The Cupertinians

As Gibbon walked along the narrow, forest trail, he reflected on the day. The deal had gone well and his coin pouch now had a reassuring heft. However, considering the questionable quality of the goods, Gibbon thought it prudent to move on. A few nights sleeping rough on the trail from Zehun to Port Hemskirk was preferable to uncomfortable questions from the Burley boys. Ships of all shapes and sizes left daily from the busy port and it would be an easy matter to arrange transport to New Hobart with its fine food, luxury hotels electric conveniences. Within a week, he could be sitting by a warm fire sipping the finest Flinders wine. The unpleasantness of the past few months would become but a distant memory.
The trail rose steeply towards a small summit. Trees which had hugged so closely all afternoon, now opened up to reveal a stunning vista of hundreds of small rugged islands scattered across the sea. Above him and to the left rose towering, cloud capped mountains while in the far distance Gibbon could just make out the smoky haze above Port Hemskirk. Satisfied with today’s progress, Gibbon thought this grassy clearing and its expansive views would make an excellent location for camp. He began to wander the clearing (making sure to avoid several obnoxious scat piles), collecting wood.
Twilight falling, Gibbon sat down and prepared to light his fire. The heat would be a welcome balm to his tired muscles. Glancing back towards Zehun, he observed with some alarm a small fire flickering into life on the far side of the valley. This was unusual as most travellers chose to wait for the weekly ferry. Could the Burley boys have tested a sample already? Gibbon frowned. In all likelihood, a vindictive purpose was guiding this stranger. He took solace in the fact that at least they were not mounted, else they would have effortlessly overtaken him hours ago.
Deciding to forego the fire lest he risk discovery, Gibbon considered his new circumstances. Could he make it to Port Hemskirk before capture? Surely if an enthusiastic pace was maintained he would stay ahead, constantly out of reach? This idea was appealing in many respects, not the least of which was a general similarity to his previous plan. Yes, thought Gibbon, a good night’s rest and an early start will see me to deserved conclusion.
Synchronous with the rising moon, the rowdy night life of a dense temperate forest awoke. Gibbon’s clearing was assaulted on all sides by constant noise and commotion. Animals of unknown character thumped, crunched and screeched their way through the dense undergrowth surrounding his small camp. Sleep, elusive at first, came slow and fitfully.
In the deep of the night a loud and particularly malevolent screech jarred Gibbon awake. He sat up, rubbing his sore back and looked across the moonlit clearing. An owl sitting on a high branch watched with a bemused expression and large unblinking eyes. Gibbon glared as it gave a satisfied hoot and flapped noiselessly away. He lay back down to begin the slow descent into sleep. Later, he was awoken again by the sounds of intense mastication. The forest now quiet, he sleepily watched an enormous four legged creature amble peacefully across the moonlit clearing. Taller than a horse, with a stocky and powerful body it stopped every few steps to eat the choicest grass fronds. At the edge of the clearing it pushed on into the undergrowth, oblivious to the cracking branches as it disappeared deep into the forest.
The first rays of dawn saw a bleary-eyed Gibbon striding purposefully towards Port Hemskirk. The Western Isles were the most remote and least populated province of Tasmania. It consisted of a narrow strip of land, hemmed in by mountains to the east, and ocean to the west. Dense forests, clear cold water and abandoned mines provided timber, fish and shiny metals. Hundreds of scattered islands, deep fjords and small coves provided havens for pirates and smugglers. They were constantly finding new and resourceful ways to get these valuable goods past the Tasmanian Navy and their tariffs. With no roads across the mountains, all passengers and goods went via Port Hemskirk. Gibbon was contemplating if he wanted to pay extra for a private cabin and premium victuals when he noticed a stationary cart at the looming fork in the road.
As Gibbon approached he observed a rotund fellow with a circular face and obnoxiously happy demeanour, swinging his legs from the back of the cart like a fool. The small cart had several hessian bags piled around some wooden crates. One bag was open and overflowing with apples. An empty harness swung despondently from the cart. Of the pony, mule or other beast of burden, there was no sign.
The rotund fool spoke first. “Good morning, stranger.”
“Hello, good sir. My name is Gibbon, and it is certainly a fine day to meet another traveller!”
The man glanced at the sky, thinking for a moment before nodding in agreement and replying.
“Well hello, Gibbon.” He jumped down from the cart and walked up to Gibbon, shaking his hand. “My name is Fox. I don’t often meet anyone on this trail. Most choose to forsake the wonders of our glorious forests and opt instead for the ferry.”
After what he judged was a suitable length of time, Gibbon pulled his hand back and replied.
“I couldn’t agree more. Just last night I was amazed by the intense variety of noises made by animals at night.” He paused before continuing. “Yet, perhaps there is something to be said for a smooth sail down the coast, even if it does weigh heavy on the purse. Some have even suggested this trail is frequented by bandits and other unsavoury types.”
Fox stared briefly towards to coast before replying. “There is a risk on the road, I won’t deny it. Though the real dangers are above us in the mountains. Also don’t forget those same unsavoury types can torment the ferry. In addition to the storms, sharks, water spouts, cantankerous whales and the other uncountable dangers of the blue void. No, taking the good and bad I would prefer a land journey every time!”
“No doubt you speak from experience.”
Both men gazed down at the ocean in silence. On the horizon Gibbon saw a white smudge. It soon resolved into a ship, flying downwind towards Port Hemskirk. Fox saw it as well and pointed. “Speaking of the ferry, there it is now. I wonder what foul customer or circumstance drove Jones to leave a day early?”
Gibbons face betrayed nothing, but inside his heart sank. He had a pretty good idea why Jones was ‘convinced’ to leave early and it did not bode well for his private cabin on a Harvest Moon clipper. Quickly composing himself he replied, “Some trifling non-issue I am sure. Are you heading to Port Hemskirk? I can’t help notice you have no horse or pony.”
A smile quickly passed over Fox’s face as he replied. “Fate has not been kind to me. This morning I awoke to find my loyal beast had fled in the night. I know not the reason why, I always treated him kindly.” Fox paused and turned to look along the fork in the trail to the mountains beyond before continuing. “My destination is a compound sitting beyond that mountain peak and I now wonder how it shall be managed.”
The locals in Zehun had talked to Gibbon in tedious detail about the mountains. No one went up there. Nothing but certain injury or death for the traveller foolish enough to consider it, they said. It was full of unmarked mine shafts and dangerous wildlife. If you managed to avoid or sneak past those dangers, ancient clockwork traps called Guardians would surely get you. Left behind from long forgotten conflicts, Guardians were scattered across the mountain passes and had claimed many an intrepid explorer in the early days of settlement.
Gibbon looked along the path which quickly disappeared between tall trees and ferns. Above, the mountain pass was lost in dense fog.
“Do you travel regularly to this compound? I have heard disturbing stories about these mountains.”
“Those stories, are for the most part true”, Fox replied. “But my…family…has been making deliveries in these parts for generations. I know the way and possess the necessary talismans and passwords to bypass the guardians.”
Gibbon turned back to the ocean, a sour expression sitting on his face as he watched the ship raise even more sail. Forcing himself to smile and turning towards Fox he replied. “Perhaps your misfortune could serve us both. I have long heard of the majestic mountains which tower over the Western Isles. It was only warnings of certain and painful death which turned me away. Would you accept a guest on your delivery? In exchange I could share the burden of the cart.”
“You are too generous, I could never impose such a request on my closest friends, let alone a new acquaintance such as yourself. Besides, I have no spare coin to pay you.”
Gibbon coughed before beaming back at Fox, “Nonsense, I would not expect a large payment. Good food and perhaps a small trinket is ample.”
Fox considered for a few seconds. ”Well, you seem a generous fellow and I am sure we can work something out.” He then strapped into the carts harness and slowly began to pull it up the path. “I will take the first shift. Now, let us make haste before any more of this day is wasted.”
Gibbon did not like the vague terms he was agreeing to, but at any moment his pursuer may come round the bend. He turned with a resigned sigh and followed Fox up the trail, disappearing past ferns bigger than houses.
It was cool under the dense forest canopy and the path was easy and well worn. They crossed several small creeks and Gibbon would watch large trout dart into the depths as the cart noisily splashed through their home. At one point he even saw some sort of otter, but with a ducks bill where the mouth should be. It was gone before he could point it out to Fox. By midday, the trail steepened and they began to climb the mountain proper. Fox declared this was an opportune time to take a break. He handed Gibbon an apple and some cheese. They ate their lunch looking down over the glittering fjords, bays and inlets of the Western Isles. Of the mysterious pursuer, there was no sign.
After lunch, Fox announced it was time to swap cart duties. Gibbon looked suspiciously at the now very steep trail ahead, and the smooth gently undulating section they had just covered.
“I notice the hard work now begins. No doubt we will be swapping regularly to avoid exhaustion?” Gibbon enquired.
“Of course good friend, in fact I expect we will reach the first camp site soon,” Fox assured.
Mollified, Gibbon stepped into the harness and waited as Fox fussed over the various belts, straps and linkages. After a moment he stepped back and announced, “Perfect, it fits like it was made for you!”
“Are you sure, it feels quite tight and my arms are tangled,” Gibbon replied.
“Don’t worry yourself, your body will quickly adjust. Now let us be away, respite and a warm fire await.”
Gibbon reluctantly followed, harness jingling as the cart dragged behind him.
It was late afternoon as Gibbon and Fox pulled up at the remains of an ancient wall. Only a small section was still standing, the rest a line of rubble extending off into the undergrowth. Strangely, no vegetation grew on any of it. Ancient grooves hinted there was once a gate. With no obvious impediment Gibbon started to move forward, giving Fox a sharp look to convey his view on the cart sharing situation.
