paper. Anise looked closer.
  "Oh wow . . ." she muttered. Up close she saw, the second figure wasn't a gentleman, but instead was a ballerina.
  "This isn't my story, Anise. It's yours. Here, take it . . ."
He held it out, and she delicately grasped it near the edge, but as she motioned to take it, Mr Andersen didn't let go. She stood there, frozen for a moment, he wasn't letting go, and she didn't want to tear the paper. She looked at his face, confused, when he spoke again.
"Do you see, now? This is the meaning of my story. When two people hold one heart, there is always a risk that it will tear in two." Mr Andersen slowly lets go of the paper cutting, "however, if you take that chance, you might just find yourself in the possession of something truly precious . . ."
Anise looked down at the paper figure, then nodded.
  "Thanks," she said. Then she folded it, and put it in the pocket of the leather coat she was wearing. “You’re a great storyteller.”
  "Thank you," said Mr Andersen, "And you're very welcome."
Anise paused for a moment, then asked:
  "Do you always carry scissors and paper in your pocket."
  "Scissors, no. That's just for a hobby of mine; I often entertain the children of my house-guests with my paper-cutting. However, I usually carry paper and a writing implement, just in case inspiration strikes me while travelling."
  "Does that happen often?" asked Anise.
  "Often enough. I was even taking some notes in the carriage, while you were sleeping."
  "Notes about what?"
  "Oh, I can't say" said Mr Andersen, "it's a work in progress; sacrosanct. I wouldn't dare reveal it."
  "Not even a little?"
  "I'm not even sure of it myself," he said, looking out at the water, "that's the nature of writing, so often the idea which sparks your imagination is an amorphous concept, within an ocean of potential; what seems brilliant one day may seem asinine the next. But I can tell you that you and your friends are an inspiring group of people, and that I am truly glad I met you . . ."
Anise smiled, and once again leant against the railing beside Hans Christian Andersen, watching the approaching shores of Helsingborg, Sweden.

Anise and Mr Andersen spoke to one another of love, loss and literature until their steamboat entered the harbour. They watched as the ship moored there, and the staff went through the rigmarole of preliminary docking procedures before finally lowering the gangplank, allowing their passengers to escape the confines of the ferry. Anise and Mr Andersen then headed for the front of the ship to collect the Duke, but he wasn't there.
  "Come on!" they heard him yell from overboard, his usually deep voice sounded straining at such a volume, sounding somewhat hoarse. They followed his voice over the railing and saw him already standing on the dock, looking up at them. "Quickly, you two! Time's wasting!"
Heading through the crowds of travellers, Anise and Mr Andersen  sped down the gangplank and onto the dock, before the waiting Duke.
  "Sorry, Duke," said Anise, "we were looking for you."
  "I'd already disembarked, I came here to ascertain my position. I think the Slyph's ship has veered off-course."
  "What makes you say that?" asked Anise
  "The crash site," said the Duke, pointing over the rooftops. Anise and Mr Andersen look where he's pointing, to see smoke, off on a distant horizon, wafting up into the sky.
  "That's the Slyph's ship?" asked Anise.
  "I'm sure that it is," said the Duke, "and from here, I'd approximate that it's scarcely a few kilometres away. By coach, we would reach our destination in a matter of minutes."
  "Coach?" asked Mr Andersen, timidly. He cleared his throat and frowned sadly, "Mister Duke, I'm afraid I can't afford a coach. I paid for the first carriage with some pocket change. I apologize, but the rest of my funds are out of my hands at the moment."
  "Fine," says the Duke, sounding grumpy, "If we leave now, we may arrive in just a few hours. Keep up."
With that, the Duke immediately starts walking, beginning the long trek in the direction of the smoke; his companions swiftly follow.
  "We're walking all of the way?" asked Mr Andersen.
  "You can swindle another ticket-seller with your autograph if you prefer," growled the Duke; Mr Andersen followed behind silently.

The trio left the city by foot and after half an hour were travelling through a snow-capped field.  It was beautiful; the flowers were like coloured crystal, the trees were old and strong and the surrounding vista was wild and open. They walked through countryside for hour after hour until they came upon the source of the curling smoke, and the Duke stopped stock still.
  "What the devil?" asked Mr Andersen.
The three of them were staring at a little house with strange red and blue windows. It had a thatched roof, and looked to be made of wooden logs. The smoke seemed to be emanating from the chimney.
