The port town of Tyla Harbor was located near the delta of the River Tyla, a decent-sized river that flowed through the Winter Desert, at least according to Hoan, the guide that had been sent from Ileona to meet us. He said it would be a three days’ journey to the Summer Lands, and another day to reach Ileona.
“Winter Desert?” I asked the elf, unsure if I had heard right. Hoan spoke Silva with a heavy accent. Unlike the clear enunciation common in Cleron, he spoke very smoothly, to the point of sounding slurred at times, and he seemed to have trouble with B and V sounds, frequently conflating the two. “This looks like summer to me, and I’ve seen all manner of plants and trees throughout the town.”
The lanky elf just grinned at me. “Of course it is summer now, but these are still the Winter Lands.”
“If I understand,” Aylwyn stepped in to clarify, “the Winter Lands are lands that have a winter season, where snow falls, whereas the parts of Ìludar so warm that they never see snow are the Summer Lands?” Hoan nodded, and she continued, “I must admit, though, this does not appear to be a desert to me either.”
“You have only seen the town,” he said. “There are many lovely trees planted throughout Tyla Harbor. But beyond its boundaries, forest land is scarce, va; there is only barren grassland.”
“So to your people,” I mused, “a desert is a land without trees?”
“Of course, va.”
“To humans, a desert is a land without water.”
He nodded. “They say that you are something of a philosopher, Mister Stark. Tell me, is this not the same thing? To you, it means a land that is hostile to the way your people prefer to live. To me, it means the same thing. As Silva does not have a single word for lands where trees do not grow, I say ‘desert,’ va.”
That was sort of an odd point, but it took a minute to articulate why. After thinking it over, I slowly replied, still thinking it through as I spoke, “I’m not sure if that’s safe, really. Many of the worst conflicts come about because people don’t understand each other. Two people may hold the same basic idea, but they word it in different ways, and understand each other’s words differently, and they come to believe that they disagree on the idea.
“More than once I’ve listened to a couple engineers arguing over something, and when I listen to what they’re saying, I ask the one, ‘do you mean this and this?’ And he says ‘yes, of course,’ and I ask the other one, ‘do you mean this and this?’ And he says ‘yes, of course,’ and it turns out that they simply had different understandings of the words they were using, and then the one says to the other, ‘why didn’t you say that all along?’ And the other says ‘that’s what I said!’ because to him they’re the same thing.”
Hoan looked at me. “And this has happened… twice?”
Huh? “No, more than that. Too often, really.”
“You said, more than once. How many more times?”
Oh. “It’s a figure of speech. It means that this isn’t something that just happened one time, but rather it’s something regular.”
Hoan laughed. “So, exactly what you were just talking about! Also, what is an engineer? I don’t know this word.”
Wow. That was actually a little bit tricky. How exactly do you define something so familiar? “It’s… a person who studies the way things work, and uses that knowledge to take simple things and build greater things out of them.” A bit awkward, I suppose, but a decent working definition.
“Ah! We have them among our people too, the pacehelia. I think… your tongue has its own name for them, but I cannot remember… ah, druids. That is the word.”
That wasn’t quite right. I glanced at Aylwyn for a bit of help, and she stepped in. “The pacehelia are the ones who shape the living forests and care for their health with magic, yes?” Hoan nodded, and Aylwyn said, “Engineers work with non-living materials and without magic. They are somewhat similar concepts, but different in details.”
He frowned. “But if their creations do not live, how can they grow?”
“They don’t,” I replied. “They just do what they’re made to do. Like… a bridge over a river. You wouldn’t want it to grow or move around when it’s already the right size and in the right place, right?”
That seemed to confuse him. “But what can it do when the riverbank moves, kees?”
When, not if? “That’s… really not a problem in human lands. Rivers tend to stay where they’ve always been.” I knew that wasn’t strictly true–just a little bit before I was born, a very serious flood in the American Midwest occurred as a result of the Mississippi river shifting its course, for example–but it was true enough to work as a general principle.
