9. Crowded House
Day 71, Afternoon, Liberty
Les Reye and Karl Nash walked up the path to the remotely located log cabin in a clearing west of the main settlements. It was a sizable construct, almost 40 feet long and 20 feet deep.
“Looks like Dobswell has done all right for himself,” Nash said.
“Yes, well, he hasn’t done alright for the colony,” Reye replied, grimly.
Behind the cabin a large straggling vegetable garden was visible. Mrs. Dobswell and her son Aaron, now a strapping 16-year-old boy, could be seen working the field.
As the two men approached the house, a girl, waifish looking, came out of the colony issued tent still set up just off to the side. She looked to be a bit younger than her brother and Les tried to remember her name.
“Hello,” he said to her, “You’re Ruth, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, not making eye contact but rather staring at the ground in front of her.
“Shouldn’t you be helping your mother and brother?” Nash asked?
“It is my time of uncleanness so I cannot handle food,” she replied.
“Uncleanness?” Les asked, incredulously.
“Yes. My mother and I must remain in the tent here during our. . . sicknesses.” She faltered, looking ashamed, and then said, “I suppose you are looking for my father?”
“Er, yes. Is he in?” Les asked.
“He’s inside the church,” she said, pointing to the cabin.
It was then that the two men noticed the small hand-lettered sign above the doorway that read, “Church of the Leviticans.”
“Uh-ohh,” Nash muttered to Les, “What’s this about?”
Les knocked on the door which was promptly opened by Jedediah Dobswell. He was a tall, gangly man in his fifties with a hawk-like face and long, unkempt black hair which only served to highlight the prominent bald spot on top of his head. He was wearing the full length black coat — also appearing rather unkempt — he was often seen about town in.
“Morning, Jed,” Les offered easily, “You know Karl, of course.”
“Praise be God for this beautiful day, gentlemen,” Dobswell boomed, “Do come into my church!” At that, he turned and strode back into the house.
Les and Karl glanced at each other, then followed and found themselves in a large room occupying the entire right side of the cabin, about twenty feet square. Rough hewed benches faced a raised platform in the back on which stood a wooden lectern. A large cross composed of thin tree branches intertwined with each other was hung on the wall behind. There was only one window, covered with plastic sheeting, cut into the side wall. As the afternoon was already quite warm, the still air in the unventilated room was stifling.
Dobswell walked to the lectern and picked up a worn, leather covered Bible and then sat down in one of the front benches and said, “So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, gentlemen? Are you interested in becoming members of the Church?”
Nash said, “Didn’t know you were a preacher, Jed.”
Dobswell said, “Reverend actually, Mr. Nash. Do call me Reverend, please.”
Les got to the point: “Well. . .Reverend. . . We’re here because — as you know — all colonists are expected to contribute thirty hours per week to the City of Liberty. Think of it as a tax that we all agreed upon back on Town Meeting Day.”
Dobswell rose haughtily and strode back upon the platform, taking a position behind the lectern and leaning over it. He said, “But I am contributing, Mr. Reye. That is why my family came on this adventure in the first place. I am offering spiritual counsel to all in need, to make sure God’s new world follows the true path of his laws.”
Nash looked around at the empty benches and with a smirk said, “Apparently spiritual advice isn’t in great demand at the moment.”
Les put a restraining hand on Nash’s arm and said, “Look, Jed — er, Reverend — we all agreed to help with the building of the town, constructing town offices, schools, roads, laying water pipes, helping in the town agricultural fields. We hope to reduce this tax, if you will, once town services are complete but right now we need everybody to pitch in.”
“I might point out,” Dobswell said, “That as a church, I am tax-exempt.”
“And I might point out to you,” Les replied with sting entering his voice, “that we’re not talking about a property tax on your — church. There is no property tax but if there were, in our Constitution, religious properties are not exempt. What we are talking is a labor tax levied on all able-bodied men and women. You and your wife appear quite fit to us. I might add that the Parkers have seen fit to do their fair share regardless of the church they and others are building in their own time.
“Furthermore,” Les continued as he pulled some slips of paper out of his pocket, “I have here promissory notes you gave to several of the colonists for goods they delivered to you and your family. Bills of credit that you have not yet paid for with your own promised labors to them.”
He began reading off the slips, “Twenty-nine hours of labor or goods for lumber delivered by Bart Enterprises. Six hours of labor or goods for bricks provided by RBJ Brickworks. Seventeen hours of labor or goods for meals and — *ahem* — drink served at the First Inn. Four hours of labor or goods for fabric provided by Rajnar Singe. Twelve hours–”
“This is outrageous!” Dobswell exploded, “I am here anytime at the Church of the Leviticans to provide spiritual comfort and guidance as repayment for those goods donated–”
“Donated?” Nash interjected, “Did they know they were making a donation? It wouldn’t appear so from the notes you signed.”
