Chapter Thirteen: Keher Kuhn-Ridh.
Sam Renstrom woke up. He was lying face down in the dirt but, beyond that, he had no idea where he was. He felt battered and bruised, and his head hurt like hell. For a moment, he thought he’d drunk too much and passed out somewhere; then he remembered the Boojum. Afraid to lift his head, he looked from side-to-side, his beard rubbing the ground.
Patchy grass and heather surrounded the bare patch of dirt he lay in. The ground was dry and pitted with stones but the air smelt moist and earthy. Another smell pervaded the air. Sam knew it well: It was the smell of crude oil.
Seeing no obvious danger, he struggled to his feet, wincing at the pain in his ribs. He put his hand to his side and gasped as a sharp pain shot through him. Ay! A few of those suckers are cracked, he thought. He dusted himself down as best he could and looked at his surroundings.
We’re not in Alaska anymore, Toto, he thought.
He was standing on the top of a small mountain, at the mainland end of a long peninsula. The peninsula stretched many kilometers out to sea, the mountain range zigzagging along its spine. On each side of the mountain, the steep rocky escarpments gave way to broad green plains. Beyond the plains lay white beaches and the sea. In the distance, on both sides, other peninsulas jutted out to sea.
Wherever I am, I’m on a real jagged coastline, he thought.
The breeze blew, ruffling Sam’s beard, and the smell of crude oil got stronger. He turned around and jumped in shock.
“Jesus!” he shouted. There was a huge shape with many arms towering over him. He staggered back a few steps and fell on his backside. He was in such shock it took him several seconds to realize the monster was a huge metal riser, many meters in diameter and at least three times his height. The ‘arms’ were myriad pipes, protruding at right angles and at various heights from its surface.
Sam, you fool; it’s only a riser!
With great relief, he stood up and walked around the construct. Stopcocks adorned the pipes where they joined the riser. Then Sam noticed the other ends of the horizontal pipes: They all disappeared into holes in the air. It was really hard to look at. His eyes almost refused to process it.
The holes were disturbingly familiar. Edge-on, they had no depth and disappeared from view. They looked like thin discs of obsidian on both faces but reflected no light. Yesterday he would have thought them totally weird but after his earlier experiences he knew what they were.
Now, Sam didn’t know diddly-squat about physics but he’d heard about worm-holes and stuff, and he was pretty sure one of these was the ‘other-side’ of his Boojum. He reckoned he’d slipped through and fallen off the pipe on this side, breaking his ribs and knocking himself out. Then another thought struck him. If this was the other side of the Boojum, there was a chance he could slip back through to where he belonged. But which one had he come through?
Sam stared at the pipes and scratched his head. There were metal rungs leading to the top of the riser. Sam had no idea how he would figure out which pipe was his but thought he might get a better idea if he looked from above. Favoring his ribs, he climbed up the riser. Standing on the flat top of the riser, he peered down at the horizontal pipes. They were all pretty much the same, and the holes they disappeared into all looked identical. Then something caught his eye: Lying on one of the pipes was a penny; the same penny he’d flipped through the Boojum. That had to be his pipe!
Gritting his teeth, he climbed down the riser and straddled the horizontal pipe. He picked up the lucky penny then scooted along the pipe to the black disc. Groaning from the pain in his ribs, he lay on the pipe and crawled forward. He laid his palm against the black disc and pushed.
It was the weirdest thing he’d ever felt.
As he pushed against the disc, it felt as if his hand was pushing forward through it but his eyes told him his hand was sliding sideways along the surface of the disc. He shook his head, as if to clear his eyes, and pulled his hand back. He tried again. Again, he experienced the weird discrepancy between sight and touch. No matter where he pushed on the disc, the same thing happened. Panic started to rise in his gut. Ignoring his ribs, he stood on the pipe and pushed his shoulder against the disc. He slid sideways and nearly fell. He just managed to get his balance and straddle the pipe again. One thing was sure: He wasn’t getting back though this hole.
He laid his head on the pipe and cried. He hadn’t cried in years and it felt alien and familiar all at once. He could hear his Pop’s voice in his head: Whatcha cryin’ fer, ya girl? That just made it worse. He’d never felt as alone and scared in his life. He bawled on the pipe until a loud shout interrupted him:
“Kei hei tōsa? Kad a jein tu er on viepe? Tar anūis!”
