Chapter 4: It all Comes Tumbling Down!
Copyright© 2010 by Frank the First Born
"He's going to have quite a headache when he comes round." Sterk commented to no one in particular.
Rontis looked up from pitching a tent and replied, "Well we can stay here for up to thirty hours: it's a good camp, it's well hidden and it's stable."
"We could stay longer, but..." Sterk started to reply.
"Don't even go there. We can't risk Dorly losing the glean—you know our orders are to ensure Dorly and the boy at all costs. We can't afford to risk her losing the glean and that's final. Oh and don't worry, Melic and I will take turns carrying the boy if that's what's bothering you."
Sterk grunted but did not say anything further.
Rontis was not at all happy with the present turn of events. Snatching Toby in this way had always been a last choice scenario, and somehow that's where they were now. He had no trouble with the backup team; rough diamonds for sure, but they were the best. He looked round the temporary camp taking unconscious stock, as it were. Sterk and his team were good, they worked seamlessly together without any need for constant direction or orders; things just happened; jobs got done.
Sterk was weather-beaten and of indeterminate age and rather ordinary looking, but still not the sort of man you would want to mess with either. He had been a Traveller for many years and was widely considered to be one of the best, maybe the best, of those still around and working. He had lived nearly all of his adult life Travelling and in many ways was more Other than People; not an easy man to deal with; a man best left to get on with things his way. It was clear that he resented Rontis, who in his eyes came from a different world: rich and successful; a man who did not need to Travel. Yet he had recognised in Rontis ability and commitment and there was grudging respect growing between the two of them, though they would probably never be precisely friends. The rest of Sterk's team was made up of his brother Rom, their Cousin Nandy and her husband Talig.
Nandy was a cheerful soul and pretty in a motherly sort of way. She was the kind that didn't make waves and just got on with things. She already had a camp fire going and was starting to prepare a rabbit stew. This was the way of Travelling; the more that was carried the harder it was, so for covert missions, such as this, it was usual to travel light and to live off the land as much as possible. Talig and Sterk had between them brought down three rabbits with quick opportunistic throws of their knives and now Nandy was preparing the three plump kills for the pot and chatting to Dorly who was cutting vegetables.
Melic and Talig had been scouting the perimeter and were now keeping watch and could not be easily seen from the camp.
Sterk despite his apparent grumpiness was not as hard hearted as he made out. Now that the camp was pitched, the basic tasks apportioned and the area secure, he spent a moment checking Toby. He loosened the cuffs holding his hands together in front and straightened Toby's legs making sure the chain from his left ankle to the tree was not snagged or pulling. He checked his breathing and pulse and then pulled back Toby's eye lids and checked his pupils. Seemingly happy he looked at the dressing on his left temple.
"You there girl, Princess M'lint, this dressing needs changing—do it. He needs fluid, I'm going to set up a saline IV to keep him hydrated." It wasn't that Sterk did not like Dorly, it was just that he saw her as a passenger and a privileged one at that. Sterk didn't like privilege, his life had taught him to trust himself and his immediate colleagues and not authority which he thought of as being cut off and removed from reality. He did not like the idea of a young trainee out on such a dangerous mission and was allowing his annoyance to cause him to be a little unpleasant where Dorly was concerned.
"I'm not a princess, I'm..."
"Sorry I don't have time to learn whatever fancy title fits you then."
"Then just use Dorly!" She replied angrily.
"Look y' majesty I haven't time for this. The dressing, now!"
Dorly didn't care much for Sterk, in her turn, but was bright enough to know that the cards were stacked in his favour, so it was easiest to ignore his rudeness and get on with the journey. She was worried about Toby, though: the whole thing had happened so quickly.
It had just been an ordinary day. She had agreed to walk home with Toby at lunch and then had played hookey with a couple of her friends, going shopping instead of to citizenship class. Then boring boring school and walking home with Toby. He was growing on her; sure he was a bit nerdy and slightly uncool, but he was kind of cute and in spite of herself she was beginning to like him.
Halfway across the park Melic had stepped out from behind a tree and shot Toby with a stun pistil. Toby had fallen awkwardly and hit his head. Dorly managed to suppress her scream and had knelt down to check Toby. Suddenly the extract team and her father were there. Sterk was pushing her away and applying a field dressing to Toby's temple.
Rom handed her her backpack which had been packed and contained her sheathed katana with the hilt sticking from the top of the pack where she could draw it quickly, if necessary. As she was not yet an adult she was not allowed to carry a pistil or indeed any weapon save for a hand knife. The sword was the exception, since as a mistress of the sword she could not be denied the right to carry her sword. Then Rom a huge giant of a man had picked Toby up and carried him across his shoulders.
