With a sigh, Darren leaned against the cold white wall and watched people wander slowly into the amphitheatre. They would run if they knew what this is about, he thought. And when they do know, a few of them may run the other direction. He chuckled silently and threw a glance at the blond-haired man sitting in the first row of seats. He winked and threw a quick smile at his partner, Aron, who returned the expression with a casual salute.
A large group of people entered the room, talking animatedly. A few of them went to the podium and spoke to Darren, making quick, perfunctory greetings to his husband. Darren spoke with enthusiasm, gesturing to data on a computer screen on the podium. One of the women laughed aloud, covering her mouth as she blushed and cast her eyes downward. Darren ran his left hand through his wavy dark hair and grimaced. He cast another look at Aron and winked.
As the room filled, the level of noise rose until all that could be heard was a dull roar of mingled human voices. Soon Darren stepped up to the speaker’s place at podium, seeing that the room was nearly full and assuming all four thousand colonists were present. The air in the amphitheatre grew warm and close, causing a low whine from the air conditioning. A few thousand people offered a cooling challenge, even in a room larger than most homes.
Darren pressed a button on the podium and another on his collar. The lights in the room dimmed and the white wall behind Darren began to glow softly. An image of planet hanging in the starry void of space appeared on the screen. Waves of white clouds moved slowly through the air of the world spinning in its orbit.
“We received a download from the terrabots earlier today,” Darren said. “They have reached full acceleration and are on their way planetward. In the past few weeks, several groups have received their own bots’ telemetry and have departed. The Islamic Jihad Averted has already launched. So have the Buddhist Nirvana, the Deist Perseverance, Quaker Friends-Ship and Wiccan Lord and Lady. The Mormons have finally decided that this is the only option left for any of us and their Liahona should be launching within the next year. Unfortunately,” a frown of concern crossed his face, “that is after the deadline the Rat Auts have given.” He smiled at the ripple of uneasy laughter running through the room as he used the derogatory term. “We need to think of them and remember them in ritual and prayer. They need to escape as desperately as any of us.” He inhaled deeply. “Our own Sacred Center is set to go in forty-eight hours.” He waited for the expected murmuring to rise and subside. “The bots will arrive roughly one thousand years before we do. That should be plenty of time for them to complete the terraforming of at least the primary continent and to have begun work on the other four.
“Despite the lack of options left to any of us in this room,” Darren continued, “anyone who wishes to back out now is free to do so.”
Toward the center of the room, a man and woman stood up. “Director,” the man began, his voice picked up by the microphones in the room and played through the speakers, “my family and I have decided to withdraw from the migration.”
Darren nodded his head. “As you wish. May I ask why?”
“We have discussed it and we’ve decided that we don’t like the chances.” The man paused for a moment. “We don’t feel comfortable with the deep under chances…”
“There is less than a three percent chance of difficulty,” Darren said, “but yes, it is a real chance.”
“And then there’s a chance that the bots won’t make it to the new world. And even if they do, there’s a chance that they won’t be able to have it terraformed before we get there. There’s a chance the terraforming won’t work and the ship will arrive at a world that we can’t live on.” He sighed. “We can’t take that chance. We have children and grandparents with us and those are just too many things that could go against us for us to risk our family like that. We’re sorry. We thought we could do this. It’s a good idea, but it’s still too risky.” He looked at his wife, she nodded weakly, and the pair sat down.
“Valid reasons,” Darren said. “Unpleasant to face, but valid.” He looked across the span of the wedge-shaped room. “If there are any others who feel the same way, please see myself or one of the Coordinators after this meeting. We will miss any of you who choose to withdraw, and there is nothing we can do about returning your possessions to you; you’ll have to take that up with someone from your Authorization Center.”
Allowing a few seconds for people to think about what had just happened, Darren spoke again. “We have less than twenty-four hours before we are required to vacate this facility. Transportation has been provided to take us to the lander base, and then we’re up to the ship. By noon tomorrow everyone will be expected to have all personal effects packed and ready for departure. Your respective Attendants will contact each of you to ensure that there are no problems. Should anything happen, the Coordinators will be available continuously until launching hour.
