“So then, this protocat comes hissing and spitting out of the bushes, and I’m yelling, ‘That’s damn well enough, Harley, that’s damn well enough!'”
The men laughed. They always laughed when Eddie told a story, even ones they had already heard. The young man had that flair about him — that comedic way. It made people love him.
But not Charlie. Charlie hated him.
It could have been Eddie’s youth or his winning smile, his blonde-almost-red hair, or even the way Eddie swung an axe with easy assurance as if he had been born eight centuries ago rather than in the time of the Warrel Oppression. But none of these things bothered Charlie; in fact he thought he could have liked Eddie well enough if the situation stood any differently.
It wouldn’t even have mattered if it was just glances either. Charlie could stand occasional looks.
But Lucy had ended their courtship three days ago and now all her coy peeks at Eddie Barnes meant something new. Charlie had a suspicion she had asked to join the cutting crews this week because she knew Eddie would be there.
They bound the Terry Trees high up with lengths of rope, anchoring them to their neighbors. Then, in tandem teams of two men or two women, they felled the red giants.
Charlie thought it ill fate that he drew Eddie as partner. But he said nothing, just focused his strength and accuracy on every swing, trying in vain to match the younger man’s natural grace.
They had half finished their first job, Charlie drenched in sweat and panting, Eddie chipping heavy slabs of wood from the tree’s bole with every dig of the blade, when Eddie said, “I bribed Terell to put us together. Gave him a new threshing iron.”
Charlie’s swing landed sideways so that the axe head bounced, sending a jolt through the handle into his hands, up his arms. Charlie dropped his axe.
“We need to talk.” Eddie stayed his swing while Charlie retrieved his axe. When the way was clear, Eddie swung, angling his blow to remove a large chunk Charlie had missed.
“What’s to talk about?”
“I think you know.”
Charlie took a vicious swing that buried his axe too deep to pull it free. Again Eddie had to wait.
“Lucy wants you. Fine. That’s all needs said.” Charlie worked the blade back and forth, finally freeing it by bracing one foot against the trunk.
“I wasn’t trying to steal her from you.”
“Trying or not, you got her.”
They found their rhythm again: tack, tack, tack like a seesaw.
“I don’t want you to hate me,” said Eddie.
“I don’t. In fact, I don’t feel one way or another about you.” Charlie lied.
“It’s just me and Lucy, we’ve got so much in common. We’re from the same state.”
“Charlie, this is a small village. I don’t think it’s good to fight with someone in such close quarters.”
The Terry tree creaked, slip on the outside of their cut, and succumbed to gravity, falling away from the group towards the anchoring ropes.
“Timber!” shouted both men as one. The great tree thumped the earth like God’s own hammer.
“I’m just saying, I don’t want you angry with us,” said Eddie once it was quiet enough to talk.
Part of Charlie saw the pettiness inside himself. It was unworthy of him. But another part of Charlie, that portion he recognized as the recanter, the man who would give up all in the face of pain and death, that part said make them drown in guilt. They hurt me, dammit, let them hurt now.
“I don’t think –”
“FIRE! FIRE IN THE VILLAGE!” screamed Terell, the group’s day manager this month.
With the word came the realization: Charlie had been smelling the smoke for several minutes.
They dropped their axes and ran for Plan village.
# # #
Building new homes for all the displaced villagers was out of the question. Summer had come. Since the fields had all burned, along with most of the homes, every able bodied man and woman served to sow a new, late-season harvest. What hands he could spare, the mayor used to construct long houses where villagers slept ten to a house in hay strewn on bare dirt for beds. The place might not have been earth, but it had its share of fleas, ticks and biting flies. By the end of three weeks, Charlie thought he must have met and probably fed each one personally.
Charlie hadn’t realized how much he loved his little cabin, which had seemed so small and poor to him before the fire of year five ate it. Now, with nine other men sharing his space, stinking of the fields and the forests and the livestock pens, Charlie wished for that nasty hovel again. Its privacy alone had been heaven.
When the mayor assigned the long houses to each group of ten, he ordered them in teams that would serve in the same capacity on the same day so that men would learn to work well with their housemates. It might even have been a good idea, except that Eddie Barnes now lived in the same house with Charlie — took his meals and his rest at the same time, in the same space. It seemed the man was determined to haunt Charlie, mocking him with his presence.
