The day arrived when I was to leave New Dulwich and head for
orc country. A civil servant from the Ministry of Natural Resources
(chosen, apparently, because he could read a map) would be my chaperon
for part of the way, but thereafter I would be on my own. He assured me
that this would not be a problem (not for him, anyway, ho ho), and he
introduced himself as Peter Janus.
The reason I wouldn't be enjoying the company of Peter Janus all the way to the HA tribal lands was because on the first leg of the journey we were to be joined by the woman from Oxford who was to study orcs some way East of me, and Peter had decided that he would perhaps enjoy her company for the second half of the trip more than he would mine.
He was soon put straight on that matter. "So," said Oxford Woman, "your surname is Janus?"
"Yes," he replied, proudly. "One of my ancestors was the first person ashore when the colonists arrived in 1623. We chose to call ourselves `Janus' in the great renaming, after the ancient god which the first month of the year, January, honours."
"How interesting," she smiled. "And do any of you have a first name of Hugh?"
Peter grinned at her remark, although by the way he was clenching his teeth it was clear that this was one Virginian who did retain a full complement of British Sense Of Humour detectors in his brain.
We were to take a scheduled flight from New Dulwich northwards to the human city of Saint Thomas. There, I would catch a second flight to the human/orc city of Scrab, and a train to the orc city of MEKTO, administrative centre of the region which includes the HA tribal lands. In MEKTO, I was to make my way to the Governor's Office, where local arrangements had been made.
Yes, of course they had...
Well, the journey to the airport was amazingly smooth, Peter Janus demonstrating that the single control pedal on his vehicle was not the simple on/off switch that my earlier experience with Lucy Zweck's driving might have implied. The flight to Saint Thomas was less comfortable, as all Virginian aircraft are biplanes which vibrate terribly at even modest speeds.
Oxford Woman was not impressed. "Can't someone do something about this juddering, Hugh?" she asked, with irritation. "I mean, how many people are there having sex on the wings?"
I could tell that `Hugh' did have an idea which would make the journey a lot more pleasant, at least for him, but that the Virginian laws on homicide were making him think twice about carrying it through.
As the plane touched down in Saint Thomas, I was reminded yet again that I was not on Earth, but an altogether different planet. Even on transatlantic flights, the usual reaction of most Westerners upon landing is to ignore the safety instructions from the captain, immediately standing up and attempting to remove hand luggage from the overhead compartments while preventing anyone else from doing the same. In Middle Eastern countries, the custom is to applaud politely, or even cheer, the moment that all the wheels come in contact with the ground. Virginians, however, treat their pilots with the same reverence that we reserve for Karaoke singers: they roundly jeered the slightest bump, degenerating into mocking laughter the longer it took the aircrew to bring the plane down to taxiing speed. Only Peter Janus didn't join in with the others in this particular case, sensitive to the fact that Oxford Woman and I were mortified with embarrassment.
"Hugh," said my colleague, regaining her composure. "Given that our fellow passengers have just booed a moderately successful landing, could you perhaps tell me what they might do in the event of a crash?"
"Die a swift yet agonising death, I should imagine," he replied, as if fondly anticipating Oxford Woman's inevitable destiny.
"Well, so long as I know the form," she sighed. "I'd hate to make a fool of myself."
I bade my farewells, boarded my connecting flight to Scrab, and realised that for the first time on Virginia I was alone. OK, I'd made a few small sorties from The Hadean, but I'd always known I was only a matter of minutes away from civilisation. Here, in a shuddering biplane made of canvas and string with nuclear engines emitting fifteen-metre flames, my alienness finally began to feel real. The on-board newspapers were written in a strange typeface, the stewardess spoke a language that was barely recognisable as English, and everyone wore costumes straight out of a movie about the English Civil War. The in-flight meal was some unidentifiable meat that the human chap sitting in the adjacent seat to me determined was probably mammalian, but hey, it had been cooked and it was warm, which was really something given that it was orc cuisine.
Orc cuisine? My prejudices told me that this was a contradiction in terms, but the more liberal part of my brain said, "No no no, keep an open mind, these are people, not animals. Try some, see what it tastes like."
I tried some, and immediately determined that my prejudices were correct. I was going to have to eat dead bat1 for the next six months, if I survived that long. I felt a sudden, powerful feeling of regret: Chad Hacket was much smaller than me - if only I'd beaten him up and stolen his chocolate digestive biscuits before leaving the hotel.
