The Quartermaster Trial

Daniel Ausema

Story image for The Quartermaster Trial by Daniel Ausema

P aikle crouched at the edge of the long grass, ready to run forward when the conveyor appeared. The village needed something useful this time, a good haul to get them through. Or else… he didn’t want to think about that. He was the only one they could spare to keep watch, with how low their numbers had dwindled, so it all came down to him, to what help he could bring back from the conveyor.

The place where the conveyor regularly passed was marked by shorter grasses and even bare earth. He thought through the list of his people’s needs so he could prioritize when the conveyor came, with its unpredictable goods. Being a good scavenger sometimes meant pushing as many things as possible off the conveyor in a rush and gathering it later, when the conveyor left. But he had to watch for fragile things or items so crucial they were worth racing to the village with them right away.

He dreamed of discovering something truly valuable, some treasure of another world that would make life in the village better for everyone. An unlikely dream, though medicines of any kind were a possibility and certainly needed. The most common things to find were inexplicable pieces of worked metal—gears from ancient constructs, elongated pipes of unknown origin or use. They could usually be turned into weapons, which might be needed if Tormalen, the town next door, continued its aggressive ways.

Shona said she was low on circuits for the town lights, but those would be a rare and unlikely find. Food, of course, was always welcome, no matter what otherworldly form it took. Anything they didn’t use could be sold to the Quartermaster in the empty city a day’s walk away. What that strange man did with those things, no one knew, except for the rumor that he sent them by conveyor to his counterparts on other worlds.

At last the ley tattoos in Paikle’s forearm tingled with the imminent arrival of the conveyor. He glanced down at the whirls, tracing one with a finger. When he looked up again, he saw movement on the other side of the conveyor cut.

He froze and studied the grasses. Three, maybe four people, and that was only the ones he could make out. Were others better at hiding?

Even of these four, he couldn’t see much. A leg here, a torso there. The only person whose head he could see wore their hair short.

Tormalen style.

This was his people’s place to gather from the conveyor. Long agreements gave the village of Polle-on-Tivy the rights to this stretch of land. The people of Tormalen gathered their goods down the slope, where the conveyor passed beside the old cottonwood.

They shouldn’t be up here.

The conveyor sizzled when it showed up in the grass. The Tormalens ran toward it. Dirty thieves. Paikle ran as well. There was a package that looked like medicine right in front of him. At least he might reach that.

Ducking low, he dashed up with hands already reaching for the package. His fingers brushed the wrapping. Before he could close his hands around it, something slammed him aside. He fell to the ground, head ringing.

“This is our place now.” The man spoke the Tormalen language, like Paikle’s own except for the way he swallowed the beginnings of some words. “You can leave this time to tell your people. Next time… ” He gestured at the long knife strapped to his leg.

Paikle held up his hands in surrender. Still he insisted, “This is ours. Always been ours.”

The Tormalen growled and took a threatening step toward him. Paikle stumbled back, snatched something blindly off the conveyor, and fled. The man shouted a war cry as if to warn him from ever returning. But he didn’t pursue.

Paikle spent most of his run back to his village looking over his shoulder and watching the shrubs along the route for any other townsfolk from Tormalen to jump out at him—the old bag snatched from the conveyor could wait. It wasn’t the usual path between the village and the conveyor, but Paikle had always been good at picturing his surroundings and knowing how to get places. Only when he reached Polle-on-Tivy did he stop and claw the strings open to reveal the contents of the bag.

Junk. Nothing but bits of worthless junk.

He poured them out on the narrow street. Three metal knobs of some kind. A curiously twisted piece of pipe that looked like it might attach to one of the knobs. And an assortment of metal fittings, none of which was the right size for either the pipe or the knobs.

“Decay it all!” he swore, kicking at the parts to scatter across the street. Other villagers came out at the sound.

