This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
of slime glistening on the road behind them. Guns bristled from inside the shells, and long cannon were mounted at the uppermost apex of their gradual curves. Tiny specks, barely discernible as men, clambered and climbed over the huge domed shells. Jack Briar, 14 years old, fresh from boarding school and full of excitement, watched from the ground below. He had wandered out into the wide road for a better look at the column, but now hurried back to join the rest of the passengers embarking a Transport Snail. These Snails were smaller, and instead of guns carried huge pagodas, nearly half as tall again as a Snail. It was to be one of these which would be Jack's home for the next month as the convoy made its way to the Capital, Industry Stump. He reached the end of the queue, and laid down his two heavy cases. These contained all of his worldly possessions; mainly books, clothes, and personal effects, but, significantly, also a small brown bag containing a great deal of someone else's money. This money had paid for the journey, which, despite being one of the greatest single expenses of his life, he could now easily afford dozens of times over. However, he would be required to live off the money in that little bag for at least the next 4 years in Industry Stump, and to make it last he would need to be prudent. The queue diminished as people boarded the pagoda, and Jack was now able to smell the Snail; a rich, earthy, tangy smell. It didn't smell particularly bad, just unusual. He had only ever seen the Snails outside the town walls, and breathed great lungfuls of air to try and fix this strange smell in his mind, quite forgetful of the fact that he would surely be exposed to it constantly for the next month. He could see the mottled, green-blue surface of the Snail itself, and noticed that it was translucent and shiny, and pulsed near-imperceptibly in time with the Snail's massive heart, something that he had never been close enough to notice before. He began to ascend the boarding scaffold, a wooden tower and staircase that spiralled up to the pagoda. As he climbed, the shell curved close to the wood, so close that Jack was able to reach out and touch it, feeling the rough, brown surface slide underneath his fingers. He looked out through the gaps in the tower, watching as the ground got farther away and the horizon became more distant. He could see most of the town of RockWeed now, built on a low flat rock, with lazy smokestacks stretching diffusely into the sky, and he felt a sudden sorrow that he may never see it again. He had lived there his entire life, and would miss it. It wasn't always the most interesting place to live, and enjoyed a quiet, slow existence, but it had been Jack's home He climbed on, more tiredly, as the spiral went round and round. He was breathing deeply, and felt sweat prick on his forehead, as he tramped up the last few turns. At the top he let out a sigh of relief, sagging his shoulders, but before he could recover his breath he felt a smart tapping on his shoulder. "Come on," a red faced boarding officer scolded him, "You're blocking the stairs. Move through to the atrium." Jack breathlessly nodded to the man, then walked the few remaining steps up into the atrium. This wide hall was filling up with people, all anxious to be shown to their rooms and unpack their luggage. He joined this new queue of people, and then looked around at the decorative pillars and low ceiling with its delicate wood adornments and strong stone buttressing. Their were several doors at the other end of the room, and occasionally a boarding officer would direct a group through one. Jack put his cases down again and stretched his arms, careful to keep an eye on
his suitcases as he did so. He had been instructed to always keep his money in sight, and he intended to honour that instruction to the letter. As before, the queue eventually diminished, and Jack found himself at the front. A smartly uniformed officer with a revolver at his side gave him a form to fill out, and asked him and a group of a dozen others to move through one of the doors at the end of the atrium, labelled Form Room 4. Jack obeyed, and found himself in a small room with chairs around its edge. He sat down and looked at the form he had been given. It asked him for some details about his appearance "for recognition purposes". He filled these in. Jack was tall for his age, and quite thin, which made him look taller still. He had light brown hair, flecked with blond strands, and blue eyes. At present he was wearing a loose fitting top and trousers, both of shapeless hemp material, and he noticed that his clothes were, although clean, quite shabby compared with the others in the room. A well dressed family sat across from him, the father absorbed in filling in his own form while his wife, who was rather taller than her husband, noticeable even as they sat, fussed over the restless children. The youngest child was staring curiously at Jack, and giggled when Jack gave a little wave, burying its head shyly in its mother's skirts. Jack continued with his form. It asked for confirmation of booking details, which Jack filled in, before the last paragraph. "As of today the South Gdn. Transport Snail 'Ponderous' is administered as a military vessel and the passengers are advised to observe the precautions laid down by the Captain and his crew. No person may enter the prohibited decks without written permission from the duty officer or