Upon landing at Scrab, I saw my first, real orcs. They were standing around looking vacant, eating something that was probably only recently deceased, completely ignoring the stacks of baggage piled high all around them. I took this as an indication that they were baggage handlers, and was shortly proven correct. I disembarked, and watched as three of them slowly sauntered over to the plane and casually opened its hold spilling out MY SUITCASE onto the mud. They thereupon dragged it over to their quiet corner of the runway, and sat on it.
I was overcome with indignation. I stormed up to the woman who looked to be in charge and said, "Er, sorry to bother you, but I seem to be having some problems with my baggage."
She looked up, sympathetically. "Don't worry, Sir," she cooed, "I'll have three people on your case right away."
After an hour or so of patient screaming at the top of my voice, I retrieved my precious suitcase, forcing the poor orcs to have to stand again until a suitably sturdy replacement arrived on some other flight. By this time, however, I was in serious danger of being late for my train. A taxi took me to Scrab's main railway station, and the driver rewarded my impassioned pleas to hurry by taking the most circuitous route he could endeavour to create at such a late hour. By the time we finally arrived, it was nearly midnight, and my train was long gone.
I approached a station porter. It must have been my anthropological genes which did it, but of the two people in uniform hanging around, I chose the orc.
"Excuse me," I said, rather breathlessly. "Can you tell me the time of the last train to MEKTO?"
It was a source of great pleasure to me that this, the very first orc I had ever spoken to, understood my rendering of the city's name.
"MEKTO, hmm," he replied, thoughtfully. "The last train to MEKTO is at 20 minutes to midnight."
"So I've missed it?"
"Yes, you've missed it."
I was rather disappointed at this, and looked around the empty station concourse, hoping to see some sign directing me to a hotel. Instead, my eyes were drawn to a large, primitive electronic noticeboard, and in particular to the single illuminated column which read, "00:30, slow train to MEKTO, stopping at Traw, Slep FAK, Gabrik," about ten other names, "JAKkar and MEKTO".
I pointed at the sign. "Hey, wait a moment," I said, authoritatively. "If the last train to MEKTO went half an hour ago, what's that?"
"That, Sir," replied the porter, "is the first train to MEKTO."
My existing train ticket being a day out of date, I hurriedly bought a new one. It transpired that the slow train had two coaches reserved as sleeping compartments for people travelling all the way to MEKTO, and that there were still cabins or berths or whatever they're called available. I was somewhat dubious as to whether I would be able to nod off if the trains were as shaky as the planes, but it only cost a sovereign, and I did have another 19,999 or so where that came from, so I chanced it.
It was a revelation.
At half past midnight, the train rose up a few centimetres, and began a gentle acceleration. It was completely smooth - there was no sound apart from a low hum and the rush of the air outside. I had been ready to stop my ears against the clatter of wheel against rail, but it was blissfully quiet. I rolled over and slept peacefully until the train arrived in MEKTO around eight hours later.
Upon getting off, refreshed but ravenous, I took a look at the carriages to see how this amazing feat had been achieved. I had expected maybe rubber wheels or pneumatic tyres, but was somewhat perplexed to learn that the train had no wheels at all. There were no overhead power cables, and it wasn't until I reached the buffers and could see the rail itself that the train's locomotive mechanism dawned on me: magnetic levitation. Basically, the railway was implemented as a massive linear accelerator. The power consumption must have been phenomenal, but then the Virginians aren't particularly concerned about such things, of course. What impressed me most, though, was that this wasn't an especially high-class line; in Earth terms, it would be perhaps equivalent to a trip between, say, La Paz and Santa Cruz in Bolivia - not exactly at the cutting edge of railway modernisation programmes.
In fact, in Virginian terms it was an example of ancient rolling stock using a run-down line: the fast trains heading West out of New Dulwich can break the sound barrier, and are much preferred to air travel for journeys not involving a change of continent. The reason my train was designated "slow" was because, being a night train, it was prohibited by law from breaking the sound barrier; this was a ruse perpetrated by the railway company to imply that its day trains were capable of breaking it, whereas in fact they weren't.
I wondered absently whether any of the older anthropologists on the trip were fitted with pace-makers for heart murmurs. Still, being young and fit, no giant magnetic field was going to have much of an effect on me! Ha ha ha!
I looked at my digital watch: 76 minutes past A. Time for breakfast!
