Still, she tried. “Are the Verionites animals?”
“Do they eat meat or grain?”
“Are they larger or smaller than we are?”
“About the same.”
“Are they friendly to visitors or unfriendly?”
“Unknown. They seem all right to us.”
Not exactly a great deal of help.
“Will we be able to find food over there?”
“Are they day creatures like you or night creatures like us?”
“Is there anything else we should know?”
“Yes. Remember to look up.”
She was startled. “They fly?”
She hadn’t figured on that. Flying in a nontech hex meant some kind of bird or other winged creature. That wasn’t good at all. Definitely a night crossing, and with extra attention given to concealing them from the air.
Still, she couldn’t help but feel excited. Although there were many long, dangerous days or weeks to come, it was the first measure of real progress since she’d taken up with Mavra and Lori.
“One last question. Do you know the way this world usually measures time?” “Yes. The railroad is quite punctual.”
“Do you know how long it has taken us to reach this border?”
“Yes. Fifteen days.”
Fifteen days. “Sorry-one more and then I thank you for all your assistance. At this rate, how long would it take us to reach the Avenue?”
“Another twelve days to reach the equator, then ten. If you can go exactly northwest, ten to twelve days for the whole journey.”
“I thank you. I will always hold the Lebans in my heart as true and trusted friends. I have had very few since I came here.”
“We are pleased to know this.”
It was time to make some plans.
Mavra was all for heading straight for the destination by the shortest route. Lori wanted to take it slower and more cautiously, not feeling the same sense of urgency.
In the end it was up to Julian, of course. Their opponents might expect them to take the shortest route, but then again, how would they know when she and the other two would emerge from Leba and where? In a sense, straight to the goal was the safest course; it meant the least distance to move, and that lessened their chances of being spotted and reported. Mavra didn’t like the idea of fliers, though, any more than Julian did. Fliers could cover pretty good distances in short periods of time, vital for reconnaissance in a no-tech hex. But if the Lebans were right, and Julian interpreted their answer to mean that the Verionites probably saw about as well at night as Earth-humans, then they had a chance if they could conceal their day camps.
It was an all or nothing roll of the dice at this point, but it seemed like the only way to play it.
Near sunset they moved out, down and through the final valley and to the Verion border. Just looking across it, even though the hex boundary made it dark and hazy, they could see a dramatic change. Many rivers and streams crossed boundaries, as did landforms, but clearly Verion was a much drier place. The hills continued, but the trees almost completely stopped, replaced with grasslands and occasional bushes and other small shrubs.
Not a lot of cover, Julian thought worriedly. Still, there was no other way to get it done. She stepped through the border, feeling that now-familiar tingling sensation, and into Verion.
It was suddenly very hot and surprisingly humid for a place that far from an ocean. There wasn’t much transfer between hexes beyond the immediate area of the border, where some convection was inevitable, so this was probably how it was going to feel.
They proceeded in, although intending only to find a reasonable place to camp out of sight and wait until the next night to begin their real journey. The sky was clear, although there were some lazy-looking birds off in the distance which Julian hoped weren’t the local equivalent of vultures circling over a kill. They traveled down the first hill, into a ravine, and then back up the gentle slope of the next, slightly higher one, which revealed a whole new vista.
Beyond, the land flattened out considerably, although there were various isolated landforms standing like bizarre sentinels as far as the eye could see. The lowlands clearly had eroded away over great periods of time, leaving pockets of harder rock, possibly volcanic.
In the middle of this strange landscape of bizarre shapes and flat plains were clearly developed areas. There were trees here, but they were far different from the ones in Leba: tall, thick, but without branches and with leafy growth only at the very tops. Julian thought they looked like palm trees that had fallen off their diets.
More important, they were clearly planted, both for ornamentation and in groves. Nearby were large fields that showed definite signs of cultivation. A fair-sized river cut through the middle of it, leaving a jagged canyon that looked pretty formidable. There were, however, two clear suspension-type bridges over it, showing a great deal of nontech sophistication.