Fox leaped in front of him, “Stop my friend, you cannot pass the threshold without a valid talisman.”
“The gate is long since gone, surely we can pass unmolested?”
“Many foolhardy souls have made that mistake, look beyond and you will see why.”
Still strapped into the cart, Gibbon carefully shuffled forward. Past the wall, standing amongst the trees on either side of the path were two imposing stone pillars. Each was taller than a man and capped by a glassy, black sphere. From within the left hand sphere, a small red light flashed every few moments. Gibbon could sense a dispassionate malice emanating from within. The right-hand pillar flashed no light and he knew it was dead inside.
“Are those Guardians?”
“Yes”, Fox replied, “They enthusiastically deny entry to any transgressor.” Fox picked up a small rock and tossed it up the trail. The sphere on the left hand Guardian spun and swivelled to track the rock as it sailed through the air. A red beam shot out and the rock promptly exploded in a cloud of dust. The dome spun and snapped back into position with a desultory click. Gibbon had seen devious traps and automatic turrets in his travels. They tended to be cantankerous and non-discriminatory, often claiming the owner as victim.
“I have never seen a clockwork turret work so quickly before, or strike out with light itself.”
“They are not clockwork.” Fox continued, “My grandfather once told me they possessed ‘logic engines’ which could think like a man. I don’t know if it’s true, only that they attack any without a talisman.” Fox gazed at the Guardians with a small smile, almost proud of the pillars of death up ahead.
“They must be ancient, how can they still be working?”
“I don’t know. Many have gone cold over the centuries. Perhaps in the future, as old stories become superstitions the lure of salvage and riches will send some brave or foolhardy souls up here to test them.” Fox paused for a moment, presumably upset at the eventual prospect of open access to his mountain.
“Anyhow, we must push on in order to reach the first camp site before dark. I must admit your pace with the cart is a little lacking, no doubt you will redouble your efforts.” Before Gibbon could formulate a suitable rejoinder Fox continued, “Don’t be so glum, in time you will improve! Now stay still while I put this on, you don’t want to be mistaken for a miscreant by the Guardian.” Fox pulled two necklaces from his jacket and placed one over Gibbons head. They were identical with a delicate, circular silver pendant hanging from a crude chain. It almost looked like an apple with a small bite taken from it. Fox strode confidently forward, signalling to follow. Gibbon waited until it was clear that Fox had passed unmolested before moving forward. The smooth blank sphere rotated and tracked him for a few seconds. After a few brief flashes of red it clicked back to resume its timeless vigil.
They reached the campsite just before sunset. It was beneath another gate similar to the one they had just left. Well-used campfire remains suggested Fox must come this way regularly. As before, two guardians stood vigil just beyond the threshold. Gibbon noted with some trepidation that both had a red light steadily flashing.
“What a day,” Gibbon announced. “I’m exhausted and it’s clear you played a little joke on me but I am not one to hold a grudge. If you could be so kind as to untangle me from this wretched harness, I shall take a short nap while you light the fire and prepare dinner. I couldn’t help but notice some choice items in the cart. That red wine would go well with the Shepherd’s pie. And for dessert it would be amiss not to try the apple and cinnamon tart.”
Chuckling to himself, Fox began to unstrap Gibbon from his harness. “I must apologise, I promise we will share the burdens of this journey more equally tomorrow. As for the food, you misunderstand. Those supplies are part of the consignment and must remain unmolested.” Fox unclipped the last buckle, releasing him from the cart. “Still, I promised good food and no one can say Fox is not a man of his word. If you can delay your deserved rest and start a fire I shall prepare our meal.”
Gibbon thought to protest but lacked the enthusiasm so began sulkily walking around the surrounding trees. Any sticks not dry enough for a fire, he tossed towards the Guardians and watched with satisfaction as they competed to destroy it first. After the third stick, they began tracking him, red lights flashing in time with his heartbeat. Gibbon fumbled for the pendant, holding it high above his head as he quickly retreated back to camp.
The roaring campfire was making satisfied pops and crackles as Gibbon sat down with an exhausted sigh. Fox wandered back from the cart with a plate of old bread and some slightly suspicious looking cheese. Gibbon glanced at Fox’s plate which contained a generous serving of pie, fresh bread and pickled vegetables. Fox noticed his evident disappointment explaining, “Sorry my friend, but there is only enough for one. Furthermore, I have been looking forward to this meal all day. Up until now, you had no knowledge of its existence and thus your dissatisfaction will necessarily be limited.”
“Perhaps we could share the meal and both take comfort in its provisions,” Gibbon suggested.
“That would be a superficial solution only leading to disappointment for both of us.” Fox tasted the pie before continuing, “I suggest taking solace and gratitude for what you have received rather than what you have not.”
Gibbon could only silently rage as he chewed on the tough bread.
Fox took another bite of pie. “Perhaps as compensation I might volunteer a new arrangement?”
Gibbon silently nodded assent to continue.
“If you agree to continue pulling the cart I will share half my payment with you. The rate is generous and the journey nearly complete.”
Gibbon remained silent for a minute, considering his options before replying. “Of course. You have been more than generous and I accept your offer whole heartedly. Now let us finish eating so I can get a good night’s rest.”
Fox gave one of his knowing smiles and nodded in agreement. After dinner, there was idle conversation one would expect around a fire in the wilderness. How far away the stars were, what nature of beast made that noise and so forth. Eventually, Fox removed blankets from the cart and they both retired for the night.
Fox was woken at dawn by the creaking cart as Gibbon pulled it past his head and through the gate. “Don’t stir my good friend,” Gibbon breezily announced. “Your kind offer last night has induced me to make an early start. Why don’t you sleep in and catch up in your own time?”
Fox lay back down with a groggy smile before snapping back awake as if from a nightmare. He frantically checked pockets and pack for the pendant, but it was gone. Realisation slowly dawning, he looked up to see Gibbon smiling from the far side of the Guardians holding two pendants from his hand. Fox began cursing but Gibbon had already turned, pulling the cart up the mountain.
Eventually, Fox’s loud exclamations diminished and fell silent.
“Perhaps that villain will think twice in future before taking advantage of an innocent traveller,” Gibbon said to himself. The day wore on with him pulling the cart at a comfortable, sedate pace. The trail began a series of switchbacks as it climbed towards the mountain pass. The trees became stunted and soon the only vegetation of note were small, mossy plants growing in and around a rocky scree. Gibbon reached the pass at lunchtime. Deciding he had achieved enough for the day, camp was setup among a scattering of large boulders. Beyond the pass, thick fog and cloud blocked his view. Westward, he could still see all the way down the trail. Islands dotted the calm, blue ocean. Large ships were small dark specks with flashes of white canvas. Gibbon helped himself to the cart’s generous provisions, made a small fire and settled in to enjoy a lazy afternoon.
The next few days passed in much the same manner. Gibbon started late and finished early. At no point did he needlessly exert himself to a faster pace. The only task he set to with enthusiasm was meal preparation. These were many, varied and sumptuous. Thoughts of any potential consequences from these actions were quickly dismissed. The mountain plateau was constantly blanketed in thick fog. Sometimes, Gibbon would catch glimpses of grassy tussocks and scattered shallow lakes before the cloud and fog rolled back. Occasionally he would pass a lifeless Guardian, some even missing their glassy spheres.
On the fourth day, just as Gibbon began to think that Fox had played yet another prank, the fog lifted and a large structure came into view. It was made of imposing smooth stone walls large enough to enclose a town. There were no battlements or features of any kind except for a steel gate, standing slightly ajar. It was clearly ancient, rusty and haphazardly patched with steel pieces of differing ages and colours. Slightly back from the gate a small, wooden hut stood alone. Gibbon could see or hear no signs of life from within the compound. In the far distance a small herd of goats wandered, bells tinkling as they grazed.
Gibbon approached cautiously, making sure his pendant was clearly visible. At the wooden hut he stopped and unhitched from the cart. Inside was a scattering of empty crates and sacks, no doubt where Fox makes his deliveries. Sitting on a table was a small coin pouch and hand written note. The wavering scrawl was barely legible, although the symbols for ‘tardiness’ and ‘reduced payment’ had been carefully drawn. Gibbon emptied the coin pouch, adding the contents to his own. The compound still remained silent. He walked closer to the gate loudly announcing, “I graciously accept the deposit for this delivery. I am of course obliged to wait for full payment. Perhaps you have lodging and a warm meal for a weary traveller?” There was no response. In the distance, Gibbon noticed the goats had stopped grazing and were all staring at him. Feeling stupid, he returned to the hut.
Morning passed into a sunny afternoon with no sign of life from the compound. Building up courage, Gibbon set himself to walking around the compound at a respectable and safe distance. It was square, one hundred paces to a side and made from a smooth, highly polished stone. He noticed the occasional crack that had not being repaired. There were no windows or any other gates. On each corner, Gibbon found a small circular stone base big enough to support a Guardian. Of the Guardians themselves there was no sign. Back at the hut, Gibbon set about making a small fire and a modest meal. There were no objections or acknowledgment from the compound, even when he opened a bottle of the vintage red.
The following morning, Gibbon groggily awoke to the sound of tiny bells. Sitting up, he frightened and scattered the herd of goats. Several of the smarter ones made sure to drag a bag of food with them as they retreated from the gesticulating human. Gibbon looked with dismay at the mess. Most of the supplies were gone. Worse, they had favoured the choicest items. He tidied and repacked as best he could, constantly looking back to the compound for signs of disapproval, or worse, demands for a refund. Except for the quiet rustle of a breeze flowing through the ajar gate, it remained silent.
