Chapter 2 Hat

                At the other end of the pontoon bridge, Lieutenant Lickit stopped us. The Virginian docking station was a much more comfortable-looking vessel than the American one, primarily because the Virginians had been able to spend centuries planning for the day when such a construction might be necessary, and had therefore constructed one in advance. A carpeted ramp with a hand-rail was awaiting our use; all that we needed was a friendly face to greet us.
                Lieutenant Lickit saluted, and the friendly face appeared.
                She was human, maybe 25 years old, dressed in what was clearly her uniform, but, well, it wasn't quite like anything we Earthlings were expecting... Imagine a female Robin Hood, in grey and blue instead of Lincoln green, wearing boots to above the knee and a hat shaped like a bucket with a peak, and you'll get a reasonable picture. I personally found it hard to dismiss from my mind the thought that she'd stepped straight out of a production of Puss in Boots or The Nutcracker; some of the American males, however, very obviously thought her appearance sensational. Indeed, judging by the wide-eyed stares on their faces, the only reason they weren't making wild-man yells and wolf whistles was because of the unshakeable will-power that comes from years of having to exist on American University campuses which fire you for speaking to females unless you have their written permission.
                "Welcome to Virginia," said the friendly face. "My name is Catherine Jute, and I am your," she paused, momentarily, "liaison officer."
                Amazingly, she had a Midwest accent. I later discovered that this was because she had been learning to speak Earth English from the Americans, in preparation for visits such as ours; similarly, there was an American liaison officer who had been learning to speak in Virginian English, to put their anthropologists at ease when they came through to study our planet. How quite such Virginian visitors would get away with using their own accents without arousing suspicion when at large on Earth I have yet to uncover; we didn't suffer quite their problems of secrecy, as Virginians have known about Earth for some time and most of them half-expect people like us to straggle through into their back yard every once in a while anyway.
                A squad of soldiers came out from behind Officer Jute, and lined up next to the entrance ramp, returning Lieutenant Lickit's salute with one after their own fashion (which was by holding their clenched fist across their chest in a rather Romanesque pose). These individuals were all human, too, dressed in the same uniform as Officer Jute (although none were female).
                I took this to be a special honour for our benefit. Cultures which have subjugated others often raise military units from among the subjugated peoples, but staff them with officers from their own culture. This is generally because otherwise they would soon exhaust their own stock of soldier material, and be unable to hold on to their conquests. Units made entirely from the controlling nation's populace are therefore exceptional, and usually trained to elite level.
                I swelled with a feeling of importance.
                As it was, I shortly learned that practically every single member of the Virginian armed forces is human, and we were therefore being accorded no special honour whatsoever. The rationale for recruiting mainly humans is that humans were the ones who conquered the planet, so it stands to reason that they must be by far the best at warfare. The size of their army is, as a consequence, not all that great, but then it doesn't need to be, given that there are no forces which violently oppose the governing regime (its being more benign by far than any of the systems it replaced). What I thought was a ceremonial guard, honouring us as we walked up the ramp, wasn't ceremonial at all; it was just a guard, in case those cunning Americans with their electronic devices and pumpernickel bagels tried anything sneaky...
                Oh well.
                Officer Jute led us inside the docking station, and closed the door. We would, she said, shortly be boarding the waiting frigate HMS Cambridge, which would take us to New Dulwich. The journey would take a week, during which time the Virginians would give us some general lectures on the basics of their society.
                "Will we be seeing any elves?" asked one of the Americans.
                Officer Jute smiled; she had obviously been expecting the question, although to her I suppose it would be roughly equivalent to a Virginian asking us, "Will we be seeing any Japanese?".
                "Yes," she answered. "We did foresee that you would like to meet representatives of Virginia's non-human population, your being newcomers here. So, Professor Faïieth1 from the Lynn Institute of Languages will be with us, explaining some of the terms you may hear in Virginian English - he's an elf. We also have Dr Hakrikik2, who is a dwarf from the University of Under Vría, and she'll be outlining the geography of our planet. Finally, Dr Mo3 will give you a description of the various physical characteristics of the 15 non-human species, with illustrations; he's a halfling. We also have several human lecturers, of course, and I believe that one of them, Dr Smith, has an elvish grandfather."
                "Excuse me," I asked, raising my hand. "You don't seem to have arranged for any orc academics to speak to us."
                There were audible guffaws among the soldiers.
                Officer Jute quietened them with a glance, then looked back at me with a certain amount of sympathy. "Orcs," she said, "are ... orcs."

