Dauntless Homecoming

Pete Koziar

©2010, Pete Koziar, all rights reserved

Chapter 1

Landing


The settled silence of the forest clearing was shattered by the three roaring engines of the landing craft. Thirty feet across, glossy white and roughly triangular, it hovered just above the flaming underbrush. With an ashen papery rustle, its landing struts pierced the charred zone to rest on the solid earth beneath, and then, except for the crackling of small fires it had ignited, all was silent again.

A moment later, with a loud whirr of electric motors, and the sharp “thunk” of latches releasing, the door in the bottom side of the craft came crashing to rest in the smoldering leaves. Three men and two women marched confidently down the ramp, spraying foam on the fires all around them, finally standing in the ruins of the once-peaceful forest clearing.

The crew of the Dauntless had returned home.

One of the women, Sarah, bent to examine the charred remains of some small creature. The other woman, Madison, wrinkled her nose and said, “Ewww! Sarah! What are you doing?”

“If I could identify its species, maybe I could figure out where we've landed. At least, how it corresponds to the continents before we left.”

“Well?”

Sarah sighed and replied, “All I know, Maddy, is that it was a rabbit. It's burned too badly to tell any more. Without my lab, that is.”

Sarah kicked the dead animal to the side of their path and sprayed the brush around her with her fire extinguisher.

As Madison walked on, she stopped for a moment to look sadly at the remains of the rabbit. “Poor bunny,” she said quietly.

Just then, Cliff, their leader, called, “Fire’s out. Come on – the beacon's this way.”

Tony replied, “Might as well move on. Nothing but ashes left here. Thanks to us.”

Cliff glanced sharply at him, and then Tony lowered his gaze.

Their moods began to lighten with the pleasant walk in the woods. Considering the extended silence from the radio, they had no idea what would await them. After being gone so very long, and after all that they had seen and feared, it felt good to be back in a place that looked, even smelled like home. Even Tony started to smile a little.

After walking for a few hours, Jim looked down at the locator in his hand and announced, “The beacon is very close by...”

Just then, they came out of the trees into a well-kept little clearing, in the center of which stood a bronze sculpture on a slightly raised pedestal about 10 feet in diameter. Towards its left side was a representation of a classic stone lighthouse, about eight feet tall, crafted of such realistic detail that they resisted the urge to run their fingers gently over it. In the bronze sea around it was sculpted wild tossing waves, as if a mighty storm was raging. Centered in the piece, a model of an ancient three-masted sailing ship, about four feet high, leaned dangerously to one side in the churning waters. It was aiming towards a pier near the lighthouse, where scale models of a man and a woman had their arms raised as if waving frantically.

Madison pointed to a bronze plaque mounted on a low marble stone in front of the sculpture. They glanced at each other momentarily, then walked up to it and read, “We did not forget.” Under that large, bold heading, there were lists of names, and they found theirs under the bold heading, “Dauntless.”

They paused to think about their long trip that had lasted so very long, and about the other names on the plaque.

Jim was the first to speak, “I wonder what happened that they never sent out any more ships after our six?”

Tony replied, “Maybe they did and the later ships were fast enough to get back already?”

Jim said, “Well, no matter what happened to them, this is the beacon I’ve been tracking.”

Madison said, “So, now we found it. What do we do now?”

Sarah had been walking around the sculpture. In the opposite side of the lighthouse was a window about halfway up, with a human figure in it. The figure was shielding his eyes with one hand, and pointing at something with the other. She turned to look where the sculpture was pointing, and then yelled to the rest of the group, “Look – the path continues on from here.”

Cliff said, “I suppose they mean for us to follow it. Let's see where it goes.”

After walking a few miles, they came around a bend in the path, and then stopped in stunned silence, gazing at a glittering object in front of them, an ovoid about three feet long, that hung on nothing in the middle of the path.

Madison said softly, “It’s beautiful! Like a baby basket for an angel.” Sarah nodded silently. They squinted as they tried to make sense of its surface, a mass of intricate metal embellishments with subtle hues that shifted with the angle of the light.

Jim said, “I don’t know who made that, but he must have been a genius. I could have poured my life into something like that, and walked away satisfied. I’ve got to get a closer look.” He walked quietly up to it, circled it slowly, and then bent to peer under it. After a minute or two, he poked at it gently with his finger. It did not move. The rest of the group began cautiously approaching. He pushed a little harder, still nothing.

Then, from the object, they heard, in a calm quiet voice, with a touch of irritation, “Please stop that.”

Jim jumped back from it. They all looked inquisitively at each other. Cliff said quietly to Madison, “First contact – your job.” She nodded, and then said to the object, “Hello. My name is Madison.”

The object replied, “Hello, Doctor MacAllister.”

She chewed her lip for a moment before continuing. “To whom am I speaking?”

“My name is Chalnevex.” It paused expectantly, then continued, “A Mark 17 diplomatic courier,” as if that warranted polite applause or hushed “oohs” and “aaahs.” To the crew, it meant very little.

Cliff spoke up, “I expected, well, a human welcoming party.”

Chalnevex replied, “It has been over 450 years, Captain Harper. Meeting a human would be very dangerous for both of you. You must be prepared first.”

Cliff replied indignantly, “Dangerous? How?”

“You carry many diseases that were eradicated centuries ago and have no immunity to the diseases that have developed since. We have prepared something to adjust your immune systems, and purge your bodies of dangerous microbes.”

Tony muttered under his breath, “I don’t like this at all.”

Sarah spoke up, “It makes sense. I was worried about this myself. European diseases almost completely wiped out the Native Americans because they brought microbes for which the natives had no immunity. It … um, he’s right. We better do it.”

Cliff replied, “OK, what now – do we get shots or something?”

The top half of Chalnevex dissolved quickly, showing a velvet-lined interior compartment. In it was an ornate crystal dish, marked off into five sections. He said calmly, “Each of you must eat completely the contents of the compartment meant for you.”

Jim peered in first. “Hey – cookies. Here’s my favorite – chocolate chocolate chips!”

They all gathered around. Each one had a compartment with his or her corresponding favorite flavor of cookies. They looked at each other nervously. Madison said, quietly, “This is too weird.”

