John T. Anderson
42 Foliage Lane
Eighthday, 10 Fourthmonth 45B1
I think the best place to live in Hapdorn Province is in the city of Hapdorn itself. Even though it is the largest city in the Duchy, it isn’t very large, it has a home-town feel, and there isn’t much in the line of rush-hour traffic or even a night life.
Hapdorn’s setting is almost as nice as its people. We’re on the southern side of the Harji river valley, which gives the whole city a northern exposure, and, since we’re in the southern hemisphere, that keeps the climate moderate in the winter. It doesn’t get anywhere near as cold as it does in Barlamon across the valley, where I used to have an apartment. My house on Foliage Lane faces north, so I have a spectacular mountain view from my backyard. If it weren’t for the houses across the street, I’d have a great view out the front, too. I would be able to see Barlamon on the other side of the valley.
That great scenery is why I got a phone call from Dekker on Fifthday. He told Harshan that he could barely resist those spectacular mountains; Harshan told him that I like to go hiking and that I was a member of the Wildlife Friends of Hapdorn Province. So Dekker asked me if I would be free this weekend to take him hiking. I told him that I’d be delighted.
So yesterday, very early in the morning, we went tromping along the Ranka trail. It runs nearly the whole length of the Ranka range. We just planned to hike halfway to Mahar and back. It was a sunny day with bright fluffy clouds, the air was cool and fresh, the forest was thick and verdant, the valley was breathtaking, and the mountains were majestic—it was the perfect day for a hike.
“We have mountains in Halakan, but nothing as grand as this!” Dekker exclaimed as he tromped along.
“Why is that?” I asked, out of breath, trying to keep up. I didn’t tell him that I hadn’t gone hiking in quite a while and that I was out of shape.
“The mountains in Halakan are older,” he explained, “So they are all worn down and rounded. They aren’t as rugged and tall as the Ranka range.”
“I see,” I said. The straps of my backpack were rubbing my shoulders sore. I must have put it on wrong. “I guess you get to see a lot of spectacular scenery on all those planets you visit.”
“No, actually not,” he said, as he bent over to watch a little lizard scurry up a tree. I was grateful for the brief rest stop. “The crew of a spaceliner has a lot to do on board when the ship is in dock, so we don’t get out much.”
“That’s kind of ironic,” I said, “You’ve traveled the entire Spiral Arm and haven’t seen anything!”
“That’s right!” Dekker started down the trail again, and I followed. “We don’t land on planets. They have their space stations on a moon or in orbit, and use a shuttle to transport the passengers between the planet and the space station. All I get to see are the insides of space stations, which are all pretty much the same, and when we are in flight, I only get to see little white dots out the view screen, except during Maneuvers when you can’t see anything at all.”
I stepped on a twig and it hurt. I was getting a blister on my right big toe, but I tried to ignore it. “You mentioned the Maneuvers. That brings up a question that has been nagging at me for years, and no one has been able to answer it. Since you work on a spaceliner, maybe you can.”
“Sure!” he said, “Shoot!”
“Okay,” I said, catching my breath, “How is it possible to go from Earth to Homeland, a distance of about fourteen light-years, in only a few days without relativistic effects?” I was really curious. All of the Human science-fiction stories I’ve read get around that problem by postulating something called ‘hyperspace,’ which doesn’t really exist, or by traveling through wormholes, which would only smash you to subatomic particles even if you could control the destination, or by having some sort of undefined special method of propulsion. I wanted to know how it’s done in the real world.
“Oh, that’s simple,” Dekker said. I perked up my ears. “We simply maneuver around the problem.”
I sighed. “That’s what everyone says, but it isn’t really an explanation. Just exactly what is a ‘Maneuver’ and how do you do it?”
He stopped suddenly and turned around to face me. He said, “Hey, you’re talking to a lowly purser here. I don’t fly those things, I just work in them. You’d have to ask a navigator or a pilot about that. I might as well ask you how airplanes can fly even though they are heavier than air.”
“I get your point,” I said in resignation as we resumed our hike, “I have flown in a lot of airplanes, but I have no idea how they fly.”
That was very disappointing. I’ve been wondering about it for years and no one I’ve talked to has been qualified to answer the question. It’s a shame the spaceport is in Fomin, the capital of Halakan, halfway round the world; it’s not likely I would run into anyone here in Thorgelfayne with the expertise to answer my question.
Dekker stopped suddenly where the path went over a stream. There was a break in the trees, and a panoramic view of the city of Hapdorn below us. “Would you mind taking a break for a while? This is a beautiful spot and I’d like to take some pictures.”
“No, I don’t mind at all,” I said. I was exhausted. “Take your time.” I sat down and took off my hiking boots to give my feet a little freedom. Dekker snapped away with his camera.
“John, let me get a picture of you,” he said.
“Are you sure it won’t break the camera?” I joked as I stood up and brushed off my pants. He didn’t get it. I explained it was a joke on Earth that a person could be ugly enough to break the camera if you took a picture of them. He slapped his thigh and laughed uproariously. I really didn’t think it was that funny, but then he was hearing it for the first time.