Well, none of us are tree climbers, Julian thought, and those trees aren’t going to conceal us too much, but the fronds will give us air cover. The real problem was going to be the canyon. The only practical way across was over one of those bridges, and during that time they would be exposed with absolutely nowhere to run or hide.
She wished she knew more about the people here. She wished she knew a lot more about everything having to do with this place.
By the time they reached the first of the trees, it was clearly too close to dawn to consider risking either of the bridges that night. Best to camp, get some rest, and watch and see if any of the natives showed themselves. She wanted to see them, but not all that closely.
It wasn’t long after dawn, just as they settled in under the trees, when she got her wish.
The sound of what seemed to be a wagon drew her, and she crept over to the edge of the grove, making certain to keep as well hidden behind a tree as possible, and looked out. What she saw was one of the strangest sights yet on this bizarre world.
It was a wagon, all right, and it was huge, with two big solid wheels that had to be two meters high holding it up. What got her was that it appeared to be pulled by two oversized, very fat Earthwomen, and on top, on a tiny seat trying to keep his balance, the one who held the reins looked for all the world like an Earth-human-size pig in a very wide brimmed straw hat and wearing a pair of overalls.
A closer look with her ability to magnify things showed that her first impression of the creatures pulling the wagon was wrong but that her notion of the driver was pretty well dead on, although Porky Pig it wasn’t. That was one ugly hog up there.
The creatures pulling the wagon did have a humanlike shape, were bipedal, had enormous rear ends and thighs, and seemed to have breasts as well, but the faces were very apelike. Their backs and sides were covered with brown fur, while their fronts appeared a hairless purplish skin color. For such large creatures, though, they had remarkably scrawny arms, and if those were hands, they weren’t much more useful than Julian’s, if that. They looked to be at least seven or eight feet tall and proportioned to that height save for the arms and huge hairy feet. They weren’t pulling the cart by walking or ambling but by a kind of slow jogging canter that seemed almost horselike.
The draft animals had been the startling things, but the driver was more interesting because he didn’t match what she expected at all. He certainly had no wings, and if pigs could fly in this hex, it surely was by some means not obvious to her.
Were the Lebans wrong, or was there more here than she could see right now? She knew she should go back and stand a better guard as the first watch-Mavra and Lori couldn’t speak, but they could surely wake the others up in a hurry if need be, and their judgment was the important factor in a watch-but she wanted to see how that thing got across that bridge.
The answer was that it didn’t. Instead, several more pig creatures-hogs-emerged from a lemon-drop-shaped hut near the bridge and began operating an oddball system of pulleys and gears that revealed strong cables strung parallel to the bridge. When the cart reached them, Verionites climbed up and began stringing cable through slots along both sides while the driver unhitched his odd “team.” Another set of cables was then attached to another series of poles with gears and pulleys, and the “team” was hitched to a circular master gear on these and started going around and around slowly.
Julian watched in amazement as the entire cart body was lifted off its carriage and huge wheels and into the air, suspended by the cables. An operator at the far end and another at the assembly right at the rim of the canyon threw a series of giant wooden levers, changing the gearing, and the cart began actually to move along the cables down to the second set of gears and poles and then out over it, powered by the team on the far end.
It’s a cable car system! she realized. A very clever and elaborate cable car system using the sheer muscle power of those beasts. More interestingly, it was also a kind of basic container system; they didn’t move the carriage and wheels, only the container and its cargo.
Once the container was across, the team was unhitched from the system and led across by the driver, the bridge swaying a bit under the weight of the two behemoths but hardly stressed. On the other side the process was reversed with a new carriage. It was slow but efficient.
The other, parallel bridge did not have such an assembly and was probably built later for routine foot traffic, which would not have to be held up waiting for teams to pass. With those draft animals and the rather imposing girth of the Verionites, traffic was pretty well limited to one way at a time, anyway. The natives were clever, quite modern, and industrious; that much was sure. She had the opportunity to take a magnified view of a couple of them while they were setting up the cables, and while the faces were ugly and their figures matched the sort bipedal hogs might be expected to have, their arms and hands seemed quite muscular and flexible, and their feet, supporting that form and weight, more resembled those of a hippo or an elephant than a hog’s. Large, wide, and flat, almost like tree trunks, they provided pretty good balance and flexibility.
