Ralph, Sashi and Co. had landed along the Murghâb River, between Imambaba and Kalai-Mor. Fevrier had brought his beta- homing device with him and it would prove invaluable in locating Mercredi in the expansive wasteland that the frau was rumored to have last been seen. They disembarked to get a hands-on lay of the land and to point the beta-device with a minimum of obstructions.
"I would like to know just what possessed the vinegar one to come to this part of the world, if she is truly here. Ho! What's this....?!" Fevrier had aimed the homer the minute he left the ship, and had just made a sweep southward toward Kalai-Mor and got a massive reading, one much stronger than the strongest recorded human mind could possibly register, especially at the distance it was being read from: forty miles southeastward, near Takhta-Bazar, or, more accurately, the ruins of Takhta-Bazar.
"I have a reading, one resembling Mercredi's last beta-chart, that indicates that she is forty miles or so southeast of here, along the river!" Mondidi could see the chagrined, quizzical look on Fevrier's face and probed for more....
"Fevrier...what is it? What are you holding back? There's more to it than that, isn't there?!" Fevrier kept his eyes pointed down-river, and paused a bit before answering his loyal gadfly.
"Unless something has happened to the azimuth of this thing's sensors, Mercredi has grown to the size of an elephant, or at least her head has!" Mondidi gave the troupe grand mahock her own quizzical, concerned look as she went over to him to read the gauge for herself. To qualify for her rank in the Dragoons, she had to take extensive gauge-reading training.
"Alors, Fevrier! Is that right?! That is enough for ten people, of very strong constitution!"
"Something must be wrong with this mécanisme. Avril!!" Fevrier summoned the troupe tinkerer, who had been talking with Ralph. He shambled over.
"Oui, mon general?"
"Regardez!" He tilted the device so Avril could read the top-mounted dial. Avril took one look at it and then at Fevrier.
"Fevrier...is that taking a reading of your ego?" Mondidi chuckled at Avril's zinger.
"Fils de chienne! What do you make of that?! And be serious!" Avril took the rifle-stocked module from Fevrier to look at it himself, hefting it and turning it around as if he could assess it psychically.
"Have you been fiddling with it...in any way?!" Fevrier looked at Avril as if mortally wounded.
"Moi? You are ze great technicien, Avril! I just know how to shoot zem and press buttons! What is wrong with it?"
"Quel?!" Both Mondidi and Fevrier cried in unison.
"Rien!" Fevrier, Mondidi and Avril together decided that the investigation they had come for had suddenly acquired a but more urgency.
"Raoul! Colonel Vishnapur! We have a reading! She's about forty miles southeast of here!"
"Awright! Let's get going!" The three scion of la belle France thought better of telling Ralph or Sashi about the outsized reading, since Ralph didn't need another trauma.
Dusk in the Turkmen desert. Fevrier's beta-homing device had pinpointed the signal generating location as being ten miles north of Takhta-Bazar, perhaps twenty. Two man hovercycles were supplied with the modified WE and Avril had been allowed to fiddle with them to extend their range. Each member of the search party got their own ride out of the cargo hold and mounted up to scour the area.
Mondidi, who had a gift for inappropriate timing and incongruous comments, reminisced as she started her cycle up:
"You know, Msr. Vishnapur, I remember when we used machines very much like these to scale Everest back before the Disruption...." And it was up to Fevrier to shut her up.
"Yes, Mondidi, ma petit, if these readings are correct, we will be scaling Mt. Mercredi any minute!"
"Hush, Fevrier! Do you....?" But it was too late!
"What was that about a reading of `Mt. Mercredi', Dauphin...?" It was Ralph, who had been just within earshot as everybody situated themselves on their cycles. Mondidi couldn't help but rub it in....
"See, Fevrier? You just can't keep a secret, can you...?" Fevrier ignored her and addressed Ralph directly.
"Just une petit jeus, Raoul. We'll be upon Mercredi in no time, is what I meant!"
"I see. There's something you guys aren't telling me, isn't there?" The company hadn't moved a hundred feet on the cycles and already a major intrigue had reared its ugly head. Avril kept his cool, and in placating Ralph didn't fall prey to Fevrier's flair for the dramatic.
