Zoe's Tale (Chapter Twelve)
"What's that smell?" Gretchen said, and wrinkled her nose.
I took a sniff and did some nose wrinkling of my own. "I think the pilot landed in a pile of rancid socks," I said. I calmed Babar, who was with us and who seemed excited about something; maybe he liked the smell.
"That's the planet," said Anna Faulks. She was one of the Magellan crew, and had been down to the planet several times, unloading cargo. The colony's base camp was almost ready for the colonists; Gretchen and I, as children of colony leaders, were being allowed to come down on one of the last cargo shuttles rather than having to take a cattle car shuttle with everyone else. Our parents had already been on planet for days, supervising the unloading. "And I've got news for you," Faulks said. "This is about as pretty as the smells get around here. When you get a breeze coming in from the forest, then it gets really bad."
"Why?" I asked. "What does it smell like then?"
"Like everyone you know just threw up on your shoes," Faulks said.
"Wonderful," Gretchen said.
There was a grinding clang as the massive doors of the cargo shuttle opened. There was a slight breeze as the air in the cargo bay puffed out into the Roanoke sky. And then the smell really hit us.
Faulks smiled at us. "Enjoy it, ladies. You're going to be smelling it every day for the rest of your lives."
"So are you," Gretchen said to Faulks.
Faulks stopped smiling at us. "We're going to start moving these cargo containers in a couple of minutes," she said. "You two need to clear out and get out of our way. It would be a shame if your precious selves got squashed underneath them." She turned away from us and started toward the rest of the shuttle cargo crew.
"Nice," I said, to Gretchen. "I don't think now was a smart time to remind her that she's stuck here."
Gretchen shrugged. "She deserved it," she said, and started toward the cargo doors.
I bit the inside of my cheek and decided not to comment. The last several days had made everyone edgy. This is what happens when you know you're lost.
On the day we skipped to Roanoke, this is how Dad broke the news that we were lost.
"Because I know there are rumors already, let me say this first: We are safe," Dad said to the colonists. He stood on the platform where just a couple of hours earlier we had counted down the skip to Roanoke. "The Magellan is safe. We are not in any danger at the moment."
Around us the crowd visibly relaxed. I wondered how many of them caught the "at the moment" part. I suspected John put it in there for a reason.
He did. "But we are not where we were told we would be," he said. "The Colonial Union has sent us to a different planet than we had expected to go to. It did this because it learned that a coalition of alien races called the Conclave were planning to keep us from colonizing, by force if necessary. There is no doubt they would have been waiting for us when we skipped. So we were sent somewhere else: to another planet entirely. We are now above the real Roanoke.
"We are not in danger at the moment," John said. "But the Conclave is looking for us. If it finds us it will try to take us from here, again likely by force. If it cannot remove us, it will destroy the colony. We are safe now, but I won't lie to you. We are being hunted."
"Take us back!" someone shouted. There were murmurings of agreement.
"We can't go back," John said. "Captain Zane has been remotely locked out of the Magellan's control systems by the Colonial Defense Forces. He and his crew will be joining our colony. The Magellan will be destroyed once we have landed ourselves and all our supplies on Roanoke. We can't go back. None of us can."
The room erupted in angry shouts and discussions. Dad eventually calmed them down. "None of us knew about this. I didn't. Jane didn't. Your colony representatives didn't. And certainly Captain Zane didn't. This was kept from all of us equally. The Colonial Union and the Colonial Defense Forces have decided for reasons of their own that it is safer to keep us here than to bring us back to Phoenix. Whether we agree with this or not, this is what we have to work with."
"What are we going to do?" Another voice from the crowd.
Dad looked out in the direction the voice came from. "We're going to do what we came here to do in the first place," he said. "We're going to colonize. Understand this: When we all chose to colonize, we knew there were risks. You all know that seed colonies are dangerous places. Even without this Conclave searching for us, our colony would still have been at risk for attack, still a target for other races. None of this has changed. What has changed is that the Colonial Union knew ahead of time who was looking for us and why. That allowed them to keep us safe in the short run. It gives an advantage in the long run. Because now we know how to keep ourselves from being found. We know how to keep ourselves safe."
More murmurings from the crowd. Just to the right of me a woman asked, "And just how are we going to keep ourselves safe?"
