Here's a backgrounder to URCs, if you're interested.
This is a story about Urcs; Orcs with wheels. Urcs inhabit not Middle Earth but Middle England, and elsewhere besides. They also have the power to transport themselves along the very ether that exists unseen between you and me, which was how they came to cause a Hermit named Sam a good deal of bother.
Sam lived in a green and pleasant land well outside the London orbital but convenient to decent transportation links (and of course he had his bicycle.) He did many odd jobs to pay the rent on his humble abode, including spinning tales and weaving websites. One day he wove a particularly good one, and wanted to tell the World Wide Web all about it out of sheer joy. Unfortunately Sam could not afford to advertise his site because he was not made of money like his neighbour Rood, who literally burned stacks of currency in his garden because he said the smell reminded him of autumn.
Sam went down to the pub one dark night, hungry for companionship after weeks spent working like a beaver in his bungalow. He passed a joyless evening there, as the other patrons were busy watching Sky. As he prepared to depart, he heard a voice from the shadows bid him draw near if he wished to find a treasure.
Sam had never found treasure in the shadows before, but there was always a first time.
"Where is it?" he asked the strange disembodied voice, which appeared to be coming from behind a keg of grog.
"I will give you a map," said the voice. "But first you must do something for me."
Sam didn't give it a moment's thought. With his treasure he could advertise his site! "I will do anything you ask," he said. "Anything at all."
"Get this keg off my foot," said the voice.
Sam looked deeper into the shadows. What he saw there gave him a start: it was a belligerent Dwarf. Sam had never seen one before, except in the city on weekends. He stared.
"What are you waiting for!" roared the Dwarf. "This really hurts."
Sam lifted the keg off the Dwarf's foot then backed away in case he suddenly vomited, which in Sam's limited experience dwarfs were prone to do.
"Give me my map," said Sam.
The Dwarf looked at him with pity in his eyes; pulled an aged document from his tattered gherkin (well, he was near enough pickled anyway). "There is treasure where X marks the spot, but it is a perilous journey. You may find in the end that it is not worth the trouble."
Sam could not believe what this Dwarf was telling him. "Is it gold? Is it a ring, or at least a nice watch?"
The Dwarf shook his head. "It is not gold, or a ring, or a watch. I cannot tell you what it is, because it is something different for everyone."
He handed Sam the map then disappeared into the men's toilets.
The map was very old, crumbling at the edges, covered with weird squiggley writing. Sam rolled it up and disappeared into the night....
* * * * * *
....Catching the 10.16 into London the next morning, for a connecting train into The Great Unknown. That's what it said on the map the Dwarf had given him: The Great Unknown. With chevron marks indicating particularly steep gradients. Sam hugged his bicycle close to himself and shivered.
When the train arrived at the edge of the Unknown the conductor made an announcement which nobody could understand, then opened the doors. Nobody got off. Sam almost didn't either, because it looked dark and scary outside the windows. Then he remembered the treasure and made a mighty leap onto the platform with his bicycle just as the doors slammed shut. The train moved away and Sam was alone.
Sam wasn't alone. He could sense it. The platform was covered in mist and he could not see more than a few feet ahead of his nose. He heard a metallic tapping, which grew louder with every beat of his heart. Suddenly the tallest cyclist Sam had ever seen appeared, tendrils of smoke slipping around his Lycra as if it was too smooth to exist. He had a long white beard, but apparently shaved his legs. He stopped right in front of Sam and so did the tapping of his cleats on the concrete.
Sam tilted his head up... and up... and more up still, until he could look this Giant in the eye. What he saw there reassured him. There was friendliness, and wisdom, and warmth, and the promise of awesome hidden powers. Nevertheless, when the Giant put his Oakleys back on Sam almost sighed in relief. The eyes had all those good qualities, but they also seemed to pierce his very soul and turn his legs to jelly, as if he had just done a century without even a cakestop.
A deep voice rumbled out of the Giant's mouth and across the platform, short-circuiting the tannoy system - not before the prerecorded announcement had time to say: "The next train is delayed approximately 27 minutes. We are sorry for the delay to this service."
"Are you sure you want to get off here?" said the Giant. "This is not a good place for a Hermit with a bike."
Sam considered his options. An extra 27 minutes was not long to wait, but ignominy was something that lasted forever.
"I'm sure," he said.
In the distance a buzzard circled, patient.