We hadn’t seen many other hikers on the trail, but since this was a scenic overlook, others caught up with us and eventually there were about a half a sixteen people admiring the view with us.
“Why don’t you stand over there next to the stream?” he said. “Then I can get you and the university bell tower in the same frame.”
I walked in my socks over to the stream, which crossed under the trail to flow down the mountain. I stood there near a rock.
“No, that isn’t right,” Dekker said, waving sideways with his left hand. “I need you to move a little more to your right.”
So I took one step to my right onto the rock. The rock was slippery, my socks gave me no traction, and the next thing I knew I was underwater! I was lucky I didn’t hit my head! The stream was deeper than it looked, and the current was strong. Through the water I could see Dekker frantically pointing to the stream and yelling, “Θorgeleoma! Θorgeleoma!”
I struggled to reach the surface as the current took me around a bend and out of everyone’s sight. I quickly got my head above water and managed to pull myself out onto the bank with the help of a tree root, but not before the stream had carried me quite a distance. That’s no stream, I thought, that’s a river! I stood there, soaked to the skin, bent over with my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. Dekker came running down the path, and he tackled me around the waist. He hugged me hard, then let go.
“I thought I lost you there for a moment,” he said.
That was a kind thing to say, but it was hard for me to talk because I was out of breath. I said in three gasps, “I was surprised. It wasn’t very dangerous. There weren’t many rocks.”
“Well, I am relieved,” he said. “What happened to your backpack?”
I didn’t notice that it was missing until he asked about it. “I don’t know,” I said, “It must be floating down the stream.” Then after gasping for air again, I added, “There isn’t anything valuable in it.” I gulped and took another deep breath. “Why were you yelling ‘my friend, my friend’ back there?”
For someone who just got to know me, he seemed to care about me an awful lot.
“I’m embarrassed about that,” he said. “I wanted to yell something like ‘help my friend,’ or ‘my friend fell in the water,’ or ‘man overboard,’ or something like that, but my Thorgelfaynese failed me. You have to start every sentence with the verb, but I was in a panic and I just couldn’t put a sentence together. And then there is my accent. Some words are hard for me to pronounce.”
“I see,” I said, not seeing. “Why was that a problem? You must have a lot of experience with Thorgelfaynese on the job.”
“Not really,” Dekker replied. “Most people who speak Thorgelfaynese also speak another, more widely spoken language. We’re trained in the major languages of each planet, but Thorgelfaynese is not required because it is not a major language.”
“You’re right about that,” I said, sitting down on a stump to wring out my socks. “So how did you come to learn Thorgelfaynese?”
“I took classes on my own,” he said. “It really impresses an intellectual, no matter what planet he’s from, when a space purser can speak Thorgelfaynese, even with a heavy accent like mine.
“So you get bigger tips,” I said with what I hoped was a twinkle in my eye.
“Well, yes,” Dekker admitted, “but my real purpose is to form a better bond with the passenger.”
“I wouldn’t worry about your accent,” I said, “Your pronunciation is just fine.”
He blushed, “You mean it is comprehensible.”
I was too tired to take play verbal badminton with that topic.
We walked back to where I had left my boots. That was hard on my feet, since I was walking on twigs and pebbles in soggy socks with a blister on my toe. When we got back to the scene of my misadventure, I shook out my socks, squeezed them as dry as I could get them, and put them and my boots back on.
That was the first time I noticed the sign that said “No Swimming, Waterfall Ahead.” A chill went up my spine. No wonder the current was so strong. No wonder Dekker was so concerned about me.
Dekker decided that we had had enough adventure for one day, which was a good thing, because all that struggling in the water took a lot of energy, and I was beginning to feel faint. We hiked the short distance to the next lodge, my boots squishing with every step and Dekker holding me up. My clothes were wet and they stuck to my skin. I was too tired to go even that short distance on my own power. We found someone who drove us to the nearest bus stop. I fell asleep on the bus, so I don’t remember the trip at all. I vaguely recall collapsing on the sofa in my living room.
Since I didn’t get the grogginess out of my head until evening, I wasn’t able to go to Harshan and Melissa’s apartment for Dekker’s good-bye dinner. So I called Harshan and convinced him it would be quicker and more pleasant for them to ride to the airport in my car than in the city bus—but I really wanted an excuse to see Dekker again before he left.
This morning I drove Harshan, Melissa, and Dekker to the airport. We sat in the waiting area and chatted until Kharg-and-Beyond Airlines announced that passengers could start boarding. We all stood, and Dekker gave each of us a good-bye hug; first Harshan, then Melissa, and then me. I said, “It’s a shame we didn’t get to finish the hike. Perhaps we can do it again the next time you come.”
“That won’t be for quite a while, if at all,” he said. “That’s the price of working on a spaceliner. I won’t get another seven-month furlough for five or six years.”
“That’s right,” Harshan affirmed as he put his arm around Melissa, who smiled proudly. “That’s why I changed jobs after I married Melissa.”
After the plane took off, whisking Dekker back to Halakan, we walked back to the car, and I drove Harshan and Melissa home. They chatted happily in the back seat the whole way, but I didn’t join in.
I was trying not to think about anything other than my driving.