  "It's just a house . . ." muttered Anise.
  "No . . . it can't be. That's not wood-smoke, it smells too much like burning plastic," said the Duke. He took a few steps towards the little wooden cottage and took the laser spanner from his trouser pocket. He pointed it at the house. As he activated the spanner, the entire house started to warp, flicker and humm; changing the settings on the spanner, the Duke made the house vanish from existence to be replaced with a dark, grey cylinder, eight metres long and five metres wide, with sloped sides on the front and rear.
  "It's a house, that's a spaceship?" asked Anise
  "Actually, it's just an ordinary spaceship, with a perception filter . . ."
  "An 'ordinary spaceship'?" repeated Mr Andersen, bewildered.
  "Well, it's not the Slyph's ship," said Anise, looking at the dark, grey hull with its uneven surfaces.
  "Indeed," said the Duke, "but on the other hand, this is quite the serendipitous circumstance. We've travelled several kilometres in the wrong direction; however, if I can resolve whatever fault has caused this ship to crash, we could find ourselves at an advantage."
The Duke uses his spanner again, this time opening the rear door, which folded down like a ramp, he then walked up the ramp to get inside the ship.
  "Wait, I don't understand," said Mr Andersen, sounding flustered, "where did it come from?"
  "I know as much as you, Master Andersen," said the Duke as he walked through the rear section of the ship, which consisted of little more than two rows of seats and storage compartments. He saw a small, round hole in the hull and knelt down to see it closer. "This ship was shot down."
  "How long will it take to fix?" asked Anise.
  "I don't know, I still don't know what operates and what doesn't. I've never seen this kind of ship before."
  "What does all of this do?" asked Mr Andersen, leaning down closely at something on the wall which separated the two compartments of the ship
  "A plethora of very complicated things which I haven't the time to decipher, let alone explain, right now," muttered the Duke, following the angle of the hull breach to find the breach on the opposing wall. He peered inside, and saw the damage it had wrought through the hull, then stood up and walked outside. "Wait here."
Anise and Mr Andersen glance at around the interior of the ship.
  "This is . . . unbelievable," said Mr Andersen. "Yet, to you, it seems so pedestrian."
  "I'm just disappointed that it's so small on the inside," said Anise. She leant over to the wall and pressed one of the panels. With a hiss, the bulkhead doors leading to the cockpit slid open. There were four seats in a small room, with a transparent window at the front of the ship, with a control panel with all manner of buttons and strange symbols underneath it. Anise steps inside and as soon as she does, the overhead lights come on, as does the control panel and a holographic heads-up display on the forward window.
Mr Andersen follows her into the cockpit, and is awestruck by the display. He looked over each part of the screen, covered with moving scenes, each within its own program window.
One window showed an Indian funeral ceremony with Hindu priests and a woman in red robes; another held the visage of an ancient castle overgrown with ivy, while a woman in white looked out from her balcony over the green vista; yet another showed a young girl and her friend playing on a swing with their dog; another revealed several women dancing in the moonlight, like fair folk; while one depicted an old grandmother, sitting still in a wooden chair, staring out into an fast-moving world & another one showed a lone woman doing laundry amidst a garden of daffodils.
  "Oh my God . . ." he said staring in wonderment, "what is all of this?"
  "What the hell are you doing in my ship?!" calls out a harsh, female voice behind them. Mr Andersen turns around and automatically raises his hands. Standing on the ramp leading into the ship was a woman with a strange device in her hands. The woman was of Indian descent, with long, black hair tied up in a ponytail behind her head and she was wearing red bandanna around her neck; on her torso she wore a grey shirt with rolled up sleeves under a brown, leather vest with a red, fur shawl over her shoulders & on her legs wore beige trousers with brown, leather padding sewn into them like armour, held up by a snakeskin belt.
The device she was holding had a gadget on the front shaped like a convex plus sign, with four square lights on each segment and decorated with squiggles of alien circuitry; it was like nothing Anise had seen before, but she recognized it as a weapon by the way the woman held it, so she raised her hands as well.
  "Please don't kill us," she said.
  "I'm not gonna kill you, unless you do something to piss me off," said the woman, in a thick, Australian accent. "So I suggest you stop fiddling around with my ship. Get out of there, now!"