"Your colonial representatives are going to explain that," John said. "Check your PDAs; each of you has a location on the Magellan where you and your former worldmates will meet with your representative. They'll explain to you what we'll need to do, and answer the questions you have from there. But there is one thing I want to be clear about. This is going to require cooperation from everyone. It's going to require sacrifice from everyone. Our job of colonizing this world was never going to be easy. It's just become a lot harder.
"But we can do it," Dad said, and the forcefulness with which he said it seemed to surprise some people in the crowd. "What's being asked of us is hard, but it's not impossible. We can do it if we work together. We can do it if we know we can rely on each other. Wherever we've come from, we all have to be Roanokers now. This isn't how I would have chosen for this to happen. But this is how we are going to have to make it work. We can do this. We have to do this. We have to do it together."
I stepped out of the shuttle, and put my feet on the ground of the new world. The ground's mud oozed over the top of my boot. "Lovely," I said. I started walking. The mud sucked at my feet. I tried not to think of the sucking as a larger metaphor. Babar bounded off the shuttle and commenced sniffing his surroundings. He was happy, at least.
Around me, the Magellan crew was on the job. Other shuttles that had landed before were disgorging their cargo; another shuttle was coming in for a landing some distance away. The cargo containers, standard-sized, littered the ground. Normally, once the contents of the containers were taken out, the containers would be sent back up in the shuttles to be reused; waste not, want not. This time, there was no reason to take them back up to the Magellan. It wasn't going back; these containers wouldn't ever be refilled. And as it happened, some of these containers wouldn't even be unpacked; our new situation here on Roanoke didn't make it worth the effort.
But it didn't mean that the containers didn't have a purpose; they did. That purpose was in front of me, a couple hundred meters away, where a barrier was forming, a barrier made from the containers. Inside the barrier would be our new temporary home; a tiny village, already named Croatoan, in which all twenty-five hundred of us – and the newly-resentful Magellan crew – would be stuck while Dad, Mom and the other colony leaders did a survey of this new planet to see what we needed to do in order to live on it.
As I watched, some of the Magellan crew were moving one of the containers into place into the barrier, using top lifters to set the container in place and then turning off their power and letting the container fall a couple of millimeters to the ground with a thump. Even from this distance I felt the vibration in the ground. Whatever was in that container, it was heavy. Probably farming equipment that we weren't allowed to use anymore.
Gretchen had already gotten far ahead of me. I thought about racing to catch up with her but then noticed Jane coming out from behind the newly placed container and talking to one of the Magellan crew. I walked toward her instead.
When Dad talked about sacrifice, in the immediate term he was talking about two things.
First: no contact between Roanoke and the rest of the Colonial Union. Anything we sent back in the direction of the Colonial Union was something that could give us away, even a simple skip drone full of data. Anything sent to us could give us away, too. This meant we were truly isolated: no help, no supplies, not even any mail from friends and loved ones left behind. We were alone.
At first this didn't seem like much of a big deal. After all, we left our old lives behind when we became colonists. We said good-bye to the people who we weren't taking with us, and most of us knew it would be a very long time if ever until we saw those people again. But even for all that, the lines weren't completely severed. A skip drone was supposed to leave the colony on a daily basis, carrying letters and news and information back to the Colonial Union. A skip drone was supposed to arrive on a daily basis, too, with mail, and news and new shows and songs and stories and other ways that we could still feel that we were part of humanity, despite being stuck on a colony, planting corn.
And now, none of that. It was all gone. The no new stories and music and shows were what hit you first – a bad thing if you were hooked on a show or band before you left and were hoping to keep up with it – but then you realized that what it really meant was from now on you wouldn't know anything about the lives of the people you left behind. You wouldn't see a beloved baby nephew's first steps. You wouldn't know if your grandmother had passed away. You wouldn't see the recordings your best friend took of her wedding, or read the stories that another friend was writing and desperately trying to sell, or see pictures of the places you used to love, with the people you still love standing in the foreground. All of it was gone, maybe forever.
When that realization hit, it hit people hard – and an even harder hit was the realization that everyone else that any of us ever cared about knew nothing about what happened to us. If the Colonial Union wasn't going to tell us where we were going in order to fool this Conclave thing, they certainly weren't going to tell everyone else that they had pulled a fast one with our whereabouts. Everyone we ever knew thought we were lost. Some of them probably thought we had been killed. John and Jane and I didn't have much to worry about on this score – we were each other's family, and all the family we had – but everyone else had someone who was even now mourning them. Savitri's mother and grandmother were still alive; the expression on her face when she realized that they probably thought she was dead made me rush over to give her a hug.