* * *

                The trip to New Dulwich was rather longer than necessary, I felt. It seemed the aim of the Virginians to bore us rigid, so that any enthusiasm we had for our task would be well under control by the time we were released into the general population. The lectures were monotonous and barely comprehensible, a consequence of their being delivered in the Virginian version of English, rather than the English or American versions (not that this would necessarily have made any more sense to me). By the end of the journey, however, I did find to my surprise that I had somehow got the hang of it, being able to converse readily with the lecturers (and, more significantly, perhaps, with members of the ship's crew). It's like listening to Shakespearean plays; the style is not how you'd care to say things yourself, but it's understandable once you get used to it, and you can soon make a stab at generating sentences of your own. Try'st it thyself.
                The Americans had something of a hard time of it, though. Their inability to express all but the simplest of notions without lapsing into sporting metaphors was not something too appreciated on a world which has never heard of Baseball, Basketball or that other game where all those men in helmets run at each other shouting integers. Nevertheless, they persevered, and much to Professor Faïieth's credit they were, by the time we reached New Dulwich, able to explain to him the complex and arbitrary concepts that are the rules of Ice Hockey.
                In the course of the journey, we began to pick up an idea of how things were in the world we were visiting. In many respects, it was like visiting a foreign country on Earth; a lot of it was familiar, but enough was different that we had to be on our guard. The food was most acceptable to the English palette, consisting as it did of vegetables which had been cooked for a sufficient period that they would collapse into mush when touched with a fork, and of meat which was the same colour (charcoal) all the way through. The Americans, though, were not as impressed by the cuisine despite the obvious concessions that the Virginians had made to their dietary needs (eg. by putting three times as much on the plate as any individual could possibly consume in one sitting).
                It's easy, however, to get used to these things, as anyone who has been on a holiday abroad can testify; anthropologists are even trained to do so. So although it may come as a surprise to find that Virginians drink coffee but don't have a decaffeinated option ("So you mean coffee with the coffee taken out?"), really it's just a minor hardship that one learns to accept with as much stoicism as one can muster. If a lecture is totally baffling but is delivered by someone so short they can't see over the slide projector that you've raised your hand to ask a question, so what? Only another five days, nine hours and 17 minutes until the ship docks and it's done with...
                Not all our time was spent listening to geography professors who live 300 metres underground, though; we did get free periods. Some of us spent these writing up the notes we'd made in the lectures; some of us spent them reading books from the ship's well-stocked library; most of us spent them in the ship's mess hall, cataloguing the various ways in which we were miserable. There's only a certain number of times that stories of sea-sickness brought on by eating overcooked vegetables can be heard, however, before nausea is induced in the listener, so after a few such experiences I decided to spend my free periods talking to real Virginians.
                I knew from Earth that academics are not real anythings except bores, and the members of the ship's crew duly proved altogether more interesting. I had many a long conversation with them, and found that they had a rich variety of surnames. Subtle questioning ("So, how is it you all have such interesting surnames?") revealed that, around a hundred years ago, all human families were required by Act of Parliament to invent themselves a new one, the supply that came with the original colonists having by then become somewhat oversubscribed. Each family keeps a set of "annals", which are basically the various recollections of the family members over the generations (indeed, on New Year's Eve it is traditional for everyone to write a page or two about the outgoing year in their family annals, for the benefit of future generations - a kind of yearly diary). By looking back through their annals to the time of the original colonists, new names were concocted (although they had to be approved by local councillors - no John Emperoroftheknownuniverse or Elizabeth Mostbeautifulbeingalive). I could therefore deduce, for example, that Catherine Jute's ancestors probably came from Kent, which is where the Jutes settled in the Dark Ages; since the colonists were from East Anglia, and Kent is not in East Anglia, it further seemed likely that she was descended from one of the sailors. This would explain why she was now a naval officer, of course: it was a matter of family tradition.
                Of course, I could have been wrong.
                When I put this theory to Officer Jute herself, however, I was staggered to learn that I was totally correct. I had half-expected she would slap her thigh, bellow "Ha ha HAR!", and produce some other eminently plausible explanation based on bad handwriting on the part of her forebears or something. I wasn't prepared for being right. Officer Jute surmised that I was perhaps an expert in these matters, and I confess that I didn't invest much time attempting to disabuse her of the idea. She  also told me that the original surnames could only be retained by direct, first-in-line descendents; otherwise, for example, she and several hundred thousand other people would all have been called Fagg.
                Privately, I conceded that an Act of Parliament can sometimes turn out to be a surprisingly good thing.