Jim shrugged and ate a cookie, then smiled and then they all joined in. Cliff said to Chalnevex, “OK, we’ll eat your cookies. Now, what?”

“The cookies will take several days to work. In addition to dealing with disease, they also contain a short duration memory enhancer, which will help you learn our language.”

Tony replied, “But you’re speaking to us in English?”

“It took even me several weeks to become competent enough in your dialect of English to be able to converse with you. I will stay with you and instruct you.”

Tony looked to Madison, as if to say, “That’s your job.”

Chalnevex added, “All of you.”

Jim muttered under his breath, “I wonder how that thing sees without eyes.”

It was more fun than they thought. Even Tony, who never did well with languages, caught on quickly. Madison was fluent enough to hold simple conversations the very first day, but that, after all, was why she was a part of the crew.

Each day when they woke up, there was a wicker picnic basket in the clearing with food for the day. They never saw it arrive, and were afraid to ask how it got there. The first morning, Madison said to Sarah, “Maybe elves brought it.” It made Sarah laugh to think of a squad of elves hoisting the basket on their shoulders under the watchful supervision of a floating ornate “Mark 17 Diplomatic Courier.” She was almost at the point where she believed it.

The second day of class, while they were eating lunch, Sarah noticed Jim looking particularly downcast. He confided in her, “Sarah, I don’t know where I belong here. How useful would I be in the company of engineers who designed that work of art over there? I feel like a 19th century engineer, trained in clanking steam engines, trying to understand a computer for the first time!”

Sarah replied, “Jim, I’ve read your file. You are, well, brilliant at what you do. They'll know how to fit you in. You'll learn.”

He didn’t reply. She continued, “What else is bothering you?”

“I don’t know how to reconcile this with what I expected. I mean, how do I fit this all in with what I've always believed the Bible teaches?”

Sarah made a face.

Jim continued, “Well, it's important to me, and you asked!”

Madison had walked up behind them, and said, “Sorry I overheard! Jim, I think you, of all of us, have the least to worry about.”

Jim looked startled. Madison continued, “It treats you differently. It's almost as if it has to pause for a split second to figure out how to address you. It’s like you’d act if you ran into the mayor at the grocery store. He looks like regular people, but you're not sure what to say to him.”

Jim replied, “Why don't we all notice it?”

Madison rolled her eyes. “I don't tell you your business, do I? Who’s the communications specialist here?”

Two days later, Chalnevex pronounced them ready to proceed. His instructions to them were simply to follow the path, and it would take them safely to a nearby village. Jim was the first to say, “Thank you!” Sarah could have sworn that Chalnevex bowed slightly.

A little self-consciously, the others also offered their thanks. Chalnevex then said, “Please step back.” He then shot straight up into the air so quickly that it took their eyes a moment to find him high in the sky. He then disappeared in a streak of silver towards the horizon.

After a moment, Jim remarked, “Looks like he can take higher acceleration than a human can.”

Cliff responded, “You think?”

They all set out for the village together.

They came across the machine in the meadow the next afternoon. At least, “machine” was the closest that Sarah could come to naming it, but it was like calling a diamond a rock, or Buckingham Palace a house. The machine in the meadow was unlike anything she had ever seen before.

It was about the size of a small truck, having the overall outline of a boulder that had tumbled off a hillside and was now sitting all by itself. Its pieces flowed together like something that grew there, with many intricate rods and joints, and lumps and bulges. There was the iridescent green of a mallard’s feathers, side by side with the color of old, comfortable gold, and the gentle silver of a secluded waterfall.

It fit in the meadow, not like it was meant for the meadow, but that somehow, the meadow was meant for it. There was a solidity about it, possessing a definiteness, and purposefulness, that they could dimly feel, but not fully understand.

They all stopped dead, except for Jim who, without hesitating, just kept walking. Sarah, in a hushed voice, called “Jim!” He turned to her and stopped, halfway to the machine. She saw that there was a small tear just beginning its descent down his right cheek. More hesitantly, she called again, “Jim?”

He said, “I didn’t dare believe, but he’s here. He’s really here.”

Cliff found his voice, and asked, “Who’s here, Jim. Who’s in the meadow?”

Jim smiled and replied, “He’s not in the meadow, Cliff. Well, not exactly. I’m already late and I need to go see him now.”

Something was happening to the machine. It was unfolding like one of those sped-up movies of a flower blooming. Things were moving and changing, while its colors, its very substance, were growing more solid, more alive. Jim turned back and resumed walking to the machine.

Sarah screamed, “Jim!”

Tony and Cliff started to move toward him, but found themselves stopped by an invisible wall that felt like a soft down pillow, but which could not be breached. Jim reached the machine, and then Sarah thought she saw him brighten, as if a dirty windowpane had been removed. Then he was gone, not like he faded away, but like their world had become a shadow, and he had moved into the reality itself. The machine closed back up in a way that reminded her of a father’s hand closing over that of his beloved child.

The invisible pillow wall was removed so abruptly that Tony fell on his face in the soft leaves with a “woomph” and Cliff, trying to keep his balance, tripped over him, spun around and wound up flat on his back looking very surprised. Sarah stood there for a moment in the sudden calm and silence, in the peaceful meadow, before slowly sinking to her knees.

After a moment, Cliff stood up, brushed the leaves and dirt off his uniform and yelled, “Come on – we’re going after him!” He pulled Tony to his feet, then walked briskly over and took Sarah’s hand to help her up. He said, more quietly, “I’ve led us too far to lose one now.”

Madison walked up from behind Sarah, and they gathered together, being careful to stay at least 30 feet from the front of the machine. Holding hands like school children on a field trip, they began walking slowly towards the machine. When they were 20 feet away, however, the machine still sat there, closed and uncaring. At 10 feet away, they began glancing nervously at each other. When they stood directly in front of it, there was a puzzled silence for a moment until Cliff muttered, “Darn.”

Sarah pointed at the machine and said, excitedly, “Look – there’s some sort of plate on it, with writing! Madison! Look!”

