Cliffhanger


“Are you sure you want me to drive?” I asked, cautiously turning my head to see Panu stretched out on the back seat of my car. “These mountain roads are scary!”

“You’re doing just fine,” he yawned. “See, I told you there was nothing to it! It only takes a few moments to get used to these mountain roads in Herlup Province!”

If he says so. I still found it a vertiginous experience driving up and down and all around these mountains on the way back to Hapdorn. For a while, it’s clear sailing on the straightaway, then suddenly the road curves and you can look down on teeny little houses on the bottom of an immensely deep valley. Here you are, way up here; there’s your stomach, way down there!

Before long, we came to the spot where the Interprovincial Highway split in two: our two lanes continue around the left side of the mountain, and the oncoming lanes find another route. After another sixteen minutes or so, the four lanes rejoined themselves to form a four-lane divided highway.

Somewhere around this stretch of highway, the view became overly panoramic again. I took advantage of the light traffic to drive in the passing lane. I nearly got away with it, but some huge truck overtook me from the rear and insisted on passing, prim and proper, on the right. With a sigh of resignation, I changed to the left lane. It was like driving on the rim of a great abyss! The truck whooshed by on the right, causing the steering wheel to jiggle in my hands as it passed. Boy, was my heart in my throat!

When the road flattened itself out for a stretch, and I judged it safe to do so, I glanced back at Panu. He was dead asleep! I really think he has far too much confidence in my driving ability; I know I wouldn’t trust me this much! I slapped the steering wheel in frustration. Panu is the one who really should be driving. He grew up in Herlup Province and he knows these mountains and this highway like the back of his hand. He even learned to drive here! Whereas I, victim of Panu’s desire to snooze through the first shift, have to allow my adrenaline to abuse me.

Oh, the road was safe enough. I suppose that we were never in any danger from the landscape, but it was so stupendous that I lived in constant fear that it would distract me, and that I would drive over a cliff unawares while I was rapturously enthralled in the scenic wonders that constantly unfolded before me. Remember, on the trip out we passed through this area at night while I was asleep. I was seeing it all for the very first time!

We only had a short distance to go to the provincial border between Herlup and Hapdorn, when a yellow sign whizzed by too fast for me to read it.

“Panu, wake up!” I shouted. Panu instantly sat up and fought for full consciousness.

“What’s going on?” he asked in a half-awake, childlike voice.

“What was that thing we just passed?” I asked urgently. “Was that sign important?”

Panu craned his neck to look out the rear window. “It’s just a traffic sign. Nothing to worry about,” he reassured me. “The other stretch of highway is being routinely replaced, so traffic is diverted here. I remember it from the trip out. You went the right way.”

“The road is being routinely replaced?” I repeated with some disbelief.

“Roads don’t last forever,” Panu observed, “so they get replaced every half-hexacentury, or even more often, in heavily traveled areas.”

“Oh, I know what you mean,” I chucked, “back on Earth, they would resurface roads that deteriorated in the weather.”

“Hmph!” Panu remarked, “That’s not very bright. You can’t resurface forever. The only way to do it right is rip the whole thing out and start over every hundred twenty-eight years or so.”

I was beginning to get confident of my driving skills. I even dared to look out the passenger side to catch a glimpse of the construction, but there wasn’t much to see. I must say that I was impressed by Panu’s information. Imagine! The road I was traveling on had been ripped up and completely replaced every one hundred and twenty-eight years!

“If they replace this road twice a hexacentury,” I remarked, “this must be a very old road!”

“Yes, it is in fact quite old,” he replied, as he started to unfold the provincial road map, “although superhighways are relatively late arrivals to Herlup province.” In the rear view mirror I saw him look up and grin at me bashfully, “We Herlupians are proud to be a backward folk.” He pawed through the road map for a moment, until he located the information he was looking for. “Here it is!” he announced, “According to this map, this part of Tha 37 was first constructed in 42A1!”

I quickly did some math in my head: the present year is 459A, so if I subtract 2A1 from 59A… “That makes this road over seven hundred and sixty years old!” I exclaimed.

“Well, you’re better at doing math in your head than I am,” Panu conceded, “but that sounds about right, if I remember my history correctly.”

I thought I caught a glimpse of some construction work out of the corner of my eye, so I glanced to my left.

“John! Watch out!” came Panu’s voice in panic.

The last thing I saw was huge tree, dead ahead, on the edge of a cliff!

The next morning, I awoke in a hospital bed. I had no idea what town or province I was in. I felt like I had strained every single muscle in my body, but aside from that, I wasn’t in any real pain. I could sense a veterinarian and a nurse at my bedside, but my eyes were closed, so they must have assumed that I was asleep. I licked my upper lip.

“I am assigned to this patient,” came a calm female voice, apparently a nurse. “Did this patient come in yesterday or this morning?”

“Yesterday afternoon, friend, after your shift,” came a second female voice; I presumed it was the veterinarian. There was the sound of papers being shuffled on a clipboard. “His native language is an obscure dialect called ‘English’ which hardly anyone speaks, but you have nothing to worry about: he is a naturalized Thorgelfaynese with a respectable command of the language, so he can brief you better than I can.” I flattered myself that I heard a slight tone of admiration in her voice.

“And his medical status?” the nurse inquired timidly.

“It’s all here, I’ll leave this with you,” the veterinarian replied. I heard the sound of the clipboard being set down on a table. “Briefly, he has undergone osteotherapy for three broken ribs and a fractured femur. We didn’t have any special problems, so that will all be healed in—oh, say an hour or two at most. He was bounced around in the car somewhat, so I’m sure his muscles are quite sore.”

“What about this on his mouth?” the nurse asked casually. I was alarmed!

“Oh, that’s nothing much,” the veterinarian replied, “Just a cut lip and a chipped tooth. He’s scheduled for that tomorrow morning. He’ll be out of here in no time!”

“Well, at least he wasn’t seriously injured,” the nurse said. I opened my eyes, just as she began to stroke my forehead.

“Oh!” she said with a start, “We thought you were asleep! Is there anything you need?”

Panu! I thought in a panic, what’s happened to Panu? Somehow I managed to overcome the muscle pain to lean forward and look around the room. For some daft reason, I forgot that we would be in different wings, he would be in a regular ward; and of course I, as an alien, would be in the veterinary ward. At the time I wasn’t thinking too clearly, I expected him to be there, and when he wasn’t, I panicked.

“What’s the matter?” the nurse inquired. I could see by her eyes that she cared very much about my distress and would do anything she could to alleviate it.

What happened to my friend? I wanted to ask. Where is Panu Maksimak? It’s my fault! I wasn’t paying attention, please tell me what happened!

But the words and the turmoil remained locked within my skull, as I discovered to my horror that I was quite incapable of speech. I grabbed for the clipboard and a pen, but they misinterpreted my actions and restrained me.