Stepping onto the path facing the compound, Gibbon loudly announced his honourable intentions. He reminded them that delivery was made in full yesterday and there could be no discount for the goat incident. Furthermore, he now intended to enter the compound and claim full payment. Taking the silent reply as assent, Gibbon boldly stepped through the gate.
Inside were rows of unkempt garden beds clogged with weeds. Two large, glass greenhouses flanked a small, squat stone building with a single iron door. No threats or admonitions were issued. No Guardians rose up from the ground. The place looked abandoned, but someone had left that coin pouch and letter. Gibbon moved into the first greenhouse. He slowly opened the door to be assaulted by a wave of humid air and a cloud of insects. Inside was overflowing with different plants, flowers and ferns all fighting with each other to dominate the enclosed space. When it was clear no one was inside, Gibbon moved onto the second greenhouse.
By contrast, its gardens were well kept and under control. They were also completely ornamental with no edible fruits or vegetables. He wandered through in awe. Ferns, flowers, water features, rock structures and orchids. It was beautiful, and yet wholly impractical. In the centre was a garden bed containing a small headstone and overflowing with tiny blue flowers. Facing the garden bed was a man slumped in a chair. Gibbon made several discreet coughs. After no response he stepped forward. The man had taut, papery skin and a shaved head. Congealed blood and mucus dribbled from his nose, his eyes rolled back showing only white. The man was dead, no more than two or three days gone. Not one for deep self-reflection and contemplation Gibbon was perturbed only briefly. A simple funeral service could be arranged. With no one left alive, he could decide on suitable compensation for his efforts. Natural justice demanded it!
Several hours later Gibbon stood beside two graves. Unfortunately most of the blue flowers were now trampled, but he was sure they would grow back. The old headstone was engraved in a strange unintelligible script and a number which made no sense (3023?). For the old man, Gibbon built a small rock cairn. “I never knew your name let alone your deeds. But I will ensure your memory is not tarnished by rumours of late and vacillating payments. Your reputation is safe with me!”
Funeral services discharged, Gibbon completed his search of the greenhouse. Near the back a large pond bubbled and gurgled, tiny fish with colourful tails chasing ripples and dancing shadows. In the middle sat a model of an island that looked strangely familiar. After a few moments, he realised it was Tasmania, but the sea level and coast line were all wrong. Despite this, the other features seemed accurate, including a small model of the compound sitting at the edge of the central plateau and a large river flowing to the south-east. Gibbon made a detailed sketch in his notebook.
Suddenly worried about the goats and his supplies, Gibbon moved the cart inside and swung the large gate closed. He then approached the squat building. The door opened on silent and well-oiled hinges. Inside, dust motes floated through sunlight pouring in from a skylight. Except for a large spiral staircase leading underground, the room was empty. Gibbon stepped inside and cautiously descended into the gloom.
After several revolutions the staircase opened into a long hallway, closed doors scattered along its length. Dim electric lamps, some flickering, was the only illumination. At the end of the hallway was a thick steel door, a small green light shining from above. Gibbon systematically worked up the hallway, finding nothing but dust covered tables, benches and bunks. From behind one door, came a deep reverberating hum. It was warm to touch and had a faded red symbol consisting of three triangles arranged around a circle. Vaguely disturbed, Gibbon left the door closed and backed away.
Gibbon reached the vault door. So far he had found nothing of immediate use. The steel was of course extremely valuable, but he had no tools to cut it out, let alone a way to get it down the mountain. He gripped the wheel with both hands, took a deep breath and spun it. The green light changed to red as the door opened, strange smelling air hissing out. Inside was a small room containing another vault door. To one side hung strange black masks with frayed black hoses. Gibbon tried to open the inner door, but the locking wheel would not yield. It turned only a fraction before a red light flashed insistently and an angry buzzer sounded. Looking again at the masks, he ran his hand around the outer door jamb. Near the latch he found a small mechanism. Pressing on it made a satisfying click and the red light changed to green. With his hand on the switch, Gibbon stretched across the small room and spun the locking wheel. It turned freely and the inner door opened with a hiss of rushing air.
Gibbon stepped forward and peered into the darkness. A small lights automatically turned on and began to brighten. He was disappointed as the dark shadows and gloomy shapes resolved into upturned boxes and empty shelves. Gibbon paced the vault, kicking and prodding each box. In the back corner, he kicked one with a particularly virulent level of enthusiasm, yelling in pain as his foot hit something solid. After a moment to regain composure, Gibbon bent down and picked up a small metal box about the size of a suitcase. It was unopened and had an unusual locking mechanism. Not wanting to be trapped in the dark when the flickering lights finally went out, Gibbon did one last check of the vault before returning to the surface.
Sitting next to the brightly coloured fish once more, Gibbon opened the strange metal case. It was difficult to pry open but once slightly ajar, there was a brief burst of inrushing air and it opened freely. Gibbon stared inside at a smaller, glossy white box. The only mark was a silver symbol just like the talisman he had borrowed from Fox. It definitely did look like the outline of an apple with a small bite removed. Inside was a clear piece of rectangular glass about the size and thickness of a periodical. Looking closely, he saw tiny silver and copper coloured tendrils of wire criss-crossing the panel. Also in the box was a cover to hold the panel, the outside of which looked like glossy, stained green leather. The back of the box was covered in strange symbols and a diagram of stick figures storing the panel in the green cover and pointing it at the sun. Gibbon emulated this, placing the glass panel into the cover and putting them both in the sun next to the pond.
After a few moments there was a polite chime. Gibbon opened the case to see the glass panel was now opaque and displaying a column of brightly coloured glyphs, each with text or symbols adjacent. He could almost read one line next to a red glyph with yellow stars, making out the characters for house and language. Gibbon touched it and the screen instantly changed, showing a vista of moving clouds. After a few seconds it filled with rows of glyphs, the clouds still moving peacefully in the background.
Gibbon sat back, holding the reassuring heft of the glass panel in his hand. Back home, several ancient and well respected family dynasties could trace their wealth to a lucky find in an ancient vault. However, to Gibbons knowledge, nothing of consequence had been uncovered since the great Osaka fire over two hundred years ago. In that unfortunate incident, a professor at Shinano University built an enormous logic engine. Legend has it he needed more than a clipper load of valves! Using this computer and a wireless telegraph he conversed with an ancient, orbiting space capsule, giving commands for it to land on the university lawn. Unfortunately, at a crucial juncture several valves failed and the pod smashed into the warehouse district. The resulting fire razed most of Osaka. No working tek was recovered but the capsules twisted remains are still a popular tourist attraction.
After some thought, Gibbon went and stood beside the two graves. “I humbly accept this mysterious object as full payment for consignment delivery and burial services.” Satisfied that the requirements of social decorum and decency were fulfilled, Gibbon packed his things along with all the food he could carry. Using the sketch as a guide, he hiked out of the compound heading due east. Destination, New Hobart.
Over the next week Gibbon fell into a routine. Days were spent hiking east across the boulder-strewn and windswept plateau. Meals were a simple affair of nuts, dried fruit and cheese. With nothing to burn except the occasional clump of dried grass, nights were spent shivering in the lee of a boulder. He investigated the glass panel, trying to uncover more functions. However, most glyphs led only to a picture of a cloud crossed with a red line. It could however, acquire marvellously detailed photographs and Gibbon would often flick idly through his camera gallery, enlarging the more interesting bushes, rocks and small lakes he had photographed that day.
Assuming the map was accurate and he kept going east, Gibbon was reasonably sure he would reach a large river. From there it would be a simple matter of heading downstream until reaching the first town or village. He hoped so, anyway. By the second day, after passing another series of unremarkable small lakes, boggy marshes and non-descript grassy mounds, Gibbon was not sure he could have found his way back to the compound even if he wanted. And despite being the middle of summer, nights were biting cold. He doubted this journey was even possible in any other season. Little wonder that he had seen no Guardians on his eastward trek, the original builders obviously did not expect many interlopers to come this way.
On the fifth day the terrain began to gently slope downhill. Gibbon found himself frequently splashing through tiny streams and the ground was now firmer. Small trees and shrubs started to appear. The eighth night saw him setup camp next to a fast-flowing creek under a grove of hoop pine trees. Gibbon gratefully started a fire and spent the night watching countless sparks float up to join the stars above.
The next morning Gibbon found a faint trail following the creek downstream. Several hours of easy hiking bought him to the edge of the plateau. The creek, now a roaring waterfall tumbling into the valley below. In the distance, he could see a collection of buildings next to a large, wide river. Gibbon took out his glass panel and captured several photos. The marvellous zoom function revealed brightly coloured cottages with roofs covered in dark wooden tiles. Smoke lazily curled up from several chimneys and he could just make out smudged forms of people loading a barge tied to a jetty. River traffic meant frequent visitors, so strange travellers should be welcome. It could even mean the presence of an inn. Stomach grumbling, Gibbon scampered down into the valley.
