Monday, January 4, 2021

Personal Responsibility

 A friend of mine who has one of those larger than life personalities once lamented on his wife's interest in genealogy. "They're dead. These are dead people. Why would you want to look up uninteresting facts about when people died or were born or when they moved?", he said with his hands waving. It's hard to argue with logic like that. But I'm going to do it anyway. 

One hundred and fifty years ago or so, some people who are now dead were creating the luckiest moments of my life. My grandparents, and their parents were forsaking their family histories because the world was changing and because those families were not including them in their plans for their legacy. Half of them were coming from Europe and half from south of the Mason-Dixon line. They came to Flint, Michigan where my parents and most of my cousins were born.

My great grandparents were born in a time when being born first still meant something. The first male traditionally received more of the family fortune and was treated as more important than his siblings. It was a time when fewer resources meant more competition. As one of my ancestors found out, even if you asked for help from your own brother, you might be met with an illogical response such as, "God helps those who help themselves."

Sometime around my late teens, I had to make my own decisions and decide how I could find my own fortunes and choose my own legacy. My heritage was helping with that, but sometimes it was a barrier. The illogical phrase that I have come up against was; I am "personally responsible" for my fate. 

It's true to a point, I had choices about my education, including how hard to study. I could have worked out harder and done better in sports or practiced more and improved by ability to play an instrument or just read more books and paid more attention to the adults who were deciding to send people my age off to fight in some place on the other side of the globe. No matter what I did though, decisions about my fate were being made that were just as much out of my control as the ones made by people before I was ever born. 

My dad's grandfather was cut out of any inheritance so he left Germany and eventually came to America through Canada to Flint. My mom's grandfather was born just as slave's were being freed. His father could no longer keep the people he had inherited so he moved west. I know very little about why made his decisions, but I'm guessing the economy of Tennessee was suffering in the post Civil War era. For my mom's dad, there was a falling out with his brother, and he packed up his young family and drove from Arkansas to Flint to get work. 

Both of those grandfathers of mine took advantage of the growing economy of the auto industry. The next generation took advantage of unions and the low cost of higher education in the war years and after. They were not rich. The rich were being taxed to build the infrastructure that made America the most powerful country in the world and kept the USSR in check including beating them in the so-called "space race". All of that had positive and negative consequences. 

I only know of those good and bad effects because of the advantages they gave me. To continue to keep up with the evil in the world, we need higher education and a healthy defense system. You may not like the Liberal professors that are created by that, or the crimes we commit in foreign countries, but I know I would not be able to understand all of it without the advantages that they created and keep creating. It's not a perfect world. 

If I could overcome the culture created by 10,000 years of human history, and live in a world that matches my vision of loving, caring, good neighbors, who work hard, I would do it. I may not know what to do, but I know tearing down everything from the past is not the place to start. Breaking a tradition, questioning an authority, opening a dialogue, those are things that my great grandparents did and I honor them by thinking for myself. 

I know that they knew that they could not know what I know. They were muddling through life just like the rest of us. Powerful forces altered their futures. Random events that may have seemed small changed their future. They kept on. I wouldn't be here if they didn't. 

Bruce Springsteen put it more poetically. As Bruce was about to  become a father, his own father visited him and made a sort of apology for the father that he had been. It was more than that. It was a warning of the mistakes he had made. Telling his son not to make them with his own children. In Bruce's words, "To release them of the chains of our sins, my father's and mine and our father's before. That they may be free to make their own choices and to live their own lives. We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children's lives. We either lay our mistakes, our burdens upon them and we haunt them. Or we assist them laying those old burdens down and we free them from the chain of our own flawed behavior. And as ancestors we walk alongside of them, and we assist them in finding their own way and some transcendence." 

You're In My Light (as of 2020)

 

You’re in My Light

A Hero’s journey on the way to the hardware store

Chapter 1

Some few million years ago an ape ran when it thought it heard something rustling in the underbrush. That ape went on to have many children. Another ape from that time didn’t run and didn’t go on to have anything or do anything ever again. The ape children did more than just survive. Their children’s children’s children now live in a world with satellites and self-driving vehicles. The urge to run is still there.

On a sunny day in Northern Indiana, in the underbrush by a dirt road a face took shape in the leaves. The face appeared to have eyes. They moved slowly higher. This wasn’t how leaves and branches behaved. It was eyes, and a nose. It was a face with ash and clay smeared on it to match the brush.

 Sitting nearby, as if at a picnic, with no camouflage and wearing a pair of khaki pants with a few grass stains that someone had attempted to wash out and a T-shirt sporting the names of several Midwestern rock bands from the 70s another man said, “What’s with the camo Pete?”. The second ape descendant blew his cover.

“Shhsh, it will hear us.”

“Of course it will hear us. It’s more sensitive than any animal on earth. It literally has advanced alien technology.” He sat casually for someone being stalked by an alien drone.

“Then what are we doing here? You said we were going to shoot at the aliens. You look like you’re having a neighborhood barbeque.” The intensity of battle was wearing off in this conversation but his muscles were still tight, ready for a fight.

“We aren’t shooting at aliens. We’re shooting at a drone that people made with some alien technology in it. You’re reading too much Star Trek fan fiction and not enough of the tech journals.”

“I know it’s a drone. What I mean is if we are taking on the aliens, and they can see us hiding here, how can we possibly hope to mount any kind of resistance?” He was starting to feel a bit silly with that stuff on his face.

“Maybe history should be on your reading list. How did the Palestinians get the attention of the rest of the world? How did Afghanistan take down the Soviet Union? It was one helicopter at a time, sometimes getting civilians involved. This isn’t conventional war. They were out matched and so are we. It’s called ‘trying to win’.”

“Yeah, I read the ‘Freedom Fighters’ speech, bin Laden was a freedom fighter, and so was George Washington. They are going to call us terrorists and so on, but we’re not fighting for some religious ideal or against some despotic King, this is our planet. We aren’t just fleas arguing over who owns the dog, we have 4 billion years of biology behind us here. See, I read. But all I was told is shoot down a drone and run back to town.  I’m trying to figure out how all that fits in the master plan.”

An “m” slowly started to form on the lips of Pete’s brother in arms as he tried to process this “master plan” comment but that question would have to wait. One eye squinted and his head turned to the side like a dog trying to hone in on a sound. It was the whir of the drone and the fight or flight response switched on, to fight. “Okay, we’ll talk master plan when we get back. Here it comes now. I need you for your marksmanship right now, not your political theories. One shot to get it to bank then it’s all yours.”

“This part I know.” His game face returned, and the camo now fit the attitude.

The drone whizzed by, noting the heat outline of a couple people by the side of the road, nothing to report home about. The technology to analyze their DNA existed on a large ship just beyond the exosphere, but on the planet, it was still a democracy and privacy laws still kept that out of something the US government owned and operated. Those details were not on the minds of these two men. For them it was enough to know that it couldn’t tell their age or match their faces to any databases anywhere.

A 12 gauge shotgun popped out from underneath a blanket and was fired without taking much time to aim. The drone dipped sharply into a turn to avoid the shot spray. Pete had drawn his weapon at the same time from under a poncho that was laid beside him. It was a Browing A-5 autoloader with the iconic humpback receiver. He shouldered the gun, his cheek automatically rested on the stock and his eye looked down the barrel. He caught up to the drone and pulled ahead of the target. He pulled the trigger.

Miles away in a room lit only by surveillance screens and low lamps over clipboards and small devices, a man in a white shirt and a loosened tie was sipping coffee. He threw his legs forward to bring his swivel chair to the full upright position. He managed to do this while keeping his lips on his coffee cup and without spilling a drop. He set it down in its matching coaster and said, “Kids. We should put some ‘Deer Crossing’ signs back up. Give them something to shoot at”. His screen showed a country road, forested on either side. It was mostly a blur and the horizon was not in the middle of the screen where it should have been, but it looked like it was recovering to normal flight. The road and trees whipped back and forth on his screen. He just barely caught two figures silhouetted by their heat signatures. The screen went blank. He had a one word response, “Shit.”

“Nice shot. Let’s go”, Pete’s companion said, just as casual as he had been before. They were both already moving as he handed his gun to Pete as smooth as runners passing the baton in a relay.

Both men moved at double time down a deer path. They split up as they started toward a stream and crossed at different points. Neither one of them looked back. The forest turned to corn field. Pete moved down the rows swiftly being careful not to jostle the tassels above him. He slowed to listen as he neared the edge of the field then looked left, right, and more important above.

The guns were tucked in to the poncho he was carrying and slung over his shoulder. Now he adopted the casual attitude of his companion. He strolled toward the nearby barn.  Inside, he got down on all fours and brushed at the hay until he found the large brass ring mounted flush to the floor. He returned to a wide stance standing above it and heaved open a door that revealed many more weapons and ammunition. With loving care he unloaded and placed each gun in its designated place.

Water and some grooming utensils that could have just as easily have been there for the horses, were used to wash off the unnecessary camouflage and transform him back into just another young man in town. As he left the barn, he carefully fashioned his finger and thumb to hold his tongue for a loud whistle. Across the yard from the barn, on the other side of a house someone who looked like a farmer checked his watch then returned to making some motions that looked like working the land.

