She Sure Was Beautiful
Hank tore his eyes off Polly Morgensen and tried to contribute something to the discussion.
She sure was beautiful, though. Her chin came up and she looked his way again. He saw it in his peripheral vision.
It was like an illness with him lately.
“Drifters.” Hank had run across one or two over the years.
They were little better than the nomads, who at least had purpose, following the great herds across the unbroken steppe of Third World’s northern hemisphere. Drifters were just that. Nomads stayed clear of settlement and cultivation, knowing there was plenty of room in the world. They needed open range, good grass and water. Drifters sought many things for many reasons. They tended to gravitate to more settled areas. During harvest, when hands were short, they were more welcome in some places more than others.
“That’s what they say. They’re camping up around Marjorie’s Way.” Red glanced around, but the other shoppers in the general store ignored them. “Word is they’ve been there a while.”
Perhaps the other people had already heard the news. Hank came into town once or twice in a month, usually a Monday but other days as well.
Marjorie’s Way was a notch in the hills just over the eastern horizon, obscured by the tops of barren pines, one of the few introduced species to do well on Third World. On the other side of the hills there was a brackish marsh at the end of a small run-off that brought a few of the indigenous waterfowl in season. After that, the trail petered out into a maze of hunting camps and thin ribbons of water in a vast marsh which had never been properly explored. People thought it went clear to the Blue Mountains. It was possible.
Drifters were often desperate, fleeing the law, debt more often. Sometimes it was young people running away, or just unfortunates looking for a new home someplace else. Hank had never really thought about it, although he had done it himself more than once.
“I see.” Hank Beveridge’s homestead was four kilometres out towards the morning sunrise, in the rolling hills where the true grasslands began.
He had a small river, and had painstakingly tanked up the seeps at the base of the hill where it came down. Hank had a herd of pack, draft and riding animals which he sold in an emergency, or when all else failed. He needed them for the business, or he would have done with only one or two animals. In the off season there was always work or worry.
The men watched a girl, her name was Polly. She and her mother haggled and fussed over a bolt of good red broadcloth. It looked like they were after a few things. Winter was coming and the kids would need shirts and pants and coats for winter, or even school. Polly was a fresh-faced beauty with a hint of a blush in her cheeks, almost as if she was aware of their scrutiny. She had long, straight black hair, with fine pale skin, long curling lashes and big dark eyes looking at everything in the store with an air of serious intent. She stood up straight, and that was one of the things he liked about her. It said much. Out of politeness, Hank took off his most prized possession, a pair of spectacles framed in thin steel wire. He put them in the case to protect them, as they were irreplaceable, and stuck them in his side pocket.
Hank’s purchase wasn’t urgent, but he’d been planning it for some time. Accounts receivable were one thing, and actually collecting them was another. He waited for long months on some accounts. The whole trade was predicated on long turnaround times. When possible, he paid for things in cash, which meant he owed few people and kept what he earned. It took a little foresight, and he had some of that.
Red went on.
“So far no one’s talked to them.” He looked around, but as long as Peltham was busy, he wasn’t going to get any cartridges, which was what he had ostensibly come in for.
Red could kill a half a day in town on three or four errands. The butter and eggs were running out and he didn’t do that on his own little plot, although he did have a respectable vegetable garden. It was something he was good at, and he could at least walk away from it, for a few days at a time, to go hunting or if some kind of work came up.
He sold cabbages and other produce at the end of the year, and Hank always looked him up as turnips and such kept pretty good over the winter. Red waxed them up real good. Red called them Swedes, which was a kind of a joke in these here parts. It really didn’t mean nothing and the few Swedes around took it in good spirit.
Hank studied Polly. Women were as scarce as hen’s teeth around here and she looked to be getting close to marrying age. He thought about it from time to time, her and one or two others. He fantasized about a few other ones, married as they were and so unattainable except in a daydream…at his present age of forty or thereabouts, it was pretty much all fantasy.
Red cleared his throat.
“You’re pretty close to Marjorie’s Way.”
“It’s about two and a half kilometres from my place.” It was to the north of his homestead, the sides of the hills and banks were very steep along there.
The valleys ran all east and west.
