Plan F

Tyra brought the twins to the Planners’ going away party.  Charlie’s old heart soared at the sight of his children walking with their mother along the wide, dirt road.  They broke into a run when they saw their father, Jacyn ahead of Rachel, their slim legs working in unison as if they were two parts of the same machine.

Within three steps of reaching Charlie, Jacyn slowed and let his sister arrive first.  She wrapped her arms about Charlie’s middle and hugged him fiercely.

Tears spilled over Charlie’s cheeks, running in the deep lines like canals on his face.  Damned if he didn’t cry at even the stupidest things these days.  When the ancient Terry tree near the middle of town took a blight and lost all its leaves last winter, Charlie had balled like a baby alone in his cabin.

“I missed you, daddy,” said Rachel.

“Me too, baby.”

After a moment she moved over, though she never let go, making room for Jacyn.  He slipped his arms around Charlie, embracing Rachel as well.

“God, you’ve both grown so much since summer.”

“I can lift half a hay bail now,” said Jacyn, folding an arm to show his biceps.

“I believe it.  You’re half grown to man-size already and only eleven.”

Jacyn beamed.

“I can stitch patterns on leather,” said Rachel.  “Momma showed me.”

“I know they’re beautiful.”

Tyra reached them then.  The young mother — only twenty-two this year — gave Charlie a deferent peck on the cheek.

“Hello, Charlie,” she said.  “You’re looking well.”

Charlie wiped the tears from his cheeks with one long sleeve and said, “And you look beautiful, Tyra.”

“Momma, can we go see the starship with daddy?” asked Jacyn.

Tyra gave Charlie a knowing look that said, I’ve told him.

“No, honey.  Daddy is going on his trip today.”

“I know.  I wanted to see the ship before he goes.”

“Coalman wouldn’t let us near that ship, son,” said Charlie.  “He’s got the accelerator running on it.  It’s taken so many years to finally engineer the thing, I think he might kill anyone who comes close enough to tamper with it.”

Jacyn looked crestfallen, but did not cry.  That was a change from last summer when the children had stayed with Charlie for two weeks.  Back then, Jacyn was quick to tears where Rachel kept herself strong, pretending nothing hurt her, emotionally or physically.

“I have something for both of you,” said Chalrie.

“What is it?” asked Rachel

“It’s in that bag over there.”

The children dashed for it and Tyra said, “Did you barter for something?”

“Something good,” said Charlie.

This time Jacyn won the race.  He quickly dipped one hand into the bag and drew out a hardcover book.

Both Tyra and the kids caught their breaths.

“Oh Charlie,” she said.  “Where did you get that?”

“The starship had a very small supply of emergency items in case one of the caskets malfunctioned and someone had to spend a lifetime stuck aboard with no entertainment.  I think those were in case the electrical was fried. ”

“How did you get them?  Don’t they belong to the village?”

Charlie smiled and said, “Sometimes being the former mayor has its perks.”

Jacyn, ever eager to learn, immediately sat in the grass by a tree and began reading.

“What’s a. . . lion?” he asked.

“A very large kind of cat from Earth.  Like the ones here, but no scales.”

“Then what’s a witch and a wardrobe?”

“You’ll have to ask one of the older people in Lucy, son.  They’ll know all the answers, or most of them anyway.”

Jacyn nodded and turned his attention back to the book.

Meanwhile Rachel had dug a flimsy computer from the bag.

“What’s this, Daddy?”

“It’s a game — a special game that teaches you numbers and how to manipulate them.  It will take you through advanced physics.”

“Thank you, daddy.”

Jacyn looked up from his book.  “Oh, yeah, thanks daddy.”

Charlie smiled and took Tyra’s hand.  He led her away from the children who were engrossed in their presents.

“I can’t tell you how I’m going to miss them.”

“You don’t have to go.”

Charlie shook his gray head.  “We’ve been through this, Tyra.  I can’t stay.  I made a promise and I’m keeping it.”

The girl pursed her lips and cut her eyes at him.

Sometimes it was easy to forget she was the mother of his children rather than a child herself.  At sixty-four, Charlie sometimes felt like her grandfather.  But he respected her.  It wasn’t easy to accept an old man to father your children, especially when she had no husband back in Lucy village.  But Tyra bore the burden well.  She was a good mother, strict, but loving.  And she respected Charlie’s wishes in rearing and educating the children, which had never been part of the bargain.

“I’ve done all I can to make them love learning,” said Charlie, his eyes wandering back to the kids.  “Now I can only ask that you remind them everyday to seek it — to master this world and the ones to come.  Someday their ancestors must go to the stars.”

Charlie could see by the look in Tyra’s eyes that she did not fully understand.  Her parents, children of Earth though they were, had accepted the hard rural life of Plan, teaching their daughter only what she needed to survive: farming, weaving, hunting.  She could barely read.

“I’ll tell them,” she said, and Charlie believed her.

“It’s almost time.”