“Mr. Dobswell,” Les said, “You also owe the Town of Liberty 210 hours of your own sweat. Our town services are not donations. I expect you, your wife, and your son to report to the agricultural fields tomorrow morning to begin repayment of your back taxes.”
“And if I refuse?” Dobswell snapped angrily.
“Be there!” Les snarled, “Or face the full penalty of the law. Come on, Nash.”
With that they turned and stormed out of the building. As they stalked down the path Nash turned to Les and said, “Since I am the law. . . Just what is the penalty for not paying taxes?”
“Beats the hell out of me, Karl. We never got that far at Town Meeting. I don’t think there is one!”
II. We Are Not Alone
Day 71, 2AM, The Southern Continent
They would never have landed at all but for the glint of something on the surface below that caught all of their eyes. While three of the colony shuttles were used for search and hopeful rescue of Bart’s party during daylight hours (with one craft remaining at port for emergencies) at night, one shuttle was being used to explore and map the southern continent which was, of course, then in daylight itself as it was on the opposite side of the planet.
Connor, Kara, Rocco, and a young biologist named Stanley Robinson who had some experience in cartography were following the southern coast of the continent at an altitude of just 2,000 feet when something on the ground sent a sharp reflection of sunlight their way.
The terrain was mostly mountainous with foothills leading to the shoreline. It was now nearing winter and the ground was mostly bare trees but for a few evergreens, and occasional scrub grass and bushes. Rocco was at the controls and brought the shuttle down on a flat stretch of beach about a half-mile from whatever it was that had glinted up at them. The beach was a good hundred feet wide here before sloping up sharply into a hill. Several caves could be seen in the face of the hill.
Disembarking, Kara and Robinson did what they love most, examining the flora and fauna and taking some samples to compare with those specimens they had already examined around Liberty on the northern continent of Alchibah. It would be interesting to see what differences, if any, separation or isolation had produced in the evolution of the plant and insect life between the two major land masses. Connor was fussing with some equipment in his backpack and Rocco was inspecting the landing rail on one side of the shuttle. And so it was that none of them noticed at first that the animal life on this continent was markedly different from that of their own.
“Oh my God!,” Kara whispered, “Hey, guys?”
Robinson said distractedly, “What’s that, Kara–” and stopped in mid-sentence. Connor and Rocco joined them to stare at the procession of three beings treading their way casually towards them, down the slope from the caves.
Stanley Robinson would later write in his personal journal:
Picture, if you will, three animals looking for all the world like llamas but with somewhat simian faces, sort of. Like llamas, they walked on four hoofed feet and they were about six feet tall at the head. Unlike llamas but notably similar to most of the animals we’ve cataloged so far here on Alchibah, they had six limbs. In this case, the third pair were “arms” and came from their shoulders, ending in what can only be described as “hands” comprised of four fingers, one of them an opposable thumb.
They are covered in thick, short, black fur much like that of house cats back on Earth. Their heads were not that hairy, certainly not as much as a monkey on earth. Plenty on the scalp and neck but the faces are bare. Thick brows, two eyes, a thin (definitely not simian) nose and a mouth just where it should be. On hindsight, really sort of “human” looking.
I referred to them as “animals” but that denigrates them because these beings — whatever they are — have intelligence. The spears they carry in one of their hands would alone testify to that but wouldn’t be necessary. Their observant eyes, the way they carry themselves, their expressions, all of that conveys the information that these are — granted; primitively — intelligent beings.
For the past 150 years or so it has been common in science fiction literature to portray aliens as having voices described variously as squeaks, chitinous clicks, hisses and honks or other such non-human sounds. Let the record show that the three “creatures” that assembled a few feet from the colonists uttered none of the above noises. While their language was unintelligible, it sounded almost pretty — sonorous baritones.
Also, as in science fiction of the past, the colonists tried to show their good intentions by holding out their hands, palms up, and bowing.
Robinson said to them, “Greetings. We come in peace.” That caused no reaction and after the beings had studied them for a moment, one of them galloped back up the hill and disappeared into one of the caves. The other two showed no fear, simply curiosity, and “spoke” amongst themselves. They held their spears as walking staffs, not as weapons.
Rocco said to the others, “You do realize this is the first time humans have encountered intelligent aliens!”
Kara replied, “Actually, since this is their world, we are the aliens and I would classify the Devils, too, as, well, not dumb, anyway.”
After a few minutes, the creature re-emerged from the cave with another, clearly older than the first three. They made their way down the slope to the beach.