The hollows were full of scrub and there was no easy way through, so he hardly ever went up there. It was easier to get there from town, as the northeast trail ran through from here. They might even be camped on a corner of his land. Not that it mattered, they could do little harm as the first grass fire season was over and the land was lush and surprisingly damp this year. The odds were they would move on.
Cold grey clouds had dominated the weather for weeks.
Drifters were nothing new. One heard stories of course.
“Gentlemen.” The beaming proprietor, Abe Peltham, having made a good sale apparently, stood at the counter beside them.
Cheerful talk came from the ladies, for spending money was always exciting, and the slamming of the front door bore this impression out. Their hard boots thumped on the shaded boardwalk and then they stepped out into a rare shaft of sunlight and started across the rutted, muddy hell that was Main Street. Hank forced his attention back to the counter again.
Putting an elbow down and settling in for a long talk, Red leaned over to inquire as to three boxes of .22 long-rifle cartridges. He always claimed to be able to hit an apple at a hundred yards with the old repeater he owned, but privately Hank doubted it. He hadn’t seen an apple in twenty-five years, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. Not since leaving Earth as a boy.
It was just talk. Talk had its pleasures, its temptations, and its uses. More than anything, it was unavoidable. Hank pulled his glasses out and put them on again.
He turned to watch the women cross the street and go into another establishment. Oak River, the town’s name, was a bit misleading as there were no real oaks on the planet, although several of the taller indigenous growths bore some resemblance, at least as far as anyone remembered. Red and Abe would take a while.
The place had a population of about four hundred. There were a thousand other settlers within a twenty-kilometre radius. There were quite a number in town today, as the conversation droned on behind him.
People moved up and down the street and draft animals, critters mostly but the odd horse as well, stood at hitching rails in front of the hastily-erected and mostly unpainted buildings.
Hank, starved for company and mental stimulation, found it fascinating enough in its own way. Turning, he watched in gentle amusement as Red tried to get Peltham to throw something into the deal.
“Come on, you got to make this worth my while.”
Abe shook his head.
“You know the prices. Besides, you still me owe a little from last month.” He knew it right down to the penny of course.
Poor old Red had been enjoying a run of bad luck, just a little saying he had.
Hank snorted gently in amusement. Part of the charm of the place, he figured. Red probably knew the total tab right down the penny himself.
Red knew when he was beaten and took the shells.
“Can you put that on my bill?” With a nod and a quick grin at Hank, he scooped them up and turned and stalked out of the store.
If he had any cash at all, Hank might find him at the Stub, one of three watering holes and not the best of the bunch. If Hank could see that, so could Peltham.
“Well, don’t that just beat all.” Abe sighed deeply and lifted an eyebrow in Hank’s direction.
“It’s a pretty good bet.”
Abe’s eyebrows rose.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m thinking this will be a bumper year for the hoppers.” They teemed in the grasslands, burrowing in the earth and subsisting on the greenery. “He’ll do all right if he gets out there.”
Every seventeen years they just seemed to go nuts, or so the old-timers said.
In Hank’s opinion their legendary fecundity was to make up for a high mortality rate among the young and newborns. Brownish on top and white on the belly, they were long-haired animals with floppy wrinkled ears. He shot one when he could himself, as they made a good stew, their small size precluding roast or steaks or anything like that. They had extensive colonies scattered at set distances and moved burrows frequently. The thing was to find a fresh group that had never been hunted, a whole colony, and then you could lay in a supply of meat. Properly smoked and salted, it would fetch a good price. Red had the best recipe on the planet for jugging them, or so he said.
Red had been known to do it from time to time, but hunting was always uncertain and had costs, including ammunition.
“Well, I suppose he has to feed himself, at least long enough to be able to pay me back.” Abe bit his lip and then grinned at Hank. “What can I get you?”
Hank had been saving a set amount, month in and month out, for a full year and yet his idea might be crazy, or merely unsuccessful. He was keeping it to himself for just that reason.
Taking a deep breath, knowing that it was bound to cause a certain amount of talk, he placed his order. He could almost justify it. He kept talking as Peltham moved in and out of the back room.
One thing he’d learned was to keep as much twine on hand as possible. It was mostly used for tying bundles of bracken-bush, the pods of which were a prized commodity on the home worlds. The pods were a tart, spicy thickener in a variety of soups and sauces that for the most part he had never heard of, never partaken of, and by the sounds of things, didn’t ever want to try. The leaves were dried and crushed and added to various products in an endless industrial food production chain. Elite chefs on a hundred worlds liked using the pods with the leaves still on the branches for presentation, whatever the hell that meant.