* * *

                The city after which New Dulwich is named (ie. Dulwich) was the fourth-largest in England in Elizabethan times, but it steadily declined in population after 75% of it fell into the sea. I determined to keep that fact in reserve, rather than slip it idly into conversation, in case the Virginians didn't take kindly to the thought that their great city's parent was now a diddly-squat village on the Norfolk coast4. When the port of New Dulwich came into view, it was immediately apparent to me that this was not a city of mediocre size - it was massive! I could also understand why the early settlers had decided to stay there: its natural harbour rivals Sydney's in scale, although apparently there are even better ones elsewhere on Virginia because the moonless planet has only weak, solar-generated tides.
                Prior to disembarkation, we had our final group meeting with Officer Jute. We had been looking forward to this for some time, because we had been told that it would occasion the allocation of our Virginian finances.
                We were also told that there would be some forms to fill in.
                On the whole, Virginians are generally quite good about bureaucracy; they have some, of course, but they don't have it for its own sake. Anthropologists have all heard horror stories of colleagues who have being trapped for weeks in a never-ending roundabout of queues, officials, forms and stamps, each one leading on to another while obeying some arcane logic that has long since been discredited. A particular trick much employed in former French colonial countries is for an office that issues certificate X to require that certificate Y is obtained as a prerequisite, while the office that issues certificate Y insists on having a duly authorised certificate X first. The only way for outsiders to break this state of affairs is a well-placed bribe, which is, of course, the whole point of it all as far as the civil servants involved are concerned.
                When it comes to money, though, Virginian bureaucrats are right up there with the best of them. To be issued with our Virginian currency, we had to have brought two notarised copies each of the promissory notes that proved our governments would afford similar facilities to the Virginian anthropologists who were to visit Earth. Needless to say, we had never heard of these notes, nor had we even been given an inkling that something like them might even be necessary. We should also produce our permits; what kind of permits, exactly, was never made clear - they were just "permits". Most bizarrely, we were required to lodge two copies of letters to our next of kin, which could be passed on in the event of any accident. Two copies? We could die twice?
                Our lack of the necessary forms was a big, big problem. Unless we could produce them, the Virginians would not authorise the release of any funds. Surely it wasn't too much to ask for us to have brought the promissory notes, at least? Was the American president really so busy that he couldn't sign a mere 27 documents (in duplicate) when necessary?
                One of the MIT representatives bravely decided to try bluff it. He produced a blank sheet of paper, announced that he was in receipt of power of attorney on the president's behalf, and that this meant he could therefore create the appropriate forms on the spot himself.
                The Virginians were not impressed. They told him that he was a liar, and made a note of his name for future reference. This rather subdued most of the rest of us, but not quite everyone...
                Shaking his head and smiling at all this was our eventual saviour, Chad Hacket. Having run the gauntlet of a hundred intransigent officials on long trips to deepest France, he simply approached the Virginian in charge, picked up his clip-board, ripped the top sheet of paper out, and ate it.
                There was stunned silence. We desperately wanted to applaud, but had been given no indication of Virginian law's attitude to vandals, so were not ready to risk some unknown but probably vile punishment ourselves by seeming to condone it.
                The Virginian officials were also confused. The chief civil servant was himself now short of one of the necessary forms, and therefore in the same position that we were with regard to incomplete paperwork. The thing about people who resolutely insist on going by the book is that if the book doesn't cover the circumstances which pertain, they are completely unable to function. The book, not entirely unsurprisingly, didn't appear to have a section entitled "What to do if Someone Eats your Forms", and Officer Jute therefore had to intervene before things got ugly. Swiftly taking control of the situation, she set about mediating a compromise. After a brief argument, which Chad won because he could shout the loudest (having spent some months in 1967 living on the flight path to Glasgow Airport - is there nothing this man has not experienced?), we were excused from the promissory notes and the permits, but had to write out three copies of the message to our loved ones by way of punishment5.
                The next problem: Virginian currency does not use a decimal system. They have an impressive array of farthings, halfpennies, pennies, groats, shillings, florins, crowns and sovereigns instead, but in practice the only ones that are important are the pennies and the sovereigns: there are 240 of the former to the latter. A direct translation into Earth money is hard to judge, given that there is no trade between the two worlds, however by comparing prices across a range of staple goods and services of available to both (bread, potatoes, newspapers, dental treatment) we calculated the exchange rate to be something like 25 US dollars to one Virginian sovereign, or roughly 10 Virginian pennies to the dollar.
                It came as something of a surprise to us, therefore, when we were told we could each draw on funds of 20,000 sovereigns, ie. half a million dollars. Perhaps it was supposed that we would want to buy houses, or farms, or small islands... Whatever, the Virginians' own anthropologists were unlikely to be afforded similar credit on Earth, especially given that it would take only two of them to consume the entire year's budget set aside by the grant-awarding body for British anthropological endeavour.
                I began to sense that perhaps the earlier spate of bureaucracy we had endured was not altogether as unnecessary as we had assumed.