* * * * * *
Sam was tired. He was falling-off-his-bike legs-numb-with-shock knees-knackered cream-crackered back-broken tired. Yet the Giant sped like a madman down the road, seemingly oblivious to his extreme distress.
Sam finally yelled "WAIT!" as loud as he could, which wasn't very loud at all because he had not the energy to propel his voice and his feet at the same time.
The Giant spun on.
Eventually Sam caught up with the Giant because the latter (who obviously had a Speed Demon somewhere in his family tree) suffered two flat tyres due to thorns and a third thanks to a snakebite puncture.
"Where are we going?" asked Sam. "According to this map we should have turned left at that last graveyard."
"You're looking at the map upside-down," said the Giant, not unkindly.
Sam couldn't believe his own stupidity. Of course the map was the wrong way around; otherwise they'd be in Grimsby by now.
"What treasure do you seek?" asked the Giant. "And why didn't you find it at home, where all treasure can eventually be found if you know but to search there?"
There's no treasure at home unless you count what the sheep leave behind, thought Sam, who had kept warm thanks to many a dung fire. But he didn't say that out loud.
"I have this website--" Sam started to say, but was cut off by an impatient fluttering of hands. "We've all got a website," the Giant sighed.
Sam persevered: "Yes, well mine's different."
"How so?" asked the Giant, who had seen many, many things in his long life, including a troll with five heads.
There was a sense of expectancy in the air at Sam's response. Even the ceaseless wind died down as if to listen.
"I have created a new world," Sam said simply.
The Giant tipped back his head. He laughed, and laughed, and laughed. Tears started rolling from his eyes, and still he laughed.
"What is it you find so funny?" asked Sam, uncertain how to proceed.
"You may indeed have been world-building by the glow of backlit pixels late into the night." The Giant looked Sam straight in the eye, once again wielding that tin-opener to his soul. "Tell me, Hermit. Are you a God in this new world?"
Sam thought for a moment. "I am an Administrator," he finally said, drawing the world out its full five syllables.
The Giant looked at him thoughtfully. "That is close enough," he said. "Remember to always use your powers wisely, Hermit." The wind resumed its journey, continuing to scour the earth or at least this little island.
Sam explained that he hoped the treasure would help finance the population of his new world: "At any rate it couldn't hurt."
"I can't take you to the treasure," said the Giant, "but I can get you pointed in the right direction."
"Where have we been going all this time?" asked Sam, bewildered. "Couldn't you have just pointed when we were back at the station?"
"A warm-up never killed anybody," said the Giant, who was indeed wise. "Pray let us have another look at this map of yours."
Sam tilted his handlebars so the Giant could better study the map in the holder Clickfixed there. Finger trembling with fatigue, he traced what he thought would be the best route to the X. "It doesn't look too far," he said.
The Giant gently pointed to the scale indicator: "1 humphumf = 1 mile. Tell me, Hermit. What is a humphumf?"
Sam had been wondering about that himself. "I don't know," he admitted. "The Dwarf didn't tell me."
"You got this map from a Dwarf?" the Giant fairly roared, frightening a nearby rabbit so badly it nearly took a wrong hop into a ravine.
"He looked trustworthy," said Sam, who knew the Dwarf had looked anything but.
The Giant shook his shaggy head. "You can never trust a Dwarf, Hermit." He looked down at the map again. "However, this appears genuine, even if humphumfs are not a standard unit of measurement. It matters little in The Great Unknown, where even cycling computers don't work properly. You will just have to follow your heart."
"And this dotted line," said Sam, mildly exasperated now.
"And that dotted line," agreed the Giant magnanimously.
Sam peered at the writing scrawled across the map. "I've been wondering what some of this says," he thought aloud.
The Giant put his Oakleys back on. They were prescription. He began to translate bits and pieces:
There was more, but Sam got the picture. The Giant drew his attention to a large ornate warning at the heart of the map. It said "Beware: Here There Be Urcs."
"What's an Urc?" asked the Hermit, scratching his head because although he knew all about Orcs, this was a new one.
"An Urc..." began the Giant, uncharacteristically lost for words. He cleared his throat, started again. "An Urc is an Orc on wheels. But not all Urcs are Orcs by any means. In fact very few are. But it is the few who give the vile reputation to the many."
Sam thought he understood. "Bad Urcs are bloodthirsty, tedious, mindlessly tenacious, almost perpetually crabby, and generally unpleasant?"