After a light meal of something black and crunchy, I found a hotel, spruced myself up a little, and set off for the Governor's Office. The morning was warm and sunny, with a refreshing breeze blowing in from the West. The taxi driver was pleasant and courteous, and took a direct route from hotel to administrative centre, at least as far as I could tell. The building was clean and spacious, and everything seemed to be going swimmingly well as I put on my best smile, approached the receptionist, and stated my business.
The receptionist looked briefly at a piece of card in a drawer to her right, then said, "Go away".
I was rather taken aback. This being my first female orc2, I was unsure whether or not I'd unknowingly made some awful social gaffe, but I decided that politeness was probably the best remedy, whatever, so just grinned stupidly and nodded.
She stared boredly into space, as if unaware of my existence.
"I was told by the Ministry of Natural Resources to report here," I restated.
The receptionist looked once more in her drawer, then once more said, "Go away".
"But you haven't even asked my name," I complained, a little more firmly. "How do you know it isn't on your card?"
Sighing, the receptionist removed the card from the desk and held it up. It read: `Go away'.
"I don't suppose you have another one in there that says, `Come right in, Dr Bartle, we were expecting you'?" I ventured, hopefully.
The receptionist fumbled around in her drawer for a moment, but shook her head. "I'm only a temporary receptionist," she volunteered. "I don't have keys for any of the other drawers."
"And when does the permanent receptionist return?"
"We don't have a permanent receptionist."
"So let me see if I've got the gist of this. Your job is to sit there all day telling people to go away?"
"Yes, that's right. Except..."
A glimmer of hope!
"Except when it's my lunch break. Then, the office is closed completely."
It occurred to me that I might meet with some success were I to emulate Chad Hacket and completely devour her precious `Go away' card; however, card is a lot tougher than paper, and I suspected that my teeth weren't up to it. I tried a different tack.
"Suppose," I said, "that, while you were out at lunch, I were secretly to remove your card that says `Go away'. If I then returned later and asked to see an official, what would you do?"
"I'd open my drawer..."
"...and the card wouldn't be there."
"So..." She furrowed her brow, obviously deep in thought. "So I'd have to find someone higher up who could deal with you instead."
"Well, how about if I save you the inconvenience of waiting for a replacement card to be requisitioned by not stealing it during your lunch hour? What if we just pretend that someone, we don't know who, stole it yesterday? Then you could send me to see an official, and we'd both be happy. How does that sound?"
She seemed to sense that I was trying to pull a fast one, and scowled, darkly.
"It's OK," I reassured her, "your card will be safe, I won't touch it at all: we'll simply act as though it's not there, though it will be really - it'll just save us from all that messing about later. Do you get the idea?"
Still frowning, she nodded.
"Good! Well, in that case, my name is Dr Bartle, and I've been sent by the Ministry of Natural Resources. I believe I am expected."
She looked in her drawer. "Go - "
" - A-a-a!"
She paused. "Why," she murmured, "someone who I do not know has secretly removed my card yesterday that says `Go away'. I shall have to send you to an official." She looked up, awaiting my approval.
"My dear," I said, "that was perfect! You are without doubt the most tactful receptionist I have ever met. Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
Despite her being an orc, I could tell that she was blushing deeply. She pressed a button on her desk, and spoke into a small microphone. "Mr CHEK, I have a visitor for you." Returning to me, she pointed to a staircase, and, in a conspiratorial voice, said, "First floor, first door on the right."
"Thanks again," I enthused, "I don't know what I'd have done without you, you've been absolutely marvellous." With that, I made my way towards the steps.
"Oh, Dr Bartle," she called after me, as if she'd suddenly remembered something.
"Yes?" I replied, turning slowly in a stoical kind of way.
"Could you give me back my card with `Go away' written on it, before you leave, please?"
Mr CHEK got rid of me as soon as possible to Mrs Woba. She in turn passed me on to Mr LuFAZket, who thought awhile before sending me to see Mr SLINpoq. I was half-expecting to be returned to Mr CHEK in the end, but gradually realised that I was a problem which was being pushed upwards, rather than sideways, through the hierarchy.
Eventually, I was despatched to an orc who was not referred to by name, but rather by his title: Deputy Governor. Here, surely, was someone with power.
Well, he did have power. He had power to order me to go away, and he didn't need to read it off a card, either.
Crestfallen that I was staring defeat in the eyes when only moments before I was anticipating victory, I dropped my shoulders and pulled my best, puppy-dog expression. "Is there nothing I can do?" I asked, mournfully.
