Shortly after breakfast on the appointed day, the adventurers packed the last of their gear into the Band's flying Contestoga, and by Second Two and fifty, they were in the air. Ginger and Alecstar took the first shift piloting. Tiejo sat looking out the back of the wagon, watching the scenery. The others passed the time by reading, conversing, or simply resting.
Tom spent most of the morning trying to get back to sleep after having woken early to finalize preparations for the group's departure. He had rather limited success, and finally gave up. In a mildly irritated mood, he thought that as long as he was forced to get on with the day, and having nothing better to do, he might as well find something to complain about. "I don't see why we didn't just get some striders to draw the wagon," he grumbled. "Or I hear about this newfangled 'internal enchantment engine' which is supposed to be even faster than striders, and less hassle."
"I thought you had gotten used to flying," said Darius.
"I got so I can do it if I have to, but I don't have to like it."
"Fair enough. But we've discussed this. Flying is both faster and safer."
"Faster I'll grant, but as for safer... I know, I know, there are plenty of ground-based dangers that are avoided, but I'd say you're just trading old dangers for new ones. Besides, what's the point of adventuring without some of those things you leave behind on the ground?"
"Don't worry, we'll be spending some time on the ground, particularly at night when we camp."
"If you say so. But again, as to faster, what about those new engines?" Tom turned to the ex-Sorreter. "You know anything about them things, Cam?"
"Cameron, if you please," he said rather offhandedly. Darius made a mental note of this; he knew some people had changed their names after the Coming. He couldn't be sure that this was the case with Cameron, but given what little he knew of his past, it seemed likely. In fact, he'd wondered the same thing about Alecstar, upon learning that his nickname was Star; he would have expected it to be Alec. And so, he assumed 'Alec' had once been his proper name, and didn't want anyone calling him by it now. Just as he now guessed that Cameron had once been called Cam. He thought it was strange that anyone would use so slight a change to try to hide their true identities, but he supposed their choices were no business of his. He was mildly surprised that Tom hadn't known not to call him 'Cam,' but realized that just because Tom had known the Band for some time, didn't mean he knew everything about them. Or perhaps, in spite of the candidness Cameron had displayed in their meeting, he wasn't prepared to share everything about himself with Darius, and Tom simply hadn't realized that.
It took but an instant for these thoughts to pass through Darius's mind, and Cameron paused no longer than that before answering Tom's question. "Certainly I've heard of them. I've even ridden in a coach powered by such an engine. Such travel is greatly preferable on some of the better streets of a village than on the open roads between villages, or even some of the worse maintained streets within a village. Which is perhaps rather ironic, considering enhanced speed would be far more useful, and indeed safer, outside a village than in.
"Still, it is a marvelous new application of magic, and I'm sure it will only be improved upon with time. Of course, they're still in the early stages of experimentation, and as such, the engines are extremely expensive, and the Order frowns upon their usage. In fact I hear the government is going to be setting up an agency to inspect any new magics or inventions and perhaps other things as well, and this agency, once established, would have to grant its approval before anything new of any kind is allowed to come on the open market."
"Ah, their fingers in every pie. I can see it already, inventors and Sorreters and businesspeople bribing politicians for permission to market their wares. Perhaps even forced to hand over a percentage of all profits."
"Such a cynic, you are," said Darius with a grin.
"Are you any less so?" asked Tom.
"Well, a bit less, perhaps. But not much. I do think the Order's reach into every corner of life is becoming a bit too pervasive. That's one thing we'll have to change. Still, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they could have as at least part of their motivation the public's safety and general best interests."
"I suppose so," said Tom. "As part of their motivation." Deciding to drop the matter, he returned to his previous topic of complaint: magic. "Anyway, people shouldn't depend so much on magic. There's got to be some kind of scientific way of faster travel."
"Tiejo dreams way sometimes," said the street rat, not turning or lifting his gaze from the view passing below; forest to one side, plains to the other. "Crazy motion things from other world and other time. Big long things, strings of houses that go with you. Dream of sneaking onto them to go for free. Big adventure it is, crazy wild fun."