* * *

                Ashore, we were driven by coach (the Virginians use the same word as we do for plush buses) to what my guide book informed me was one of New Dulwich's better hotels, The Hadean. No-one admitted to knowing why it bore that name, but they assured me it was nothing to do with Hades, ha ha. In other words, it was probably everything to do with Hades, although nobody would admit to why. Despite this hellish connotation, however, the place was rather swanky, even boasting its own swimming pool (the oldest on Virginia, apparently). We were being fêted in style.
                Naturally, as when visiting any foreign country, the big things are easy to cope with but the details get you down; I spent ten minutes looking for the light switch in my room before discovering that it didn't actually have one, the light coming on automatically when I made a loud noise (OK, when I swore at it).
                This gave me my first insight into Virginian technology. Aboard HMS Cambridge, lights had been operated by an electrical switch made of bakelite, placed roughly where it would be on Earth; the fact that up was on and down was off was the only way it differed from my own expectations, and the Americans didn't even notice that little foible, since they arrange things the same way back home in Yankland. Here, though, in The Hadean, voice-activated room lights were the norm. This meant that a) the Virginians had a reasonable level of competence in electronics, and b) they hadn't had it for very long, because a fad such as noise-activated lights isn't the sort of thing that has great staying power.
                As it was, I couldn't discover how to switch the lights off again, and was just about to set off around the hotel, coughing loudly so as to activate everyone else's lights and see if I could find out how they did it, when fortunately it occurred to me to that all I had to do was remove the lightbulb6. Practical-mindedness being beyond most anthropologists, I wasn't surprised to find that at least half my fellows had endured several sleepless hours before venturing down to the lobby bleary-eyed and learning from the receptionist what they should do ("Hit the wall. Didn't you try that?" "Only with my head...").
                The hotel was staffed by a mixture of humans and elves, but without any discernable class difference; representatives of both sub-species tidied my room on occasion. On Earth, people who do such work are generally from the poorer quarters of society, so it was refreshing to discover that humans don't place themselves above elves on Virginia, as, being their conquerors, might gloomily be expected.
                My cheer was tempered by the observation that the cleaning staff were nevertheless predominantly female; Officer Jute's success in the navy was not characteristic of the female lot on Virginia. I put this down not to any socialisation which perpetuates beliefs among Virginians that there is "women's work" and "men's work"; rather, the nature of menial work is that it is often part-time, which suits Virginian women greatly - the human population did not rise from a few hundred to several tens of million in a matter of 350 years without prodigious child-bearing feats by the womenfolk, and even now Virginian (human7) women average around five children each over the course of their child-bearing years.
                I made a mental note that if I ever needed sponsorship to return to Virginia, I could probably get it from either DurexTM or TrojanTM without much bother.
                I was in something of a quandary with regards to clothing. Traditionally, anthropologists try to dress like the people they are studying, stepping straight off the plane and into loincloths. The rationale for this is that it helps the anthropologist to fit in, and puts the people they are studying at their ease, despite the fact that there are normally huge physiological differences involved: a fair-skinned, tall, hairy European, for example, is usually moderately easy to find in a village of dark-skinned, squat, hairless Africans, no matter how authentic his loincloth8.
                This is all well and good: it probably does help people accept anthropologists, if for no other reason that it shows them up to be completely harmless simpletons. However, I wasn't yet in the presence of "my" orcs, and therefore wasn't officially studying anyone at the time. I was still in the position of a visitor to a foreign country, and I could choose either to dress how the locals did (and instantly stand out, because the locals never actually dress like you think they do) or to ignore them and wear my own clothes (and also stand out, because no-one else would dream of donning such an outfit). What it usually comes down to is whether the locals interpret attempts to wear clothing in their style as deference or paternalism.
                A quick look around the tailors near the hotel helped me make up my mind. If it was a choice between looking like an alien and looking like the Laughing Cavalier, I'd prefer the former. I settled on buying a few garments which approximated what was available in Carnaby Street in the early 1980s (New Romantic Flounce) that I could feasibly use to supplement my meagre Earth wardrobe until I made it to Orc-land. Judging by the experiences of those among my fellows who did decide to "go native", I made the right decision: New Dulwichians may have great tolerance for other cultures, but Earth anthropologists don't, and the woman from Yale who proudly appeared at breakfast in her Officer Jute-style high boots and tunic was ridiculed mercilessly. She had to retire within the hour, to re-emerge in her Earth clothes demanding that someone find her a personal injury lawyer specialising in emotional assault. The last I heard, she had failed in this effort but was pursuing the Virginian legal profession through the courts on the grounds that at least one of them ought to specialise in the subject (if only so they could advise people about the fact that Virginia didn't actually have any laws relating to something so vacuous).