But if those suckers could fly, she wanted to see it!
She wondered if perhaps such clever folk might have hot air balloons or something like that which the Lebans would consider flying. That was a thought, although it wasn’t at all something she would have thought common in a hex like Verion. Like Erdom, Verion was against an impenetrable barrier, in this case the equator, and so wasn’t hex-shaped at all. Balloons might well be practical in a compact hex-shape, but unless they were pretty well staked down and used only for lookout purposes, they were unlikely to be practical for travel here. Still, after seeing those bridges, the cable car, and the container apparatus in action, she wouldn’t put anything past these people. In a sense, she admired them from what little she’d seen. Most of the nontech hexes seemed to have accepted their lot and mummified their culture and society. Erdom was a perfect example of this-static, with change considered a threat. The Verionites, though, had refused to accept their limits and become at least in part a culture of engineers. It was almost as if they’d said, “Okay, here are the limits, and here’s what we want to do. Now figure out how we do it!”
That made them dangerous as well. They couldn’t afford to treat this society as a standard, lazy nontech culture.
Remaining in the groves all day, Julian also noticed one other characteristic of the hex that seemed quite odd. Everything animal appeared to be bipedal for some reason; even the insects ran around on two legs, looking almost like miniature varieties of Mixtimese. Yet another very odd place, but not nearly as strange as Leba or even Mixtim.
That night they had to face the problem of the bridges.
There was no way around them; who knew how long this canyon was or how far it stretched? And even if it didn’t go on forever, what of the river at the bottom, which certainly seemed large and wild running? There was a sort of tollbooth, but both it and the cable crew and shack seemed to shut down shortly after dusk; they had watched the creatures lock up and leave. Lights indicated a town not too far on the other side, probably a farming center and way stop for bridge travelers, and everybody on this side seemed to cross the bridge and go off in that direction. Whatever justified the whole system was either to the east or to the west of them; they certainly did no traffic with Leba.
There was no way to be completely safe crossing the bridge, but nothing in the infrared showed that they had left any kind of guards around, although Julian had half expected to be barked and growled at by bipedal dogs or something. The big problem would be that they had no idea what was on the other side. The guards might be there, where the bulk of the people were, since a barrier on either side would do to block passage, or they might ring alarm bells over there by merely shaking the bridge up and down as they walked. Although Julian had heard nothing specific, an alarm system might be hooked up when they closed, or it might be something she wouldn’t recognize as an alarm but they would. What they found was a solid wooden gate, a sign, and a large bell. The sign was in Verionese. not commercial, so it was impossible to read it, but they could all guess what it said: ‘To use bridge, ring bell for attendant.” There was an opening on either side of the gate, but it was much too small for either Lori or Julian. Mavra went to it, looked in and up, and saw that the gate was secured from the other side with a large wooden bar. This was one time when her lack of arms might be an asset, although not for actually moving the thing. She was, however, able to wiggle through the opening at ground level with minimal loss of feathers and get on the other side. That left the bar, which was a bit above her eye level. It looked to be a simple enough system, but how to move that bar when she didn’t have any arms?
Ultimately, she pressed her back against the gate, got her head under the bar, and tried to straighten up as much as possible. The bar moved, but not enough to come out of its latch.
After several frustrating attempts, after which she realized that she needed to be about her old height, small as that was, to get it high enough, she decided to step out and look at the thing.
It was just a board, nothing spectacular but effective enough. She finally decided that the only chance was to lift the thing as high as she could and then, when the weight of it, which was not inconsiderable, was on her head, to move sideways and hope she could slide it enough so that it would fall outside the latch on one side.
Several attempts failed, but finally she managed it, her head hurting like hell, and the end of the board fell to the floor of the bridge with a clunk! The other end remained precariously balanced on the other latch.
