Eclipse reached ahead, feeling through the space from which Pickering had vanished. He was gone. He hadn’t given her a chance to say her farewells. He hadn’t even let her thank him for his hospitality. She stared at ceramic walls, fixing the place in her memory. Her forehead tingled. She hadn’t at all expected what he had done. She executed a delicate pirouette and strode up the Tunnel, her own home her firmly set goal.
THEY WANT HER TO REVIVE THE NAMESTONE. SHE WON’T and CAN’T
The Tunnels. The Grand Portico, exit to the plane of Earth. To my Earth, anyway, thought Eclipse, since it seems that there’s more than one. Her trip through the Tunnels’ ever-shifting stony hollows had been short, the Guardian announcing Eclipse’s toll was paid in full and indicating the correct exit. Just as well, she decided, that Comet had paid for all five of them. The Guardian’s prices always benefited the payer more than the Guardian, but she was too tired to want an expensive reward. Forcing her way to the Great Maze had been difficult, no matter how much she owed Pickering. Beyond the Tunnels, on this her home plane, she had ten billion uncharted lightyears to go. And Pickering? His assist, carrying her from the Great Maze to the Tunnels in a single step, had been entirely welcome. His unexpected kiss still tingled on her forehead. She wished she had had a chance to thank him for all he had done for her.
She paced across the terrace, stretching her arms and legs. A step, a skip, a gentle hop took her into a double cartwheel. Even if she had a ways to go, it felt so good to be bound for home at last. She finished the wheel, feet solidly planted. A figure loomed out of the dimness ahead of her.
“You were clearly not in a hurry?” it asked. The voice was that of a woman in her early twenties, the sound matched by her figure. Her garb was unmistakeable, a mix of white and yellow fabrics cut so tight that she appeared about to spill out of her garb, though she never quite did so. The face mask was a plate of burnished gold, far wider than the head behind it, edges fringed in solar corona pattern, bejewelled eyes and mouth etched in a fixed grin. Eclipse shuddered at recognition of the source. Solara. “I’m afraid I seem to be blocking the stairs,” the older woman mock-apologized. Solara shifted her weight, now standing to obstruct the portico’s only physical exit.
“Not in a hurry. Not really. After you.” Eclipse gestured at the outer stairs. This could be a coincidence, couldn’t it? It didn’t sound likely. The Guardian’s words, that her passage through the Tunnels had already been paid, came to mind, too late to be a warning. Perhaps the payer had not been Comet. “There’s nothing I can’t wait on, if you need the Tunnels.”
“Clever.” Solara’s smile, barely seen between golden lips, was that of the cat whose mouse is firmly trapped between its paws. “But I’m afraid you have something we want.”
“Something? We?” asked Eclipse. You managed, she noted, to voice that question without choking. “What do you want? I’m not a thief. If it’s yours, I didn’t know it, and you can have it back.” “We.” Solara gestured at the plaza, dropping an invisibility field. A really good field, thought Eclipse, one I completely missed, not that I was looking. There stood Prince Mong-Ku, mandarin robes a silken scarlet shimmer; the Screaming Skull, a featureless black matte shape around which hovered the eldritch outline of a skinless, fleshless face; Plasmatrix-The-Desolation-of-the-Goddess, a female form marginally clad in bits of blindingly brilliant light; Starsmasher; and Corinne, Solara’s nominally teen-age daughter, the tiara of the Ambihelicon of Geyer at her brow.
“Oh. Hi. Didn’t see you all there.” Eclipse managed a weak smile. You couldn’t, she thought, stand up to Plasmatrix, that when you were fresh and she’d just flown across half a universe. Though you might have fooled her; she may think you stood up to her. But now you’re facing five of them at once, you not rested at all, and Corinne with the Ambihelicon. Be calm, she told herself, don’t start anything unless you’re positive other choices are worse. “I said I’m not a thief, Solara,” Eclipse continued. “If you were ungifted, wheelchair-bound, blind, if I had something of yours, no matter its value, no matter I needed it as much as life itself, you only had to ask for its return. You didn’t need to bring a mob along. Or are you too deep into playing games with minds?”
Solara recoiled at Eclipse’s accusation. Some intuition told Eclipse that Solara’s response was important, important at a level that Eclipse didn’t understand.
“Games? No,” answered Solara. “ Not at all. But you have distracted the boys — the great captains. the ministers of state — from their important duties. Duties to the form of the future. I can’t permit that distraction to continue. Not now. Too much, too many important things, rest on their undistracted thinking. So I must remove the distraction.” She pointed at Eclipse.