The elderly one, apparently in charge of things, looked the four colonists and the shuttle behind them over carefully. Robinson again attempted his greeting but the elder kept his silence for the moment.
Hanging from a gold chain around the elder creature’s neck was what looked for all the world like a large, thick, expensive piece of jewelry; a pendent with a large ruby set in the middle. This the elder grasped with one hand and after his examination of the colonists, he pressed the gem with his thumb. Nothing appeared to happen but Connor did notice that his wristpad registered a sharp burst of static on its screen.
Then the elder spoke to them. In perfectly clear English it said, “So. Your kind has returned!”
III. Who Goes There?
Day 72, About the same time,
Mayflower Control Room
It was night time on board the Mayflower and all were asleep except for young Cadet Greg Bugbee, Officer on Duty, and he was only barely awake.
Generally, the watch was intensely boring and tonight was no exception and with all the recent festivities and activity, Bugbee found himself nodding out instead of paying attention to the monitor and radar screens. Three empty cups of coffee lay on the com console in front of him and the music selections he’d asked the computer to play had ended an hour ago. He was simply to tired to punch in for another batch of songs.
It had been a busy several days, what with the wedding and the discovery and recovery of the Dora wreckage that was now sitting in Liberty Port awaiting a good going over.
Much like being a passenger on a long trip in a craft that someone else is piloting, Bugbee’s head would droop down in a minutes-long nap and then suddenly snap up as he tried to rouse himself. That happened again and something on the monitor caught the corner of his bleary eyes — then it was gone. It was a spacecraft, clearly alien in design, the likes of which he had never seen — not even in photos. Not that anyone had ever seen an alien spaceship. He was instantly wide awake and checking both the monitor and the radar but there was nothing there. Had there been? He began to doubt it and chalked it up to the end of whatever dream he had been having intruding into reality.
Bugbee got up, took a walk around the room just to shake the cobwebs off, and refresh one of the coffees. This time he added sugar — in short supply these days — to give him extra energy. Then, sitting down again at the com console, he asked the computer to replay the last five minutes of camera and radar scans. Mysteriously, the computer didn’t respond, or rather, it acted as if it were tied up with another task.
He keyed in a self-diagnostic routine but again, the computer refused to act on it and only a brief “Busy” flashed on-and-off the monitor screen.
He typed in other commands; the computer merely responded, “Busy.”
A few minutes later, while he was trying to decide whether to wake someone higher-up the food chain, the computer finally stopped being “Busy” and returned to “Ready.”
He re-ran the diagnostic and that checked out fine. He asked for a replay of the scans but they showed nothing. Whatever it was he thought he had seen, it must have simply been a figment of his exhausted imagination.
He resumed his watch and would have resumed his nap but about five minutes later both Captains Travis and Monroe entered the control room with urgency. Both had not bothered with uniforms and both looked grim.
Monroe headed straight for the console, angling Bugbee out of the way as he began keying in commands.
Travis turned to Bugbee and said, “Anything to report?”
“Uh, no, Sir. What I mean is, what’s going on? Why are you two here at this ungodly hour?”
Travis said, “Got a priority message from Ash down below. Problem with the com links and computers.”
Bugbee said, “Doesn’t that man ever sleep?”
“I’ll ask you again: Anything out of the ordinary happen on your watch?”
Bugbee stammered a bit and then said, “Well, actually, the computer here was acting a bit strangely, too.”
He did, regarding the sluggishness of the computer, although he left out the part about having possibly seen some sort of alien ship just prior to that. UFO’s were still not a popular subject amongst pilots.
Monroe could be heard talking to Ash and saying, “. . .No doubt about it. Something, somehow, scanned every file, every bit of data in our computers.”
Over the link from Liberty, Ash said, “Same here, Monroe. It didn’t happen via the transmitters or through channels. It came from without. It’s as if something simply X-rayed all the computer systems here and on your ship, right through hundreds of feet of rock. It bypassed firewalls, encryption, it. . . There’s no technology I know of that could have done this.”
“Agreed,” Monroe said.
Travis again addressed Bugbee, “Are you sure there’s nothing else you can think of?”
Reluctantly, Bugbee related the brief flash of an image, of what he thought he might have seen.
Travis stroked the stubble of beard on his chin with his hand and then said, “It would appear, gentlemen, that someone — probably not human — is inspecting us.”
IV. Meet the Neighbors!
Day 72, About the Same Time, Southern Continent
“You. . .,” Connor said, stunned, “You speak English!”
“Yes, I remember your language,” the llama like being said, “I am older than these youngsters and remember the first visit by your people. Not particularly fondly, I might add.”
Rocco, also dizzy from the revelation, said, “You’ve met people like us before? Humans?”