Madison nervously walked closer to the machine, taking small, careful steps. When she was close enough to the plate to examine it closely, she said quietly, “Hmm, looks like Hebrew letters. My Hebrew is a little rusty – remember any of it, Sarah?”

They muttered together for a few minutes, while Cliff nervously glanced around the meadow, hand on his sidearm, hearing only the faint buzzing of insects and the song of a distant bird. Finally, Madison spoke up, “Here’s the best we can do – ‘Doorway (Portal? Entrance?) the Road (Way?) the King (Ruler? Lord?)’ Maybe ‘The Doorway to the Road of the King?’”

Cliff muttered, “That’s a lot of help.” He continued in a firm voice, “All right, maybe if we try one of us at a time, or did anyone see something Jim did that we didn’t?”

Sarah interrupted him, “Or maybe it was something he was wearing, or the color of his hair, or his aftershave, or who knows? Cliff, why don’t we just see if the villagers know something? We’re strangers here.”

Cliff answered, “I won’t just leave him!”

Tony spoke up, “Let’s go the village, Cliff. We’ll be there in a couple of hours.”

Madison added, “He didn’t look like he was in any pain.”

They argued for half an hour, in front of the strange machine. Finally, Cliff looked each one in the eyes, one at a time. He sighed, lowered his head and responded, “OK, OK. Let’s try the village.”

It was a five mile walk to the village, through a forest delicately lit in greens and gold, buzzing gently with the wings of bees punctuated with the soft song of birds. Madison stopped for a minute, and Sarah asked, “What?”

Madison replied, “The bird songs are different – listen.”

Sarah answered, “Hey – that’s my field!”

“No – listen. The melody’s the same, but the key’s different!”

“The key?”

“It's in a major key now. It used to be minor!”

Sarah remembered her piano lessons as a child, and chided herself that she had forgotten. She wondered what it meant that the mournful melodies had now been replaced with cheery little songs.

They continued walking until the sun was low in the sky. They were debating whether to stop for the day, when they suddenly walked out of the forest and onto a soft carpet of grass leading to a collection of high art in subtle colors that Sarah imagined must be the village they were seeking. All were silent except for Madison, who said, softly, “Wow.”

Tony muttered, “I always thought the town of the future would look like a glass and chrome shopping mall!”

Instead, there was hardly a straight edge or right angle to be found, but it was a flowing panorama of gentle curves. Each house was slightly different in shape, color and even texture. The effect was profoundly peaceful, with the village looking more like a cluster of living things than a man-made structure. There was a hint of an overall plan, like there is in the arrangement of branches on a tree, or the feathers on an exotic bird, but it was too complex to be discovered at first glance.

A man at the edge of the village waved at them and began to walk over, smiling.

Chapter 2

Falling Into Paradise


As the man from the village came closer, they could see he was tall and thin, richly dressed, with long dark hair braided into a long ponytail that hung down to the middle of his back. After walking a few steps towards them, he motioned for them to come down out of the woods and into the village. He then turned, waved his arms and yelled something back towards the village. People started gathering in their direction, one by one, until a crowd had gathered on the road directly in front of them.

Cliff muttered under his breath, “I hope they're friendly!”

Sarah replied, “If they wanted to kill us, they could have poisoned the cookies.”

Madison replied, “Death by chocolate, what a way to go!”

They all laughed, then Cliff shrugged his shoulders and waved back to the villagers in what he hoped was a friendly manner.

Once they got within a few feet of the crowd, the man who had invited them spread wide his arms, and said, “Welcome! Let us pray, my new friends.”

Sarah wasn't sure what she expected, but it certainly wasn't this! The man lowered himself slowly and respectfully to one knee, followed by the entire crowd around him. After looking nervously at each other, the crewmembers did the same.

The man raised his arms, and said quietly, with eyes closed, “Mighty king, powerful creator, we praise you for preserving the lives of these travelers, across many years and unimaginable miles. We thank you that we are privileged to be the ones appointed by you to welcome them home. May we reflect your love to them undimmed and uncorrupted.”

He paused for a moment, and then the whole crowd said together, “So be it.”

The man opened his eyes, and then rose slowly to his feet. The crowd, and then the crewmembers, followed. He went to Cliff, looked him directly in the eyes, and said, “Welcome home, Clifford Harper,” then embraced him warmly. He then went to each other crewmember in turn, greeting them by name and embracing them.

He turned and motioned for them to follow. They fell in line behind him, with the crowd following a short distance behind. As they walked, Tony muttered under his breath in English, “Funny, I thought it was the ship that brought us home, not some king” Madison jabbed him in the ribs hard enough for him to gasp, momentarily breathless.

They walked down streets bordered by restful dwellings closely spaced, adorned by flowers and climbing plants, each house of slightly different textures and colors. They seemed to be just big enough to be comfortable for a small family, and not so big to be showy or wasteful. They walked near a low stone wall, and while she passed by, Sarah just had to run her hand gently over the surface. Unexpectedly, the stone wasn't rough and hurtful, but of a texture that she couldn't quite identify, like fine upholstery.

They passed street signs and plaques written in a peculiar flowing script that was unlike anything Sarah had ever seen. She saw Madison looking at one, caught her eye with a quizzical glance, but Madison just looked back and shrugged. If Madison had never seen this script before, Sarah didn't feel so bad about not recognizing it.

The signs were becoming more frequent and larger, and the buildings were more sizable, with big transparent windows in front. Sarah supposed they were entering the center of the town.

The man they were following stopped and waited for the crowd to settle around them all. He spoke in a loud, clear voice, “Welcome to Zinteh fo Garfrat.” Madison leaned close to Sarah and whispered, “Village of those who wait.” The man continued, “I am Barteh, Son of Darnareh, the Shoptreh here, and we open our hands and hearts to you. You may be strangers here, but not for long, and you are not alone.”

Cliff replied, “We thank you, uh, Shoptreh, and thank you for your kindness to us. We are glad to be here, but would be gladder still if we all were here!”

The Shoptreh looked confused. Madison spoke up, “There were five of us, but one of us is missing!”

The Shoptreh asked, “Tell me of this missing one?”

