The Explorers’ Club, Now:
“…and at that precise moment,” says the furry purple man with the bright yellow eyes, “the giant beast sneezed, covering all two dozen of our party in vile, putrid phlegm!”
Every purple male and female in the great meeting hall of the Explorers’ Club roars with laughter and bangs his or her cutlery on tables and chairs. Two of the furry purple people even leap up on their tables and dance around hyper-ecstatically, whooping with hilarity at the story they just heard.
It’s enough to make the storyteller—Grigri Glee by name—do a little hop-step of his own behind the pulsing green podium thing. The approval of his fellow club members makes his personal parasites twitch and twitter with delight. Reporting on his latest exploration of the Unknownamensity is not only a necessity (as the club funds his travels) but a genuine joy he craves and savors.
“What about the Jenavenna?” asks the club Presidex, a tall female named Loga Sabreslake. “You still haven’t told us if you found that fabled landform, Dr. Grigri.”
“I guess you’ll just have to listen a while longer, then.” Grigri nods grimly. “For thereon hangs a dark tale of evil and sacrifice on the great and mysterious Eastern frontier.
“All because of a foul monster known far and wide as Craw Cancellakra!”
The Adventurers’ Flock, Now:
“Our Western frontier, as you know, is a foreboding place,” says the six-foot-tall birdlike female with the bright green and gold feathers, red beak, and purple eyes. “It is a vast and unforgiving expanse, traversed only by the mad and the dead. But the great Unknownamensity will someday be conquered, or my name isn’t Craw Cancellakra!”
The vast, domed chamber of the Adventurers’ Flock fills with a deafening chorus of squawks, cries, chirps, yelps, and tweets. Feathers of all colors and sizes fly as the hundred-plus members beat their wings in vigorous approval.
Craw, just back from a Flock-sponsored expedition, has them all on the edges of their perches. She’s an old hand at this, keeping them in suspense as she spins her tale of exploration at the edge of what to them is the known world.
“It took us a full month to cross the Dry Zone.” Craw whistles and wiggles her wings for emphasis. “Those trackless wastes had been reshaped by the elements since our last expedition, leaving us utterly lost and at the mercy of three blistering suns.”
This time, the cries in the dome are lower, softer, and simpler—expressions of sympathetic sadness and worry. Some of the bird creatures huddle together for comfort as Craw describes the dark turn of events.
“We dared not take flight, as ravenous slashdragons and aero-squid ruled the skies. All we could do was continue our doomed march and pray for deliverance.
“Then one day, b-kaw! We emerged from our travail! We found paths out of the Dry Zone and into the Wattlands, where our sniffers caught traces of the landform we sought—the Jenavenna.”
The mood in the domed aviary lifts. Craw proceeds to drop it again.
“Unfortunately, that was when we encountered the foul monster! That was when the terrible Grigri Glee descended upon us!”
The Unknownamensity, Then:
Electrical arcs and streams crackled across the hard, red ground of the Wattlands, zapping occasional insects or small animals in their path. Grigri and his team walked carefully over the plain, trying their best to avoid getting electrocuted.
They’d been in this region before on previous expeditions, so they knew it could be harrowing. Step on the wrong spot at the wrong time, and you could get a full lightning bolt up your ass.
Still, it was the place they had to be for what was coming. No other sector in all the vast and untamed Unknownamensity would do.
“I don’t see anyone yet.” Hoyga Hoyga Hoga, Grigri’s stout and strong-willed female second-in-command, scanned the sparking horizon with crystalline field glasses that glinted in the triple-strong sunlight. “Just a few shock monkeys and a zappa or two.”
“Keep looking, Hoyga.” Grigri squinted into the distance and tried not to worry. Traveling hundreds of miles through the wilderness, it was tough to time a rendezvous just right.
“There!” The youngest member of the expedition, lilac-furred Kook Achoo, ran ahead, stopped, and pointed. “I see them! They’re coming!”
Hoyga swung her field glasses around for a look. “He’s right! Raise the banner! Raise the banner!”