                We were to be accommodated in The Hadean as a group, but leave individually as various people came to take us to where we would begin our studies. I confess that I was eager to start, although some of my colleagues were coming round to the idea that $500,000 is such a large amount that it could well withstand a few trips to the local pub; they were consequently rather reluctant to leave the relative comforts of New Dulwich for six months in a tree trunk or wherever, but I dare say that a word or two from Officer Jute would have persuaded them if they had put up any resistance.
                I did venture out of the hotel on a number of occasions, however, having read in my guide book of the marvellous sights to be beheld in New Dulwich, and wanting to get a feel for the way the world worked. One particular evening, I found myself in the company of an American by the name of Lucy Zweck, who was also working her way through the guidebook, and had arrived at the bit about "Lighting Saint Charles'"9 at the same as me. She heard me trying to get the hotel receptionist to call a taxi ("Taxi. TAXI. It's a small coach car vehicle thingy for taking people to somewhere they want to go."), and offered to drive me there personally in the car ("carriage") she'd bought earlier that day...
                As soon as I sat down inside, I knew I was in trouble. Virginian cars have a completely different layout to Earth cars, mainly because of the fact that their engines ("bellies") are much smaller. The steering wheel is two vertical metals handles on either side of a horizontal bar, which rotates in a plane parallel to the floor about a column connecting it to the wheels. Looking back, now I'm in a more rational state of mind, it seems obvious that this arrangement developed from how a team of horses might be controlled using reins; however, when I saw Lucy Zweck grab hold of the handles as if she was mounting the back of a long-horned bull, I could only think to escape while Fate still gave me the chance.
                Unfortunately, Fate was in no mood for procrastination that night. Lucy stomped her foot to the ground, the combined accelerator/brake scorched into action, and we shot off like a rocket. I felt my head pressing back into my seat with alarming force, as the street shot past so fast I could barely see anything but blur. I imagined my face flapping about like in all those research films from the 1950s of people subjected to the malign influence of 5G, and I turned to look at Lucy to see if she was suffering likewise. This was even more unsettling, because Lucy wore the demonic grin of a wounded world-war II pilot in a jammed cockpit, spiralling a badly-damaged spitfire down through a hail of flak into an ammo dump to take as many nearby Nazis with her as she could. Any second, she was going to scream with insane laughter, I knew it.
                "Er, Lucy," I said. "Don't you need a license to drive one of these things?"
                "I got a licence," she answered, taking her hand off the steering device to rummage around in her pockets.
                "You took a driving test?" Astounding. "And passed?" Even more astounding.
                "No, no, but how hard can it be? It's only got one pedal, and I can stop any time I like."
                She raised her foot, and I was hurled forward with such force that I left my seat, despite the restraining straps that I had somehow managed to fasten beforehand.
                Lucy looked at me like I was a wimp. "What's the matter with you?"
                "Oh, nothing," I replied. "Just thinking of the time three guys in tuxedos threw me out of the Albert Hall for trying to see a 10cc concert on a ticket meant for a performance of Dvorak's piano concerto."
                Lucy's sense of sarcasm was the same as every other American's, ie. non-existent, so she set off again without hitting me. We soon pulled on to a four-lane carriageway, however, and luckily it was busy enough with other traffic that she had to settle for a speed closer to legal parameters.
                Virginia never developed the internal combustion engine. Until about 30 years ago, their main sources of energy were fusion-based steam engines, but nowadays practically all Virginian power comes from Mallett cells (named after their inventor, Sal Mallett). These consist of a cocktail of highly purified ceramics mixed under pressure with deuterium that has been extracted from seawater. Rather than using dragon enzyme, the fusion reaction is started by introducing a low voltage electric current through a palladium cathode across a nickel (or, for higher performance, platinum) anode. The fusion chamber is encased in unidirectional thermo-electric strips, which generate electric current when heated within certain temperature ranges. A feedback loop from the low-threshhold strips ensures that if they are getting too hot, the current catalysing the reaction is cut off until they're cool enough to start it again, thus keeping the power output relatively steady.
                Mallett cells are only around 12% efficient, but the energy they produce is so abundant that no-one really cares. A cell the size of a shoebox generates enough electricity to heat a house for five years, and cars use cells about as big as a pack of cards. The kick they deliver is enormous...
       I was reminded when Lucy came across a stretch of open road and opened up the throttle again.
                "Isn't the engine quiet," she murmured. "You'd never guess we were going at over 140 miles an hour."
                "Ohhh, I don't know," I replied. "There's something about the way we're gaining on that aircraft overhead which kind of gives the game away."
                "One day, someone might explain British humour10 to me," she sighed.
                The thought that, one day, someone actually might explain it was enough to keep me quiet for the remainder of the journey to Saint Charles', but not before Lucy had her revenge.
                This came about five minutes later, when Lucy suddenly said, "You know, back home in New York City, I drive a Nissan, and my brother Hank has a big, BMW convertible, but when we get on the freeway I can drive much faster than he can."
                "Er, why's that, Lucy?" I asked.
                "Because he's a cop, and if they caught him driving the same speed as me he'd lose his job!" she replied. "Ha, got you there, Limey!"
                One of these days, someone might explain American humour to me, although I'm not sure my central nervous system is necessarily up to it...