They were off; they started 'the Travel' from the park. They had all stood still and felt for Penglepentia forming the precise glean for this Travel. When they had all signalled that they held it, Sterk led them off. As they followed Sterk's route and the other possibles began to fade they felt the path that he had chosen, though there were still many multi-way choices ahead, but these would resolve as they Travelled or as they followed Sterk in a selection.
Within ten paces it was a different park within a hundred it was a trail across park-like countryside. The route they were following was wild, but free of inhabitants. Sterk was leading them fast; they were going through unstable routes some of the paths would not take but a minutes delay to lose the glean. They pressed on steadily keeping close. Then they came out on a grassy hillock bathed in gentle pinkish sunlight. The blue daffodil like flowers were pretty and the air was warm and scented.
"Right take a breather; this place is good for an hour, but we will be moving in half that." Sterk announced.
Rom put Toby down with a sigh of relief and Nandy moved in to check him over.
"Well we're safe now, if we don't see any followers before we move. Anyone following could not have shared the glean so must have had to follow our path. This hill is too open for them to be able to follow without their being seen, so given that they will need to follow, if they don't want to be stranded, they will have to make a move before we travel on or be lost."
There had been no followers, so either there had been none or they had gotten away clean at the start. Now they were travelling sensibly; staying with stable routes, nothing more ephemeral than a couple of hours. Still, Rom was carrying Toby; he had to be feeling that, Dorly thought to herself. They had kept going for another half-hour and had found this sheltered camp and at a stable point. Rom had put Toby down, unrolled his sleeping roll and had just lain down. No one objected, he had earned his rest.
Dorly took the old dressing off; it didn't look too bad. There was a nasty bruise and the skin had been grazed, but there probably wasn't enough to cause a concussion; all that was keeping him out of it was the after effects of the stun. She totted the time up in her head and decided that he was due to start waking anytime now. She applied a clean dressing and was just standing up when Toby's eyes began to flutter.
He groaned and opened his eyes squinting at the light. "W-w-w-what happened?" he mumbled from dry lips.
"Take it easy Toby, you've taken a nasty knock to the head." Dorly replied.
"Dorly you're there? What's going on?" It was about then that Toby realised that his hands were tied. He started to struggle. Dorly tried to quiet him and hold his still, for his own good.
Sterk saw what was happening and quickly helped Dorly to keep Toby from dislodging the saline drip. "Take it easy fellow, you don't want to knock the drip out." Sterk offered.
"Don't I?" Toby replied wincing at the pain the effort caused and then went on, "What have you done to me? Why am I tied up?" And then as if realising that Dorly was there: "Dorly are you OK, they haven't hurt you have they?"
"Hey Princess, spend some time with him, talk, see if you can't get him ready to travel." Sterk stated unhelpfully moving off.
Toby's head was beginning to clear a little and his vision was settling down. "Dorly tell me you're a prisoner too and that you are not part of this."
Dorly was feeling very guilty, she couldn't meet his eyes. "I can't Toby," then she went on, "We aren't going to hurt you or anything we aren't evil, we just need your help with something. Take it easy, let the drip do its work and I'll try and answer your questions."
Toby didn't find himself all that reassured. He was scared; "Questions? I've got more than questions—I'm knocked out and kidnapped by the beautiful girl next door and her strange family and you expect me to take it as just one of those things; what planet are you from?"
Dorly was flattered she stopped a second, 'beautiful' that sounded good. Her expression softened a little she preened herself unconsciously and flicked her hair. But Toby did not even seem to see her. He of course had not even registered he had called her beautiful, such a thing could only have happened in a moment of anger, when other emotions and thoughts allowed such an unguarded statement.
"Really I am sorry. We don't want to hurt you." Dorly protested.
"How about undoing these cuffs then?"
"Okay in a minute, then—I haven't got the key, but I'll get it."
"Right!" Toby replied sarcastically.
"Right!" Dorly replied with conviction, getting up and going over and taking the key from where Sterk had put it down. "Hold still, then or I can't do this," she finished as she unlocked the cuffs.
"Aren't you forgetting the chain about my ankle?"
"No—not really. I don't want you running off and hurting yourself, at least until you have had a chance to find out a bit more about what's going on."
"Thoughtful!" Toby replied and continuing with, "So what are you then, Terrorists? Aliens? Alien terrorists or something even more horrible?"
"No," Dorly answered quickly and indignantly. "You're more of a guest than a prisoner."
"Guests get to go home when they want to."