Kook raced back and grabbed the rolled-up purple banner from the back of the supply-carrying horned white stomp-whale. Grigri, however, didn’t wait for him to unfurl it.
Parasites jittering, the expedition leader charged forward on foot, running across the electrified landscape at a fast clip. Even as he bolted toward the newcomers, dodging jagged rocks and sizzle-thistles, one of their number—a bird creature with green and gold feathers—broke away and hurtled straight toward him.
Within seconds, they collided furiously—but not in conflict. Grigri and the bird creature threw themselves into an embrace, kissing passionately with purple lips and crimson beak.
“Darling Craw!” Grigri gasped out the words between feverish kisses. “It has been too long!”
Craw Cancellakra pushed him away gently. “And we must wait a while longer. That which we feared most may soon come to pass.”
Grigri’s eyes widened. “You mean the Jenavenna…?”
Craw nodded. “It stirs. But the power of our love, b-kaw, will surely enable us to save this world from the doom its stirring portends!”
The Explorers’ Club, Now:
“Tell us, Grigri,” says Presidex Loga Sabreslake. “How awful is the great beast Craw?”
Grigri spits on the floor dramatically. “Worse than you can imagine. That monstrosity is depraved, sadistic, and corrupt in every way. It is a sickness in animate, sentient form, endowed with boundless destructive capabilities and limitless appetites.”
Excited, the purple-furred crowd fills the Explorers’ Club with thunderous howls of disapproval.
“The only blessing so far,” shouts Grigri, “the only blessing, is that this creature has confined itself to the vast wastes of the Unknownamensity…a fact for which you should all be eternally grateful.”
The Adventurers’ Flock, Now:
The crowd in the great dome of the Adventurers’ Flock whistle and shriek up such a storm that the very air seems to vibrate with rage.
“Tell us! What happened to the Jenavenna?” The flock’s director, a giant cockatoo creature called Lachrymocha Artifiche, hops up and down on a swinging perch at the dome’s apex. “You said this awful Grigri creature descended just as your sniffers caught a trace of it!”
Craw nods grimly. “The foul Grigri attacked my team with all the savagery it could muster, b-kaw. I tell you, that ravenous beast nearly slaughtered every last one of us.”
“You fought it face to face?” says Lachrymocha.
“I did.” Craw rattles her wings. “In very close proximity!”
The crowd squawks and flutters excitedly.
“I gave as good as I got! Better even!” shouts Craw. “The monster could not resist my strength, b-kaw! Yet neither could I conquer him in that first battle. I soon realized we would have to settle our differences later, when our private struggle finally ran its course.”
The Unknownamensity, Then:
Now that they’d made their rendezvous, Grigri and Craw led their teams out of the Wattlands and into a friendlier place. The edge of the Tenderzone lay just a few miles to the south; they and their followers made it over the border in under an hour.
As soon as they crossed over, their moods improved. Gone were the shocks and electrofauna of the Wattlands. Instead of hard red ground and jagged rocks, the gently rolling hills of the Tenderzone were carpeted with soft blue moss and pillowy plushrooms. Warm breezes carried sweet perfumes exhaled by dancing tumblereeds, and herds of tuftaloes scudded by overhead, keeping the skies clear of hostile slashdragons and their ilk.
It was a true paradise, an oasis in the heart of the Unknownamensity…and as far as Grigri and Craw could tell, they and their loyal followers were the only living people who knew it existed.
“Home sweet home.” Grigri smiled and sneaked a kiss from Craw. “We’ve been away too long, wouldn’t you say?”
“Always, my love.” Craw nuzzled his shoulder and cooed. As usual, they’d been away a year between visits. That long wait made every touch and kiss so much sweeter between them.
“I want to stay this time!” said Kook Achoo as he jogged up beside them. “Please let me stay and keep up Easydoesit!”
Grigri grinned and shrugged as Kook ran off ahead of them. It was a fact that no one ever wanted to leave the retreat they’d built here; Easydoesit was a place where people were free to be as they wished, discovering their truest selves and exploring forbidden loves in peace and safety.