Just outside of town Gibbon found a well-used path. Not wanting to encourage unwelcome enquiries, he packed the glass panel carefully in his bag and strolled into the town. The first thing that struck him was how prosperous it seemed. The cobbled roads were bordered by gardens full of perennial herbs, flowers and well-pruned apple trees, branches weighed down heavily with fruit. There was even the occasional electric street lamp. Several locals tending the gardens looked up, smiling and waving as he strolled past. The homes were tidy and comfortable, painted in bright blues, reds and the occasional deep green. To Gibbons eye they did seem slightly over-built. All were constructed with massive timbers with heavy stone footings. The roof pitch suggested thick snowfall in winter, perhaps the homes were just built strong against storms. Gibbon continued along the main road between the occasional flock of ducks, their short fluffy tails wagging as they waddled away from the strange visitor.
The road ended at the river banks surrounded by several warehouses filled with logs, dressed timber, large wooden crates and hundreds of barrels and casks. In the distance Gibbon could hear the distinctive whine of a large saw cutting timber. A large two-storey building with outdoor seating over-looked the river. A sign depicting a trout jumping a log hung from the entrance. A wooden jetty jutted out into the wide, clear river and tied up alongside was a flat bottomed barge, about sixty to seventy paces long.
A dozen people bustled about, directed by the enthusiastic exclamations of a woman in a green bowler hat. The crew noisily chatted as they hauled on and fussed over ropes, blocks and tackles. After a few moments the woman noticed Gibbon and walked over. She clasped his hand, shaking vigorously with a hard, calloused grip.
“The name’s Kat and I’m the captain of this fine vessel. If you are looking to sail with us downriver I must warn you we run a tight ship with no room for high maintenance or demanding supernumeraries.”
Gibbon suppressed a frown, “As a matter of fact I am seeking transportation to New Hobart. I should stress it has often been remarked what an unassuming and undemanding guest I make. Still, one has a few modest requirements which even a vessel of limited means should be able to provide. Firstly, I require a private cabin with a clean bed and wash basin. A full size window would be appreciated, but a porthole will suffice if necessary. Second, a hot breakfast is to be served no earlier than eight. Thirdly I require all linen to be…” The glare coming from Kat was such that Gibbon drifted into silence mid-sentence.
“As my vessel is only of limited means, all passengers travel on deck with the freight. A simple meal of stew and bread can be provided for a nominal fee. See you at first light, the charge is ten denarii.” With that Kat spun around and marched back down the jetty, only pausing to shout over her shoulder.  “You can get lodgings tonight at the Jumping Trout. That is where the other passengers are staying.”
Ten denarii seemed excessive but Gibbon thought better of attempting to negotiate. Kat was talking to a small group of her crew, pointing occasionally at him. After a moment they all looked back at Gibbon together and burst out laughing. Red faced, he retreated back across the road and entered the Jumping Trout.
Inside was a spacious room with a dark slate floor adorned by the occasional colourful rug. The ceiling was held aloft by thick wooden beams, each engraved with intricate, swirling patterns. Gibbon noted with approval the well-stocked bar. A wireless at one end was quietly playing a news broadcast. Comfortable couches were arranged alongside bay windows whilst through the back door Gibbon could glimpse the large benches and ovens of a well equipped kitchen. In the centre was a huge hearth, its brick chimney punching through the ceiling above. One man was leaning on the mantle, idly poking red hot coals with a stoking iron. As Gibbon walked through the entrance, a gust of wind caught the door behind him, slamming it shut. The man turned to look at him. After a brief moment of uncomfortable silence he burst out laughing and waved Gibbon to come join him.
He introduced himself as Malvern, manager of the Jumping Trout. Like most publicans he seemed a jovial sort, full of news and gossip, some true, some exaggerated. Gibbon enquired about lodgings and food for the night.
“Not a problem my good friend. However, I must warn you there will be quite the party tonight. As compensation all my guests can partake freely of the bar!”
Gibbon assured him this sounded most suitable.
“I know this isn’t my business, but by chance your name is not Fox is it?”
A condensing ball of concern began to form in the pit of Gibbons stomach as he shook his head.
“Sorry to ask, just that earlier today we got an urgent telegram. Someone by the name of Fox is arriving early tomorrow morning and requested a guide to meet him up at Lamberts Pass to help him down the trail in the dark.”
The ball of concern hardened into a lump of outright apprehension. “What would drive someone to be so careless with coin and animal?”
“I don’t know, he really wants to be on the barge tomorrow morning I guess. At any rate he is paying good denarii so my daughter Maisie gets to earn some pocket money!”
Gibbon could only guess that Fox must have made it past the Guardians somehow and was now trying to track him down at the first major town east of the compound.
“Yes, very strange. For my own sanity I long ago gave up trying to decipher the madness of others.”
“A sensible philosophy,” Malvern agreed.
Gibbon paused and took stock for a few moments, staring into the flames and hot coals. “Would it be possible to have someone show me around town? I am new here and seeing the sights would be a capital way to spend the afternoon.”
Malvern beamed at the unexpected interest in his town, “I will send Maisie to fetch you once I find her. Don’t pay her more than one denarii though, she already rorted five just to walk up and down the north road tonight. Ha-ha!”
Malvern showed Gibbon upstairs to his room, a rather comfortable space with two windows, a solid wooden dresser and a large, soft bed. Malvern chatted on as he fussed with the bed cover and windows. “Hopefully the room is to your satisfaction. It has the best view of the river. The party starts at dusk, don’t be late!” And with that he swept out of the room leaving Gibbon staring through the window watching goods get loaded onto the barge.
Gibbon was still there, pondering stratagems when Maisie knocked on the door. She was eleven or perhaps twelve years old, wearing sturdy boots, long dark pants and a vest covered with bulging pockets. Her eyes had an enthusiastic, entrepreneurial glint not yet diminished by age and experience.
“Father says I am to give you the grand tour. He also insisted you get a discount on the normal rate, so it is only five denarii.” That she said this with a straight face impressed Gibbon, no doubt she will go far in life.
“I will of course only pay one denarii, and expect you to run several errands for me during the afternoon.”
Intrigued by the opportunities that ‘running errands’ might present, she gave an innocent smile and sped out the door gesturing impatiently for Gibbon to follow.
The tour confirmed Gibbons first impression of the town’s prosperity. Although Maisie’s curt, if not enthusiastic answers often just raised more questions.
“What powers the saw mill and street lights?” Gibbon asked.
“The Hydro-Grid.”
“Why are the houses so stout?”
“Else the diprotodon’s would knock them over.”
“Why not hunt or scare the diprotodon’s away?”
“They stop the devils of course.”
“So this town is called Derwent Bridge no?”
“So,” Gibbon paused for dramatic effect. “Where is the bridge?”
Maisie rolled her eyes and gave a look that indicated she thought him perhaps a bit simple.
“Could you run and fetch me a vegetable pasty and flagon of dark ale?”
“Sure, that will cost one denarii”, she said holding out her hand while still walking. Gibbon stopped and just looked at her.
“I mean forty terces,” she admitted.
Gibbon smiled. “I will wait here on this convenient bench, it offers a prodigious view of your street gardens.” He riffled through his bag, pretending to search for the coins. After a moment Maisie’s curiosity overrode her manners and she stepped up on her toes to get a look inside his bag. When her eyes widened Gibbon knew she had glimpsed the shiny talisman that Fox had kindly donated.
“Do you like it?”
Her eyes quickly became disinterested and in a bored tone replied. “It is not completely without merit.”
“Well, if you continue to be quick and honest in our dealings you may have it.”
“That is kind of you. On an unrelated note, I just remembered there was a recent price change. The food and drink is only 30 terces. Also may I suggest cider rather than the dark ale, it is particularly good this year. So I am told.”
Gibbon handed over the coins. “Be quick, my hunger grows with each breath.” He waited for her to dart around the corner before sitting on the convenient bench. A family of wrens hopped around his feet chasing insects. The male, with his brilliant blue tail feathers looked quizzically at Gibbon and found him wanting. He chirped once and the whole family fluttered into a nearby acacia bush.
A few moments later Maisie returned with two pasties, cider and a flavoured milk. As they sat eating lunch Gibbon enquired about any nearby attractions of note.
“Father likes to go fishing in the Great Lakes. He usually takes me along and one time I caught a brown trout longer than my arm!”
“Is it far?”
“Maybe half a day easy walking.”
“I have always wanted to catch trout. Such a noble fish, and capital eating. Perhaps I could employ your services to take me there tomorrow? If we leave at dawn we could be fishing by mid-morning?”
Maisie looked down and kicked aimlessly at the ground a few times before explaining she was already busy first thing tomorrow morning to bring in some west coast fool who didn’t know it was stupid to travel at night. The trail was clear though, she could ask Father to draw a simple map if he liked. Gibbon made an effort to look suitably disappointed that she couldn’t make it. He pulled out one of the talismans and handed it to Maisie. She immediately placed the chain over her head and started twisting and turning the silver pendant, looking into the distorted reflections.
“I understand that reflected starlight looks particularly curious,” Gibbon suggested.
“Thank you Gibbon, I don’t care what the others say. You’re not that strange. If you don’t need anything else I have to go back home now.”
“Thank you Maisie, before you run off is there anyone skilled at leatherwork in town?”
“Old man Williams is, he runs the tannery just behind the mill. Follow your nose!” Maisie enjoyed one last swig on her flavoured milk and scampered down the street, waving goodbye as ducks scattered in her wake.
Later that day Gibbon was in his room watching the remaining goods get loaded onto the barge, the river reflecting the dull orange glow of a cloudy sunset. His errands had gone well, the results of which were now in his bag and a small wooden barrel sitting on the jetty. A crewman moved his barrel onto the barge, stacking it neatly with the other freight near the bow. A heavy canvas sail was then placed over them like a blanket and tied down within a web of ropes. Satisfied his goods were secure Gibbon turned to leave the room. The party had already started and he intended to test the extent of Malvern’s food and drink-inclusion policy. Gibbon descended the stairs into loud music, mouth-watering smells from the kitchen and dozens of brightly-dressed, smiling revellers.
