[For 14 weeks, beginning on March 19th, on Sundays and Wednesdays, I’ll be posting chapters of book one of my Far Land Trilogy: Jaben’s Rift. I hope you enjoy it. The first part is here. I’d love to hear any feedback.]
A New Day Dawns
Misshapen trees with gnarled, twisted trunks surrounded Jason. He thought he saw tortured faces in the bark, frozen in expressions of horror and despair. Where am I? He didn’t see anyone else, but the primal sounds coming from the shadows told him he wasn’t alone.
He spun to his left at a sudden blur of motion. Nothing was there. Lightning flashed overhead, but not the bluish-white lightning he knew. The incandescent streaks tearing at the dark sky above him were garish shades of red and purple.
He couldn’t see a way out in any direction. How did I get here? His breath came in hard, short gasps, and his heart felt like it was about to burst from his chest.
A glimmer of light caught his attention through the dark trees. A voice called his name. That sounds like Dad! If he could only get to the light, all of this would go away and he would be all right.
He crashed through the underbrush toward the light, fighting his way through the vines and creepers. Branches tore at his shirt. The voice calling his name grew louder as he got closer. After what seemed an eternity, he broke into a small clearing where a bonfire clawed at the darkness, illuminating everything within its reach with a fiery, orange glow.
A figure stood silhouetted before the fire. His father! He ran forward, almost overcome with relief. As he reached out, the figure turned toward him. He found himself staring into the slate gray eyes of an old man who began laughing maniacally, while shrieking Jason’s name over and over again.
Jason jerked upright, drenched in sweat, looking into the same gray eyes as the ones in his dream. Hands grasped his shoulders. He knocked them away, expecting to hear the insane laughter again. But these eyes weren’t filled with the lunacy from the dream, but with concern and compassion.
“Jason Bennett.” The voice in his dream.
“Jason Bennett,” Reyga repeated. “Wake up, my boy. You were having a bad dream.”
He shook his head and took a deep breath, blinking to clear his vision. Once he was sure he was awake, he looked around the room. It was small, with little more in it than the bed he was in and a couple of chests. Against one wall was another bookshelf filled with books and scrolls. A small window let in a cool breeze.
“Oh, man,” he groaned, “it wasn’t just a dream.”
“No, Jason Bennett, that was most definitely a nightmare you were having.”
He flopped back on the bed. “I was talking about being here. Until just now, I had been hoping this was all a dream and I would eventually wake up in my own bed.” He looked at Reyga. “But that’s not going to happen, is it?” It was more a statement of harsh reality than a question.
“I am afraid not,” Reyga said. “This is your home now. At least it will be unless and until we find a way to open portals to other worlds and dimensions. And we have been trying to do that for many, many years.”
Jason was silent as he tried to assimilate the fact that he was trapped on another world, separated from his family, friends, and everything he had ever known.
Reyga stood up. “Come. The morning is half spent and we have a bit of a journey ahead of us. It is time to get up. I have brought you something to eat while you get ready.”
The mention of food brought a wave of nausea. “Please don’t mention food. I think I’m gonna puke.”
Reyga cocked his head. “Puke?”
His stomach churning, Jason replied miserably, “Yeah, puke.” At Reyga’s blank look he said, “You know…puke. Barf? Hurl? Blow chunks? Toss your cookies?” Still seeing no sign that Reyga understood, Jason added, “Um, throw up? Be sick?”
At last, recognition dawned in the old man’s face. “Ah, finally I understand, Jason Bennett.”
“It’s just Jason. Bennett is my last name. You can just call me Jason. Anyway, what the heck did you do to me?”
“Do to you? What do you mean?”
“I mean, how did you knock me out like that? Whatever you did, I’ve got one whale of a hangover from it.”
Reyga looked confused again. “Hangover…hangover…ah.” He nodded. “The way you feel right now is not due to anything I have done, Jason Ben…pardon me…Jason. You are suffering from what we call portal sickness. It is harmless, and will pass soon, but it is not a pleasant experience.”
“Occasionally, a first time traveler will find his system upset by the trip through a portal. It is similar to the problem some people have of becoming ill while on a boat, although a bit more intense.”
That’s the understatement of the year, he thought. The only time he could ever remember feeling like this was when he had developed a case of stomach flu, a sinus infection, and mono all at the same time.
