1. A road is found.
Alone in a spaceship. How did this happen? Entom looked around. Must be someone about, has to be, he thought. And just what is this spaceship anyway? These and other questions were on Entom's mind as he gazed helplessly out the window. The window of an apparent spaceship showing infinite space beyond. He sat down in what appeared to be the Captain's chair. How did this happen? he wondered again.
Entom remembered being in charge of an expedition into one of the darkest and most remote locations on earth in search of the fabled Karoo people who were said to have secrets that gave them incredible powers. As a respected anthropologist from a big city university Entom, Professor Entom Maxtut to be precise, was very interested in the secrets of the Karoo and persuaded his university to fund an expedition. Entom's teaching assistant, Tragar, and two graduate students, Brak and Jant, accompanied him into the unknown with a retinue of a dozen or so porters from Uxil's Mountain Guide Service. They never could get an accurate count of the porters and their leader Uxil didn't seem to understand whenever he'd been asked about it, sometimes falling into odd accents to further obfuscate. Curiously no one outside of this alleged big city has ever even heard of the fabled Karoo.
Nonetheless, when the map to Cranch, the peculiar name of the Karoo country, was discovered Entom had been enormously excited since he'd claimed that no one had ever been able to find Cranch before. He talked of an amazing road of twists and turns that was said to lead to Cranch, itself undiscovered. This is probably because most thought Cranch to be mythical, just the stuff of legends and never having a physical reality at all. But legends are often based on some thread of truth, truth that's greatly enlarged and distorted in time.
Much to everyone's surprise the map had given a starting point at a well-known suburb of the very city that Professor Maxtut's university was in. Further the suburb was where Professor Maxtut maintained his modest home. As you can see, we've gone from Entom to Professor Maxtut as our doubts quicken. How could he teach about Cranch and not know the secret road started right next door? How? Especially since right next door was a large hillock with a boulder blocking something suspicious, likely a cave entrance.
The very next morning the expedition, with Professor Maxtut at the head, hired a tractor to move the boulder then bravely entered the cave that was revealed. They all had excellent flashlights with fresh batteries and the cave was well lit as they began. By the end of the first day they were using just a front light, a middle and a back light as the need to preserve their batteries became apparent. The cave was pitch black without flashlights and that night was terrifying, trying to sleep in absolute blackness smothered by absolute silence.
The next day's march through darkness was a stumbling and stifling mess until a light was seen ahead. Tragar, Professor Maxtut's teaching assistant, who had proven to be a capable expedition chief by making sure everyone had dinner and a bed last night, then posted guards, all in absolute darkness, was the first to see it.
“Light ahead!” he screamed and everyone surged forward. They practically ran for the remaining couple of klicks to a large round exit, an exit that led to dry sand drifts under a bright, searing sun. The heat was unbearable and they stepped back into the shade of the cave.
Tragar gaped for a long time, then stuttered, “How is this possible?” He looked around, “How is this even possible?”
“This is the road to Cranch, I'm sure now,” Professor Maxtut proclaimed with a pleased and somewhat superior expression.
“We have to cross this hostile desert?” Tragar asked with eyes wide.
“No, no, nothing like that,” Professor Maxtut smiled. “According to the map,” which he was now looking at, “we go thataway.” He pointed into the cave from which they'd just emerged. “The spot we're at is marked Layover Two.” He looked up with a smile, “Layovers are, according to the map's legend, crossroads that can only be left at dawn.”
“So what happened to Layover One?” Tragar asked.
“Hmmm, I'm not sure,” Professor Maxtut said, scratching his head, “but I've got some ideas. We'll see, soon I hope.” He peered at the map for a moment more, then shrugged. “Anyway, we camp here and leave at dawn.”
2. Sliding along.
That afternoon was hot. Hotter than they had thought possible and they stayed in the shadow of the cave exit, drinking lots of water and dozing. As evening approached it got cooler and once again Professor Maxtut was impressed with Tragar's organizational skills as he, working well with the grad students Brak and Jant, put their camp together. He could only see six porters helping and he waved Uxil aside and asked if some of the porters had left.
“Nossuh!” Uxil exclaimed happily, seemingly transformed into some sordid version of a native. “All dem right hyar suh!”
With a stunned expression Professor Maxtut continued, “Oh. I thought a dozen or so had started with us, I mean . . .”