"Yes," agreed the Giant. "All those regrettable qualities and more. But you have a very effective defense against such Urcs, Hermit. Always remember: They are more afraid of you than you are of them."
"I don't know about that," said Sam, involuntarily shivering again. "I have a very low pain threshold."
The Giant's eyes glinted merrily. "So do they, Hermit. So do they. However, you would be wise to avoid them, as you might catch a nasty virus, or at the very least a case of the blues."
Sam gave it some thought. "I will do that, Giant. I will avoid the places they inhabit. Except here." He pointed again at the map. "It looks like they're camped out all around the treasure, almost as if they're protecting it."
The Giant patted Sam on the shoulder, gave it a companionable squeeze. "The Urcs live in the heart of The Great Unknown because they have been driven out of civilized society. They don't know anything about 'treasures'. Their only concerns are for the basic necessities to continue their miserable existence: stale grog, the picked-over carcasses of wandering innocents, and a dark hole in the ground where they can celebrate what little victories they feel they've won and sleep with their sisters afterwards to breed more Urcs.
"If you travel silently and leave not a trace of your passage, you may yet avoid them, Hermit. Remember: their numbers are few."
Sam didn't look so sure. The wind picked up a notch, almost knocking his bike over. Somewhere in the distance the buzzard continued to circle, now in league with a raven.
* * * * * *
A few miles down the lane the Giant turned off onto a nearby A-road with a wave of his hand. The Hermit felt privileged; such friendly gestures, he knew, were uncharacteristic of the breed. He waved back, regretting the absence of his new friend already. He watched as the Giant slipped effortlessly into high gear and overtook a BMW. "Good for you," Sam said quietly.
Alone again (naturally). According to the map, he was 60 humphumfs from the treasure, maybe a little more if he needed to detour along the way. He took a bite from his Powerbar and pedaled on.
* * * * * *
That evening Sam found refuge in a bed and breakfast run by a Witch named Etherelda. The establishment offered internet access, which in addition to the 4-pentagram rating was why he had chosen it in preference to Ye Olde Cyclists Guesthouse, an establishment Sam thought looked like it took itself a bit too seriously: through the breakfast room window he spied the heads of Cagers on the walls.
Etherelda studied Sam with a shrewd eye. Using her unearthly sixth sense she could tell he needed a fix: "£3/hr until the witching hour, when you get a 50% discount. The computer's in the lounge. No loud chatrooms, please. Leave the nanny software on for the next guest.
"No hot water tonight," she continued. "The Ogres in room 3 used it all up. Extra blankets in the cupboard. Vacate by 10.00 a.m., please."
It turned out the Witch had broadband. Sam was in heaven; his dial-up connection back home was pants compared to this. He surfed happily long into the night, rapidly eating away at his precious savings.
Just as he was about to log off he checked his hotmail In box and found a nasty surprise. The subject line said "spam", which wasn't an immediate tipoff as Sam subscribed to a news service which kept him up to date on the foodstuff (he used it to lure foxes).
But when he opened the email it wasn't filled with easily digestible nuggets on the benefits of ground up meat and meat byproducts. It was a threat. By an Urc.
The Hermit almost fell out of his chair.
There was little doubt what the Urc was referring to. After putting the finishing touches on his new website, Sam had spent more long hours crafting a PR campaign to draw an audience. He had chosen Usenet for this campaign because 1) it was free, 2) he was a known quantity on the newsgroup in question, and so felt safe in having a little fun, and 3) it was free. He had expected a little turbulence - not everybody shared his sense of humour, to be sure - but he was completely taken aback by the bile which had just spilled from the screen. He logged off and went to bed, there to dream troubled dreams.
The next morning was dark and stormy, the sky green with envy. The Ogres had used up all the hot water again, boiling their breakfast Goblinoats. Sam got an early start, last night's sharp coda a bitter scum floating at the top of his thoughts.
He almost immediately had a flat tyre, and then another a few miles down the road when an Evilchuffy (a small skunk-like rodent; hence the name) suddenly leapt out of the bushes and bit his front wheel. Big fat drops of acid rain began to pelt down; he pulled over and unpacked his full waterproof regalia, including Gore-Tex overpants - skin from an actual Gore; a true extravagance for the skint Hermit -and spats. By the time he had got himself fully kitted out he was sweating bullets and it had stopped raining. It was truly a crap morning in The Great Unknown.