When Pete arrived in town for a well deserved adult beverage, the man who was his superior officer less than an hour ago was already well into an electronic trivia game. Pete asked what’s new and the standard reply of “nothing” actually meant something this time. It meant they hadn’t made the news, yet. Police reports of a drone shot down of course, but he wasn’t worried about those, yet. Gun shots in a corn field in Indiana in late summer are not news. The shooting down of a federal drone would remain a matter for the Federal Government. Local police weren’t going to get involved until they had done some investigating. Whatever the master plan was, Pete’s part was to just be where he was.

In the southern half of the state, on a farm that was more like a very large garden, in one of the outbuildings, a Betamax video player whirred quietly as it played lecture #213. Dave was paying more attention to the lights and dials than the content. It was the umpteenth time he had seen this one about how electricity works. It was fun to learn something this way, way more fun than school. And it was his dad teaching it, who he also loved.

As he got older, he had been expected to help with editing and maintaining copies of the library and upgrading to the next technology. It became tedious. It became work. Then his dad died. Almost everything he did he had first encountered through his father. Wiring a home, repairing a bicycle, navigating with a map and compass, determining how he aged just a little bit faster as he rode uphill because of the relative effect of the change in gravity, all of it was just reminders.

When aliens arrived a few months after his father’s death and declared half the world an intergalactic sanctuary, or something, he didn’t pay that much attention to the news, it did nothing to change his outlook on life. The best part of that was that people left. They left for one of the two other planets that now had spaceports just like the ones the aliens had built on earth. His dad always said that adding billions of people to the planet over just a few decades was the biggest problem we faced, and nothing seemed to be able to stop it. It was fine with Dave that human population would return to the numbers of his father’s boyhood.

The people here on this little farm were enough for him and his fix-it skills were a good fit. If the best time to fix something was always just around meal time that was just fine. The smiles and warm conversation over the table made it all alright. This morning however was spent just staring at the equipment, sending another of his father’s educational videos up to some kind of space encyclopedia.

Dave’s expressionless face did not match the enthusiasm of his father’s on the screen. The subject matter wasn’t exciting but you would think he was describing sky diving over a tropical island he was so animated. His voice cracked as he threw up his hands with a big shrug saying, “Ohm, why do they call it that?”, then bringing those hands nearly together as if he was crafting something in clay and lowering his tone, “well, see there was this guy, named Ohm”, and just as quick waving off that precise point as if this was an outtake, “oh, who cares, we just want to know how electricity works.”

Dave mouthed the words from the screen as his dad recited Ohm’s law. He couldn’t remember not knowing those words. He did remember the tedious work with the green screen technology to setup the cartoon images of getting struck by lightning. His dad thought that would be hilarious, to have him get zapped by a lightning bolt and have his hair stand on end and his clothes give off smoke. First, he had to set it up, “But with electricity, if you want to know what it does, go outside in an electrical storm.”

But this was an educational video, so he needed to explain the joke, “Wait, wait, do NOT stand outside in an electrical storm, especially not holding a metal rod.” All of his science videos were set in a cluttered lab, full of odd looking machine parts and items that seemed to have no relationship to each other but would get used throughout the series. One of those items was a metal rod. He grabbed it and stood like the Statue of Liberty with her torch.

Then came the green screen effect, the lab background was gone and in its place, he was standing in a cartoon forest in a storm. A cartoon bolt of lightning hit the rod and he shook and acted shocked in a performance that would not win an Oscar. The lab background returned and a little bit of fake smoke he had found at a magic store rose over his shoulders. Dave’s memory of his dad’s enthusiasm with every detail of that few seconds of video made a smile curl on one side of his mouth and made his head shake a bit from side to side.

His dad went on to explain that amps equals volts divided by resistance and a brightly colored triangle helped visualize that. Then graphics of waves showing current and comparing them to water flowing. Dave wasn’t paying attention to the words. His thoughts turned to the wires in his workshop, following those same laws his dad was teaching. The analog signal streamed out of the back of the player connected by cords with red, white and yellow connectors. It followed a winding bent path to the much smaller less dusty black box with one small green light on it.  From the other end of that box a thin gray cable went out through the wall. It sparkled a bit from the early morning sun coming in through the small window on the east side of the shop.  The signal finally found its way out to an antenna. At first sight, Dave swore that antenna could not possibly do anything. It was too small and the elements weren’t positioned in any way he’d seen antenna elements positioned. But according to all available evidence the now digitized signal was making its way to space.

When the Orions gave him that antenna, Dave thought they were joking. He said it looked like they designed it based on watching a Jetsons cartoon. They just smiled. They did that a lot. They told him his father’s collection of educational lectures and demonstrations needed to be preserved. He asked why they couldn’t just take them and do whatever they needed to do. They said they don’t work that way. They said things like that a lot. He didn’t care for that answer but couldn’t get much more of an explanation out of them. Once he saw that he could look up his dad’s lessons, along with a few million others, all indexed and categorized, he decided it wasn’t such a bad idea.

They had come here from somewhere a little further out along the Orion Arm to save the planet, or so they said. They didn’t say it that directly. They didn’t say very much directly. A few billion people now accepted it though, but Dave was still not ready to join their fan club. His grandparent’s generation had gone off to Europe and then Indochina to die without getting their questions answered. In his parents’ time, people were beaten and harassed and couldn’t get decent jobs because there were people who had answers that you were not allowed to question.

Dave questioned everything. He preferred hearing evidence and his father’s series on logic and logical fallacies was always right there, just below the little voice in his head that reminded him that being pleasant was more important than being right. Usually the voice remained in charge of his mouth, but sometimes not, and words like “that’s an argument from ignorance” came out at the most inopportune times. That could make for awkward conversations. But being convinced by aliens that there are other planets ready to welcome someone just like him was not just conversation.

Dave snapped up from his day dreaming with three thumps on the door.  He spun in his chair and opened it. It was Marianne. Dave always thought that was funny especially since according to her hair she was a ginger, but not everyone got the Gilligan’s Island reference anymore, and after mentioning it four times, he figured out Marianne didn’t like it either. When he opened the door her awkward smile retold that story and also said she needed something fixed and would like him to come by but only if he kept his conversation to gardening or canning or perhaps electronic gadgets. Recounting long stories of obscure science fiction characters was another thing he had figured out not to do.

The full, warm beverage she had was held in her palm and gently kept there with two fingers from the other hand. The breeze from the opened door blew across it and freshened the room with a hint of cinnamon and honey. Dave was looking at it and noticed it was raised as if she was about to present it, not as if she was going to sip from it.

Remembering to let her open the conversation before he reacted to all the cues, Dave said, “Hey Marianne, what’s up?” and turned and moved a piece of paper on the table four inches to the left for no particular reason.

Speaking to where his eyes would be if he was looking, she said, “I figured you were out here and working since early this morning, like always, without breakfast, so I brought you some tea.”

He suddenly made the connection between his inability to focus and his lack of sustenance. He turned back and reached for the steaming cup. Their fingers just touched in the exchange. Dave was thinking about that touch as he reached. He knew this was a small thing that can help people feel better about their encounters. Marianne showed no sign of any specific thoughts about it. Encountering people wasn’t something that required that much thought for her.

“I probably should grab a bite to eat.” Dave finally returned her smile and managed to make eye contact for more than a half second. Baggage from their past encounters got a little bit lighter.

Marianne didn’t let the silence get awkward, “Sooo, having a little trouble getting my root cellar door to close tight. We should have a good harvest this year and I’d hate to lose any of it.” She trailed off, randomly naming times of the day, hoping one would be good for him and hoping he’d help close her sales pitch.

He was back to looking for things on the table he could pretend needed his attention while thinking about his not so busy schedule. Graciously, he replied, “Yeah, yeah, today is good. When the sun is comes around and gives me some light for it.”

He moved to the doorway, where she was still standing, and they danced their way to an understanding that he was going out. For a moment the tea and her breath and her hair transported him to a land of princesses and ballrooms. Marianne again showed no sign of similar thoughts. However, like Ginger Rogers, she could do everything Fred did except backwards and in high heels, so she navigated herself and Dave through what should have been a simple egress. When the spinning and stepping was done, the two of them stood just outside his shop and faced the rest of the world. Mid morning sun scattered through the trees and warmed parts of the yard while others stayed cool a thin mist drifted from shade to light.

The promise of a good harvest brought all the feelings of a healthy community out on display. From the eyes of people born before 2000, Dave and Marianne could see Halloween and Thanksgiving and just a hint of Christmas.  The smaller humans just saw the bounty of something that the old people did all day that magically made sweet and juicy things come out of the ground and end up on their plates. Their heads weren’t bothered with a man in a red suit arriving at a department store who is also somehow concerned with how they acted all year. They weren’t working on a costume so they could run around asking for candy. Why would they do that? They knew who had the best candy.