“Nossuh! Six like always, like we talked boss.” He smiled proudly. “See there? All de stuff okay, all de stuff here. Juss six dunnit.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you Uxil, you and your men are doing a marvelous job.” Uxil bowed and returned to helping set up camp but Professor Maxtut was troubled despite Uxil's assurances. He wondered why Uxil had used that obscure and demeaning slave lingo. He wondered how he could be so sure he'd seen a dozen or so porters at the start. But when he counted them again later there were only five.
They built a fire against the increasing cold using old driftwood they found along the base of the bluff where the cave emerged. As they huddled around the fire the night dropped like a curtain and it was suddenly dark. There was a huge swath of stars in the sky and they lost track of the cold, staring in awe. Unfortunately that awe was short lived as the cold soon became biting. It got colder and they crawled into their sleeping bags. Soon they were all huddled together near the fire trying to keep warm. It was a long night of very little sleep. No guard had been posted due to the shocking cold. Around three a.m. they heard a shrill, otherworldly screech, then another further off as if whatever had made that sound was sending a message. Then the sound was repeated again faintly in the distance. Maybe a pack.
When morning's first glimmer finally arrived, they began packing, anxious to get away from this spot but also to avoid freezing. They entered the cave entrance as the first rays of the sun lit their site. Professor Maxtut noticed, with some trepidation, that there were only three porters now. They seemed adequate to the task though and Uxil appeared unconcerned so he said nothing. Tragar looked momentarily puzzled then quickly turned and began the day's march.
The cave was definitely different now, curving around to the right and climbing sharply upward. It was well lit this time although no sources for the light could be seen. Within minutes they came to a sudden downturn that soon became too steep and they stopped. It was so steep they feared sliding if they took any further steps which was especially fearsome as the end of the slide could not be discerned. After standing in perplexity for a few moments Professor Maxtut sat down. He immediately began to slide and Tragar, in trying to reach him, fell on his bottom and began to slide too. Somehow Brak and Jant's feet slipped out from under them and they fell on their bottoms and began sliding as well. The last thing Professor Maxtut saw before sailing over the rim was Uxil and three porters solemnly watching with expressionless faces. He splashed into a deep underground river that carried him quickly outside then plopped him into a large placid lake. Soon Tragar, Brak and Jant joined him and together they swam for shore.
Luckily their packs were watertight, something that Professor Maxtut had insisted on, as if he had some sort of secret foreknowledge. The shore they found themselves on was part of a small clearing in a thick pine forest where a stream entered the lake. The air was cool and dry and it seemed to be early afternoon. Professor Maxtut pulled out the map and examined it again.
“Mmm. Mmmm,” he hummed, then looking up he announced, “Well, this is clearly Layover Three. The road to Cranch won't become visible until morning so let's set up camp.”
“How many Layovers does that map have?” Tragar asked.
“Doesn't say. And they, like the road itself, are only visible when you get to them.”
“Well that's awkward,” Tragar grumped.
“We're on the right trail though, of that there can be no doubt, no none at all.” Professor Maxtut shook his head. “And I have a feeling we're getting close to Cranch as well.”
3. Swimming in the prairie.
That afternoon they were plagued by insects as they set up camp. Even though it wasn't cold Tragar started a large fire using the dead wood that littered the area and the smoke seemed to keep the worst of the bugs away. When it got dark and they'd eaten and settled in the bugs were not as bad. The sky, like in the desert, was a blaze of stars but it was nowhere near as cold. Later they could hear roars and growls along with the stamping of large, heavy creatures running by but always staying out of sight, despite their excellent flashlights. They kept the fire blazing and huddled together through another almost sleepless night. The next morning there was a dirt road leading away from their campsite.
“How could we have missed that last night?” Tragar asked in amazement.
Professor Maxtut shrugged and, with a wry smile, answered, “I think that's how it works Tragar. I don't know how but that's apparently the way it works.” He shook his head. “I didn't believe it myself at first, I mean this is like some sort of, well magic. It's just like magic and I'm a professor at a university. I deal in facts, in truth, not magic.”
“Yet there it is,” Tragar said, pointing to the road.
“Yet there it is,” Professor Maxtut agreed, nodding slowly. Shrugging again he added, “Just as it appears to have been from the start.”
