Shawna Keys has fled the world she only recently discovered she Shaped, narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Adversary who seized control of it...and losing her only guide, Karl Yatsar, in the process.
Now she finds herself alone in some other Shaper's world, where, in her first two hours, she's rescued from a disintegrating island by an improbable flying machine she recognizes from Jules Verne's Robur the Conqueror, then seized from it by raiders flying tiny personal helicopters, and finally taken to a submarine that bears a strong resemblance to Captain Nemo's Nautilus. Oh, and accused of being both a spy and a witch.
In the meantime, she has to navigate a world where two factions fanatically devoted to their respective leaders are locked in perpetual combat, figure out who the Shaper of the world is, find him or her, and obtain the secret knowledge of this world's Shaping. Then she has to somehow reconnect with Karl Yatsar, and escape to the next Shaped world in the Labyrinth...through a Portal she has no idea how to open.
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Buffeted by swirling winds, I clung to the rope ladder lifting me from the mysterious-and rapidly disintegrating-island in the ocean below toward the giant flying ship in the sky above and reflected on what a lousy week I was having.
Sunday night, I'd woken from a nightmare in which a stranger wearing a cowboy hat and a long black duster had been standing at the foot of my bed, only to look out my window and see a stranger in a cowboy hat and a long black duster looking up at my bedroom window.
Monday night, he'd been there again.
Tuesday, I'd officially opened my new shop, Worldshaper Pottery, on trendy Blackthorne Avenue in Eagle River, Montana (hipster haven of the West)-although the store's opening had been overshadowed (literally) by the scaffolding covering the entrance (supporting two young men hanging the shop's sign) and the black storm clouds hanging over the Rockies to the west: clouds which, infuriatingly and bewilderingly, nobody but me seemed to find threatening.
Still, sinister strangers, scaffolding, and storm clouds aside, it had been shaping up to be a pretty good day. I'd had coffee with my boyfriend, Brent, at the Human Bean, the coffee shop down the street, and at lunch had headed back to the Bean with my best friend, Aesha Tripathi.
That was when things went literally to hell. Two vanloads of black-clad terrorists pulled up outside, charged into the coffee shop, and started shooting. Bullets tore Aesha's slight body apart, right in front of my eyes.
Then the leader of the terrorists walked over to where I sat stunned on the blood-slicked floor. "Hello, Shawna," he said. "And goodbye." He reached out and touched my forehead. I felt a weird shock. Then he drew his pistol and aimed it between my eyes. He was going to kill me.
This can't be happening, I thought, and then, "This isn't happening!" I screamed.
And just like that, it wasn't. It hadn't. Suddenly, it was three hours earlier-but Aesha was gone. So was everyone else who'd been killed in the attack. And the worst of it was, nobody remembered they'd ever even existed.
This, to put it mildly, freaked me out. The sudden appearance inside my shop, shortly thereafter, of the mysterious stranger who had been in both my nightmare and the street outside my window did nothing to soothe my nerves-especially not when he started spouting gibberish about me having Shaped the world in which I lived, and having an amazing amount of power, and being just one Shaper of many in a vast Labyrinth of Shaped worlds, and possibly the only one who could save the Shaped worlds from the Adversary who had just invaded my world (apparently he was the guy who'd pointed his pistol at my head), if I'd just follow him into all those other worlds and gather the knowledge of how they were Shaped, and then carry it to somebody named Ygrair, who . . .
Yeah, I pretty much stopped listening at that point, too. It was like "The Story Thus Far" at the start of an episode of a television series with a season-long story arc. When you're bingeing the show on StreamPix (and who watches TV any other way these days?), the minute you see that, you click the "Skip Intro" button.
But in the middle of this, "Previously, in made-up crap . . ." monologue, the storm broke . . . again. And then terrorists were shooting at me . . . again. Left without much choice, I fled with Karl Yatsar, as he called himself.