Captain. All passengers will remain in their rooms from 21:00 each evening until 7:00 the following day. No one is to leave the pagoda at any time. Failure to comply with any of these instructions will result in imprisonment and subsequent prosecution." Jack read through these, wondering why the Snail was now classed as military, and reached the last sentence, "It is within the Captain's power to execute without trial those who are believed to be planning mutinous actions." Jack was taken aback by this. Once they had all filled in their forms a tall woman dressed in boarding officer uniform entered and collected them, briefly scanning each as he picked it up to check the details. "Follow me, please" the woman said, "and bring your bags." Jack stood and hefted his cases, and followed the woman through to a staircase and up several floors. Again, by the time they reached the top he was panting. Others, too, were similarly exhausted by the climb. "Come on," snapped the woman, "We have 400 passengers to deal with today, so hurry up please." And then she set off along the long corridor at a fast pace. They reached the top passenger deck, which looked more elaborate than the lower decks, as these were the most expensive rooms. As the slowest passengers caught up the woman was already checking off names from a list and handing out keys. Jack Briar, alphabetically second, received his key after "Arachides", the family from which he had sat opposite in the form room. His key was small and golden, and was stamped "F7R12". This meant Floor 7, Room 12, Jack guessed. "Right, listen closely now, please." The officer said, "Those keys are your responsibility for the duration of the trip, so please look after them carefully. The room numbers on this section of the deck refer to those on your keys, and we ask that you now remain in your rooms until the Snail is in motion in half an
hour's time. We recommend that you use this time to unpack. Any questions?" She glanced swiftly over at the passengers, then immediately continued "No? Good. We hope your stay is comfortable." And with that she said goodbye to them and strode off, leaving them standing in the corridor. "OK," said the Father of the Arachides family in a surprisingly deep voice for such a small man, "Come on children. Look for room 13." he then set off down the corridor, counting his way along the room numbers, which were displayed in raised gold on the thick wooden doors. "5... 6... 7..." Jack followed behind the family, as his room would be along here also. "12...13 - Good! Here we are." The family stopped at their door and the father rattled his key impotently in the lock until it clicked open after a few seconds of effort. They disappeared inside, and the door closed behind them, clicking locked. Jack, now alone in he corridor, took his own key and turned it in the lock of Room 12. The heavy wooden door swung open, and Jack pulled his cases inside. The room was small, but not tiny. It contained a bed, with sheets and a blanket, and a cupboard. There was a little window with a curtain, and a washbasin and bucket. A small notice on the bucket asked the user to please dispose of any Bucket contents in the communal disposal facility, and not to dispose of it out of the window. There was also a small oil lamp, and a box of matches. All in all, Jack thought, the room was pretty good. Unlike at boarding school he wouldn't have to share with anybody, and at night he would be able to read his books by lamplight. He sat on the bed, and opened one of his suitcases. He took out clothes, and bundled these into the cupboard, then put his soap and toothbrush at the basin, and carefully stacked his books beside the bed. He then opened the other suitcase, and reverently removed the money bag and put it on his pillow. He removed some more books, and stacked these with the others. And so he had finished unpacking in less than 5 minutes. He checked his watch, a simple clockwork device that required frequent winding, and saw that he had still the best part of half an hour until the journey began. He couldn't leave the room until then, although he restlessly wished to explore, so he lay back on the bed, carefully moving the money bag from the pillow to the top of the book pile. Jack stared up at the ceiling for a few seconds, looking at the knots in the wood and absent mindedly counting the planks, and listening to the creak of the floor of the room next door, hearing the muffled voices of the Arachides family drift through. He sat up and picked up a book from the middle of the pile, careful not to dislodge the money, and opened the book at the back page. The selection of book would look to an observer as if it was done at random, but this was not the case, as Jack extricated a neatly folded letter. He replaced the book, and lay back once again. He had read and re-read this short letter so often that he was word perfect, but once again found himself drawn to look at the actual words written by the man who had sent him the money. A man whom Jack could only remember meeting once, when he was seven, and barely knew. A man who was, in fact, his Father. The letter read: Dear Jack, I hope this letter finds you well. I am aware that your mother's inheritance has been fully expended on School tuition fees for your final year. I have credited your school fund with GC 100 which is to be granted to you when you graduate in 2 months time. You are to use it to travel to Industry Stump and enrol as an undergraduate student at Stump University.