Sarah chuckled to herself. How could they sum Jim up in just a few sentences? His cheerfulness, his bravery, his love of life, his brilliance with anything mechanical. Tell him of Jim, indeed! She caught herself on the edge of tears, so took slow deep breaths. Madison saw the expression on her face, and quietly walked over to gently hold her hand.

Cliff gave a quick synopsis of Jim's disappearance. The Shoptreh replied, “He is not missing. He was summoned.”

“Summoned?” Cliff replied.

“He has been called into the Semeh fo Purnarkat, a great honor. The doorways were used in ancient times for Adamat to travel in the Semeh fo Adamat and to visit with the Purnarkat, but have fallen into disuse as the Purnarkat now move freely among us.”

The crewmembers looked hopelessly among themselves, and the Shoptreh realized that they had not understood. He pointed to Cliff, then Sarah, then to people in the audience, old people, children, men and women, and said “Adamat.”

“Oh – people.” Madison said, in English.

“Semeh fo Adamat” the Shoptreh said, waving his arms all around him.

The crew still looked confused. The Shoptreh picked up a rock, and said, “Bistreh. You have just returned from a Semeh fo Bistrat, far far away. Away from the Semeh fo Adamat.”

“Oh,” Sarah exclaimed. “Semeh is ‘world.’ The world of mankind versus, the world of ... what? What is a Purnarkeh?”

The Shoptreh smiled. “You are very tired, the day is late, and you have many questions that your skills in our language do not allow me to answer right now. Come, I will show you to your new homes. Rest assured, Jim is quite safe.”

Cliff didn't believe him, but he didn't see where they had any choice but to follow him. After walking for a few minutes, the Shoptreh turned to them and pointed out four beautiful structures behind him. He named each one of the crew standing before him as he pointed to each structure.

Sarah was glad to walk towards the house, trying not to think too hard about the fact that there were four houses, not five, waiting for them. One villager walked forward to accompany each of them into his or her house as the crowd dissipated.

A slender young woman with curly brown hair walked with Sarah. She put her hand gently on Sarah's shoulder and said quietly, “Hello. My name is Sharjanee. I will walk alongside you to help you.” Sarah was uncomfortable to be separated from her crewmates, but was glad to have the company as they walked into the unfamiliar house.

As they entered, the lights in the house came on, not in a garish explosion, but gently, like the quiet flame of many candles. Sarah paused a moment, then realized she had no idea where the light was coming from. It was just there.

She also realized, as she stood there, that the house was comfortably familiar to her, which was strange, since she had never been there before. It felt like home in a hundred subtle little ways. Whoever had decorated the place knew a great deal about Sarah's personality. It was like a childhood friend had snuck in and done it, but all her childhood friends, all her family, all that she knew had died centuries ago. And Jim was gone.

She sighed.

Sharjanee was talking, and Sarah hadn't heard what she was saying. “I'm sorry, could you repeat that?”

Sharjanee patiently repeated telling Sarah where everything was located, and how to work the essential appliances. She then gave Sarah a quick hug and told her she would be back in the morning.

All that interested Sarah at that point was finding the bed. She didn't even bother to get changed, just took off her shoes, blouse and slacks, dropped them on the floor, then collapsed down onto the soft mattress, her last thoughts being how strange it felt to be lying down with neither the sound of the machinery of her ship, nor the outdoor sounds of the last few days.

♣♣♣

Across the way, Cliff carefully walked around the house, looking in each room, opening every door. He asked his mentor, a short, thin but muscular man named Jantumeh, questions about everything he touched. Cliff eventually was satisfied the house was safe.

He was, however, not yet ready to lie down. He waited anxiously by the window in the room on the second floor near the back that Jantumeh called the “Friendship room.” He stood in the gathering dusk watching the horizon near where the sun had just set. After a few minutes, he saw a small light rise up quickly from near the horizon, then disappear in a minute or two when it was about halfway to the zenith. He sighed with relief, having verified the Dauntless was still safely in orbit.

He mused to himself, “I wonder what will happen to her?”

Jantumeh responded, “Your ship?”

Cliff scowled at the interruption, before answering, “Yes, the Dauntless. We left it in high orbit. I suppose you'll be seeing it up there for a while!”

“Why didn't you land it?”

“It was built in space, in orbit around Mars, actually, and was never meant to touch the ground. It has no way to fly through an atmosphere. What do you think about this new evening star we've given you? I hope it won't cause a panic!”

Jantumeh laughed. “We don't panic that easily! We've seen lights in the sky before.”

“Oh? I thought you didn't have any space ships anymore. Certainly no one came to meet us!”

“If the Purnarkat desired it, they could have met you.”

Cliff chuckled to himself. “Why do you say that? Do they have space ships?”

Jantumeh laughed. “The Purnarkat! Space ships! Like they would need to travel in ships! They've never needed ships before!”

Cliff asked carefully, “From where did they come? Where is this world of theirs?”

“The Shoptreh told you outside. You need to know our language better before we can explain fully. It's better to get a full explanation with no misunderstandings than to get a partial one, isn't it?”

“I suppose,” Cliff answered, not sounding like he believed it.

Jantumeh replied, “Weighty matters are better discussed in the light of day. Peace and a good sleep to you, my friend.”

“And to you,” Cliff replied.

Cliff stood, deep in thought for a few minutes. He then removed his uniform, washed himself, carefully folded his clothes, climbed into bed and was immediately asleep.

♣♣♣

Next door to Cliff, Tony also stood at his window, but was looking down on the lights of the village all around them. He asked his mentor, Gadreneh, “So, now what do we do?” Gadreneh, looking puzzled, replied, “I suppose you get some sleep.”

Tony glared back at him a moment before replying, “No, I mean, what's in store for us in this brave new world of yours?”

“I suppose that's up to you, not me. What do you want to do?”

Tony shook his head, then replied, “I really don't know. We were focused on preparing for the trip, then on getting to the planet, then on getting back home. That's about as far ahead as we were thinking.”

He paused for a moment, and then pointed up at the sky, saying, “Hey – we're in a village, but I can still see the stars.”

