The Waystation
 By Jeff Robinson (6,421 words)

Billy Taggart ducked behind a man who had paused in front of the large canvas tent.  Crouching low, he peeked past the people in front of him and studied the hawker who was shouting at passing crowd.

“Hearye, hearye, come one and all.  Come see the marvels of the Tiptree Menagerie.  For only a tuppence, you can behold most amazing collection of exotic animals and beasts in the world,” bellowed the gaunt red-haired man.

“Come and see the giant man-eating snake from the deepest jungles of the Africa and view the hideous lizard-man from the cannibal tribes of South America.  Come and look at marvelous monkey-bear discovered by a hunting expedition on Safari on the plains of the Kalahari and behold the world’s only living albino crocodile.  Marvel at the ferocity of a man-killing tiger from India and witness the spectacle of the colorful singing parrots of Siam.

“For only two pennies, you can see these wonders of nature before the exhibition leaves London for an extended tour of Europe.  This could be your last chance to see the only surviving specimens of some of the world’s most unusual creatures.
“Come! Come and see them before the chance is gone…”

The pitchman continued to shout at passersby from the tiny platform in front of the brightly colored tent.  At one point, he turned his attention to several well-dressed men and ladies who had interrupted their evening stroll to listen to his spiel. 

As the red-haired huckster addressed a gentleman with a fancy top hat and cane, Billy dashed around the back of the crowd and darted through the tent flap.  Once inside, he ducked behind the nearest exhibit and hid in the shadows. 

Holding his breath to quiet his racing heart, Billy waited to find out if anyone had seen him sneak into the tent.  If he were caught, he’d be beaten and thrown back out onto the cold damp street.  He listened intently and heard the hawker continue his exaggerated sales pitch, but no one followed him inside the exhibit area. 

After a few moments, Billy relaxed and began to breath again.  He was safe.  The evening shadows had concealed his entrance.  None of the other carnival workers had seen him.

Carefully, Billy rose and peeked out across the interior of the tent.  There were only about a dozen cages set up inside.  Four or five people slowly walked from one exhibit to the next working their way to the exit at the other end of the tent.  A young gentleman spoke softly as he provided some explanation of the menagerie to his female companion.  The young lady listened attentively as if believing the young man’s stories.

Several sparsely spaced lanterns barely lit the inside of the tent.  Dirt and grass mixed with the little sawdust the carnies had thrown on the ground and combined with animal smells to form a thick cloying odor.  Billy almost sneezed from the smell of urine from the cage in front of him. 

The flickering light from the oil lamps made the creatures on display difficult to see.  Looking into the nearest cage, Billy decided the inadequate lighting was intentional.

A tiny crocodile huddled in the center of the cage, but Billy couldn’t tell if it was asleep or dead.  Pressing his face up against the bars, however, he could see the flecks of white paint already peeling up off the small reptile’s hide. 

Billy stifled a chuckle as he heard the young man across the tent say something to his lady companion about albinos being caused by excessive inbreeding in animal species.  Albinos, indeed, thought Billy.  These were caused by whitewash, not inbreeding.  He laughed to himself, amazed at how stupid people were and the things they were capable of believing.

After passing a cage of noisy, brightly colored birds, an exhibit of three energetic little monkeys and a pathetic, scrawny tiger asleep in its cage, the couple finally exited the menagerie through an open flap on the far side of the tent. 

Billy glanced back at the entrance and verified that no one else had entered.  Business for the evening was dropping off.  The tiny carnival would be closing soon, he thought.  Getting down to his own business, he carefully worked his way along the edge of the tent and searched for a place where he could sleep for the night.  He stayed away from the two cages that
contained men wearing paint and feathers.  They almost certainly worked for the sideshow and were probably as real as the albino crocodile.

Passing a cage containing a large mottled snake, Billy approached the last exhibit.  It was actually a tiny wagon that housed a strange looking, furry animal.  This must be the monkey-bear, he’d heard about outside. 