But it was also a fact that except for a chosen handful, they had to leave from time to time to keep the Tenderzone safe. Going back to their respective homelands to spread the word about how awful the place was kept the tourists and get-rich-quick-types from charging in and spoiling it. Purple people and bird people alike were greedy and short-sighted, not to mention hateful and bigoted against anyone who was different; there could be no higher calling than keeping those hordes from corrupting this untamed and hate-free wilderness.
That was why, as Grigri and Craw topped a blue-mossed rise on the heels of Kook, they saw the same quaint village nestled among the plushrooms and tumblereeds before them. No one had dug a mine in its place or plowed it under to make way for a noisy, congested city.
Though even Easydoesit would not be safe for long if Craw was right about the Jenavenna stirring.
The Adventurers’ Flock, Now:
“You cannot imagine a more terrible place than the depths of the Unknownamensity,” Craw tells the Adventurers’ Flock. “The land itself is contaminated, the flora poisonous, the fauna aggressive. Never is there a moment’s peace or safety.”
“What about the people?” asks Director Artifiche. “Surely, there must be natives residing even in those extreme quarters.”
“Pitiable savages, one and all.” Craw wags her head in disgust. “Uncivilized wretches, as you might expect.”
Artifiche bobs his head haughtily. “Of course! Awk awk!”
“Count yourself lucky you will never need to see any of their primitive lot. I only wish I could say the same.”
The Explorers’ Club, Now:
“Each time you send me back there, I cringe,” says Grigri. “The Unknownamensity is that unbearable. The things and people who inhabit its squalid reaches are that repugnant.”
“And dangerous!” adds a member of the Explorers’ Club.
“Beyond belief,” agrees Grigri. “I despise everyone and everything in that reprehensible territory.”
“Yet you return again and again,” says Presidex Sabreslake. “To hunt for the Jenavenna, yes?”
Grigri nods grudgingly. “It has been my only purpose in returning to that blighted land. For only by finding and controlling that fabled landform can I hope to save this world and all who inhabit her. Or so I thought. So I was told.”
The Unknownamensity, Then:
The Jenavenna was a matter that couldn’t wait. There was a small contingent of stay-behind residents—two birds and two purples—and they emerged from their jelly-bubble huts, eager for news and festivities. Grigri, however, hurried things along. He, Craw, Hoyga, and Craw’s deputy, Diachotomy Exponenza, left the socializing to others and talked doomsday in the big middle bubble.
“So the Jenavenna,” said Grigri. “We know what it means if it’s truly stirring, don’t we?”
Hoyga frowned. “You’re sure it wasn’t just another tremor from the Leapfrogging Fields?”
“We’re sure.” Craw looked at Diachotomy, who nodded in agreement. “We were nesting on it at the time, b-kaw!”
“Nesting on the Jenavenna?” Hoyga sounded stunned.
“We had just trekked out of the Land of Gnash,” explained Craw. “Packs of incisorlings and were-cuspids were chewing up the Placid Reach, hunting for us. Nesting on the lofty Jenavenna seemed safest, b-kaw, for a short time at least.”
Diachotomy, with her rich red plumage, clucked and nodded. “They feared to follow. Soon enough, we knew why.”
“The Jenavenna stirred,” said Craw. “Its gargantuan mass began to move. We fled on wing, but even then our jeopardy continued! Mighty quakes shook and split the ground for miles around, forcing us to stay airborne and pray the stigmata-swarms didn’t get us.”
“Looking back was terrifying.” Diachotomy shuddered. “That colossal crystalline bulk was buckling and heaving. The entire landscape was churning.”
“And then it stopped.” Craw stared darkly at each of the group in turn. “For now.”
Grigri sighed. “So it’s started, then, for real. That means, according to prophecy, the end of the world is upon us.”
“The end of the world.” Hoyga shook her head slowly and stared into space. “Isn’t there anything we can do?”
Grigri was about to answer in the negative when Craw spoke up before him. “Actually, I’ve had a dream about that,” she said.