“What happened, Paikle?” Shona bent to pick up the metal scraps that had ended up near her. “Something wrong with the conveyor?” She gestured at her ley tattoos. “I felt its arrival.”

Paikle clenched his teeth and picked up some of the nearby pieces. No sense wasting what little he’d scavenged. “Oh it came, all right. But… Tormalen.” Not as if he had to say anything more. Not as if they hadn’t all known this was coming.

“I’ll make sure we have weapons,” Paikle’s uncle Raith said. “Drive them off, you think? Or take their old place along the conveyor?”

Or go straight for their town, raze it to the ground, and wait for their scavengers to return with a false sense of victory? A tempting option that Paikle’s bruised body cried out for. They were so few in number, though. A couple dozen to fight, if they took even the ones who were really too old and young. Undernourished fighters with limited weapons. They’d needed something better from the conveyor so badly! If only he’d been able to bring back food or medicine. Or powerful, otherworldly weapons.

As he contemplated all three options, he bent down for another of the bits of metal he’d carried with him. Worthless trash, destined for the Quartermaster.

He paused in that position, examining the way the light flashed off the curve of the piece. The Quartermaster.

“We do neither.” Paikle straightened. “We take our complaint straight to the Quartermaster.” Before anyone could react, he added, “All of us. Pass out the weapons, Uncle, and gather some food for the journey.”

Shona was the first to respond. “And abandon—”

“Look around you. Look at the state our village is in. We’ll get the Quartermaster’s blessing to take this place back and restore it. And to reclaim our spot along the conveyor.” He gestured at the familiar sights of the village that had always been home. Now so worn out, in need of more people, more work than they could give, more and better goods delivered by the conveyor. “Or else we won’t have any place worth coming back to, anyway.”

Orbit-sml ><

T he preparations weren’t as fast as he’d imagined, and the arguments and resistance to his plan lingered all that day and the next, but finally they set out for the distant, empty city. Paikle led at first—he was the best of their scavengers and knew the land well. But soon Shona would take over, since she was the one who traded with the Quartermaster.

They skirted the area around Tormalen then came to the conveyor scar. It had left long ago, probably by the time Paikle was making his decision to approach the Quartermaster. His ley tattoos gave no indication that it might return soon, so they made good progress along the cut. The conveyor’s frequent reappearance kept the vegetation well back. The trees stood down a slope from the line, and smaller brush snaked up closer, but the center was bare of even grasses.

Around midday they came to another line that cut through the wilderness at a sharp angle to their own. The line was overgrown with many months’ growth. Where larger plants encroached on the line, their older limbs that pointed toward the cut ended abruptly, clear signs of a more traumatic yet infrequent route for the conveyor.

Paikle and Shona studied the path it made. “Slower going,” Paikle said. What if the Tormalens decided to pursue them? What if they angered some other residents of these wild lands?

“But seems to head toward the city,” Shona said. “I avoided it last time I was bringing him goods, but then it was just me.”

Paikle considered. What would happen if the conveyor appeared abruptly in some area where they couldn’t get off the path easily? The tragic stories were well enough known that they didn’t have to say anything. But she was right about its direction. They would make better time cutting straight toward the city here than if they had to make their way through the rough land that separated the other conveyor cut from its closest approach to the city.

He pulled the sleeve off his lower arm to study his tattoos. No tingle of a coming conveyor. But already it had been absent for several days. Was he willing to risk that it would stay away the rest of this day?

“Let’s try it,” he said. “We’ll have to pick up our pace to get there in time.”

But they were only a short way along the path when Paikle felt the familiar tingle of his ley tattoos. Right choice, if it was coming to the regular cut just after they left. He looked back without slowing down. The normal path was still visible back there, an obvious opening in the oppressive greenery. Maybe he should run back, see what there was to scavenge from the conveyor. Shouldn’t be difficult to catch up with the others, with how slow they were going.

He took one step to the side when he felt a change in his ley tattoos. The conveyor felt… close. As if the barrier between this world and whatever world it came from was thinning rapidly and very nearby.