Anise did as she said, never once taking her eyes of the device in the woman's hands, there were thick cables and even more lights around the handle-segment. Suddenly, the woman spun around behind her, where the Duke was standing. She points the device menacingly.
"Another way to piss me off is to try to sneak up on me."
  "We don't mean you any harm," said the Duke.
  "Are you a thief?" asked the woman.
  "No," said the Duke, a little confused. "Are you?"
  "Occasionally. But if you're not a thief, why are you here?" she asked, stepping closer to the Duke.
  "We're after a cybernetic organism known as the Slyph."
  "What do you want with her?" asked the woman.
  "I could ask you the same question," said the Duke.
  "You could, but I'm the one with the gun."
  "We both know that that gun won't do me any damage," said the Duke. The woman stood still for a moment, then slowly lowered the weapon.
  "I could still give you a swift kick in the teeth if you don't answer me."
  "There's no need for that," said the Duke. "She stole my spacecraft, and I would like it back."
  "Are these your friends?" the woman asked, turning back to the front of the ship and she looks at Mr Andersen. "You can put your hands down now."
  "Yes, they're travelling with me," said the Duke.
  "Well, your friends were trying to steal my ship."
  "Sorry," muttered Anise.
  "We only wished to borrow it, actually," said the Duke. "We will return it once we retrieve our ship from the Slyph's clutches."
  "Good luck," said the woman, "I don't even know where she is, I've been running a search program to locate her ever since she shot me down and I crashed on this miserable rock. Nothing's come up in days. Are you aware of how big a planet is?"
  "Intimately," said the Duke. "But you're in luck. I know where she is."
The woman snorted derisively.
  "How the hell would you know that?" asked the woman.
  "I overloaded one of her engines, causing her ship to stray off course for an inevitable crash-landing. From my vantage point, I then calculated the vector of descent. I can't be precise, as she would have considerable navigation to guide her crash-landing, but I have an accurate estimate of her whereabouts."
  "Can you say that again . . . slowly?" asked the woman.
  "He crashed her ship and saw where it fell," Anise called from behind her.
  "You understood all of that?" she asked
  "I'm getting used to it . . ." muttered Anise.
  "Who are you people?" asked the woman.
  "I'm the Duke of Rathea, she is Anise Trevino, and that is Hans Christian Andersen."
  "Hmm. Must be a local . . ." muttered the woman, looking at Mr Andersen.
  "Who are you?" asked Anise.
  "Autumn Roberts," she said, looking back at Anise with a smile, "I'm a bounty hunter . . . from the future."
  "Your ship can't travel in time," said the Duke, confused.
  "No, this is just a gateship. But I flew it through a time-looping wormhole to follow the Slyph back in time."
  "You can orchestrate the temporal distance of a wormhole?" said the Duke, sounding surprised. "How did you re-establish the event horizon of the recurrent matter loop?"
  "What?" asked Autumn. She glanced at Anise.
  "No, he lost me with that one too," said Anise, shaking her head.
  "Never mind," said the Duke. "It's unimportant, let's instead focus on the issue at hand. Your spaceship is damaged, can it still fly?"
  "Yeah, but there's a bit of a draft," said Autumn, pointing at the hull breach, "but so long as I fly within this planet's atmosphere, she'll be apples."
  "What?" asked the Duke.
  "We'll be fine," translated Anise.
  "But you're forgetting something important," said Autumn. "I've only just met you, and the first thing you did was try to steal my ship. Why would I take any of you people anywhere? For all I know you're all bounty hunters - extremely incompetent ones at that - who are lying to me just to dispatch the Slyph for yourself and steal my bounty. Why should I trust you?"
  "You can trust me," said the Duke, again, taking the small, well-worn and official-looking notebook out of his pocket and opening it to the bookmarked page. "I'm not a bounty hunter, I'm the Grand Duke of Rathea."
  "Well excuse me, your highness," replied Autumn, in a manner which was decidedly irreverent. Then she read the page and sighed. "Checks out . . . fine, I'll take you. But this is my bounty, alright? I'll get the Slyph, you'll get yer ship and then we split. Deal?"
  "I accept your proposal," said the Duke returning the book to his pocket, and the two shook hands.