Staying up against the side of the tent, Billy inched closer and saw the beast was hardly larger than himself.  He’d never seen anything like it before, not even in his aunt’s picture books.  It looked like a cross between a panda and a monkey, but it had small ears and a flat face.  It had short stubby legs and an unusually large head with large dark eyes.  For a moment, he thought it might be a child in a costume, but then it reached up, scratched its nose and revealed a long thin arm and a tiny hand with delicate fingers.  No, it definitely wasn’t a child.  This exhibit was different from the others. 

While the street urchin examined the creature, the odd looking bear slowly turned its head and looked directly at him. 

Billy stood deep in the shadows, but the animal’s deep black eyes remained fixed on him. Billy didn’t move and waited for the animal to look away, but the creature kept watching him.  After a few long minutes, the animal blinked and then closed its eyes as if going sleep. 

It was several minutes before Billy moved.  He knelt down and crawled over to the cage.  Finding an open space between some crates under the wagon, he curled up and tried to find a comfortable position.  He tugged at his frayed and tattered jacket, but it was too small and wouldn’t cover him.  Finally, he just stuck his hands up under his armpits inside his jacket to keep them warm and tried to go to sleep. 

The smell of food from the vendors outside slowly became recognizable over the odors of the animals and the thought of food made Billy’s stomach burn.  Gritting his teeth against the nagging hunger, he tried to remember when he’d last eaten.  After a while he drifted into a shallow, fitful sleep.

*****

Billy woke with a start and jerked bolt upright, almost hitting his head on the bottom of the wagon.  He looked around to find what had awakened him, but all he heard were the clip-clop sounds of horse hooves on the cobblestone streets outside from a nearby passing carriage.  Even the birds had quieted down and were silent.  He carefully crawled to the edge of the tent, lifted the canvas an inch or two, and peeked out. 

The street was dark and empty.  The vending booths outside were bare and all the wares were gone.  The only visible lights were the stars overhead and one of London’s new gas lamps on a distant street corner.  Queen Victoria was having them installed on all the main streets, but they were still very few of them around yet.

The hawker was gone along with his crowd of prospective customers.  His little podium had been moved away from the busy sidewalk and now blocked the tent’s entrance.  Fog was slowly rolling in from the waterfront and Billy decided it must be about three o’clock in the morning. 

Lowering the edge of the tent, Billy looked around the tent.  The canvas flaps at the tent’s two entrances were tied shut and the cages with the men were empty.  All the animals were asleep.  Only a single lantern had been left on.

Billy’s stomach grumbled and he started to explore the interior for anywhere food might be stored.  The animals and the men in costumes must eat something, he thought.  Poking around, he found a crate near the sleeping cat’s cage and opened it.  Inside were small dark biscuits.  He took one and sniffed it.  He tasted it with the tip of his tongue, but couldn’t tell what it was.  It didn’t seem too offensive.  His stomach growled again and Billy decided it was better than nothing at all.  He took one biscuit in each hand and raised the first one to his mouth.

“No,” said a firm voice behind him.

Billy jumped and spun around, dropping both biscuits.  He expected to find a carnival worker behind him and raised his hands to ward of the strike he knew would come, but no one was there.  He slowly lowered his arms and looked around.  The tent was empty.  He checked and saw the tent flaps still securely tied shut.  I must be imaging things, he thought.

He reached down and picked up the fallen biscuits and started to take a bite.

“I said, No!” said the voice again.

Billy jumped back again and clenched the biscuits in his fists.  Someone’s in here, he thought.  Squinting, he slowly scanned the tent.  When he got to the cage containing the strange looking bear, he saw the creature staring at him.  No one else was around.  All the other creatures were asleep.

Facing the furry beast, Billy laughed.  He pointed at the creature and said, “Don’t tell me you said something.”