Sam’s head snapped up from the pipe. Two men in bizarre clothing stood beneath him. They were tall and blond with close-cropped blond beards. They wore light armor made from coarse black cloth and leather, leather boots, and metal helmets atop heads of long blond hair. One had his hair loose and had his hand at the hilt of a sheathed sword. The other had his locks in braids and held a black spear. He was doing the shouting and seemed to be in charge. Sam had no idea what Braids was saying but the ‘come down’ gesture he was making was universal. Unsure what to do, Sam stared at the men. The men stared back. Braids repeated the gesture and brandished the spear.
“Tar anūis, a kara - no skwielvie mei hu!”
No mistaking that gesture either. Sam was a sitting duck on the pipe, and preferred his chances on the ground. He brushed away tears with the backs of his hands and wiped his nose in the sleeve of his jacket. He scooted back along the pipe to the riser and climbed down the rungs. The men met him at the bottom and Loose-Hair pinned his hands behind his back. Braids stood in front of him and regarded him critically.
The blond men were incredibly tall. Sam was a meter eighty-five but these guys dwarfed him. Braids grabbed Sam’s face in one hand and turned his head left and right. He released him, brought his face close to Sam’s and spoke in a quiet voice:
“Kad is anem det? Kad ata tu eg jenew len on viepe?”
Loose-Hair nudged him hard, as if persuading him to answer a question. Sam’s voice tumbled out of him:
“Look guys; I don’t know what you’re sayin' and I don’t know why I’m here. Hell, I don’t even know where here is! I’m just tryin’ to get home, and I don’t mind tellin' ya – I’m scared as hell.”
Loose-Hair’s grip loosened for a second and Braids's eyes widened. Sam knew he had surprised them but didn’t know why. Braids stared at Loose-Hair and they said in unison:
Braids turned on his heel and started walking away downhill. He looked over his shoulder and shouted:
Loose-Hair frog-marched Sam after Braids and soon they came to a crest. The ground dropped away revealing the most beautiful valley Sam had ever seen. A few hundred meters away, a tarn lay nestled in the embrace of the hills. A river ran downhill from the tarn and meandered down the valley as far as the eye could see. Near the bottom of the valley, the bare stone and scree gave way to verdant flood-plain. The water in the tarn was steel-blue, almost indigo, and spoke of ice-crystal purity and unfathomable depths. Sam shivered just looking at it. There was an elemental sense of ancient cold about it that even an Alaskan winter couldn’t match.
Loose-Hair walked him down the hill towards the tarn. As they approached the edge, what Sam had taken to be a huge bowl-shaped boulder, turned out to be a boat. At least, it looked like a boat: It reminded Sam of a circular coracle; wooden, with several rows of molded bench-seats inside, and what looked like a steering console at the front. He couldn’t see any outboard means of propulsion though. Braids jumped into the vehicle and sat at the console. He gestured to Loose-Hair who lifted all ninety-five kilos of Sam off his feet and deposited him into the boat. He jumped in beside him and barked:
Sam stammered: “I don't …”
Loose-Hair pointed at the seat and pushed down hard on Sam’s shoulder. Sam got the idea and sat down. The molded wooden seats were covered in some kind of padded leather and were surprisingly comfortable. Loose-Hair sat in the bench behind Sam with a grunt that Sam took to mean “I’m watching you!”
For several moments, nothing happened. Sam expected one or both of the blond men to push the boat into the water but as he waited, Braids moved his hand in a peculiar gesture over the console and a low-frequency vibration began in the hull. It wasn’t unpleasant but it was unfamiliar, and made Sam edgy.
He soon realized the craft wasn’t a boat. Not in the traditional sense.
Seconds after the humming started the craft make a crackling noise and floated a few centimeters off the ground. Sam grabbed the edges of the seat and looked around wildly. Loose-Hair snorted in ridicule behind him. As Sam clung on, the vehicle spun on its axis and glided away over the surface of the tarn. When they were over the midpoint of the tarn, Braids turned the craft so they were facing the way they had come. The craft descended until it almost touched the water. An electrical popping noise emanated from the hull and the water around them started to bubble. The air became charged and Sam’s beard and hair started to itch. A smell of ozone reached his nostrils. Suddenly the craft shot into the air and headed towards the peak they had come from. Sam hyperventilated as if on a roller-coaster, and clung on for dear life.
Braids steered the craft towards a mountain adjacent to the one where Sam had woken up. As they approached the peak, a huge edifice came into view. From Sam’s aerial perspective, it was made up of five concentric rings of sandstone, each taller than its outer counterpart. The walls must have been five or six meters thick, he adjudged. An octagonal stone tower, as tall as an office building, stood at the center and five circular towers reminiscent of chess rooks were spaced evenly on the outer ring. Two smaller towers of similar design flanked a wide lancet-arched recess in the outer wall. The craft banked over the structure, and Braids set them down on a large flat area nearby. The outer ring of the fortress was featureless but for the large arched recess. The recess penetrated several meters into the outer ring and ended in blunt stone.