“When you fainted,” Reyga continued, “I realized what had happened, and, anticipating your condition this morning, I brought you a particular fruit to eat that is a known cure for portal sickness.” He held out a small tray with five or six slices of something that looked like a miniature grapefruit on it. “Here, eat this. It will help you recover more quickly.”
Jason didn’t reach for the plate.
“Please. I promise that within the hour the way you feel right now will be nothing more than a memory.”
He took the tray, frowning at its contents.
Reyga muttered something under his breath, picked up one of the slices of fruit, and took a bite from it. From the look on his face as he ate it, Jason guessed this was one of Reyga’s favorite foods. The old man’s pleasure was evident as he chewed slowly, his eyes half closed and a slight smile on his face.
After he swallowed, Reyga sighed in obvious contentment. Then he looked at Jason once more. “Again, I ask you to eat. You have nothing to fear, and I assure you it will make you feel better. After all, had I wished you harm, I did have all night.”
He couldn’t argue with that, so he slowly picked up a slice, and, with one more look at Reyga, placed it in his mouth. Trying to hide his trepidation, he bit down.
Instantly, succulent juices exploded into his mouth. The plate almost fell to the floor at the intense flavor of the fruit. It tasted like a cross between an orange and a lemon, but without the sour bite one would expect from such a combination. A hint of sweetness served as a counterpoint to the tangy citrus, while weaving in and out of the other flavors was an echo of mint. The mint was more pronounced in the odor, which filled his nostrils and immediately began to clear the fog from his head. Reveling in the unexpected flavor, he got completely lost in the experience.
He came back to reality when his hand reached for another slice only to find that he had already eaten them all. He looked at the empty plate, and then looked at Reyga, as if to accuse him of stealing the other pieces while he wasn’t looking.
The amused look on the old man’s face seemed to confirm his suspicions. He was about to say something, when Reyga’s face broke into a broad grin. The old man’s eyes opened wide as he leaned forward. “At last, Jason Bennett, I have you!”
At Jason’s recoil and alarmed look, Reyga burst into laughter. Between guffaws and snorts, he managed to say, “Peace, Jason Bennett, peace. I merely jest with you.”
Reyga’s merry laughter continued for several seconds. At last, his mirth began to subside. As he wiped the tears from his eyes, he took a deep breath and exhaled noisily. With one last stifled giggle, Reyga regained his composure and said with a twinkle in his eye, “Please forgive me, Jason. I am sorry for alarming you, but you seemed so certain that I meant to poison you with the calintha fruit that I simply could not resist.”
As Jason sighed in relief, he tried to look annoyed with the old man, but the lingering taste of the fruit on his tongue refused to allow such a mood. Almost against his will, he grinned sheepishly.
“Ah, Jason, at least now I can be sure that you no longer believe yourself to be dreaming.” Reyga looked at the window. “In any event, we must prepare. I trust you are feeling better?”
He had to confess that Reyga had been right. The fruit had dispelled his feelings of nausea and sickness as if they too had been nothing more than a dream.
“I’m feeling better,” he said, “but would it be possible to get some more of that?”
“I am afraid I do not have any more,” Reyga replied. “It is a very rare fruit that can only be harvested one sixday out of the year. It is only given in cases of portal sickness, such as you experienced, and for occasions of state. And even in the state occasions, each guest is allowed only two pieces. What I gave to you was the last I had.”
His disappointment must have been plain to see, for Reyga said, “Perhaps we will see if we can get a bit more. After all, it is not every day that we get a visitor from the Far Planes. I suppose that should qualify as a special occasion.”
As Jason climbed out of bed, Reyga gestured toward the chest by the window. “There is a basin of water for you to wash and refresh yourself, and I found some clothes that I believe will fit you. The ones you have on, besides being rather unusual for Teleria, are somewhat damp from whatever you experienced in your dreams. If the clothes I brought do not fit as well as you would like, they will at least suffice for now. We can find other clothing on the way.”
Jason went to the basin, removed his shirt, and splashed water on his face and arms to wash away the drying sweat from his nightmare. He picked up a small towel lying beside the basin. “On the way? Where are we going?”
“There is a village not far from here. We will go there first, where I will introduce you to the village leaders, and you may get some more exposure to our culture and society. We can also purchase some clothing for you if you wish, and we will need to secure supplies for our journey.”