“You seem surprised. Did you think you were the first from Earth to come here?”
Kara said, “Yes!”
Rocco said, “Well, there was Oliver but he never landed, just did a quick survey many years ago.”
Robinson then said, “We’re being hopelessly rude, sir. Allow us to introduce ourselves. . .” The colonists made introductions.
The being said, “I am called Yelsig by my people. My people — we refer to ourselves as Soessossins — and I can sense you all are genuinely confused. Would you allow me to put my forehead against one of yours so that I can absorb what you know more quickly?”
Connor said, “You can read minds?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Yelsig said, “if my head is in contact with another’s. It is how I quickly learned your language so many years ago. It is how we teach our young. It’s a pity that your people have not developed such an ability. It would save me a lot of explanations if what you say is true. As it is, I’m afraid the transfer of experience is only in one direction.”
“Well, if it will help,” Connor said as he stepped forward, “be my guest!”
All were silent during the ten minute Cajijair, as Yelsig said it was called by his people. Connor was later to describe the process as pleasant, almost the feeling of a narcotic infiltrating his mind.
When it was over, Yelsig said to them, “Thank you. There is much I need to fill you in on — about your own history! I think a visual might help. Please follow me.” With that he and the other three Soessossins trotted up the beach. They travelled perhaps 15 minutes and came upon the object that had caught the colonists’ eyes in the first place.
Half buried in the sand was wreckage from a small craft. Nearby, a human skull glared up at them out of empty sockets. More of the skeleton was submerged completely.
“What you see,” Yelsig said, “is the result of events that occurred about eight of our summers ago.”
“That’s about 23 years ago, Earth time,” Robinson said to no one in particular.
Rocco kneeled down by the skeleton and brushing aside the drifting sand, found what he was hoping to find — a set of dog tags all spacers wore around their neck to help the identification of their remains. He turned the tags, well oxidized with time, over in his hand and read, “Brandon Carter, Pilot, Stellar Mining & Manufacturing Co.” Looking up at the others, he said, “Carter was the first of Hamilton’s voyagers to travel through the wormhole. Oliver was sent to find him when he didn’t return.”
Connor said, “I guess he crashed here on Alchibah. What a terrible way to die, all alone.”
Yelsig said, “Would that that were the case.”
Rocco had been examining the skull and fingering a hole in the side of it said, “He didn’t die from any crash. He was shot in the head.” He looked with suspicion at Yelsig.
“That is correct,” Yelsig said, noticing the implication in Rocco’s glance. “I witnessed the event but had no part in it. Brandon was a good friend to the Soessossins and myself. He had arrived here in a landing craft launched from his starship. He was full of wonder as he explored both us and the planet. He taught us much about your people and he lived with us for many a days, nearly an entire summer. Then, your own people caught up with him. He referred to them as agents of the world government and thinks they had stealthily followed him here all the way from Earth. They arrived in two landing craft, heavily armed. They blasted apart Brandon’s crafts, both here and in the sky — as you see. And, they killed him. As you see.”
“BJ’s dream. . .,” Rocco muttered to himself.
“Couldn’t you do something to help him?” Kara asked.
“We ourselves were held at gun point as prisoners. Besides, we are small in number and a completely non-violent race. Aside from small fish and shellfish, we do not hunt or eat meat. These spears some of us carry,” he motioned to the other Soessossins, “are merely for protection. To prod-off any hungry predators. We abhor violence of any kind.”
Connor said, “I can’t see why they would kill Carter. Take him back to Earth in shackles, maybe, but not kill him.”
“I believe I can answer that, too. Secrecy was their prime order.” Yelsig said, “It seems the intentions of your government agents was to set up a base here on this planet and then to begin immigration of your government’s elite, wealthy citizens and bureaucrats. Sort of their own private playground. Fortunately, our Guardians showed up just about then on one of their regular patrols and. . . took care of things.”
“Your guardians?” Rocco said.
“Yes,” Yelsig replied, “Those who relocated us here on this planet some 120 annums ago.” He held up the medallion hanging from his neck and continued, “If this little device they gave us after that incident with your world agents is still functioning, you should be meeting them shortly!”
V. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?
Day 73, Late Afternoon, Mayflower Control Room
Ash had arrived and with Monroe’s assistance was trying to diagnose exactly what had transpired the previous morning with the computers. It was a difficult, trial-by-error investigation because whoever — or whatever — had so easily and remotely scanned all the computer files both on the ship and down in Liberty had left no trace of themselves.
“Nothing has been tampered with,” Ash said, “It’s simply as if they made a complete back-up of our systems information, memories, cube files, everything, and waltzed-off.”