Hank didn’t much like the taste of it himself, and never used it in his own kitchen.
Hank wasn’t much for worship. While he had no particular reason not to go, the fact was that he hadn’t been to worship in ten or eleven years. The last time he’d been there, a friend was getting married. Not so much a friend as a cousin, which amounted to the same thing around here. He never really saw them two anymore.
The trouble was, they’d staked out a homestead clear twelve kilometres out on the other side of town and he rarely got up that way. Last he heard, they were doing well enough though. The land was flatter up there, more open, and they were growing fifteen or twenty acres of grain.
The pews in the church were made of piss-elm, an old name for a new cultivar but no one had any other ideas.
Hank looked around for people he knew, politely nodding when he made eye contact with old lady Stern, who in spite of the name was always just a little too friendly and agreeable, laughing too much at the lamest of jokes. Maybe she was just lonely.
A name is a name, but the seat was painfully hard under his butt. It was one of several reminders of why he never came anymore. The room was hot and fliers buzzed loudly in the small windows, letting a dim light in from a sky still a milky, dull bluish colour with the moisture. The air was so thick lately that you could cut it with a knife, bite a chunk off and chew it for a while.
Maybe that was why he never came anymore. Marty, the preacher, was surely one of the most fussy, prim and proper speakers he’d ever heard. He was…he was didactic and pedantic. The old familiar words came harder now, it’s not like you heard them at all anymore. It was clunky as all hell, there was no other way to describe it. There was just a hint of the effeminate in it, although Marty was married and had eight kids, all under twelve years of age.
The thought of this man teaching schoolchildren might in some small way account for their persistent and habitual truancy. It explained a lot. The last guy, Aldwin Notherman, was a lot better but he just up and died one day in the prime of life. It seemed so sad, and his wife and two daughters had moved back to Emerald City, six hundred kilometres to the south.
“Go in God’s name, and with peace and love in your hearts, my brothers and sisters and children of God.”
The words were familiar, but the sigh of collective relief that went through the assembly, as there must have been a hundred-fifty people in there, was a sign that maybe Hank wasn’t the only one that missed poor old Aldwin.
“Good morning, Missus Morgensen. Good morning, Polly.”
“Good morning, Hank.” Andrea Morgensen smiled up at Hank, looking distinctly uncomfortable and out of place despite the black suit, looking a bit thin in the derriere but still serviceable, and the wet cowlick that managed to stick up and out in spite of his best effort to keep it down.
His big hands were doing minor damage to the hat he held in his hands. Lucky to have two, this was his best one although he hadn’t worn it in a while.
“Good morning, Mister Beveridge.” Polly looked bright and fresh and perhaps a little younger than her nineteen-and-a-half years.
They stood in a huddle as other worshippers came down the stairs and into the light, getting brighter now as the day wore on. Hank had been at the very back and they were four rows up on the other side, where he had an opportunity to study Polly and wonder a bit, and not just about her either. But he had to wonder at himself as well. Men were fools, or so they said. He wasn’t smiling now, though. Thoughtfully, he put his hat back on. He had never learned to really fake a smile, not when he was scared, anyways.
“With a little luck, we might see some sunshine later on.”
“Oh, that would be lovely.” Polly smiled up at him, making eye contact, but Hank just tried to stand his ground.
He was tempted to bolt and run, that was for sure.
“Hank! It’s good to see you.” Marty, his open face lighting up, beamed at him from the top of the stairs.
He was almost glad to see him, for the sheer interruption. Marty was in his late twenties, with boyish lean features and a fervent faith in his mission, which made up for a lot of failings of organization. He meant well and took an interest, which was about all that was called for in this neck of the woods.
A bit of a blush crept into Hank’s features, reddened by the outdoors enough to begin with. Marty took the stairs two at a time, possibly as relieved as anyone to be over and done with duty. The other folks were all regulars and Hank realized he probably talked their ears off most any given Sunday. Hank tugged at the brim of his hat and the ladies curtsied awkwardly, the sudden demand taking Polly by surprise by the look of it. He would think more on that later. The reverend was at his side, face wreathed in a smile. Hank was, morally at least, a long-lost brother. The reverend thought in those terms, and while Hank understood what he was talking about, usually, it was an unusually abstract way of looking at things.