A rooster crowing. Lapping water. Creaking ropes. Where am I Gibbon thought? He rolled off a stack of sail cloth onto wooden planking. The barge, he had gone to sleep on the barge. A high voice drifted across the water. Head throbbing, Gibbon sat up slowly and wiped his eyes. The only light was from a single street lamp in front of the Jumping Trout. Underneath it stood Maisie, enthusiastically explaining something to a tired looking man sitting on a horse. The silver talisman was clearly visible around her neck. Gibbon groaned as he recognised the round face and short stature of Fox. Garbled memories of telling everyone he was off fishing before hiding on the barge now made more sense. Maisie continued her exuberant elucidations, pausing for Fox’s acknowledgement at the more important junctures. After a few moments Malvern stepped outside and Maisie fell silent. He said something to Fox which Gibbon couldn’t make out and then handed over a small piece of paper. Fox asked something and Malvern replied by pointing towards the brightening eastern sky. Fox seemed satisfied and handed over several coins to Maisie. A few clicks of encouragement and his horse reluctantly turned and started towards the Great Lakes. Maisie waved until he rounded a corner and then turned to her father and excitedly showed him the various coins and trinkets she had acquired over the past few days. Malvern listened patiently, smiling as they walked back inside the Jumping Trout. Gibbon wedged himself between two crates and fell asleep using his bag as a lumpy pillow.
“Cat, I found another one.”
Gibbon staggered upright, squinting eyes trying to make out his surroundings. The barge was underway, Derwent Bridge fading into the distance and a bright sun poking above the trees. Passengers and crew milled about the deck. Some of them looked worse than he felt.
“My word it’s bright.”
The crewman who found him just laughed and yelled again. “It’s that posh man who thinks we run a Blue Moon clipper!”
From the back of the barge Cat replied, still yelling. “Standard fare.”
“Stowaways pay extra. 20 denarii please.”
Gibbons responded by violently and repeatedly vomiting over the side.
The barge smoothly floated downstream. Occasionally, in places where the river widened, crew would man poles or sweeps to keep the speed up. Gradually the tall trees and dark timber morphed into rolling green hills covered in a patchwork of stone fences and the occasional small village. At one point two entrepreneurs rowed out and did a brief roaring trade selling steaming hot pies. The sun climbed higher into the blue sky, it was shaping up to be a hot day. Cat ordered a sail to be placed up as an awning and most of the passengers settled under it in idle conservation.
There were a dozen of them, including Gibbon. Many felt the need to expand endlessly on their various life stories, much to Gibbons annoyance. The most loquacious were a recently married young couple moving from Derwent Bridge to New Hobart. The town co-operative had pooled funds to buy them into an apprenticeship with a prestigious furniture maker. This, they tediously explained, was a great way to keep Derwent Bridges population stable and avoid a crushing Malthus tax bill. Eventually, they would move back with new skills and Derwent Bridge could add additional value to the timber it harvested.
A group of five men and women, all wearing heavy blue robes, nodded in agreement. They had just spent the past two years visiting countries all around the Pacific Rim. They noted with disapproval that some nations did not employ any type of Malthus taxes preferring instead to levy the product of labour. Did these people not study any history they wondered?
Another passenger, a woman who introduced herself as Jenner, had spent the past week collecting hydrographic readings for Hydro-Grid head office. She posited that those states not lucky enough to have an ancient working Hydro-Grid might draw comfort from a rapidly growing population and the additional labour it provides.
One of the blue robes could not agree. “Surely they know that by definition a growing population must eventually extinguish their resources and fall into conflict with neighbours?”
Jenner nodded and went on, “Perhaps they feel entitled to some of those resources. It can be easy to forget, well-fed and floating blissfully down this bountiful land, that many in the world don’t have electricity to do work for them, or a grand steel hulled wind jammer fleet to protect trade routes and borders.”
“What do you suggest instead? If we shared what we had with the world, everyone would be equally poor. I don’t see any advantage in that scenario.”
A nearby crewmember added, “It is a moot point anyway. The Hydro-Grid is solid and immovable. We can’t simply give it to others. Besides, our manufactured goods are openly traded for fair prices. In this way the whole world benefits from our productivity.”
Many nodded in agreement to this sensible statement of fact.
Another passenger added, “In ancient times governments used to dominate entire continents and they just made things worse. Perhaps the answer lies at an individual rather than national level?”
Murmurs rippled around the group, people now unsure how responsible they should feel.
Jenner turned to face Gibbon, “What do you think? Should we strive to share all we produce equally with the world?”
The group looked expectantly at Gibbon, his prior policy of silence already adding weight to his words. “In a purely theoretical sense I completely agree. Poverty is a distressing condition that no one should experience. It is at the practical day to day level that my well-meaning intentions struggle to find expression.”
One of the blue-robes was now philosophically adrift asking, “Are you suggesting nothing should be done about the world’s injustice?”
“I used to work with a mentat who claimed the universe floated on a quantum foam of infinite possibilities. If he is right, there must be a version of me somewhere that has done the right thing, whatever that maybe. Surely this is enough?”
Gibbon noted with satisfaction the confused looks as everyone fell silent and returned to watching the countryside glide past.
As the river widened the towns got bigger and traffic increased. Small dinghies cast nets in the shallows. A barge steamed upstream, its small charcoal powered motor struggling against the current. Another was towed by oxen trudging along the grassy banks. A favourable breeze blew in from the west and Cat ordered the lateen sail raised. The barge heeled ever so slightly as it picked up speed, now going faster than the river current. Gibbon walked to the taffrail and watched pleasure craft cross their gurgling wake.
Not long after lunch (fried fish and potato chips delivered by a family in a long canoe) Gibbon could taste salt in the air. By mid-afternoon pacific gulls lazily circled high above. The river widened further and Cat announced they would be soon arriving. The barge, surrounded by boats of all shapes and sizes, colourful sails fluttering, tacked around a rocky finger of land. Above them in the cliffs, there was a massive, sprawling and rust coloured building cut into the side, dominating the approach.
“The Museum of New And Old.” Jenner remarked to one in particular. “They say it has enough steel to build two windjammers, but even during the Maori wars a century ago, they ripped up the railways first. It is the oldest building in New Hobart, constructed to protect knowledge and treasures as the oceans rose. Must be at least five hundred years old…”
The group stared in silent awe as they floated by a wonder of the ancient world. They were quickly distracted however as Derwent Bay opened up before them.
New Hobart. Homes, workshops, church towers, observatories and government buildings all nestled under the towering bulk of Mt Wellington, its peak wreathed in cloud. The occasional tall radio mast betrayed the presence of a wireless station or telegraph office. Closer to the shore were factories, warehouses and hotels. Among them all were a myriad of people on foot, horseback and buggy. An electric trolley glided along the waterfront promenade, stopping occasionally for passengers to get on or off. The harbour was just as busy. A steam tug gently guided a New England clipper towards the quay. Alongside bobbed cogs from Maori bulging with the finest wool, fast cats from Solomon with tropical fruits and storm lashed fishing boats from Antarctica. Amongst them a myriad of small craft darting back and forth. Overlooking them all, an enormous four-masted steel windjammer. Riding at easy anchor, pennants flapping in the breeze, long guns glinting in the sunlight. Bigger, stronger and faster than any wooden clipper, one salvo from its long guns could smash even the thickest oak. They, along with the hydro-grid powered arc furnaces needed to build them, were the only reason such a small island could dominate the entire Pacific Rim.
Cat and her crew expertly threaded the barge through harbour traffic and glided into an empty berth. Young boys on the wharf ran up to take lines and tie them off. Gibbon thought he caught a particularly ugly one staring. A gangplank dropped into place and the passengers dawdled onto the wharf. Cat announced their goods would be ready to collect from the warehouse after dinner and suggested the Steel Windlass for an excellent house stew while they wait. Those who travelled light, including Jenner, disappeared into the milling crowd. Gibbon followed the remaining passengers across the road and into the tavern.
The passengers huddled around the bar, reflecting on their journey and the relative merits of various cities. Gibbon detected a tedious tone of self-congratulation sneaking into the conversation and moved to sit alone in a booth by the window. Coin pouch on his belt and bag at his feet Gibbon enjoyed a hearty stew served in crusty trenchers whilst watching Cat and her crew begin unloading.
Several tankards of dark ale later Gibbon noted with satisfaction his barrel loaded onto a trolley and pushed into a nearby warehouse. He moved to get up but a rough hand grabbed his shoulder, pushing him back into the booth.
“In a hurry, Mr. Gibbon sir?”
Gibbon stared in disbelief at the rotund man who slid into the seat opposite. The oaf attached to the rough hand sat next to Gibbon, squashing him against the window. The ugly boy, still staring at Gibbon, waited by the table.
“Mr Fox. What a pleasant and I must say, unexpected surprise. I thought you would be enjoying the Great Lakes by now.”
Fox continued to smile as he handed a coin to the boy whom immediately ran off without a word of thanks.
“Yes, well that was a rather clever ruse wasn’t it? It took me a few hours to realise it seemed out of character for you to just give the talisman to that annoying girl.”
“I am sure if you want it back she will sell it to you. Feel free to mention my name, you might get a discount,” Gibbon offered.
“Don’t be coy Gibbon. I know the old man is dead. Whatever you stole from him rightly belongs to me.”
“I couldn’t possibly know what you mean Fox. I delivered the goods, took payment and moved on. Here, I can give you half now if you like.” Gibbon reached inside his jacket but stopped at a threatening grunt from the oaf.
Fox nodded and the oaf reached under the table, grabbed Gibbons bag and upended it, contents spilling onto the table.