Grigri gaped at her. “When? What dream?”
“It’s a hazy one,” said Craw. “I had it while nesting on the Jenavenna, when I briefly nodded off.” She hunkered down as if reliving the brief nap. “There was a voice, very faint—a female voice. I couldn’t tell what she was saying, but I somehow knew she was talking to me.”
“Where was the voice coming from?” asked Hoyga.
“All around me,” said Craw. “I think…I think it was coming from the Jenavenna.”
“The Jenavenna is female?” Hoyga bugged her eyes wide in surprise.
Grigri scowled. “But you couldn’t make out anything she said?”
“No, but I had a feeling.” Craw nodded firmly. “I felt as if I might reach her if I tried hard enough.”
“And then what?” Grigri looked suspicious. “Ask her not to stir?”
Craw shrugged. “I think we have to try, unless someone has a better idea.”
None of them volunteered one.
The Explorers’ Club, Now:
The purple-furred people listen raptly as Grigri continues his tale. Even the wait staff hangs on his every word, neglecting drink and dessert orders in the process.
“I set off with a small team of fearless, seasoned hands.” Grigri steps out from behind the podium and paces the floor restlessly, his body taut with tension. “It was a race against time, for we knew the dreaded Craw Cancellakra was far ahead of us.”
“What if the Craw got there first?” asks a waiter, scaly green serving tray hanging at his side.
“I believe the monster’s intentions were the opposite of my own,” Grigri says darkly. “I can only suppose the great beast longed to end the world rather than save it.”
The Unknownamensity, Then:
The team left Easydoesit early the next morning, setting out on their mission with packs and equipment carried by a stomp-whale.
It wasn’t long until they glimpsed the towering ridge of the Jenavenna, stretching along the distant horizon. It was visible long before they crossed the border of the Tenderzone, glittering in the light of the world’s triple suns.
Just seeing it there was enough to make the fur stand up on Grigri’s neck, causing him to shiver with awe…and dread. Now there was something truly enormous and mysterious. There was something, if the prophecies were true, that could put an end to the world and all who lived there.
“You’ve been quiet this morning, b-kaw.” Craw drew up alongside him, affectionately brushing her wing against his shoulder.
“You haven’t been that gregarious yourself,” said Grigri. “You barely chirped at dawn chorus this morning.”
“Maybe I’m saving my voice for later.” Craw’s eyes fixed on the distant ridge of the Jenavenna. “It could take a lot of wind to get something that big to listen to me.”
“I’m still shocked it can listen. I never thought of it as alive before.”
“Who did? But isn’t it more wonderful that way?” She let out a happy, trilling tweet. “I mean, how often do landforms turn out to be sentient creatures?”
“Sentient creatures that want to destroy the world?” Grigri shook his head. “Hardly almost never.”
Reaching over, Craw held his furry purple paw lightly in her claw. “But that’s why we’re out here, isn’t it? The thrill of discovery?”
Grigri gave her claw a squeeze. “The Unknownamensity never runs out of secrets, does it?”
“For people like us, life doesn’t get any better. Being stuck in one place for too long would be the death of us.”
Grigri turned to her then, as they entered a shady red bower of organ trees, and said something he’d never said before to her or anyone else. “I love you. Oh, how I love you.”
She stopped then, though their party was close behind, and kissed him under a tree that was heavy with shiny pink kidneys. Humble bumbles buzzing ‘mid the meat hid their fuzzy black faces, embarrassed at the perfectly blatant display of affection.
“Don’t die today,” whispered Grigri.
“Don’t worry, my darling,” she said between loving pecks. “It is far more likely that everyone will die, in which case neither of us will live on without the other long enough to understand or care.”
“Sweet, sweet Craw.” Grigri chuckled. “That’s about the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me.”
The Adventurers’ Flock, Now:
“Legend has it that the Jenavenna is older than the world itself.” Solemnly, Craw spreads her wings wide. “Gazing up at its immensity, I could easily believe that.”