Dawn had come. Charlie hadn’t realized he was awake until he heard a goat fart outside the longhouse. He had been thinking of Eddie and Lucy again, first thing when he awoke. Was that a bad sign? Probably. He was obviously preoccupied with the two of them. Some days, when the tedious field work or arduous lumberjacking seemed to drag for days through hours, he would find himself composing letters to Lucy. Most of them consisted of recriminations, of demands for sentiment, for sympathy and shared attraction. If he kept feeding this demon it would only grow. He knew that. But Charlie let himself indulge in his mental diatribes, silently assuring his own concerned, saner self that he only did it to practice writing — his great love — which was impossible any other way in this place. He was a journalist after all.
Someone stretched, yawned and sat up, the hay crinkling under his body. A dusty, musty scent reached Charlie, the result of any movement in the hay. He squeezed his eyes and mouth shut against it.
“Where are we at today? Is it change over day?” asked Ted Beveier, a good-natured Californian who never shirked a day’s work.
“Yep. We’re out of the fields and back to the forest today,” said Eddie somewhere nearby.
Charlie grimaced, and it wasn’t against the smell of dust this time.
“Hell, yeah. I’m tired of baking in the sun. Give me an axe a tree any day.”
Someone across the room said, “Will you guys shut up and let us sleep till they ring –”
In the distance a bell tolled, its sound lazy and slow in the morning mists.
Several men groaned, but Eddie and Ted laughed. “Serves you guys right for sleeping in. Healthy to rise or whatever that saying used to be.”
“No, it’s, ‘Early to rise makes spots on your eyes,” said Ted.
Titters from the men who were now rousing themselves out of the dirt and hay.
“Whatever. We’ve got a planet of our own, we’ll make up our own sayings now,” said Eddie.
“This is not our planet,” said Charlie, only now rising from his spot.
“Well, it don’t belong to the proto-cats,” said Ted.
“We’ve got our own planet.” Charlie kept his eyes on Eddie, despite Ted’s quip.
Eddie shook his head. “We had our own planet, then religious wanks took it, remember? Now we have this one. Lets hope a bunch of Catholics of Mormons don’t land here.”
“Hey, we Catholics don’t land on people, we just outnumber them.”
Several men laughed again, but Charlie remained serious.
“You’re not committed to the plan, are you Eddie? You think we’re staying here. You think we’ve already failed.”
Eddied looked around at the sober morning faces of men who had stopped pulling on their work clothes to stare at him and Charlie. In that moment, Charlie knew Eddie’s answer meant something; that these men would listen and remember his words.
Eddie had a power that Charlie did not.
“Charlie, I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t know if our plan is going to work or not. I don’t think we’re at a point for conjecture, or maybe we’re eons past that point. Right now, I just live my life day to day, work as hard as I can to keep this village alive, and try not to think too hard about home.”
It wasn’t the answer Charlie had expected. He had expected something flippant, something he could put a derisive spin on. But Eddie’s voice was too full of meaning — too hard-packed with truth. He had just captured the sentiments of half the humans on Plan in a few easy sentences.
Charlie pulled on his work boots and trudged out of the longhouse still hitching up his overalls. He didn’t want the other men see his look of defeat.
How could you fight a man that loved you? Eddie obviously cared for everyone in the village, including Charlie.
Had he come here that way?
# # #
Farm work fed the colonists, but it exacted a toll for that service, as if the planet demanded restitution for calories rendered to the humans. Plowing, tilling, weeding, tending flocks and harvesting lumber, these things ate hours like a voracious man. That is why Charlie loved training days. On training days he could remember why they had come here — why they had died so many times only to come here and work themselves into a living death.
“You won’t have time to think. There is no time. Put time out of your head,” said Captain Choi in her command voice. Her spiky black hair had begun to show signs of gray, though Charlie thought that might just be from spending too much time in the sun.
Choi sat in a rough-hewn chair, two large men on either side of her. She wore a very old, heavily repaired uniform, the kind they had all worn on the journey to Plan. With a lazy wave Choi told the guards she was ready.