“So what’s been happening?” With the wind lifting a long tuft of thin black hair, revealing a good chunk of a prematurely bald skull, Marty took a proprietary grip on Hank’s upper arm.
Hank lived in a cabin on a bench overlooking the river that ran through his property. Built entirely with his own hands, he had set up a small sawmill, wheel-driven by a short stretch of white water where it bunched up over a shelf of underlying limestone. Every so often someone would look him up and contract for this and that and the other thing, big beams and the like mostly, although he could cut smaller stock for the right price. The mill had paid for itself within a few years and was easy enough to maintain. It was helpful in combating boredom, and he could bring in money during the winter.
The biggest job was damming the creek, but he’d picked the spot very carefully and there were plenty of boulders available.
The pond above the mill was stocked with Terran fish including rainbow trout, which seemed to do well on Third World, and several of the pan-fish species. They were brought in on their one and only road, under the care of the drover, and hideously expensive. In a few years, they were feeding old Hank pretty regular.
There was other stuff in there, but the local water creatures rarely appealed to the taste. There were one or two plants in there that he used from time to time.
Since the growing season was just underway, and bracken was a naturally-occurring resource, Hank was at home and trying his hand at making a net. He had to take a day off once in a while.
This was something he had wanted to do for a long while.
The most abundant local species of bird-like creatures, for they could fly short distances when they wanted to, were flocking animals that from time to time he’d observed eating corn and other grain spilled by the roadside. They came out into the fields to graze, and they seemed to tolerate humans although dogs chased them and caught them sometimes.
Hank was thinking of catching some birds, with a combination of corn for bait and some non-threatening system of fencing them in, perhaps at first gradually. He didn’t even have to box them in at first, merely direct them a bit. See what they did and how they reacted over time.
He was almost sure it could be done with a minimum of help, which would of course have to be paid for or otherwise provided for. The ones he was after even laid eggs. He found a nest every so often in the long grass, and they tasted fine. In fact, if you hadn’t had the regular kind in a while, they were pretty much indistinguishable.
Otherwise, real eggs were sort of expensive, a luxury when he had them.
He had two stout poles planted in the ground. At about three metres apart they were good for making a net that was maybe a bit more than he could chew. But if it worked well, he wanted to make a really big net, or maybe a bunch of smaller ones. If he could do it, he wanted to make more than just one at a time. If they were nice and light, he could push stakes into soft ground and herd a flock just where he wanted them. They tended to run along the ground on well-defined pathways through the long grass when disturbed.
Shooting at them from afar only scattered the flocks and got you a meal or two. The birds had to get used to him just like chickens, or ducks or geese.
Hank had it worked out to some extent, but with no knowledge or experience, only trial and error could teach him the best way. He had a couple of strings of the heavy, synthetic black twine going across at a convenient working height. The two strands had long tails left on them after being tied to the poles in case it worked. Then he would be able to set up the net, tie it to things, et cetera.
Tying another end on, with the spool handled carefully to avoid dropping it and creating a real mess, he brought it up on a forty-five degree angle and tried to tie it to the upper cross line. Uniform lengths on the angles was crucial. Then he brought it down on forty-five degrees and tied it to the lower cross line.
“Only another fifty thousand knots to go.” Of course Hank had second thoughts.
Wasting twine was wasting cash money. He might as well give it a proper shot. Working more quickly now, he went up and down, up and down, until he reached the far end.
He looked up at the sun, climbing higher in the sky as the morning wore on and a welcome sight after weeks of overcast. In the last few days, the weather had been generally improving. Yet the season was well advanced and he didn’t remember anything like this in years past.
“Oh, boy.” There was still plenty of material on the spool, and he hadn’t dropped it or anything yet, so he went straight up in a vertical side-line, tied it off, and then zigzagged back the other way.
He knew it was possible. He just hadn’t done it before. The day was young and Hank had a little time on his hands.
Hank’s Glasses Were Stained With Sweat
The black dot at the end of the track where it came out of the brush down by the ford eventually resolved itself into a two-wheeled cart pulled by an animal out of Stanislaus’ Livery, one of the longer-lived establishments in the vicinity. The blaze of red paint on the hind-quarter was a dead giveaway. The cart was probably from there as well.