“The terrible Grigri must have been out of his mind,” says Director Artifiche. “How did he imagine he could ever control something so massive?”
“Some ancient form of magic, I suspect. Something requiring blood sacrifice, perhaps.”
“But whom would he sacrifice?” asks Artifiche.
“One of us, no doubt.” When Craw says it, the Adventurers’ Flock goes wild. “That, I believe, is why Grigri took pains to leave a visible trail through the Bone Zone and Squirmament.”
“Such a wily monster!” snaps Artifiche. “Keeping you close so he could kill you in the name of whatever hideous dark gods he worships. Awk awk!”
“Needless to say, we remained on guard against him at all times.” Craw clatters her claws for dramatic effect. “And as we approached the majestic bulk of the landform, we guarded against its influence as well.”
“Its influence?” Artifiche sounds surprised. “You make it sound as if the Jenavenna was alive somehow.”
“Make no mistake, it is as alive as any of us,” says Craw. “Though its goal, we discovered, is to render all life but its own extinct.”
The Unknownamensity, Then:
Two days after leaving Easydoesit in the Tenderzone, Grigri and Craw’s party reached the base of the Jenavenna.
After fighting their way through one treacherous zone after another, they paused to savor the beauty of their destination. Sunlight streamed through its prismatic crystalline structure, bathing the explorers and their stomp-whale in shimmering arrays of rainbow-colored light.
Falls of water ran down its scalloped edge, splashing into pools on the ground below. Mosses of every color clung in patches to its sides, puffing out glittering clouds of spore-carrying fairy dust. Fur-covered, many-legged creatures skittered over its surface, calling out in high-pitched, ululating cries that only made sense to others of their own kind.
Grigri exhaled slowly as he took it all in. The scene was stunning beyond what he remembered from his last visit years ago.
“If anything could end the world,” Kook Achoo said in a hushed voice, “it would be this.”
“It practically is the world,” said Diachotomy. “They say it has always been here. They say the world grew up around it.”
Kook kept staring up at the distant top, scratching his furry, purple head. “I believe it…”
“Just wait until it stirs.” Diachotomy whistled emphatically. “It’s like the whole world is shaking at once.”
“This time, maybe I can keep it relaxed,” said Craw.
Grigri forced himself to stop gaping up at the natural wonder and focus on the business at hand. “Is there any place in particular where you want to set up?” he asked Craw. “Any spot that might be best for…communication?”
“I have no idea.” Craw walked straight ahead, picking her way through a tumble of churned-up rock, and pressed her claws against the crystalline wall. “I guess this spot’s as good as any to give it a try.”
Grigri joined her, keeping a gap between them. He wanted to stay close but not disrupt her concentration. “If anything goes wrong, I’m right here.”
Craw nodded. “I’m not even sure how to start.” She shifted the position of her claws and leaned closer, shutting her eyes. “Just reach out, I guess. Focus on contacting the female entity from last time.”
Grigri resisted the urge to touch her, to try to provide comfort and support. The best thing he could do, he thought, was not distract her from her task.
Not that she was faring so well without distractions. After a little while, she opened her eyes and drew back, ruffling her feathers.
“Nothing,” she said. “I can’t feel that presence anymore. I’m not receiving any message.”
“Maybe we should move, then.” Grigri pointed upward. “I wonder if you might do better on the plateau.”
Craw shrugged. “I can fly up with Diachotomy, but it’s a long way to climb for you and Kook. Maybe—”
Suddenly, she let out a loud cluck, and her eyes rolled back in her head. Before Grigri could catch her, she hit the ground like an overstuffed feed sack and lay there twitching as if an electrical current had jumped from a shock monkey into her body.
“Craw!” Diachotomy rushed forward.
Grigri intercepted her, holding her back. “Don’t touch her! She might be making a connection!”
“Or dying!” snapped Diachotomy. “Maybe the Jenavenna is just too big for a mind like hers to handle! Maybe she’s undergoing killer trauma right now!”
