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All the World's a Ractive

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Miranda did not fully understand what was happening at first. She didn't feel the pain of the bite, didn't realize that this wasn't part of the 4-year-long dream she'd been having. Slowly, slowly the primal beat receded, trading entranced certainty for dazed confusion. The woman atop her was Princess Nell. Her little girl all grown up and come to rescue her... But rescue her from what?

She blinked once, then twice, each flutter of the eyelids a massive effort. The lights in her head popped out one by one, rainbows trailing away, leaving only reality, blurry and dull in front of her. Then she noticed the throbbing, not of urgent sexually transmitted data streams, but of normal blood pounding against her wounded lips. A second later she tasted the salty tang on her tongue. Princess Nell had bitten her, and she was bleeding. Her mouth was in fact full of it. If she didn't spit or swallow, she would choke.

Miranda turned her head and spat. A red spray darkened the platform beside her, but she ended up having to swallow some of the blood anyway. The sick feeling of it, slightly greasy as it slid down her throat, woke her up a bit more. She was due to become an orgasmic vapor of knowledge. For some reason, she hadn't cared until now, but the thought was suddenly revolting.

And luckily, by some absurd coincidence, here was Princess Nell come to save her. Miranda wondered as she put her arms around Nell's neck if this wasn't just her mind's last ditch effort to trick her into complacency. Perhaps none of it was really happening. Perhaps she would be dead in a second's time, like in that old passive about the man who tried to escape from Brazil, or whatever it was.

She couldn't worry about that, though. This was her reality right now, and she had to follow it, had to try to escape with Princess Nell.

As they stumbled into a standing position, a man came down to join them, one who like Nell, wasn't lit up from the the data orgy. It was only when he placed her arm around his shoulder and supported her legs from underneath that she realized this was Carl Hollywood. It was almost certainly a dream, she thought. That Princess Nell and Carl would both come for her was not at all likely.

They were moving. Miranda couldn't focus on anything, but she felt them climbing steadily through tunnels, until ultimately thin shafts of sunlight appeared above. She watched wide-eyed as Nell's sword swung in a graceful arc, and then air turned to water. Swim. She needed to swim. Humans couldn't breath underwater, and even if this was a tortured delusion, she didn't want to die in it. She kicked her legs weakly, attempting to propel herself forward, but at most it might have made Nell and Carl's burden slightly less cumbersome. She couldn't get up any speed on her own.

Carl seemed restless beside her, as if the pressure of the water, the urge to breathe was getting to him, but he didn't let go. She loved him then. Thought that perhaps she always had, even though she hadn't known it, or hadn't acknowledged it before. The revelation was still breaking over her when the girls came. Thousands of them, all the same, it seemed. Black hair, dark eyes, petite rosebud mouths smiling as if they knew they'd gotten away with something, or were about to. They converged on the three others, lifted them with small, soft hands, and passed them up through the ranks to the surface.

When they came ashore at the edge of New Chusan, Nell and Carl drew deep, shaky breaths, but it took a couple of girls prodding Miranda's bare chest before she remembered that she needed to perform this basic function for herself. When she finally did, it was punctuated by a series of saltwatered coughs, but there wasn't any more blood at least. Miranda felt so tired then, it was all she could do to lay back slowly, taking care not to bang her head against anything sharp before she slipped into a dreamless sleep.

It was two full days before Miranda came back to herself. She awoke in a small, clean room, resting on sheets made of real cloth. Sun streamed in through a window to her left, softened by a dainty lace curtain. The bed was only a single, and simple in design, with an iron frame. A hospital bed, she thought. The room was not outfitted with the other trappings of a hospital, though. The only other furnishing was a small wash stand in the corner next to the window. It had a proper sink, and a small dish of handmade soaps in the shape of keys. The soaps were varying shades of green and yellow and cream. Miranda sniffed at them, smelling verbena, gardenia, eucalyptus. It was Vicky quality. She almost hated to use them, to deface the intricate molding. But she wanted to wash, and that won out in the end. She chose a golden key that smelled of verbena, and used one of the plush hand towels that lay on the counter to clean herself. She didn't remove the shift that she'd been dressed in, preferring to maintain some barrier between her skin and the world outside, however thin.

When she'd finished, she sat back down on the bed and tried to remember what had happened. Memory returned in waves like the sea they'd swum through to get here. Drummers, Princess Nell, Carl Hollywood, the tang of blood, the feeling of New Chusan's sandy beach underneath her.

Belatedly she ran her tongue over her lips, and felt the scabs. It hadn't been a dream. It had been real. They must have carried her here, cleaned her up, left her to rest. And now she should find them, her saviors, the girl she'd come to think of as a daughter, now grown into something much bigger than Miranda could ever be.

She checked the room for any other clothes, but found none. It shouldn't be terribly surprising that she wouldn't have much now. She'd been naked before she'd gotten here, after all.

Steeling her nerve, Miranda opened the door, and peeked into the hall. Two of the Chinese girls stood outside, guarding her, or perhaps keeping her captive. They wore simple black clothes, designed for comfort and ease of movement, and when they heard the door open, they both turned to face her in unison, and executed smart salutes.

"Greetings, Queen Mother," one said. "We are envoys of Princess Nell's Mouse Army, here to see to your needs."