I didn't even want to think about how the Obin were handling our disappearance. I just hoped the Colonial Union ambassador to the Obin had on clean underwear when the Obin came to call.
The second sacrifice was harder.
"You're here," Jane said, as I walked up to her. She reached down to pet Babar, who had come bounding up to her.
"Apparently," I said. "Is it always like this?"
"Like what?" Jane said.
"Muddy," I said. "Rainy. Cold. Sucky."
"We're arriving at the beginning of spring here," Jane said. "It's going to be like this for a little while. I think things will get better."
"You think so?" I asked.
"I hope so," Jane said. "But we don't know. The information we have on the planet is slim. The Colonial Union doesn't seem to have done a normal survey here. And we won't be able to put up a satellite to track weather and climate. So we have to hope it gets better. It would be better if we could know. But hoping is what we have. Where's Gretchen?"
I nodded in the direction I saw her go. "I think she's looking for her dad," I said.
"Everything all right between you two?" Jane said. "You're rarely without each other."
"It's fine," I said. "Everyone's twitchy these last few days, Mom. So are we, I guess."
"How about your other friends?" Jane asked.
I shrugged. "I haven't seen too much of Enzo in the last couple of days," I said. "I think he's taking the idea of being stranded out here pretty badly. Even Magdy hasn't been able to cheer him up. I went to go visit him a couple of times, but he doesn't want to say much, and it's not like I've been that cheerful myself. He's sending me poems, still, though. On paper. He has Magdy deliver them. Magdy hates that, by the way."
Jane smiled. "Enzo's a nice boy," she said.
"I know," I said. "I think I didn't pick a great time to decide to make him my boyfriend, though."
"Well, you said it, everyone's twitchy the last few days," Jane said. "It'll get better."
"I hope so," I said, and I did. I did moody and depressed with the best of them, but even I have my limits, and I was getting near them. "Where's Dad? And where's Hickory and Dickory?" The two of them had gone down in one of the first shuttles with Mom and Dad; between them making themselves scarce on the Magellan and being away for the last few days, I was starting to miss them.
"Hickory and Dickory we have out doing a survey of the surrounding area," Jane said. "They're helping us get a lay of the land. It keeps them busy and useful, and keeps them out of the way of most of the colonists at the moment. I don't think any of them are feeling very friendly toward nonhumans at the moment, and we'd just as soon avoid someone trying to pick a fight with them."
I nodded at this. Anyone who tried to pick a fight with Hickory or Dickory was going to end up with something broken, at least. Which would not make the two of them popular, even (or maybe especially) if they were in the right. Mom and Dad were smart to get them out of the way for now.
"Your dad is with Manfred Trujillo," Jane said, mentioning Gretchen's dad. "They're laying out the temporary village. They're laying it out like a Roman Legion encampment."
"We're expecting an attack from the Visigoths," I said.
"We don't know what to expect an attack from," Jane said. The matter-of-fact way she said it did absolutely nothing to cheer me up. "I expect you'll find Gretchen with them. Just head into the encampment and you'll find them."
"It'd be easier if I could just ping Gretchen's PDA and find her that way," I said.
"It would be," Jane agreed. "But we don't get to do that anymore. Try using your eyes instead." She gave me a quick peck on the temple and then walked off to talk to the Magellan crew. I sighed and then headed into the encampment to find Dad.
The second sacrifice: Every single thing we had with a computer in it, we could no longer use. Which meant we couldn't use most things we had.
The reason was radio waves. Every piece of electronic equipment communicated with every other piece of electronic equipment through radio waves. Even the tiny radio transmissions they sent could be discovered if someone was looking hard enough, as we were assured that they were. But just turning off the connecting capability was not enough, since we were told that not only did our equipment use radio waves to communicate with each other, they used them internally to have one part of the equipment talk to other parts.
Our electronics couldn't help transmitting evidence that we were here, and if someone knew what frequencies they used to work, they could be detected simply by sending the radio signal that turned them on. Or so we were told. I'm not an engineer. All I knew was that a huge amount of our equipment was no longer usable – and not just unusable, but a danger to us.