* * *

                By the time we arrived at Saint Charles', Lucy had gained sufficient experience in controlling our vehicle that we decelerated at a rate commensurate with having run into a barn full of hay, rather than a brick wall. I waited a moment for the blood to course its way back to the vessels at the rear of my brain, then risked unfastening my safety harness.
                "Forty minutes from the hotel, not bad," enthused Lucy.
                "Any quicker and it would have been teleportation," I replied, rising to my feet rather shakily and glancing down at the deep depression in the seat that I had unwillingly formed. It occurred to me that my days of researching drinking habits in Dublin had actually been of use: a lesser man, whose body might have been unaccustomed to drinking ten pints of Guinness before noon, probably wouldn't have had the power to retain control of his bowels for the entire duration of Lucy Zweck's Formula-1 inspired journey.
                "This way, Bardell," she smiled, pointing to the exit from the car park, and setting off.
                "Shouldn't we pay to leave the car here or something?" I volunteered.
                She paused. "Pay?"
                Had Lucy been a computer in a 1960s movie, at this point the words DOES NOT COMPUTE would have appeared on a tickertape coming out of her CPU cabinet.
                "I guess not... What's the time? How long do we have before the show starts?"
                The "show" to which I was referring was the nightly practice of illuminating the ex-cathedral with exotic, multi-coloured fireworks. This was meant to be symbolic of an early episode in New Dulwich's history, when a dragon was intent on torching the entire city. It went for the biggest building first, Saint Charles', but miraculously its flames had no effect on the wooden structure. Chastened, the creature flew away, thereby sparing the entire city.
                Would that it had succeeded with the cathedral and failed on whatever its second choice was instead: Saint Charles' was a monumentally hideous building. Its towers were uneven, harsh and ugly; there were no buttresses where there ought to be, but plenty where there oughtn't; an inexplicable red line ran completely around it some two feet off the ground, like a go-faster stripe on a reconditioned 1970s car; its windows were a mish-mash of sizes, styles and colour. For some cathedrals, this haphazard approach works well - Saint Mark's in Venice, for example. For this one, it was as if a four year-old boy had been given a ten-minute limit to make something interesting out of toy construction bricks, and then his two year-old sister had given given the same length of time to dismantle it.
                "Gee," gasped Lucy, filled with awe. "Isn't that just a beautiful place?"
                For a moment, I thought she must be talking about the derelict warehouse across the street, but no, she meant Saint Charles'11.
                "I've never seen anything so incredible before in my life," I answered, truthfully.
                Lucy's eyes were filled with the unconditional wonder of the tourist who believes guide books. "Let's go round the front, the show's about to start," she said.
                The show, as it happens, turned out to be rather good. I've seen plenty of fireworks in my time, but nothing which compared to "Lighting Saint Charles'". OK, on Earth you get more variety in the displays, but Virginia's dragon-strength fireworks are something else entirely. Huge balls of coloured fire shoot skywards at incredible speed, choreographed to collide with one another in mid-air and shower the whole area in comet-like shards of flame.
