by Robert Reed
A Dot On Old Paper
“World’s Edge. Approaching now… World’s Edge!”
The worm’s caretaker was an elderly fellow named Brace. Standing in the middle of the long intestinal tract, he wore a dark gray uniform, patched but scrupulously clean, soft-soled boots and a breathing mask that rode on his hip. Strong hands held an angelwood bucket filled with a thick, sour-smelling white salve. His name was embossed above his shirt pocket, preceded by his rank, which was Master. Calling out with a deep voice, Master Brace explained to the several dozen passengers, “From this station, you may find your connecting trails to Hammer and Mister Low and Green Island. If World’s Edge happens to be your destination, good luck to you, and please, collect your belongings before following the signs to the security checkpoints. And if you intend to stay with this splendid worm, that means Left-of-Left will be our next stop. And Port of Krauss will be our last.”
The caretaker had a convincing smile and a calm, steady manner. In his presence, the innocent observer might believe that nothing was seriously wrong in the world.
“But if you do plan to stay with me,” Brace continued, “you will still disembark at World’s Edge, if only for the time being. My baby needs her rest and a good dinner, and she’s got a few little sores that want cleaning.” Then he winked at the passengers and began to walk again, totting his heavy bucket toward the stomach—up where the mockmen were quartered. “Or perhaps we’ll linger here for two little whiles,” the old man joked. “But I don’t expect significant delays, and you shouldn’t let yourselves worry.”
Jopale sighed and sat back against the warm pink wall. He wasn’t worried. Not through any innate bravery, but because he had been scared for so long now, there was little room left for new concerns. Or so it seemed at that particular moment. Indeed, since his last long sleep, Jopale had enjoyed a renewed sense of confidence. A guarded optimism was taking root. Calculating how far he had come, he saw that most of the world lay behind him now, while it wasn’t too much of a lie to tell himself that Port of Krauss was waiting just beyond the horizon.
Jopale even managed his own convincing smile, and watching his fellow passengers, he found one other face that appeared equally optimistic.
A young woman, built small and just a little short of pretty, was sitting directly across from him. She must have come onboard during his last sleep. Maybe at Which-Way, he reasoned. There was a fine university in that ancient city. Perhaps she was a student heading home, now that every school was officially closed. Her bags were few and small. A heavy book filled her tiny lap. Her breathing mask looked as if it had never been used, while a powerful torch rode on her other hip. Her clothes were comfortable if somewhat heavy—wool dyed green with thick leather pads on the knees and elbows. Bare black toes wiggled against a traveling blanket. Her leather boots had tough rubber soles, which was why she didn’t wear them inside the worm. She looked ready for a long journey into cold darkness. But where could a young woman be going, and smiling about her prospects too?
There was one logical conclusion: Jopale caught the woman’s gaze, nodded and offered a friendly wink. “Are you like me, miss?” he inquired. “Are you traveling to Port of Krauss?”
She hesitated, glancing at the other passengers. Then she shook her head. “I’m not, no,” she told him.
Jopale thought he understood.
“But you’re traveling through Krauss,” he persisted. “On your way to some other destination, perhaps?”
He was thinking about the New Isles.
But she shook her head, a little embarrassed perhaps, but also taking some pleasure from his confusion.
No one else was speaking just then, and the intestine of a worm was a very quiet place. It was easy to eavesdrop and to be heard whenever you spoke. In quick succession, three young men offered possible destinations, picking little cities set on the auxiliary trails—each man plainly wishing that this woman’s destination was his own.
“No,” she told them. “No. And I’m sorry, but no.”
Other passengers began to play the silly game, and to her credit, the woman remained cheerful and patient, responding immediately to each erroneous guess. Then the great worm began to shake around them, its muscular body twisting as it pulled off onto one of the side trails. Suddenly there was good reason to hurry the game along. The young men were leaving here; didn’t they deserve a useful hint or two?
“All right,” she said reasonably. “I’ll remain on this trail until I’m done.” Then she closed her book with a heavy thump, grinning as she imagined her final destination.