With the Duke's help, Autumn Roberts entered the Slyph's approximate co-ordinates into the computer to find a flight path, then after closing the rear hatch, they took off. Because of the hull breach, everyone piled into the forward section and Autumn closed the bulkhead doors. There, everyone could see out the front window, and were stunned by the sights of the passing landscape. They swiftly rose into the air, and flew through fields of white, peppered with trees, farms and roads. But the higher they rose and the faster they flew, the more it all became a whizzing blur of Swedish country, beauty and snow. The Duke and Autumn were by the front window whilst Anise and Mr Andersen sat in the back seats.
  "This is madness . . ." muttered Mister Andersen.
  "What is?" asked Anise.
  "All of this," he said, gesturing around. "Everything here, it makes my life feel so unimportant. My beloved is waiting for me at home; my latest collection of fairytales is a best-seller even in my home town & in a week or so it will be Christmas day. Of all these things I am aware, yet all of them appear so pithy now. They're just one small, insignificant fragment of all there is."
  "You are not insignificant," said Anise. "Even though these things are 'little', they're very important."
  "Even if I were to believe that," said Mr Andersen, "Even if I believe that I am important, were I to stand before the face of Time, Space & God then say to them I am important, do you think they would believe it? Be honest."
  "Well then don't ask them," said Anise, "why don't you ask Lars Frost?"
  "The ticket-seller?"
  "Yes. He thinks you're important, he reads your stories to put his kids to bed every night and I know he's not the only one. Your stories are famous and for hundreds of years, maybe thousands after now they'll be famous. You have affected billions of lives in my time. How can you call that insignificant?"
  "Because I'm just one man," he said, sounding frustrated.
  "One man can do a lot of things. I've seen one man save the world . . ." said Anise.
Mr Andersen sighs.
  "Perhaps you're right. Perhaps I'm just feeling lost, because I don't understand what's happening. The world is not as simple as I once thought."
  "You're telling me . . ." muttered Anise.
The ship flew past the Gulf of Bothnia, over the shoreline, before crossing the borderline into Finland. After an hour of flying, Autumn finally slowed the ship and began to descend.
  "Look there," she said, as the ship flew lower, "a crash-site. That must be her ship." Autumn pointed to an open field of white, where a deep gouge had been cut into the snow and dirt underneath in a great, dirty ditch, leading to the ship, which sat crooked in the snow, with a pale blue glow underneath.
  "Then take us there," said the Duke.
  "I don't want to risk it," Autumn said, "if I get too close she might . . . oh crap!"
Autumn yanked the controls to the side, and there was a loud explosion outside that rattled the ship.
  "We've been hit?!" yells the Duke.
  "Oh no, not again!" screamed Autumn. "She hit a drive pod!"
The view out the window span slowly around as they descended. They heard cracking and splintering as they hit a tree then a thump! as they smacked into the ground. The Duke was the first on his feet.
  "Is everyone alright?!" asked the Duke.
  "What was that?" asked Anise. The Duke helped Mr Andersen back up from where he'd fallen onto the floor.
  "That was a squid-drone which she stole from me," said Autumn. "they're nasty little things."
  "I'm alright," said Mr Andersen, brushing himself off.
  "Let's get out of here," said the Duke. Autumn lead the way through the bulkhead door. The back cargo area was filled with smoke, but she managed to lower the ramp and get everyone out. The Duke looked around before he found his bearings. It was freezing cold all around, and the trees were covered in frost, as though each tree was wrapped in a lumpy blanket of white.
  "There!" he said, pointing at the ship, about five kilometres in the distance. "Drat! we were so close!"
  "Do we have to walk all the way?" said Mr Andersen, looking at Slyph's ship.
  "My ship's busted," said Autumn. "It'll take me ages to fix it."
  "No," muttered the Duke, looking behind them, "we don't have to walk . . ."
The other three turned around and watched as the Duke slowly approached a small herd of elk, all of them black with white patches of fur and nasty-looking horns. As he approached, one of the elk raised its head and the Duke glanced back at his companions.
  "What are you doing?" asked Anise. He just held up a hand and walked closer to the elk. As he did, he spoke softly, but the others couldn't hear what he was saying. The elk took a few steps and the Duke raised a hand towards it, open-palmed. Then the others watched in confusion as he took three steps forward, carefully held onto its horns, leaned his head forward and knocked foreheads with the elk. He stood in that pose, their heads butted together, for a few seconds before he finally let go, walked around beside the animal and mounted its back; then he rode the animal back towards his companions.
Mr Andersen stammered, bewildered, as the Duke rode up to them and came to a stop atop the elk.