“Decay it! Get off the path!” he shouted. He ran along the stretched out line of villagers, shooing them out of the way. For once it was good they were so few. The brush beside the path was full of prickers and unripe berries. They’d have to let the briars tear their skin, though. “Now! Everyone needs to get off!”

The air sizzled, and Paikle jumped out of the way, the conveyor materializing beneath him as he fell into a patch of briars.

Crying children’s voices made him scramble free from the bushes. Something snagged his skin beside his eye. Lines of pain marked his bare hands. He pushed past and reached the edge of the conveyor. If anyone hadn’t made it free in time… A few scratches were nothing to a foot sliced clean off. Or to a mangled body beneath the conveyor’s esoteric mechanisms.

The whine of the conveyor played counterpoint to the cries of the children. The ground beside the path was littered with crushed vegetation, pulped leaves, branches and twigs snapped off by the violence of the conveyor’s arrival. The smell of rubber and electricity vied with the scents of the damaged plants. But no bodies lying beside the path, no obvious injuries caused by the arrival of the conveyor.

“Who’s hurt?” Paikle called, looking around. “Who needs help?”

Raith limped out of the prickers beside him. His cheek was red, though Paikle couldn’t tell if it was blood or from one of the berries. Others stumbled out as well.

“Lots of little injuries, I think,” Raith said as he helped one child over to her mother. “But looks like you got us all clear in time.” They gathered beside the path, and Raith proved correct. There were some twisted ankles and lots of scratches and bumps, but nothing serious.

Shona surveyed the people. “I guess we don’t have to worry about the conveyor on the regular line, then. We can go back there.”

They were tired. Sore and weary from walking, there was no way they’d reach the city that day. Unless… “Let’s ride the conveyor for a ways. It’s heading the right direction here, and they need the break.”

Shona shook her head. “Too dangerous. What if it takes us somewhere else while we’re riding it?”

It was a risk. People had been lost on the conveyors before. Some had been whisked to other places and returned, and the regular line behind them should leave them relatively confident they would end up back here eventually. Paikle had never wanted to take that risk himself, and doing so with the entire village seemed foolhardy.

But so was their entire journey.

“It won’t jump worlds so soon. We’ll watch our tattoos. Everyone stands ready to leap and we should be able to ride long enough to catch our breath.”

A cloud crossed in front of the sun, a reminder of the coming dusk. And out in the wild lands beside the path some beast rustled about, its large snout digging beneath the trees that hid it from their sight.

“I’m tired too, I suppose,” Shona answered finally. “Let’s be quick then and take advantage while we can.”

Paikle and Shona helped the others onto the conveyor. Half of the adults had small children who needed assistance, and the elderly were a definite concern as well. This journey was difficult for all of them. Yet even on the moving conveyor, they couldn’t afford to simply rest. “Let’s walk now,” Shona said, after they’d seen to the various scrapes and bruises. “Nothing fast, but every bit gets us farther.”

Paikle picked up a short metal pole and stalked along beside the others, examining the other goods they passed on the conveyor. A bag of food, shared with the villagers. Some tightly wrapped strips of cloth. Too small to make clothes from. Were they intended as bandages? Decorative pieces for houses? He tossed that to one of the others so they could bring it to the Quartermaster. Most of what he found was the usual mixture of inexplicable components of unknown machinery. They took what they could carry, what seemed likely to earn a decent barter with the Quartermaster.

And the city rose before them, towers as old and derelict as the conveyor they rode on.

Paikle was fiercely aware of ley tattoos, so alert for the slightest change that twice he convinced himself he’d felt the brief vibration that preceded the more definite announcement of the conveyor’s shift. Both times he tensed and told everyone to be ready, but no change materialized.

The sun was sinking low when the conveyor came close to the northern edge of the city. They saw a clearing, a memory of a forgotten road beneath the moss and grasses. The open area ran directly up to the first of the ancient buildings.