Darius was intrigued, and focused his attention on Tiejo. Tom just rolled his eyes, already having come to think of Tiejo as a favored pet of Lonewander's, like a child passing a summer day just by following his furthing around wherever it happened to go. Only now the child was dragging all his friends around with him, their own fate also in the paws of the dumb animal. Well... maybe he didn't think of Tiejo quite that lowly... but, after all, he told himself, it's just an analogy.
"Tell me more about this thing, Tiejo," said Darius.
"I think a science-thing it is. Not magic. Fuzzy are dreams like, fuzzier than life, harder to think and understand. Can't make self do as might if waking. Remember when waking it is hard to do, as well. I think I haven't ever seen it all. Into one house I sneak and stay as long as I can until worker off throws Tiejo. Eat tasty noncompanies in yummy sauce, all in tins. Sometimes cold, sometimes fired. Sometimes meet others house-sneaking, talk or play with them, but taking different houses if all we haves for to eat are noncompanies. Sometimes we haves other foods, meats or breads or carrots, say. Sometimes they shares happy drinks if they have some, otherwise I drinks water- or milk, if share I do a house with cows.
"Fast houses they are and don't go on normal roads. On house-string roads they go. Some houses have people who paid so the workers don't off throw. Some houses have things to sell where the houses go. Some are empty so good for Tiejo or other house-string rats. Tiejo thinks maybe there is a science house that makes them all go, but hasn't seen it. At far front to pull or far back to push, but Tiejo stays to middle. Would explore more but dreams don't let me think of that till I wake."
"But you think these things exist or have existed on other worlds?" asked Darius. "I mean, you did say, 'from other world and other time.'"
Tiejo grinned and shrugged. "Not knowing, but it seems so while I dream. Ask Ginger maybe to ask spirits."
Darius, who was seated fairly close to the cockpit at the front of the wagon, turned towards Ginger and asked if she'd been following the conversation.
"Well, I couldn't clearly hear everything Tiejo was saying. Why?"
"We'd like you to ask a spirit about something." Turning to Cameron he said, "Unless you could do it?"
"Technically of course all Sorreters have to be spirit-talkers, but these days most of us don't do it much. I haven't talked to a spirit since I was an apprentice. I mean, aside from joining in conversations with Ginger's spirits."
"Okay," said Ginger. "Happy to help." Turning to her copilot, she said, "Keep an eye on things, will you, Star?"
"That's what I'm here for."
"Thanks." She climbed into the back of the wagon and looked around at the others. "So what's up?"
Darius explained, "Tiejo was just telling us about dreams he has of some means of transportation he thinks may be used on some other world. Something derived from science rather than magic. A sort of string of houses, he calls it, that moves on some kind of special road devised specifically for this method of travel. We were wondering if this is something purely created for his dreams, or if they actually do or ever did exist elsewhere, and we hoped you might be able to ask a spirit about it."
"Oh, sure, I guess." She closed her eyes, something she didn't have to do to summon spirits, but she liked to anyway. She spoke a name in her mind, asking if he would come to talk with her and her friends if he wasn't too busy. He said yes, and she opened her eyes. A moment later, he appeared in a corner in back, sitting near Tiejo.
"Hiya, Ginj. What's up? How's Tino? I see a few unfamiliar faces here."
"Beside you is Tiejo Streetrat. To my right is Darius Lonewander, and over there," she said, pointing with her thumb, "is Tom. No order-name. Guys, this is Zephrey. So, Zeph, you know Tino. Rarely to be found where one who doesn't know him better might expect to find him. Still, he's good as always.
"Anyway, we're heading for Near Port to rescue Tiejo's master who he says is a prisoner of the Order, ever since the Coming, but he won't give us a name."
"Hey, good luck, kid," the spirit said to Tiejo. In a conspiratorial whisper ostensibly for Tiejo's ears only, but plainly intended to be heard by all, "Good man, your teacher. Yeah, I know who he is. And I think you're right not to let them know yet," he added with a grin. "Wouldn't believe you, and anyway it's gonna be some fun, huh?" Then, turning back to the others and bringing his voice back to normal volume, "You know 'master' can have more than one meaning on other worlds? Pretty barbaric, eh? Course, ain't really been like that on most of them for quite a while, so that's good."