“Journey?” Jason dropped the towel and picked up the rough cloth shirt Reyga had supplied. “Journey to where?”
Reyga hesitated a moment before answering. “There are some people who wish to meet you. It has been several years since we have had a visitor from one of the Far Planes, and they would like to find out more about you and your world.”
“Yeah? How’d they know I was here?”
“I apologize if you wished your presence here to remain secret. But, as a Loremaster, it was my duty to report receiving a visitor from the Far Planes. So, after getting you to bed last night, I contacted a colleague of mine to let them know of your arrival.”
“I used the portal. Do you remember me telling you last night that we had been able to create successful portals within our world?”
“It was through the portal you saw in the front room that I made contact with those who wish to meet you.”
“Are they, um, what did you call yourself? Loremaster? Are they Loremasters too?”
“Yes, there is a group of Loremasters that wishes to see you, and to learn about you and about your world.”
“Can they help me get back home? You said that there were some people who were working on portals to other worlds. Is that them?”
Reyga shook his head. “No, those that are studying portal creation do not reside at Lore’s Haven.”
“Well, I want to meet them. If there’s any way for me to get back home, I want to know.”
“I understand your desire to return home,” Reyga said, “but we must first meet with the Loremasters at Lore’s Haven. After that, we may be able to meet with the others.”
“So, what is a Loremaster anyway? Are there a bunch of you guys running around?”
“Let us finish preparing,” Reyga said. “Then, while we travel to the village, I will tell you of Loremasters.”
As he walked through the bustling halls of Lore’s Haven, Tal Vardyn, Pearl Loremaster and the High One of the Circle of Nine, did not need to consult with the ancient texts. After studying them for decades, he could recite all twenty-three volumes from memory. What had come unbidden to his mind the night before filled him with foreboding, and had been a constant theme winding its way in and out of his restless dreams.
It was a prophecy given over eight hundred years before by a seer named Taleth…
From a far land, Jaben shall come.
The last to arrive, he will already be here.
Powerful and powerless,
Our hope and our doom are in his hands.
His destruction is our hope.
His denial is our doom.
For our land to live, the far land must die.
When Reyga mentioned Jason Bennett’s name, the prophecy leapt into Tal’s mind like a Beja cat pouncing upon its prey. And like the feline hunter’s finger-long claws, the words of the prophecy sank into the High One’s thoughts and refused to be dislodged.
Even with his head muddled from the futile attempts at sleep the night before, Tal knew that his actions regarding this young man could very well determine Teleria’s fate for generations to come. He spotted a page and gave him instructions to assemble the Circle.
He also knew that he would be unable to make any rational decisions with his thoughts racing as they were. He found a relatively quiet corner, closed his eyes, and concentrated upon stilling his mind. After a few moments, he opened his eyes. Better. He would have time for a more thorough period of meditation later.
“At least I hope I will,” he said to himself, and headed for the Circle chamber to prepare.
The sun was climbing into the clear morning sky as Jason and Reyga walked out the door. The first thing Jason noticed as he stepped outside was the multitude of odors filling the air. He looked upwind, and then slowed until he finally came to a complete stop. He had seen plenty of backyard gardens before, but this was surely the king of all gardens, if there was such a thing.
There were at least a dozen different species of plants, each bearing a crop that would be the envy of any farmer back in Missouri. Some looked a little like tomato plants, but the fruits that hung from them were as large as soccer balls. He wondered how they kept from collapsing under the load.
He heard Reyga chuckle behind him. “Ah, I see you have noticed my modest attempt at gardening.”
‘Modest’ was not the word he would have chosen to describe Reyga’s garden. “Are you kidding? We have neighbors back home that would give their right arms to be able to grow a garden like this!”
Reyga smiled. “I must confess that I too am pleased with how it turned out this year. Gardening and growing things has long been a…well, a hobby of mine, as it were.”
“Man, if this is what you consider a hobby, then you give the word a whole new meaning.”
“You are most kind, Jason,” Reyga said, bowing his head slightly. “Now,” he continued, “we must be on our way. There is an escort awaiting us in the village.”
“Yes. Those who wish to meet you have sent some people to accompany us on our way. Their presence is merely for our protection.”
“What about the portals? Didn’t you say you have stable portals in your world? Isn’t there a portal to where we want to go?”