“Except for one file,” Monroe said, “The archive record of the ship’s scanners that night. Whatever it was that Bugbee saw, all trace of it has been erased.”
“Was he able to give any sort of description of the craft he saw?”
“No. It was only a brief moment out of the corner of his eye. And he apparently was half-asleep as well.”
“Pity,” Ash said, “I’d like to meet whoever possesses such an advanced technology.”
Travis had just entered the control room with Rocco and Andy and said, “It appears you might just have the chance.”
Rocco proceeded to relate the adventures he and the others had on the other side of the world. He finished by saying, “Andy thought I’d better come up here right away and tell the story again.”
Andy said, “We don’t know who these ‘Guardians’ are but we’d better make some plans for their arrival. Possibly, they’re already here and are responsible for the breach of our computers.”
Darren Calver had been sitting quietly off to the side, at the communications console. He suddenly said, “Hey folks! Signal coming in. Human signal! Not one of our ships!”
All eyes, startled, turned towards him.
“On speaker, Mister Calver,” Travis ordered.
“This is Captain Albert Steel of the cruise ship Dancer. Port of origin, Mars. Anyone got their ears on? This is Captain Albert Steel of the cruise ship Dancer. We are currently passing by the fourth planet of the Alchibah system. We have spotted the Mayflower ship in orbit around planet three. Anyone home?
The message went on in like fashion for a couple minutes more and then stopped.
Travis said, “I’ll be damned!”
Monroe had gone over to the console and nudged Calver aside. He said, “It’s the right frequency, Glen. Right encryption algorithm, too. Not only that, the sideband is broadcasting the right passcodes Ol’ Hamilton originally arranged for.”
Travis said, “Double damned! My old friend Al Steel.” Striding over to the console himself he took the microphone and said to Monroe, “Open the return frequency, codes on the sideband.”
Then, into the microphone, he said, “Captain Steel, this is Captain Travis. Whatever it is you’re peddling, we’re not interested. We gave at the office!” Grinning, he said to the others, “That should get a rise after all this time.”
Monroe said, “It’ll take a couple hours for the message to reach him of course. We’ve got him sighted and plotted now in the long range telecam.”
Ash said, “What’s going on? Who is this and what is the Dancer?”
Travis had long since trusted Ash completely and proceded to tell him what he had told Andy way back on Town Meeting Day, about the two cruise ships in hiding in the asteroid belt, to bring like-minded Mars Colony rebels here to Alchibah.
Ash said, “Is there anything this R. J. Hamilton didn’t plan for?”
Monroe said, “To know him is to love him.”
Ash turned to Travis and said, “You’re suddenly looking a bit worried.”
Travis said, “It’s just that Steel is way early. If things had gone according to plan, he should have been several years behind us, not two Earth months. Something must have gone wrong back on Mars. He wasn’t due to leave until the Goonies took off after us.”
“There’s something else, too, Captain,” Calver said, “Why didn’t The Surprise spot the ship long before this?”
Monroe said, “That would be a good question for the Mad Scientists, I would think. They outfitted that ship.”
“Yes,” said Travis, “I think I’ll go pose that very question to them. Where are they now?”
VI. Yield to Oncoming Traffic
Meanwhile, Someplace Else. . .
“Can I drive?” Hibbes asked pleadingly.
“No!” Natasi and Chandler exclaimed in unison.
The trio were once again in the specially modified shuttle, jokingly christened The Rambler and cruising — if that’s the proper expression — through the Beyond.
“You never let me drive this thing.”
Sitting at the controls, Natasi said, “Perhaps, Doctor, if you vould stop dis saying ‘driving’ and refer to dis properly as ‘piloting’ den ve might at least consider dat.”
“Besides, Mitchell,” Dr. Chandler chimed in, “your ‘driving’ makes me ill. You’re like a little kid sitting at the steering wheel of a go-cart.”
Natasi said, “Ya, dat too.”
Hibbes sulked over his own console of sensors, registers, and other scientific equipment. He and Chandler had recently made some improvements to the field generators on the shuttle to enable easier entry into The Beyond.
“Hey Doctor Guyz, look at dis!”
Ahead of them, here outside the fabric of their universe, a series of things — shapes — emerged in the shuttle’s headlights.
“Different than the other thing we’d seen,” Chandler said, “several large structures and — see there! — some smaller ones approaching us.”
“Cool!” Hibbes said.
“Hey, dat yellow triangle is going to hit us!”
“That’s a pyramid,” Hibbes offered.
“Vatever. Dis coming at us.”
Since nothing operates in the Beyond the way expected, rather than a collision, the yellow pyramid simply drifted right through the walls of the shuttle and into the cabin. It was about three feet tall and nearly as wide and took up a goodly amount of space. Hibbes and Chandler crowded around where Natasi was seated to make space.