On the radio, we heard the mayor describe me as a dangerous terrorist. Apparently, when the Adversary had touched me, he'd stolen my knowledge of how my world was Shaped, what Karl called the hokhmah. His power was somewhat limited by the fact I was still alive, which meant we were sharing the hokhmah, but he had enough to rewrite people's memories just by talking to them. He'd talked to the police, and the mayor, and . . . and then, I called Brent, and he didn't know who I was, and I knew the Adversary had reached him, too. I smashed my cellphone, not out of frustration (well, not just out of frustration), but because I realized it could be used to track me. Karl Yatsar and I holed up that night in a run-down closed-for-the-summer resort . . .
. . . and that was my very special Tuesday.
Wednesday had a lot to live down to, but it managed. First thing in the morning, I murdered a National Bureau of Investigation agent in a helicopter, just by imagining the pilot had to help me at all costs, so successfully the pilot pushed his partner out the door and onto the shore of the lake across which Karl and I, in a canoe, were paddling for our lives. The sound of the falling NBI agent hitting the wooden pier by the boatshed went a long way toward convincing me both that I really could Shape my world-and that maybe I really, really shouldn't.
Then we got into the helicopter, and the pilot cheerfully threw away his career by flying us up into the mountains before leading the pursuit away . . . though not as successfully as we might have hoped, since after Karl and I hiked off into the woods toward Snakebite Mine, the location of the Portal through which Karl had come from the previous world (already taken over by the Adversary), pursuers showed up at the fire camp where we'd landed. At Karl's urging to "do something," I hid our tracks by making it snow . . . or rather, by making it to have already snowed. Which also made for a cold, wet camp that night, but whatever.
Thursday, we woke to an unwanted visitor, a grizzly, which I convinced to go away just by thinking really hard that he should go away. After the snow and the grizzly, I really couldn't deny my ability to Shape my world, even though (much to Karl's consternation) I had no memory of his boss, the mysterious Ygrair, or being taught by her to be a Shaper at some weird school in some other version of reality, which Karl said was the original reality, the First World. Then we had to go around an avalanche that had resulted from the snow I'd caused to happen . . . I mean, caused to have already happened . . . and I had another reason to take Jeff Goldblum's advice in Jurassic Park and think about whether, even though I could Shape the world, I should. When it came to Shaping, it seemed clear, unintended consequences were a bitch.
This was reinforced later that night when we reached Snakebite Mine. After Karl cold-bloodedly shot two members of the Adversary's "cadre," who had been left there to guard the Portal, I Shaped the caretaker to let us into the mine. He blew himself up instead, burying the Portal under tons of rock . . . but I Shaped those, too, opening a path, and then helped Karl destroy the Portal, cutting the Adversary off from some of his power.
Then we drove off, and I Shaped an entire water-filled quarry into existence, into which we dropped the truck, and then I Shaped the caretakers of a dude ranch so we could take some horses, but I did it so badly they both ended up dead, as did a perfectly innocent horse, and then we rode all night long until I was practically dead in the saddle (I stayed awake only because I'm allergic to horses, and it's hard to doze while sneezing), and then we finally slept . . .
. . . and that was Thursday.
Friday, I Shaped a photographer to let us steal his car (at least I managed to avoid killing him in the process-well, as far as I know). Then I Shaped a pilot to fly us to Appleville, Oregon, my hometown . . .
. . . where I Shaped my mother to forget I'd ever existed. To forget she'd ever had a daughter. Of all the horrible things that had happened that week, that was the worst.
But it was only Friday.
Saturday, we stowed away on an apple truck to the coast. There, I Shaped a woman to let us onto her sailing yacht, the Amazon, because Karl said the only place he could make a Portal into the next world was out in the Pacific somewhere. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard found us (by then the Adversary had worked his way up to Shaping the President, so every branch of law enforcement and the military was looking for us). I managed to Shape our chunk of the ocean to bring up a fog (greatly impressing Karl), but in the process I also accidentally fashioned a typhoon, and that meant I spent Saturday night thinking really, really hard about the Amazon not sinking.
I guess I thought hard enough, because we were still afloat Sunday morning-this morning-which is when we found, right where the Portal had to be opened, a mysterious island that wasn't on any charts. The next thing we knew, there were helicopters and soldiers chasing us, and we were trying to find our way through tunnels infested with monsters, and then we were fighting for our lives on top of a human-sacrifice altar in an arena full of shadowy not-quite-real spectators. At one point a giant, naked David (Michelangelo's David, to be precise) smashed an equally naked (though not nearly as tall) soldier into bloody paste, then there was a fight, and then I stabbed a guy's foot, which spilled blood on the altar, and the Portal opened, and I went through it . . .