“There is, but considering your first portal experience, it was decided that this route would be better. This will also give you a chance to see more of our world and our culture.”
He wasn’t sure he agreed, but didn’t say anything. Now that he knew what to expect, especially the tasty fruit, he didn’t think a portal trip would be all that bad.
“How do the portals work anyway?” he asked.
Reyga started to answer, and then stopped. “I am afraid that is a question better answered by others,” he finally said. “Perhaps when we get to Lore’s Haven, someone there will be able to explain the process to you.”
“Oh. Well, okay.”
Reyga strode off toward one end of the glade. Jason noticed a small trail there. As he fell in behind the old man, he gazed about, taking in his surroundings. The trees surrounding them were clothed in robust foliage. Most of the leaves and shrubs were the various standard shades of green, but here and there, sprinkled among the green, were plants with leaves of delicate teal, vibrant purple, or even an occasional pastel pink. A bright blue sky peeked down at them through the leaves and branches, and a light breeze playfully ruffled Jason’s hair.
The woods were unmistakably full of life. Screeches, tweets, and trills filled the air. They seemed to blend together into one harmonious song, like an orchestra playing an intricate concerto. He was about to remind Reyga of his promise to tell him what a Loremaster was when he heard the flutter of wings. With a startling gust of air beside his ear, a bird the size of a small hawk landed on his shoulder.
Sharp talons gripped his shoulder through his shirt. He came to a stop. “Um, Reyga?”
Reyga turned. When he saw the bird, his eyes widened. He seemed to be at a loss for words.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jason tried to get a look at his unexpected passenger. The bird was yellow, with a burst of red and blue on its chest. The beak less than two inches from his eye had a cruel hook that marked this bird as a predator. It returned his gaze without blinking,
He tried not to flinch as the bird shifted. “What should I do?”
Reyga’s glance wandered from the bird back to Jason’s face. “Hm? Oh! I apologize. I was rather surprised to see a bird, especially one of this kind, on your shoulder. Be at ease. You are in no danger.”
He relaxed, and then stiffened once again as the bird tightened its razor sharp grip. “Okay,” he said. “That’s good to know, but how do I get this bird off me?”
Reyga slowly began walking toward him. As the Loremaster approached, the bird screeched as if to warn him away. After holding its ground for a few moments, it launched into the air and winged its way toward the clear morning sky, giving another offended screech as it flew. They watched as it came to roost at the top of a tall tree. Once more, the bird sounded its defiance.
“What was that all about?” Jason asked, rubbing his shoulder. “I thought for a moment you forgot how to breathe when you turned around and saw that bird.”
“Hmm?” Reyga responded, his eyes still on the bird. Then he turned his attention back to his companion. “Please forgive me, Jason. It is somewhat unusual to actually see a bird of this species. They are rather rare. I can recall only two other times in my entire life when I have actually seen one in the wild.”
“Really? What kind of bird is it?” Jason asked. He looked up at the top of the tree where the bird still watched them.
Reyga looked at the bird again. “It is a carilian, although it is more commonly called a fortunewing.”
“Legend has it that one’s experience with the bird can predict their future. To hear the call of the fortunewing as it is perched is said to be a good omen, but to hear its call in flight is considered a bad omen.”
“Uh huh. So what kind of omen is it when it lands on you?”
“I do not know,” Reyga said as his gaze returned to Jason. “I have never heard tell of one actually landing on someone.”
Then, with one last glance at the bird, he said, “Well! To be sure, it was an interesting experience to begin our day, but we need to continue on. We still need to buy supplies for the journey, and our escort is, by now, no doubt awaiting us.”
“Okay,” Jason said, as they began walking again. “You were going to tell me about Loremasters. What is a Loremaster? How does someone become one? Are there a lot of you?”
Reyga walked for a few moments before answering. Finally, he said, “A Loremaster is a man or woman who has chosen to be the caretaker of a certain area of knowledge. It is the responsibility of the Loremaster to preserve the knowledge in his or her area of expertise, and to add to that knowledge whenever possible.
“As they start getting on in years, they select an apprentice to whom they will pass on everything they know. When the old Loremaster becomes too feeble to retain the post, or when they pass on, the apprentice takes over and the knowledge is preserved. And no, to answer your last question, there are not many Loremasters. There are nine on the Circle to be precise.”