“Left-of-Left?” somebody shouted.
“We’ve already guessed that,” another passenger complained.
“Where else is there?”
“Does anybody have a map?”
Jopale stood up. When their worm was young and quite small, holes had been cut through its fleshy sides, avoiding the major muscle groups. Each hole was fitted with progressively larger rubber plugs, and finally a small plastic window that looked as if it was carved from a cold fog. Through one of those windows, Jopale could see the tall buildings of the city and their long shadows, plus the high clear sky that was as close to night as anything he had ever known. What a journey this had been, and it wasn’t even finished yet. Not for the first time, Jopale wished he had kept a journal. Then when there was time—once he was living on the New Isles, perhaps—he would write a thorough account of every awful thing that had happened, as well as his final triumphs.
A dozen travelers were now examining their maps, calling out the names of tiny places and abandoned cities. There was a time when people lived in the Tanglelands and points beyond, but that had been years ago. Only the oldest maps bothered to show those one-time destinations. A young man, very tall and shockingly thin, was standing close to the woman—too close, in Jopale’s mind—and he carefully listed a string of places that existed nowhere but on a sheet of yellowed paper and faded ink that he held up to the window’s light.
“Yes,” said the woman, just once.
But the tall man didn’t notice. He kept reading off names, pushing his finger along the black worm trail, and the woman was saying, “No, no, no,” again, smiling pleasantly at his foolishness.
But Jopale had noticed.
“Go back,” he said.
The tall man looked at him, bothered by the interruption.
Then a stocky old woman reached up high, hitting the fellow between the shoulder blades. “The girl said, ‘Yes.’ Didn’t you hear?”
Another woman said, “Read backwards.”
The tall man was too flustered to do anything now.
So Jopale took the map for himself, and in the dim light, he made his best guess. “What about Good Mountain?”
Once more, the girl said, “Yes.”
“What kind of name is that?” the tall man asked, reclaiming his map, taking the trouble to fold it up neatly. “What does that word mean? ‘Mountain’? I’ve never heard it before.”
But the game was finished. Suddenly the old caretaker had returned, carrying an empty bucket with one bony hand. “This is the station at World’s Edge,” Master Brace called out.
The worm had come to a stop.
“My baby needs to breathe and to eat her fill,” he reminded everyone. “So please, you must disembark. With your luggage, and with your tickets.” Then a look of mischief came into the weathered face, and he added, “But if you will, please leave your hopes behind. I’d like to claim a few of them for myself.”
A few passengers laughed at his bleak humor. But most just shook their heads and growled to themselves, or they quietly spat on the smooth pink floor.
The young woman was picking up her book and bags and her heavy boots, a joyous smile setting her apart from everyone else.
About her destination—the enigmatic Good Mountain—she said nothing at all.
A Mouthful of History
Every homeland was once new land, small and thin, pushed about by the willful winds. But the ground where Jopale grew up was still relatively young, and for much of its life, it had been a free-drifting body.
Jopale felt an easy pride toward his native wood—dense and fine—grained and very dark, almost black in its deep reaches, with a thick cuticle and the pleasant odor of sin-spice when sliced apart with steel saws. The wood’s appearance and its telltale genetics made it the offspring of Graytell and Sweetsap lineages. According to the oldest nautical maps, an island matching that description first collided with the Continent near what was today Port of Krauss. But it didn’t linger for long. In those ancient times, the Continent turned like a gigantic if extraordinarily slow wheel, deep-water roots helping to hold its green face under the eternal sunshine. This tiny unnamed body clung to the wheel’s outer edge until it passed into the polar waters, and then it vanished from every record, probably drifting off into the cold gloom.
Unable to grow, the island shrank. Hungry, it drank dry its sap reservoirs. It could have brushed up against the Continent again, perhaps several more times, but some current or chance storm always pushed it away again. Then it wandered, lost on the dark face of the world. The evidence remained today inside its body. Its oldest wood was full of scars and purple-black kno ...