“We’ll hop off here,” Shona announced. As easy as if they were all experienced conveyor travelers, the villagers disembarked. Many stumbled slightly, and a few fell, but no one was injured. They stretched in relief at being back on trustworthy ground.

Paikle saw only cracked streets leading between the buildings, lost after a block in greenery that looked as thick as any wilderness surrounding their village homes. Birds cried out, raucous cries echoing through the old walls of the buildings. “Where’s his station from here, Shona?”

“Not through the middle.” Shona shuddered. “We’ll have to circle around, but we should be there before full dusk.”

The birds called to him as if he might follow. The vines on the buildings swung to beckon him closer. Paikle kept staring into that expanse of greenery as they herded everyone along the edge of the empty city, to trek to the Quartermaster, the one who would rescue them from the town of Tormalen.

Orbit-sml ><

“F ood,” was all Shona would answer at first when Paikle asked her about the Quartermaster’s response. The villagers were waiting at the edge of the city, milling about and resting, so only Shona had to stray into the labyrinth of cracked streets.

“What do you mean, ‘food’?” Paikle’s fists gripped the metal pole—the only thing he’d held on to from what they’d collected for trade. “What did he say about our complaint with the Tormalens? Won’t he help us?”

“He did help us.” She shrugged. “He gave us food, in exchange for the goods we brought. A good amount of food, that should last us quite some time. More than he had to give us, frankly.”

“But—”

“I know, Paikle. That’s not what I asked him for, but he says he doesn’t get involved in ‘that kind of argument’.” Shona shook her head. “As if we’re just two kids arguing over a toy, and he’s too busy with important things to worry about a little thing like this.”

Paikle scowled. What was so important, then, if not the life and death of the people? The Quartermaster was a mystery, a figure he’d heard of who was always after goods from other worlds. If he didn’t worry about the villages and towns that supplied him with goods, then he must have some other kind of power. “I want to see him.”

“It won’t do any good, Paikle. I’ve talked to him before. He’s not the type to just change his mind because someone else comes in and starts arguing.”

Her familiarity with his trades was why she’d gone in alone. But… “I know, Shona. You get the best trades you can, and they’re good. But I need to look at him myself. I want to hear him say why he won’t help honest traders like us. Why we have to struggle to survive only to have other people sweep in and take what we’ve worked for.” He chewed his lip to keep the emotions from overwhelming his voice. “I’ll go in myself, if you don’t want to be there.”

Shona consented reluctantly, but only if they were fast. Night was falling. She led the way down the nearest street, which was in better repair than the cross streets it met, and to a curious sign. It portrayed crossed spears with nails and gears and various objects encircling them. She gestured toward the doorway beyond.

This building looked sturdy, at least. The layers of creeping moss that tinted everything else green had been scraped away or never allowed to set in, and the wall stood true. He stepped forward, but a man came to the doorway before Paikle could enter.

The Quartermaster was shorter than he had imagined, and chubby. His eyes, peering through thick glasses, seemed weak. A kindly man welcoming the strangers, not a rigid trader in possession of great secrets. A faint smell clung to him like the conveyor’s smell, of overheated rubber and wires near to wearing through. He inclined his head. “Welcome, scavenger,” he said in a voice that seemed to come from somewhere other than vocal cords. “What have you come to trade in?”

“I… I don’t have anything to trade,” Paikle said, moving the pole behind his leg, and then gestured toward Shona behind him. “I’m with her, so our trades are done. But I have some questions.”

The Quartermaster blinked, and when his eyes were open again, they looked different, as if the light shining on them had changed. The warm welcome was gone from his face. “I do not have answers. Only trades.” Then he turned and walked back through the doorway. Or maybe not walked, his pant legs hid whatever shoes he wore, but something about how he moved seemed off, as if he was gliding just off the ground or rolling on some silent contraption.