Hank’s glasses were stained with sweat and dirty finger-marks, but as it drew closer he saw that it was a woman, and he straightened up and wondered who it could be.
Looking down at himself, he picked up his shirt and put it on, and then went into the kitchen to put on a kettle of water just as the cart came in through the gap in his split-rail fence and entered the yard.
He waved from the door at the figure inside. She dropped the reins and put her foot out tentatively as the thing had stopped right in the middle of the biggest muddy patch and the animal refused to budge another inch.
Stanislaus knew how to pick them, and it was probably better than a more flighty animal.
“Hello.” Mrs. Beynholm was a widow, and had been alone for about four years.
She stood there grinning up at him, shading her eyes from the glare.
People were always smiling at Hank and he wondered why. It bothered him a little sometimes as he couldn’t account for it.
She was a buxom woman with sturdy hips, thick graying hair that had once been brown and deep blue eyes. While they were courteous about town and knew each other’s first names, they really didn’t have a lot of contact and little in common, not even very many friends in common.
“I’ve just put the tea on.”
They clumped inside.
“Oh, thank you.” She stood just inside the room, hands on her hips, and she inspected the place, finally giving a slight nod which he interpreted as approval.
It wasn’t much to look at, smaller than a typical one-bedroom apartment back home, and with none of the amenities either. The plank walls were tightly fitted and the floor was still level, which was saying something for the solidity of the site as much as his building skills.
With the shutters thrown back, and the table clean, no dirty dishes lying about, it conveyed an impression of rugged comfort. Hank had four rooms in total, with the kitchen being the best, which was on the left coming in the door. Connected by a sweeping arch supported by a massive log of white cedar to the living room on her right, it looked bigger in the broad light of day.
He could hear the water just beginning to bubble.
“So, what brings you out this way?” He was wondering if Marty had put her up to it.
She was always into things, he knew that much.
Surely it had to be something important, or more likely the most trivial of attempts.
“Oh, I was just in the neighbourhood.” She didn’t elaborate, and he desperately tried to take it at face value.
He mentally kicked himself for showing up in church last Sunday. Maybe she just wanted a donation for something, or worse, volunteers for something.
Of course! What an idiot he had been. He’d walked right into it this time.
“Oh, yes, the fields are lovely this time of year.” Hank had no idea of what to say so he turned and beckoned her to come along, and she seated herself at the table.
She was certainly well-dressed, and he was aware that he hadn’t smelled a woman up close and in a small room with him in a fair while. Other than that, it was all right. He wondered what she was looking at.
With its central core dominated by a massive hearth that went from floor to ceiling and spanned the entire inner wall, the room smelled vaguely of onions, tobacco smoke and meat, mostly fried.
“I can see why you have the bedroom right there.”
“Yeah, it’s warmer in winter.”
She nodded, still looking around.
The long front wall faced southeast so as to heat up quickly on the winter mornings when the sun made its belated appearance, and prevailing breezes in summer would sweep the air out of it from the kitchen window on the southwest side, blowing out through the setting room. Hank had a pair of windows on the east side. His bedroom was behind the setting room, and it had one small window up high on the east side as well. She took it all in as he led her past the open bedroom door in a quick tour of the place, her teacup firmly clenched in her hand. She seemed very impressed with his small office.
The man probably lived as much on the covered veranda out front, at least in season.
He opened the door to the rear of the house to allow a flow of fresh air as those kitchen shutters faced north and he rarely opened them. The pantry was there, a bit of a mistake on his part as he always used the front door. She nodded at his quick explanation. He had to lug everything in and through the kitchen, which meant a lot of sweeping.
She sat down at the table again and examined the room with care.
“You’re doing all right, Hank.”
He nodded modestly, a small grin sneaking over his face as he got out the biscuits and found a clean plate in the cupboard.
“Yeah, I guess I’m getting by.”
“What are you making? A fish net?” As he recalled, she’d been born on Earth.
His mood brightened, they could always reminisce.
“Ah…” Not exactly, but he didn’t want to go into it.