“What's so unusual about that? I have lived in this village all my life, and we could always see the stars.”

“In my time, city lights drowned out the stars. I always liked looking at the stars. I bet you never thought that someone who studied rocks would like looking at the stars?”

“I have never known anyone before who studies rocks, but I like looking at the stars.”

“When I was out in the field, we were usually far away from city lights. The night sky was always incredible to a city boy like myself. I especially liked those cold, clear desert nights. Then there was the night sky outside the Mars dome! Those stars were like pin pricks in velvet. I never imagined that I'd be visiting one of those stars some day.”

“Which one was it?”

Tony pointed up at the stars, “I think it's in that constellation – if you can even see it from Earth. It doesn't even have a proper name, just a number in a star chart. At least it did. Maybe your culture has named it.”

“The king has a name for every star.”

Tony looked at him for a minute before continuing. “When we entered orbit, we didn’t see very many lights. Where are all the people? The cities?”

“We do have some big cities, not many. There are not as many of us as there were in your time.”

“What, everyone living on colonies on other stars or something?”

“No, there were some... very difficult times after you left. Many died.”

“About how many people live on this planet now`?”

Gadreneh paused for a moment before continuing. “It's not something I think about all the time, but I seem to remember from school that it is something like 300 million.”

Tony sat down hard on a nearby chair. “Only 300 million? We were nearly 11 billion when we left! Those were some kind of difficult times to kill um... 97 percent of the population! What happened?”

“It's a very long story, it's late, and it is better told when you know our language a little better.”

Tony sighed. “All right. What happens in the morning?”

“Sharjanee, the one who is mentoring Sarah, has invited us all to her family household. We will be eating breakfast together there.”

Tony yawned. “Great.”

♣♣♣

Madison was having a lot of fun. She, like Sarah, felt very comfortable in her little house. She and her new friend, Hildandaree, were looking through the cabinets in the kitchen. Then they opened up the closets in the bedroom, and Madison enjoyed running her fingers over the different fabrics in the clothing that was hung there. All of it was very practical, very beautiful and modestly cut. After only a few minutes, the two women were laughing together. Madison was telling her about some of the absurd things women wore in times past.

Madison had to draw a picture and explain “high heels” several times before Hildandaree understood. In the process, Madison learned some new words, not all of them altogether polite.

Hildandaree said to Madison, “You are coming along well in our language! I thought it would be harder to talk to you, but I am having a lot of fun!”

Madison replied, “It was my job on the crew to learn new languages, in case we ran across an alien artifact. We never did find anything more interesting than lifeless rocks. I must admit, I expected language to change back here on Earth, but not to find a completely new one! Where did this language come from?”

Hildandaree replied, “The Purnarkat taught it to us. We all speak the same language now, across all the world.”

Madison's eyes got wide. “Oh – I thought it was a regional thing! You mean everyone on the whole planet speaks this?”

“In every house, in every corner.”

“Are there any old records still around in the languages I'm used to hearing?”

Hildandaree thought for a moment before replying, “Hmm. I think maybe in the big universities, but a lot was lost in the troubled times. We're not even sure any more where some of the big cities of your time were located. The world is much changed, in many ways.”

Madison stifled a yawn. Hildandaree continued, “Oh – I am so very sorry! I have been a poor host to keep you up so late! You need your rest! I'll see you again tomorrow morning, when we'll all get together for breakfast.”

This time, Madison couldn't stifle the yawn, and gave her a weak “OK” before saying “Goodnight,” taking a warm bath using some delicate bath oil she found, then snuggling into the covers.

♣♣♣

The next morning, Sarah puzzled over a strange sound she was hearing. She quickly ran through a mental checklist of all the equipment on the ship and the noises it made when it was functioning well, as well as when it was broken. She felt like she ought to know that sound. She ran through the list again, to no avail.

Reluctantly, she eased one eye open into the blinding light that surrounded her. After a moment or two, she realized she was no longer on the ship. After another few moments, she remembered the sound.

Children were laughing in the street as they were playing some sort of game. She wrapped herself in a blanket and peered out the window. They were chasing a brightly colored little ball that was bobbing and weaving in the air, all by itself.

She shook her head, and then went to get cleaned up and dressed so she could meet the others for breakfast. From the look of the height of the sun above the horizon, it was already mid-morning. If Madison had gotten up before she had, Sarah would never hear the end of it.

After getting herself ready, including wearing a comfortable, but practical garment that she found in the closet, she wandered downstairs wondering where she would meet Sharjanee and the others. It bothered her that she had no idea where she was or how to find her way around the village. “Heck,” she said to herself, “I can't even read the street signs!”

Once she reached the first floor and looked out the window, however, she saw Sharjanee sitting in a wicker chair on the front porch, reading a book. “Hi!” Sharjanee said cheerfully when she saw Sarah stepping out of the door.

Sarah said, “Hi! Are we ready to go?”

“All set,” replied Sharjanee.

“I'm not the last one up, am I?”

“As far as I know, only Cliff is up so far.”

“It figures.”

Sharjanee started walking away, but Sarah hesitated for a moment. Turning to look back, Sharjanee asked, “Everything OK?”

“Do I lock the door? I don't have the key,” said Sarah.

“Oh – I'm sorry! House, meet Sarah. I am transferring my temporary custody to her,” said Sharjanee in the general direction of the doorway.

A gentle voice, sounding like it came from right next to Sarah, said “Hello, Sarah. Is this acceptable to you?”

Sarah looked confused. “Just say 'yes'”, Sharjanee replied.

“Yes”

“Now the house won't let anyone in unless you tell the house it's OK.”

“Oh... Oh! At least I won't lose any more keys!”

They walked off down the street and walked for a few blocks towards the outskirts of town. They passed a woman walking a spirited little dog that walked like it owned the sidewalk. Sarah exclaimed, “What a cute little dog!”

“Thanks, lady,” the dog replied.

Sarah looked around her, then at Sharjanee.

“What?” the dog asked.

“Sorry, I don't mean to be rude! Dog's didn't talk when I was last here!”

“No problem. See you around,” the dog continued, with a slight wag of its tail as it walked quickly down the street to catch up with the woman he was with.