The door shut, followed by the sounds of locks engaging within.

Orbit-sml ><

“W ell, I guess we should settle in for the night,” Shona said when they were back by the others. “I don’t like the look of these walls, but we could pull back a little ways and set up camp at the edge of the trees.”

All the anger that had been building up in Paikle came rushing out then. Anger at the people of Tormalen. How could they betray his village that way? How could they simply ignore how his people would pay the price for their greed? Anger at the conveyor itself. Anger at the officious little Quartermaster, at doors and locks and anything that kept his people away from what they needed—safety and a place to live in peace.

“No,” Paikle said, cracking his metal pole against the worn, ancient cobbles of the street. “We’ve already backed away from one fight, against the Tormalens. We can’t back away from this one, too. Let’s make him help us.”

“A fight?” Shona stood before him. “He isn’t our enemy, and I still need to trade with him.”

“Think about the riches he must have in there. Food we could take back to our homes. Tools to help make us safer from the Tormalens.” He clenched his fist and added, “Weapons we can use to claim back our access to the conveyor.”

“Absolutely not.” Shona gestured at the villagers gathering up their belongings to find a place to sleep outside the overgrown city. “No matter what we might take by fighting him, someday we’ll need more. And then who would we trade with? The conveyor doesn’t supply all our needs, and it never will.”

Didn’t it, though? One way or another, the conveyor brought everything. And where did the Quartermaster get goods for trade, if not from the conveyor? Maybe there were other conveyors on the other side of the city. Maybe there were people that traveled with the conveyor from world to world, bringing back real goods instead of just scraps.

At the center of it all, though, was the Quartermaster. Why not set someone from their own village in that position? Take over the Quartermaster’s office here and become the new trader in charge of everything.

“Fine,” he said. “Get the camp set up. I’ll probably join you a little later. But first I want to explore a bit in here.” He gestured vaguely toward the overgrown city streets.

Shona studied him, a frown setting on her face. “Don’t anger him.” When he tried to assure her he wouldn’t, she cut him off. “And when you do anger him, don’t tell him you’re one of us.” Her eyes narrowed, and her voice grew distant. “Because at that point you won’t be. Not anymore.”

She turned and left him there without another word. Paikle stood rooted in place as the villagers, his village, tramped away to set up their camp.

Orbit-sml ><

I nstead of heading straight back toward the Quartermaster’s office, Paikle made for another street into the city. Shona didn’t like what he was doing… fine. If he failed and tried going back, she might not even accept him, so he would have to succeed. Even then they might not want to have him around—it might make them a target for other villages that wanted to gain some advantage with the Quartermaster by taking revenge for him. Well, if that was the case, then he would help his people from afar. Whether they appreciated his sacrifice and favor or not.

The vegetation closed around him, hanging mosses from the balconies, vines that leapt across the gap between buildings, tying one block to the next and cutting off the sight of the darkening sky above. Other kinds of stars lived in their shadows, glowing animals that flickered and drew him astray. How easy to follow, to lose himself in the overgrown city.

Had his ancestors once lived here? When the streets were clear and the glass and stone surfaces whole, what had life been like? Maybe the ancestors of Polle-on-Tivy had claimed one corner of the city, the Tormalens another. Or had they been one people back then, their accents identical, their ways the same?

He tried to picture what those people had done in such a place. Were their lives like their villager descendants, only in a different kind of place? Or did they live in ways he couldn’t begin to imagine? Maybe they used the conveyor for other things back then. Maybe the conveyor didn’t even exist yet. They could have built it and then abandoned it so long ago that no memory of that time remained.

The sound of small animals in the shadows made Paikle pause. He breathed deep and smelled the forest smells of rich earth and shadows. Whatever insects or birds it was that flashed within that darkness still beckoned him inward, and he realized he’d already gone farther into the city than he’d intended.

Paikle had always had a good head for keeping his bearings in the wild. He turned around slowly, noting where the Quartermaster’s building must be from here. He would have to go a little deeper to come around behind it.