“Please be careful with those.” Gibbons plea fell on deaf ears as the oaf and Fox greedily rummaged through the pile. An expensive spiral bound notebook, pencils, a jet black feather, jaunty red cap, a threadbare towel and a small locket of brown hair tied in a purple ribbon all flung carelessly aside.
Fox picked up a thin coat and opened it to reveal the deep green cover Gibbon found with the glass panel.
“Ahh, what do we have here?”
Gibbon groaned. The oaf grunted.
Fox opened the cover before glaring at Gibbon as he threw it back down on the table. A laminated wooden board with “Greetings from Derwent Bridge” engraved into one side bounced out and slid across the table.
Fox’s jovial face had transformed into an animal snarl, a small line of dribble forming in the corner of his mouth.
“You think to trick me Gibbon? Do you know how long I made those tedious deliveries to the old man? He was hiding something, something ancient and doubtless valuable. I want it!” Nearby patrons began to glance nervously at the table. Gibbon remained silent, picking up the cover and wooden board, carefully placing them back in his bag along with his other possessions. The oaf pointed through the window at the barge and grunted. Fox paused to look at several crates coming off the barge and stood up.
“Let’s go, we have a warehouse to check.”
The oaf opened his jacket just wide enough for Gibbon to see the enormous knife tucked in his belt before grabbing him in a vice grip and following Fox outside.
It was late afternoon, the heat of the day still radiating from the stone buildings and cobbled road. The streets were busy, but no one paid any heed as Fox and his minion guided Gibbon towards the nearby warehouse. They approached the entrance where one of Cat’s crew stood with a ledger, co-signing deliveries and pickups.
“Try to warn anyone and they will be the first to die,” Fox warned. The oaf grunted an enthusiastic agreement.
The crewmen looked up, smiling. “Uh ahh, good afternoon Gibbon. I hope you found the boats amenities met your exacting standards. We do hate to leave our guests unsatisfied.” He was struggling to hold back laughter. Clearly this was the height of humour.
Gibbon took a deep breath, ready to go through his carefully compiled list of sensible improvements before the oaf jammed his knife handle painfully between Gibbons ribs.
“Never mind that, I just came for my barrel,” Gibbon snapped.
The crewman dropped his smile and pointed through the open door. “Out back with the others, don’t leave without signing the consignment sheet on your way out.”
Gibbon nodded as he untangled himself from the oafs grip and led the way into the warehouse.
Crates, hessian bags and wooden barrels were haphazardly stacked everywhere, many with foreign symbols and exotic names stamped on the side. After a few wrong turns Gibbon found the Derwent Bridge consignment in a quiet corner below a weak electric lamp. Trying to stall for time, Gibbon made conservation.
“What do you think the old man was hiding, Fox? Weapons? Fantastic energy sources? Maybe electrically stimulated hallucinations?”
“Does it matter Gibbon, someone would have paid good denarii. Isn’t that all that counts?” His face relaxing back to its natural jovial state, Fox continued, “I suppose you had much grander and noble plans?”
Gibbon found his barrel and rolled it back into the light. “I suppose in a relative sense, any benefits from this hypothetical treasure would be noble to my own person. That much at least is clear to me.”
Fox just shook his head and directed for Gibbon to open the barrel. After much straining Gibbon pried away the cover and stood back. The oaf leant over to have a look but Fox pushed him out of the way and stared into a barrel packed tightly with smoked trout. Fox sighed and nodded at the oaf who began indiscriminately flinging out whole fish onto the warehouse floor.
“What do you think you’re doing? That is the finest smoked fish you can get this side of the Pacific Rim!”
Fox and Gibbon looked up to see Jenner standing just outside the circle of light. Gibbon, noticing her expression was more ‘disinterested quoll playing with its food’ than ‘concerned citizen witnessing a crime’ took a step back. The oaf, not one for picking up subtle social cues, dropped a piece of smoked trout back into the barrel, pulled out his knife and moved towards Jenner. He didn’t make it two steps. There was a high pitched whine followed by an explosion of blue sparks on his chest. The oaf slumped onto the ground, his foot twitching. Two uniformed police moved out of the gloom, one of them holding a short rifle covered in brass tubes connected to a large backpack. A faint tinge of ozone lingered in the air. Fox turned to run but two more officers moved to block him, both holding large batons. Fox stopped, carefully straightened his clothes and turned back to face Jenner.
“Provocateur Max, I can’t say it is a pleasure to see you again.”
“I was eager to catch up, you left in such a hurry last time.” Max nodded and two officers stepped forward, tied Fox’s hands, and escorted him from the building.
“So I suppose you don’t really work for the Hydro-Grid do you Max, or is it Jenner?” Gibbon queried.
“You can call me Max if you wish. The bigger question is what have got hidden in that barrel that dragged Fox away from his smuggler friends in the Western Isles?”
Gibbon, knowing when to quit, smiled. “Perhaps he just wanted some capital smoked trout?”
“I will be sure to send some to his cell. Now, if you could be so kind as to empty that barrel.”
Gibbon stepped over the oaf and upended the barrel, a square leather bag falling from the bottom. A baton wielding officer grabbed the bag and opened it, pulling out the dark green cover.
“It looks like some sort of book with a stained leather binding ma’am.”
Max took the ‘book’ and opened it, revealing the translucent glass panel within.
“It is a little more advanced than a book praetorian.” Max touched the glass panel which powered on, displaying a close up picture of Gibbon’s face. “Although it remains to be seen if it is any more useful.”
“Some of those photos are private,” insisted Gibbon.
“Yes I see,” Max agreed, as she scrolled through some of the gallery items. “Praetorian, go check his bag. Make sure he isn’t hiding anything else.”
The praetorian quickly and carefully checked everything in Gibbons bag. “Nothing of interest except 300 denarii and a wooden copy of that thing you have there.” He passed the wooden ‘glass panel’ in its dark green cover to Max.
“Well, it is lovely workmanship Gibbon, but I am not sure it would have fooled anyone. You do realise the penalties for concealing ancient tek are…………severe.”
Gibbon swallowed. “I of course had every intention to notify the relevant authorities.” Taking a gamble, Gibbon continued. “Perhaps we could go begin that process now. I imagine there would be a lot of people interested in seeing an ancient marvel such as this.”
Max frowned. “You are overplaying a precarious position Gibbon. Still, all things considered, you have delivered me a useful item. Providing the opportunity to reward Fox for his many and varied crimes is icing on the cake.” Pausing to place the wooden ‘glass panel’ and its cover back in Gibbons bag she went on. “The tide will be ebbing in less than an hour. The Harvest Moon clipper Wanderlust will be departing on it. Make sure you are on board.”
Gibbon picked up his bag and stared regretfully at the trout scattered around the oaf’s body.
“Am I to expect no recompense for my damaged goods?”
Max scowled. “Praetorian, escort our friend to the docks.”
“Yes ma’am.”
Officers on the quarter deck tipped their hats in acknowledgement as the steam tug gave a shrill whistle and turned back into the harbour. With so many mariners watching from the harbour it wouldn’t do to have the jib or mizzen billowing about in a lubberly and un-seaman-like manner, but the crew did their ship credit, studding sails and topgallants falling simultaneously from all four masts. The Wanderlust began to heel in the gentle nor-wester, making a respectable eight knots out of Derwent Bay and into the Southern Ocean.
Sitting on his private balcony overlooking the ships wake, Gibbon watched New Hobart recede under a setting sun. A discreet knock announced the arrival of his personal steward, who placed a tray of vintage Flinders red wine and a selection of fine cheeses, crackers and dried fruit on the table. Waving the steward away Gibbon smiled to himself. All things considered the day had gone well. Losing the glass panel was unfortunate but not unexpected. And though novel, without a ‘cloud’, it was essentially useless. Meanwhile, the real treasure remained his and if natural justice prevailed, would no doubt deliver a favourable outcome. The Wanderlust began a gentle rolling motion as it entered open water. Confident in his future good fortune, a smiling Gibbon raised his glass towards Mt Wellington, silhouetted against a red sky.
It wasn’t till the early hours of the morning when Max was able to sit back at her desk with a whiskey. Her windowless office deep beneath the Museum of New and Old had no windows overlooking the harbour, but her men had reported back when the Wanderlust departed, Gibbon confirmed on board. Max smiled to herself, apparently Gibbon was not impressed that the only ticket left for the two week journey to Shinano cost 280 denarii. It might have been prudent to eliminate him, but another body would have raised questions. This way her team had exclusive access to the glass panel and any lucrative secrets it contained. In time she would inform her superiors of the find. Max took a sip of whiskey as Jacek from the laboratory poked his head round the corner.
“The devices battery is flat ma’am so I sent the team home for the night. Tomorrow we can rig up a charger and begin the detailed analysis.”
“That’s fine Jacek. Did Fox give us the location of the compound?”
“Not yet, but our friend was an avid photographer. I think we should be able to identify landmarks in each photo and work back from Derwent Bridge.”
“Good work. Now go home to Neve, Jacek. Once that charger is working there will be many long nights ahead of us.”
Jacek nodded as he retreated from the doorway. Max took another sip and tried to relax but a nagging thought floated just of reach, something about the all those photos they had found. She shouted through the open doorway.
“Jacek, you still there?”
The sound of soft-soled shoes sliding on stone presaged his return.
“Yes ma’am?”
“Tell me, how does someone crossing the highlands for over a week keep a portable computer fully charged?”
Jacek leaned forward slightly, his face a pained expression as he slowly realised the only possible way Gibbon could have kept it charged.
“He must have got a charger from the same place he got the glass panel.”
Max nodded in agreement.
Jacek, thinking aloud, continued. “But all you found in his bag was that wooden copy in a green leather case?”
“Well, the case the glass panel came in was leather. On reflection the other case looked a little different…” Max paused, recollecting some of the solar cell fragments stored upstairs. The expression on Jacek’s face said he had also remembered that obscure exhibit.
Max cursed under her breath. She was never a fan of the cramped windjammer cabins. Still, at least Shinano is nice this time of year.


