The knock on Beth’s front door sent lightning tearing down her nerves. She knew the knock would come one day. She was ready for it on some level, but on so many others she wasn’t.
“Go up to your room,” Beth’s mother said and turned to answer the door.
Beth knew her mother was trying to protect her. She knew that running to her room was probably the only chance she had of avoiding the attention of the three unnatural men who waited on the other side of the door.
The Burners had found them, but that wasn’t surprising. With the Hidden Pages still open there was a trail that lead via circuitous routes back to her. Or at least her general vicinity. Pinpointing Beth exactly should have been impossible, at least according to what her father had told her. What following a trail couldn’t do though, process of elimination was apparently quite able to manage.
Beth clung to the hope that while the Burners might have found her, they couldn’t be sure that she was the one they were looking for, and they couldn’t afford to be wrong. Waking someone up accidentally, and traumatically, could lead to disaster on a far wider scale than Beth was ever likely to manage having traversed the Unread successfully at least once.
And if they were willing to be wrong? If they were willing to risk a disaster or if they somehow knew for sure that they were the one they were looking for? Well then she had an answer for that too. Maybe.
“Yes, what do you want?” her mother asked, not opening the door but speaking through the glass to the Burners.
“Mrs. Candler? We have some questions we need you to answer,” the Burner standing slightly in front of the other two said. Beth heard his voice as unaccented and bland, but there was a quality that lay underneath the audible tones, some subharmonic that she felt in her bones rather than properly heard. A hundred years of nails on a blackboard would have been preferable to hearing one more word from the Burner.
“Then ask them,” Beth’s mother said, folding her arms across her chest. Her back was to Beth but Beth knew the expression she was wearing. Her mother assumed that posture when she knew someone was lying to her and she was daring them to push the lie further. Beth had learned at an early age that trying to stick to the lie, whatever it was, was a Very Bad Idea. She hadn’t made that mistake more than once but she’d seen other people blunder in it enough to feel a savage delight at the mistake the Burner was about to make.
“We need to step inside,” the lead Burner said.
“Not to ask a question you don’t.”
“Open the door, or there’s going to be even more trouble,” the leader Burner said.
“Yes there is,” Beth’s mother said. “If you leave now, the trouble might pass you by, but if you don’t, I guarantee you you will not like what happens next.”
The Burner stepped up closer to the door, his nose almost touching the glass.
“Was that a threat?” he asked. “Do you think you can scare us away?”
He hadn’t spoken loudly but the words carried through the door and into Beth’s skin until they settled in her bones.
“I think you don’t have a warrant, or you would have showed it already,” her Mother said. “And I think you don’t have badges either. So whoever you’re working for, I don’t have to listen to them, or answer your questions.”
“Do you think it would be hard for us to come back with a warrant?” the lead Burner asked. “Or do you think badge will keep you safe from us? We know what you’re hiding Mrs. Candler. Where is your husband?”
“Try coming in that door uninvited,” Beth’s mother said. “Or do you think my husband is the only one who can defend this home?”
“There are three of us out here, Mrs. Candler,” the lead Burner said. “Maybe you should think about that, for your daughter’s sake.”
“Are you threatening my child, sir?” Beth’s mother asked, notes of levity in her tone that Beth had never heard before. The mild amusement screamed a warning in Beth’s head.
Her mother didn’t joke like that.
Her mother wasn’t joking. Wasn’t amused at all. Beth had watched her mother drive a fork so far into Gilles de Rais eye socket that Gilles burst like a balloon. From the lack of comment on the subject, it didn’t seem like that level of violence was new to her. The Burner didn’t know that, but he was well along the path of discovering it for himself.
“Open the door, Mrs. Candler.” The undercurrent of menace in the Burner’s voice was tangible. It impacted Beth with the force of a heavyweight boxer.
It was a distraction.
“No,” Beth’s mother said. “Come back when you have a warrant, a badge, and more men.”
“There are three of them out there, but we don’t need the door to enter your house,” another Burner said as he descended the stairs that lead to the second floor.
That was a mistake. One by one, other mistakes began piling up on top of it.
Beth’s mother turned to face the intruder and the Burner at the door stepped back and kicked at it. The door held and from the Burner’s expression that was not something that should have happened.
Beth’s mother grabbed an old walking stick from the umbrella stand beside the door. An old, hard as steel, gnarled club that pretended to be a walking stick.
That was a mistake because she was farther away from the Burner that invaded their house than Beth was, which meant Beth was in a prime position to become a hostage.
Lagressa began walking forward, her hands raised palms out to ward off the Burner’s advance. That was a mistake because she was closer to the Burner than Beth was.
Beth didn’t want to save the Burner from Lagressa’s drowning touch out of any fondness for the Burner. Every fiber of her being said that the Burner’s were wrong, a snarl in the skein of reality. Those same fibers though didn’t want to see Lagressa become a murderer.
Not for her.
Not when there was another way.
The Century Walk wasn’t a long book, but it was Beth’s favorite in the Measureless Stars series. While it had never won an award, it was one of the first real science fiction books that Beth had read. It was a delight because it was well above her age level at the time and because the author packed some many fantastic yet plausible ideas into a setting that spanned the length and breadth of a galaxy.
In the week since her father had disappeared, Beth had thought about the various books she loved and which of them would be the safest and easiest for her to hide in.
Galaxies are big places. Unfathomable large in comparison to anything even remotely human scale, and the Century Walk had captured that better than any book Beth could think of.
So she called to the stars, reaching out as her father had taught her.
And the stars answered.