“Now…please return to your quarters and begin preparations. The time allotted us is much shorter than it sounds.” He stepped down from the dais and walked toward Aron.
Almost immediately, the Coordinators, Attendants, and many others gathered around him. Several conversations flew through the air, each person trying unsuccessfully to be understood over all the others.
Forced backward by the crowd gathering around his husband, Aron stumbled against one of the seats. He winced at the sharp pain in his leg and reached down to rub it. Over the heads of many people, he saw Darren smile wryly at him and shrug helplessly.
Aron nodded his head, a sad expression on his face. He turned and slowly left the room.# # #
Startled out of his single-minded packing, Aron spun when the door to the room opened. He laughed at his own reaction, knowing no one but Darren would be coming in. His husband walked in and smiled at him.
Startled out of his single-minded packing, Aron spun when the door to the room opened. He laughed at his own reaction, knowing no one but Darren would be coming in. His husband walked in and smiled at him.“Some days I feel that we are overseeing a rabid pack of insane hyenas,” Darren said, falling onto the bed.
“Oh, I beg to differ,” said Aron.
Darren looked up. “How?”
“You are overseeing a rabid pack of insane hyenas. I am not the one in charge of this; that is entirely your job and your own fault.”
“That is a horrible thing to say and the fact that it’s true just points out how evil you are to mention it.”
Aron shot the other man an offended look. “Me? Evil?” he asked in mock affront. “I seem to recall a conversation that went ‘If we don’t migrate, we’re going to be locked up or worse. Other groups have already left, I think there has to be way to get enough of our own people together to do it.’ And then I seem to recall a couple of years of someone contacting every single person he could think of who might be able to help him with funding and locating a world.”
“You,” Darren said in a tired voice, though a twitch in the corner of his mouth showed his humor shown through the fatigue, “are a horrible person and I no longer love you. I want a divorce, and, if you would, please find yourself another planet to migrate to. Maybe you can still get signed for Valhalla. A nicely frozen world would fit your cold heart, don’t you think?”
Aron laughed and threw himself down on the bed beside Darren. He draped one arm over the other man. “That bad?” he asked.
“They’re insane. I love them, and I’d do anything in the world for any one of them, but they’re all completely and irredeemably insane.” He rolled his gray eyes to look at Aron. “And they think that I am a god incarnate and expect me to do more than is humanly possible.”
“That,” Aron said, “is because you keep doing more than any human should. If you were a lazy slug like the rest of us, you’d get some peace.”
“Lazy slug, indeed! How much have you been working on…” He stopped as a loud knocking sounded at the door.
“Who?” Aron asked, looking at his husband sharply. “Please tell me this isn’t going to be another night of conferences until godsforsaken o’clock.”
“I told them there would be no conferences. I have no idea who this is.” Darren got up from the bed and opened the door.
A man with a shaven head and a bright smile walked in; a woman with dark hair glided in behind him. The woman held a champagne bottle and four glasses.
Aron smiled at the newcomers. “I didn’t think we’d see you until tomorrow,” he said, getting to his feet.
“Did we interrupt something?” Maria asked.
“So sorry,” said Poul, his tone and expression showing anything but sorrow.
“Are you going to be such a bad liar on the new world, too?” Aron asked sarcastically.
“It’s one of the charms we’re trying to save, isn’t it?”
“You, my friend, have been looking at the wrong agenda.”
“What? You think humor’s going to stay off the list of spiritual crimes around here?”
“Humor doesn’t include the comments you make.”
“Remind me once again why I’m friends with you.”
“Because I made a bet with the gods….and lost!” Aron shot a hard look at Poul, then the two of them laughed and threw their arms around one another.
“Hi, Aron,” Maria said, hugging him and kissing his cheek. “We haven’t seen much of you lately.”
“Well…you know how it is. My social calendar has been so full lately.”
Maria wrinkled her nose in a familiar gesture of humor. “Then we’d hate to keep you from a more pressing engagement if you don’t have time to have a glass of champagne with your friends.”