“Okay, smartypants, what ve do wit dis thing in here?”
“Talk to it, I guess,” Chandler said.
Facing it directly, Hibbes spoke clearly and said, “Hello There!”
The pyramid emitted some unintelligible sounds.
Chandler said, “Remember, there are no rules or laws here beyond the universe. If we think we can understand it, we will. I think.”
Hibbes tried again, “Hi there. How are you?”
Natasi rolled her eyes and muttered, “Oh, brother.”
Oddly enough though, it seemed to work. The pyramid responded, “Hi. I am as you see.”
Chandler said, “Let me try. I say there, what are you?”
The pyramid had no visible mouth but answered, “I am what you see.”
Chandler tried again, “What’s your name?”
“What is a name?”
“What are you called?”
“I’m not called.”
Natasi said, “Who knew first contact vould be so boring?”
Chandler said to Hibbes, “Mitchell, are you getting any readings from your instruments of this thing?”
“Nada. It’s not a machine and it’s not alive. It just is.”
“Like everything we’ve encountered so far here,” Chandler noted.
At that point the pyramid exited The Rambler shuttle the way it had entered, right through the wall.
“Well,” Hibbes said.
Natasi simply shook her head. Then, she noticed something far more important passing by outside the large zirconium windows of the craft. They all did.
“Hmmm,” Chandler said, “It would appear that we are not the only ones traipsing about in non-space.”
VII. Where Everyone Knows Your Name
Day 74, Late Afternoon, First Inn
Much as it was in the colonial times (and forever after) in the original colonies of America, the local inn served as a focal point for residents. To gather, eat, gossip, work business deals, date, or just get drunk.
First Inn, usually referred to simply as Hanna’s, served as exactly that in Liberty. While it was only a couple months ago that it was simply a large, three story wooden structure:
After the storms, and after the Parkers noticed that the “old” building couldn’t hold all who came each night comfortably, they along with their friends began a new, much larger addition. This was built of brick supplied by RBJ Brickworks in return for food and drink considerations. The new structure was, simply put, the finest building in town at the moment:
The old building retained guest rooms. The new had a large bar and restaurant on the right. On the left side, a large rental hall for weddings, which were becoming frequent, and other occasions. Hanna’s prospered nicely and it was common in the late afternoon to see many flitters parked outside as not everyone felt like walking to the Inn.
Flitters were a minor engineering marvel in themselves. They sported a simple, large cargo space about 12 feet long, engines and fuel tanks behind. There was no cab — it was more like driving a convertible with a huge hood and a rear engine. The driver simply stepped up in back and “rode” the thing standing up with both hands operating joysticks that controlled almost everything. The flitters, more commonly called sleds because of their design, could rise straight up a couple hundred feet and could travel a limited distance horizontally, generally about 300 miles between fuellings. A sled with no payload was balanced on it’s two feet but could be tipped to lean forward so the nose was on the ground for easy access to the cargo.
The first few were created by the Spacers but the rights were sold to the Stuart Combine for future considerations, mostly help building the Spacer’s own ground buildings.
That brings us to the most interesting thing, economically speaking, about the young colony. There was no actual paper money or coin or even charge card. Barter was the rule of the day and deals were struck amongst one and all, trading goods or labor and services for other goods or labor and services. Since the computer wristpads were subject to suspicion of tampering, the colonists preferred the old fashioned method. Almost everyone carried around a small notebook to make note of transactions or write out promissory notes. With a small population, it all seemed to work. Even the town government relied on such to note “taxes” paid with labor and goods.
It was a typical summer afternoon, around 5 PM, and the bar was crowded. The current talk of the town was the discovery the other day of the Soessossins and what it portended for the far future when the colonists wanted to expand to the southern continent.
Judith and Les Reye, Joe Fortson, Historian, Rocco, Andy and Mariana Stuart, and Sinopa were seated at a large round table, drinks before all of them.
Joe said, “Isn’t that Reverend Dobswell sitting there at the end of the bar bending the ear of Stanley Robinson? I thought the Parkers had cut him off until he paid up?”
Les said, “He’s got his wife and son washing dishes in the kitchen.”
Rocco said, “While he just sits there drinking?”
Mariana said, “How gallant of him. Isn’t there something in his bible about drunkenness?”
“Apparently he hasn’t read that far into it yet,” Sinopa offered.
Travis entered the lounge and joined the group. Greetings were made as he sat down and signaled for a drink.
Andy said, “Let’s get serious for a moment. We’ve got the ship from Mars coming — the Dancer. And, according to the Soessossins we can also look forward to a visit from their Guardians.”