“Do all the animals talk now?” Sarah asked Sharjanee.

Sharjanee laughed, “Of course not!”

Sarah continued as they walked on, “I wish I knew your language better. I would love to read up on the medical progress over the centuries we were gone.”

Sharjanee reached over and put her hand on Sarah's arm, saying, “It will come with time. Just relax and enjoy your stay here.”

Sarah asked her, “Where are we going? I know you told me, but I was so tired last night that I don't remember a lot of what went on.”

Sharjanee pointed to a house that was a few hundred feet away from them. “This is my family's home. We have lived here for about 200 years. My great-grandfather, Ganfarenteh, came here with my great-grandmother, Disandree, to settle in after the time of troubles. They were in the first group to arrive here.”

“Great-grandfather? Two hundred years? But...”

At that point, they had reached the outskirts of town and were standing in front of the house Sharjanee had pointed to. Although there was nothing that Sarah could immediately identify in the well-kept structure, there was an air of settled-ness about it, as if it had claimed the surrounding land with no intention of ever giving it back. It was a large house, not frivolously so, but looking like it was built to hold many hearts together in one place.

There were little flowers of sparkling colors along the brick path leading to the house. They reached the door and knocked, which made a resonant, semi-musical sound. After a few moments, a seemingly middle-aged woman answered the door and gave Sharjanee a big hug. Sharjanee turned to Sarah, and introduced her, “Great grandma, I would like you to meet Sarah, a far traveler and honored guest.”

Sarah just stood and stared for a minute, until, in the awkward silence, she remembered her manners, and responded, “I am very pleased to meet you.”

There followed another awkward pause where they all just smiled at each other, then Sarah blurted out, “How old are you?” Immediately she felt embarrassed.

The other two women laughed easily, and the great-grandmother, Disandree, responded, “Dear, I will be two hundred and forty three years old at my next birthday in two months. Why?”

Sharjanee responded for Sarah, “Grandma, in ancient times, people only lived to eighty or ninety years old. I don't think anyone explained to Sarah that we live so much longer now!”

Sarah, still wide-eyed and confused, remarked, “I suppose you will still be just as healthy when I am long dead?”

Sharjanee replied, “Don't be silly – you all will live as long as we do, now.”

Disandree stepped over and gave Sarah a hug. “Don't worry, dear. This all will settle down for you soon.”

Sarah replied, “I guess I have a lot more time to figure this all out than I thought I did! How long do people live now?”

Sharjanee looked at Disandree, then shrugged and answered, “One shock is enough for this morning.”

They walked inside the house, into a comfortable room in which Cliff and his new mentor were already sitting, talking lightly about each other's childhood and about the different sports they had played. After a few minutes, there was another knock at the door, and Tony arrived with Gadreneh, his mentor. After a much longer interval, when the conversation was turning more to how hungry they all were getting, and wondering what happened to Madison, there was another knock at the door. Madison and Hildandaree came into the room, with Madison looking rushed and out of breath like she had run all the way from her house, Hildandaree in tow.

After all the introductions, they sat down to breakfast (although there was some discussion as to whether there was a word for “brunch” in their new language). Huge mounds of delicious food were kept flowing to the table by hosts of relatives that Sharjanee kept trying to introduce, and who kept trying to speak to the crewmembers.

Sarah's head was already spinning before she even sat down, and she was ready for some peace and quiet mid-way through the meal.

Their mentors could see that the crew was getting stressed, so as the family was clearing the table, Sharjanee hustled them off to a little sitting room where the four of them could be alone for a while. All of them welcomed the time to get back together and talk in a language they could speak without thinking about it.

They just sat in silence for several minutes. Tony had his head back and eyes closed, so Sarah thought he was asleep. Madison had her elbows on the little table, holding her head in her hands. Her long red hair veiled her face, so she could have very well been asleep, too. Cliff and Sarah just sat and stared into space.

Cliff was the first one to break the silence. He related the conversation he had the night before with Jantumeh. They all slowly sat up and listened, then they, in turn, each shared what they knew about what their world had become.

Cliff stood up and walked slowly back and forth. Sarah asked him, “What are you thinking?”

“I'm not sure,” he replied, and then continued, “I have more questions than answers right now. This place is a puzzle – incredible technology, but it seems to be mostly controlled by the Purnarkat. I wonder...Madison, what do you think about this language of theirs? What is it most closely related to?”

Madison nudged her shoes off and reseated herself so she was sitting with one leg crossed under her before replying, “Well, it's not real close to any language I studied. It doesn't seem to have evolved from anything we're familiar with, except, maybe, there are some Semitic elements here and there, but they're not overwhelmingly dominant. Oh – and I've never seen anything like that script of theirs!”

Cliff continued, “So, we have talk of great troubles, a group controlling great power and technology, speaking a language that's not a pre-existing human language. What shall we make of that?”

Tony spoke up, “What I make of it is that you're getting paranoid on us.”

Cliff answered, “No, think about it. Maybe, while we were looking for alien life forms, they found us instead!”

The other three looked at each other. Sarah then said, “I'm not ready to go that far yet.”

Madison added, “I think we need to give them a chance. They all seem so kind.”

Cliff responded, “I'd be a lot more willing to relax if it weren't for what happened to Jim.”

They were quiet for a minute, and then Tony asked quietly, “So, what do we do, then?”

Cliff answered, “For now, I guess all we can do is keep our eyes open and keep gathering information.”

At that moment, there was a knock at the door. Sarah called, “Yes?” then realized she had said it in English, and repeated herself in the language of their hosts.

It was Sharjanee, who poked her head in and asked, “Anyone want dessert?”

The four of them groaned, but they all got up anyway.

Chapter 3

The Prodigal Son


Miles away, very late that night, on the other side of the province from Zinteh fo Gafrat, rain was pouring down on a quiet little neighborhood in a city at peace. Well, almost.

In one of those houses, Kalemneh pulled the pillow over his head, but the noise was still loud enough that he could hear it. He then sat slowly and groggily up in bed. His wife was still soundly asleep, but the dog was starting to growl and would be barking in another second or two. After that, everyone would be awake and crabby.