“Well,” Aron said with mock exasperation. “I suppose I can ask the Seven Heads of State to postpone our banquet, but only because it’s you.”
Maria laughed and handed each of the men one of the glasses, keeping one for herself. Quickly, she poured each of them full of the pale golden liquid, then looked expectantly at Darren.
Darren raised his glass and looked at his friends and partner. “To our own lives on our own world,” he said. “May we do less damage to the new one than mankind did to this one.”
Four glassed clinked together.# # #
“Are we doing the right thing?” Aron asked into the darkness.
“Are we doing the right thing?” Aron asked into the darkness.In the curve of his arms, Darren stirred slightly. “What do you mean?”
“Aren’t we basically going to be setting up a theocracy of our own? How can we justify fleeing one if all we’re doing is creating another one?”
Darren turned in Aron’s direction, unable to see him in the unbroken darkness of the room. “Isn’t this a little late for philosophical worries?” he asked.
“Do you mean late in the night or late in the whole process?”
Darren sighed. “You’re feeling the same thing I am,” he said. “The only difference is that you’re allowed to express doubts. If I were to say something like that, everyone in this compound would die from exploding craniums.”
Aron tightened his arms about the man. “Well, that’s what you get for being the strong one,” he said.
“Both bull and shit,” Darren replied. “We are the strong one. Aron and Darren,” he emphasized the rhyme of their names.
Aron smiled and repeated line that had become such a joke between them. “We’re not a couple, we’re a couplet.”
“And don’t you forget it.” Darren laid his head on his husband’s shoulder. Soon his breath gave way to the gentle rhythm of sleep.
Aron stirred fitfully, feeling pain shoot through his body as awareness returned to him. He stretched his left arm outward, feeling what felt like the weight of a city’s population pressing against his muscles. A weak groan escaped his lips as he forced his eyes open. White light that threatened to sear his blazed down on him. He winced and clenched his eyes closed again.
“Uhh…” He felt as if that utterance exhausted his entire available vocabulary. Sharp electric pain circled inside his skull and raced down the length of his body.
“Lie still,” said a thundering whisper near his head.
“Som…” Aron began. Fingers that weighed several tons each pressed themselves to his lips.
“Quiet,” said the thunder, setting his head to throbbing. “Be still. Give it some time.”
Gentle heat rose from the padded table beneath him, seeping into his protesting muscles. Relief from pain moved through him, though at a snail’s pace. Finally, after what felt like hours, his body relaxed and the pain faded from him. The table began to move, gently activating rollers beneath its surface to massage the man lying helpless upon it.
“How are you feeling?” asked the voice, less thundering now, though it still echoed in Aron’s head.
“No’ good,” he said truthfully. He tried to open his eyes. Light burned through his corneas, bypassed the retinas, and fried his brain with the brilliance of a sun seen from a place closer than life could survive. “Is’t shif’ time?” he managed to ask weakly. Not right, he knew, struggling to form a coherent thought. Something’s wrong.
“No.” The voice – it seemed familiar now – said softly. “We’ve entered orbit. We’ll be landing in a few days.”
“Tha’s no’ ‘ri’,” Aron slurred. Something cold pressed against his lips and delicious liquid flowed down his throat. “Two m’re shif’s ‘fore orb’t.”
“Don’t worry.” He put a name to the voice now: Maria. “Everything’s fine. You’re going to sleep for a while. Just sleep…no more deep under for you.”
Unable to speak, Aron nodded his head slightly as sleep crept up on him.# # #
Gentle light streamed through Aron’s half-opened eyelids. Strong disinfectant smells reached his nose and words muffled by distance or obstacle floated in to his ears. He opened his eyes, winced once at the brightness, then opened his eyes fully.
Gentle light streamed through Aron’s half-opened eyelids. Strong disinfectant smells reached his nose and words muffled by distance or obstacle floated in to his ears. He opened his eyes, winced once at the brightness, then opened his eyes fully.He lay in what could only be the ship’s medical chamber. Walls of off-white reflected the light from overhead bars of illumination. A floor of smooth gray tiles glimmered at the edge of his vision. Racks of medical instruments lined the walls. Above his head, just beyond his field of vision, he heard the coldly insistent beeping of what he took to be a device to monitor his condition.