"Yeah, we know," said Darius. "Well, I know, from some stories from other worlds. I'd presume we all know."
There were nods from most of the others, who all quite enjoyed alien stories. Though Tiejo liked such stories too, perhaps he hadn't heard some of the same ones, for he shook his head and said, "Tiejo not knowing. What else master can be?"
"Well, here the opposite of 'master' is always 'apprentice,'" said Zephrey. "On other worlds, in the past, another meaning's opposite has been 'slave.'"
Tiejo looked confused for a few moments. "New subword to me. Hmmm..." As his subconscious slowly attached meaning to this new word, a look of horror and revulsion spread across Tiejo's face. "Slave?! But... evil this is! How peoples could think of such a thing?"
"Peoples can think of lots of nasty things, especially primitive people. Luckily, the Chief's little experiment has seen to it a lot of the barbaric notions of primitive cultures have been spared this world. Of course and obviously, no world can be perfect, except the aptly named Paradise, an entirely different dimension from all the other worlds of the Universe. There'll always be some evil, and you've all seen enough of it here on the Land. At least you have had only the good kind of masters here. Not that all of them are that good, but at least...." Trailing off abruptly, he turned back to Ginger and asked, "So anyway, what am I here for?"
"You've always done a lot of traveling, right? Through air, over land, over and through sea, through space?"
"Right you are, and a better life there is not in Heaven or the earths."
With a new and more enjoyable subject at hand, Tiejo quickly got over his new knowledge of the evils of other worlds. "Tell us about house-strings, you will? Will you?"
The spirit's grin was now returning, and he turned again to the street rat. "What's this?"
"Dreams of traveling in moving houses all in a string on a house-string road."
Zephrey immediately had a familiar vision. "Ah yes, cars in a train on a train track, or railroad."
"So such things do exist?" asked Darius.
"Indeed, and great pleasure there is to be had in riding the rails, whether you pay or jump. You've dreamed of this, Tiejo?"
"Um... jumping, yes. Fun!"
"I've done a bit of that in my day, as well as acquiring legitimate passage. Either way has its own peculiar good points. Haven't had a chance in quite some time, of course. Rather old means of travel on most worlds. But now that the seeds of knowledge have been planted here, perhaps the galaxy shall once again see the like! I should very much enjoy that. I'll have to keep an eye out for that development here. Maybe it'll happen in your lifetimes! I hope so."
"So how does it work?" asked Tom.
"What? Well, there are different ways of powering it, depending on the level of technology involved. I'm sure what you'd start out doing is burning fossil fuels." He chuckled. "Funny name for it. Oh, you have 'em here, as does every world, but they don't generally develop from fossils. Scientists are right in that they would develop that way, if a world was around long enough. But none of 'em ever have been. Even the very oldest world is yet far too young for that. But they all got 'em, fossil fuels. The Chief just planted 'em ready-made, for any number of reasons. Like people'd need them in centuries or millennia, not the eons it'd take 'em to develop from fossils or whatever. Also there's the matter of testing faith- something some writers of fiction have hit on from time to time, whether they were serious about it or just joking around.
"Anyway, I guess there's other reasons, but I digress. What was I talking about? Oh yes, you'd have a furnace to burn coal or something, and that'd power your engine which'd pull your train along railroad tracks." Turning to the ex-Sorreter he said, "Maybe one day I could even sit down with you or someone like you, or some team of Sorreters and inventors and such and help draw up some plans...."
"I doubt I'd be involved, but perhaps there are people I could talk to about it," said Cameron.
"Hey, thanks. I'd appreciate that, kid."
"Tiejo too," said Tiejo.
"Anyway, ya got all the info ya need?" Zephrey asked Ginger.
"I suppose so. Much as you'd enjoy it, I don't think we need a detailed engineering lesson, just at the moment. So... what've you been up to since I saw you last?"
