A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so they say. Nallegam’s journey had started with an audible pop followed by a powerful gust of wind rather like standing in a wind tunnel. His journey also was not of a thousand miles, though he might eventually cover that far, but of five trillion Tegmarkobytes.
He breathed in the fresh, fragrant air and fancied he could feel the purity of it sweep through his respiratory system. In actual fact he could tell little difference between it and that of his homeworld, though often he was told that the air of home was a pale, corrupted imitation. Supposedly it was filled with stray particles produced from the various industrial production methods. Though it was still a far cry from the pollution produced a few hundred years earlier, before people knew anything of the possibility of environmental harm.
A city boy, Nallegam had little in the way of wilderness law though judging from his surroundings of broad fields, deciduous trees and a cold, damp atmosphere he was not in such an unfamiliar setting. Admittedly there was a lot less in the way of buildings and the view stretched on as far as the horizon rather than across the street. Otherwise, however, he could be forgiven for thinking he was stood in a large park, except for the cliff of course.
He was stood worryingly near the edge, enough to bring thoughts of ‘If I had appeared just a few more inches forward…’ It was not the cliff of a mountain, though a fall from such a height would almost certainly have killed him. It rose above the trees, roughly twice their height and had a steep edge revealing a squared rock face. All around it, atop it and below, clung vast growths of grassland dotted with trees, some isolated others huddling together for warmth. One or two miles distant Nallegam could see a town, or village, he was unsure how to classify its size and could not make out any details of its buildings save for a feeling most were constructed of wood.
It seemed as good a destination as any and Nallegam began searching for a gentle slope to descend the cliff with. The rock face poked out of the ground much like a hooded figure peering over a wall, the cloak of grass merged with the flatland below and Nallegam was able to walk down with minimal slipping and stumbling, reaching the bottom with his dignity mostly intact.
A long, log covered in slimy moss lay at the bottom of the slope and forced Nallegam to clamber over it. He could no longer see the distant village and with a little guestimation selected what he thought was the right direction and walked that way with the slow amble of a reluctant schoolchild. Hopefully he would learn much about this world in the village, discover new and interesting things and generally enrich his life with the experience. There was always the fear though, that it would prove to be a dead end, the locals might be dull or obstructive or simply that Nallegam himself would lack the ability to bring out a social temperament.
The Journey was a rite of passage. It was a tradition dating back to the earliest settlements of his world where the men of a tribe would be sent out to explore the world. They would return wiser for the experience and hopefully with some luxury or piece of knowledge that would benefit the entire tribe. As the centuries wore on and the world was explored and technology advanced further the need for such a thing became less apparent and forgotten in many places. It was still held as a tradition though and often led to young men travelling to foreign countries to develop their skills and experience, later too young woman were allowed under the equalities act to undertake The Journey.
The discovery and ability to traverse the parallel worlds had brought it back. A near infinite mass of worlds to be explored with strange and exotic substances and cultures proved too irresistible. At first only government funded expeditions were allowed but, over time, the technology had developed to be safer and more reliable and The Journey had resurfaced as a new kind of further education. The rich and gifted children who passed the exams and the rigourous screening process were allowed to undertake a Journey. Nallegam was not so gifted as these people had been, though he by no means considered himself stupid. By the time he had reached nineteen and completed his schooling The Journey had become cheaper, easier to apply for and ultimately more commonplace. In fact about fifty percent of the young adult population undertook The Journey, and often would enliven conversations with talk of meeting the Ta’ak people of world Epsilon33B and how enlightened they had been by the spiritual beliefs.
A road, a worn pathway at least, appeared before Nallegam and he was thankful for the indication that he was headed in the right direction. Two parallel ruts had carved into the hard ground much like the markings of an automobile with the grass squeezing through the centre of the tracks. A short way ahead the road led through the middle of a wood, with tall, thin trees stretching high into the sky. Nallegam walked through, remarking to himself on the strangeness of the silent world, so used as he was to the hum and buzz of kinetolights and the roar of automobile engines. Flashes of brown pushed through the nearby undergrowth, Nallegam took them for deer or a similar animal that must have been frightened off by his strange presence. Eventually he was proved wrong and the movements made themselves known.
“RRRAAARGGHHHH!!!!” Came a tremendous roar as five men pounced from hiding and surrounded Nallegam with weapons raised.
“EEEEAAAAAAAK!!!” Came Nallegam’s regretfully unmasculine scream. He nearly blacked out and tumbled to the floor, recovering in time to thrust an arm out and prevent injury, other than scraping his hand on the hard earth.
Laughter filled the air after that, deep and guttoral as the strange men shared their mirth. One clasped Nallegam’s arm with a tight grip and wrenched him to an upright position. He looked around him and saw hair and sinew and pink flesh pressing in at him from all sides. The men oozed testosterone and masculinity. They had great manes of black, shaggy and greasy hair with equally unkempt and wild beards. They wore fur and leather clothing strapped tight to their lean frames, leaving their arms exposed to the chill air. They held axes and daggers in hand, though to Nallegam’s relief, were hooking them back on belts. The men also gave off a pungent odour of sweat and exertion.