A minute passed, then he realized he was still sitting on the edge of the bed, and the noise was continuing. He sighed, then recognized that, above the soft pattering of the raindrops, he was hearing a regular and persistent knock at his back door.

Stumbling downstairs in the dark, he bumped his toe painfully against something, and suppressed a yell. How in the world, he wondered, could this get any worse?

When he got downstairs, he turned on the outside light and opened the door. There, standing in the pouring rain was a young man in ratty clothes, clutching a damp sack to his chest, trying in vain to keep it dry. His squirming hair was guiding meandering streams of water across his face in unpleasant and unattractive patterns. Kalemneh muttered to himself, “It just got worse,” but said aloud, “Shahuleh? What in the world...”

“Aren't you going to ask me in, cousin?”

Kalemneh paused for a few moments. They both stood there, the only sound being the trickling of water down some nearby surface. Then Kalemneh responded, “I'm thinking it over.”

“Please, Kalemneh. I don't have anywhere else to go. It's raining. Please let me in.”

Kalemneh chuckled dryly, then mockingly responded, “I'm shocked! Shahuleh actually saying ‘Please!’ Oh, all right. Just don't drip on the carpet. Much”

Shahuleh stepped over the threshold and dropped his bag inside the door. It landed with a squishy “thud.”

Kalemneh stared at the puddle forming on his carpet, shook his head then said softly, “Come, let me get you something warm to drink. And a towel. Or two.”

In the kitchen, Shahuleh took off his jacket and let it hit the floor with a “spluck” sound.

Kalemneh suppressed a gasp when he saw the thinness of Shahuleh's gaunt arm. Instead, he tried to calmly ask, “How has it been going?”

Shahuleh sat for a moment before replying, “Not as well as I would like.”

“I've heard some things.”

Shahuleh chuckled to himself before muttering, “I can imagine you would have.”

Kalemneh, trying to appear casual, set some rolls and butter on the table in front of his cousin. Kalemneh asked quietly, “What happened back home?”

“That boring little dump. Zinteh fo Gafrat - the ‘City of those who don't know what they're waiting for and wouldn't recognize it if it bit them in the butt?’ There?”

The kitchen said quietly, “The water is now hot, sir.”

Both cousins were quiet as Kalemneh fixed a cup of hot cocoa. He set it down and Shahuleh devoted his full attention to stirring it slowly. He finally continued, “I couldn't take it anymore. There was just nothing interesting happening there. You know I never got along with my dad, didn't you? Well, he forbade me to leave. Well, actually, we fought over it all the time. He threatened to call in the elders, so I... I just left one night.”

“I heard you beat him up first.”

“No, that's a lie. OK, I pushed him. Hard. He slipped, fell down a couple of steps and started yelling for the house to call the authorities. I panicked and ran.”

“You've been running long and far, haven't you?”

Shahuleh looked up from his cup and grinned a terrible little grin, replying, “It hasn't been running, exactly. OK, it was at first, but then it got to be fun. It's been an adventure, cousin, and I'll never go back there.”

Kalemneh nervously asked, “So, how long do you want to stay here?”

“Just a couple of days, no more. Let me catch my breath.”

“I know I'll regret this, but you can stay tonight. In the morning, Traymerlee and I will talk it over and see what we can do to help.”

“Thanks, cousin! You won't regret this!”

Kalmeneh shook his head, then said, in determined voice, “House, this is Shahuleh. He is a welcome guest.”

A voice, coming from the middle of the room, replied, “Welcome, Shahuleh. Enjoy your stay with us.”

Kalmeneh spoke again to Shahuleh, “Here – let me show you the guest room downstairs. Please be quiet so you don't wake Traymerlee or the kids!”

♣♣♣

Back upstairs, Kalmeneh climbed back into bed and had just fallen back to sleep when he felt the cold nose of their dog, Trimneh, poke his arm.

“Hey, boss!” Trimneh spoke quietly.

“Tell me you do not have to go out!” Kalmeneh replied.

“No, boss. Trouble.” Trimneh replied.

“What kind of trouble?” Kalmeneh muttered, only half awake.

“The new man. Trouble.”

“He's OK, Trimneh. He's just my cousin. He's sleeping in the guest room. Friend.”

“Not friend. Not sleeping. Trouble.”

“If you're getting me out of bed again for no reason, I'll make sure you’re available to the girls tomorrow for 'dress-up!' Do we understand each other?”

Trimneh's ears went back down against his head and his tail dropped, but he said again, “Trouble, boss. You better check.”

Sighing, Kalemneh slowly rolled out of bed for the second time that night and walked over to the alcove off his bedroom. He said quietly, “House, where is Shahuleh?”

A quiet voice replied, “Shahuleh is in the kitchen.”

“Kitchen? What the... House, show me the kitchen.”

In the air in front of him appeared a cube about 12 inches on a side, showing the interior of the kitchen. The drawers and cabinets were all pulled open. In the middle of the room, Shahuleh sat on the floor with piles of silverware, cookware and packages of food all around him. His sack was in front of him, and he was picking through the piles, thoughtfully putting items into his open bag.

Kalemneh cursed softly to himself, then said, “House, I need to be down there.”

♣♣♣

In the kitchen, Shahuleh was humming to himself as he was sorting through the items all around him. He said to himself, “Cousin, you have good stuff here. Yup, really good stuff.”

Then from behind him came one of the sounds dreaded by petty thieves in all times and places. He heard a tiny little cough, then froze. He then turned slowly around, and saw Kalemneh standing there. He just looked quietly at him for a moment.

Kalemneh broke the silence, saying, “What are you doing, cousin?”

Shahuleh began with “Well, I'm just...” but then grabbed a heavy little pot and swung it at Kalemneh. Instead of impacting, it went right through the image, spinning Shahuleh around. Losing his balance, he fell into the table and then rolled to the ground. He grabbed his bag, jumped up and dashed for the door.

It was locked.

The image of Kalemneh spoke quietly, “Cousin, I am very disappointed with you. Do you really think I would have risked coming down here in person? House – consider Shahuleh as an intruder. Notify the authorities and upload the record of what has happened here the last 15 minutes. Secure all the doors in the kitchen. Intruder protocol.”