She had fifteen hectares, right in town on a kind of narrow frontage. Only two or three hectares had ever been tilled. She was a seamstress, and she had a few goats and chickens. She hired herself and her two sons out to work in the fields of others. Her husband went hunting and never showed up again. No one knew where he went or what happened to him. His name was Alvin or Alan, Hank wasn’t quite sure which. She sold cheese and butter, some of it on consignment and they scrounged along all right. Other than that, she was a face in the crowd and he didn’t know too much about her…some kind of distant cousin of Missus Morgensen, and Polly.
“You’re smart, Hank Beveridge. Everyone says that.”
“Huh?” She smiled, but of course he knew what she was getting at.
Hank had claimed and filed on twenty thousand hectares a decade before anyone else thought of any sort of permanence. They said he was mad at first, and then a few more people turned up, and once one of them innocently asked a few questions about registration, the panicked herd stampeded towards the registrar. It’s not that they didn’t build houses and farm the land, but it was thought to be inexhaustible. You could always move on if it didn’t work out. It was part of the attraction, in some ways. What he couldn’t explain to her or anyone else, really, was that he could never use or exploit more than a small fraction of it alone and by himself. A lot of folks had more reasonably filed on a few hundred hectares, and all hands contributed to the work. One or two others in the area had bigger holdings and more grandiose plans for it. They at least had a reason.
He could see that much. But Hank just liked the space. Good fences make good neighbours, but there was no need for that when the nearest house was a couple of kilometres away. Hank’s place was the end of the line, and that way he didn’t get much traffic.
As far as the bracken-pods went, that was just an excuse. You could gather them anywhere that was public property, and he had wondered a time or two why so few people did. It took minimal business savvy to gather bracken and sell it to the brokers when they came through once a year.
All a man needed was a scythe, and a wagon. That and some twine, and feed for the working critters.
Hank just liked the look of the place and wanted to keep the neighbours a little ways down the road, so to speak…some things were better left unsaid. It had a way of going around.
The visit might have been more enjoyable for Hank if only he could have figured out what brought it on. He had no idea of why she was there and she didn’t see fit to enlighten him. As things went, they had their tea, passed the time, exchanged pleasantries, and after a while, they gossiped harmlessly enough about various local personalities. She brought Hank up to date on any number of things, which was good as he had little to contribute in that line himself.
Yet for the life of him, Hank couldn’t figure out what it was about. It was that unusual to get a visitor.
She’d been alone a long time and he accepted that, the question was why him?
And why now?
Commander Jeff Burke of Her Majesty’s Ship Hermes stood in front of the cupola that let in a spectacular view of space and the planet below. Third World, named for its position in this system, a name which had stuck more to eliminate arguments than any other reason, had a population of over half a million. The tall, athletic Burke had held command of Hermes for four years. His thoughts congealed.
Settlement had begun seventy-five or a hundred years ago, but the original plans to export a half a billion people to the planet had quietly been shelved when the newcomers had been in place a few years and the complaints started to roll in. An inquiry had been held, and ultimately it was determined not to be anybody in particular’s fault, but pioneering was hard work and ultimately even the best-prepared settlers fell to subsistence level as people spread out and began to exploit the local environments, about which they had initially known little.
The Planetary Authority, once established, was understandably eager to perpetuate itself as bureaucracies will. Perhaps initial reports of the planet’s potential had been a little too glowing. A half a million in population was not enough to make a viable and self-sustaining economy, and with recruitment dropping off quickly it was no longer profitable to send any more colony ships.
The Commander had a problem, in that things were heating up in the Vega sector and confrontation with Them seemed imminent. The Empire and Them had been bickering for years.
Responsible for law and order in his sector, he had little jurisdiction on the surface, and yet he was also charged in recent orders with apprehending and confining known deserters from Her Majesty’s Service until such time as courts-martial could be convened and punishments doled out.
The trouble was, they had only a vague idea of where a few of them were, might be, or had last been sighted. Combing through the duty roster revealed a grand total of sixteen or seventeen non-essential personnel available for assignment to shore duties, none of whom he had a whole lot of confidence in. They were available for a reason, not unusual in the service. The only person he had to lead them was Lieutenant Shapiro, who had virtually zero experience on his own. That, in itself, represented an opportunity of sorts.
Burke had the funny feeling they would be on the ground and hard to extract in a hurry if and when the word from above came through. It was worthy of a brief smile.
Orders were orders and this one was unusually succinct. It also came from a long ways up the ladder, and good officers were long in the development.
