PART TWO — A STAND ALONE PLAN
The ship landed, the computer woke them, and the work began.
The colonists elected the first mayor, named their new home Plan, and began clearing land for plowing, using the timber to construct daub and wattle shelters. The sound of axes and handsaws was foreign to the Earthlings and the work left them blistered and sore.
On a different world — a pampered world like Earth — their efforts might have been slowed by the trauma of so many deaths so fresh on their minds, but on Plan there was too much work to be done.
Some grumbled that their Warrel masters might at least have given them modern equipment to establish the colony, but most understood the reason. This was a lesson meant to haunt their progeny. In one generation, maybe two, they would be living in the Bronze Age as the little equipment they had wore out. In a thousand years their ancestors would probably worship the Warrel starship that had brought them here.
Charlie Parkson begrudged the labor of feeding and sheltering the people not because it was hard, but because it kept them from their real task. He wanted to go back today, this very minute, but he knew they weren’t ready. And if they didn’t get a harvest planted right away, they would starve long before any plans of return could be made real.
With the entire population of three hundred adults awakened on the first day, the humans of Plan faced an instant population crisis. They had only enough food aboard ship to feed themselves for three months, and that was on restricted rations. Within the first week Choi had them fashioning slings and bows from parts salvaged from the ship.
“You think there are deer on this planet?” asked Martin Turner.
Charlie shrugged. “The computer says there’s something like them. Like antelope anyway.”
“I’ve never really killed anything before,” said Martin. “I’m not sure I can.” It sounded like an apology.
Charlie felt the same, but didn’t say it. He had never killed anything larger than a cockroach back on Earth.
Freeman had given them lessons in the morning, using one of the starship’s holo-monitors. Skinning, gutting, draining blood in the field. It was repugnant. But if it was the only choice between that and starvation, Charlie would do it.
Martin fidgeted from one foot to the other. A large twig cracked under his heel.
“You got to pee?” asked Charlie.
“No, just. . . just excited, you know. I’ve never been hunting.”
“Too few of us have,” said Charlie. “But if you keep making noise we’re not really hunting, we’re just standing by a tree in the woods.”
The older man flushed red and mumbled sorry.
Charlie hadn’t meant to hurt Martin’s feelings. But then that was ridiculous wasn’t it? Hurt feelings were useless here. Getting embarrassed when someone corrected you was for civilized society — something they had left one hundred twenty two years in the past. Out here it was best to listen to advice and improve.
Maybe Charlie expected too much too soon. Before their exile, Martin had been a biochemist, and a good one. He was no hunter.
And what was Charlie? A pup journalist whose biggest story ever had been about human sanitation workers striking in metro New York. The Warrels had put that down in two days, and Charlie had gone back to writing Church press conference minutes.
Now he stood on a planet over one hundred light years from home, frustrated and. . . admit it, guilty. He had recanted — broken under the pressure of multi-death. Could he bear living here among all these freedom fighters knowing he had failed them only to end up living among them: a rat in a gerbil farm. Even fat, ineffectual Martin Turner probably made it through the torture without begging for mercy.
Charlie would just have to make the best of it and not let on. He could stick with the plan until they all went home to battle the Warrels. He could last that long.
Still, it sounded like an ungodly long time in his ears — a year and nine months was Coalman’s best estimate for the time he would need to begin converting the Warrel starship into a timetag accelerator. Ungodly long.
“Look,” Martin whispered, pointing one meaty arm at the underbrush not three meters away.
In a moment a hog, or something like a hog, emerged into speckled sunlight. It was black and gray with green splotches on its back. Two tusks, long as Charlie’s open hand, protruded beneath its heavy snout. It stank of mildewed shit.
Slowly, Charlie drew his bow. The arrow shook on the string.
God, I’m nervous, he thought. Why? Those tusks, said the opposite side of his brain. Well, just aim true and the tusks won’t matter will they?
Charlie let fly his arrow.
# # #
Plan was a hospitable place, with no large predators, save a few small packs of what could only be described as proto-cats, with scales for hides and menacing red eyes. But the cats soon learned to fear the aliens who walked on two legs and so stayed away from Plan village.
A two month summer had come. The air was hot and Charlie’s back hurt from hoeing. He stood upright, stretching backwards, one hand on his lower back and the other shielding his eyes from the hot yellow sun.
As he so often did, Charlie surveyed the Warrel starship. It sat like a great metal hill, black against the silvery-blue sky, towering over the Terry trees.