Grigri saw Kook moving in Craw’s direction, too, and swung up a hand to signal him to freeze. “Everyone stay back! Give her time to adjust!”
As he said it, Craw thrashed and squawked on the ground. Watching it without intervening made Grigri’s parasites clench and twist painfully, but he knew it was the right thing to do. Probably.
Craw went through another bout of writhing, the worst yet—then suddenly went limp. Nearly in a panic, Grigri dropped to her side and reached out to shake her…only to snap his hands away out of fear that he might do more harm than good.
The Explorers’ Club, Now:
“I could not stop the great beast Craw from penetrating the vast mind of the Jenavenna.” As Grigri scans the crowd, he sees their attention is more intense than ever. “What happened next would be completely beyond my control. I could only pray that the two would not forge an unholy alliance and agree to end the world.”
“What about joining the link?” asks Presidex Sabreslake. “Making your case directly to the Jenavenna?”
“Its mind was not open to me,” Grigri says grimly. “That reprehensible Craw must have blocked me somehow.”
“How awful,” says Sabreslake. “Being forced to wait helplessly while the fate of the world was being decided in front of you.”
“You should have killed the Craw!”
When someone shouts it, the whole audience turns suddenly ugly, chanting Kill the Craw in unison.
“Hold on a minute!” Grigri hollers over them. “Think about it, my fellow explorers!
“Was Craw the one who should have been killed?”
The Unknownamensity, Then:
Was this what it was like to be dead and face a higher power?
Craw, who had only ever had very mild telepathic experiences before, felt lost and overwhelmed in the vast mind of the Jenavenna. As her own mind drifted through its crystalline latticework, she struggled to find recognizable vantage points—something, anything, to hold on to.
Complicating matters, a female voice roared around and through her, drowning out her thoughts. It was the same voice she’d heard during her last encounter with the Jenavenna, but so much louder she could hardly bear it.
Crying out in her mind, she tumbled and tossed among the glittering facets, straining for purchase. If only she could anchor herself, perhaps she could make sense of the tumult and begin the conversation she had come to have.
Suddenly, then, another voice broke through the madness—little more than a whisper, but it sneaked through and hooked her just the same. She recognized it, longed for it, cherished it, and in that strong emotion, she found strength and stability.
I love you, Craw. The voice was Grigri’s, talking in the outside world as he knelt beside her body, mainlining into her mind like an arrow into a target. You can do this, my love. I know you can.
With the power she got from hearing that voice, Craw was able, at last, to stop her psychic freefall. She was finally able to soften the roar and understand the words that were blasting through the pipeline into her mind. She was able to recognize the softened voice that spoke them as belonging to the Jenavenna.
It was a strange question for the backbone of the Unknownamensity to ask. How could something so huge and ancient, something that perhaps predated the world itself, have any doubt about its location?
Craw answered as best she could. “You are in the Unknownamensity, as you have always been.”
There was a moment’s delay before the Jenavenna’s next words.
What is…the Unknownamensity?
“A vast, wild region between the empires of the birds and the purple people. Exploring it, b-kaw, is my passion.”
And who…am I?
“The Jenavenna, greatest landform in all the Unknownamensity. In all the world, even.”
“Then what else could you be?”
A…person. A woman.
How could a landform be a person and vice versa? Or was what she thought all that mattered? “You do sound like a person. Well, I’m a person, too. My name is Craw.”
Another pause. Tell me again…what you said my name is.
“You are called the Jenavenna.”
Again, a long moment of silence. I remember now. I remember!
My first name… is Jenna. My last name is Venner.
Yes! Jenna Venner. And I remember more than that now.
I’ve been asleep for a very long time.
And she needs to stay that way, thought Craw. “Do you know why you’ve been asleep that long?”
There was an accident, said Jenna. I was hurt badly. I’ve been asleep for years…or at least it feels like it.
“But you’re talking to me now,” said Craw.
Because you’re part of my dream, said Jenna. The dream that’s been keeping me alive all this time.
It was Craw’s turn to be confused. “You’re telling me I’m part of a dream? Your dream?”
