The stony ground spooled out beneath her. She wanted to stop but she kept on. And there it was, the hole in the earth, the swarm—
Maybe it first happened when Jacky was a child, too young to form clear memories, too young to explain it to herself or anyone else, her mother the engineer, her father the teacher, her older brother, her smart, reckless older brother.
Now she thought it through, Jacky was not sure it wasn’t just a dream. It could be both: there were other things she knew she had dreamed as a young child, and these too were loose, dangling memories, but they could not have happened: the horribly growing congeries of black balls in the air over the highway, the rats talking in the shady corners of the room, the odd angles of the walls between what she could see and what she could not, the flaming ring.
And yet Jacky had seen such things that these things held no fear or mystery for her anymore. She had seen thousands die at a time: she had been as Oskelay when the Tower went up, when one of the Kronah, one of the Twelve, was trapped by Lakanth’s wizards and destroyed, when the Tumbling Ring had begun its tumble, while outside Gremhar amused himself about the battlefield of the city, slaying women and children and old men who had lost everything but their lives, laughing at their cries as they lost the last thing they had.
She had walked the battlefield of Despre, where a hundred thousand fell, troll kings and elf lords, goblins and heroes, demon princes and wizard priests. She had walked the Terrible Day After at Skralnag, and seen what a full-scale quantic crater looked like. She had parked a car outside a village in Kazmin and walked its streets, among the crushed buildings and patches of dark where people had been. She had seen men die whom she herself had caused to die in ways she would rather not think about.
She had seen Nayori, the love of her life, walk out the door and into memory, walk out the door and into her doom.
And in its way, this was like that: it was no dream, this hole, this swarm in the—
Jacky sat up. She was in her chair, at her desk before the window, looking out upon the side yard. The slope ran to the left, down toward the pond. Lily and Sezan were out there playing; Waren and George would be pottering about the garden with beers in their hands.
She wanted to shake it off, but one little voice of the many felt she should just have a look. Look? Look where? She lifted her left hand and gazed at the pale blue gem on her big ring.
Her gaze intensified. She found a route. She was gone.
Jacky was walking over stony ground under a grey sky. There was a sound, somewhere between a buzzing and a rustling and a chattering. Before her, the path curved downward, backward really, as if she were coming to the top of a hill, but it was the lip of a pass as well, a hyperbolic paraboloid in gravel. Her eyes down, she watched the ground move down her view, then more ground, then more ground, and then the hole.
And in the hole, in the swarming hole,
Jacky sat up. She was in her chair. Was the sun in the yard a little wan just now?
She looked at her ring. “What was that place?” she asked. Her ring did not answer.
Jacky gritted her teeth. She raised her ring, her time warrior ring, and gazed into its pale blue stone. She found the place and latched onto it, reminding herself to be careful, to be aware, to do all the things she reminded herself to do. And she was there, she was gone.
Jacky was walking up a slope on stony ground.
There was a buzzing and a rustling and a chattering. The path curved backward, as if she were coming to the top of a hill. Her eyes down, she watched the ground move down her view, then more ground, then more ground, and then the hole. The swarming hole,
Jacky sat up. She was in her chair, at her desk.
She looked at her ring. She looked out the window. She said, out loud, “Okay. What the actual fuck?” She felt a little concerned just to hear herself swear. She felt a little concerned that Jacky Clotilde, time warrior, was actually concerned.
She took a breath. She would have to go see, now. All the voices agreed.
She raised her ring. There was a knock behind her. She jumped up and turned: it was just old Waren.
“Sorry, sorry,” the old man said. “Did not mean to startle. You okay there?”
“I’m fine,” said Jacky. “Just working on a problem.”
“So are we,” said Waren, and she saw George lean in from the hall, smiling his smile in his dark face under his captain’s hat and grey hair.
“We’re just reconfiguring the side yard,” said George. “Some irrigation issues, and, you know, croquet, the gnomes don’t like the way the croquet is set up. We could use your opinion at some point.”
“Sure,” said Jacky. “Just let me—uh, just give me a minute.”
“I’ll let you know.”
The two old guys—wizard, time tech—excused themselves. Jacky straightened herself out and sat back down.
She raised her ring. Steeling herself, reminding herself of everything, she found the route and took it.
Jacky was walking up a slope on stony ground. She noted every rock, every swirl of sand, every bony pebble, every glint.
There was a buzzing and a rustling and a chattering. She listened to it, but she could not make out words, signal or just noise. She let herself resume plodding. The path curved backward, as if she were coming to the top of a hill. Her eyes down, she watched the ground move down her view, then more ground, then more ground, and then the hole.
Then the hole. Grey brown then dark then darker, in a few centimeters, teetering stones at the lip and sand slanting back, chattering and crinkling and buzzing and rustling and whispering, and then the hole. The swarming hole,
Jacky sat up. She stood up. No, she could not hear the chattering now.
She stepped into the hall, descended the short stairs, opened her big friendly front door, took a breath. Sky so blue. Lily and Sezan and one of the gnomes were down by the pond playing. She turned to the left and stalked over to where old Waren, pink of face with flying white hair, and George, black of skin with curly grey hair and his captain’s hat, both in comfy slacks and short-sleeved shirts, stood amicably debating with the senior gnome. They all turned, all smiles, beer glasses in their hands, as she came up.
“Solve your problem?” said George.
“No,” said Jacky.
“That would be yes.”