Their little voices added a soundtrack to the day. One of those little voices let out a loud noise that could have been a scream of joy or laughter. Dave and Marianne looked where it was coming from but didn’t see any signs of pain or conflict. A group of the young humans ran across their path and one broke from it and latched on to Dave’s leg. She looked up at him with her brown eyes surrounded by a milk chocolate face and told a detailed tale of adventure and romance. None of the words were in a language that Dave knew, or anyone knew, but they flowed like a sailor singing a song after returning from whaling in Kachemak Bay.

Dave provided the chorus of “uh-huh” and “mm-hmm” on queue as he lifted her with his one free arm. Somewhere in there he interpreted the word “crackers”. As she said it, she went limp and laid her head back toward the dining hall, a sort of non-violent resistance technique. Dave did not need to hold her for questioning, so he rolled her to her feet. They were already running before they touched the ground and made a bee line to the dining hall.

The crackers she was after weren’t just any crackers, these were Marjo’s sourdough crackers, merely a byproduct of a weekly batch of sourdough bread. Bread that sustained this community like it had sustained communities for thousands of years. It was not the kind of bread that comes in a plastic bag and has to be sliced by a machine because it is so delicate that a human hand would rip it to shreds. It was the kind that you keep on the counter wrapped in a towel. The kind that you break and experience the chewy crust, experience it kicking in enzymes in the mouth and your whole body settles as the soothing process moves toward your stomach.

Marianne could see he was now on a mission and she waved him off and headed for the fields. Dave caught up to his little friend pushing against the large dining hall door. She put all of her body into it. She called upon the power of her ancestors to move that massive door that was between her and crackers. Dave used a few fingers over her head and gently guided it to balance her back to vertical and to release that kinetic energy across a big room full of empty tables. Marjo knew to have a plate of crackers for dirty hands to grab so they wouldn’t intrude any further into the baking area. Dave also respected that barrier. She would invite him to cross it if he waited for the invitation.

Marjo always had that look for Dave, a smile with a little sadness. Not quite, “bless your heart”, but not exactly “hey, you been working out?” Marjo was the big sister Dave didn’t have, the girlfriend that might have been if she were younger, the mentor he didn’t want, and the drinking buddy who actually didn’t drink, all rolled into one. He was not in the mood for the story of yeast again so he had been working on his cheeriest “good morning” from a couple steps before hitting the door. Marjo was always a few metaphorical steps ahead of him though.

20 years before, before the arrival of the Orions and their space port, Dave had happened upon this kitchen while biking in the well known hills in and around the farm that he now called home. He held a flat tire in his hands and a sheepish grin on his face. Marjo knew he needed a hug and also knew that wasn’t going to happen. This wasn’t her first flat tire. Back then, the nearby University was thriving. People came here from all over the world, to learn from the best minds, to see the beauty, to improve their art, to demonstrate their athletic skills. Most were not that aware of the people who lived there all year round. They were just there for ambience.

A flat tire out in the country was an inconvenience, not a chance to interact with a real person. Most people like that couldn’t just have a flat. There had to be a lot of pacing and hand wringing and tales of schedules disrupted and questions of why this happened to them, with some certainty others did not have this same problem as frequently as they did. Dave however just had a flat. It wasn’t about how much it was bothering him or how the suffering of this flat was somehow different than suffering the muscle pain of a long uphill pedal. He was just as happy doing the work of fixing the bike as he was doing the work of riding the bike.

Or was that just as un-happy? The flat tire wasn’t bothering him but something was. Marjo could see there was a shadow a step or two behind him. Something he could keep ahead of by biking or fixing things or doing whatever else he did other than slow down enough to let that shadow catch up. Of course it would, they always do. If that was all there was to it though, she wouldn’t give it another thought. But she had seen so many shadows.

Marjo had developed the skill of seeing those shadows when she was much younger. As a girl, her uncle had come back from Iraq with no scars, just a bit weathered from the desert sun, but she knew there was something wrong. Everyone treated him differently. No one talked about it. Marjo was given specific instructions not to. She knew she had to live by the rules as a little girl, but she also knew it would be different when she grew up. But childhood aspirations can turn to adult frustrations. She watched as more and more men and women were not allowed to grieve for the lives they had ended. When a war ends, there is a time for rebuilding and for reconciliation with the enemy, but in endless war, that time never comes.

The time for celebration never comes either, as the war is never won. In Vietnam a hill would be taken one day and lost the next night. In Iraq whole regions were liberated and then soldiers who did the liberating watched the news from home as those places were occupied by the latest group with some new initials. For some, the best way to deal with it was to go back. At home, you hear more about how war is tearing the country apart, or you see that nobody really cares, or someone wants to debate it with you. You can’t grieve the deaths of your friends or of the people in the country you occupy, but at least you can get back to the battle, the “real world” as they sometimes called it, and try to find that person you were.

Marjo watched this grief go undigested. Not digested by the culture because the culture that developed it was one that was accustomed to knowing that a victory would be followed by a new escalation somewhere else. Not by the government because the military budget just kept growing and debt along with it. There was no job at the Pentagon or anywhere that could undo this, but she resolved to make some sort of dent in this collective un-grieved loss.

Sometimes she saw the grief first hand, like one evening when her uncle came over for family game night. He brought a grocery bag full of snacks. He pulled out a big bag of pita bread and two different tubs of hummus. Mother gave Marjo that look that said, “don’t ask”. After a while, when people were commenting on the good company and good food, he said, “That’s what they eat. The people from around where we were based. We would load up on that, a big pile of pita bread. Have it on the plane while we were bombing them.” Marjo locked her eyes on his. “Kinda sick really”, he finished. She started to smile because she didn’t want to just stare at him like an idiot. She held that back and matched the droop of his eyes. Whatever move or turn it was in the game kept that from going on for too long.

She knew there was work to be done in the world. She didn’t know what that would be but she had a sense that whatever it was, it would not be found on television or on some glossy pages. She didn’t want to cut herself off from the world but she wanted to be around people who were using their hands, not just consuming culture but creating it. Creating it in the way it had always been created, by listening to the voices from the past and taking the best of what they had. She sought out the mentors, the marginalized, the ones they called old fashioned. In them she found the roots of all the stories that had been synthesized in to pop culture. They were in those old stories, those stories that were not even written down.

She tried sitting around fires and getting lost in the rhythmic drumming and the voices of the story tellers. She gained friends and insights, but it was too passive for her. She tried working with wool starting from the time it came off the sheep, spinning it into yarn, then working it into fabric, but there was too much surrounding that, too much animal husbandry and complicated machinery. She found she could stand in a wheat field and just watch it flow and lose herself in it. She learned that the wheat we grow today was once a much smaller grass and it changed our culture as we changed it into those amber waves we see now. 

When she discovered bread making, she found her muse. It was one of the lost arts and she should pursue it. She looked at bread making machines but immediately had a vision of it sitting in a back alley waiting for garbage day next to someone’s treadmill or whatever other piece of unused good intentions that might be found there. She bought a cook book but she could tell that there were aspects of this that could not be put into a recipe. She started looking around for anyone with a little flour on their clothes, any hint of a passion like her own. It didn’t take long to find a class in sourdough bread making.

She was amazed to find out that you didn’t need a yeast packet, you just add some water to some flour and put it in a clay crock and throw a towel over it. The yeast finds it. It’s in the air. When she first saw it growing, she stammered and asked if this made sense. To be letting something attract mold and bacteria didn’t seem like such a good idea. But that’s not what was happening. The starch in the flour doesn’t attract that less healthy stuff. The yeast though, takes that nubby living seed and transmutes it into something that sustains life.

She hadn’t just found out how to make bread, she had found her story. The yeast was something that couldn’t be seen, but everywhere in the air (was like the sadness that she saw but others did not). It grew and generated carbon dioxide and lactobacilli bacteria and just a little alcohol. This gave the bread that sourdough flavor. In the same way, she knew when sadness was in the air. She knew she could let it express itself and help digest the sorrows that are always growing their hardened seeds. She became that person that knew when there was something going on with you and everyone else knew she was the one to come to when they needed that big shoulder to bury their face in.

Dave was more of a long term project

He talked of his love of the hills in the area, noting that he hadn’t spent too much time on the flat spots like the one the farm was on. He loved thinking about the wall of ice that had been there twenty four thousand years ago.

North from there it had scraped clean whatever was beneath it bringing bits of it south as it slowly pushed forward. As it receded, it washed into the landscape that it hadn’t reached, creating a less organized work of art beyond its reach. Rivers formed through hilly landscapes and underground, exposing million year old sedimentary stone.

She didn’t know if she’d ever see him again after that first random encounter. She didn’t try to draw anything out of him. Dave didn’t expect to be back either. He didn’t expect a farm would do very well there. This land was not good for a whole lot in the world of commodities like the flat land the glaciers had created a few miles to the north. Marjo mentioned Aldo Leopold and Dave said he felt a kinship with him, seeing value in land that did not do well as a real estate holding. He found comfort where others would see imperfection and obstacles.

“Hungry?” asked Marjo, keeping her eyes on the little one, but speaking to Dave. A few crackers in the face were enough to keep those little legs energized, but Dave would need a little more. The bread makers on the farm rotated, so each could tend to the rest of their lives while all of them together maintained the supply, enough for their families, plus a little extra for whoever might wander through. Yesterday’s sweet rolls would be a good start for Dave and hopefully the chickens were producing too.