. . . and Karl didn't.
Which was how I had found myself on the almost-vanished island below, alone, only to be hauled aloft by a sailor hanging on to a rope ladder dangling from a giant flying ship both held aloft and propelled by . . . well, propellers.
In the bow, the strange craft flew a black flag with a golden sun in the center, one I'd recognized instantly, because I had gone through a Jules Verne kick when I was little girl (at least, that's how I remember it, although what in my past is real and what contrived, I can't tell): the flag of Robur the Conqueror, from the novel of the same name, which meant this impossible vessel had to be . . . yes, there it was, on the dark-blue bow in glistening gold script: Albatross.
The Albatross' hull might have come straight from a sailing ship, except for the absence of a keel-and except for the stubby biplane wings extending to port and starboard. These I presumed were primarily for steering purposes, not to provide lift, since the thing was currently hovering. What held it aloft were seventy-four whirling helicopter rotors, two on each of thirty-seven masts. The downdraft buffeted me as the man in an old-fashioned sailor's uniform who had pulled me onto the lowest rungs of the ladder looked down at me, jerked his thumb upward, then started to climb. For the first time, I saw he wore earplugs.
There is a knack to climbing a rope ladder, which I apparently didn't have. The thing swayed and bounced as I struggled upward, until I thought I'd either fall off or throw up, but eventually, panting, I reached the top. My rescuer, with the help of another man in an equally old-fashioned sailor's uniform-honestly, they looked like they'd stepped straight out of a community theater production of HMS Pinafore-hauled me onto the deck, through an opening in the wire trellis that ringed it in lieu of bulwarks, leaving me sprawled on my stomach. This gave me an unexpected opportunity to closely examine the deck. It wasn't made of wood; it was a smooth, unbroken expanse of dark-blue . . . something.
What was the Albatross made of? It had been nearly twenty years since I'd read Robur the Conqueror. For some reason "paper" came to mind, but that couldn't be right, could it . . .?
The sailors-or maybe "aeronauts" was a better term-grabbed my arms and pulled me to my feet. I tried to tug free, but their grips tightened. They half-dragged me aft, beneath the howling rotors-making me wish I had earplugs, too-toward the cabins at the back. Atop the sternmost stood the helmsman, as Pinaforeishly clad as the rest of the crew, inside a glass wheelhouse. Behind him, as at the bow, hung two much larger propellers, vertical rather than horizontal, though only idling at the moment.
The whole flying monstrosity was impossible . . . or was it? Verne had based his flights of fancy on what the engineers and scientists of his time knew or thought they knew. He'd certainly thought something like this was at least theoretically possible. And from what Karl had told me, the Shaper of this World could actually have altered the laws of physics enough to allow something like this to fly.
I'll ask the Shaper when I see him, I thought, as I stumbled toward the stern cabins (there were others at the bow) between my taciturn escorts, deafened and windblown. Maybe I'm about to. Clearly, whoever had Shaped this world had fancied himself master of it, and since this was the Albatross, the airship of Robur the Conqueror, aka Master of the World (the title of the second novel in which he'd appeared), he had surely set himself up as that Verneian character-supervillain or superhero, depending (like his better-known counterpart, Captain Nemo) on your point of view.
In a way, I was thrilled to be inside a world clearly modeled after Jules Verne's inventive tales. In another, I was terrified. Karl had not come through the Portal with me. I was alone, and while I knew in a general way what I was supposed to do to fulfill the quest I'd been unwillingly given-find the Shaper and get him/her to somehow give me his/her hokhmah, so that if/when the Adversary arrived, he could not steal that hokhmah, kill the Shaper, and then reShape this world into another copy of his preferred totalitarian "utopia"-there was one tiny little detail of that process Karl had never spelled out for me: exactly how one took the hokhmah of another Shaper, even if it were freely offered.
We reached the only door in the starboard side of the stern cabins. The aeronaut who had first hauled me onto the rope ladder pulled it open; the other propelled me through it.