“What I said was, no,” said the bear.  “Don’t eat that food.  It’s drugged to keep the tiger docile.  If you eat any of it, it’ll knock you out.”

Billy’s jaw dropped.  He looked at the biscuits, opened his hands and let them fall to the ground.  He didn’t know whether to scream or run.   The strange little bear, however, simply leaned back against the rear of its cage and crossed its arms still staring at him.

Billy slowly walked toward the cage and stopped about a dozen feet from the bars.

“Did…” he began.  “Did you talk?”

The creature blinked and said, “Yes, I did. But don’t go around telling anyone.  No one would believe you anyway and you’d only get both of us in trouble.”

“But…” said Billy.  “You’re…you’re… ”

“Only a dumb animal?” said the creature.  “That’s what everyone thinks, and it’s probably the only reason I haven’t been vivisected so far.”

Billy blinked.  “Vivi…what?”

The creature sat up and leaned toward the bars.  It opened its mouth to speak but then it simply shook its head.  “Never mind,” it said.  It grasped the bars with its tiny hands and leaned toward Billy.  “Don’t be afraid.  I won’t hurt you.”

Billy didn’t move. 

“What’s your name?” asked the creature.

“Uh…Billy…Billy Taggert,” he replied.

Whispering, the bear said, “Say, Billy, would you like to do me a favor?  If you do, I’ll tell you where the real food’s kept.”
Billy nodded mutely.

“Go check behind the snake cage over there,” said the creature pointing over by the entrance.  “There should be a tool box near it.  Go get the box and bring it here.”

Billy looked where the creature was pointing and slowly walked in that direction.  Sure enough, there was a heavy box of tools on the ground behind the exhibit. He stooped and picked it up.  He half-dragged it back to the bear’s cage.  When he stopped, the creature pressed itself up against the bars and gestured with one hand for Billy to come closer. 

“It’s okay,” it said.  “I won’t hurt you.  I just need to get some of those tools.”

Billy hesitated.

“Really,” the creature insisted.  “I promise I won’t hurt you.  I just need your help to get out of this cage.”
Billy pushed the tool kit closer to the creature’s cage and stepped back.

“Billy,” it said, sighing.  “You’re going to have to help me.  I can’t reach the toolbox from here.  Could you at least open it and hand me some of the tools?”

It sounded so reasonable that Billy obediently opened the box and took out a screwdriver.

The creature reached through the bars and took the tool from Billy’s hand. “Thank you, Billy,” it said.  Then the bear inserted the screwdriver into the lock of the cage and began to wiggle it around.  While it worked, it said, “Can you see if there’s a hammer, some wire or any other small tools in there, as well?”

Billy bent down and removed some smaller tools from the box. He straightened up and offered them to the creature.

It stopped working on the lock for a second and took the other tools.  “Excellent,” it said.  “These are perfect.”  Then it returned its attention to the lock mechanism on the cage door. 

Billy watched the creature silently tinker with the tools and began to wonder if he wasn’t really sleeping and having a strange dream.

Without looking up, the creature said, “If you look over by the cage where the lizard-man was earlier, you’ll find a wooden box.  That’s where he keeps his lunch and his normal clothes.  I can’t promise there’ll be anything inside, but it’s the best chance you’ve got if you’re looking for food.”

The young boy started over toward the lizard-man exhibit. 

Without looking up from its work, the creature said, “If there’s anything there you don’t want, bring it over here and I’ll take it.  You wouldn’t believe what they’ve been feeding me.  It makes me want to gag.”

Billy went over and investigated the wooden box.  Inside the container, under some rags, he found a cloth bag containing scraps from a previous meal.  There were a few pieces of cooked meat, some stale rolls that felt more like rocks, and a large chunk of cheese.  There was even a small corked ceramic jar with some kind of drink in it.

He eagerly took a bite of the cheese and brought the sack back to the monkey-bear’s cage.  He dropped the sack to the ground and then sat down beside it.  He anxiously took more mouthfuls of cheese and thought, I don’t care if it’s a dream; it tastes wonderful.