“Yes actually”, he replied before stuffing his face. “I get focused on something in the shop and forget to eat.”

“Life is what happens while we’re making other plans.” Marjo, always had an aphorism ready.

“And then you find out you’re not alone in the universe.” Dave meant that in the human race sense, but Marjo lowered her head a bit, giving him that look from her third eye. Then glanced down to the cup of tea is in hand, knowing where it came from, and knowing Dave would get what she was about to say.

“Yes, Marianne needs something fixed. And that’s all. You know that’s not going anywhere.”, he replied to her unspoken comment.

“I don’t know much. I know there will be a dance in a couple weeks, maybe a hay ride later, and you haven’t considered the contents of your closet.”

“Does new rain gear count?”

“It does not.”

“Well, I need to get to Chicago. I suppose I could do some shopping.”

“Chicago! That’s a hike. Or are you taking the shuttle?”

“Shuttle? Are you forgetting who you are talking to? I’m looking forward to a week and a half on the bike. I’ll stop by the Tippecanoe River to see some friends and the reason I’m going is for parts, so I’ll see Old Dave at his electronics shop.”  

The storefront for that shop actually said The Electric Shoppe. Old Dave thought it was funny in some kind of retro old fashioned view of the future way. Old Dave was a name no one else used except this younger Dave, and Dave’s father. He had been there when new Dave was born and Dave’s father didn’t like the idea of calling him “Uncle” although he knew this man would hold that special place in his life. He would be the one who could tell his son the stories of what his father did before he was born. He would be the one who could tell him when it was okay to break the rules. Dave’s father would play the role of father, the one who had to enforce those rules.

Not understanding the words, but sensing the grown-up talk, Dave’s little cracker munching friend exited through the screen door, letting it slam.

Marjo never forgot who she was talking to, “Oh good”, she said without stopping the kneading, the checking of the oven or the other tasks she was managing that Dave could only guess. He had just revealed something to her, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He thought about correcting the awkward situation by offering to help, but that would just take them down a different awkward road. She knew who Old Dave was and how important it was that the two of them see each other now and then. Dave, young Dave, would use the excuse of keeping his mouth full of food to justify the silence. He salted his second boiled egg from the jar on the counter, being careful to do so over the garbage can of course. He was eating outside of the scheduled meal time which meant he had to clean up after himself. He brushed some crumbs off the counter, waved with the egg hand while grabbing his tea and juggled it all out the door.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

Out

“The big problem is that people don't believe a revolution is possible, and it is not possible precisely because they do not believe it is possible.” Pete’s friend Barry was off on another rant. Pete could tell when Barry was quoting someone, but he was never sure who he was quoting and Barry sure as hell didn’t provide a citation.

Barry took another drink of his beer to wet his lips and also loosened them, “The problem my friends with all this technology the aliens are bringing is it will make life unfulfilling. Getting off this planet was always an artificial goal. We weren’t put here to just work, consume, sleep and get up and do it all over again. We are part of this nature. We came from the very dust of it. We should always have some of it under our fingernails. This technology takes it out of our hands.”

Pete often felt like shouting “Yeah” when Barry was going off like this but too many times he had felt like saying “huh” after Barry’s next sentence, so he learned to control that urge. Today, he was just enjoying the feeling of satisfaction of pulling off his mission and the camaraderie around this table.

Barry continued, of course, “And where do you think the fruit of our labor goes? Before the aliens it went to mansions on tropical islands, now it literally is gone, off the planet. We are exchanging these engines that are making life easier for our freedom. It’s the religion of complexity, the myth that if something is new and different and has more buttons and integrated moving parts, then it must be progress.”

One of the other strong silent types at the table finally had to break in, “But, Barry. They are bringing metals from asteroids. We were a hundred years from being able to do that. And it’s costing us nothing. They don’t even use money. And some of those mansions are empty now.”

This just kicked Barry into high gear, “What they did was try to tell us that we were headed for a collapse, that we were destroying the planet. That just played in to the hands of the elites who were getting all that grant money to do their research in Antarctica, but how could they really know? How can you make predictions like that, 100 years out? Predictions of disaster and collapse of civilization have failed so many times. So they drew up their plans based on science, or so they say, but it looks like the same old oppression dressed up with rational sounding arguments to me.”

Barry’s interlocutor leaned forward and ducked his head below the partial wall of their booth. He kept one eye searching out to the rest of the tavern while the other maintained contact with Barry, “Look man, I don’t like the Orions any more than you do, but,” and held up a finger to be sure Barry knew more was coming, “one, be cool.” Across the tavern, someone seemed more interested in a man whispering than in some drunk going on about aliens oppressing him, “Two, if you want anyone joining us in our little escapades, you don’t start right in with the ‘bringing down the machinery’ stuff. I just want to sell my corn to the same elevator that my daddy did and put my kids through school and retire in Florida.”

He caught himself and pulled his fingers back into tightly crossed arms and hunched his shoulders practically up to his ears. It looked like he was trying to pull his head into the shell of his body but he wasn’t built correctly to do that. Barry took great pleasure in this, but he did take his friend’s advice and lowered his voice, “yeah, there you go, another thing they took away from us. The Keys and the Everglades are just alligators and manatees now.”

It wasn’t exactly accurate that Florida was just alligators and manatees, but it wasn’t the retirement destination it had been. Arguing subtleties however was not worth the effort with Barry. Going over the history of the arrival of the Orions was not a good strategy either. But it was playing out in the heads of everyone at the table.

They arrived with no warning, the sudden appearance of a ship just outside the orbit of Jupiter. Everyone remembered that day. They all remembered learning how it traveled in some sort of Dark Matter tunnel to get there. They all remembered the initial panic and the first word from it, saying they had come to offer us interplanetary travel. They also said they would like us to designate everything between 40 degrees latitude north and 40 degrees latitude south as a refuge, to allow it to return to the state it had been in a few thousand years ago. They promised their impact on the Earth’s environment would be positive. They had cures for diseases, and technology to share, but they wouldn’t impose any of it on us if we didn’t want it. They would treat the Earth similar to how we treat large parks and preserves and they hoped we would join them in those efforts.

After a few months, the ship was just another object in the sky, another dot orbiting the earth like other satellites, albeit a much brighter one. The panic subsided. They met with dignitaries. Each was respectful of the other. Each seemed unimpressed with the other. The refuge was a decision made by their alliance of three planets. On Earth, no one with any power was quick to endorse it. The news of the meetings became like any other news of the day. People argued about it over kitchen tables and at parties. High Schools held mock debates. After some initial excitement, it had the same impact on them as the price of corn in Nebraska or how many people in Africa died of measles that year.

The Orions didn’t form lobbying groups or fly flying saucers in front of whaling ships. What they did do was make their research available to anyone who wanted it. They had been working on translations of that research for centuries. It was one of the criteria for contacting new civilizations, that their science could be understood. They had read our books, and knew Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. They didn’t want to be viewed as magic or be confused with some sort of god. They wanted people to be able to determine for themselves that they were who they said they were.

What the Orions did that many did not expect was they kept their word. They helped build vehicles that didn’t pollute and dams that didn’t break during floods or disrupt Dwarf Wedgemussel populations in their native habitats. They built good will and after a year and a half, the Russian government agreed on the building of the first spaceport. The United States followed quickly. The Orions required international treaties allowing access to the spaceports so the rest of the world also got on board.

After 20 years, people of Earth were still talking about the rules of the refuge, but it was starting to look like it wouldn’t matter. While governments were arguing and businesses were writing reports, regular people, the people who did the work, left the planet. There was a whole planet just a few solar systems over that needed workers and a whole continent on another planet that needed more. People who loved to garden, but could barely afford a box on their balcony to grow tomatoes took the 3 month journey, just to check it out and saw fields that stretched to the horizon. Very few returned. Small farmers who were just making it from season to season followed. They went as whole families, whole communities, and brought their art, their books, their culture, with them.

The Malthusian theories of managing world populations were flipped on their head. There was no need for pretentious moral checks restricting who could have babies or how anyone should manage their lives and much less chance of a famine or even of war. The solutions of sending food to Africa and India were exposed as the disruptive forces that they always were. Dictators lost power without that free food and local farmers gained back control of their markets.

In a place like Florida, it was impossible to maintain an industry based on cheap labor. The wait staffs, the cleaning people, the grounds maintenance people, were the first people who left, millions of them. The indices, ratios and reports that once showed healthy, constantly growing economies all started showing disasters. But if you looked out your window, you didn’t see disaster. When busy streets were emptied, you saw less garbage. When there were fewer people on the beaches, there were more sea turtle nests. When there were fewer boats in the swamps, there were more healthy manatees. The Gross National Product Indices were down, but the Gross National Happiness indices were up.

The engine of growth was fueled by the people who did the work and without them, that engine slowed. They no longer had to choose between living in poverty and working their ass off to keep just above that poverty line. New planets needed new construction and they weren’t building homes for rich people or fast food restaurants their children would then work in, they were building for themselves and they would govern themselves. Back on Earth, people could choose not to take a job if it dirtied their own water or involved blowing off mountain tops. The people who called themselves job creators were standing flatfooted.