"Well, you could come back tomorrow," he suggested. "The governor will be in tomorrow, and I may be able to mention your situation at our daily action meeting."
This cheered me up slightly, but there was still the matter of the receptionist; I doubted I would be able to pull the same stunt with her two days running; two weeks running, perhaps, but not two days. "How do I get by the person on the front desk?" I asked, hoping that there would perhaps be a special badge or pass I could show.
The deputy governor shrugged. "Ignore her?" He seemed to notice by the way my mouth was hanging open that I was a little surprised. "Well what's she going to do? She doesn't have a card to call for Security, she only has `Go away'."
I had been wondering how the entire bureaucracy ever got anything done, and felt strangely satisfied to know that at it had at least evolved a mechanism to ensure that it didn't remain entirely self-contained.
Next day, I arrived at the building early and smiled cheerily at the receptionist. She frowned, looked in her drawer, and, rather forcefully, said, "Go away!". I waved, walked right past her, climbed three flights of stairs and knocked on the door of the secretary to the deputy governor.
There was no reply.
I knocked again, a little harder, but there was still no reaction from within. I tried some more, but nonetheless met with no success. I was on the point of pounding with both fists when a voice behind me said, "Perhaps I can help?"
I turned, to find that I was in the presence of the only other human being in the entire building.
"You must be the governor," I said, making little attempt to conceal my relief.
"Told you to come back the next day, did he?" The governor was in his late 50s, with a great mop of whitening hair of the sort that if someone didn't have it, people with obvious wigs wouldn't think they could get away with wearing them in public. He sported a pair of round, wire-framed glasses which had a diameter slightly larger than they normally would have had on Earth.
"Yes, he did," I replied. "Some kind of stratagem?"
"Of course! Everything orcs do is some kind of stratagem! Anything to avoid their having to undertake any function which could conceivably be described as `work'. Come to my office, it's just down the hall, I'll get someone to fix you a cup of tea."
I followed as he sauntered past three or four rooms.
"You know," he said, opening his door, "maybe I'd better make you the cup of tea myself, it's always rather hit-and-miss here. Sometimes GAEva - she's my secretary - well, sometimes she misses things out. No sugar, no milk..."
"Yes," he sighed, "those days are the worst. Sit yourself down, anyway, and tell me what you're doing here. I'll fill the kettle and we'll have a brew."
His kettle looked like an Earth one, but had no apparent electricity supply. This seemed to be because it concealed an internal heat source, which was activated using a button on the handle. It all seemed very well designed, and just the kind of thing I'd have liked to have taken back with me to Cambridge, given the chance.
"Question too hard, was it?" he asked.
I realised I hadn't answered him. "Sorry", I said, "it's just we don't have nuclear-powered kettles where I come from."
"And where is that, precisely?" He leant back in his chair, and put his hands behind his head.
"Earth," I replied.
"Earth? Earth?" He sat up straight. "You mean Earth, the planet where human beings came to Virginia from?"
"Ah. You haven't been informed, have you..?"
He sighed again, leant forward, and pressed a button on his desk. He pressed it again, looked beneath his desk, then crouched on the ground and did some messing around with something out of sight. "That GAEva," he hissed, "she does this just so I can't used the - " he tugged at a wire, " - the intercom. There, that's better, we'll see if it works now."
He returned to his chair, pressed the button again, and said, "GAEva, could you bring in the mail for the previous, ohh, sixth months, please?"
I heard GAEva's groan through the speaker before the governor released the button.
"Shouldn't be too long," he said. "Give her an hour or so. Ah, the kettle's boiling! So, tell me about Earth."
GAEva actually took only 45 minutes to appear. She was an older orc, with greying hair tied back in a nearly-neat bun, and it was clear that she was not at all pleased at having been made to dig out six months' worth of mail and carry it all the way from the adjacent office - all four letters of it.
Fortunately, by this time the governor had heard my story, and so was able to tell GAEva to go back to her office and fetch us some maps. He also told her precisely where in her office these were located, so that she would have less excuse to waste time searching for them. GAEva looked terribly hurt as she left, as if her cruel, whip-wielding master was beating her even more heavily than usual this morning.
"Four letters," said the governor. "There were seven last week, we must have lost some. This is out of approximately two thousand which were sent here. Heaven knows where they all go to; I suppose that someone, somewhere in this building has the one which informed us that you would be visiting, but whether it'll be read any time this year or not is another matter."