After his unpromising start, Sam made good time. The sun briefly came out and just as rapidly disappeared again, while thoughts of treasure spurred his legs to ever greater feats of cadence. By early afternoon he had entered the fringes of the heart of the Unknown, and by tea he was sure he could sense the proximity of riches. His level of anticipation was so high he almost didn't notice the Elf by the side of the road. Which would have been a Bad Thing Indeed.
* * * * * *
Elves were cool. Everybody knew this; even Hermits. They introduced good mojo into whatever situation they found themselves. Sam almost blew right by because he was busy singing at the top of his lungs in tuneful accompaniment to the Scissor Sisters shrieking in his headphones; he had closed his eyes in a moment of melodic ecstasy.
But Sam had a sixth sense of his own. He stopped, turned around, and was welcomed by the sight of an Elf. A dead Elf.
At least, it looked dead. When he got closer he saw that it had only been knocked unconscious. Sam carried the pitiful-looking creature to the side of the road and upended what remained in his water bottle over its wizened face.
The Elf spluttered and came to life. "Did I say I was thirsty?" he coughed. Apparently Sam had just revived a Crotchety Elf; a rare but still not unwelcome subspecies.
"Sorry," the Hermit apologized. "I was just wanted to make sure you were OK."
"Do I look OK?" said the Elf, who had a point. Knobbly tyre tracks ran the length of his bibshorts, skittering off just under his armpit. "He got most of the way across then apparently changed his mind," he commented.
"What was it, a motorcyclist?" asked Sam, concerned that the the Elf may have broken something; the pixie bones in their fracklocks were known to be particularly fragile, and Elves were far too vain to wear helmets.
"No. It may have been a mountainbiker. They can be a little aggressive where singletrack meets road; you can hardly blame them." The Elf had a quick inventory and concluded that he was in as good a shape as he'd been the last time this had happened 500 years ago when he was knee high to a grasshopper.
Sam whistled. This Elf was still a toddler. (Though he'd never say that to his face.)
"Well, what can I do you for," said Frankincense, for that was his name. "One good turn deserves another."
To have a wish granted by an Elf was treasure enough, but Sam kept his eye on the prize. "Help me find the X please," he said, proffering the map.
Frankincense had a good look and shook his head, his pointed ears decisively slicing the air. "The X was moved a long time ago, boyo," he said. "Two or three hundred years at least. Keep going that way and you'll fall right off the edge of Middle Earth and into Staffordshire. No, you want to hang a right here, make a quick switchback by the cairnworks, continue till you see the Dragon Inn, then--"
"I'll never remember all that!" interjected Sam, desperately searching for a pencil and pad in his panniers.
"Oh, never mind," said Frankincense, suddenly cheerful. "I've got an aunt I haven't visited in awhile. She lives that way. Make some room and I'll be your guide. It's the least I can do."
"What about your bike?" asked Sam, just now cottoning on to the fact that the Elf, though fully attired in charming cycling gear last fashionable half an eon ago, appeared to be without mount.
Frankincense shrugged. "Who said I had a bike? Sometimes I just like getting dressed up."
Using his multitool Sam did a quick roadside surgery on his map Clickfix and adapted it to seat the Elf, who grumbled that the lucite jaws were uncomfortable. Ever an hospitable host, Sam offered a pair of spare gel-filled cycling mitts as an impromptu cushion and they were on their way.
* * * * * *
Frankincense ("Call me Frank") had a surprisingly good voice, he liked the Scissor Sisters, and Sam had an extra set of headphones. After awhile they started in on Leo Sayer. Sam became quite hoarse. Suddenly he remembered the Giant's warning: "Travel silently..."
The Hermit halted, which threw Frank into a right old mood. "What did you do that for?" he asked irritably. "They hadn't even made it into Gretna in 'Moonlighting'."
"Sshhhh!!!" Sam hissed like a snake unsure how to lisp. "I met a Giant yesterday and he told me to keep quite or I might attract Urcs."
The Elf chuckled. "Urcs! He's worried about Urcs. Listen, boyo. There are no Urcs in these parts; they were flushed out long ago. Most of them just talk big on the internet, anyway. In the real world they're nonentities."
Nevertheless he humored Sam and they turned the minidisc player off to avoid any impromptu Karaoke. "The problem is, 'Moonlighting' is too damn catchy," complained Sam.
As evening extinguished itself into dusk they checked into another bed and breakfast. The proprietor was delighted to have an Elf: "Maybe you can have a look at the trouser press," she cooed.
They took a double room for the night and were out early the next morning. It was very nearly the final morning of Sam's life.