Braids stepped out of the vehicle and gestured at Loose-Hair to bring Sam along. As they approached the recess, guards with strange weapons watched from the towers. Braids removed a small flat stone from a pouch on his belt. He pointed the object at the fortress and muttered under his breath. A seismic grinding noise came from deep within, and the rear wall of the recess slid sideways. An opening that matched the shape of the arch slid into view and lined up with it. Sam could now see through to the circular open area between the two outer rings. Braids gestured then headed in through the huge entrance. Loose-Hair pushed Sam in the small of the back. He stumbled then got his footing and followed Braids into the entrance.
Under the eyes of the guards in the towers, the men led Sam through the outer ring area to another door in the second wall. They followed a circuitous path through doors and corridors in the various rings until they emerged into the expansive circular courtyard where the octagonal tower stood. The courtyard was cobbled in black with white stones picking out geometric patterns between the central tower and the positions of the five outer watchtowers. The courtyard was busy and there was a market in progress. The variety of colors and smells was incredible, and the noise was deafening. People haggled at volume over foodstuffs and pottery, and near one of the huge inner walls were several fenced-off rings in which a livestock mart was underway. No one paid any attention as the men led Sam to a door in the base of the octagonal tower. They brought him inside and closed the door, cutting off the noise from the courtyard. The inside of the tower was cold and dimly-lit, and the men led Sam down a spiral staircase to a large basement area.
Sam didn’t like the look of the basement one bit. Eight barred cells were set into the walls of the basement. Braids opened one of the cell doors and Loose-Hair manhandled Sam towards it. Sam was no stranger to the drunk-tank but he certainly didn’t want to be imprisoned in a strange place where no-one spoke his language, and with no knowledge of when he might get out. He struggled against Loose-Hair’s grip.
“Oh no, you’re not putting me in there. There’s no way I’m …”
Loose-Hair cracked him on the back of the head and Sam slumped to the floor.
He woke up on the wooden bunk in the cell with a humdinger of a headache. He groaned as he sat up and felt the egg-sized bump on the back of his head. As he got his bearings, he realized his boots and utility belt were gone. He looked around the cell but all he found was a filthy bucket under the bunk. He was so preoccupied with searching that he never noticed the little man sitting on the stool outside his cell.
The man cleared his throat and rapped on the bars of Sam’s cell. Sam head whipped around at the noise and he noticed the man for the first time. His beard and hair were reddish, going to grey, and he wore a long green robe. On his knee was an ornate briefcase, which he now placed on the ground as he stood up. He gestured Sam towards the bars and said:
“On dikken tu mei?”
Sam looked at the man blankly. After a moment, apparently satisfied, the man nodded and picked up the briefcase. He placed it on the stool, unsnapped the locks and opened it so that Sam could see the contents. It was divided into numerous small compartments with a small plaque on the lid of each. The man removed the first plaque and held it through the bars. He gestured at Sam to take it. Sam stood as far as he could from the bars, reached forward and snatched it from the man’s hand.
It was the size and shape of a business card but felt like a thin piece of ivory. It was embossed with black markings. Sam looked at the man and made a “what do I do with this?” gesture. The man pointed at the card with one hard and pointed at his eyes with the other.
He wants me to read it.
The markings may or may not have been writing but they meant nothing to Sam. He shook his head and handed the card back. The man put it back in the case and gave Sam the next card. Sam looked at it, shook his head and handed it back. They repeated this many times over the next fifteen minutes and Sam was getting weary when the man handed him a plaque that read:
Sam held the card out to the man and tapped on it with the forefinger of the other hand.
“English,” he said. “I speak English.”
The man took the card with a faintly surprised look muttering “Ber-le” to himself as he replaced it in the case. He opened the relevant compartment and removed a small velvet bag from which he dropped a tear-shaped stone into the palm of his hand. From another compartment he removed a similar stone on a leather thong.
He held the stones together and muttered something. There was a slight pop from the stones like a static discharge and a vague smell of ozone. He handed the stone on the thong to Sam and gestured for him to place it around his neck. With some trepidation, Sam did so. The man mimed pulling his collar forward and dropping the amulet inside his robe. He mimed it again and pointed at Sam. When Sam dropped the amulet inside his shirt against his skin, he felt a weird jolt pass through him. It wasn’t painful but it felt like a mild electric shock that passed from the stone, back to his spine and up into his brain. His ears buzzed and his eyes went hazy for a moment. Sam gasped and staggered slightly.