Shahuleh sank to his knees and said mournfully, “Cousin, cousin, don't do this! Please! Just open the door and I'll be on my way! You'll never see me again! Please let me go!”

Kalemneh shook his head sadly. “No, cousin. You need help. You need to go home. The authorities will be here in a few minutes. May the king have mercy on you.”

“No! No!” Shahuleh screamed as the image of Kalemneh winked out.

Upstairs in the alcove, Kalemneh turned to Trimneh and said, simply, “A big bowl of treats for you tomorrow.”

Trimneh followed Kalemneh back to the bedroom, tail wagging, strutting with a happy, light step.

♣♣♣

In the kitchen, Shahuleh sat quietly in the middle of the floor and waited, with his chin resting on his chest looking like he was weeping. He didn't even look up when the door opened and two police walked cautiously into the room.

One of them spoke, slowly and carefully, “OK, son, to your feet, slowly. No sudden moves.”

Shahuleh just sat there, sobbing intermittently. The two police looked at each other. They walked slowly and deliberately towards Shahuleh. As they both bent down to take his arms in order to lift him up, he kicked out at the knees of the officer to his right, then, as she was falling, grabbed her and swung her into the other officer, knocking him off balance. He then quickly sprang to his feet and ran towards the door as the two officers fell into the table, and, with muffled grunts and cries, fell to the floor in a jumble.

In the split second before Shahuleh reached the door, the house realized what was happening and began to shut the door. When Shahuleh reached it, it had not fully closed. He began to frantically wrestle the house for control of the door.

Behind him, the police were struggling to disentangle and reorient themselves to the layout of the room. The woman officer was able to roll over enough to reach her pockets, and pulled out a small silver and blue rod.

Shahuleh had his foot wedged into the door, and was trying with both hands to push the door wide enough to squeeze through. He felt it begin to yield, and then all he felt, as he fell to the ground, was paralyzing pain. All he could do was lay on the ground, twitching and moaning, with no further thought of the door, the police, or anything but the pain.

The officer put her stunner away, and stood up with a deep sigh. She reached down and helped the male officer to his feet. As they walked over to secure Shahuleh, the other door, from the kitchen to the rest of the house, slowly opened. Kalemneh asked from just outside the kitchen, “Is it safe to come in?”

The woman officer responded, “Yes, sir. It's safe now.” She was wrapping a flexible band around Shahuleh's wrists, while the male officer did the same for his ankles. When she had the band where she wanted it, she whispered something to it and it contracted, firmly but not painfully.

“What will happen to him now?” Kalemneh asked.

“You wouldn't know this, sir, but this gentleman has a string of petty crimes extending from here back to Zinteh fo Gafrat. Break-ins, theft, assault. He's going to go back to Zinteh fo Gafrat for trial.”

Kalemneh looked down at Shahuleh and said, softly, “Sorry, cousin. It's for your own good.”

Shahuleh began to regain his senses, and said, “Sure. That's what my father always used to say. Don't worry, cousin. Someday you'll regret this. Traitor!”

Shahuleh spit at Kalemneh, but missed. Kalemneh just shook his head. The male officer said to him, “Pray hard about this one.”

“I shall,” said Kalemneh.

The officer pointed at the pile of silverware, saying quietly, “At least he didn't come after me with one of those knives!”

Kalemneh just shook his head sadly.

Behind him, Traymerlee was standing at the doorway, staring wide-eyed at the chaos in the kitchen.

Kalemneh sighed. When he had woken her up, he had hurriedly explained to her what was going on, but nothing prepared her for this. It was going to be a long night. He sat down on the floor and started sorting through the mess.

♣♣♣

The next morning, Shahuleh was in a rotten mood. After a night in an uncomfortable cell, he was loaded aboard a flitter, securely bound, a police officer on either side of him. They were flying back to where he had started months ago.

After flying for a little while, he realized he was bored. He stifled an evil grin, and said to the officer on his left, “If I spit on you now, what would you do?”

The officer just glared at him.

“I mean,” Shahuleh continued, “would you hit me real hard? And keep hitting me until your buddy over here stopped you? Would you get in trouble for that?”

“Shut up,” was all the officer replied.

“Why don't we try it? Let's see how good my aim is! Not much room to dodge in here, is there? Better get...Hey! Mmmmph mumph mmm”

He trailed off into unintelligible mumbles, still trying to talk through the adhesive patch the other officer had slapped over his mouth, sealing it shut.

Shahuleh sighed. Now all he could do was sit and stare out the window. After a few minutes, they passed over the great ruined expanse, making the wide turn to avoid traveling over Bofrohtee Shanparee. The forest was making great progress in reclaiming the piles of twisted rubble from those terrible battles long ago. Even he wasn't adventurous enough to wander in there! He stared intently and suddenly thought he saw motion far below. He smiled to himself, thinking, “The stories must be true, then.”

After about an hour, he leaned over again towards the window to see something that he had never seen before.

“Wow!” he thought to himself, “What happened there?”

They were descending in their approach to Zinteh fo Gafrat, and were passing over a meadow that looked like a white volcano had erupted in its midst. Three roughly concentric burnt patches were spread around a white shining object sitting in the middle.

The police were looking at it, too. Shahuleh said, “Mummph ummm mmmph mm mmumph.”

The officer on the right looked at him quizzically, then said, “We're almost there, so I'll take it off if you behave.”

Shahuleh looked back with sad, inquiring eyes. “OK,” the officer replied, “It goes right back on if you give me any trouble!”

Shahuleh licked his lips, waiting for a moment for the numbness to go away, before asking, “What in the name of holiness and blessing is that thing?”

“Haven't you checked the news? Remember the expeditions we used to hear about in school? The ones to the stars? Well, a few months ago we got word that the surviving ship, the Dauntless, was coming back. That's their landing shuttle. They arrived about a week ago.”

“It figures.” Shahuleh muttered dejectedly.

“What?”

“The only exciting thing ever to happen in this stinking little pile of dirt had to happen while I was away.”





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