“If we haven’t had one already,” Histy said.
Travis said, “There are 38 people on board the Dancer, including the three man crew. By the way, the second mate is a doctor from Mars Colony, Josh Wood. I know him slightly. He’s got to be in his sixties now but he was a good man with a steady hand. Internist, I believe. There are only two children on board. The rest are an interesting bunch.”
Joe said, “So why were they early to get here?”
Travis said, “The Goonies launched an all out offensive against the Mars Colony. Steel decided it was now (or then) or never. He took who he could trust, plus some recent arrivals from Earth who had not made it on board the Lancer, and took off. Both ships did. The Dancer made it. The Goonies got the other one.”
“Well,” said Les, “We can certainly use all the help we can get around here. With the untimely deaths we’ve had, our population has actually gone down since we landed.”
Rocco said, “That’s about to change, isn’t it, Mariana?”
“You’ve got that right. We’ve got twelve women expecting.”
Andy said, “Including–”
“–Hush!” Mariana cut him off.
The waitress brought out the food and set it before everyone and for a while they all concentrated on eating.
Finally Joe said, “So what’s the deal with these ‘guardians’?”
Rocco said, “Yelsig didn’t make it seem that they are evil or war-like or anything like that. Just that they are some sort of advanced race looking out for the well-being of the Soessossins.”
Andy said, “Nonetheless, Travis, you and I need to sit down and devise a strategy, just in case.”
Judith Reye said, “I’m sure that humans and soessossins can live together. We have a lot to offer them.”
Historian said, “I’m not so sure they need anything we have to offer.”
“No, not really,” Rocco said, “They seem perfectly content with what they have. Simple life, mostly vegetarian, stable society. Peaceful.”
Sinopa said, “And no matter what our intentions, given mankind’s aggressiveness, we’d be sure to harm them or crowd them out in a short period of time if we try to colonize that continent. History almost assures that.”
“And no matter what we promise not to do,” Histy added, “I fear it will come to that anyway, eventually.”
“Hey Travis,” Andy said, “What did you find out about the Surprise somehow missing the Dancer? Surely they must have passed each other at some point.”
“Er, yes,” Travis said, leaning back and taking a long pull on his drink, “We can thank the mad scientists for that. There were two robots on board as well as quite a bit of electronic supplies. Once Hibbes and Chandler improved the field-ripping generators in their shuttle, they radioed instructions to the Surprise and had the robots assemble the same sort of thing. The Surprise entered the Beyond and traveled almost a light year, re-emerging just a short distance from the exit of the wormhole. It should reach it in just a few days, in fact. I should be angry with them, of course, but in this case it worked out alright. We do need to know what happened to the sentinel Bart left there. And no, don’t ask me how the doctors managed to program the robots to ‘think’ with a purpose.”
Andy said, “You certainly give them a lot of leeway, Glen. It’s almost as if they just do what they want. Not that I’m criticizing you — it’s your crew — just that I’d never tolerate their shenanigans from my own people.”
“No, you raise a good point, Andy,” Travis said, “But my thinking is this: I expect my regular crew to perform. I don’t — can’t expect such from a couple of physicists long set in their eccentric ways. And, I don’t want to rein them in. For all the mischief they cause, they are true geniuses and we need their discoveries and expertise. We need it for designing and building new craft, for new and improved weapons, and for whatever else they can hand us on a silver platter. Like most scientists, they’re wrapped up in their work. In other ways, they’re like children. In a way, I’m glad Natasi is looking out for them. On my orders she reports to me now on much of what they’re up to.
“Speaking of which, Doctor Stuart, I think Natasi could use a checkup from you.”
Mariana said, “Oh?”
“Yes,” Travis said with a long glance towards Histy, “I believe the crew of the Mayflower will soon increase as well!”
VIII. Crowded House
Day 81, Evening, First Inn
The large double doors of both the lounge and the catering hall had been slid open into the center hallway of The Inn. More than half the colonists, pretty much all who didn’t have immediate work to do, were gathered in the Inn, standing, drinking, noshing, and most importantly, expecting.
The Mars ship Dancer had docked with the Mayflower early this morning and now the Galileo had just landed at Liberty Port and the new arrivals, led by Travis and Monroe, were making the short walk up to Hanna’s for the first home cooked meal they’d had in years. Tonight would be a combination celebration and getting-to-know-you party.
Someone called out, “They’re here!” and the newest colonists filed into the hall, all sporting very wide grins.
Everyone was talking at once, greeting each other.
Connor suddenly shouted, “Oh my God! Gabe! Kat! Chavez! I don’t believe it!”