Nallegam was dressed in normal clothing, from his world, but understated in the hopes it would not draw any attention to him beyond that of a traveller. There was a difficulty in knowing how to dress for a Journey, depending on how long you would spend on one, where you were going and how far might you travel through the different climates. By the nature of exploring unknown lands it was also impossible to select culturally appropriate clothing too.
He carried no items of technology with him that would make him a target or accidentally provide a medieval era culture with lasers. His clothes were of man-made fibres and, judging from the appearance of the wild men, more advanced technologically than them, though there was little fear of it being used for warfare.
He also had on him a companion book, one written to aid the explorers of other worlds along with his own journal and writing implements to take note of all he saw and did here. Ordinarily he would have had a kinetobook but that would have drawn too much attention and he’d be unlikely to find a way to recharge it.
One of the wild men patted him on the back with a force stronger than the friendly nudges Nallegam was used to. His subsequent stumble caused another outburst of mirth. The wild man then spoke with syllables Nallegam had no hope of recognising. For the first time he realised there would be a language barrier between him and the native people. In all his study and preparation for this journey he had never once thought about it and now he felt like an idiot for being unable to communicate with them.
He tried a few words just in case, “Hello, can you understand me? My, name, is, Nallegam. Na. Le. Gam.” The wild men gave him odd looks then talked amongst themselves. One of them managed to say his name, though it was heavily distorted presumably by the local accent. They frequently gestured towards Nallegam as they spoke and he could only assume they were discussing what to do with him.
Eventually some form of decision was made, at least Nallegam assumed one had been. The wild men split up, two pairs each headed off into the wood with the fifth man staying by Nallegam’s side. He gave Nallegam a gentled shove and guided him along the path back towards the cliff.
The wild man kept trying to talk to Nallegam as they walked and seemed surprisingly friendly given his rugged warrior appearance. Though he did keep a firm grip of Nallegam’s arm at all times, whether this was a friendly gesture, a guiding hand or a way to prevent escape Nallegam couldn’t tell.
The language sounded like it was made of a lot of deep vowel sounds with a plentiful smattering of hard consonants all curiously wrapped up with a growl or snarl, though Nallegam had no way of knowing if this was part of the language or just an affectation of the wild man.
A call sounded ahead, one of the other wild men no doubt. Nallegam’s companion pulled him to a halt and pulled a sharp and somewhat crude dagger from his belt. Sensing that something dangerous was near caused Nallegam’s heart rate to increase and he felt his muscles tense in anticipation.
There was a long silence. Eventually his companion pushed him forwards, but they advanced at a much slower pace than before. The cliff on which Nallegam had first appeared loomed before them, at its foot was the moss covered log he had clambered over. A second look revealed it to be quite strange. It was curved such that its ends disappeared into the ground. He might have assumed it had sunk into some mud on a rainy day were it not for the way it began to flex and swell.
The wild man pulled Nallegam back away from the log and advanced on it, dagger at the ready. He closed the distance, then staggered back as the log tore from the ground and lashed at his face. The underside of the log was lined with green and black scales. It contracted and rose up, bringing a head and tail into view. It was a gargantuan snake with pointed fangs for spearing its prey and a great, gaping maw to swallow them from which it now hissed.
With a cry two more wild men appeared from the left and lunged at the monster. It thrashed at them, muscular coils knocking one away and constricting the other. Trapped the wild man had nonetheless managed to embed his axe into the monster, red ichor oozed around the dark metal.
The snake ignored this however and released the wild man, who slumped to the floor no doubt suffering multiple bone fractures. It rounded on Nallegam’s companion who had bravely, though perhaps foolishly, been swiping at it with his dagger to little effect.
The head snapped forward with lightning speed and dash the ground by the wild man as he barely dodged the strike. Again it lunged, and again. Each time the wild man narrowly avoided the attack and each time it became a closer call. The fourth strike sliced the man’s leg as a long fang caught it.
A surge of adrenaline must have addled Nallegam’s brain he later decided for against all common sense he ran towards the snake and leapt onto the back of its head. Like climbing a tree trunk he wrapped his arms around it gripping what he could only think of as its neck. Once there however he had no idea what else to do and resorted to futilely punching the monster. The ineffective attack got a reaction however and the snake, rearing up, dashed its back and Nallegam against the rock face.
Nallegam’s head collided with the rock and he passed out, aware only briefly of his grip on the snake loosening and of falling to the ground.
When he came to he found himself in the presence of the wild men once more. They cheered him and offered him a tankard filled with what tasted like honeyed beer. The monstrous snake lay still and unnerving around a hastily put together campsite at the foot of the cliff and the sky was darkening as dusk closed in.
Nallegam gathered from the body language of the wild men that he had earned their admiration or some measure of respect for his brave act, though it still felt like a stupid thing to have done. It had been a frightening start to his journey, but as he drank he relaxed and enjoyed the raucous company and thought to himself how wonderful it could be.