"You don't seem to have a very high opinion of orcs," I observed. "Some of the things you say about them, well, on Earth we'd get into serious trouble for suggesting about an entire race."
"No, no, quite the contrary, I'm most impressed," he answered. "They're very good at what they do. It's just that what they do do isn't what anyone else wants them to do."
"Is that a cultural thing? Or are they like it by nature?"
Being an anthropologist, that `by nature' bit rather stuck in my throat. Although physiological differences can obviously make a difference to a society (pygmies, after all, must do some things differently on account of their height), it is almost anathema to suggest that a whole people is intrinsically short on mental capacities such as concentration or reasoning power. Pick any individual at birth, the argument goes, put them in a tolerant culture, and they'll grow up just as bright and intelligent and fun to invite to dinner parties as everyone else in that culture. By suggesting that nature may play a part in orcs' societal behaviour, I was implying that perhaps their way of life may be backward because orcs themselves are.
I wasn't sure whether the governor's reply put my mind at rest or not. "Distinct tribes of orcs have distinct cultures", he said, "just like with elves, dwarfs, and I suppose the humans on your world." He was nodding. "However, given that, I can't say that I or anyone else is aware of a single orc culture which has anything approaching what might be described as a work ethic."
OK. "So you're saying I've come several million light years to spend six months studying a bunch of slobs?"3
"That's one way of putting it yes." He smiled, paternalistically. "Look, I've lived among the orcs here as their governor for four years, and during that time I've come to know a good many of them. They're alright. They're not the same as we humans, granted, but they're a decent people, and they only have a bad reputation among the other races because until we came to Virginia they used to go rampaging about the place, generally making a nuisance of themselves."
"Why did they do that?" I asked, hoping that the HA might still exhibit this kind of behaviour, albeit on a smaller scale.
"Oh, something to do with the way the other races kept abducting them to make into slaves, I expect. Talking of which..." He pressed the switch on his desk again, and bellowed, "GAEva! Get yourself in here with those maps or I'll stick a pin in one and send you in a cart to where the hole says!"
"That ought to get some reaction," I said, grinning.
"No," he shook his head, resignedly. "Yelling, to them, is just like speaking in a higher pitch is to us. I only do it to make myself feel better. Damned well works, though!"
Presently, GAEva arrived with the maps. By her expression, one would have thought that she was handing her own new-born baby over for adoption, but the governor took this in his stride, thanked her, and told her she could go (although by then she had already made the same decision herself).
"So," he said, "you want to visit the HA. Let's see, their lands are about here," he pointed, "north of the SHEPKATmiMEK, in the hills. That's quite remote. I'm not sure whether we can find you a guide here in MEKTO, these mountain orcs keep themselves to themselves, and there are few reasons for anyone here to pay a visit - the majority of orcs in the province are SnoKRA, or plains orcs, and they regard tribes like the HA as uncivilised boors."
Well of course they do, since all orcs are uncivilised boors...
"Can I take a copy of this map?" I asked, albeit warily, having witnessed a Virginian photocopier in action during my stay in New Dulwich and ruined a shirt in the process.
"Oh, just take it," replied the governor, dismissively. "It's not like it stands much chance of surviving more than another three months or so here, anyway, before GAEva contrives to lose it in her filing system."
"That's very kind of you, thanks. I'll just go there on my own, I guess - assuming there are no bandits or anything, seeing as how it's so remote."
"No, no, there are no bandits, none at all - we do have an army, you know. Er, just as a matter of interest, though, how do you propose to travel?"
"I thought I'd buy myself a new car."
"Ah. I feared as much. Unfortunately, this `road' here," he pointed at the main route through the HA mountains, "is actually better served by the description `dirt track'. Put a new car on there, and half a mile further along you have a new car with no doors, no windscreen, no headlamps, and, perhaps most importantly, no axles."
"I thought I'd buy myself a new motorbike."
"A motorbike? Well now that's a good idea. I was about to recommend a pack animal, but a motorbike..." He rubbed his chin. "You know, that's an excellent suggestion. Maybe I should see about fitting out my police patrols with some of those, it would mean they could cover a lot more ground, and they'd stop complaining that eight hours a day on the back of a donkey gave them all piles. A motorbike, yes..."
I began to suspect that perhaps the governor had lived among orcs for a tad too long...
I bought my motorbike.