Charlie led Tyra and the twins to the center of Plan village where the Warrel starship stood, mute and black.

They joined the throng of old men and women gathered round the Warrel starship.

“Uncle Charlie.”

He turned and found Lucy — Little Lucy, now a woman with a toddler on her hip and several larger children crowding round her — standing at his elbow.  She hugged him tight and the boy child wrapped a chubby arm around his neck as well.

“Daddy would have been surprised to see this day,” she said.

Charlie pulled back and regarded her — the image of her mother — and the boy she held who favored her deeply with his dark blue eyes and sandy hair.

“I think he would have cheered us, despite our difference of opinions.”

“I know he would.”

They stood in silence a moment, neither knowing quite what to say.  Charlie thought to introduce Tyra and the twins then remembered they all lived in the same village.

“Well, I better get back over to Pete,” she said after a moment.  “His daddy’s going with you today and we came to say goodbye.”

Charlie followed her gaze to find her young husband standing next to his father, old Martin Turner, close by the starship.  The old scientist was one of a handful who had come back to Plan village when Coalman pronounced the accelerator operational.  Charlie didn’t resent his old hunting partner.  The Planners needed every spare hand they could muster.

“Okay,” he said, after Lucy had already turned to go.

“I love you, Uncle Charlie and I wish you luck,” she said, turning back for a moment then walking on.

“Thank you,” he wanted to say, but didn’t.  He was about to cry again.

“Daddy, look!” said Jacyn, taking Charlie’s hand and his attention.

A large access door slid open on the Warrel ship and a ramp descended.  Coalman, stooped and wizened as a walking corpse, emerged and stood among the eighty-six Planners who would make the trip while their families remained behind.  Tommy Gelman, Coalman’s young apprentice from Lucy village, joined him.

When old Coalman — hadn’t the man been old when they arrived? — started to speak, the crowd hushed, every ear straining to hear his rasping voice.

“I’m not going to make a speech,” he said.  “I’m too damn old.  You all experienced the accelerator years ago; you know what happens.  When I activate the machine, everyone of us within ten meters of the starship will be instantly returned to the point in time when the tags were first applied.  Those with tags that don’t wish to go had better get moving.  All others will not be affected.”

Choi broke from the crowd, joining Coalman and Tommy at the foot of the ship’s long ramp.

“I know we’ve all been through the scenario a million times and more, but I just want you to remember that when you arrive, you’ll be in the chair and you’ll be young.  Be prepared to fight and not worry about your brittle bones or arthritis.”

Several in the crowd started to laugh, but Choi ignored them, her face serious.

“Twenty-six of us were being interrogated within one hour of each other.  That’s a very small number, but doable.  If everything goes right, we will be joined by thousands of exiles just like us from planets all across the spiral arm.  Stick to the plan and we can still win this coup.”

Murmurs erupted from among the crowd.  Thomas Dorsey, one of the Planners, said, “We aren’t the only ones returning?”

“No.  There were many other ships full of resistance members exiled from earth.  But we in the leadership were told to train you as if you were the only ones.”

Several others started to speak, but Choi motioned them to silence.  “Don’t concern yourself with anything but your death rooms.  That is all you need think about until after we return to Earth.”

Coalman nodded, then said something to Tommy who climbed the ramp and disappeared into the ship.

“You have five minutes to say your goodbyes people.”

“Daddy, I don’t want you to go,” said Rachel.  She squeezed his hand in both her own.

“I don’t want to go either, honey, but I have to.”

“Can’t you go later?  You said the machine sends you back to the same time no matter when you use it.”

Charlie smiled down at her.  Oh, but she was a smart one.  She and her children after her would rule this world and the worlds beyond.  He cupped her face in his palms and said, “I have to go with the group, Rachel.  They’d feel like I abandoned them if I don’t go now.”

The time came quickly.  Coalman mounted the ramp and called the Planners together: a group of gray-haired farmers gathered for battle.

Charlie hugged his children, not wanting to let go.

“Remember what I taught you about learning;  it never ends, right?”

“Right,” they said in unison.

“It’s your job to teach your children to read and write and work mathematics.  The people here have to be ready for the Warrels.  If we fail, then they will be here one day, pact or no pact.”

The twins both nodded.

Before the accelerator flung him nearly two hundred years into the past and into a body he would hardly recognize as his own, Charlie looked out at the village of Plan.  Its cabins and rough-hewn tool sheds, tinged red by the bark of Terry trees, contrasted the light, silvery-blue sky and green hills.  He traced the wide path that led back to the river and Lucy village where his children would live out their lives, marrying, growing old and dying.  He would miss it.  It had been his home the longest of any place.  But it was, at last, time to go back to the home of his forbearers.

In the last moment, as the machine Coalman had created began to rumble like never ending thunder from within the mammoth ship, Charlie’s eyes fell on Lucy who stared back at him.  She smiled and raised her hand in a little wave.

She was the last thing Charlie Parkson ever saw on the planet called Plan.

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