The prospect of facing an immortal foe wasn’t what worried Beth the most about trying to track down the man her father was pursuing.
“How is he changing the Unread?” she asked, sitting down on a box beside where her father was resting. “I thought that was something only we could do, not a character from the book we’re in?”
He propped himself up, shaking his head to clear the last of the explosion induced fuzz from his ears.
“Well, the good news is that it’s not de Rais who has hold of a central thread,” her father said. “The bad news is it’s the person who made him.”
“And by ‘made him’ you don’t mean someone like his father or mother?” Beth guessed.
“No. They’re another traveler like we are. One who I was hoping you’d never to meet. That seemed like a safe bet since your books aren’t the same as mine,” His frown deepened as he sighed. “And yet here we are.”
“Do they move between history books too, or is their focus different?” Beth asked.
“I’m not sure,” her father said. “I’ve only encountered him inside some history books, never others. Whether that means his scope is more limited than mine or that they only overlap across a narrow range, is anyone’s guess.”
“Sounds like there was some common bits to the stories you found this traveler in?” Starshine asked.
“War. He seems to be draw to it, from ancient battles on triremes to aerial bombings of desert targets. If the chronicle is bloody on a mass scale it seems to draw him,” her father said. “Unfortunately that opens up a fairly wide swath of history to work with.”
“Pretty much true across the galaxy,” Starshine said. Beth felt the Unread tense a little at that declaration but in the background the general chatter continued without a hiccup.
The crew of the ship wasn’t speaking English, so it was possible they couldn’t follow enough of the conversation for references to outer space to be a problem. It seemed more likely though that they just didn’t care. Her father followed her gaze.
“I’ve sailed with them before,” he said. “They’re a solid bunch, and this isn’t the first time they’ve gone up against de Rais and his backers.”
“I can’t get over how nonchalant they are about us,” Beth said. She’d always heard that allowing women on ships was something sailors would never do. That they were too superstitious of bad luck. If so, that was a superstition these sailors were unaware of because they were not only failing to bat an eyelash at a dark skinned woman and a black girl sitting on their deck, they were actively encouraging an inhumanly scaled woman to help them with the heavy lifting of ship repair.
“Sailors saw a lot more of the world than other people in their days. This crew puts most of them to shame though,” her father said. “They’re not based on anyone in the text, but I was able to extrapolate that people like them had to exist.”
“And so they do,” Starshine said, nodding as Beth and her father each raised an eyebrow. “What? It’s how psychoplanes work. Think of something that fits and there it is.”
“What about those things which do not fit?” Lagressa asked, rejoining them. The crew had the fires under control and the major debris off the deck. Behind Beth, the captain was calling out orders in French and the sails were unfurled again. They were far behind de Rais’ ship but ocean wasn’t exactly littered with a lot of cover for de Rais to hide behind.
“Depends on the psychoplane I guess,” Starshine said. “I haven’t really made a study of them. Can’t usually smuggle much off of them and the things you do manage to bring with you are a bad idea to hang onto.”
“Why’s that?” Beth asked, thinking of the two women she’d managed to ‘hang onto’ across a few different iterations of the Unread.
“You know how the Unread starts pushing to eject us when we do something that infringes on the overall narrative? Picture what happens when there’s something that it can’t push out.”
Beth remembered the pressure the Measureless Stars had exerted on her when she tried to move outside what the setting would allow. It had been like struggling against a tidal wave. There was no where to get a grip and too much force to oppose even if she could. If that energy was turned against itself though?
“Boom – instant blackhole?” she guessed.
“Worst case, yes, or at least that’s one of the worst cases,” her father said. “There are things that can come tearing out of calamities like that, and they’re the reason why people like the Burners exist.”
“Is that was de Rais wants?” Beth asked.
“Something like that,” her father said. “Thanks to his patron, this version of him knows where the story will lead him, and he’ll do anything to avoid it.”
‘What does his patron get out this?” Beth asked.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to find out,” her father said. “Until we discover what his story is, I don’t think we’ll be able to outmaneuver him.”
“That’s the part about psychoplanes I always hate,” Starshine said. “Can’t just shoot the bad guy and be done with it.”
“What do you know of your enemy so far?” Lagressa asked.
“Less than I’d like,” Beth’s father said. “He’s tried this gambit before a few times now, once with de Rais and with a few other famously brutal soldiers. He finds people who have no regard for others and shows them the poor fate that awaits them. That’s all it takes to get them in line I guess.”
“What does he have them do?” Beth asked.
“Get someone to take their place,” her father said. “I don’t know if it will work, but the idea he’s sold de Rais on is that if someone else can be caught and executed for de Rais’s crimes then the de Rais from this text will be able to take that person’s spot in the world they came from.”
“What would happen if the switch was discovered after the execution?” Lagressa asked.
“Both worlds would collapse,” Beth said.
Far away, Beth heard mad laughter echoing across the waves.