“And you’re one of them.”
“What, one day you just said, ‘Hey, I think I’ll be a Loremaster’?”
Reyga chuckled. “Oh no, Jason, there is much more to it than that. Each Loremaster has a group of young men and women who share an affinity for the same area of knowledge. They assist him in his studies. They will serve together working with the Loremaster for many years. From this group, one will be chosen to be the Loremaster’s apprentice. It has been this way since the system of Loremasters was established almost fifteen centuries ago.”
“Alright. You said you were the Emerald Loremaster. What is that? What are you the Loremaster of? And where are your people?”
“My assistants are at Lore’s Haven, where we are headed. The place we just left is my home. I was taking a few days of rest, when you arrived. Your timing was fortuitous, for I usually spend more time at the Haven than I do at home.”
“Lucky for me, I guess. So what’s an Emerald Loremaster? What exactly are you the Loremaster of?”
“Each Loremaster is given an insignia, or symbol, signifying their office. It was decided long ago that the symbols would incorporate gemstones, to indicate the beauty and desirability of knowledge. For my office, it is the emerald, as you see in my staff. Other Loremasters will have different gems depending upon their area of study.”
“Okay,” Jason said, a little impatiently. “So, once again, what is your area of knowledge? What does the emerald stand for? What are you the Loremaster of?”
Reyga looked somewhat embarrassed. “The Emerald Loremaster preserves the knowledge of plants and agriculture.”
Jason stopped walking. “Sooo, the garden…” he began.
“Is not quite so impressive an accomplishment as it would have been had it been grown by someone else.” Reyga finished, turning back to the path with a slight smile on his face.
“Not exactly a hobby then, is it?” He’d caught the smile as Reyga turned away. He thought about the garden and the earlier incident with the calintha fruit. “You’re an ornery, old goat, aren’t you?” he muttered under his breath
Reyga turned back to him. “I beg your pardon? What does it mean to be an ‘ornery, old goat’?”
As Jason stammered for an answer, he mentally filed away the fact that Reyga must have exceptional hearing. Trying to keep his face from turning red, he said quickly, “It’s, ah, a term of, um, respect. Yes! It’s, uh, something we say back home to people we admire, that’s all.” He hoped he sounded convincing as he watched to see how Reyga would respond.
Reyga considered his words for a moment, then smiled and inclined his head. “I thank you then, Jason, for your kind words.” Then he turned back to the trail and resumed walking.
Jason breathed a sigh of relief and vowed to himself never to say anything about Reyga unless the old man was nowhere within a two-mile radius.
After a few minutes of walking, he spoke up again. “So, let’s go back to what you were talking about yesterday. What happened after the war? If they had all this technology, why didn’t they just rebuild everything?”
“Indeed, why did they not just rebuild? That is the obvious question. Very well, let me think. Where did I stop yesterday? Hmmm…” Reyga paused for a moment as he thought, and then his eyes brightened. “Ah yes,” he said. “Now I remember.” As he resumed walking, he continued his tale from the previous day.
“In the days before the Devastation, we have learned that our world had a population of over seven billion people. After the dust had settled, it is estimated that there were less than thirty million left alive.” He gave a heavy sigh. “Over ninety-nine percent of the population dead, with many more to die in the sixdays and spans following. Mankind, once dominant on our world, had been reduced to a mere shadow of what he once was.
“The planet also paid a high price for our foolishness,” he said. “Because of the terrible weapons used, large sections of our lands were rendered uninhabitable for generations. But even that paled in comparison to the effects of the most devastating weapons.”
The light breeze suddenly felt cooler, and a solitary cloud obscured the sun, casting a pall on the forest around them. Reyga didn’t seem to notice as he went on with his tale.
“While we do not know what they were, we have learned that the combatants had developed frightening weapons. These terrible devices could literally tear rifts in the very fabric of space, essentially opening holes into other dimensions.
“From what we have learned, the rifts would usually collapse upon themselves within a matter of moments. A small number, though, did not close, and began to let in forces and energies completely alien to our world. It was one such rift that ended the Devastation.
“It happened on the second day of the war. A rift opened up, and some type of energy began pouring into our world. The energy that came through this rift nullified something the ancients called ‘electricity.’ Apparently, all of their amazing technology, from the greatest machine to the smallest, depended upon this force for its operation. With it gone, all of mankind’s technology was rendered useless.