“Hello?” he croaked, finding his dry throat unable to call out as he intended.
Almost immediately, a door opened on the longest wall. A tall woman with dark hair pulled into a tail behind her walked in, her steps brisk beneath her long, pale blue coat. She smiled warmly when her gaze fell upon Aron’s open eyes. “How are you feeling?” she asked with a curious inclination of her head.
“Fine,” Aron said. His voice cracked on the word.
Maria took a bottle from a cupboard inset in the wall and removed its cover. “Here,” she said, pressing the bottle to Aron’s mouth. He swallowed half the mildly sweet contents greedily before she removed it. “Careful,” she said. “Your system isn’t ready to handle much yet.”
Aron nodded his head, sending waves of disorientation crashing through his body. “Did you really say we’re in orbit?” he asked.
“Yes. We entered orbit almost two days ago.”
Aron took a deep breath. “Why was I kept deep under for my last two shifts?”
Maria looked away, not meeting Aron’s gaze.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. He grasped the woman’s arm and pulled her toward him, exerting the little strength he had. “What’s wrong?”
Maria swallowed audibly. “We lost almost two hundred people,” she said. “They didn’t make it through deep under.”
“More than we expected, but we knew that might happen,” said Aron. “We all knew that.” He felt a cold hand clench his heart. “Maria…” he began. He swallowed hard, fearing the answer to his unspoken question. Why would he have been kept asleep during two work shifts?
She nodded her head. “Darren was one of them,” was all she said. Tears started running down her cheeks.
Aron choked, unable to breathe as grief closed his throat. He trembled inside, his mind whirling about the idea. Darren was dead. His partner. His husband. His love. Gone. “How…” he couldn’t get the words out. “How long ago?” he finally managed to ask.
“About eight hundred and twenty-something years.” Maria turned her tear-streaked face toward her friend. “That’s why we left you under and had other people cover your shifts.”
“The bo…the body?” Aron asked. He knew the answer before he even asked.
“Cremated.” Maria clenched her eyes shut. “The…container…is in your personal effects.”
“Were you there?”
She nodded. “Poul and I were on our shift when he was found. We…we made prayers and offerings for him,” she said. She bent down over the bed and drew Aron to her in a hug. His golden blond hair pressed against her long coat.
The man’s tears finally began to flow as painful sobs racked his body. Quaking with the force of his grief, his body trembled in Maria’s arms. He felt the world crumble about him as he acknowledged the loss of the person he loved most.# # #
Leaning toward the enormous window, Aron looked out into the void of space and stared down at the planet below him. Continents of varicolored greens and browns rested on oceans of deepest blue. White clouds obscured much of the details of the land’s shape. In the southern hemisphere a storm of epic proportions raged in the middle of an ocean.
Leaning toward the enormous window, Aron looked out into the void of space and stared down at the planet below him. Continents of varicolored greens and browns rested on oceans of deepest blue. White clouds obscured much of the details of the land’s shape. In the southern hemisphere a storm of epic proportions raged in the middle of an ocean.“Do you know where you’re going?” a voice behind him asked.
Aron turned listlessly to look at the man walking toward him. “No,” he said, shaking his head weakly. He looked at the man’s tall frame, dark hair, and angular features. No one he knew. Not surprising, of course, considering how many people had paid everything they had to be on this ship. No one could have been expected to know all four thousand colonists. “Just outside of town. I don’t know where.”
“You don’t have a stake claimed?”
“We…I have a stake, but from here I can’t tell where it is.”
The man reached into a pocket of his one-piece outfit and took out his computer. “What’s your place’s desig-number?”
Aron closed his eyes and flinched against a new onslaught of sorrow. “Eight-four-four-seven-nine,” he said, blankly.