Acceptance of the Orion presence and plans for the planet were not an overnight sensation. The first contacts were with the nations that had the big militaries. The indigenous populations of the world collectively glanced over their shoulder while going about their daily living while thinking, “here we go again, a newer richer empire coming to save the world then rape it”. That initial contact with the powers that be was not to gain power with them or take them over however. They contacted them because they knew who controlled the air space and the places they could land. The Orions knew where to go to pay the fees and avoid conflicts.

They wanted to show the cosmologists and astronomers how they found us. They pointed Earth’s telescopes right at undiscovered exoplanets, including theirs of course. They showed them how an asteroid from outside of the galaxy had passed through the Orion Arm three and a half billion years ago. They explained that bacteria frozen into that asteroid had left a trail of life that they followed it and discovered four other planets with intelligent life; life that is related to the people on Earth through that billions year old ancestry. They gave the earth this history of science so anyone could look it up on JSTOR and other university database platforms.

They integrated their flight plans with the existing air traffic control systems on Earth. That wasn’t difficult since they gained a lot more altitude. There wasn’t much interaction with commercial flights. They weren’t going to major airports anyway. They went where there were smallholder farmers.

Most of those half billion people had paid very little attention to the arrival of aliens after the initial excitement died down. They assumed whatever technology they brought, they would be left out of it, just like they had been for centuries. News went through many filters before reaching most of them anyway, and rumors and myths of visitations developed quickly. The Orions were sensitive to this and did not simply ascend from above into their villages. They landed in a remote area and walked, like most people did in the places they were visiting. They met with local governments and church leaders and got permission before providing their consultation or hardware.

They could easily find the people who knew more about how to work their own land than the people in the major universities. The resources they needed to harness wind and solar power were already there and the people were smart enough to understand it. The harder problem was finding a government that would allow their people to connect with those resources. On a few occasions, they had to put themselves between the people they were helping and the bullets of people who were profiting from them being helpless.

The Orions were not bullet proof but they could evacuate quickly when needed and, in most cases, be healed and return. Negotiations with paramilitaries went a lot better when they couldn’t hide from the alien spy tech and when the alien they shot a week earlier came back and asked to live peacefully with them. Gaining the trust of the farmers went a lot better when they saw Orions were willing to die for a planet very far from their own home.

Not all of these operations ended successfully. Many were not attempted at all when weighed against the risk. The Orions had a very low tolerance for casualties. Once the spaceports were in operation large evacuations could begin and transport vehicles designed for interplanetary travel could handle small arms fire just fine. But military style extractions were not their preference, discussing farming was.

They began in the same way they began with the rocket scientists, discuss the knowledge they had in common then let the people there tell them what was working and not working. When they found a small improvement that would have a big impact, like grain elevators or simple irrigation systems, the Orions helped them reach those goals.

Leaders of those nations then had a new problem. Before, the problem had been all the children dying of chronic starvation. Some people would ask, quietly of course, “why not just let them die?” After, the question was, “what will we do with all of those children if they live?” The question before couldn’t be asked politely. The new question had a new answer. Before, the problem was that a planet “B” didn’t exist. Then, suddenly there was a “B”, part of a “C” and some room on a “D”.

The change was slow and went mostly unnoticed because it started with the people that no one noticed before, the ones who didn’t have cell phones, who weren’t distracted by too many sources of information and didn’t appear on anyone’s radar except as one of the 2 billion people living on less than two dollars a day. By the time the family farms and community supported agriculture in the industrialized nations caught on, the movement was unstoppable. The success stories and data from them were published using “Nebula” computing. Tech geeks argued it was just “Cloud” computing in space, and they were partly right, except for the greater ease in connecting wirelessly, higher security, incredible speed and a few other things, but nobody else really cared what it was called, it was just the coolest thing they’d ever seen.

The overall wealth available on the planet didn’t change but the wealthy people on Earth no longer had as many people who were willing to bring it to them. The amount of work to be done on the planet didn’t change, but more people could be housed and fed while doing the work they wanted to do, like cleaning up their rivers, restoring forest that had been forest for centuries but was becoming a desert, planting a variety of perennial producing plants instead of rows of commodities, and attracting beneficial insects and small animals to their farms instead of fighting them as pests.

The value of land owned by people who owned a lot of it, went down. The human talking heads kept reporting this along with the other plummeting numbers as if those numbers meant the same thing they meant a few years earlier. What everyone figured out was those numbers never meant that at all. The people who had just enough shifted their focus to those who needed more and the ones who had too much no longer mattered. The idea that “most politics are local” had always been true and the structures supporting it were already there. The national powers weakened and it became increasingly easy for the average human to act locally and see the fruits of their efforts.

For people like Pete and Barry, this was a lot to process. They were happy with the world they had before. They didn’t see any reason to help farmers on another continent. They felt bad about starving children, but it wasn’t their fault, and their government bought their surpluses and sent it over there anyway, so they were doing their part by doing what they did best. Then a future started to loom where their way of life was not needed. They didn’t lose their homes. They didn’t lose their freedoms. They lost their place in history, in what they thought was their future. Their money, their opinions, their reasons, all of it changed. Something was wrong about that.

 




 

Chapter Three

 Perth

School time on the farm was a favorite time for many. The adults focused on their projects without needing to think about mentoring or filtering their language. The youngsters were with their friends and Professor Ernst made learning almost enjoyable. He moved through the middle of the gathering of children and said, “Okay, time for a tale.”

There were shouts of “Yay” and a few moans, depending on their age, their attitude or what they had for breakfast. The Professor, who really wasn’t a professor of anything, but no one had a broader knowledge set than him, pointed to one of the moaners, “what’s a tale, there, Chip?”

Chip was not one to be caught off guard, “It’s fiction, a story.”

Professor Ernst did not like to say anyone was wrong, “Sometimes. If it was purely fictional, I’d probably say a “tall tale”.

The open classroom did not require the raising of hands and being called on. One of the little ones called out, “What’s fistenal?”

“Good question.”  All questions were good to him and this was a good teachable moment. He looked around and found one of the older and quieter ones who was already thumbing through some Vonnegut. That wasn’t a problem. She had heard these tales before. This was just a teachable moment for the little one, and a moment for the older one to exercise her knowledge, “You wanna take that one.”

“Sure,” directing herself to the little one, “fiction is not real. It’s not something that really happened. Parts of it can be true, like Batman can live in a city that’s like a real city, but Batman is not real, he’s, fictional”, she made sure to pause and then enunciate the vocabulary word in question, maybe a little more than necessary.

 “Good example.” He gave a thankful nod to the Vonnegut reader who was mostly glad to be done for the moment then turned back to the little one. “So who is a real person that you know about?” He noticed she was looking around the room, “Not someone in this class right now, someone we learned about in one of our lessons.”

She held her chin with three fingers and tapped her lips with the fourth, as if this would help her think, “ummmm”, then the one finger pointed up enthusiastically, “George Washington!”

 “Excellent.” The teachable moment continued to go well. He found another older child, but not so much older this time. “Chrissy, did George Washington cut down a cherry tree?”

Chrissy squinted a bit at this. It seemed like a trick question, “He said he did. Because he was honest. But, I don’t really know.” She tried to add something but it was turning to mumbles.

“That’s fine Chrissy, there’s lots to know about George Washington. Some of it is too much to go into while the whole group is here. You need to know about the history of Kings and slaves and war and ships carrying gold across the sea.” We waved his arms as if they were the sea and wavered his voice to go with it. “Each of you will learn all that in good time. We’re even lucky enough to have a descendant of Martha Washington right here. Aren’t we George?”

A boy with curly black hair and skin that could be mistaken for a very good tan on someone of European descent looked up from picking at the clover that he was sitting on. “That’s right.” He made eye contact with one eye but continued his investigation of the clover with the other. He knew he couldn’t just blurt out that his 8th great grandmother had been held captive and raped by one of Martha Washington’s sons. George’s mother had explained sex to him and explained why his skin was different than most of the other kids and kept track of his history homework and waited for the right time to tell him that. But, ‘in good time’, as the professor said.

The teachable moment had gone on for about as long as it could. It was time to wrap this up and get to the tale. Mr. Ernst made sure George was acknowledged. He said, “Thank You”, making sure he made a couple seconds of contact with at least the one eye that was being offered.

A couple more quick glances to those who were participating, and he began, “So, a tale, a tale about people from a long time ago on a planet far, far away.” He chuckled at the inside joke with himself. The Vonnegut reader shook her head. “Just like we have ancestors that created the world we live in, they have people like,” he slowed, giving those who had heard the tales before a moment to recall characters from Orion mythology, “Marcus and,” he paused longer for effect because the Orion matriarch was a popular character, “Perth!”

This brought out more “yays”, and much less moaning. So he began,

How to set this text off, since it’s a multi-page quote of the story telling

“Perth was spinning wool and writing down tales about herself when our ancestors here on Earth were just drawing figures on walls of caves.