  1. Hi Damo. I love the story. It really did remind me very strongly of Vance's stories of Cugel. (And that's not just expectation bias. I hadn't read the comment you posted along with the link at the ADR, I just dove right for the link.)

    It would be great to have a hard copy of it in the next After Oil collection too. But there could be a fly in the ointment there. JMG's contest has a length limit and this story is significantly above it. I'm mentioning this because the deadline is today (Sun the 30th) and there might be a chance to shorten it and re-submit. I honestly don't know how strict JMG is about the rules for contest entries (maybe he'll accept it and then request you to shorten it for the collection instead) so maybe that's not even necessary, but it seems a risk.

    I hate shortening completed stories myself, so maybe that would be too difficult or unpleasant a task on very short time! But I thought I might as well mention the possibility.


  2. Thank you for the positive feedback! I really wasn't sure how it would go as I have not written any fiction since high school (and even then only some tiny little 2 page story). I am not sure how I could have got to the end point in 7000 words so am just hoping it is good enough to be considered in its bloated form :p


  3. Hi Damo,

    Genius, I loved this story and could not have written fiction this good.

    I'll just add a few things that I really enjoyed about your story – and as you wrote, it was very Jack Vance!

    The not so innocent traveller getting ripped off by the unscrupulous charlatan and then despite hardships comes out on top.

    Liked the introduction of the exotic monotreme (platypus) wildlife and all of the other references including one of my favourites the diprotodon! Hey, I've seen their bones in the Naracoorte caves in SA and they are a fearsomely impressive beast.

    Dodgy food reminds me of the innkeeper in the Lyonesse story. You channelled it really well.

    The alpine passes made me think of the alpine areas of Tasmania which you’ve clearly travelled to given the Zeehan connection. Plus all of the place names were very well done.

    Not one for self reflection… Very amusing! The protagonist is very cudgel like. How good was the Dying Earth series. Man, you nailed this story.

    The crashing satellite was very funny – almost a bit hitchhikers guide…

    no doubt she will go far in life was a very astute observation

    Enjoyed the transfer into the hangover scene and the impending threat of being nabbed by Fox

    Jenner the economist versus the blue robes was a total laugh and the ensuing philosophical discussion was genius.

    Oh yeah, chuck in MONA for good measure too. Tidy work.

    the Steel Windlass – honestly I thought you were about to write the Drunken Admiral…

    Nice to see the twist at the end and he’s still not in the clear.

    All up an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable story! I was laughing all the way through reading it tonight. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

    Incidentally you may be interested in anthology of stories by big name authors called “Songs of the Dying Earth” which is edited by George R R Martin. Your story would sit well among them.




  4. Thank you for the kind comments Chris, they are very appreciated! Hopefully I didn't cross the line of inspired by Vance into shamelessly copying Vance! I may write more in the future, overall I think I enjoyed it :p


  5. Yo, Damo – Your blog … gee, it’s bigger on the inside :-).

    Where to start? I think the re-fortification of the hill fort was kind of interesting. A couple of years ago (after I read “Skystone” for the first time) I ran across a book at a used book sale. “Was This Camelot? Excavations at Cadbury Castle, 1966-70” by Alcock. It’s kind of an abridged excavation report, for the public. A bit dry.,_Somerset

    What I remember from the book is that the post Roman remains were pretty extensive, and, at the time, they fully expected to find similar on other old Iron Age hill forts. Didn’t happen. So far, Cadbury Hill is a one off. They figure it would have taken about 800 men to defend it. Quit a sizable force, for that time period.

    What I also found interesting was how they recruited people with all different kinds of talents and skills.

    I also found the bit about iron being more valuable than gold, as it was getting so hard to get. Iron ingots.

    So, what impressed you? Lew


    • Hi Lew,

      Maybe I should rename the blog to the Tardis. I am not as prolific as our mutual friend, but try and write something every month or so.

      The write up on Cadbury Castle was fascinating. Especially that they have not really found anything else similar. That has some deeply philosophical implications for social conditions at the time. Our Skystone Roman preppers might have been the only ones that kept things together after the Romans left. Which makes sense, the Arthur legend would not have resonated so strongly throughout history if everything was tickety boo post-Roman occupation. And 800 soldiers – how many peasant farmers required to feed that many? 10,000? 50,000? A sizeable territory at any rate!

      I appreciate how the preppers are building a community. Stark contrast to the typical prepper of modern times. And I like how, already, even with the Romans still present, Brittanicus is basically running that area as an independent fiefdom already.

      I did roll my eyes a little bit at how drop-dead gorgeous Luceia is – a bit of a cliche trope, but I did appreciate that they spent some time fleshing out her character – I quite liked her minor breakdown just before they went off to negotiate a treaty at Stonehenge. To be so smart and capable, but relegated to child-rearing would be tough, and a lot of similar stories gloss over that.

      I think I mentioned that I find the first person narrative my least favourite viewpoint – especially when it is used for cheap foreshadowing (“If only I knew what was about to happen….”). But, reading The Sea Wolf at the moment, well, I have no problems with our friend Jack London when he uses it 🙂

      At any rate, that is a minor complaint for a book I read very quickly – a page turner which is always a good sign. Have you started on the singing sword yet (I think that is the next one)?



  6. Hi Lew – the prologue for Singing Sword. The bad guy still lives!!!! This annoys me as it sort of backtracks on the last book. Can’t we have a new villain?? Oh well, maybe he will die of infection in a few chapters..



  7. Yo, Damo – Well, the test worked. We’ll see …

    I’m up to Chapter XVI in “Singing Sword.” Yeah, he should have followed his first impulse and whacked off his head. Varrus would be rubbish, in a zombie stand-off.

    Luceia does get the rough end of the stick. Queens trying to rule in their own right, had it tough. If they were effective rulers, they weren’t “womanly” enough. If they were womanly enough, they weren’t effective rulers and everyone rode roughshod, over them. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. I have been watching that new series, “Victoria.” Every time she got pregnant (and, she was pregnant a lot) she had to give up some of her duties and it drove her wild. I don’t know how true to history it was, but she also had some shir-tail relation in Albert’s ear, gas lighting him that every pregnancy cause her to lose IQ points. And made her irrational.

    I really don’t pay much attention to point of view … as long as the author picks one and sticks with it. The books that drive me nuts are the one’s where you can’t tell which character is saying or thinking, what.

    I do wish some of the minor characters were fleshed out a bit more. A bit like “Crewman 1 through 3” in Star Trek. You knew they were going to be expendable, in short order. To quote Dorothy Gale from “The Wizard of Oz”, “People come and go so quickly, here!” Lew


  8. Hi Lew,

    Well I read the infamous chapter 3/4 in Singing Sword. Yeah, chapter 3 was getting a bit grimy wasn’t it!

    I think it was important for the story, but the level of detail was definitely not. I also thought it was a bit out of character for him to just go along with the whole sordid “affair” as well. He never came across as someone to debase himself like that.

