Chapter 5 Episode 2 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles
The autogyros returned with the support crew, the mission readied itself, and the explorers moved out. Sergeant Jagels and Corporal Wirtz took picket. Peter Oster followed; the two professors and Major Berger walked beside him. Signalman Oberman rode herd over Doctor Ansel, who was forever finding matters of high biological interest on the roadside, and Lieutenant Lentzen and Corporal von Sülzle brought up the rear.
The journey took them along what Peter called the Great Road, which he said ran around the island’s entire circumference: “They do say a wall once stood here, all round the island.” A pastiche of stone and bricks, many crumbling, made up the road’s surface, repaired piecemeal over centuries. Time had eroded what must have been wheel ruts; animals had once drawn carts here. No carts traveled the road now as far as Adewole could tell. Barrowmen and fast-moving people on foot passed them in both directions, most hailing Peter Oster and goggling at the expedition, especially Adewole. Those on foot—the ones Peter called couriers, who delivered small packages and messages—slowed down to stare at the party, often walking backwards to get a good long look. No one ever stopped; Peter said unlike him, they couldn’t afford to. “Couriers and such, their job’s in not stoppin’. Do I stop, I get work. Not them. See Kolbsgate in the distance?” said Peter, nodding toward a stone edifice far off down the road. “Thass that we go to.”
“How far is it to the City from your farm?” asked Adewole.
“Oh, not far. About 25 or so furlongs to Kolbsgate, another 30 or so to the City.”
Adewole translated for Deviatka. “Alas, I do not know how long a ‘furlong’ is,” he added.
“I do,” said Deviatka, “it’s an obsolete measurement.” He looked up toward his eyebrows, running calculations in his head. “About three miles to this gate thing, three and a half or so to this ‘City.’ So, we’ll be walking six and a half miles overall. Ask him how long it takes him to get there.”
“Do you lug a barrow and not stop along, four hours,” said Peter, shifting his grip on the barrow’s handles. “Do you not lug a barrow, two hours, but I never. I stop along and pass the news. Thass rude, to go by and not pass the news. More like half a day or more I take sometimes, do the news fill my mouth—or my ear. But do they have work, I work, and they feed me, even do they have nobbut angler bugs.”
Adewole shifted the pack on his back. “What is your work?”
“That work that can be had,” said Peter. “I mend things, most orfen furniture, sometimes I plug walls, but I dig a ditch or plough a field as any ‘un would. I can thatch, but the thatchers’ud be after me if word got round, so I on’y mend our own roofs.”
“Ask him why his old man called us oathbreakers,” said Deviatka.
Peter’s broad mouth flattened into a line; he bit his lip and looked away. “You use metal in ways we swear not to.”
“What kind of ways?” said Adewole.
“For makin’ things go without a body pushin’, mostly. Seems a waste to use it for such when you have two good arms and two good legs, and you need metal for so much else.” Adewole could draw no more from him, though clearly more might be said.
They trotted along, taking in the scenery: crops packed tight into carefully tended fields; thatch-roofed cob-and-stone houses no bigger than Adewole’s apartment that Peter swore housed whole families, grandparents, aunties and all; tiny goats cropping the marginal land on the outside edge of the Great Road. “I wonder if they fall off,” said Deviatka.
“I would hope not,” called Doctor Ansel, “they’re a most unusual creature, so compact and yet fully grown!”
Occasionally a native glanced their way and did a double-take, standing agape in a doorway or dropping a hoe in astonishment. Peter waved at a few and winked at a few more; he’d be trading stories about the Eisenstadters in exchange for hospitality, for a long time to come.
Two hours later, they came to the massive stone arch called Kolbsgate. Through it lay another track Peter called the Risenton Road; he said it ran down the island’s center. The ancient gateway’s stones might once have been covered in tiles or marble. Adewole’s spirits soared. This had to be a remnant of whatever city had existed before the Rising, and confirmed Peter’s story of a long-gone wall; Kolbsgate must have guarded the entrance to the old city.
Major Berger called a halt. “Mr. Oster tells me through the Professor we must deal with some sort of gate attendant, and we may as well rest the civilians for a moment. I’m not getting any younger myself,” he murmured to his aide.
Captain Lentzen unslung his coilgun and scanned the landscape. “We are a small party, sir.”
“I would imagine the professors are capable enough in a fight—the Inselmonder, too.”
“I don’t like depending on foreigners. They have no reason for loyalty beyond their pay.”
Adewole bowed minutely. “I might remind you, Captain: I am a foreigner among you.” The young man blushed in dismay and stumbled out an apology, but Adewole waved him off, no longer formal. “You meant no harm. I am getting the impression these are very poor people, Major Berger. Pay might inspire the greatest loyalty imaginable in young Mr. Oster.”
“And we must remember, Izzy,” the Major said to his aide, “we are the foreigners here.” Lentzen grimaced but started organizing his people.
A small knot of people stood beside a little cob hut beside the gate, a man in a small, conical hat at the fore. “A road warden,” said Peter. “Don’t know why his whole family down to the second cousins be here, though. Best let me do the talking.”