“That is very strange,” he said. “If I were you, I would not speak of this to other elves. The thought of your land being dead is… unnerving. We have heard of it, but to hear you discuss it so freely?” He shuddered.
“The land’s not dead,” I said. “You value forests very highly, right?” Hoan nodded. “Much of the kingdom of Cleron is covered in pristine forest. When I travel through the woods, I hear birds singing all around, and I frequently see small animals, and sometimes large ones. The land is very alive and healthy, as far as I can tell; it just… tends to stay where we left it. Are you saying that here, it doesn’t?”
He frowned. “You make it sound as if your land is not dead, but simply enslaved. This is not a great improvement.”
“I never thought about it in that way. The idea of land being something with a will, something that can change, that’s completely foreign to us. As far as we know, land–our land, at least–doesn’t change unless some outside influence acts upon it. That’s just not in its nature.”
Hoan scoffed. “Perhaps, kees. But land in Ìludar has a nobler nature. It is beautiful; you will see.”
“What are these things you keep saying, ‘va’ and ‘kees’?”
He laughed. “Oh, they are simply words you say to a person. Va, it simply means ‘person’, to acknowledge someone. And kees… I don’t think this is a word your tongue has. Is it true that you have very few words to describe your feelings towards another person? If you see them positively you say ‘friend’, unless they are someone very important to you and then you say ‘love’. Or for those you do not like, there are similarly few words?”
I nodded. “It’s not quite so simple as that, but fairly close.”
“Not among the elves. We have twenty-two words for different friendships, and forty for enemies. Kees is I suppose what you would call the lowest level of friendship. A person who is not an enemy, and is worthy of being treated with respect, but with whom you have no real bond.”
That was interesting. “Why so many more words for enemies?”
He looked at me and shrugged. “Because there are so many more ways to be enemies, va,” he said in the tone of one stating something so obvious that you don’t even have to think about it.
He told us that he had horses prepared for the two of us, (and tried, poorly, to conceal his surprise at being told that Aylwyn would not need any,) and that we should prepare whatever supplies we would need, and depart the next morning, even though it was still relatively early in the day.
Feeling somewhat bemused, the two of us headed out and began to make preparations. The town seemed to be populated by humans and elves in about equal proportions, with various merchants catering to each race. We found a human-style inn and got a room for the night, then spent the rest of the time making sure we had all we’d need for a five days’ journey. After that, we turned in a bit early, mostly because I was still exhausted after the long ocean voyage.
It felt really good to just be able to relax for once, and spend the night with my wife in a bed on a floor that stayed in the same place and the same orientation throughout the night. Eventually I fell asleep, looking out the window at the night sky, looking at the few stars I could see through the window and wondering, as I had many times before, if Sol was up there anywhere.
* * *
“There’s something odd about the Elfstar,” I remarked to Aylwyn the next morning.
She nodded. “It is the only fixed star that does not appear over a pole.” At least, I assumed that that word meant “pole”, from the context.
“And do you have any idea how impossible that is?”
Aylwyn shrugged. “Not impossible at all, as we see it exists.”
“You know what I mean. Whether one believes as Gerald does, that the heavens rotate about the earth, or as I do, that the earth turns, it’s the same conclusion: any star not in line with the poles should appear to circle the earth, from our perspective.”
“And yet this one does not.”
“Right. Which means it’s not a star at all.”
Aylwyn frowned slightly. “There are planets as well, but they also hold a circular course through the night sky.”
“No, not a planet either. The only possible explanation I have… isn’t possible either.”
“What is that?” she asked.
Wow, how to explain this? I thought about it for a second. “What is the word? If I jump into the air, there’s a force that pulls me back down.”
“Thank you. Now, if gravity pulls downwards, why do people living on the other side of the world not fall off into the Void?”
“Because ‘down’ is relative. It pulls inward, towards the sphere of the world.” She frowned. “Why do you ask such obvious questions? Surely you knew the answer already.”
“Just to lay a foundation and make sure we’re both approaching it from the same perspective.”