"We really don't know what to make of the readings, Raoul. But don't worry, I don't expect anything out of the ordinary." The Oswald, who had housed himself in the circuits of the ship when they were in flight, and who also secretted himself in the circuits of the cycle Ralph was riding as it charged in the cargo hold, suddenly materialized out of the machine's display gauges at the front of the handlebars, startling Ralph. He maintained control of the bike as they started out toward Takhta-Bazar. The Oswald then sat himself directly behind Ralph on the generous seat. He whispered a confidentiality into his old friend's ear:
"Ralph....don't believe a word of it! I think we're all in for a bit of a surprise when we find Anny Wednesday!"
"Fantastic. Just great! What is it, has she grown another head?!"
"No. Just ride on. We're not too far from her now. Keep right on following Fevrier...he's headed right for her."
Ralph groaned, "Not again!"
Mercredi had abandoned her little hamlet and had graduated to bigger and better things. Sitting in the middle of an otherwise undistinguished patch of sand, she had conjured up a huge, oniondomed palace of a type similar to the great czarist palaces of mid nineteenth century Russia. Seated in the main hall, behind two sets of the largest doors to probably exist in the 38th century, was someone the troupe would have a hard time recognizing. Mercredi had fully blossomed into the wizard queen she had always secretly, (or not so secretly,) nurtured in the center of her mind.
She knew that the troupe, Ralph and Vishnapur were looking for her, and she was fully prepared for the meeting. The walls of the palace were higher, even, than the doors, and finished in something greatly resembling nacre. Up a staircase that would give any other human a nosebleed, was a gold chair that Mercredi used as a throne. A jeweler would assess its purity at roughly 18 kt.. It was inlaid with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, tiger eyes and mother-of-pearl scenes of the vortex-vanquishing Amun Thrace. The seat cushion was a needlepoint picture of Chloe Wymark. There were seventy-five stairs up to her throne and she sat in the great chair waiting for Ralph and her siblings to bang the great doorknocker that hung on the outermost door.
Outside the majestic testament to herself, the search party had arrived. Fevrier couldn't believe what he saw, but his beta-device indicated that this was exactly where the signal emanated from.
"What the hell is that?!" Someone asked. The Oswald confided some particulars to Ralph, since he had been in a stealthy rapport with the subconscious mind responsible for it.
"Would you believe that that was constructed in less than half a week?!" Ralph naturally answered in the negative, for it was simply too large and too intricate for even the most efficiently programmed K15 android work gang to have put it together that fast, unless there were something like a hundred or so of them. And if one thing was obvious in the 38th century, it was that robots, androids, drones and the like were not in wide usage like they were in Ralph's day.
Fevrier took point for the group.
"Well, confreres, we'd better look into this! Ready, Colonel Vishnapur?"
"As I'll ever be, Capt. Garçon! This is where the readings were the strongest...?"
"Yes. Perhaps she was kidnapped and brought here...! Anything is possible...." Fevrier was hoping against hope that they weren't about to confront "Mercredi the Monster".
"Msr. Garçon, she wasn't kidnapped!" Oswald informed him.
"But the Fellahin....!"
"Their numbers have been significantly lessened. And Miss Thierry was never in any danger amongst them, believe me."
"Do tell, Msr. Hologram!? And how do you propose this got here? All the czarist buildings from ancient Russia have crumbled, and this can't be more than a century old, by the looks of it."
"It's less than a month old...."
"Are you serious, Msr. Hologram....?!" Sashi was impatient to proceed.
"Shall we go in...?" Fevrier went up the stairs to the outer doors first, followed by Sashi and Mondidi. Ralph, Mardi and Oswald took a little while longer while the others filed in behind them.
"What do you think we will find in there, cheri....?" Mardi asked her husband.
"I don't know, ris de veau, why don't you ask the voice from beyond? He seems to know about everything beforehand, anyway." Mardi and Ralph looked over toward the figure, looking for an answer to questions begging for answers. Meanwhile....
"Hello, you miserable excuse for an acting partner!" All heads inside the grand vestibule turned in the direction of that voice, which came from behind the second set of doors. The comment had been meant for Fevrier.
"That's her!" Mondidi declared, recognizing what was essentially her own voice filtered through years of bitterness. Considering the setting they were all in, it sent chills up her spine. "Mercredi, ma douce, petit sœur...is that you?"
"Who does it sound like, scéne mecher, Medea...?!"
"Where are you, Dame de la Flamme....?"