The other man rapidly touched the computer pad and smiled. He walked over to the window and pointed toward the planet. “The continent coming into view on the horizon there is where we’re settling,” he said. He looked at the computer again. He whistled and raised his eyebrows in surprise. “How did you manage to get such a prime stake?” he asked. “Who’re you sleeping with to get a claim like that?”
Aron shot him a look of mingled wrath and grief.
“Sorry. Bad taste. I’m famous for it.” He grimaced and turned back to the window. “Anyway…see that river running through the continent? It comes off the mountains and gets enormous by the time it reaches the plains. If we can see it from here, it must be even larger than the Mississippi used to be back home.”
“Back on Earth, you mean,” Aron said automatically.
“Huh? Oh…right! Back on Earth.” He smiled wryly and shrugged. “Anyway…see that river? Follow it northwest to that paler green area. That’s the start of one of the mountain ranges. That’s where the terrabots built the first city. Your stake is just upstream from the city. If things are like the bots were programmed for, you should have a house there already.
“My stake’s just a place in the city. Maybe I’ll see you. I’m supposed to be setting up a shop once we get down there.”
Feeling no curiosity, asking only to be polite, Aron said, “What sort of shop?”
“My wife and I are setting up to be tailors.” He grinned brightly. “We even had our names legally changed to Tailor. Evan and Sondra Tailor.” He put one hand to his head and tipped an imaginary cap. “At your service. Maybe you’ll come see us sometime. Everyone’s going to need clothes.”
Aron pasted a weak smile on his face. “True.” He held out his hand. “I’m Aron. Aron Brosfield.”
“Nice to meet you,” Evan said. He cast another glance out the window. “I’d better get back to my wife. We’re on the third shuttle. What about you?” He paused. “You’re on the first one, aren’t you?”
Aron shrugged. “’Fraid so.”
“Who are you?” Evan cocked his head slightly. “Prime stake. First shuttle. Are you someone important?”
Aron shook his head. “No. I just happen to know the right people.” The right people, he thought. If you call the fact that the man who started this whole trip was my husband “knowing the right people” then…yeah.
Evan nodded doubtfully and left the room.
Heartsick, Aron turned back to the window. Tears streamed down his cheeks and fell to the cold floor, evaporating almost immediately as the air circulation system in the ship dried up the unplanned moisture.# # #
Tossing unevenly in the gusting wind, the landing shuttle slowly descended to the ground, its flight smoothing out as its altitude decreased. Visible only by the light of the setting moon and the lights from the shuttle, a large meadow spread out below, its lush green grass covering the gentle hills and wide plain. On firm footing for no more than a few minutes, the door opened, dropping from hinges at the bottom to form a shallow-incline causeway. Moving slowly, Aron walked down the incline, followed closely by Maria and Poul, the other man’s shaven head catching the light of the rising sun. Several dozen other people came after them, all spreading out to stand near the shuttle, milling about and staring at the new world before them.
Tossing unevenly in the gusting wind, the landing shuttle slowly descended to the ground, its flight smoothing out as its altitude decreased. Visible only by the light of the setting moon and the lights from the shuttle, a large meadow spread out below, its lush green grass covering the gentle hills and wide plain. On firm footing for no more than a few minutes, the door opened, dropping from hinges at the bottom to form a shallow-incline causeway. Moving slowly, Aron walked down the incline, followed closely by Maria and Poul, the other man’s shaven head catching the light of the rising sun. Several dozen other people came after them, all spreading out to stand near the shuttle, milling about and staring at the new world before them.Aron, Maria, and Poul walked to the top of a small knoll not far from where their shuttle rested. A lone oak tree stood there, its branches reaching toward the sky, green leaves emerging from buds along its lengths. A stone well stood nearby; the water in its depth could be heard as a distant flowing sound. Forming the third point of the triangle, a circle of white stones ringed a raised patch of bare ground; sticks of wood rested in the circle, piled neatly and awaiting their use.
“The bots did a good job,” Poul said, nodding with approval at what he saw. He looked at Aron. “Are you going to be up to this?”