“Very well. Down is inward.”
I nodded. “Which means that the absolute direction of ‘down’ changes as your position changes.”
“Yes, clearly. Why?”
“Can we also agree that though the direction of gravity may change, the strength of the force is constant?”
“I have not studied such things, but that sounds reasonable.”
“Consider this. You’re the strongest person I know. Imagine a person a hundred times stronger, with a sling and a stone, on a flat plain. The person slings the stone so hard that it flies so far, so quickly, that before it hits the ground, the direction of ‘down’ for that stone changes.”
Aylwyn nodded. “A strange idea. It would still hit the ground, but very far away. Beyond the horizon.”
“Right. But now imagine a person a thousand times stronger still, standing atop the world’s tallest mountain. When this person slings the stone, it moves so fast that the world falls out from under it exactly as fast as it falls, and the turning direction of gravity pulls it in a circle rather than down, because forward speed and inward pull are perfectly balanced, so that our slinger could wait some time, then turn around and catch the stone as it returned to the same position at the same height.”
Aylwyn frowned. “You are being overly theoretical again. Even if such strength existed, no person could sling a stone with such precision that it would return to exactly the same spot, and even if they did, they certainly could not catch it; it would break their hand to even try! I suspect that you are actually speaking of the moon, how it circles the Earth, but not as the stars and planets do, and does not fall.”
That was an impressive deduction! “I’m speaking of a theoretical concept in which it would be possible for people on the ground to make something circle the world, as the moon does, in that same manner.” Then the implications dawned on me. “Ha! This is too perfect!”
“If the Elfstar doesn’t move in a circle to cancel out gravity, why doesn’t it fall? The only possible answer is that it’s speed and height are such that it takes exactly one day to circle once, thus appearing not to move because the world, turning beneath it, is keeping pace with it!”
That drew another frown from from Aylwyn. “Are you still arguing with Gerald, even while he’s not here? Because you know exactly what he would say to that claim.”
I did? “What would he say?”
Aylwyn sighed, then pitched her voice down about an octave and a half. “Don’t be silly, Paul,” she said gruffly, in a halfway decent impression of the Archmagus. “There’s a much simpler explanation: the world is stationary, and the Elfstar simply floats above it in the skies, like a cloud.”
I shook my head. “Even clouds move around, blown about by the winds. How can the Elfstar remain stationary, with nothing to tie it to the ground?”
“Fae magic, of course,” she said, still doing Gerald’s voice.
I fought the urge to facepalm, because that was actually a good objection. Argh! How was I ever to hope to help enlighten people about science and technology when pleading special exemptions to the laws of physics “because magic” was literally a valid argument?!?
“Why does the Elfstar hold such fascination for you?” she asked, as herself this time. “First it was ‘odd’, then ‘impossible’, then you explain exactly how it is possible within your theory, so why devote so much thought and worry to it?”
“Because on my world, we do know how to do that, but it requires technology that nobody has here, that is specifically forbidden under pain of dragonfire, and to even begin to contemplate it requires mathematics that nobody has here. There was once a man named Isaac Newton, a scholar who sought to describe the movement of objects in predictable ways through mathematics. He discovered that a system to adequately describe what he wanted to calculate didn’t even exist, so he had to invent it! He’s the one who came up with the example of the slingstone I shared earlier, and he developed a theory known as Universal Gravitation which defines gravity as more than simply some vague ‘a force that pulls inward’, but gave exact numbers to define its behavior. Without Universal Gravitation, it’s not even possible to calculate the proper circular path that a ‘fixed star’ would need to be on, let alone to attempt to reach it! And none of that exists here.”
Well, technically Newton’s example had used a cannon, not a really strong person with a sling, but the principle was the same.
“Your people can build stars?” she asked.
“No, that would be… wow. That would be beyond impossible. But we can build a machine that circles our world, and place a lighted beacon on it. It’s been done, many times. And now, it appears that someone–somehow, against all reason–has done so here!”