    But, it set the tone for the moral failings of a declining empire and the overall sense of lawlessness. Caius is now all excited about heavy cavalry and they just kicked out the incestuous carpenter.



  9. Yo, Damo – Well, Varrus is only human and Cylia was certainly seductive and willie.

    But, yeah, the whole deterioration of law and order is interesting. How it creeps in and then becomes a major problem. I don’t know if you caught the conversation between Chris and I about the YouTube vid, “Seattle is Dying.” It’s about an hour long, but, basically, a theme that runs through it is the breakdown of order in the city. It starts small and then spreads.

    I heard the other day, a woman was digging up a plant from our gardens. Had a pot all ready to go. One of the Ladies inquired if it was her space, did she live here, was she visiting someone, living here. No to all the above. Apparently, she just thought she could help herself to the plant. And was rather unconcerned when she was told in no uncertain terms to stop digging in our garden, and move along.

    There’s a whole theory of crime prevention, that came out of New York in the 1980s, when the city had completely gone to heck. The “broken window” theory. One broken window, apparently, leads to more broken windows. Let the little things slide, and they become bigger problems. But it can be a balancing act. When does good orderly law and order become despotism? Lew / credentials can be used.


    • Hi Lew,

      I think that woman digging up your garden is a sign the legions will be withdrawing soon. Such nerve!! Although, I note old ladies are often quite forward. I guess after a while, social niceties seem pointless 🙂

      I have heard about the NY broken window thing before. I guess it makes sense, but I understand that the same trend occurred across most large US cities, so was it really due to a change in police work? Hmmph. Too deep a question. I note Varrus is now a prisoner of Seneca and they are about to meet Stilicho. Can’t say I think this plan is a good idea, it seems a little contrived.

      I like how they are talking about the development of heavy cavalry. I am guessing the invention that changes everything will be stirrups 🙂



  10. Yo, Damo – I was reading something the other day, about a theory as to why murder rates have fallen, across US cities. Cell phones. A lot of murders had to do with turf wars between drug gangs. Instead of hanging around on well defended corners, the business became more virtual.

    Well, here’s a bit of horse gear you might find interesting …

    Yeah, the whole delivery Varrus to Seneca seemed a bit convoluted. I mean, the way it plays out makes sense (sort of), if you play 3-D chess, with the plot. But it’s really more intuitive to just go hide in the fortress. Lew


    • Hi Lew,

      Hipposandals look awesome, I don’t feel any of those theories work for me, except maybe the shoes for heavy draft horses. Very cool though.

      Well, Publius got out of the trap and is now best buddies with Stilicho. Such an interesting historical figure, would you recommend any good biographies of him? I have no idea how much material we actually have on him, but he featured prominently in the history of rome podcast I listened to a few years back.



  11. Yo, Damo – Actually, I think they’re a matched set of candle holders to light your way to bed :-). Now I’ll pull the other one. Hmmm. I’ll have to look into that one. I did look into horseshoes. Although one was found in an Etruscan tomb from about 400 BCE, they didn’t come into common use until about 900CE. But they did find one in a Frankish king’s tomb, from just about the time of our story. I’ve often thought that the first blacksmith who tried to drive nails into a horses hoof, must have been a brave man! I need to look into stirrups.

    There appears to be just one book, in English, on Stilicho. Just search Amazon, under his name. The reviews seem pretty good. There are whole chapters about him, in books on the end of the Empire. I won’t say more, as that would be spoilers.

    I’m closing in on the end of “Singing Sword”. Up to chapter XXVI. I’ll stop there until you both catch up. Plenty of other books, coming my way, at present.

    I think I’ve got the sign in thing, sorted. Seems I needed to use the same user name and password, that I used to use on Mr. Greer’s old blog. Lew


  12. Hi Lew,

    Spoilers for Stillicho, I seem to remember it didn’t go well for him. But then, very few Roman notables with real power died peacefully in their old age. Comes with the territory I suppose. The book looks like it could be good – do I dare add it to my list though …

    I think I am pretty close to you in Singing Sword – just finished the chapter covering the discussion with Picus on mortal sin and the power of established religion. I am bit confused about that this new weapon they are making. Is it a precursor to the longsword?

    I liked the scene with the central heating gone – a sign of things to come! Those villas do sound nice though, glass windows, central heating and roaring fires. In a hundred years they won’t have the resources or the knowledge to build them!

    Your login should work with any hosted wordpress blog. Of course it could just be that the username and password is identical and not actually linked as I think Greers old blog was google.



  13. Yo, Damo – I just read another chunk of “Singing Sword.” Lots of pieces falling into place. :-).

    Candles were developed way back in the BCE. Dipped tallow, mostly. So, why weren’t they more widely adopted? Probably because the Med was awash in olive oil. Soap also goes way back to BCE. It cleaned, but it smelled foul. So, not much used. Stirrups? If they show up in these books, they’re really a out of time. They may have been in existence in the very far East, but didn’t make their way to Europe til about the 900s.

    So, why didn’t the ancients follow up on a lot of things. They had the concept of steam, moving things. But never followed through on it. There was all that slave labor, around, and fuel might have been a problem. Coal wasn’t more than a curiosity, if that. And the Med had pretty much been deforested.

    But the books talk about how hide bound and slow to change the military was. People get conservative and comfortable with “the way things are done”, even when circumstances change and perhaps looking at things from a different angle might be advised. Lew


    • Hi Lew,

      Your fear of early stirrups were unfounded. The book seemed to leave them as an interesting curiosity that Varrus never figured out 🙂

      I finished the book last night, after all that, I kinda liked the ending. Was almost a little teary and felt like an end of an era. I presume the next book focuses more on the two grandkids with Varrus taking a background role (if he doesn’t die soon – 55 is getting on a bit). If I am going to complain, the villain was very mustache twirling, but can be forgiven since the main story for me is the prepping aspect.

      Isn’t there an argument that the Library of Alexandria had a working steam engine? As you said, the Romans *could* have built one if they put all the pieces together. But with cheap slaves on one hand, and tricky access to coal on the other, it makes sense that they never did anything with it.

      Like you, I am moving onto another book now. Might wait a few weeks for Chris to catchup before moving onto the next one. I also got a real good copy of book 5 for $4 at a used book shop the other day, but will need to order the missing one online if I want to keep reading at that stage. Who knows, another might turn up 🙂



    • Hi Lew, I used to write comments in word then copy/paste into the Web page when I had an older pc with a suspect Internet connection. Saved a bit of hair!

      I never heard of Hero before. His steam devices were getting close to useful, and who knows, there might have been improved devices that got lost in the winds of time. He also could have being an alien or time traveller according to some short stories 🙂



    • Hi Lew,

      Nice find, and relevant to our novel! For a temporary fort, the gatehouse still looks pretty solid.

      I see Chris has made it to the Singing Sword now. I am now reading “Foundation” by Asimov. He was inspired after reading Gibbons decline and fall to do a Galactic Empire version. Pretty good so far, and almost like a history lesson on the forces at play in Europe during the ‘dark ages’.



  14. Yo, Damo – That is a cool fort. But so little seems to be known, about it. With the drought in Britain, and the new radar tech, they’re finding previously unknown forts and towns, all over England. Ought to keep the archaeologists busy for a couple of centuries.

    Oh, dear. You do know “Foundation is a series? “Foundation”, “Foundation and Empire” … “The Foundation Strikes Back”. :-). But I MAY be confusing books with totally unrelated films. There are also numerous short stories. Probably collected together … somewhere.

    So, how long did the chocolate cake last? I find if I make something, it lasts (slightly) longer than store-bought. The time and effort. And, I think, generally more … satisfying, in smaller quantities. Lew


    • Yeah, I don’t want to dive into the rabbit hole that is the various Foundation sequels, reboots, spin-offs and short stories. I am sticking to the original trilogy which is a pretty good read!

      I also got a copy of The Earth Abides arrive the other day, so that might be my next one 🙂

      The chocolate cake never lasts long here – I think between the two of us it was gone in 2.5 days. Waste not, want not!



  15. Yo, Damo – Well, I finished “The Singing Sword.” What a blood bath! And not a word about the poor servants, who have to tidy up! I wonder if that’s the last we’ll hear of the Senicas? They were an extensive clan, as I remember. Onto “The Eagle’s Brood.” But I’ll give it a rest, for a few days. Let Chris catch up. Lew


    • Haha, it was quite the blood bath wasn’t it! I will probably wait a few weeks before starting the next one – don’t want to wear out the authors welcome by over-indulging. A few chapters into Earth Abides. What a great read, clearly the inspiration for so many sci-fi books I had read as an impressionable teenager (The Stand, The Postman etc).



  16. Yo, Damo – “Earth Abides” is a great novel, as I remember. LOL.I remember when I first read it, and there was a reference to silver dimes. “When was this thing, written?” I thought. We haven’t had all silver dimes since1964.

    LOL. I decided to dip into “The Eagle’s Brood.” Just one chapter. Hah! Boy, it just sucks you in. Oh, wicked day! :-). Lew


  17. Hi Lew,

    I just finished Earth Abides, and saw the silver dime reference. They make good arrowheads for shooting cattle apparenty 🙂

    So bad Lew – reading ahead like that! Mrs Damo and I are about to head on a 3 week trip, and I need to plan my book packing very carefully – no second chances if I pick dud books!



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