“She had been spinning her wool for months. Outside her small home, the four legged creatures that supplied that wool, the yeppers, were all trimmed and comfortable for the warmer days to come. The men in her life were shifting from keeping the buildings warm to trimming back spring time growth and watching for the fruit to appear on the trees and bushes. The younger ones were tagging along to whatever interested them. If they didn’t, they were being told to make themselves useful or else someone would tell them what interests them. Perth’s helper that day was a young boy, intently darning a wool knapsack. It was made from the same yeppers that were supplying the stack of spun wool.”

The pre-verbal kids were being shown pictures as the story went on. The yeppers looked a lot like the sheep they saw every day on the farm, a bit more scraggly maybe. One of them whispered, “cheep”, and the one holding the picture book gently corrected, “yepper”. The first picture of Perth was mostly from behind, with a lot of woolen clothing covering her head to toe. She could have been any of the aunties or mothers, except a pale greenish, bluish hue to the side of her face that was showing under the hood. If she was one of those aunties and she turned, then you could find her nose but in the next picture she was facing one of the yeppers and there were nostrils but it was a pretty smooth transition from the top of her head past her large, slightly slanted eyes, a couple slight bumps for nostrils, then a dainty opening for a mouth. Her head narrowed before connecting to her shoulders but there was nothing you could call a chin.

The drawings were of Orion’s home planet, so you couldn’t tell from them that Perth was taller than anyone on the farm, and most people on Earth. You could see that she did not have to bend over to inspect the wool on the head of her yepper, so the kids were seeing those animals were bigger relative to Perth, than sheep were relative to them. That was enough information for now.

 “As Perth packed as much of that wool as she could hold on her back into more knapsacks, a man entered the one roomed home, ‘Hello mother,’ he said. She barely looked up but the warmth of her affection could be felt like the warm glow from the fire. She had given birth to him and could not be happier about the young Orion man he was becoming.

“The younger one was a bit more expressive in showing his warmth, ‘Hello brother’, he said as he jumped up and grabbed him around the waist and held his head against his torso.

“The taller man would have hugged him but his hands were full. One hand held a knife blade and the other one a knife handle. He held them high to avoid any unpleasant contact. The younger one had seen the blade and he knew that meant an opportunity to learn about knives and carving and skinning had just come in the door. The woman who had given birth to him was on an overnight hunt which meant more time available to be with older men. He didn’t mind being with his mother, or someone else’s mother, and working with wool was fine but knives, he could be passionate about knives.

“So glad you’re here Slimba,” said Perth, still not looking at him but speaking as if she was a few inches from his face and holding it gently in her hands. “You’re going to keep an eye on this one, right?”

The little one heard himself being mentioned and he worried he had done something wrong, that there was some reason he needed to have an eye kept on him. He turned his head up to the eyes above him, then furtively over to Perth, who was busy preparing for a long journey. “Oh, I’ll take care of him all right.”

That they were agreeing was even more worrisome, but when Perth stood up, tightening her sacks as she did, her full smile let him in on the grown-up joke. He started laughing, a little uncomfortably at first, hoping they would join in. Happily his big brother let out a full belly laugh first, then Perth let go of a devilish giggle. The younger one then copied the laugh of the big brother.

The big brother had put down the parts of the knife and was now gently unfolding one of the small pouches he had hanging from his waist. The young eyes went wide again in anticipation, but it was just a little antapiller, something he used to squish until he learned not to. Big brother saw the disinterest, so he addressed himself to Perth, “I found this antapiller today. Pretty heavy on fur.”

“Yes” Perth responded, “it should be the perfect time for travel. The sky was orange this morning and the clouds are lifting. Don’t worry about me.”

With the antapiller now crawling on his fingers, he again drew the attention of the younger one, “See here,” he took two fingers and separated some of the hairs on the back of the many legged, fuzzy worm, “I can barely see through to his body. He’s expecting a cooler spring. He’ll need that to stay warm at night.”

Then turning back to the woman who had raised him as she made her way to the door, “I suspect you will do plenty of worrying for all us.” He held up the broken knife, “Don’t forget, get some good copper.”

Satisfied that her home was in good hands, she hugged each in turn and opened the door to the rising sun. As she stepped on the last stone leading out from her home, an older man crossed her path, “Hello brother”, she said.

“Hello mother”, he said, “how are the boys?” He nodded to the cabin. He was probably the father of the older one, but he took no less interest in the younger. Perth liked it when he called her ‘mother’ back when they lived together and were nurturing a baby together, but that part of their life was over and she preferred it when adults called each other by their names. Not everyone had her preferences however, and it didn’t really hurt to be reminded of those precious years they shared.

“Oh, they’re all set for a day of knife making then probably knife throwing and maybe they’ll kill something before it’s over. They couldn’t be happier I guess,” she said and rolled her eyes so far up that her head went with it and she even shuddered a bit at the thought.

He was proud of the boy he had helped become a man, and to honor the woman who had made that possible he said, “We’ll be sure they give proper thanks, whatever they do.”

“I know you will Harper.” With one look she let him know she was reassured and that she was happy with the life they lived together so far and that she needed to say goodbye before the sun got any higher. Harper continued along the stone covered path, greeting others in their morning routines. Perth headed down the dirt path into the denser forest.

The familiar sounds of home faded and were replaced by the songs of birds and the complaints of small animals that saw her as an intruder. The path was starting to fade in places but she kept an eye out for the remnants of the stone walls the giants had built. She didn’t believe they were really built by giants. Very few people did. The fauna couldn’t have supported them, and there was nothing else indicating a race of beings ever existed that looked like her but was just larger. But those walls were impressive. No one had improved on that stonework yet. Calling them giants was not completely inaccurate.

By time the sun was providing its full warmth, she was beyond her usual paths, the ones where she was familiar to the animals living there. The ones other people took to go foraging or out to the pastures. She began to make mental notes of the downed trees she was stepping over.  She would need to come back and do some clearing. After a while she stopped counting. She was too far from home and there was no more well worn path. In the less familiar territory, she followed a rivulet as a guide. ((It also provided a musical accompaniment.)) That led to a bridge. She stepped up on to that road and as she did she joined the world of traders and barterers.

The forest for her was shelter. She was taught how to survive there, lessons from her ancestors. She was also told the stories of how people in this land of roads were losing their survival skills. When you had enough people to need wide roads, it was too many to keep track of. Perth knew who she owed favors to and she knew when others didn’t return the favors they owed. There were so many people out here in the flatter lands that they needed to make ledgers and assign a value to time. When that happened, the connections of family and neighbors loosened.

When she joined with the road she also joined the world of thieves. Back home, her and her kin would gather around a fire, sharing food, sharing joys of milestones in their lives and concerns of those in need. Sometimes they would discover that someone was getting much more from their neighbors than they were giving. Simply becoming aware of it was usually all that was needed to bring things back in to balance. In the land of roads and markets, they couldn’t do that. Each was focused on their specialized work. Which meant a few of them could find ways to survive without doing any real work at all.

Not far from the bridge, the forest abruptly ended on her right side. She remembered trees being there back when her son was just a boy. Now it was full of grain that required regular tending. The forest was still the forest she recognized on her left and she kept an eye out for hiding places that hopefully she could use and hopefully weren’t already being used. As she walked, there were fewer familiar old trees and more and more young trees and then just brush. Her sense of safety and security was no longer with her.

She busied her mind trying to identify everything she saw. There were some good berries that she rarely saw in such abundance. She could fill her sacks with them after they had been emptied in town. She noticed some of that grain that people had purposely put in the open field had found its way to the other side of the road.

Ahead, far ahead, something large and lumbering appeared on the road. At first she expected to be upon it fairly quickly, but as a few moments passed, she realized just how large it was and how that made it seem deceptively closer. At first she thought many people were working together to carry a rack of goods over their heads, but then the people started looking more like tree trunks, moving, hairy tree trunks.

The closer it came, the more dust she could see getting kicked up with each stomp of its feet. Its large nose was swinging back and forth, kicking up more dust with its long rhythmic breaths. It was as wide as 4 people and she wasn’t sure how tall because she couldn’t tell where it ended and the goods above it began. She couldn’t make out shoulders but there was a head taking up most of the space above the two front legs. No real ears she could distinguish. The head was bald, but matted hair hung around its sides randomly in places along its legs.

She slowed, assessing this situation, hoping it wouldn’t suddenly change for the worse. A man walked along side, tapping one leg with a stick now and then. It was too late to hide now. Her heart and breath stopped at the moment he finally noticed her. She could see him holding his hand up to shade the sun. She let the breath go and then took it back in quickly as the raised hand turned to a wave. He tapped the leg of the great beast a little more insistently and it stopped. She couldn’t quite make out what he was shouting, but from the hand gestures she was pretty sure it was a friendly greeting. She returned the gesture.

Still, she took the escape route she had already scoped out across the ditch on the side of the road and into the field. She wasn’t hiding, that wasn’t possible, just giving whatever this was a wide berth. They both returned to moving as they had been before. The man continued to speak as if telling a story to a large audience, something about being humble and carrying a great burden. The story didn’t really go anywhere. When they were within speaking distance he gave the traditional greetings of respect and peace. Perth was only mildly comforted by this.