Seven months the colonists had labored just to find food and water and shelter enough from the heavy winter rains. Not even Coalman, their best engineer — their best chance of going home someday — had been aboard it for more than a few minutes since planting had begun. Not one component had yet been cannibalized for the rebuild.
“Faster we get this done the faster we can take a break,” said Lucy Heimsley, who was working two rows over.
Charlie smiled at the pretty blonde woman who was forever cheerful. Had she really died eighteen times like everyone else? Well, some bore it better than others.
“Besides, looking at it isn’t going to turn it into an accelerator,” said Lucy, who had moved well past Charlie now, her hoe raising little puffs of dust as she went.
Charlie nodded and went back to work.
# # #
Mayor Zuckerman stood before the mansion, his face shining in the firelight. He wore his best: hand-stitched woolen pants dyed black, a rough, toggle-buttoned shirt that had gone to gray since its last dip in the vat, and a straw hat.
“Another harvest gone and we made it through,” he said. The people cheered. “It’s been a good yield — a good season, people. We have more than enough to keep a crew working in the ship all winter.”
Another cheer went up as men and women slapped members of the engineering team on the back.
“They better be worth the effort,” called Trevor York good naturedly.
Zuckerman sobered and those nearest, those who could see his face, quieted.
“They are more than worth it,” he said, his voice almost too low to be heard. Then he brightened, seeming to find himself again and said, “People, we have an especial treat tonight. How many of you knew we had a real life novelist among us? He kept it under his hat all these years, but Gary Cortes has another name — a pen name. You might have heard of renowned horror writer, John Brice Junior, back on earth.”
Mutters of astonishment and loud whispers erupted. Gary climbed on the mansion’s porch looking embarrassed. Zuckerman shook his hand emphatically and steeped down out of the way.
“You remember this guy from earth?” asked Charlie.
Lucy shook her head.
“I do. He was damn good. Kept me up many a night when I should have been sleeping or writing my own stuff.”
“I didn’t read much back home. Kind of wish I had now, though.”
Gary launched into a frightening tale of humans stranded on a little green planet with no modern conveniences and the ghosts of long dead aliens haunting their village.
After a while Lucy said, “Lets go do something else, I don’t like this.”
“It’s just getting to the good part,” whispered Charlie.
“That’s what I’m afraid of. I’m going to have a hard enough time sleeping as it is. I don’t want to hear the rest.”
Charlie shrugged, took her hand and led her away from the Mayor’s mansion which, despite its title, was just a simple two story home — larger than any other in the village of Plan, but nothing special.
The colonists of Plan had, without any real intention, built a village and a community. When first they landed, the resistance leaders among them, like Captain Choi, had tried to enforce a strict regimen of personal conduct, including village planning, sexual relations and even friendship; restricting each to privileges earned through labor.
But that state of affairs lasted only until the people formed a council to guide the mayor in decisions, limited the mayor’s office and powers and created a voting system for all citizens. Of course the advent of democracy had slowed everything down, but at least people could date.
Plan’s single moon skirted the horizon in the east, casting weak shadows across the village and forest. It was a brown mockery of Earth’s silvery neighbor. To Charlie it looked like a bad honeycomb, its face mottled and pocked. Still, it provided some light as he led Lucy by the hand, guiding her through the tall grass towards a banked fire where some of the younger villagers sat singing or talking.
A young woman used herb paints and her fingers to decorate their faces with tiger strips. For a while they gossiped and for longer Lucy sang while Charlie listened. Some of the songs were new, but mostly they were the popular hits from an Earth far away in time and place. These they mixed with advertising jingles and ancient songs like Row Your Boat.
As dawn approached, the songs slowed. One young man in particular — Charlie thought his name was Eddie — crooned love songs in a deep tenor that outclassed his peers. His voice was smooth and clear and on tone.
Charlie took Lucy’s hand and they danced as the sun rose, her ragged rough-spun dress swaying listlessly in time with the beat. The smell of earthy paints on her face, mixed with her own unique odor, met Charlie’s nose. Five years ago he might have thought this scent foul, but it seemed that with time even the nose evolved, or perhaps de-evolved, to recognize not the stench, but the individual patterns of scent that spoke of a single person as clearly as the shape of the eyes or timbre of the voice.
Lucy’s scent endeared her to him. She was strong and intelligent, never flagging in her work for the village. And her scent was the same: strong, but never overpowering. He was a lucky man to have her: the most attractive woman on the planet.
Charlie bent so that his lips brushed lightly against her ear.
“I think I love you,” he said.
She stopped dancing, but did not pull away from him.
“I’m sure I feel the same way,” she said.
“You don’t have to say it. It’s alright.”
“Okay. Thank you.”