There was a loud click and the cage door swung open with a loud squeak.  The creature dropped the tools, hopped to the ground and crouched down beside the bag.  Digging through the sack, the creature pulled out one of the hard rolls and eagerly bit into it. 

Mumbling through a mouthful of food, it said, “You have no idea how long I’ve been trying to get out of that cage.”  Taking another bite, it added, “or how long it’s been since I had anything this good to eat.”

Billy nodded and reached over toward the sack.  The creature looked up and handed Billy one of the pieces of cooked meat.  “Here, this is probably more to your liking than mine,” it said.

Billy took the meat, said, “Thanks,” and took a bite.

“You’re welcome,” the strange looking bear said.

The meat was tough and dry.  Billy struggled and managed to pull a mouthful off with his teeth.  Savoring the gristly fare, he said, “Do you have a name?”

“Yes,” said the creature, standing erect.  It thumped its chest and said, “I am Tlaktal.”

Billy nodded and said, “Tl…Till…” then he laughed and said, “I’ll call you Tal.”

“Excellent,” said Tal.  “New friends well met.”  The creature took the sack and slung it over its shoulder.  Then it picked at the crumbs on the front of its fur and popped them into his mouth.

“We’ll have to hurry,” it said.  “It will be light in a few hours and they get an early start around here.  We’ll both be found if we don’t leave soon.”

“We?” asked Billy. 

“Of course,” said the creature.  “I still need your help.  I stand little chance of getting out of London alone.  I will need your assistance and will reward you handsomely if you’ll consent to help me.”
Billy squinted.  “Reward me how?” he asked.

“With some of these,” said Tal, extending his hand.  Peering into the tiny hand, Billy saw three shiny stones.  He took one, held it up and gasped.  It was a gem of some kind. 

“Is…is this real?” said Billy.

“Yes, of course it’s real.  It’s a diamond and very valuable.  But I only have a few.  If I give you these will you help me?”

Billy started to object and then realized he was about to haggle with a short talking-bear.  He shook his head in disbelief and laughed to himself.  Finally he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yeah, sure.  Why not?  But first, you have to tell me what you are.”

Tal thought for a moment and then said,  “I am a traveler.  My people live very far from here and we avoid humans whenever we can.  Unfortunately, several of my companions and I encountered a group of men in Africa.  They were hunters.  The others got away, but I was trapped by a net and captured.  Still, I consider myself lucky.  For a while, I thought I was going to be eaten.  The hunters sold me and I was eventually brought here to this carnival.  I’ve been in that cage, or others like it, for about four months, waiting for an opportunity to escape.  Most of the time I was on a sailing ship from Africa, with no place to escape to.”

“So you’re not a kid in a suit or someone who’s had a curse placed on them?” asked Billy.

“No,” answered Tal.  “I’m just a different creature, yet I’m much like you.  I think; I talk; I travel and…I get myself into trouble sometimes.”

Billy smiled and popped the last piece of meat into his mouth.  He stuffed the remaining cheese in his pocket and mumbled, “So there are others like you?” 

Squatting down on the ground, Tal said, “Yes, but not here, not on this planet.  Like I said, I am a traveler. I come from very, very far away.”

Billy’s jaw dropped.  “You mean you’re from another planet?”  Squinting, Billy wondered what kind of line he was being given.  “Then how did you get here?” he asked.

“I told you I was a traveler.  My people have…devices… that let us move from one place to another.  It’s called spatial-translocation.  My people use it to travel to different worlds on different stars across the galaxy.”

Billy pursed his lips.  “Then what were you doing in Africa when you were caught.”

Tal sighed and lowered his head.  “Well, my race isn’t the only intelligent species in the galaxy.  There are actually many races that travel between the stars.  We’ve used your world as a stopping point on our translocation network for thousands of years, but there are very strict rules about interaction with other intelligence species so this planet isn’t used much, except for official business.” 