Aron nodded. “This was my job anyway, y’know.” A weak smile crossed his face. “I’ll be fine.”
Six other shuttles landed nearby within the next few minutes. Soon everyone stood on the meadow, their attentions turned toward the knoll. Thin, dim rays of sunlight began to peek over the horizon.
A woman with long red hair, carrying a large leather bag, stepped from the crowd and stood to the side of the triangle formed by the fire, the well, and the tree. She removed a lap harp from the bag and sat down on the damp earth. She strummed the instrument softly, its bright tones spreading out in the pre-morning air and carried through speakers in the computers everyone carried. The crowd quieted at the first sounds of the music.
Joining in song, the gathered crowd sang a hymn of praise and welcome. As the people sang, Poul, Maria, and Aron walked forward. Aron stood in front of the ring of white stones; Poul took his place at the side of the towering oak; Maria stood by the well. The three of them looked at one another, nodded their heads, and turned to face the crowd. The song ended and the massed hundreds directed their attention toward the knoll and the three who stood there.
Aron took one small step forward. “We’re here at last,” he said. “It was more than twelve hundred years ago that we left Earth. We lost a lot of people we loved during the trip to bring us here.” He paused to let the lump in his throat drop to his stomach. “But this is our world now and the ones we have lost will be among the first to bless our presence here.” He stepped backward, regaining his former position.
Maria dropped a nugget of silver into the well. “Ancestors and beloved dead,” she said solemnly, “all you who have gone before…we greet you. Bless our presence on this new world, and know that you are always remembered. And you are always loved.”
As he tied a braided cord of gold, silver, and white around the tree, Poul said, “You spirits of nature, you who are the soul of this new place, we greet you in love and respect. We seek your friendship and offer you ours. Look upon us, we ask, and know that we honor you.”
Aron took a small rod and a packet of white powder from his pocket and touched the rod to the wood piled in the circle. A flash of light from the rod set the wood on fire. The blaze spread quickly and burned brightly, its light casting a second set of shadows along with those created by the rising sun. “We pray to the gods of our people,” he said, looking toward the sky. “We have come to this new world so we may worship you as we feel is right.” He frowned slightly, feeling something amiss. Maria shot him a questioning look, an odd expression on her face. Aron shook his head slightly and continued. “Look upon us with favor, Great Ones. Know, we ask, that your people greet you after our long sleep.” He opened the packet and threw the white powder onto the fire. The flames flared up and briefly became a deep blue in color.
The crowd stood in silence for a moment, then Aron stepped forward again. “Today is the spring equinox on our new home. This is our first sunrise. From now on, this shall be New Years Day for us. It’s time to begin life on this world. We have named this world Confeld, after the ones who originally found and claimed it.
“This place will be made into a park to commemorate the place where we first set foot on this world. The Fire, the Well, and the Tree will remain here; let them be constant reminders of what we have given up and what we have come here to gain.
“Everyone who wishes may come up here now and make whatever offering you have prepared. Then, go to your shuttles and go to the city. Claim your homes. Our lives here begin today. May the gods and spirits watch over you.”
The people massed in the park stepped forward and placed coins, bits of food, flowers, and other small items in the Fire, in the Well, or at the base of Tree. As each made his or her offering and prayer, they then went to the shuttles.
Shortly, all the shuttles but the first one lifted into the air and moved toward the city that stood awaiting them. The people who had arrived in that first lander boarded until only the three who had stood before the crowd in the ritual remained.
“Are we ready?” Poul asked, putting his arm around his wife’s waist and looking at Aron.
Maria nodded her head.
“Just a minute,” Aron replied.
He stepped to the Well and looked deep within, seeing the early morning sunlight glimmering on the waters. He took a small knife from his pocket and lightly nicked one finger. Several drops of blood fell into the waters, the ripple they created undetectable. “I’ll always miss you,” he whispered. “I love you.” He sighed. “It won’t be the same without you, but the dream you had for us is coming true. I’ll do my part.”
Aron turned from the Well and went back to his friends. “Let’s go.”
They boarded the shuttle and flew toward the city.