The man smiled, as if he knew something Sam did not, and said:
“On dikken tu mei anisch?”
Sam gasped again. He knew the man had spoken his own language but what Sam’s brain registered was:
“Do you understand me now?”
“Say it, my friend,” said the man. “Tell me out loud you understand me.”
“I... I understand you.”
The man smiled. He closed up his briefcase and put it on the floor.
“Excellent! What I’ve just given you is called a mejrok. Everyone here wears one. A mejrok can do many things depending on the patterns imprinted on it but for now I’ve imprinted yours to enable you to converse with us and read our language. Do you understand?”
Sam nodded again.
“Capital! Well, now that we understand each other, perhaps you could tell me your name.”
“Er, Sam … Sam Renstrom.”
“And where are you from, Sam Renstrom?”
“Alaska? Never heard of that place. Which tír is it in?” There was no direct English translation for tír but the mejrok delivered a concept that was a blend of land, country and parallel reality.
“Er, I don’t know. It’s in the States.”
“The states? Which states?”
“The United States of America.”
“United States of America? I have never heard of those, either.”
Sam began to comprehend just how far away from home he was.
“So, where’n the hell am I?” he asked.
“We shall get to that in due course. Now, perhaps you would tell me how you got in to a restricted area with patrols around the perimeter.”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh come, come, Sam Renstrom; the guards found you sitting on an inflow pipe interfering with a tuned sidh.” Sam’s brain registered sidh as portal//corridor.
“I … I wasn’t interferin’. I was tryin’ to get back.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“I was tryin’ to get back through the disc; back where I came from.”
“Back where you …” The man’s brow rumpled. “Do you mean you arrived here through a sidh?”
“If you mean a weird swirlin’ disc around an oil pipe then, yeah, I think so. I was checkin’ out a problem with an oil pipe back in Alaska and I got pulled into one of those suckers. Next thing, I wake up beside one on an oil pipe here. When your boys caught me I was tryin’ to get back through. Didn’t work though.”
Sam lowered his gaze. The man turned around and picked up his briefcase. He looked distressed.
“Thank you, Sam Renstrom. I’ll be back,” he said and disappeared up the spiral stairway.
“Wait! Hey Mister, wait! When do I get out of here?”
But the man was gone.
“Hey! Come back! Hey! God damn it!”
“Keep it down over there.”
The quiet voice came from one of the other cells. Sam crouched instinctively and peered around the cells to see where the voice’s owner was.
“Where are you, Mister?”
A man appeared at the bars of the cell opposite. Sam noted he was dressed in ‘regular’ clothes - jeans and a sweater.
“So, ‘Sam’ is it? From Alaska. You’re a long way from home, Sam from Alaska.”
Sam realized the guy was speaking English.
“Where am I?”
They call this place Keher Kuhn-Ridh. In English, that means the City of Kuhn-Ridh. Kuhn-Ridh is the chieftain that runs this place and the province around us.”
“I mean, what country is this?”
“Well, it’s Ireland … in a manner of speaking.”
Well, if you looked at an atlas of this planet, you’d think it was Earth, and I suppose it is, to an extent. It’s just not our Earth. I guess you’d call it an alternate reality.”
“Nope. There are a few similarities between this reality and ours but it’s mostly differences. In our reality, this place would be in the Slieve Mish Mountains in Kerry. They don’t call it that, though.”
“So how long have you been here?”
“I’ve lost track. A few months, I suppose. They have a use for me, so they keep me alive.”
“You mean, if they don’t have a use for me, they’ll kill me.”
“Probably. Right now they’re trying to figure out who you are and where you came from. Your story about coming through a portal has old Mug-Ruit rattled.”
“Mug-Ruit, Kuhn-Ridh’s head of security; the little old fart you’ve just been talking to. The tuned portals are supposed to be secure. You came through on his watch. Kuhn-Ridh won’t like that.”
“So they’ll kill me?”
“That depends. What was your job back in Alaska?”
“I was a maintenance man on the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.”
The guy in the jeans threw his head back and laughed.
“Oh man! I don’t know if it’s your lucky day or theirs. I’ll tell you this, though: You tell them you know about pumping oil and they’ll welcome you with open arms.”
“Mister, all I wanna do is go home.”
“So do I but until we figure out a way to do that, we’re stuck here. Hey, if they put you to work on the pipeline, maybe you can put in a good word for me – might get out of this cell more often.”
Sam snorted a cynical laugh.
“I’ll see what I can do. Say, what’s your name? I can’t keep calling you ‘Mister’.”
“I’m Fintan. Fintan McHewell.”