Somehow, they knew not to expect Uxil and the Porters as they began following the road. Tragar was walking beside Professor Maxtut and asked, “Were you talking about the cave, how it changed after the layover when you said magic was with us from the start?”
“Before that, but I didn't get it until now.” He was quiet for a time, walking a steady pace. “You remember how that boulder was covering the cave at the beginning? How it was blocking an obvious tunnel? And the incredulity at our not having seen it before?”
Tragar nodded uncertainly but Jant spoke up from behind them. “Yeah, I do. Something fishy about that.”
“Just so,” Professor Maxtut confirmed. “No one seems to remember how it looked the day before.” He was silent for a ways then continued in his lecture voice so that they could all hear. “It looked like a grass-covered hillock that was being used as a city park which is what it was, nothing more. There was a trail to the top with benches along the way. The boulder was there but it was mostly buried with a lot of shrubbery covering it. Then, in one night it emerged.”
“Why? What'd cause that boulder to appear like that?” Jant asked.
“The discovery of the map.” Professor Maxtut frowned. “In our university library of all places. Apparently coming to the surface like that set off the first layover, which then caused the boulder to appear.”
“Who found the map?” Tragar asked.
“That's a mystery, I'm afraid. Miss Myrkle's class was there to study the library system and it'd gotten a little rowdy when Miss Myrkle was suddenly called away. Had to quiet the lot several times as the librarian, Ms. Bookish recalled. Anyway, during one ruckus someone set the map on her desk and announced, 'Looky what we found Ms. Bookish,' and when she looked there was the map on her desk but no one delivering it. When she got them quieted again no one claimed to know anything about any map, not even to Miss Myrkle when she got back.”
They walked in silence. After an hour or so they left the forest, entering a vast plain with the road cutting a straight line to the horizon. The thought of crossing that expanse seemed insurmountable but seeing no other options they continued on. After a time they came to a small pond with a grove of trees. It was a lovely spot and Professor Maxtut called for a rest stop. There was a small creek feeding the pond and they restocked their water bottles and washed their faces. Brak and Jant started wading in the shallow part near where the stream entered the pond and soon discarded their clothing and were splashing and swimming about.
“Com'on in!” Jant called as she splashed Brak, “The water's fabulous!”
Professor Maxtut and Tragar had washed in the stream's delightful water but despite the lovely conditions neither wanted to jump in. Neither could have said why, they just didn't. Instead they sat on the shore leaning against a couple of the trees, enjoying the splashing students, the balmy air, and the fragrant breeze. Must be flowers nearby, Professor Maxtut thought dreamily. He was trying to identify the scent when Tragar spoke, as if in a dream. He seemed to be saying how calm and peaceful it was here, and . . . he jerked awake.
“What . . .?” he sputtered. He looked at Tragar who was blinking his eyes, giving him a questioning look. “Where's the kids?” he asked, suddenly aware of how quiet it was and how he could see their clothes still lying on the shore where they'd dropped them. And how still the pond was. The pond's other sides were open prairie, just this grove of trees being the only feature. They stood and began calling their names.
“Brak! Jant! Where are you?” they called, over and over, even walking around the pond several times but they got no reply. They stayed the night, hoping for their return but there was nothing. During the night they heard splashing from time to time but never a voice or any response at all to their calling. Their flashlights showed only mild ripples whenever they tried to see.
4. Flying away.
The next morning the road they'd arrived on was gone, replaced by a blacktop bike trail winding through rolling grass-covered hills. Professor Maxtut was sure the trail went in the opposite direction of their arrival. There were two bicycles lying by where the trail began and, having not heard a thing from Brak and Jant since they disappeared yesterday, they mounted the bikes and began pedaling the trail. Both thought that the best way to get answers to all their questions was to get to Cranch. After a couple hours of pleasant yet brisk pedaling they came upon a rock hut with a thatched roof. In front sat a man . . . well, perhaps a dwarf or well, whatever, he sat watching them arrive.
They stopped in front of him and dismounted. Professor Maxtut spoke, “Hello there!” he called out. The figure didn't move or respond at all. Giving Tragar a curious look he tried again, “Hello! You there! Can you hear me? We're riding this bike trail . . .”
“I can see what you're doing. What you want?” the creature asked irritably.