“Business?” said Billy.

“Yes, primarily research.  Other races periodically visit and study your world.  You know, plants and animals cultures, languages.  How do you think I learned your language?”

Billy frowned.  He hadn’t thought of that.  He thought it natural that everyone spoke English
.
The creature continued.  “Anyway.  We’ve monitored mankind’s progress for centuries.  Many of us think humans have great potential.  Who knows, maybe someday men will learn to travel to other stars, like my people.”

“Really,” said Billy, wonder filling his eyes.

“Sure, not in your lifetime, but someday.”

Billy frowned and took another bite of food.

Tal continued, “Once travel here was far more common than it is now.  We’ve always tried to avoid mankind.  Once, there were dozens of teleportation nodes on Earth, but the stations were shut down over the years as your civilizations grew larger and your territories expanded. 

“Now there’s only one portal still in operation.  And it’s hidden deep in the African jungles.” Tal shrugged, “But even that’s too close to human settlements, now.”

Billy furrowed his eyebrows as he considered this.  “So these stations are just places you stop at as you go from one planet to another?”

“Yes, exactly.  They’re waystations on roads that span the stars.   I’m what you might call a field supervisor.  I was summoned to determine whether the last station should be moved or simply shut down.”

He gestured as his surroundings.  “As you might guess, I plan to shutdown the last gate as soon as I make my report.”

Billy crossed his arms and furrowed his brow.  “Well, I think I understand, but I’m not sure I can help.  I don’t think you’re going to make it all the way back to Africa.  I don’t know how you’d get there anyway.”

“Oh, I don’t have to go back to Africa, Billy.  All I have to do is make my way to one of the older abandoned waystations. 
There used to be one here in England about two thousand years ago, back before the first Druids came here.”

“Wow,” said Billy.  “Would it still work after so long?”

“Oh, yes,” said Tal.  “They’re built to last a very long time.

“But how will you find this…waystation?,” asked Billy.

“Well, I know the approximate location. Before I was captured, I studied the old station layouts to determine if all of them should be turned off.  In any case, I’ll use this to find it,” said Tal holding out a small glass sphere.

Billy jerked back looking at Tal from all sides.  “Hey, where do you keep getting those things from?” he asked.
“I am a marsupial,” he replied.

“A marpusi-what?” said Billy.

Tal sighed and said, “I have a pouch where I can hide things.  But it’s very small and this is all I have, really.”

Billy looked at the tiny orb.  It was made of clear glass and was about two inches across.  In the center was an ornate ring of gold, which glowed brightly.  “What is it?  Is it magic?” he asked, poking it with a finger.

Tal yanked to out of Billy’s reach and said, “No, it’s not magic.  It’s technology.  Actually, it’s a key.  Wayfarers always have to carry one.  I’ll use it to activate the portal at the waystation and it’ll help me find the location, too.”  Tal put the orb into the cloth sack on his shoulder.

“We’d best be going,” said Tal. “I don’t want to be caught and caged again and we only have a few hours before sunrise.”
“Wait,” said Billy.  “I have a question.  Why me?”

Tal paused.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you musta seen lots of people while you were stuck in that cage.  I bet you had plenty of chances to talk to others.  Why’d you pick me to help you?” asked Billy.

Tal crossed his arms and studied Billy.  “Because you don’t belong here.  Like me, you’re on your own and you don’t trust these people any more than I do.  I watched you when you came in and decided you needed help, just like me.  I could tell you were smart and quick and that you saw more than other people do.  We have much in common, you and I.”

Tal raised his arms and shrugged nonchalantly.  “Besides, you were here and the men from the carnival were gone, so I decided to take the chance.”

As he finished talking, Tal spun around and trotted over to the lizard-man’s cage.  He reached into the wooden box and began rummaging through its contents.  He pulled out a broad rimmed hat and put it on his head.  Then he took a dirty blanket from the cage and wrapped it around him.