Burke had no choice but to make a stab at it.
A First Briefing
Lieutenant Newton Shapiro sat at the head of the table and surveyed the senior members of the landing party. His eyes swept the faces, all carefully neutral.
They were gathered for their first briefing and planning session. The enlisted personnel at his disposal were all the usual suspects, and were the most easily spared from the ship’s regular routine according to Commander Burke. In his words, it might even do the odd free spirit among them some good to get off the ship.
It was his first meeting with the command team.
A couple of the troops hadn’t seen planet-side in years, as they were habitually in the brig by the time the ship actually got anywhere.
As to why his own name came up at the top of that list was another question, but he was a junior officer, and while his duties as the vessel’s supply officer were not unimportant, there were others at least partly trained in his job. He could be spared, and he recognized that much.
“All right. Our deserters are last seen in the Port Complex, the usual port of call for Fleet units. Frankly, we’ve never had occasion to land anywhere else, and they have the best facilities. If a ship having problems set down elsewhere, it would cause considerable problems of logistics to set her right and lift off again. They go on shore leave. The first place they head for is a bar. It’s the usual sad story. At some point they realize they are absent without leave, and we figure the usual practice is to get as far away as possible from anything that smacks of Empire and authority.”
“They’re fugitives.” Ensign Spaulding nodded. “The punishment is harsh.”
A willowy blonde in her mid-twenties, Beth was a human resources specialist, which aboard ship meant everyone got paid. They made the contributions to their retirement or kid’s schooling. She was a grief counselor when required and helped in the infirmary with trauma victims, physical and psychological. She was in charge of all records pertaining to personnel outside of confidential medical and command security files.
“Right.” Shapiro went on. “And yet they really didn’t have a plan of action. They’re not here to emigrate and make a new life. The trouble is, they don’t have any choice but to try, otherwise they starve, kill themselves, or give themselves up.”
A few had ended up incarcerated under criminal statutes. Over the years, one or two had been apprehended that way. Sometimes people turned themselves in.
One or two over the years had done just that. They turned themselves in to the Planetary Authority, who placed them in custody and notified the Fleet. If they did it quickly enough, the punishment was the usual thing, not desertion but absent without leave. Desertion was another level of offense, and yet how would he define it? They probably just got scared. Were they actually intending to desert? Intent was part of the definition of the desertion offence. Some of them were just kids, really. As for suicide, there were no statistics.
“Over the years, fifty-seven men and women have deserted Fleet units of all types, on Third World, or failed to return after shore leave. Some of them quite recently, ah, including two of our own.”
Sober faces watched him silently.
“For all we know, some might have been murdered, been killed in accidents, or even just got sick or starved to death.”
The Fleet took full legal responsibility for people when they signed on.
That might have been what tripped the Commander into this mission. He wanted them back for whatever reason, and in disciplinary matters, he would have considerable discretion in their cases. It would be better to be caught by their own shipmates, if possible. Of course Burke’s own performance in this unwelcome duty would be closely scrutinized.
“Okay. So what do we do?”
Emerson Faber was a big, capable-looking man with ropy forearms and bulging biceps. Shapiro was glad to have him along, for he was at least weapons-trained and their newest recruits would be more of a hazard, considering how seldom they used their weapons aboard ship.
After sixteen months of garrison duty, endlessly hovering in the stable point, providing some kind of moral presence for the colony, people tended to get rusty. Most didn’t abuse shore leave, but every cruise had its killed and missing, even on the most mundane of duty. It was a hazardous profession and Shapiro was trained well enough in that regard. He had a responsibility to assess and minimize all risks.
Not very exciting, but it was his job.
“We make an appearance in the city. We troll through the bars, wearing full kit and arrayed for battle. And we tell people we’re looking for deserters.”
“And?” Dave Semanko was a communications specialist, which included linguistics and even rhetoric.
In his early thirties, he radiated competence. Perhaps the uniform, crew-cut and trim build had something to do with it. His intelligent brown eyes looked at Newton.
“Then we go to a hotel and rustle up some transport, as we have one or two tips to check out. Other than that, I figure by the time we get back to the port, people have had a chance to think on it and it’s quite possible some of them will turn themselves in.”
He was betting on word getting around—like wildfire.