The one on her right started pulling a short club from his belt. Since he was the first to move, Choi turned towards him, jabbed two stiff fingers into his throat — stopping the club before he ever fumbled it out of his pants — used him for a balance point and donkey kicked his partner in the ribs. The lithe woman’s movements were so fast, so adept, that the second man was on the ground, writhing, before he had ever moved. In one motion, Choi swung the foot that had kicked behind to the front, ramming her knee between the first man’s legs.
“It won’t be that easy,” said Captain Choi to her gathered students, ignoring her guinea pigs who both lay moaning in the dirt. “The Warrel guards carried stun-clubs, and in some rare cases, scream guns. But this exercise will prepare you, as best we can, for the first fight you’ll face in a long campaign after our return.”
Charlie looked at Eddie, who merely raised his eyebrows and said nothing. But Charlie knew what the other man was thinking. He had heard enough of Eddie’s rhetoric to know he was scoffing at the idea of return. These days, many of the citizen colonists did the same anytime a leader mentioned returning to Earth. Ludicrous, they said. Forget the plan, it was doomed from the start, and, worse, now it had become a waste of precious manpower as otherwise able hands left the fields everyday to enter the Warrel starship.
How had Charlie gotten saddled with this man again? Eddie hadn’t mentioned anything about bribing someone to let him work with Charlie Parkson, not this time. But it seemed the man was chasing him — bent on getting Charlie’s blessing to have Lucy — as if it were any choice of Charlie’s. Nearly a year had passed and he had long since given up hope that Lucy would come back to him. At this point, he just wished Eddie would quit hounding him.
Maybe he should tell Eddie that.
“Okay, people. You’re already partnered up. I want you to practice subduing one person only today, using the techniques we’ve practiced all this month. If you grapple your partner down to the ground, give him or her a chance on the next go.”
Charlie and Eddie stood up and faced one another.
“This feels kinda stupid,” said Eddie.
“Not to me.”
The two men locked arms, each trying to unbalance the other with his hips, legs or feet.
When their faces were close enough that Charlie could whisper, he said, in a low voice, “I don’t hate you, Eddie.”
Eddie smiled, seeming nonplussed, as if he had expected Charlie to say something like this.
“And you have my blessing with Lucy.”
Now Eddie laughed and Charlie took advantage of the momentary lapse to throw the younger man to the ground.
Eddie laughed all the harder now that Charlie tried to pin his arms behind his back.
“I never wanted your blessing, Charlie. What are you, her father?”
Charlie tightened his grip until Eddie cried, “Ow,” but he kept laughing all the same.
“Then what the hell do you want? Why are you always trying to pair up with me?”
“You don’t have any friends, Parkson.”
Charlie let Eddie go and both men stood. Without a word passing between them, they locked arms again. Now Eddie fought harder, seeming to take interest in the mock fight for the first time. Charlie lost two steps before gaining his balance under the surprising strain. The man was strong as a plow horse. Charlie knew he could not match him, but tried all the same.
“What business is of yours? You don’t hear me complaining, do you?”
Eddie relaxed for a split second. As Charlie, unexpectedly off balance, fell into him, Eddie deftly curled one of his arms behind his back and placed a well muscled arm across Charlie’s throat.
Then, with surprising speed, Eddie swept both Charlie’s feet out from under him, sending him to the ground and landing heavily on his back. Charlie gave a great oomph. His chest clenched as his wind left him and he lay, with Eddie still on his back, gasping.
“I like you, Charlie. Lucy’s told me so much about you I feel like we’re old friends. But whenever I see you, you scowl like I’m the first grade bully come to take your lunch credits. Maybe I’m vain, but I don’t like having someone despise me, even if I am dating their ex-girlfriend. This place is too small to have enemies. And I don’t want to be yours.”
He got off Charlie; helped him to his feet. Charlie still could not catch his breath, but his windpipe no longer felt like a collapsed straw.
Captain Choi, who had been marching up the line, reached them.
“You okay?” she asked Charlie.
“He’s alright, just got the wind throttled out of him.”
The little woman nodded and moved on.
“You going live?” asked Eddie.
“Yes,” Charlie gasped. He raised his arms as if to start wrestling anew, but Eddie shook his head.
“We’ve had enough fight training for one day,” he said. “Sooner we get back to farming and lumberjacking, the better. This is a colossal waste of time.”
Charlie only shook his head sardonically.
“Oh well,” said Eddie, “at least we’ll all be ready when crime comes to Eden.”