Before their progress put them past each other, the duo of man and beast came to a halt again, kicking up one last, big cloud of dust and giving the thing a chance to clear its nostrils he said, “You’re quite safe over there. She was moving at top speed, so really, you’re quite safe anywhere outside the range of her smell and expectorations.”

It had seemed like it was doing all it could just to keep up with the short steps of the man, “Peace on your heart. And thank you for the reassurances, but, just what is it?”

“’It’, as you say, is a pachtorom. I just call her Pachy.” It turned to look at Perth as if it had just been introduced. It threw its head up with another blow of the nose. Perth wasn’t sure if this was a nod of approval for her or just an annoyed reaction to the stack of boxes and bundles piled high on its back.

“She seems sweet. Hello Pachy.” This definitely drew her attention. Her large dark eyes were hard to read. She could have been pleased to hear her name, or frightened because of what usually happens when she hears it, like more work. Perth wanted to know much more about the relationship of these two, but knew better than to ask too many questions this far out on the road.

“I’ve never seen anything like her. Where did she come from?” Perth asked, thinking that was safe.

“From south of the Ungal mountains. Are you bringing wool down from the foothills?” An equally safe question considering her dress and her pack full of wool. But the probing still caught her off guard. Her hesitation and her open mouth with no words coming out made him realize that and he attempted to put her at ease, “I’m just wondering since you say you haven’t seen a pachtorom. We started trading for them last year.”

“She felt a bit yepperish,” Professor Ernst looked around quickly to see if anyone was confused about the translation from ‘sheepish’ but didn’t break the flow of his story telling, “and also felt like walking up and rubbing Pachy on that cute nose the size of a tree stump that was wiggling around while trying to make sense of the world through olfactory cues. Perth asked, “I see. So, how do you keep it? How do you stop it like you have been?” She had a hundred more questions.

“See that rope around her ankle?” That was one of the questions. The pachtorom was wearing a rope like a bracelet. “When they are young, they are tethered to a stake. They try to trot off but it keeps tripping them, pulling them down. They take it off and let them get exercise, but they learn that when it is on, they have to stay put. Then they teach them to walk with it, while several strong people are on the other end of it, guiding them, sometimes pulling on it to stop them, and using a stick like this.” He held up the stick he had been tapping her with and Perth could see a small barb attached to it, “As they get older, they can’t move as fast anyway, but after they learn to respond to the stick, the extra trainers are no longer needed. When the rope is on their ankle, they believe they are being restrained, so all you need is me and the stick.” He held it up, quite proud of his short introduction to pachtorom training.

Perth was horrified but in no position to respond with a lecture of her own. No point in giving that lecture to one man in the middle of a field anyway. She was the one who needed to learn today. Whatever she knew of how to treat a fellow living creature was not operating in the world this man came from, and that world was where she was headed. She thanked the stars that she had this encounter out here where she could absorb it and let it settle for a while before being engulfed by more people. She would reconnect with some distant friends but some of the people she would see would not be connected to much of anyone.

After a few more pleasantries, her new friend ambled its way down the road along with the man who was telling it to do so. Perth practiced some deep breathing as the first signs of a gathering of her own species could be seen on the horizon. She wondered what other new horrors they had summoned from the depths of darkness, what other gentle giants were being restrained or jabbed at with pointed sticks. Then she let those images go, worried her negative thoughts would just contribute to the darkness.

It was a beautiful thing after all, the market. A pillar stood in each of the four directions. Each one depicted people from long ago in ceremonial headgear brandishing weapons along with regalia that seemed to serve no purpose at all. Whatever those purposes were they had mostly been forgotten. At the time the regalia was being worn it mattered, if you wore the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time, it could get you killed. The pillars though marked the place they came to talk instead of fight and to trade instead of pillage.

The history of who said what when was lost but what was remembered was that they found peace together. After they spent enough time together without trying to simply get something from each other, they found their stories had common threads. The characters in their stories had different names and different powers but the meanings behind them were not that different at all. The simple ideas of caring for a stranger, or love being found regardless of the circumstances of birth, or the peace found at the end of a life spent in labor, could be found by listening to these others, those people from the other directions. They began to invest more in passing on the ideas and less in the arcs of their storylines or the names of their mythical creatures. They saw that life would continue if the stories were lost, but their way of life would be in jeopardy if the ideas were lost.

Perth was lost in her reflections on the story about the stories as she passed the pillar of the West and didn’t notice the drummers lining the road until one hit a loud boom, boom and two more shrieked an excited intro then the rest settled into rhythmic beats and more spun around her with ribbons, nodding their heads rapidly. She always wondered how they did that without hurting themselves. They stopped as quickly as they began and offered her a cup of something brewed and a small bowl of those berries she had noticed. She had, now officially, made it to the market.”

 “All righty, who’s ready to dance?” Mr. Ernst cut his story short before anyone started slipping off into nap time. Out of his drab brown robe he produced several wands with ribbons flowing from the ends and spun around and waved one up and down then handed them to the eager little hands. The ones who had heard this story a few times had learned the music. They took the queue and found their instruments and handed out more ribbons. Just that quick, Orion mythology class was over and music class had begun.

The sound of the drums drifted over the farm, into the woods, to a cool spot where Dave was working on the door of the root cellar. He closed the door, inspected the edge where it met the jam, made a half turn or so on some screws on the hinges and stood back satisfied. He smiled at the sounds of drums in the distance mixed with some terrible singing by the newer voices. He turned his face to the sun and thought about how perfect the day was for a ride.

 


 

Chapter 4

Ride

Dave changed out of his working boots and into proper footwear for riding. He strapped down his pant legs to keep them out of the gears. He did not need any more of his riding gear than that for this short 20 mile ride. He settled quickly into his pace, and matched his breathing to his pedal count, inhaling for three, exhaling for three. This was meditation of a sort to him. He had never quite mastered the sitting kind. For him, thinking about riding was a way of not thinking about everything else. This could be a problem though. There are dangers to being crouched over handlebars on a road where other vehicles might appear.

As he approached the little town of Nashville he broke out of his crouch and reacquainted himself with the world of traffic lights. Traffic control still meant something and had to be obeyed even though there was way to too much of it now. Someone fought to get that signal put in decades ago and budgets had to be adjusted and work crews scheduled but it turned out to be even harder to get those projects undone. He looked over his shoulder and saw a car in the distance and went through the red light as if it wasn’t there.

The town of Nashville Indiana made the transition to the new reality pretty well. A few buildings were empty but many of the people who lived there were doing what they had done before. The new world of space ships and futuristic devices was more like the old world they had been attempting to emulate. They had been making finely crafted products in the way their ancestors had made them for hundreds of years, using hand tools and looms and potter’s wheels. To make a living they sold them to tourists who put them on a shelf or hung them on walls or only brought them out for special occasions. The changes brought by the Orions created a world where the goods they made were used in the way they were intended; a saddle bag actually attached to a saddle or clothing made tough for farming used when planting wheat or gathering berries.

He left Nashville and continued north gaining 100 feet or so of elevation as he did. He was riding along one of his favorite ridges. The world dropped off quickly in either direction into the valleys carved by glacier runoff. He imagined the cold coming off the wall of ice that once was there. When he came to the vista overlooking the rest of Indiana, the land that made for great farming, he thought of Robert Frost’s poem, Fire and Ice.

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

 

He imagined not just the humans who would have seen that ice, but each species that lived around or near that glacier. They would have accepted it as part of life. Few of them would have noticed that they moved, either in their coming or going. That occurred over thousands of years. Many human oral histories contain stories of floods, and some of them could have been related to a glacier melting. Habitat destruction however, was probably rare. Looking over the flattened earth, from his ridge vantage point, Dave could see that whatever was there 27 thousand years ago had no chance of leaving so much as a memory.

He decided a 200 foot descent off the ridge would be fun but he didn’t need the exercise of coming back up. He turned back for an easy ride home and called it a day. For the third time that day, he missed mealtime and found himself alone with a cold meal. This time the stars were his companions. The thoughts about life 20 thousand years ago now mixed with the light show of ships whizzing overhead, preparing to break orbit and head to the Orion home planet. The constellations of Hercules and Bootes chased Leo slowly across the sky while little dots of light passed quickly through them.

The constellation that everyone knew, Orion, was not out that night. On that planet far away, some other creature like him might be seeing it. It would look a little different from that far off vantage point. He got lost in calculating if that was actually happening or not, then abandoned the thought. He had enough trouble remembering when the various stars appear as the earth rotates. He didn’t need to attempt to include another world’s perspective. He also still had trouble with the idea of including the people on that planet as some sort of relation. Should he even call them “people”?

The Orions had their own word for themselves. It sounded like something from a song in a Latin mass when Dave heard them speak it. When the Orions translated that word for the people on the planets they discovered they picked a word from there that was used to identify the part of the galaxy that was shared by all of them. Many of the cultures and people of Earth had names for the stars that Dave knew as Orion; the Ojibwa had Kabibona'kan, to the Hindu it was Vishnu, to others it was Las tres Marías or The Slim One. Because astronomers named the arm of the galaxy where the related planets resided after that set of stars it was an easy choice for the Orion translators. And just like the Nivkh people from Siberia, near the Amur River, who once called themselves “the human beings”, Dave had to adjust.