  "H-h-How the . . . What? How did you do that?!" asked Mr Andersen. "That's a wild animal!"
  "It's a simple beast. I was easily able to enter its mind," said the Duke.
  "You hypnotized a moose?" asked Anise, incredulous.
  "Not exactly, I connected with it psychically, and effected the notion that we needed assistance."
  "You did a mind meld with a moose?" she asked, no less incredulous.
  "Well, I had to. I don't speak moose and I couldn't find a horse."
Autumn just shook her head and laughed.
  "You're one crazy bastard, Duke . . ." she said. "I like it."

The Duke persuaded another elk to help them, then the six of them set off, Autumn and Anise riding one elk, while the Duke and Anise rode the other. Autumn took the lead, since she had the only gun, but they rode swiftly and safely across the snow. However, as they entered the ditch cut into the countryside where the ship crashed, Autumn slowed her elk to a stop. The Duke stopped beside her and they saw something large coming towards them. It was a collection of frozen monsters. Two were large, brown bears, but they had silver spikes jutting from almost every part of their body, there was also a few beavers, with so many spines jutting from their back that they looked like porcupines. Each one of the animals was covered in a layer of snowflakes and walked slowly and mechanically. Between them, slivering along the ground was a mass of the Slyph's liquid-metal matter, which shuffled along like a tangle of snakes.
  "Stay back!" screamed Autumn, jumping off the elk with her gun in hand. She advanced as the beaver trudged closer. She ran straight for the animals. She shot at the snow-monsters with her energy weapon. A ripple of blue energy blasted out and when it hit the porcupine-creatures, their metal spikes disintegrated into what looked like silver dust and the beaver collapsed under its own weight. Wasting no time, she blasted the rest of the creatures, then turned the gun on the writhing mass of snaking slyph-matter and it collapsed like a sandcastle when the tides come in.
  "Those poor animals," said Anise, looking at the collapsed beasts. As deactivated nanites leaked out of their eyes, they looked as though they'd been crying silver tears.
  "They might still be alive," said Autumn, mounting the elk with Mr Andersen again, "they're no longer under the Slyph's mind control, but they're still wild animals."
  "What is that weapon?" asked the Duke, as they continued on towards the ship.
  "Dunno. I call it a Reintegration Disrupter, it cancels out the energy that holds the nanites together. Stops them talking to one another."
  "That's impressive," said the Duke.
  "It's only impressive so long as it works, but she's been slowly building up an immunity to it."
  "I just pray that it works when it has to," said Mr Andersen.
  "Me too," said Autumn.

The four of them rode the rest of the way to the ship, and walked underneath the underside of the Slyph's ship, until finally they stood before the door to the ship, angled down towards them, from the angle of the ship's resting place. The thrusters were glowing softly, but they were otherwise dormant. The Duke takes the laser spanner from his pocket and after a moment, the hatch dilates open.
  "This is it," said the Duke, and he climbed inside.
Anise, Autumn & Mr Andersen follow the Duke and climb through the hatch and aboard the Slyph's ship. The ship was sitting at an angle, but due to the artificial gravity they found themselves standing upright within the ship. The hatch closed after them and they were standing in the middle of a circular room, with a white, rubber floor and control panels circling the walls of the round room. Above them the dome was covered with projections of stars and planets, much like a planetarium, except these images were holographic and depicted real star systems that had yet to be discovered by earthlings. They turned around and, there behind them, they could see the Slyph with her crown of metal horns staring at them coldly. The Duke's timeship was behind her, still looking like a wooden cabinet. When the Duke saw it, he looked horrified. The door was open.
  "Duke of Rathea," said the Slyph, in its ethereal chorus of a voice.
  "Slyph," said the Duke. "I see you've opened the door to my ship."
  "Negative," said the Slyph. "The occupant opened it for us."
At that moment, Officer Edison walked out of the ship, but his movement was unnatural, almost mechanical.
  "Edison! Are you alright?" called out Anise.
  "Affirmative," replied Edison. And it was then the Duke noticed there was something odd about Edison's face. His left eye was now silver, a small round mirror. Edison pulled his gun and pointed it at the Duke.
Autumn responded by firing the disrupter at the Slyph. The blue pulse passed through her harmlessly.