Paikle pushed ahead into the shadows. Some animal scurred away with a sound like the conveyor’s motors. The noise paused, and a pair of lights blinked on for a moment, lighting the undergrowth and half blinding Paikle. Then the lights blinked off, and the animal revved away deeper into the city.

Paikle used the pole he’d taken from the conveyor to pull aside branches. The branches squeaked in ways normal trees didn’t, and the needles that brushed his hands felt artificial. He ducked to the side where a wall of towering structures was covered with some kind of fungus that glowed a pale green. Beyond, the side street had no lights to guide him. He made his way forward by feel and, even more, by the map in his mind. The trees and shrubs in the street made his progress slow and his certainty of where he was much lower than he liked.

Trying to find an edge to follow he came to a wall of some building, but it was much closer than he’d expected. Was he turned around? There shouldn’t be a building here yet. He tapped at its base with his pole. The sound was wooden, not the concrete and glass he’d expected. Maybe a temporary building that had been added at some more recent date.

As he moved away, the wall seemed to quiver as if alive. Quick as he could, Paikle made for where he thought the other side of the street should be and reached a wall of what felt like metal. Behind him, a strange roar echoed, not loud, but deep and rippling, and wondered if he’d almost stumbled into some strange plant-creature’s gullet.

Sticking to this safer wall, he hurried toward where the rear of the Quartermaster’s office should be. He found a door with a handle, but pulling it and turning it did nothing. He leaned hard against it with his shoulder as quietly as possible, but it still didn’t yield. Cautiously moving his hands over the wall beside the door, Paikle made his way along, feeling for any gap or weakness. After a short span, he found a window ledge. The window above it still felt solid, but he pulled himself onto the ledge to check. Reaching up, he found a second row of windows above the first.

One of those was missing its glass.

He pulled himself up and swung a leg over to the inner side. He lowered his walking pole down and felt around, then dropped softly down into blackness onto what felt like a thick carpet of leaves and peered around for any glimmer of light.

“Welcome, scavenger,” the Quartermaster said. “What have you come to trade in?”

Paikle jumped back from the sound and bashed his elbow into the window sill. He stumbled to the side, looked for some way out in the darkness, and settled into a crouch, blindly brandishing his pole as if there was anything he might do to protect himself.

Only after he’d taken a few breaths did the exact words strike him. Exact same words as before. Exact same intonation as well.

Paikle swallowed hard. “I— I can’t see well enough to trade.”

A light came on, a dim yellowish light with no source Paikle could identify. But clearly in that light, blinking just a few steps away from Paikle, was the Quartermaster. His traders’ clothes were identical to those he’d worn earlier, his hair neatly combed just as before. Paikle hadn’t woken the Quartermaster from sleep. Did the man even sleep?

Even now, he just waited for Paikle’s response, like he had knocked at the door, and not been discovered breaking in through a window.

There was something… not entirely alive about the Quartermaster. Yet it wasn’t merely an automaton repeating the same stock phrases, or else he wouldn’t have been able to interact with them, respond when Paikle said he had nothing to trade. The Quartermaster was something more complex than that. But built on a simple base.

“What have you come to trade in?” The words and tone were identical, yet the Quartermaster leaned closer, giving the words a touch of impatience.

And Paikle had no goods to trade, nothing at all. Except his metal pole.

Maybe he should run for it. The Quartermaster didn’t look like someone who could keep up with him. Or at least not in the open. But if he turned off the lights and knew the place well, he’d catch Paikle easily. And who knew what strange powers the man derived from the conveyor and other weird technology to let him subdue and punish trespassers.

Better to get it over with. Attack the Quartermaster and see what happened. Likely—it seemed to him now that the moment was on him—the Quartermaster would prevail. That weak-looking body would somehow prove impervious to Paikle’s attacks, protected by strange things a simple man like him couldn’t begin to understand.