I fell in love with it the instant I saw it. The salesman4 was leading me round the showroom, pointing at various sleek, high performance models which would undoubtedly have fallen to pieces the moment they left tarmac, when I spotted this beast of a machine in a corner.
"What's that?" I asked, in awe. It was about 3m long, with tyres 50cm wide, and a frame constructed of metal bars each thicker than my arm.
"That?" He seemed surprised. "That's a Mullinger Mark III Ox agricultural cycle. It's meant to pull ploughs. I thought you wanted a motorbike?"
He was right in one sense: it wasn't a motorbike - it was a motorbike! I sat in the saddle, reached for the handlebars, and knew I just had to have it.
"How powerful is the engine?" I asked.
"It's a Grundersadt 3000," he replied.
"A Grundersadt 3000, right." Oh well, at least he hadn't given me a figure in feet-squared pounds per cubic second... "So, what does that make its top speed?"
"You want to go fast on it?"
"No, not really, I just want to know how fast it can go."
He scratched the back of his head, thoughtfully, then seemed to find inspiration. "I have no idea," he said.
"None at all?"
"Grundersadt don't publish any figures," he protested. "All I know is that their trucks can reach 120 miles per hour with a full - "
"Hold on, hold on. You're saying that this bike has a truck engine in it?" Wow!
"Yes, Grundersadt make truck engines." He looked at me like I was from another planet (which, of course, I was).
I'd owned a motorbike in my youth, so did have some experience with them. The accelerator on the Ox seemed to be invoked by twisting on the right handgrip, and unlike the system on four-wheel vehicles it did have separate brakes. It had no clutch, however.
"How do I change gear?" I asked, innocently.
The orc sighed. "It doesn't have gears. If it had gears, it wouldn't need such a big, powerful engine, would it?"
I could see that this argument benefited from its own logic, but I wasn't about to complain anyway. I was overwhelmed by the thought that I could be storming across the Virginian countryside, the wind in my hair, an atomic motorbike beneath my thighs, and the freedom to go anywhere I chose. Maybe I should buy two of them, just in case I needed spares?
"I'll take it."
"You own a farm?"
"No, I don't. I just want a powerful bike, and this is a powerful bike. How much?"
"So I can't sell you a plough, then?"
"No, just sell me the bike... How much is it?"
I figured that $25,000 was quite expensive, but then again, I had enough money for 20 such bikes... "OK, it's a deal."
"What? I said it was a deal at 1,000."
"But you didn't barter. 1,260 sovereigns."
"Barter? For a motorbike?"
"1,387 sovereigns and 191 pennies."
"What is this? If we were bartering, we should be converging. That's how bartering works. You're supposed to tell me how your children will go without shoes if you drop the price a penny more, and I'm supposed to reply that there's a chap down the road who sells the same thing at half the price you're asking."
"They don't barter at the shop down the road."
"Well maybe I should go there, then?"
The orc laughed. "Go ahead! They don't sell motorbikes, either!"
"OK, OK, we'll barter. 800 sovereigns."
"But the price is the same as you quoted at the beginning!"
"Of course, that's how much it costs."
"So why did we have to barter for it?!"
He shook his head like I was a simpleton. "Because now it's a fair price."
It was lucky for him that I didn't yet have the bike's keys, because if I did have I would have driven it out of the showroom by way of his head.
"How would you like to pay?"
In New Dulwich, I had taken the precaution of depositing my money evenly in four banks, not having much faith that whatever individual financial institution I opted for would have a branch within a thousand miles of the HA. As a result, I had four chequebooks I could use, and foolishly told him to choose whichever was convenient.
He chose all four. I had to write out cheques, for 126, 392, 448 and 34 sovereigns. It was all I could do to stop him from breaking the sums down to the pennies level.
Next, accessories. I asked if there was any legal requirement to wear protective head-gear, but was told that the law left it up to individuals to decide if they wanted to get killed or not. I asked where I could buy protective head-gear, and was told that they sold it in this very shop. I asked to try on some protective head-gear, and was told that I couldn't because I didn't have a head the same shape as an orc's. If I wanted to buy a helmet for a human-shaped head, I would have to take my custom elsewhere, to the tune of about 250 miles.
I bought a pair of goggles, despite the bad fit, because I didn't relish the thought of swarms of granite-hard Virginian insects impacting on my eyes. I also purchased some boots, a leather jacket, a pair of leather gloves, and a pair of leather trousers. These I found unusually soft, yet very tough.
"These are great leathers," I said, approvingly.
