Rogan nodded. “Oh, aye. Heavier-than-air vehicles are mostly military on this world. Airships are the make of civilian air travel here. On your world, folks seem to think them flying bombs. Will you be alright?”
He grimaced, then stated, “That depends on how often do they blow up.”
Rogan shook his head ruefully. “We use helium, so they do not blow up. Adjusted for passenger miles, you Earthers lose five jetliners for every airliner we’ve lost. And when one of ours does go down, the survival rate is far higher than with your airplanes. Even on your world, barely a third of the passengers on the Hindenburg died. Just how many times have all souls been lost when one of your flying coffins dug a hole?”
Jack put down his fork and looked at Rogan’s lock, still visible on the back of his hand. He’d been putting this off, but mention of the trip tomorrow reminded him that time was getting short.
“Look, I’ve got to know something. You guys have avoided talking about this, but I need to understand.”
Both of the hunters were silent. He glanced up at them. They weren’t ignoring him, just waiting. He continued. “Back in Aum, you saw what we did. That cat… it chose targets and caused me to cast fire on them.”
Nam nodded. “That’s certainly what it looked like. One way or another, you and the cat were working together.”
“Somehow. I don’t know exactly why, but… I had the image in my mind of myself, doing… well, doing as you saw. While you two were in the middle of the battle, I saw… I guess the term would be a ‘vision’, and understood that I was expected to do that. Aim over the cat’s head at whatever it faced. You saw the result.”
Rogan scratched his nose. “So, do you believe it was the cat speaking to you?”
“That sounds even crazier once you say it out loud, but I don’t have any other candidates,” he admitted. “I don’t know.”
The waitress appeared with a pot of tea and halted conversation for a minute. She curtsied prettily to Nam, who nodded and gestured to her cup.
Jack watched the girl, one of the ethnic he thought of as Native Americans, as she poured. She really was as young as he’d first thought. Her hair, an intricate creation of braids and ribbons topped what would have been an expensive outfit in the US, something far finer than a typical waitress uniform. Different in so many ways than a small-town waitress back home, she provided one more reminder of how little he knew about this world, simultaneously so familiar and so foreign.
As the girl walked away, he noted with shock that she was working in bare feet.
Nam’s amused voice brought him out of his stare. “Does something about the serving girl bothers you, Jack?”
He glanced over to her and shrugged. “Cop habits. I’m just thinking about how many legal violations she would constitute, back in St. Louis.”
Nam laughed. “Let’s see. She’s too young to work, right? What are the others?”
“She’s too young to serve alcohol. She’s out of the house way past curfew. And biggest of all, she’s working barefoot in a restaurant. That’s a huge Health violation.”
She laughed again, and nodded. “Let it go, Jack. Your dining establisments bewildered us just as much, our first time there. Turn-about’s fair play.”
“Do you really see nothing wrong with any of that?” Jack wasn’t surprised, just curious to learn more about his companions.
Rogan chuckled. “Actually, in most of the Dominion of Parha, she would also be too young to work at this time of day, but the precise age is a matter of local law. Our child-labor laws never prohibit work. They limit the hours and the time of day to ensure the child’s safety and prioritize their schooling.”
After thinking a moment, he continued, “Curfew… same laws, I reckon. A child serving alcohol is not a problem to us. That’s one of the stranger twists American morals take, if you ask me. The girl was serving it, not drinking it. Barefooted serving staff, though… that’s a very old custom in Parha. If the staff were not willing to walk barefoot in the dining hall, the diners would suspect it’s not clean enough for dining.”
Jack heard the contorted logic, and shook his head. He could understand if American customs were equally inexplicable to them, but… well, what Rogan had just claimed was pretty damned inexplicable.
“So,” Nam clasped her hands together in front of her, leaned forward and looked at him evenly. “What do you need to understand?”
“You are bringing me to your capital, to the headquarters of your Ministry and even to your home. And we’re going by airship.”
She nodded. “Yes we are. And?”
“How can you two just merrily drag me into such important places with no idea what I might do there?” He held up his right hand for emphasis. “Don’t you find that flame thing just a little dangerous?”
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.