We had to risk using this equipment to land on Roanoke and set up the colony. We couldn't very well land shuttles without using electronics; it wasn't the trip down that would be a problem, but the landings would be pretty tricky (and messy). But once everything was on the ground, it was over. We went dark, and everything we had in cargo containers that contained electronics would stay in those containers. Possibly forever.
This included data servers, entertainment monitors, modern farm equipment, scientific tools, medical tools, kitchen appliances, vehicles and toys. And PDAs.
This was not a popular announcement. Everyone had PDAs, and everyone had their lives in them. PDAs were where you kept your messages, your mail, your favorite shows and music and reading. It's how you connected with your friends, and played games with them. It's how you made recordings and video. It's how you shared the stuff you loved, to the people you liked. It was everyone's outboard brain.
And suddenly they were gone; every single PDA among the colonists – slightly more than one per person – was collected and accounted for. Some folks tried to hide them; at least one colonist tried to sock the Magellan crew member who'd been assigned to collect them. That colonist spent the night in the Magellan brig, courtesy of Captain Zane; rumor had it the captain cranked down the temperature in the brig and the colonist spent the night shivering himself awake.
I sympathized with the colonist. I'd been without my PDA for three days now and I still kept catching myself reaching for it when I wanted to talk to Gretchen, or listen to some music, or to check to see if Enzo had sent me something, or any one of a hundred different things I used my PDA for on a daily basis. I suspected that part of the reason people were so cranky was because they'd had their outboard brains amputated; you don't realize how much you use your PDA until the stupid thing is gone.
We were all outraged that we didn't have our PDAs anymore, but I had this itchy feeling in the back of my brain that one of the reasons people were so worked up about their PDAs was that it kept them from having to think about the fact that so much of the equipment we needed to use to survive, we couldn't use at all. You can't just disconnect the computers from our farm equipment; it can't run without it, it's too much a part of the machine. It'd be like taking out your brain and expecting your body to get along without it. I don't think anyone really wanted to face the fact of just how deep the trouble was.
In fact, only one thing was going to keep all of us alive: the two hundred and fifty Colonial Mennonites who were part of our colony. Their religion had kept them using outdated and antique technology; none of their equipment had computers, and only Hiram Yoder, their colony representative, had used a PDA at all (and only then, Dad explained to me, to stay in contact with other members of the Roanoke colonial council). Working without electronics wasn't a state of deprivation for them; it's how they lived. It made them the odd folks out on the Magellan, especially among us teens. But now it was going to save us.
This didn't reassure everyone. Magdy and a few of his less appealing friends pointed to the Colonial Mennonites as evidence that the Colonial Union had been planning to strand us all along and seemed to resent them for it, as if they had known it all along rather than being just as surprised as the rest of us. Thus we confirmed that Magdy's way of dealing with stress was to get angry and pick nonexistent fights; his near-brawl at the beginning of the trip was no fluke.
Magdy got angry when stressed. Enzo got withdrawn. Gretchen got snappish. I wasn't entirely sure how I got.
"You're mopey," Dad said to me. We were standing outside the tent that was our new temporary home.
"So that's how I get," I said. I watched Babar wander around the area, looking for places to mark his territory. What can I say. He's a dog.
"I'm not following you," Dad said. I explained how my friends were acting since we'd gotten lost. "Oh, okay," Dad said. "That makes sense. Well, if it's any comfort, if I have the time to do anything else but work, I think I would be mopey, too."
"I'm thrilled it runs in the family," I said.
"We can't even blame it on genetics," Dad said. He looked around. All around us were cargo containers, stacks of tents under tarps and surveyor's twine, blocking off where the streets of our new little town will be. Then he looked back to me. "What do you think of it?"
"I think this is what it looks like when God takes a dump," I said.
"Well, yes, now it does," Dad said. "But with a lot of work and a little love, we can work our way up to being a festering pit. And what a day that will be."
I laughed. "Don't make me laugh," I said. "I'm trying to work on this mopey thing."
"Sorry," Dad said. He wasn't actually sorry in the slightest. He pointed at the tent next to ours. "At the very least, you'll be close to your friend. This is Trujillo's tent. He and Gretchen will be living here."