“There,” he said.  “If we travel in the dark, they may mistake me for a human child.”  Striking a pose.  “What do you think?” he asked.

Billy stood and examined him.  “You’re too wide and your legs are too short.  You look like someone tried to dress a dog.”  He laughed, “It would have to be very dark for you to be taken for a child.”

Tal paced back and forth a few step.  He arched his back and practiced swinging his arms.  “Let’s go then.  Maybe we can make it out of the city before it gets light outside.”

Tal slammed the lid of the wooden box shut and the colored birds in the next cage burst into the air at the sound.  They all started shrieking at once. 

Billy and Tal stared briefly at one another, then they bolted and dashed for entrance.  As they ducked under the lowest tie of the canvas flap and ran into the night, they heard shouting rise up behind them.  The screaming birds woke the other animals and the nearby sideshow workers.   As others arrived to investigate, Billy and Tal vanished together into the dark London streets.

*****

 The approaching dawn transformed the dark night.  The thick morning fog diffused the emerging light so that Billy and Tal saw each other as featureless black silhouettes against an endless sea of gray.

“Where are we?” asked Tal   “Are we almost out of the city?”

“We’re still in the city proper,” answered Billy.  “Outside’s still a long ways off.  We’re barely outside of the city center.”
Their progress had been slow.  Billy had led them through a maze of back streets, avoiding lights and people.  For several hours, they’d moved through the darkness by dashing from one set of shadows to the next.  The problem was that Tal’s short legs didn’t let him run very quickly.

“It’ll be light soon,” said Tal.  “We have to find someplace to hide or they’ll capture me again.”

Billy looked around and pointed.  “Over there, we’ll hide in that alley.”

Hurrying over, they found the alley was a dead end.  There was garbage piled up along the back wall and the place reeked from the smell of raw sewage where people emptied chamber pots. 

“Hey, a cart,” whispered Billy, pulling on the handle of a short two-wheeled carryall. “This will be perfect.  We can get you out of the city in this.” 

Then he saw the cart was missing a wheel and understood why it had been thrown away.

“Well, maybe not,” he added.  He let go of the cart, which crashed back onto the pile of debris.

Tal peeked around the corner near the alley entrance and motioned for Billy to come over.  When he got close, Tal whispered, “Billy, what’s that building over there, the one with the three balls above the door and all the stuff in the window?”

“Oh, that’s a pawn shop,” answered Billy.  “It’s where you can hock things.”

“Could you sell one of those gems there?” asked Tal.

“Maybe,” he said scratching his head.  “Most likely they’ll think I stole it and try to take it from me.”

Tal thought.  “All right, try this.  Show them one gem and tell them you can get more.  Then ask them what they’ll give you for it.  When they name a price, take the gem back and tell them you’ll sell it at another shop down the street.  Then start to leave.  They’ll give you a better price then.”

Billy thought about it and nodded.  “Okay, but if they try to nab me, I’ll run and meet you back here later.”

They huddled together in the back of the alley, until it was lighter and the shops started to open.   

Then Billy buried Tal under trash to hide him, covering him completely in garbage before he went over to the pawnshop.
Billy did as he’d been told.  He didn’t think it would work, but it succeeded just like Tal had said.  He ran back to the alley and hollered, “Tal, you’ll never believe what I got.”

When he rounded the corner, Billy saw a pack of dogs surrounding the pile of trash in the alley.  The dogs barked and snarled.  One tugged at something in the pile and tried to pull it free.

Billy backed away.  He’d consider taking on one dog even if it was a bigger than as him, but three was too many.  There was a muffled curse and the trash pile kicked one of the dogs.  All three advanced menacingly when there was a sudden flash of light.  Before Billy could react, the three dogs ran out of the alley, one yelping loudly in pain.

Billy approached slowly and Tal peeked out.