"Well, right after I left, I was checking out a galaxy in another cluster, which won't have contact with this one for probably about eight or nine thousand years. Not until the development of intercluster travel. And hereabouts folks are still in the mid-stages of interstellar travel, let alone intergalactic. Folks from older worlds like Earth, I mean. Probably be at least a thousand years before you folks of the Land go interstellar and make contact. Even so you'd be doing it much earlier in your history than any other world managed."
Turning back to Cameron he said, "Intercluster, now that'll have to be a kind of scientific translocation. Of course, all magic is basically extremely advanced science, some of which they have on other worlds already, some of which they don't. Even so, it's all done a bit or a lot differently as science than it is as magic. But intercluster translocation... now that'll be far more advanced even than your kind of translocation. It'll be mostly mental, obviously, but they'll move whole ships like that. Probably be some degree of artificial intelligence involved, I shouldn't wonder, but couldn't ever be done entirely without real people. Course, such a means of travel will be necessary for traveling such distances, but it'll probably also be used for much shorter distance, just intergalactic, maybe even a bit of interstellar, once the technology's been developed anyway. Of course, simple translocation will be done scientifically, locally, I mean between points on a planet or between planet and orbiting ship, perhaps within a couple centuries now, by folks from Earth and worlds like that."
Turning once again to Ginger, he laughed and said, "I do digress a lot, don't I? Well, there are some interesting folks out in that other galaxy I was checking out. They've mapped out the whole of their galaxy, all the races are aware of each other, all inhabitable worlds are inhabited. There are independent worlds and worlds that a part of large or small groups. There are greater alliances between groups of worlds, but not absolute amalgamation, such that they'd be one group instead of two or more. There are conflicts between groups, too, and sometimes wars. But everyone seems to have pretty much the same level of technology, and it isn't much beyond what this galaxy's Earthers and their friends have. In fact folks around here, this galaxy I mean, tend to develop faster than in that other one. Of course, the Land will make contact with other worlds before this galaxy makes contact with any other galaxy in this cluster, let alone the galaxy I've been talking about in another cluster. And I suspect this cluster will be the ones to first develop intercluster travel and make contact with that other one, while they're still exploring other galaxies in their own locale.
"Well! So I looked around that galaxy for a few months, to get a good feel for it. Then I spent some time just jumping startrains along the shipping lines between Earth and some of its allies. Not as much fun as ground-based trains, but they have their own charms, of course. Anyway, there are less than a dozen worlds Earth and company have met yet, but they're all always out there exploring, and in a matter of centuries I'm sure they'll have the whole galaxy explored."
"Didn't you say it'd be at least a thousand years before we make contact with them?" asked Darius.
"Yes, and just now I said explored, not made contact with. Even now they have a noninterference directive. They learn from their fiction," a cryptic remark Zephrey didn't bother to explain, and no one bothered asking what he meant by it, "and they don't contact races they don't think are ready to be contacted. They'll keep an eye on the younger races after they've found them, and when they feel they're ready for it, they'll make contact. Or the younger races will make contact themselves."
"So is it possible we won't be the last world in this galaxy to join the starfaring races?" Darius wondered.
"Well, I'll tell ya, the Chief hasn't seeded any other worlds in this galaxy with intelligent life since he did this one over nine hundred years ago. But while all the other worlds are a little or a lot older than yours, none has ever developed as quickly. There are a few worlds you're already more advanced than, though the next youngest world in the galaxy was peopled about three hundred years before yours. The Chief had a spate of creativity a while back, creating about two and a half dozen worlds in the course of nearly two centuries. Then he was in a slump for a few hundred years before creating the Land. Before that creative streak a few centuries ago, he hadn't done anything new in this galaxy for nearly a thousand years, and, well, I'm talking too much about such things. I'm digressing a bit from the main point, too. Point is, there are older worlds you're more advanced than, as well as worlds that are currently more advanced than you which you'll likely catch up to and pass as time goes by, and then there are worlds that will always be ahead of you, at least till you catch up with them. At that level, all worlds develop at the same rate, basically, because they share their developments."