"Good," I said. I had caught up with Dad with Gretchen and her dad; the two of them had gone off to look at the little river that ran near the edge of our soon-to-be settlement to find out the best place to put the waste collector and purifier. No indoor plumbing for the first few weeks at least, we were told; we'd be doing our business in buckets. I can't begin to tell you how excited I was to hear that. Gretchen had rolled her eyes a little bit at her dad as he dragged her off to look at likely locations; I think she was regretting taking the early trip. "How long until we start bringing down the other colonists?" I asked.
Dad pointed. "We want to get the perimeter set up first," he said. "We've been here a couple of days and nothing dangerous has popped out of those woods over there, but I think we want to be safer rather than sorrier. We're getting the last containers out of the cargo hold tonight. By tomorrow we should have the perimeter completely walled and the interior blocked out. So two days, I think. In three days everyone will be down. Why? Bored already?"
"Maybe," I said. Babar had come around to me and was grinning up at me, tongue lolling and paws caked with mud. I could tell he was trying to decide whether or not to leap up on two legs and get mud all over my shirt. I sent him my best don't even think about it telepathy and hoped for the best. "Not that it's any less boring on the Magellan right now. Everyone's in a foul mood. I don't know, I didn't expect colonizing to be like this."
"It's not," Dad said. "We're sort of an exceptional case here."
"Oh, to be like everyone else, then," I said.
"Too late for that," Dad said, and then motioned at the tent. "Jane and I have the tent pretty well set up. It's small and crowded, but it's also cramped. And I know how much you like that." This got another smile from me. "I've got to join Manfred and then talk to Jane, but after that we can all have lunch and try to see if we can't actually enjoy ourselves a little. Why don't you go in and relax until we get back. At least that way you don't have to be mopey and windblown."
"All right," I said. I gave Dad a peck on the cheek, and then he headed off toward the creek. I went inside the tent, Babar right behind.
"Nice," I said to Babar, as I looked around. "Furnished in tasteful Modern Refugee style. And I love what they've done with those cots."
Babar looked up at me with that stupid doggy grin of his and then leaped up on one of the cots and laid himself down.
"You idiot," I said. "You could have at least wiped off your paws." Babar, notably unconcerned with criticism, yawned and then closed his eyes.
I got on the cot with him, brushed off the chunkier bits of mud, and then used him as a pillow. He didn't seem to mind. And a good thing, too, since he was taking up half my cot.
"Well, here we are," I said. "Hope you like it here."
Babar made some sort of snuffling noise. Well said, I thought.
Even after everything was explained to us, there were still some folks who had a hard time getting it through their heads that we were cut off and on our own. In the group sessions headed by each of the colonial representatives, there was always someone (or someones) who said things couldn't be as bad as Dad was making them out to be, that there had to be some way for us to stay in contact with the rest of humanity or at least use our PDAs.
That's when the colony representatives sent each colonist the last file their PDAs would receive. It was a video file, shot by the Conclave and sent to every other race in our slice of space. In it, the Conclave leader, named General Gau, stood on a rise over-looking a small settlement. When I first saw the video I thought it was a human settlement, but was told that it was a settlement of Whaid colonists, the Whaid being a race I knew nothing about. What I did know was that their homes and buildings looked like ours, or close enough to ours not to matter.
This General Gau stood on the rise just long enough for you to wonder what it was he was looking at down there in the settlement, and the settlement disappeared, turned into ash and fire by what seemed like a thousand beams of light stabbing down from what we were told were hundreds of spaceships floating high above the colony. In just a few seconds there was nothing left of the colony, or the people who lived in it, other than a rising column of smoke.
No one questioned the wisdom of hiding after that.
I don't know how many times I watched the video of the Conclave attack; it must have been a few dozen times before Dad came up to me and made me hand over my PDA – no special privileges just because I was the colony leader's kid. But I wasn't watching because of the attack. Or, well, I should say that wasn't really what I was looking at when I watched it. What I was looking at was the figure, standing on the rise. The creature who ordered the attack. The one who had the blood of an entire colony on his hands. I was looking at this General Gau. I was wondering what he was thinking when he gave the order. Did he feel regret? Satisfaction? Pleasure? Pain?
I tried to imagine what it would take to order the deaths of thousands of innocent people. I felt happy that I couldn't wrap my brain around it. I was terrified that this general could. And that he was out there. Hunting us.