“Turn themselves in?” Faber snorted and slapped his thigh.
He didn’t impress Shapiro as an idiot, but he might have been mistaken.
“Once they get out there. Once they’ve gone hungry a while, and seen the prospects. Once they see what they’re really up against, they’ll be kicking themselves all over the place for running away.”
Semanko was studying the field notes for Third World.
“It doesn’t seem so bad. A mix of indigenous and Terran flora, a few carefully selected fauna…temperate zone is extensive.” He read on. “Seventy percent of the surface is landmass, and the biggest ocean is at the southern pole. Huh.”
“Yeah. And there’s nothing down there.” Shapiro swept their eyes in an all-encompassing stare.
“Nothing?” If Ensign Spaulding didn’t get it, the others probably weren’t either.
“Nothing. Nothing at all, ladies and gentlemen.” He gave them a moment to think about it.
“The life of a soldier is compensated for by a life of ease and sloth.” Faber surprised him with that one.
It went back a thousand years to some historian no one ever read anymore.
“Yes. And that’s just what they’re not going to get on Third World. First, the capital city is our city—and it’s only eighteen thousand people. They really can’t hide there and they know it.”
Because sooner or later, everybody discovers they need to make a living. That was another, unspoken compensation for being in the service. It was a living.
“Because they don’t have the skills or the drive.” The Ensign had nailed it. “It’s more—a lot more, than they must have bargained for.”
There were comprehending nods around the table as they looked at him and each other. There was no lack of confidence, but a little caution would have been preferable. He wondered if he was just being insecure about his own role in all of this. It was a command, though. It was an independent command…
“So what do you think?” Shapiro eyed the lean, dour figure of Jackson at the far end of the table.
“Nothing, yet. What are the people like? I mean, outside the, er…cities.” He cleared his throat and explained. “There are a lot of officials from outside, recent immigrants, temporary workers. Not everyone in town is a local.”
The city was at least used for shore leave. They had some familiarity with it. The hinterland was another story. Newton wondered most about Jackson. At his age, his rank seemed very low, as if he had hit a dead end for one reason or another. That was the truth about the service. There were only so many desirable positions available, and in peacetime manpower withered away as the brightest people sought a better life in the civilian world. So why had Jackson stayed?
But Jackson had hit the nail right on the head. Walter was extremely intelligent, but was known to hate the service. He looked like he was looking forward to the duty, unlike one or two others, at least initially. They were putting a better face on it now. Control over one’s demeanour was a necessary trait in even the most junior officers in the close-knit community that was the ship. Catching deserters wasn’t exactly what they had signed up for. Ship-board duties had their own routine, and it was a comforting one, even a lazy one at times. Faber was right—it really was a different kind of a life, but one easily gotten used to.
“That, is very difficult to say. The traders say they are pretty business-savvy and harvesting the local commodities is back-breaking work. It’s all done with the simplest of tools and implements. The communities are very small and tightly-knit. The old timers still remember their home world, and some of them are probably better educated than you or I. We’d better remember that. This is not the time to be patronizing them. Hopefully we can avoid, ah…cultural pitfalls.”
Life was simple, brutal, and short on Third World, with its limited nutrition and medical care.
It was amazing how fast a new culture would spring up. The company had brought in twenty or thirty loads of colonists, setting them down here or there as per some initial study and planning. A lot of promises had been made, and then the company was affected by a downward turn of the economy. Much of the heavier equipment and tools never made it to the planet’s surface, being sold elsewhere in the name of liquidity. The government and the company were consulting and working on the difficulties.
Again the nods. There were limits to what power and authority could do. The Empire claimed that it governed on goodwill and tried to achieve it, in all honesty. In all honesty, it failed as often as it succeeded. It’s not like the Empire didn’t care about its social mission, but funds were always tight and priorities higher elsewhere.
“All right. Let’s go over this list and see who’s who—and who’s what.” Shapiro was rewarded with a few grins and chuckles.
The enlisted men’s files were at least entertaining. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. His team would be what he made of it.
He’d read all the books.
Third World is available from most online bookstores. Here it is on Amazon.
Not including Core Values, (Sci-fi/horror) this is my fourth science fiction novel. I’m presently working on the third of the Maintenon Mystery Series, a series of detective novels set in Paris, France, during the 1920s and early 1930s.