All the bird people are. And the purple people, too.
“That can’t be!”
I built this world to give myself something to do through all the lonely days and nights. Everything in it was created by me.
Craw fell silent. It seemed impossible—but the prophecies had always warned that the world would end if the Jenavenna woke. Maybe it made sense, then, that its mind had created the world.
In which case, the stakes of their meeting hadn’t changed. “Are you waking up now, do you think? Is that why you’re talking to me after all this time?”
Yes. That’s why.
“Please don’t,” said Craw. “You need to keep sleeping if you want to get better.”
But it’s been so long! It seems like I’ve been asleep forever!
“What if you wake up and you’re not ready?” asked Craw. “You might never recover.”
Or maybe I am ready. I haven’t felt this alert in a very long time.
Craw felt a sudden shift of the great mind around her, a shuddering of the vast crystalline latticeworks. There was distant rumbling, too, as if the immense landform was starting to move.
Desperation surged through her like a strong storm wind. “Listen, please! I came here to stop this from happening! To beg you not to wake!”
But I need to!
“This place you’ve created,” said Craw. “If you wake up, if you move, you’ll destroy it. You’ll destroy all of us.”
Silence (except for the rumbling). I’m sorry, but…this is a dream. All of you are just dreams.
“Are we?” said Craw. “Ask any one of us, and they’ll tell you we’re just as alive as you are, Jenna Venner.”
Jenna said nothing for a while, though the rumbling got louder.
But if I stay asleep and die, you’ll all die anyway.
She had a point, though Craw couldn’t agree with it now. With her entire world and everyone she knew on the brink of extinction, all she could do was whatever it took to save it.
“Please, Jenna,” she said. “Please don’t wake up. Please let us live our lives a while longer.”
But one way or another, it will all end anyway.
“All that matters is that it won’t be today,” said Craw.
There was another violent shift, and Craw feared she had lost the day. The crystalline structure lurched hard to one side, then the other, as if the whole thing was about to crash apart.
Then, suddenly, the movement stilled. Craw felt the end of things stop like a wind-up toy that had just run out of winding.
As the rumbling ceased, and Jenna’s voice remained silent, and the world drifted on as it always had since the beginning of time, Craw felt tears of relief running down her feathered face.
And she felt Grigri’s hands, too, as he brushed them away, even as tears of his own fell to replace them.
“Craw!” Grigri’s voice was the first she heard as she slowly emerged from the great crystalline mind. “Are you all right?”
“Should we run for the hills?” Kook sounded panicky. “Is the Jenavenna going to stir?”
Craw shook her head slowly as she gazed up at them.
“So you did it?” asked Kook. “You saved the world?”
“We’re all still here,” Diachotomy said chidingly, “so I guess the answer is yes.”
“But maybe we won’t be for long,” said Craw.
“What do you mean?” Grigri’s face was etched with concern. “What haven’t you told us?”
“I’ll tell you the whole story on the way back to Easydoesit,” she said, carefully getting to her feet. “But first, did anyone bring a chisel? I want to take a few samples of the Jenavenna.”
“For what?” asked Kook.
“In case I change my mind about something,” said Craw.
The Adventurers’ Flock, Now:
As the members of the Adventurers’ Flock sit hushed, all eyes glued to the front of the chamber, Craw reaches into a red velvet sack.
“You see before you the means of your deliverance!” Slowly, she withdraws a chunk of crystal the length of her forearm and raises it overhead. “Behold! A fragment of the true Jenavenna!”
Everyone in the place goes wild at once with cheering cries and squawks and whistles.
Craw’s entire presentation has led to this. All the buildup was meant to prep the crowd to receive the glittering artifact in the proper frame of mind.
Ever since the day of her link with Jenna in the Unknownamensity, Craw hasn’t been able to stop thinking about her. She hasn’t been able to stop imagining the poor sleeping woman who gave up her own waking life for the lives of the people in her dream.
Are those people’s lives worth any less than those of that comatose woman? Even if you count her as their creator, is her life any more precious than any of theirs?
