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The Trailways have been driving scientists batty ever since their discovery. According to Uncle Jim, some say they shouldn't even exist. Since there's no denying their reality, he goes with one of the newer theories, that the universe we thought we knew is actually just a little segment of a bigger one that it fits into, like a piece of a four dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Alone, the piece doesn't make much sense except to itself, but fit it correctly into all the others and a newly discernable picture emerges.
Not that we have any idea of what the whole picture looks like yet, and not that we're likely to find out any time soon, but the theory does give an inquiring mind something to hang a thought on. Heck, it may even be right, for all I know. What they say is that the Trailways exist in a congruent universe, but billions of times smaller than ours.
The Trailways, or Space Trails as they're often referred to, were discovered by an odd merging of satellite observation and soundings by energy companies, going ever deeper into the earth in the perpetual search for new reservoirs of oil. A satellite which was pinging North America from several hundred miles up, section by section, began showing anomalies when the sections were pieced together. It wasn't apparent unless you had a mind like Vernor Midling, who not only noticed the phenomena, but went on to devise the equations which described what he saw in the obscure data. From there, lesser minds were able to construct the apparatuses that form the portals into the other reality.
The portals are the entrances to the Trailways, which gave us our paths to the stars. Like I said, the Trailwaysare still driving scientists around the bend, but I'm not going any further in trying to describe them. Give me another twenty years of study in the esoteric realms of alternity math and quantum theory and I might give it a try. Not that it's likely I'd ever get a chance at formal schooling again, not if I signed on for the 'ways when I was of age. Once you enter them, it's like going back in time to frontier days, to wagons and horses and lawlessness and long treks into unknown Wildernesses to the new planets being settled.
I heard the faint whooshing of the front door seal being broken, but stayed at my desk, knowing it was just Uncle Jim coming home.
"Hi, Brad," he said as he came into the den. He touched my shoulder as he passed, heading for the bar.
"May I have one, Jim?" I asked, not really expecting him to say yes, but shucks, I had just turned sixteen, plenty old enough for a drink, I thought.
Jim hesitated, eyeing me from behind a bottle of sour mash whiskey. He shrugged, then said "How about a beer? Would that do you?"
"Yes, sir!" I said.
He even brought it to me and sat down across the desk from me, in his usual chair. The comp clicked and came on line as it recognized him. He raised a brow as he saw what I was interfacing with.
"Still studying the Space Trails, huh?"
Jim teased me a lot about my interest in the Trailways. I shrugged and took a sip of beer before answering, trying not to make a face at the taste. "Well, yeah. It's part of our modern history section. Besides, some guys at school think they'd like to try them. There's sure not much future here at home now."
I was sorry the moment the words came out of my mouth. I wasn't telling Uncle Jim anything he didn't already know, and it certainly wasn't his fault that drought, disasters, energy shortages and financial panic had ruined the economy, especially in a swath of states that included Arkansas, where we lived.
Uncle Jim was my Dad's younger brother, so we both have the same last name, Bentley. He took me in just before my ninth birthday, after Mom and Dad were killed in a spate of tornadoes spawned by the remnants of one of the big hurricanes ravaging the coastal states, year after year.
I'm not as dark as my uncle. He has some Hispanic features, courtesy of Granddad marrying an immigrant from Mexico. My skin color is much lighter. Anyway, I'm satisfied with my looks, dark brown hair and even features. Jim says I'll be a big man when I get my full growth, but I'm not so sure of that.
"Which 'ways are you and the guys thinking about?" Jim asked me. He sipped his whiskey, the double shot he always had upon arriving home. Sometimes he got to the house at noon, other times after dark, depending on whether he found work or not. It didn't matter; he still had his drink, first thing.
"Well…the only ones most of us could afford on our own would be the unknowns, wouldn't it? Or sign on with a corporation."
Uncle Jim looked sad while he thought about it. He did his best at supporting us, but he didn't have much of a formal education; he had always been satisfied running his little auto repair shop, and then the same tornado that killed the folks destroyed his shop. Some fine print in his insurance policy kept them from having to pay for a lot of the damage, and suddenly, in his early forties, he was unemployed and supporting the family on his savings plus what he made as a day laborer. The insurance settlement wasn't enough to start another shop, not with all the diagnostic equipment needed for the newer cars.
"Don't even think about the unknowns, even supposing you're still interested when you're of age. Unless you're part of a family, you'd have to join the exploratory corps to get in, and that's just a slow way of committing suicide, for my money. I guess a corporate group would be the only kind we could tackle-not that I'm enthusiastic about the Trailways to begin with. They're dangerous as hell and there's you and Angelita and Margaret to think about." He spoke as if he were really serious about chancing one of the known Trailways, something I knew he couldn't afford even if he wanted to. The unknowns led to planets explored so far only by robots, not men.
Angelita was his daughter, a year younger than me and Aunt Margaret was his wife, of course. Angelita was pretty and quietly studious, something I liked in a girl. Not that I thought of her like that; she was a cousin and by now almost like a sister.
I didn't say anything more at the moment. I was wondering whether he was just idly speculating or was really serious about the Trailways. The 'ways were always something to debate about at school, especially toward the end of the year when the recruiters came around talking to the seniors, but Uncle Jim seldom mentioned them. He wouldn't though. He never made up his mind in a hurry, especially for anything important. He patted me on the shoulder and went to prepare the bread and warm dinner, the beans and rice I had cooked earlier when I got home from school. Aunt Margaret worked part time in the afternoons cleaning up an office building. It didn't pay much, but it helped.
• • •
We lived near Ft. Smith, up in Arkansas near where the hills began turning into a small mountain range. There was still a lot of forest in our area, but it was being depleted pretty fast nowadays, used for firewood and composites and fodder for making a crude fuel that powered homes for those who couldn't afford better, like us.
There was a group of us who walked to school together, all of us from the same complex. The morning after Jim said those few words about the Trailways, I was still thinking about it, still wondering what had brought them on. He couldn't be serious, I thought.
"Hey Brad, wake up before you get run over!"
Copyright © 2006 Darrell Bain.
Posted August 26, 2010
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