She spoke the proper English of the Vickys, her accent impeccable. They couldn't have been more than eleven or twelve, Miranda thought. "Mouse Army?" she asked.

"Princess Nell saved us from an evil spell, and turned us back into real girls. We pledged our service to her."

A glimmer of understanding flickered in Miranda's brain. "In the primer?"

"In all the world, written and real," the first girl replied.

Miranda tried to puzzle this out, but only succeeded in running her thoughts in circles. "May I see Princess Nell?" She asked at last.

The girl nodded. "Of course, Your Majesty. Please follow me."

The second girl stayed behind, guarding the door as before, while the first one led Miranda down the corridor to an elevator. They rode up one floor, and then the girl brought Miranda to another room. This one was not quite as sparse as the last, but still lacked the polished look of a truly finished space. The few furnishings present were of good quality, again handmade and expensive. Miranda sat in one of two velvet upholstered chairs and looked around with interest. The walls were covered with a textured luxury paper, lavender, to complement the rich purple of the chairs, and the two small tables in the room were of good, hand carved hardwood. Miranda didn't know enough about the various types of wood to tell exactly which one this was, but she would guess oak or something else equally lavish.

So Nell was truly a princess? It seemed unfathomable on one level. The little girl she'd first known was so far from royalty that the chasm should have been uncrossable. On another level, though, it seemed only natural that Miranda's pride and joy, the person whom she had most deeply cared for in all her life, who had proven more than able to cope with adversity time and again, would have grown into a great leader.

Nell entered the room, and the tangle of emotions in Miranda's head multiplied. Miranda stood, feeling ridiculous and naked in her shift. She didn't know what to say, what could possibly do justice to her feelings, so settled for the simplest thing. "You saved me."

Nell came forward, tears shining in her eyes. "It was the least I could do. You saved me, you know. Over and over. I wouldn't be here without you."

They embraced then, without the violence of that undersea kiss, but with at least as much passion. Nell buried her face in Miranda's hair, letting her tears spill down Miranda's neck.

"They called me Queen Mother," Miranda said when they'd drawn back again.

"Yes," said Nell. "It's your official title within the phyle. You don't have to stay, though. Not if you don't want to."

Miranda heard the wistfulness in Nell's voice, echoing her own uncertainty. "I want to stay, Your Highness. I want to get to know you. I've searched for you for so long."

"I searched for you, too. Inside the primer, at first, and then out. I didn't know your name. I only knew that someone... cared for me."

Miranda let out a shuddery sigh and swiped at her cheeks with the back of one hand. "What will I do here, though?" she asked. "All my life I wanted to be a ractor, and so I've no training for other things. I suppose I was a governess before, years ago, but that's hardly a good background for becoming a political figure."

Nell took one of Miranda's hands in her own and smiled. "You have everything you need to be a great help. We're just getting our bearings here. I have 300,000 girls who are a very effective army, but who will grow up soon. They're going to go through all the pains, physical and emotional, that teenagers feel, and they'll need guidance."

"But how?"

"Every one of them is devoted to me because of the primer," said Nell. "If you choose to, if it suits you, you could be mother to thousands, and mean as much to them as you do to me. Sir Hollywood will help us with the technical management if need be."

"Sir Hollywood?" Miranda asked.

"Queen Victoria awarded him a knighthood for bravery in battle during the fall of Pudong."

"Wait, what? Fall of Pudong? Battle? Carl is a Vicky?"

Nell pressed Miranda's hand reassuringly. "I'm sorry. You haven't been in the outside world for ages. We are coming out of a tumultuous time. The Fists of Righteous Harmony have won the Coastal Republic for the Celestial Kingdom. Many fought and died trying to escape. Sir Hollywood was one of those, but I think I'd better leave him to share the details with you if he sees fit to do so."

Miranda reeled. "I think I need to sit down," she said, sinking back onto the velvet cushion.

"Of course. Forgive my impoliteness. I'll call for tea if you like." She looked Miranda over, apparently only just then noticing the bare feet and flimsy nightdress. "Perhaps you would like to change first? I can show you to a more comfortable room."

Miranda nodded, but didn't get up. "How did you do all this?" she asked, indicating the room around her.

Nell seemed to understand that the question was not about interior decorating, because she answered, "All the world's a ractive, and all the men and women merely ractors."

"Shakespeare," Miranda whispered.

"You," said Nell. "You taught me how to play whichever part was needed."

"Not alone," said Miranda. "I was only playing my own part."

"Yes," said Nell. "I learned from others, too, it's true. But I loved you."

Miranda turned her face away so that Nell couldn't see the tears threatening to fall. "I'd like to change now, if you don't mind," she said. "But then, maybe we can talk again?"

"Whenever you like," said Nell. Then she put a hand on Miranda's right shoulder. "Princess Nell took her mother away from the mermaids and gave her clean, comfortable clothing, and a feast fit for a queen."

Miranda couldn't help smiling at the storytelling language of the primer. "Princess Nell's mother was eternally grateful, and promised to stay in Princess Nell's castle for as long as she was needed."

Nell stood at the door, one hand poised to turn the handle, but before she opened the door to the rest of the world, she spoke one last time. "And they both lived happily ever after."