When travelling, keep the money with you at all times and do not tell anyone of its existence. Your Father, Jack Briar The letter was faded and creased with repeated readings, and Jack read it once more. The GC 100 referred to the one hundred gold coins in the bag, less 1 for this journey, less 3 more that Jack had stored in a pouch under his shirt, and less another that Jack had exchanged for smaller denominations of coin. The paper on which the letter was written was cheap and thin, and the writing itself was in a slow, methodical hand, suggesting that the writer did not write regularly and had to concentrate on the letters being written. The letter itself confused Jack. His Father, who he understood to be a soldier fighting with some regiment in the Northern Wars, would not make a lot of money, so it seemed odd that he would have enough to send Jack to the most expensive University in the Country. It also seemed strange to Jack that his Father should wish to send any money at all, as he had made no effort to know his son after Jack's Mother, his wife, had died during childbirth. The letter was written curtly, with no expression of sentiment apart from the hope that he was well, and Jack did not know what to make of all of this. His feelings were understandably confused. The money was certainly welcome though, since before the letter had arrived Jack had not known what he was going to do with his life, just that he didn't intend for it to be dull. His school had organised for him to work as a bank clerk, a job that did not appeal to Jack's adventurous nature. Now he could continue studying, which he enjoyed, and could do so at Industry stump, the most adventurous sounding place Jack had ever heard of. The biggest City in the country, maybe the world, and home to two hundred thousand people. Tiers of shops, houses, schools, factories, walls – a whole city built inside and outside a massive tree stump. Jack had wondered just how big it was, and had heard that a thousand Snails end to end in a great circle around the stump's base would still not have covered the circumference. He supposed that this was ridiculous, as a Snail was itself unimaginably big, but he still entertained himself with the notion that it may be true. When Jack arrived he would have to register with the University, find accommodation, and choose a course to study. This all excited Jack, of course, but it also made him nervous. He didn't know anyone in the City, and although the number of people on the Transport Snails had, for some reason which Jack wasn't aware of, been much greater than normal, he knew no one on the Snail either. He had left all of his few friends behind in RockWeed, and was journeying into the unknown. As he lay on his bed, with his Father's letter on his chest and the indistinct noise of the the Arachides family talking to each other in the next room, he felt quite lonely. Suddenly, the room shuddered. Jack, snapping out of his reverie, sat up, and realised that the Snail was, at last, beginning to move. The shudder came again, and Jack, excited once again, grinned in expectation of the journey to come. Jack felt the floor vibrate noticeably as the Snail's powerful muscles contracted fully, and then the ground jerked as it began to slide forward, leaving a thick new trail of slime glistening behind it. Jack rushed to the window, and watched as the stationary town began to drift away. The Snail slowly accelerated to a fast adult's walking pace, then to running pace, and then slowly turned to take its place in the column, fitting snugly between two other Snails. Jack was on his way to a newlife, in a new city, and his life was about to get a lot more exciting.