"That's because they're auroch5," I was informed.
"Auroch? Er, right."
He groaned. "Where on Virginia are you from? You don't know what an auroch is, do you? Those great big ox things that live in the troll-lands? You must have heard of them, they're the ones that are nearly extinct."
"They're nearly extinct, and yet people are still happily turning them into leathers that are sold in ordinary shops thousands of miles away?"
"Well yes, of course, in fact the trolls are increasing production so they can make some money before the aurochs die out and it puts an end to their entire leather business."
There are times when it's just no use arguing, and this was one of them. I took the keys to my bike, and pushed it out of the showroom.
Having put my suitcase in a pannier built to hold bales of animal feed, I was at last able to hit the open road. A quick look at my maps had told me that the HA lands were about 500 to 600 miles further north, but there were some fairly sizeable towns on the way. Initially, the towns did indeed turn out to be fairly sizeable, but I found as I continued that the greater the distance I put between myself and MEKTO, the smaller these supposedly same-sized towns seemed to get. Eventually, towns represented by a symbol indicating "greater than 25,000 inhabitants" were lucky if they could manage 25 streets.
You know you're in for a bad time when even the cartographers are sarcastic.
Likewise, traffic which began as impressive, shiny cars and large, lumbering trucks gradually whittled down to antiquated wrecks with suicidal passengers dangling from the outside, which continually attempted to overtake horse-drawn carts despite their low probability of success. Whether this generally abject state of the vehicles was because of or a cause of the poor road surface, I didn't know, but then I didn't particularly care since my Mullinger Mark III Ox could drive a rut through any bump less than 20cm high without my evening feeling it...
Although I was very tempted to discover just how fast the bike I was astride could go, my ambition was tempered by the disappointing fact that agricultural machines on Virginia don't have speedometers. Thus, although I could work out my average speed between towns (assuming the map wasn't lying about its scale), I couldn't work out my maximum instantaneous velocity. On one especially straight piece of open road a little way outside MEKTO, I must have got up to about 200 miles per hour (and would have gone even faster if I'd brought an auxiliary oxygen supply with me), but overall I was slowed down by traffic conditions and averaged only 90 or so over that, my fastest, section.
There were the usual icon-style roadsigns that I had seen elsewhere in Virginia, but the orcs seemed to have developed a practice of affixing beneath each sign a second notice informing people how much the minimum fine would be if the instructions on the sign were transgressed. The numbers were amazing. They weren't expressed in whole sovereigns, and they seemed like they had been pulled completely out of the air: overtaking illegally, 4 sovereigns 211 pennies; parking on a busy road, 3 sovereigns 8 pennies; failure to stop at a stop sign, 4 sovereigns 91 pennies. Not 90 pennies or 92 pennies, but 91 pennies, like the exact number was precisely calculated. The orc population must contain some pretty serious actuaries...
At the end of the first day, I had made good progress, and reached the SHEPKATmiMEK tribal lands. In the hazy distance, I could see the hills which signalled the beginning of HA territory, and my heart swelled. Soon, I would meet my orcs, and be able to get down to some work at last. Not, however, yet: I knew no-one hereabouts, and in the event of an emergency it would be very handy if I had some nearby non-orc friends, nevertheless wise to the local customs, whom I could fall back on to save my having to drive 500 miles to MEKTO. To this end, I selected from my map a SHEPKATmiMEK town to use as my forward base. According to the key, MIkuMIku ought to be the best choice as it had a fort: a fort meant military personnel, and that meant humans. Of course, I knew that the map's idea of a fort would be a long way short of reality's, but there was bound to be something there.
Oh, there was one other reason I had to stop before venturing out to meet the HA: I needed to find myself an assistant...
1 My apologies if you are reading this while in the air.
2 The Virginians would call her an orcess.
3 Of course, some would say that my PhD thesis was a study of people not entirely dissimilar...
4 Strictly speaking, since he was an orc, in today's Earth English we should call him either a "salesperson" (super-generic, could apply to anyone) or a "salesorc" (super-specific, accounts for gender and sub-species). The Virginians use the English word "man" to mean "a male homo sapiens", though, rather than "a male homo sapiens sapiens", and a "salesman" is what he would have called himself.
5 As with all reported speech, I have translated what was actually said into Earth English where possible. He didn't call them aurochs, but I later found out from photographs that aurochs were what they were. They became extinct on Earth about 10,000 years ago.
21st January 1999: ltlwo3.htm