"I see," said Darius. "So, we won't be the last. And there'll still be wild frontiers and new adventures to be had."
Zeph chuckled. "Oh yes, there'll always be new adventures. The Chief wouldn't create a people without a spirit of adventure in them- if not every member of the race, at least many members, and in the race as a whole. And he'd never create a need in people that was impossible to be filled. That'd be just cruel, a real abuse of power. Course, you'll be dead long before your world makes contact anyway."
"I know. But I have an interest in my people's future, even beyond the point where I'll be a part of it."
"True enough. Anyway, listen, kids, I disappeared from the cargo hold I was staying in, alone, on one of them startrains, but it's going to be landing at its destination soon, so I should get back there. I-"
"Wait," said Darius. "Obviously you could just appear on the planet they're going to, if you want to. Why do you have to be on the ship? Particularly if you say you were alone?"
"Ah, well, one or three people or so knew I was there, actually. No one too official, but fellow stowaways, anyway. People who'd be suspicious if they didn't see me again before we all disembark."
"They don't know you're a spirit, I take it?"
"Oh, Heavens, no! We don't get to reveal our true nature much on other worlds. Maybe some of us who are on special missions assigned by our bosses do, sometimes...." And everyone understood that 'bosses' referred to either God or Lucifer, depending on the spirit's allegiance. But people rarely bothered to inquire about such distinctions, of the spirits with whom they spoke. It was generally considered a nonissue; though Zephrey's use of the nickname 'Chief' suggested he was most likely on the side of the Creator. "But basically, when about our own business, we've gotta act human, or like whatever race we're among at the time. That's one of the great things about the Land, the freedom to be completely open, completely yourself among you people. Um, not that all of us necessarily do, when we're mingling with the locals here. Or... but I shouldn't have said that. Nevermind. Nothing." The others were curious at this, but let it pass unremarked, per Zeph's wishes.
"Anyway, I'll see ya later. Ginj, you gonna be writing any of this down for the Protestant O'Gast?"
"I dunno. I'll have to think about it. Surely there's mostly trivial stuff and stuff that shouldn't be known yet by the general public and stuff that's just... Well, y'know, there isn't room for infinite volumes of the book. But I'll think about it, see if there's anything I can submit to my bishop for his consideration."
"Okay. Well, again, bye all."
"Bye," said all. And Zephrey vanished.
"So Ginger," said Darius, "I knew you were a spirit-talker, but somehow it didn't occur to me you'd have your own book in the O'Gast. Has anything of yours been published yet?"
"A bit. Nothing major. Mostly I talk for fun, for information, for spiritual guidance- I get more of that than I give to others- and to remind me of my father. I talk to some of the spirits he knew. Still knows, I suppose."
"Is it possible to talk to him, or people who've died?"
"No, but some spirits will pass messages along between the living and the dead, sometimes. Very rarely, of course. It's sort of frowned upon, but it's okay sometimes just to tell or be told something like, 'I love you,' or 'I'm thinking of you.' On very, very rare occasions something of great importance might be passed along, such as, 'Don't trust that guy, because he's the one who killed me, and he wouldn't hesitate to kill you too, incidental to taking over the world and starting a war.' Well, nothing like that exactly, I'm just giving an illustration of how big something would have to be for it to be permissible. Even then, that might not be big enough. It's actually a case by case basis, I guess. It's God's call whether to allow a message to go through or not- or Lucifer's. Anyway, I've never exchanged messages with my father. Well, once I had a spirit tell him I love him, and he said he loved me too. It was just that once."
"I see. Well, look, if you want to write anything down, I'll leave you to think while the conversation's still fresh in your mind. I was just thinking, I'm a bit of a writer, too. Anyway..."
"Thanks. But I should get back up front."
"Your shift's almost over anyway, and I couldn't concentrate on reading or anything like that right now. I'll take over."
"Okay," she said, and took out a notebook and pen and sat thinking. Darius climbed up front and sat next to Alecstar, who'd be trading places with Cameron soon, himself.
Others went about reading or dozing. Tiejo continued staring out at the sky and the ground. And the band flew on.
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