But at least the uncertainty would be over. He cocked the pole back to swing, but hesitated. Would the Quartermaster punish the villagers for his attack? He didn’t want Shona to be shunned from trading because of what he did now. Maybe he should just let it kill him. It wasn’t as if he had anything left to offer anyone. All he knew was scavenging through the wilderness. A skill that did them little good with the Tormalens taking over.

Except… The Quartermaster wasn’t much for scavenging, either. And there must be a reason why he chose to trade.

He needs scavengers.

The strange little man still faced him, reacting no more to Paikle’s threatening posture than he did when he slowly lowered the pole to his side.

“My services.” Paikle hoped his voice sounded more sure than he felt. “I come to trade my services as a scavenger.”

The Quartermaster cocked his head like a mechanical imitation of curiosity. “I already have scavengers who come to trade with me.”

“But I won’t trade with you. I’ll be your own scavenger. The one you send to the conveyer, or deeper into the city here, anywhere you want. The one you task with finding things no other scavenger can find.”

“You were resourceful, coming this way in the dark.” The Quartermaster brought a hand up to his chin, moved as if by a marionette’s string. “What do you trade for this servitude?”

Servitude? Paikle cringed at the word. But what would he give to help his village?

“A place for my people. Grant them a place to live, a place that’s safe from the Tormalens, and rich with food to gather and hunt. Water to drink.”

The Quartermaster cocked his head again and made a considering noise. “I may know such a place.”

“And pay,” Paikle said. “I will not be your slave, but your worker.”

“An agent. Hmm.” The Quartermaster spun in place and glided along the leaf-covered floor. “Perhaps I could use an agent.”

Paikle’s pole clanked against the floor as he hurried to keep up with the Quartermaster’s surprisingly fast pace. The light behind them faded and new ones turned on at their approach.

“But an agent does not stay nearby. Explore this city and bring me the things you find, sure. When you have time. But most of the time you will travel farther.”

There was so much wilderness around the city, lands filled with the ruins of an earlier people. “I can travel. I have spent my life traveling the forests around my old village.”

“In this world?” The Quartermaster stopped and faced him forcing Paikle to skid to a halt or run right into him. “Perhaps. But farther as well. You will have to travel the conveyor to other worlds. I am in each of them. Or many of them, anyway.” A flash of uncertainty passed through the Quartermaster’s strangely lit eyes. “Ride where it takes you, and bring back the things I send you for, and whatever else you might find.”

Travel to other worlds? He imagined himself staying on the conveyor as it disappeared from the lands he knew, trusting it to bring him back. There would be dangers to face, things he probably couldn’t imagine yet. Creatures that lived near the conveyor, technologies he couldn’t understand but would want to bring back to the Quartermaster. And always the question of if the conveyor would bring him where he needed to go and when.

Paikle bent down onto one knee. “If it will provide a place for my people, then yes. I will be your agent, be a servant of the conveyor, and a scavenger throughout the conveyor worlds.”

The Quartermaster straightened his head, blinked three times, and held out an awkward hand for Paikle to rise.

Paikle stood, an agent in the trade of the past, a traveler preparing for the future, and the protector for his people he’d always wanted to be.

The sounds of the animals of the city, mechanical wing beats and savage cries of the hunt, sounded outside the building as if to stamp their own seal on the agreement. The scent of rubber and electricity wafted through the hallway, of some conveyor somewhere making its unpredictable rounds through its many worlds.

Orbit-lrg

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Daniel Ausema

Author image of Daniel Ausema Daniel Ausema lives with his family in Colorado, at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. His work has appeared in many publications, including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Diabolical Plots. He is the creator of the steampunk-fantasy Spire City series as well as the Arcist Chronicles, which is published by Guardbridge Books. You can find him at his website and on twitter.

© Daniel Ausema 2022 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was tweaked from an original by grandfailure at depositphotos.com - many thanks!

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