Sinopa was standing next to him and yelled with delight, “Okanai!” as the Benjamin girls went barreling by her towards their uncle.
They rushed towards each other and all embraced in a huge hug.
Andy and Mariana had been watching the entrance when suddenly Andy said, “Well I’ll be a son of a gun, isn’t that–”
And so it went. There was plenty of food, drink, and lots of stories of escape and daring do.
The party had been going on for about two hours when suddenly there was some commotion outside the building accompanied by a rumble and a thud as if a large ship had landed.
Looking out the front door, Rocco saw a large silver sphere perhaps 20 feet in diameter had landed in a nearby clearing. Exiting it via a ramp and heading towards the Inn were. . .
He turned back and shouted for quiet. He got it in his immediate vicinity and he yelled, “Hey folks, we’ve got company!”
“Rocco,” Andy said, “What is — Oh my!”
Standing just inside the doorway were three beings. They were about eight feet tall, surprisingly humanoid, hairless and dressed in spandex-like suits that kept changing colors. Their heads were somewhat larger than called for and while they had the usual compliment of eyes, ear holes, rather human nose and mouth, they also had a short pair of stalks on top of their heads and when one of them looked sideways, another pair of eyes were observed. Two short arms ending in rubbery looking fingers — a lot of them, completed the picture.
Now the entire crowd was silent.
The alien in front said –remarkably– in English, “Mind if we join you?”
“Does everyone in this fracking universe speak English?” Rocco muttered to Travis.
The alien apparently heard him because he answered, “We’re quick learners. We scanned your various computers a few of your days ago.”
Les had regained his composure and strode forward saying, “Welcome to Liberty. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that this is an exciting moment in human history. My name is Lester Reye.”
The alien said, “Yes, I’m sure it is. We have no intention of ruining your little reunion here so I’ll keep it short. You could not pronounce my name so for the sake of brevity, you may just refer to us as the Guardians, although not yours. We’ve met your kind before and are singularly unimpressed. The one some of you met on the other land mass, Yelsig, explained all that.”
“Quite the charmer,” Monroe whispered to Glenda Cumberland as they stood in the back, by the bar.
Les said, “Well, I do apologize for–”
“There is no need,” The Guardian said, “We understand who they were and who you are. It is for that reason that we will allow you to stay here on this planet you refer to as Alchibah. But you are confined to this continent. The other continent is off-limits to you. That is for the Soessossins. That includes the air space over their continent. The rest you may play around in.”
One of the colonists known as a belligerent hot-head pushed his way forward in the crowd and yelled, “Just who the hell do you think you are, telling us where we can and can’t go?”
With no change in expression, the Guardian said, “Allow me to explain,” and flicked one of his fingers at the man who then simply vanished with a small pop of air. “There’s one in every crowd,” he continued and this time it seemed as if he chuckled a bit.
“Now,” he said, “There’s no reason you and the Soessossins can’t enjoy and prosper your lives here. Given your history though, we believe it must be as separate societies. At some point in time, we might decide otherwise. We have no intention of looking over your shoulder or monitoring you. The Soessossins are fully capable of calling us if needed. While we are not interested in looking after your welfare at the moment,” and he paused as he withdrew something from a pocket and tossed it to Les, “keep this. Push the gemstone if some natural catastrophe should befall the planet. In a sense, we’d like you to be the back-up alarm should danger threaten the Soessossins or the planet. Your colony faces some trials ahead. Some very soon. Good luck to you.”
And with that, the aliens turned and left. Shortly, the low rumble of their ship could be heard leaving.
“Well!” Les said, examining the gift from the guardian.
Rocco glanced at it as well and said, “That’s a duplicate of what Yelsig wears around his neck.”
Someone said, “Every party needs a pooper, that’s why we invited them. . .”
There was some grim laughter and slowly the crowd began murmering and then talking again.
“So,” Andy said to Travis and Ash, “What do you think of that?”
Karl Nash came dashing into the hall and collared Les and Andy. He sputtered, “Just got word from the port — Dobswell and his family have stolen one of the shuttle craft! Looks like he’s headed for the southern continent.”
Les said, “Great. The aliens aren’t gone five minutes and Dobswell decides to go proselytize the very beings we’ve been warned to stay away from.”
At that moment, Travis’s wristpad beeped. He talked for several minutes with someone on the Mayflower, signed off, and said, “That was Calver. Using Beyond Space, the Surprise has returned from the wormhole.”
“Already?” Ash asked incredulously.
“Yes. the robots were programmed well and thought it was necessary to warn us. Four large cruisers bearing the UNWG insignia just exited the wormhole and are headed this way.”
–From The History of Colony: Alchibah
3rd Edition, 2088
Author: The Historian