“It’s about time you got back,” he said.  “I thought I was going to be eaten again.”  He struggled to sit up and face Billy.
“What did you do?” asked Billy.  “I mean…to the dogs?”

“I used the key,” Tal replied.  “It has a powerful energy charge and can generate a strong electrical charge.”

“You mean you can shoot lightning bolts,” asked Billy in amazement, “with that orb of magic gold?”

“Yes…I mean no,” said Tal.  “I told you it’s not magic, it’s science.  Besides, if I do that again, I won’t have enough power left to open the gate.  And it’s not gold, it’s a superconductor that sustains a high electric current and generates a magnetic field that…”

Billy stood with his jaw open.

“Never mind,” said Tal.  He stood awkwardly and brushed himself off.  “Say, did you get any money?”

Billy had almost forgotten.  He held out his hand and displayed some coins.  “They gave me almost ten pounds for the gem.  It worked just like you said.  What should we do now?”

“It’s a shame,” said Tal.  “That gem was worth nearly a hundred times what they gave you.  I’ve been thinking while you were gone.  Here’s my plan.  I’ll wait here while you go to the nearest stables and rent a coach.  Tell the person in charge that your father sent money to rent a carriage to take you and your little brother to Salisbury.   If I remember, it’s about fifty miles from London.  Make sure it’s a closed carriage.  Then come back here and get me.”

“Okay, but why are we going to Salisbury?” asked Billy.

“Because it’s the nearest we can get to Stonehenge,” Tal replied.

*****

     Once more, Billy took off and did as Tal instructed.  Within the hour, Billy came back with a tall black hansom cab.  The driver sat behind the cab of the small two-wheeled carriage and the horse danced nervously as Billy got out.
 
Billy made the driver park the cab and sent him with a few silver coins to get some food for the trip, while Billy supposedly fetched his little brother.  While the driver was gone, Billy smuggled Tal into the closed cab.  Together they rode out of London in style.

Both passengers fell asleep.  The driver stopped at an inn later that afternoon to water his horse

and woke Billy to give him some food.  Billy told the driver that his brother, who was huddled in blankets, was ill and needed to sleep.  The driver resumed his journey while Billy and Tal devoured the first fresh meal either had had in a long time.

It was late evening when the carriage finally arrived at the Salisbury inn.  Billy gave the driver a few more coins to arrange for lodging and they both slipped out of the carriage while the driver was gone.  Without attracting any notice they disappeared into the English countryside.

Tal reassured Billy that no one would look for them.  The driver and innkeeper had their money and neither would lose any sleep over two unknown children.  Tal told Billy that, after he’d gone through the gate, he should come back and take advantage of the lodgings they’d just purchased.

As they walked across the moonlit woodlands, Tal periodically checked his orb and point out the direction they needed to go.  After a while, Billy pulled on Tal’s blanket to make him stop.  He pointed at large standing stones far off to their left. 
“Is that Stonehenge?” asked Billy.

“Yes, but we need to go over there,” said Tal pointing at a nearby hill.

“But didn’t you say your people built Stonehenge?”

“No,” said Tal.  “Stonehenge was built by humans, centuries after we shut down the station.  Long after we left, stories continued to be told about the place, about strange lights and odd-looking creatures.  Humans thought it was a magical place and built those structures there.”

“But if that isn’t where the waystation is, why did they put the stones there?” asked Billy.

Tal laughed and said, “Probably because it’s easier to build where the ground is flat.  Actually, they probably may have never known the exact location of the waystation.  After we were gone, the whole region became sacred to the Druids.”

The got to the foot of the hill and began to climb.  Tal glanced a Billy and asked, “Do you have any family, Billy?”

“Nah, not really.  He replied.  My pa was a seaman and I never met him.  My ma died of the cough.  For a while I stayed with my aunt and she was nice, but the third time I got beat by my uncle when he got drunk, I ran off.  I’ve been on my own ever since.  Sometimes things get a bit tough, between the new factories grabbing kids to make ‘em work and the street gangs that’ll kill you if you don’t join ‘em, but I manage.  And I’ll never go back where someone can beat me just for being there.”