“Within the space of a few hours, mankind had gone from being master of the planet, to being just another contender for survival, with less natural skills than the plants and animals we had dominated for so long.”
As the sun re-emerged from behind the cloud, Reyga paused to glance at the sky. He took out a cloth to wipe his face and neck, and then turned to Jason as he continued the story.
“To be sure,” he said, “this rift is quite probably the only thing that allowed anything at all to survive the Devastation. With the electricity gone, the rulers found it impossible to use any more of their weapons. So, as suddenly as it began, the Devastation was over, with only the lingering effects of the weapons remaining. Those lingering effects, however, changed our world forever.”
Reyga glanced around at the lush foliage surrounding them. With a sorrowful shake of his head, he continued. “The days following the end of the Devastation were full of confusion, anger, and despair. With our world in ruins, no one knew what to do, where to begin rebuilding, or if rebuilding would even be possible.
“As the people began exploring the tattered remnants of their lands, they mapped out the areas of the greatest desolation in order to avoid them. They marked these on whatever maps they could find or make. Eventually, they found places where they could begin the slow process of rebuilding.”
Reyga began walking once more as he went on with his tale.
“As the survivors began to spread out and explore, reports started circulating about strange and bizarre creatures. Stories were told about areas where the world seemed almost alien. There were even rumors about visitors from other worlds.
“At first, of course, these tales were dismissed as nothing more than dreams, or the ranting of the insane, or perhaps words spoken from the depths of a bottle of spirits. Some, however, did not discount these stories. They went out in search of the things they had heard about.
“These explorers came back with strange creatures,” he said. “Animals were found, and sometimes people, with extra limbs, or sometimes even an extra head. Some had become extremely sensitive to light, or to heat. Most eventually died out without ever passing these traits to offspring. But not all. Of those that survived, a few became the progenitors of some of the races in Teleria today.
“These were all explained away as strange mutations. But then other creatures were found, creatures that seemed almost to be some sort of merger between two different living things. These could not be explained by mutation.
“The most horrific unions were the ones where one of the living beings was, or had been, a human. In most cases, the creature produced from these unions was quite insane and either very violent, or almost catatonic from despair. No one knew how these shocking mergers had happened, or what to do for these unfortunate souls. Eventually, a few that survived their change also became the forefathers of new races.”
When Reyga stopped talking, Jason said, “So there are more than just humans here?”
“Oh yes. There are quite a number of races living in Teleria. You will see some of them during our travels.”
The rest of the journey passed uneventfully. Reyga pointed out various plants and animals, and told Jason about some of the different races of Teleria. Reyga told him about the Ferrin, a cat-like race of people, and about the Grithor, a folk that found light to be extremely uncomfortable and so had become a nocturnal race, living mainly underground. He told Jason about several other races as well, including one called the Shanthi, who were able to alter the pigment in their skin and hair in order to blend in with their surroundings. Unique physiology in their hands and feet also gave them the ability to cling to walls and other surfaces.
“We will have one of the Shanthi accompanying us on our journey, although you may never see her,” Reyga said.
“Her?” Jason asked.
“Yes, a young woman by the name of Lenai.”
“So why won’t I see her?”
“The Shanthi are a rather secretive people,” Reyga replied. “This was not always so, but with their abilities of concealment, some of the Shanthi turned to, shall we say, less honorable methods of providing for their needs. They became a mistrusted and misunderstood people, which caused them to isolate themselves from the other races, especially humans. You may occasionally hear people refer to them as ‘shifters.’ It is not a term I would advise using should you ever find yourself in their company.”
He made a note of Reyga’s warning, and they continued on their way, with Reyga changing the topic from the races of Teleria to its history and customs. This was just a little too close to his dad’s discourses for his liking.
At the thought of his father, he felt a pang of homesickness. Bruce Bennett was a moderately successful businessman, whose penchant for teaching his son all about his lineage was, at times annoying, and usually terminally boring. I’d give anything to hear one of Dad’s history lessons now, he thought.
He wondered what his parents were doing, and what they thought had happened to him. Reyga said there was no way back, but he wasn’t going to give up until he found a way.
As Reyga’s oration on Telerian history continued, he let his mind drift, giving the occasional grunt or ‘uh, huh’ to show that he was still listening, even though his thoughts were a world away.