"I'm sorry, but home isn't possible for you without our help. Take it easy, cooperate and I promise we will take you home later."
"God this is mad; you lot are acting like a bunch of extras in a war movie and here we are camping out. Don't you think someone is going to notice I am missing and come looking for me?"
"Probably, but they aren't going to find you," Dorly answered enigmatically.
"Look I don't even know what questions to ask, so why don't you tell me what you're going to tell me."
Dorly breathed a sigh and started. "Okay. Well I guess I should start with a simple statement: we are not from the world as you know it."
"Oh so you are aliens are you? Come on I thought you might manage something more original than that," Toby interrupted somewhat inconsistently.
"Not exactly aliens, no, but we aren't exactly people like you either. We call ourselves 'The People' and I guess we are very similar to you, but I wasn't born in the place you call Earth. My home is a city called Penglepentia and during the day three suns shine down."
"So what are we doing out here? Waiting for your spaceship?" Toby interposed slightly less aggressively, in spite of himself, he was beginning to suspect that Dorly believed what she was telling him was true.
"No, there's no spaceship and we are going to get where we are going by Travelling."
Toby could hear the capital 'T' in the way she said 'Travelling'. "And what precisely do you mean by that?"
"Look I told you we were different; we can move across realities—no hang on let me explain this a bit differently. Earth is somewhere in a universe, well what if there were other universes, some with Earths so similar that you couldn't tell the difference, others perhaps with no Earth at all, but with other places."
"OK that's not exactly new, I watch documentaries and I read science fiction: you're talking about a multiverse."
"Yes." Dorly nodded and continued. "Well basically there are countless universes and they are all slightly different from each other. In fact if you knew how, it is possible you could find a universe that matched any of your imaginings." Dorly paused, but this time Toby said nothing. "We originally came from a universe very similar to yours. We as a people are so similar to you, as to be effectively the same, save for certain things that we did to ourselves so long ago that it has been lost in history: we can Travel between universes."
"So you are saying, you can find anything your heart desires and travel there, so what the beep beep, do you want with me?"
"I didn't say we could find our heart's desire or that we could go anywhere, I said that we could Travel between universes. We have to know where we are starting from and where we are finishing and a journey once started must be finished or we would be lost.
"Think of a wide river; wide enough that you could see the other side, but only just and this river has lots of currents and obstructions and is almost completely filled with floating logs. Now let's imagine that you can see a landmark on the far bank that you want to get to; you could if you were careful get there by jumping from log to log. But, of course, if you got on a fast moving log and took your eyes off the point you were aiming for, the current could drag you away and you would be lost, but some other logs would be flowing slower or might be temporarily stopped on a sand bar, on such a log you could take a breather, before it started to move again or had moved too far. As you can see there would be many possible routes across and that it would be safer to pick routes that were slower and more stable. Well that's sort of how we Travel, we glean where we are going and we hop from universe to universe to get there. Some intermediary points are stable, like they are stuck on that sandbar and we can stay there for a while and rest, but we have to keep track of the end point, for if we ever lose it we are lost, we wouldn't know were we are, so we could never get back to anywhere we knew."
"Wow that's pretty complicated, you couldn't have just thought that up on the spur of the moment. So how about some proof then, when do we start this universe hopping?"
"We already have, we are at a stable point and resting, before we move on. Sorry this place is very like your own world to look at, we have already travelled through some stranger places, but you were out of it."
"Well show me then, take me somewhere and bring me back." Toby suggested.
"I can't do that; it would not be safe. Think of the river: if you jump from one log to another, suddenly there are thousands of logs how can you remember which log was the one you just jumped from and if you did then you would almost certainly have done so by losing site of the end point and be lost: either way you would be lost. Sometimes it is possible if you are very quick, but it is forbidden. Soon we will eat, then we will sleep and then after we have eaten again we will travel, then you will see, until then be patient."
Toby could see that she was adamant on this point, so he changed tack. "So who are you really and what do you want with me?"
"I am Dorly, it's my real name: Dorly M'Lint woman of the house. As to why we need you, let us just say we need your help and you won't be hurt."
"OK I can see that's all I'm going to get, so another question: 'woman of the house', what does that mean?" Toby asked.
It means that my I am of the house T'Lint and that I am a woman, but not yet an adult, then I would be 'woman in the house'. The naming is somewhat archaic and harks back to a time when woman were considered the property of a house. Such is not the case now; each sex is free to be what they want, we are equal in the law, but unlike on your world, we do not strive to be the same, we accept that the sexes are different and we rejoice in those differences and we acknowledge the areas where one sex or the other is dominant: we have freedom, so do not need some guise of equality to be given us in its place."