"Oh, Anny Duo, must you make the baby noises!? That always irritated me so much about you! You are so shallow and transparent, Mondidi!" Sashi's ears burned, he was so eager to get to the heart of what was happening. He was the one to throw open the second set of doors to discover.....
"Well, hel-lo....who are you?!" He turned to the troupe, as Ralph, Mardi and the Oswald were just walking in. "Is this her, Capt. Garçon?"
Fevrier went to the door to see an eerily lit staircase that seemed to go up forever, and at the head of that staircase was indeed Ann Mercredi Thierry, third clone of Ann Thierry prime and one of the two members of the troupe to stay on Earth while the rest went off to fight a war to save it, anticlimactically, as it turned out.
"Oui...that is her."
She was draped in a variation on a muu-muu, one fringed in gold filigree and made of a fabric that seemed to change color as she moved...from blue to red to yellow. She sauntered down the stairs to meet her siblings and the stranger whose details weren't so clear in her ward castings and clairvoyance.
The troupe was spellbound as her iridescent poncho shimmered, as she held out her arms in a self-presenting posture, red hair sitting upon her head in the fashion of the court ladies of ancient Greece and Rome. Sashi introduced himself.
"Hello. I'm Colonel Sashi Kumar Vishnapur, MarsShield Provisional Earth Government. Pleased to meet you!" Mercredi remained imperiously silent as she perused the small clutch of humanity she saw before her. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, she spoke.
"Well, what have we here...? My siblings as freres d'armes! Tres incroyable! Does war agree with you? Hmmm, Fevrier....your uniform does you justice! Mardi...my Earth powers tell me that you and Msr. Krimson are now wallowing in the throes of wedded bliss and that you have a little one! Bien! I wish you well. Vendredi! How is the Monte Carlo of Mars? Your sisters miss you, but then again, you never could separate yourself from la vie du soir. Mars et Avril...when are you two going to find ladyfriends, eh?! You are getting old, you two! Hell..." she giggled in spite of herself, "there are always the other Thierrys that went to Mars." She addressed Fevrier again. "Fevrier, you fils d'une souris! What is Samedi doing in dome 6? What was she doing in dome 17?!' Fevrier's head snapped up from making casual adjustments to his beta-device. She continued berating him. "Have you no compassion, you spawn of Beelzebub?! Do you know what they do to people in places like that? They strip you of your self-respect...your very personality! Fevrier, you piece of chou de sconse, she would have been better off knocked into an irreversible coma during that altercation over the South Pole that I saved you all from!” She paused for a moment to let it sink in. "By the way....how do you all like my new home? This is my foyer...." Fevrier interrupted her, finally coming to the realization.
"It was you! I thought Mardi and Mai were joking! Mondidi.…Msr. Hologram was right! She has powers!" Somewhat disgusted at the very undignified astonishment Fevrier was exhibiting, Mondidi found herself siding with her eldritch sister, so much so that as their nearly identical genes observed the blathering spectacle, they simultaneously shouted at him:
"Will you shut up, Fevrier!?" Mondidi folding her arms and rolling her eyes and Mercredi cupping her nose with her left hand, eyes closed. The Oswald tried speaking up, to inject his own special sensibilities into the mix, but was interrupted by Mercredi herself.
"Commander Nineveh! I can't say that your presence is a surprise! I sensed those transmissions from le Planéte de Revenant and interpreted their meaning before any of MarsShield's computers did. It's nice to have another assimilated Fahnsoman in the system with me...besides Samedi, that is...right, Fevrier!?" Fevrier's eyes suddenly acquired a shiftiness as he tried to keep them on Mercredi, betraying a feeling of guilt concerning Samedi's hospitalization, something he advocated more than anybody else.
"You were going to say something, Commander Nineveh...?"
"Yes, Miss Thierry...Tell me, what prevented you from telling the world of your gifts before this? A talent like your was meant to be shared!"
"Spare me, Commandant! Although Fahnsoma's reconstruction of you excuses it, somewhat, your altruism and naivete is astounding! I could never reveal myself cold to a world of greedy, clawing, disgusting human beings! It would have been sheer suicide! Let me put the question to you, Commandant...why haven't you revealed yourself to everybody yet?! At least the European Near East knows of my existence! They may not believe it, but they know of me now! Answer me that, my smug, digital facsimile....!"
"Touchez, Miss Thierry!"