Aylwyn pursed her lips. “I can see why this fascinates you, then,” she said pensively. “Does this mystery worry you?”
“No. Well… a little, yes,” I had to admit. “Having something that high up makes for a wonderful vantage point to drop things on people’s heads. In theory at least; it’s never actually been done like that. But mostly I’m fascinated by it. If it’s possible to raise such a device to circle the world, it opens up countless new possibilities, not the least of which is to never lose one’s way again.”
“What do you mean?”
“In my world, ships don’t have navigators anymore, at least not like Karr. The people who play that role now are technologists, not mathematicians. We have a group of devices circling our world, each with its own beacon transmitting a signal, and ships have devices that can receive these signals, and from this, from seeing which beacons are visible and what their position is in the sky, they can calculate their current position on the surface. No need for angles or books full of charts and calculations; the answer is simply there, as long as the navigator keeps the device in working order.
“And it’s not just ships that have these devices. People do, as personal property. I actually had two, one for my carriage and one for my–” there was no word for phone here. “My information box that held the music.”
She gave me a quizzical look. “…which was inside your carriage.”
“Only because I was storing it there, as it’s useless without a supply of the Force Electric to power it. Ordinarily I would carry it with me at all times. It combines this capability with a set of maps that it can match with my position, and if I tell it the place I wish to go to, it can find the way for me. I once traveled all the way to the great city of Portland, a journey nearly as long as the one you made with me, to attend a convention, a large gathering of fellow geeks, and I never once had to ask anyone for help finding my way, though I had never been to Portland before.”
She nodded. “So they can help you find your way and not be lost.”
“And that’s just the beginning! They help us communicate as well, by sending information up and around the world and back down again. They help us learn about the world, by showing pictures of what’s below. I could spend a whole week just describing to you the wonders of Google Earth alone! If any of those things are possible here, I have to know!”
She half-smiled and shook her head slowly. “Don’t forget you’re already pursuing one wild goal.”
I sighed. “You’re right. I suppose I have–ha!”
“We have a saying in America. A person who is full of dreams, like me, we say that person has their head in the clouds, while a person like you, someone more practical, we say they have both feet firmly on the ground.”
That made her smile as she instantly saw the irony: of the two of us, she was the one who could fly!
“Our guide seems ill-prepared for this task,” she pointed out, switching to a more productive subject.
“You noticed that too?”
Aylwyn nodded. “He seems to know just enough about us to highlight how much he does not know about us.”
That was an interesting way of putting it. “I wonder what his story is.”
“He obviously has a strongly-held Elven traditional viewpoint, from the way he was talking yesterday. Remember what you and Nulaera said about the Elven sense of cultural supremacy? I get the distinct feeling that he holds to that tradition.” She nodded, and I continued, “so why is he out here, almost a week away from Ileona, in a town whose only purpose is trade with outsiders?”
“Meeting us?” she asked.
“Maybe, but I get the feeling it’s not as simple as that.”
I searched for an explanation, but couldn’t think of much. “It just feels like there’s more.”
“Ask him, then.” She didn’t seem too concerned.
We got up and went through some morning exercises together, her usual morning routine of stretches, calisthenics, and a slow, graceful kata that I was still working on getting the hang of. I’d been joining in with her since I’d started sharing her mornings, and the exercises were a bit tiring, but it felt good, not to mention helping work up an appetite for breakfast, which came next.
After we ate in the common room, we headed to the livery stable at the edge of town, met up with Hoan and the horses he had prepared for us, and headed out onto the warm, grassy plains of the Winter Desert.
Author’s Note: While I was writing this, X-Men: Apocalypse came out in theaters. One of the scenes uses the age-old (and completely wrong) “Hollywood Gravity” device, where there exists a point at which, once you go up high enough to be “in space,” gravity just shuts off and you’re drifting in zero-G.
This chapter features a scientifically accurate discussion of orbital mechanics and how the zero-G effect is caused by orbital momentum cancelling out gravity. Just for the record, this is purely by coincidence; that discussion was already written before the movie’s release.