                I turned to Lucy, approvingly, expecting her to be even more impressed than cynical ol' me.
                Instead, her face was deathly white.
                "You feeling OK, Lucy?" I asked, concerned.
                "We have to leave," she replied - slowly, yet firmly.
                "Leave? But why? This is really - " an uncommonly large fireball leapt with a bang to the heavens " - spectacular!"
                "Haven't you noticed?" She looked around, furtively. "We're the only humans here!"
                Actually, I hadn't noticed; I'd been too busy watching the fireworks. I ventured a quick glance around, though, and realised that she was more or less correct. There were other humans, but only a handful.
                "So?" I answered.
                "So? So? We have to get out of here!"
                "We what? Look, these people are tourists, they're from out of town, just like us. Don't worry about it!"
                "They'll kill us and take our money, trust me, I know about these things. I'll go first, you follow - but don't run." She began to push her way determinedly through the crowds towards the car park, her head bowed so as to avoid eye contact.
                Realising that without Lucy I was going to have to walk home, I decided that I perhaps ought to follow. Needless to say, there was no trouble whatsoever from the assorted elves, halflings, gnomes, ogres and the like who were assembled there simply for the experience, but the relief on Lucy's face when we reached her car was almost tangible; it was only surpassed when she checked the back seats and confirmed that there were no crazed orcs there waiting to hack us to bits with axes and big knives.
                We got in, locked the doors, and at last she relaxed.
                "Just as a matter of interest," I said, making sure that my restraining straps were absolutely secure, "could you tell me what your assignment is on Virginia, anthropologically speaking?"
                "Giants," she replied, starting the engine. "There's a colony about three continents northeast of here."
                "Maybe you should find someone who's got leprechauns and do a swap?" I suggested.
                "Maybe you should visit New York," she snorted, stomping her foot on the vehicle's pedal and launching us once more into near orbit.
                I was going to ask her if New York was as dangerous as she was suggesting, but decided against it; if everyone there drove remotely like she did, it had to be the most unsafe place on Earth.
                Some months later I was to discover, however, a yet more unsafe place on Virginia.

1  Pronounced "Fa-i-EYE-eth".

2  Pronounced "HAK-rik-ik".

3  Pronounced "Mo".

4  There is, interestingly, a diddly-squat village named "New New Dulwich" on a southern Virginian continent.

5  Mine said "Please feed the dog".

6  Q: How many anthropologists does it take to change a lightbulb? A: No, you go right ahead and change it; I'll just sit and watch and make a few notes.

7  Quite why the elves of New Dulwich might be adopting this same approach to procreation I didn't, at the time, consider.

8  And due to the savage circumcision rites practised by many African tribes, even easier to spot without a loincloth.

9  Saint Charles' is the name given to the New Dulwich cathedral, which is now a museum.

10  Technically, she said "humor".

11  The "Saint Charles" in question is one Charles Boddy, the only preacher among the original colonists, who was beatified by the faithful when the cathedral he began constructing was finally completed. This was undoubtedly done out of gratitude for the fact that the building couldn't thereafter get any worse.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: ltlwo2.htm