“Oh! Uh, well we're going to Cranch. Perhaps you've heard of Cranch?” The creature was silent, unmoving. “Thing is,” Professor Maxtut continued, “we aren't really sure where it's at. Cranch that is. We're going there but we . . .”
The creature leaned over to his right and emitted what sounded like a fart. “Ahh,” he said with a smile. Then, scowling at Professor Maxtut, who'd backed up, he continued, “Why you going to Cranch?”
“Science,” Professor Maxtut promptly answered.
“That a fact,” the creature muttered. “You muss be scientists, huh?”
“Why yes. Yes, we are,” Professor Maxtut agreed, then looking at Tragar he added, “Well I am. Tragar's my assistant.” Seeing a look of disgust on both their faces he added, “But he's still a scientist. Darn good one too. Why I rely on . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, a scientist. So what's your name?”
“Maxtut. Professor Entom Maxtut and this here is Tragar Fetchit,” gesturing at Tragar, “my esteemed colleague and fellow scientist who . . .”
“Maxtut?” the creature asked.
“Uh, yes. Entom Maxtut, at your service.”
“Your daddy named Enmar Maxtut?”
Completely shaken Professor Maxtut could only nod and whisper, “Yes. How, how did you . . .”
“Well I reckon I could take you on into Cranch then, most the way anyway.” He stood and it was now apparent that he was a Dwarf. He walked into the hut and returned with a two wheel scooter, like the kids used. “Keep up!” he yelled as the scooter carried him away at a high speed. Scrambling to get on their bikes they pedaled as fast as they could but still lost sight of the Dwarf after a few minutes. Seeing no alternative they continued on the trail until they came to a fork where they stopped, unsure which way to go.
Then they heard a distant voice, “Up here!' Looking around they spotted a small rise in the prairie with a stone tower on it. The Dwarf was standing by the tower, waving. They followed the trail up to the tower and dismounted as the Dwarf watched. When they walked up to where the Dwarf stood, he smiled at them, “This here's a Layover. Guess you all know what that is?”
Professor Maxtut nodded, looking around, “Number four, isn't it?” he asked.
“Thass right! Nummer four, thass right!”
“Is it the tower?” Professor Maxtut asked.
“Nah, don think so. Thass it,” he pointed to a side area where a picnic table, a pile of chopped wood and a fire ring became apparent. “That tower's jussa marker, you know? Big prairie an it marks the spot.” He pointed again at the picnic area. “That there's nummer four!” With that he laughed then hopped on his scooter and was gone in a flash.
“Looks like we're here tonight,” Tragar muttered watching the Dwarf speed away.
That night they heard sounds of war with missiles and rockets exploding, shaking the ground, and showering them with debris amid the rapid fire and screams of soldiers. But it was all beyond their sight, somehow always beyond their flashlight's range and nothing showed, no lights, flashes, nothing. The war ended before dawn and in the ensuing quiet they both dozed off.
Sunlight striking his face awakened Professor Maxtut and the first thing he saw was the tower. Its door was wide open and he rose groggily to inspect it. Looking back he saw that Tragar was sleeping soundly. I'll just peek inside, he thought, wondering if the tower was somehow the next way to Cranch. He stepped inside and immediately the door slammed shut behind him. Then there was a roaring and he was knocked to the floor as the tower crumbled away to reveal a spaceship blasting into space. The force knocked him out and when he awoke, he was in space, wondering how this had happened.
As he sat in the Captain's chair pondering, a strange thing happened. He heard three odd tones and his head began to clear. Three more and he remembered everything, everything that had been locked and hidden in the far recesses of his mind, until now. He smiled, knowing that he'd been successful and they now had all they needed. He turned on the controls and expertly piloted the spaceship to the hidden mother ship where General Enmar Maxtut, his father, waited for the word, the 'all clear' to invade.
There was a clang as Entom's ship attached itself to the mother ship and a tube allowing for passage filled with oxygen. He walked triumphantly down the corridor as soon as it opened. When he entered the mother ship, he wasn't given the reception he'd expected. Instead there was no one and he walked uncertainly into what appeared to be an overgrown vacant lot with tall brick buildings on three sides. Stepping in he stood in the weeds and trash, now with a bustling street behind, staring stupidly at a sign announcing the future construction plans for this site. The sign proudly proclaimed this to be the future home of Layover Five.