Maybe, thinks Craw. As much as she has always valued her existence, maybe she wasn’t right to demand Jenna sacrifice her own to save it.
And maybe she should do everything she can to repay that sacrifice with one of her own.
“By focusing our combined willpower through this crystal, we can rid this world of the monstrous destroyer!” shouts Craw. “The Jenavenna intended to slaughter all of us, but we can banish her from our own world forever!”
The crowd howls with rage and hatred. Having already touched Jenna’s mind twice before, Craw plans to use the fragment of her crystalline manifestation to reach her again—only this time, channeling all the fury of the mob through it. Grigri will do the same with another fragment on the opposite side of the world, also funneling the negative energy of the purple people against the Jenavenna.
Thus bombarded with revulsion from two directions, Jenna will stir with awareness. Realizing the people of the dream world are ungrateful for their salvation, she will take it back…and awaken in her own life after all those years.
At least, that is the hope.
“Focus on the crystal now!” Craw shakes the fragment in her fist as she paces and flaps for the crowd. “Pour all your anger and hatred into it! Tell the wicked Jenavenna to get out of your world!”
Everyone roars at once, their deafening cries bursting eardrums and shattering glasses by the dozen.
If the death of the world is going to happen sooner or later anyhow, if the dream will end when Jenna’s mortal life does, then what better time than now to end it? Why not willingly save the woman while she still has a life to save?
That’s the only reasoning Craw’s conscience will let her accept.
Grigri feels the same way, without doubts or second-guessing. She wishes he could be here now to reinforce it and hold her hand—but he has to be in his own Explorers’ Club, far, far away, to make this work. There have to be two poles—one in the land of the purples, the other in the land of the birds—to properly amplify the signal.
And so, along with the mob, Craw shrieks and pumps her darkest feelings into the crystal, serving as a conduit to the sleeping leviathan in the heart of the Unknownamensity.
Even as she sends something else along, too—the slightest undercurrent of thanks and farewell that she hopes will reach her creator through the hurricane of hatred. She hopes and prays that Jenna will always know how much the world she made meant to those who explored it.
Whatever its flaws and dangers, it was certainly unforgettable.
Southern Memorial Medical Center, Atlanta, Georgia, Now:
For the first time in ten years, Jenna Venner opens her eyes and looks out at the world again.
She doesn’t know exactly where she is—a hospital room somewhere, surrounded by beeping, blinking equipment. She doesn’t know what day it is, and she doesn’t know exactly why she is here.
No one else is in the room, and the monitors are just in the process of alerting the staff that her condition has changed. For a moment, she lies there in wondrous silence, the calm before the storm of medical attention and doting family and friends that is sure to arrive soon.
In that moment, Jenna remembers the dream from which she’s awakened, the dream of a strange world filled with bird people, purple people, and all manner of crazy wonders in something called the Unknownamensity.
But even as she thinks of it, the dream fades away. The harder she tries to hold on to it, the faster it shreds in her grasp, leaving nothing but the faintest impression of colors and light and emotion.
Then, when the nurses and doctor charge into the room, even that is gone, drifting away forever like a ballet of dandelion puffs twirling on a soft summer breeze, never to be remembered again.
Except perhaps, someday, if she is lucky, in another dream.
|Robert Jeschonek is an envelope-pushing, USA Today-bestselling author whose fiction, comics, and non-fiction have been published around the world. His stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Pulphouse, Galaxy’s Edge, Escape Pod, and many other publications. He has written official Star Trek and Doctor Who fiction and has scripted comics for DC, AHOY, and other publishers. His young adult slipstream novel, My Favorite Band Does Not Exist, won the Forward National Literature Award and was named one of Booklist‘s Top Ten First Novels for Youth. He also won an International Book Award, a Scribe Award for Best Original Novel, and the grand prize in Pocket Books’ Strange New Worlds contest. Visit him online at www.bobscribe.com. You can also find him on Facebook and follow him as @TheFictioneer on Twitter.|