Dizzy and with a whale of a headache, she nonetheless stepped back and gave off a single low squawk. Julian heard it and slowly and carefully pushed against the gate. The board jammed a couple of times, but Mavra was able to help free it, and finally they had it open enough for Lori, then Julian to squeeze through. The trouble was, if word had reached here about them and the Verionites were on the lookout for signs of strangers, the open gate would be a signal. Julian pushed the gate closed and strained to lift the board back up into place, but she just didn’t have the strength. Lori, seeing the problem, didn’t stop to wonder why she was doing it but came over and put his head and neck under Julian’s arms and lifted slowly, giving her the added strength she needed. It wasn’t neat, but the gate was again locked and bolted.
Julian helped Mavra onto Lori’s back but didn’t bother to tie her. At the speed at which any of them could cross the swinging span, it was unnecessary and would take time they couldn’t spare.
The roar of rapids came from far below, masking out much of the sound once they were out over the chasm, and the bridge rippled and swung back and forth as they crossed. But it was a sturdy and well-built structure that had seen much traffic. At least the idea of alarms rigged to the bridge seemed remote; there was a distinct night breeze that caused it to sway slightly entirely on its own, making it more difficult to keep one’s own balance on it but possibly explaining why the crossing was usually restricted to daylight.
There was a small house at the other end with a light inside, apparently the toll keeper’s house. Before they even reached it, the pungent smells of Verion’s masters hit them, and it wasn’t much more pleasant than the odors of Mixtim, although it was more varied-the scent of massive sweat, garbage, and pungent spices all rolled into one unappetizing and somewhat sickening perfume. Just before they reached the other side, somebody came out of the house and started fooling with something unseen on the side of the building. They froze, and for a brief nightmare moment they had the swaying, the winds, and the odors all at once.
Then whoever it was went back inside, and they finished the walk slowly and quietly, trying to keep hoof sounds to a minimum. They were relieved to see only a small wooden crossbar on a pivot where the bridge again reached land. As quietly as possible, Julian raised it enough for Lori to get through, then ducked under it herself.
The wind really started up on the other side; while unpleasant, it had the effect of masking their own sounds as they moved between bridge and town, across the road, and around the main settlement.
Well over a hundred more miles of this, Julian thought nervously. Too long in such a civilized country. They had gotten lucky this time, but there was no way of knowing what other obstacles this land had in store for them before they reached the final and largest obstacle of them all.
Beyond the town the bizarre mixture of twisted landforms-spires, pinnacles, tiny table rocks-grew even more dense, and the Verionites had planted virtually every available space in between. Here and there were virtual herds of the huge, lumbering bipedal draft animals just wandering about or lying around sound asleep and snoring loudly. The wind rippled the grains and grasses as if they were a gigantic sea and made its own series of groans and moans as it twisted in and out and all around the natural statuary.
As morning approached and false dawn was illuminating the western sky, Julian searched for a good camp. She was beginning to wonder if perhaps she had misunderstood the “up” warning of the Lebans or if there were Verionite sentinels, like shepherds, atop some of the broader rock forms as watchmen. It was still hard to see, though, how they’d get up or down without wings. They would have to camp at the base of one of them, though-a particularly large tower of twisted black rock that had shallow cavelike indentations at the base that would provide at least some cover. There was no choice; it would have to do.
Julian, as usual, took the first watch. Mavra’s own sense of time from watching the shadows seldom failed her here; her second watch was as reliable as Julian’s. Only Lori seemed to have little sense of time, so he took the last watch, since it was fairly difficult to miss the sun going down if the others weren’t already awake by then.
For Mavra, so long out of the chase, every step took her closer to her goal. Somehow, some way, she would get inside. Nothing and no one was going to stop her this time. Lori, on the other hand, was going through the motions with little hope; everything that could go wrong up to now had, and he fully expected, after such an epic walk, to wind up caught and back in the hands of the enemy when they reached wherever it was they were going.