Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Stone over Paper

Sure enough, the Train reached Scarloe this afternoon. I'm starting to wonder if Professor Flanderdrack is a Wayfinder. He's uncannily good at finding things.

I have no idea what he's doing here. He continues to explain the occasional theory; this morning, having finished whatever calculations he began last night, he explained the use of three-tower clockboard as a way of predicting the future.

(The complexity of the game, and the fact that no two boards are alike, apparently creates a mathematically unique situation that distorts time. This can be manipulated by expert players of the game, who can interpret their opponent's moves, the outcome of dice rolls, and the order of randomly shuffled cards to correctly predict the future. Experts can even use their own moves to pose questions. Unfortunately, any expert player of three-tower clockboard is, by definition, interested in only one thing: three-tower clockboard. Anyone skilled enough to use oracular strategy will inevitably ask the game a question about the game itself. The resulting paradox distorts time and can have almost any result; it often did two hundred years ago, during the height of clockboard's popularity. The almost daily transformation of overly curious clockboard players - and their opponents - into newts, trees, and small hills was what caused the game to go quickly and severely out of fashion for the next century, and also led to the loss of more or less all the players who really knew what they were doing. The art of oracular clockboard-playing has been lost for nearly two hundred years. This is probably for the best.)

Professor Flanderdrack remains completely silent, though, about what he's doing at the moment. He disappeared into the page mines of Scarloe today without a word of explanation.

No one really knows where the page mines came from.

To be specific, no one knows where the geological layer came from that led to the creation of the mines. (The mines are there because people dug them.) Several hundred feet below the surface of the Dustbowl, a dome-shaped mountain that rainclouds inexplicably avoid like a gardener avoids kudzu, is the Scriptorial Layer, a sedimentary layer made entirely of tightly pressed paper. The Layer was discovered almost a hundred years ago, when one of the many futile attempts to dig a well in the Dustbowl turned up something even better.

Practically every language on Hamjamser appears on the paper dug out of the mines. English, Sikelak, Carvendrone, Common Vreen, ancient Tetravanian, Aggali runes and Rampastulan hieroglyphs, all the variations on Shasta script... To date, the miners have only found eight pages that didn't have writing on them. They've held on to most of these. They're rarer than diamonds, after all; Scarloe is probably the only place on Hamjamser where you can make your fortune by finding a blank piece of paper.

The written pages, though, are what keep the village going. There's not much else on the Dustbowl - no water, no plants, and no animals, except what people have brought with them. All the water in the village comes from a pump that stretches up the side of the mountain from the nearest river. Before the pump and the page mines were built, no one remembers how anyone was able to live in Scarloe at all.

It's strange to visit the village in late Autumn. The weather is normal for November in the Railway Regions - the pump stops at night to avoid freezing - but Scarloe looks like a small piece of the Golden Desert (or would if everything wasn't gray). A place that looks like this ought to be baking under the sun. Instead, the weather is cool and breezy. There's even fog now and then.

In every way but one, the Dustbowl is a perfectly ordinary mountain. It's just that rain never falls on it.

Over the curve of the mountain, the mountains of the Railway Regions stretch away in every direction, looking perfectly normal: green from hemlock and fir and bottle-brush pine, with the occasional stubborn patch of orange. On top of the mountain is nothing but a blank expanse of gray stone. No normal drought ever dried a place out this much. Scarloe's drought has lasted for centuries.

There's not really much to do in Scarloe except mining. There are a few small farms, startling patches of green that wouldn't last a day without the pump; even with the pump, though, there's only enough water for six or seven of them. Most of Scarloe's food comes from outside. Plants spring up around leaks in the pipeline when birds or people drop their seeds in the right place. A strip of greenery and rust stains follows the pipe all the way to the peak, a tilted temperate oasis two feet wide.

The lack of water is generally thought to be why the pages are so well preserved. The mines are as dry as a bank vault. Rot, mildew, and bookworms are completely unheard of in Scarloe; they'd die of thirst before getting within a mile of the mines. Even so, after spending who knows how many centuries under a mountain, the pages are in amazingly good shape. The miners hardly ever find one that's too damaged to read. Most are slightly ripped, or stained, or missing a corner, but it's rare to find a page missing even a quarter of its words. Whatever left them there was surprisingly careful about it.

The miners spend every day digging pages out of the ground, then sell them to the village bookbinders, who stack them neatly and completely at random and sew them into books. The largest building in the village, besides the bindery, is the store that sells books from underground.

Unfortunately, none of the books make any sense. Most of the linguists and literary experts in the Railway Regions have tried to decipher the meaning of one page, even one sentence, but none of them have come up with any likely explanations for the writing. It's nonsense - neatly written, grammatically perfect nonsense, but nonsense all the same. The theories on the origin of the pages are as numerous as they are unlikely. I'm sure Professor Flanderdrack has one. A surprisingly widespread theory is that the pages were left by one or more giant bookworms, despite the complete lack of any tunnel shapes in the layers. Unfortunately, no one has ever actually seen a giant bookworm; the only indication of their existence is the fact that people believe they exist.

Of course, the fact that the mined books are incomprehensible doesn't stop people from trying. A group of authors and linguists called the Refinery has spent the last few decades buying as many mined books as possible. They insist that the books will all make sense if they can just get enough of them together.

If that's true, they've got a long way to go. No one's reached the edge of the Scriptorial Layer yet.

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