* * * * * *
Frank expertly directed Sam o'r hill and Wensleydale, past the bustling cairnworks ('We build big round piles of rocks so you don't have to'), avoiding all the potential troublespots on the map the Giant had warned him about.
"We're almost there," said the Elf after a comfortable couple of hours spent perched on the gel mitts. "Pull over whydoncha so I can empty the ol' bladder."
Sam did as he was told and disappeared into some bushes to get a little relief, himself. As he was emerging he heard a strangled cry and his blood froze. That sounded like Frankincense!
It was Frank. The Elf had accidentally emptied his bladder (a spare he carried around for when he didn't actually have to go; he just liked the sound of tinkling water) on his new Sidis. "I got these on sale, too," he exclaimed bitterly.
While they were both looking sadly at Frank's ruined togs an Urc leapt from the bushes on a hideously ugly (though extraordinarily expensive) mountainbike. Sam was so shocked he almost had a heart attack on the spot. He'd just been in almost those exact same bushes - extremely vulnerable, too!
The Urc snarled: "We've been waiting for you, Hermit."
Sam saw another Urc emerging from the side of the road ahead. Then another. Soon the Elf and him were surrounded by a dozen of the horrible creatures; evil muppets come to life. Some were on mountainbikes; others homegrown choppers; two on hybrids and one on a Brompton painted a particularly evil shade of pink.
The Urc nearest them was assuming the role of leader, though to be honest they appeared to be a loose coalition of The Enraged; laughable (if not so deadly serious) rebels in search of a cause. Still, the locus of their current hatred was Sam, and he felt the heat of their anger might give him a sunburn to match his red jacket.
'Their' Urc pointed his bike at Frank and said in a voice choked with menace, "Our business isn't with you, Elf. Leave or you die, too."
Frank drew himself up to his full height and said levelly: "Anything you wish to discuss with Sam you can discuss with me, too."
Sam's breast swelled with comradeship for the Elf; he felt his chest might burst with the combination of happiness and terror doing battle inside his ribcage.
The other Urcs drew close then stopped in a tight circle around the pair, trackstanding. ("Grandstanding, more like," whispered Frank out of the corner of his mouth.) Sam's bike was outside the circle. He wildly considered making a dash for it, but he knew they'd never make it in time.
Their executioners slobbered with delight at the meal in front of them. The lead Urc slowly inched ever closer. His control, Sam had to admit even in the face of horrible death, was extraordinary.
"Save yourself," Sam whispered hoarsely to Frank. "I just have one request; keep my site alive as a beacon of hope to other webmasters who might follow in my tracks."
The Elf said "Go back and light your own beacon, boyo. I've been in worse scrapes than this." With that he tapped the lead Urc gently on the shoulder, as if in friendship, but there was no friendliness in the gesture.
The Urc was briefly confused; when realization dawned, his fate was already sealed. Almost impossibly slowly he began to tip over, his eyes wild with frustration. He fell square onto the Urc next to him, who did the same to the next Urc over. Like dominoes they tumbled, crashing to the ground amid guttural howls and the clash of metal meeting cromoly meeting aluminium. The Urcs with carbon-fibre frames fared the worst; one was mortally wounded by a spear of fibrous material which formerly comprised his seatpost. It was too awful to contemplate. The buzzard (remember him?) swooped down for a quick snack, joined by the opportunist raven.
Frank and Sam scrambled over the pile of bikes and Urcs to their bicycle and sped away from the scene of carnage.
"How much of a lead do you think we have?" Sam breathlessly asked Frank. "Eventually they'll untangle themselves. When they do we're really goners."
"Are you kidding?" said Frank. "It'll take them all morning to sort themselves out. Anyhow, most of them will want to take their bikes back to their hovels and nurse them to health."
Relief flooded through Sam. The Elf had come through in the clutch. He ratcheted down his pace from Furious to Highly Motivated and allowed his thoughts to drift once again to the treasure. "Are we almost there yet?" he asked. "I'd hate to think all this had been for nothing."
The Elf shook his head. "Haven't you learned, Hermit? It's not the destination, it's the journey. You've learned things about yourself that you never would have had you stayed in the Shires. Be satisfied with that treasure, and depart. You have a forum to administer, and much, much else to do besides. Go home and count your blessings."
So Sam did.
forum in question was discontinued.
There's Another Saturday Morning Shot to Hell Productions
filmed entirely on location at Grist Mill Studios
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