  "Oh shit . . ." said Autumn. In response, Edison pointed his gun at her and fired. Autumn collapsed to the ground, groaning as she started bleeding from her shoulder. Anise and Mr Andersen ran over to help her as Edison pointed the gun back at the Duke.
  "Are you one of the Eighty-Eight?" asked the Slyph.
  "No," said the Duke.
  "Then you will help me," said the Slyph. "Allow me into your ship."
  "You already opened the door," said the Duke.
  "The inner door is secured," said the Slyph. "You will unlock it and allow us inside."
  "Why would I do that?" asked the Duke. In response, Edison pointed the gun at his own head.
  "Open the door, or your companion will die," said the Slyph.
  "No!" screamed Anise. She jumped onto her feet.
  "Go ahead," said the Duke. "There is nothing in time or space that would convince me to let you take away my ship!"
  "I do not wish to take your ship," said the Slyph.
Hearing those words, the Duke stood there quietly for a moment, dumbstruck.
  "What?! But, you already did!" barked the Duke. "You wanted to use it for time travel. Those are your own words!"
  "I am a shape-shifter. I only wish to see the mechanism inside. It you allow me to see your time engine for myself, wewill identify its components, then we will become the time machine and leave your ship unharmed."
The Duke looked very surprised.
  "You will let me keep my timeship?" he asked.
  "Affirmative," said the Slyph.
The Duke considered this for a moment, stroking his beard with one hand as he thought.
  "Duke, what are you doing?" asked Anise. "Just let her see the ship and we can get out of here!"
  "No . . ." muttered the Duke. "I can't."
  "If you do not, then your companion will die," said the Slyph.
  "You think I care about him?" asked the Duke, walking to stand up in front of Edison, eye to eye. "This man is a stow-away aboard my ship. An accident. A problem that keeps getting in my way."
  "Duke!" shrieked Anise, "you don't mean that."
  "Don't I?!" he growled, turning to face her. Then he saw the look on her face. It was fear, but not of the Slyph. "I care about him about as much as I care about you!"
  "You are lying," said the Slyph. "let us inside your ship now, or he dies."
  "I don't think you could handle it," said the Duke. "You may be a machine, but do you really think you could survive all of that? Spinning through the time vortex and witnessing time and space before your very eyes?"
  "I am resilient," said the Slyph.
  "Let's see for ourselves," said the Duke. Without warning, he suddenly head-butted Officer Edison. As soon as he did, Edison and the Slyph began to scream. Edison cradled his head in both hands and the Slyph started to warp before their very eyes. portions of her melted into liquid while others flared and grew into spikes, while she mutated and transformed uncontrollably.
  "TO THE SHIP! RUN!" screamed the Duke. He grabbed Edison's arm and ran, as Anise and Mr Andersen helped Autumn to her feet. The Duke ran into his ship, unlocked the door, and fled into the console room, leaving Edison writhing on the marble floor as the Duke stood at the console, rubbing the pain in his forehead. Anise, Autumn & Mr Andersen were quick to follow, and as soon as they entered the console room, the Duke pressed a button and the doors locked behind them.
  "My lord . . . it's bigger . . ." muttered Mr Andersen, as they helped Autumn onto the red, velvet couch by the door.
  "Let's get out of here," said the Duke, adjusting the controls. Suddenly, there was a deafening bang on the console room door.
  "NOO-O-OO-OO!!" screamed the Slyph, her voice faltering as she malfunctioned, "L-l-let-l-let uuuus-us in!"
She screamed and slammed herself against the door.
  "I'd get out of there if I were you!" called the Duke, with a smile. he pressed a button, and outside, they heard the outer door of the ship close. Then the Duke pulled the ignition lever. With a thundering boom, the ship began to sway and squeak, groan and wheeze, tilt and whir. Rumbling and grumbling like a goddess clearing her throat. As they moved, they could still hear the Slyph banging against the doors.
  "You-y-y-y . . . cann n-n-not esscape the Slyyyyph-if-if-if-if. . ." she screamed.
  "Get off my ship," said the Duke. He pressed a button on the console and with a ding! the outer door opened. The Slyph suddenly fell silent, leaving only the sound of the whirring time machine as they flew through the vortex. After a short while longer flying through space and time, the Duke replaced the initial lever, and everything stopped moving with a thud and fell silent.