Tal didn’t reply.  Billy grew quiet and bit his lip as he tried to remember his mother’s face.

They finished their walk in silence and were soon standing on a hill overlooking the plain and the distant ring of stones.  Billy looked around and said, “So where’s this waystation of yours?  I don’t see anything but grass.”

“You’re standing on it,” said Tal.  “The hill is the waystation.  It was built to cover the energy transformers that power the portal.”

“Power?” said Billy,  “like magic?”

“No, the portal is powered by a geothermal tap that converts heat into electricity.  The electricity then energizes a grid of…” Tal stopped and then sighed deeply. 

“No, Billy, it’s not like magic.  Like I told you, it’s science.  It’s just science your people haven’t learned yet.  While the universe seems wondrous and magical, everything really comes down to physics and chemistry and mathematics.   The power here is natural, not magic.  It powers the portal.”

“You mean like the steam engines, they use in the new factories.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Tal.  “Power like you get from steam.  Here, let me show you.”

Tal pulled out the orb and twisted it in his hands.  There was a bright flash of light and Billy shielded his eyes.  When he opened them, there was a large blue glow at the top of the hill.  It hurt his eyes when he looked at it.  He raised his arm to ward off the light and backed away in fear.

“That’s the portal,” said Tal.  “It’s a doorway to another world.  When I enter it, the doorway will close behind me and will never open again.  The key’s power is gone and there isn’t another anywhere on Earth.”

Billy looked first at the portal and then at his strange furry friend.  Finally, he looked behind him at the dark cold night.

“Can I come with you?” he asked.

“No, Billy,” said Tal.  “This is your world and this is where you belong.  There aren’t any humans where I’m going and, despite how much you’d like to go, you’d eventually need the company of your own kind.”

Tal walked over and gave Billy a long gentle hug.  Billy sniffed and asked, “But…what will I do now?”

“Billy, you’re a survivor.  If you could make it on London’s streets at your age, you can make it anywhere.  Use those last two gems carefully and don’t waste the money.  Also, take this and wait until your older before you try to sell it.” 

Tal threw him the glass orb.  “Others will try to cheat you, if you try to sell it now.”

Billy looked at the orb and the tiny ring of gold inside it.  It now longer glowed and was dull and cold.  “This?” asked Billy. 

“This gold isn’t as much as the coins I had this morning.  What’s so valuable about a glass orb with a gold ring in it?”

Tal walked to the gate and laughed.  “It’s not the ring that’s valuable, Billy.  Besides, it’s not gold anyway.” he shouted as he waved goodbye.  “What’s valuable is the orb.  It’s not made of glass; it’s made of crystallized carbon.  The orb is a diamond, a uniquely valuable one.  When you’re older, find a gem cutter who will cut it into smaller stones, then sell them one at a time.  Buy yourself an education and make something of your life.  Keep asking questions, Billy, and you’ll always find new answers.  And remember, magic is just science you don’t understand yet.”

Billy stared in awe at the tiny sphere in his hands.  When he thought of it as a diamond, it didn’t seem all that tiny anymore.  He mind reeled when he tried to figure out what it was worth and he started to imagine all the things the money could buy. 

So entranced was he with the fortune in his hands, he didn’t notice Tal disappear through the gate.  There was a rush of wind and the blue light disappeared. 

Billy stood for a long time looking at the empty hilltop and then he walked back downhill toward the inn at Salisbury.  As he passed the huge ring of stones, he laughed again at the things some people convinced themselves to believe.

Holding the orb in his pocket like a magic charm, Billy returned to his own world, which would never seem the same again.

If you like what you have read or would like to send me your comments on this story, please feel free to contact me by clicking on the following link robinson_ja@q.com