Slowly Edison got to his feet, and the Duke saw that he'd been crying. His left cheek had a streak of silver running down it, his eye was clear again. The Duke took a handkerchief out of his pocket and quickly wiped the nanites off his face.
  "Are you alright?" asked the Duke.
  "I have a killer headache," said Edison.
  "So long as you're still yourself, Inspector. I was worried for a moment there," said the Duke. Then he heads over to the couch where the bounty hunter was. The Duke asked Anise, "How is she?"
  "She's fine," said Autumn, clenching her teeth as she sat up on the couch. "but you threw my bounty out the front door!"
  "She's been thrown into the vortex. I haven't met anyone that can survive being exposed to that."
  "Can you guarantee she's dead?" she asked.
  "Technically, no. but she's dead enough for you to collect your bounty." Autumn considered this for a moment. "If it's any compensation, you can take the Slyph's ship,"  continued the Duke. "It can't remain in the nineteenth century."
  "That sounds like a fair deal," said Autumn with a grin. "If I step out that door, where will I end up?"
  "Outside Master Andersen's house," said the Duke. He walked towards the doors and they opened automatically.
  "I guess this is where we split," said Autumn, getting up off the couch. "It's been a hell of a ride."
  "Will you be alright?" he asked.
  "Don't worry, I've had worse. " she said, looking at her shoulder, "I can patch this up myself. I'll catch ya later, Duke."
Then Autumn walked out the door and slung her gun over her shoulder.
As she left, Edison walked over to the Duke and cleared his throat.
  "Duke?" interrupted Edison."What was that?"
  "Whatever do you mean?" asked the Duke.
  "I mean before," he said. "I can barely remember . . . but when I was under the Slyph's control, you butted me in the head and there was all these images, but I can't remember. It was so confusing, then I wasn't under her control anymore. What was all of that?"
  "I needed to free you from the Slyph's control," said the Duke. "You were under her control, so your minds were linked. I showed you something that she couldn't understand, thereby overloading her processing units."
  "What's that?" asked Edison.
  "Eternity . . ." said the Duke. "I showed her the Vortex itself. It was too much for her to handle."
  "Well, everything looks to be in order," said Mr Andersen. "So, I should be leaving as well. I need a strong cup of coffee . . ."
  "Can you take care of Miss Roberts, and make sure she doesn't draw too much attention to herself?" asked the Duke, glancing at her red fur shawl and alien weaponry.
  "Of course, Mister Duke, of course." he said. Then Mr Andersen shook his hand. "Thank you, sir."
  "Whatever for?" the Duke asked.
  "For showing me that the world is more than it seems."
  "Right. Well, I'm sorry if I was . . . abrasive."
  "Oh, don't worry about it," said Mr Andersen, waving his hand dismissively. "You're a good man. I'm sure all you need is a woman's touch."
With that, Hans Christian Andersen gave the Duke a wink, and stepped out the door of his timeship.
  "Would you look at that," said Mr Andersen, laughing, "it's morning again! Time travel . . ." and he laughed as he joined Autumn in the snow.
With that, the Duke wandered towards the console as the doors closed automatically.
  "We should probably be going," said the Duke. "I'm sure Hans would enjoy the spectacle of our vanishing box, don't you?"
  "Of course," said Anise, as she walked towards the Duke, took his leather jacket off and handed it back to him. "But Duke? I don't care where we go next so long as it's a lot warmer. Okay?"
  "As you wish, milady," said the Duke, accepting his jacket. He started to put it on as he spoke, "Although, there is one question that remains . . ."
  "What's that?" asked Anise.
  "Who are the Eighty-Eight?" he asked. He pondered for a moment, and idly slipped his hand in his pocket before he pulled it out again, holding a piece of paper. He unfolded it and discovered a heart, with a ballerina and a dancing gentleman on each side.
  "What's this?" he asked.
  "Oh, uh . . . that's mine," said Anise, sounding embarrassed.
  "Would you like it back?" he asked.
  "Uh . . ." Anise felt around in her pockets, but they were too small, "could you hold onto it for now?"
  "Alright," said the Duke, smiling as he put it back in his pocket. "Don't worry, I'll keep it safe."
  "Come on, Andersen's waiting, let's get going!" said Edison, impatiently.
  "Right you are!" said the Duke. "Hold on tight!"
He yanked the ignition lever, and the ship rumbled, groaned and wheezed before it finally vanished, spiralling through space and time, headed for sunnier shores.

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