Dave wasn’t as troubled as many others were. Some people were just plain confused. They thought the aliens were from the constellation Orion. Dave knew that constellations don’t consist of stars that are next to each other in all three dimensions, that we are looking at the dome of the sky as a two dimensional map of the much deeper universe. Attempts to explain that were fruitless for some. When trying to explain where we were and who we were, Orion people and Earth people focused on how everyone on Earth and all creatures on Earth are related to all the other beings on the other planets. Lakota people of Earth had the mantra “Mitakuye Oyasin”, meaning “we are all related” in their language. Ideas like that helped some make the switch from thinking of themselves as humans of Earth to thinking of themselves as Orions of the Galaxy much easier.

All of those thoughts jumbled together in Dave’s head and he realized he needed sleep. The next morning he awoke with the vague memory of a dream. He was hiking in the on the eastern end Grand Canyon. His contemplations on 20 thousand years of geology expanded to 200 million years of sandstone forming that canyon. Awake, Dave remembered the words a man who had made a long hike through that Canyon. Contemplating his journey and how he really had not learned what 200 million years meant in any intrinsic sense, but he had felt the cadence of geologic time, “Everything we know is dancing, at its own tempo, to the same overriding rhythm. Mysteries remain, half seen, quarter understood, but they are necessary mysteries.”

The memory of the dream faded quickly as he came back to fully conscious. He felt the need to load up his carbohydrates before his trip. The thought occurred to him that a little human interaction would probably be good for him too. He made his way to the dining hall. Inside everyone else had already heard those calls of nature. The laughing, shouting, and shoulders rubbing brought a little tension to his upper body as he entered. It was warmer inside but it looked like he was bracing from some sort of chill in the air. This didn’t diminish the warm greetings he received and the serving bowls were already being passed to him as he found a place on the end of a table. He found a spot with the ones who didn’t like to be talked to before coffee. Those were his favorite breakfast companions.

He was still thinking about sedimentary rock when he heard the familiar voice of Professor Ernst,

La araña pequeñita subio, subio, subio

cayo la lluvia y se la llevó

salio el sol y todo lo secó y

La araña pequeñita subio, subio, subio

 

The Itsy Bitsy Spider song was a way to teach some Spanish and because it was a song that just kept repeating, it could be used to get the attention of a large group of people that included lots of children. Ernst looked a little funny up there making his finger motions that really didn’t look like a spider but as more and more children joined in and adults ended their conversations, his actions made complete sense. Even people just passing through had no problem understanding what was going on.

When there was nothing but children singing, the song ended and the professor began, “Good morning everyone. Please, continue eating or drinking, and also please give a few of our younger friends a little of your attention. First, we’ll hear from Shelly who will tell us a bit of the story of Perth’s famous visit to the market.”

Quote within quotes

Shelly, a little girl with pigtails could not have looked any more proud as she began to speak, “Perth returned from her trip to the market in the Orion year of one thousand and one. When she hugged her son he could feel something had disturbed her. He asked about the dances, about the bartering, about the old friends she saw, and she answered each with just a few words.

 He had to ask bluntly, ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Someone tried to sell me land’, she said, then looked to the far wall of her house.

‘Did you alert the Arbiter?’, said Slimba with alarm.

‘Of course I did.’ And they both let out a breath of laughter knowing each remembered the story of their cousin who had come home beaming that he owned the bridge on the edge of the forest.

‘But this was a real contract’, she said, her face twisting around the word ‘real’ with the unbelief that it really was.

Slimba mirrored the twisting and spoke what he now knew was troubling her, ‘How can land be owned by one person? Everything alive needs it to survive. It doesn’t belong to just one creature.’

‘The Arbiter said it is still part of the community, but the contract gives them rights over the land.’

‘Land is something we are responsible for, there aren’t rights for it that can be bought and sold. It is part of the community. It would be like selling a child. What are they going to do with it?’

Perth knew all of this. She had taught it to Slimba. She let him express what they both were thinking then explained, ‘The man with the contract said I could design the landscape however I pleased. I looked at him and said the land won’t allow that. A river will go where it goes. The wind will shape it as it pleases. He stood back and looked at me like a naïve child at that point. Then moved on to find someone else with whom he could trade his paper for their goods.’

Slimba sat for a minute in the same slumped position his mother had been in during this conversation. He sat with the anger, knowing it wouldn’t help to express it. He looked at her eyes and said the thing they were both thinking, ‘We are going to have to learn about these contracts or one day we will have to buy our own home.’

The hall responded with a brief clap and pleasantries were addressed to Shelly’s parents. A small group of Quakers held their hands up and waved them about in lieu of clapping.

Professor Ernst stepped up to make the transition comfortable for the young speaker and to introduce speaker number two, “Now, from Earth history, a quote from Jean Jacques Rosseau during the era of Enlightenment”.

A healthy young man stood up and enunciated perfectly while projecting the words from his diaphragm, “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”

This drew a couple of cheers of “here, here” from older folks enjoying their breakfast and another round of clapping and waving.

“Thanks Stephen.” Professor Ernst was already up, “And finally, an excerpt from the Orion debate over the declaration of the Earth refuge. Read by, Antoine.”

Antoine was still stepping to the spot where Stephen had been when he began, “What good will this do, to arrive on a planet that is so primitive in its understanding of itself? There are a few who have claims to most of the land but they know very little about what is below the surface or how this or that square is dependent on everything surrounding it. Many more are standing in line, believing if they buy into the system of the land owners, they will one day own one of those squares and it will make them happier. They know even less. They don’t understand the land itself and they don’t understand how wanting it is harming it. They think their woes are due to not having it when really they are due to so many wanting to own it and no one taking care of it.

I don’t believe they will accept the idea of abandoning the economic system they have come to know and love. They call themselves kings of their castle and they are right in a way. They live like their kings did just a few centuries earlier. Like those kings they depend on people living in squalid conditions and working themselves to death. But they don’t have to make decisions about individuals in their kingdoms or fight in the wars to protect them. Contracts are made for those protections and violence is delegated to just a few of them. Most of them don’t understand the sacrifices being made to enforce them.”

The applause was a bit more subdued for this last one. Mr. Ernst put his hand on the shoulder of the younger yet taller man. He thanked him and told him he had done well. He simply waved to the rest of the hall, letting them know the presentation was over. He knew it was better to let them absorb those words rather add anything to them or distract from them.

The lack of an enthusiastic response wasn’t due to the quality of the presentation but the content. The Professor knew this happens sometimes and choose one of his oldest readers and let him know it could happen. It’s hard to clap for something when it was directed against you and your core beliefs. The kids in the class were born in to a world of increasing spaciousness. The ones who were ready to move into the adult world knew they would be called upon to make decisions about that space.

The older people in the room had spent their lives using their most significant possession, their home, as their primary vehicle for savings and as a sanctuary where they were most free to do as they pleased. The ones in this room were aware that people on the other side of the world were affected by the choices they made, although they were a bit vague on the details. They had a sense that they should understand it all at least a little better. This little speech put a voice to that nagging of their conscience.

Dave maintained his rhythm of eating and tried to hide his glances at his breakfast neighbors. It didn’t really work but they were all doing the same so nothing needed to be said. Dave had become a land owner by inheritance then lost that title within a year. The land was held in trust so he didn’t actually lose anything but the concept, the meaning of land ownership changed before he even had a chance to get used to it. He knew he wasn’t some sort of Baron from feudal Europe but he knew having the shelter problem solved at an early age would have a big impact on his future.

When he first started reading these archives he was impressionable and the death of his father made him even more vulnerable. The men who were angry about these creatures from some other planet calling them primitive had an immediate and easy appeal to him. Owning land seemed as natural as washing your hands or caring for your children to them. If they were questioning it, there had to be something wrong with them.

Passive resistance

Understanding poverty

Received SSI, so he didn’t feel quite right rebelling against the hand that fed him

By time he was 18, they were making good on their promises, implementing their non-land ownership ideas in impoverished areas, and people had started seeing it in action on the other planets

 

 


 

Day 1 of the bike trip

Skipped for now. I will come back to this, JW


 

Day 2 morning

Dave looked at the granola he had at the top of his bag. It was part of his carefully laid plan for that moment. But that moment was now upon him and he hadn’t thought ahead about where he would be. He was near the kind of food he had not had in months. He imagined a warm plate of food on a table while examining the raisins and cashews and protein powder in his hand. The sounds of the wheels on the large transport vehicles humming along on the interstate highway system and the sights of smokestacks made him think of choosing his meal from a menu and having his food brought to him.

He looked to the north along the bike path, flat and straight. He looked to the west where the bike lane shared the road. The lights along it were just deciding if it was time to shut off and allow the sun to take over. Around the bend, he knew he would see a yellow roof surrounded by a lot of empty pavement. People would be walking out from under it with one hand on a satisfied belly. He looked in the other directions as if someone might be observing his questionable decision making, zipped up his panniers and took the road west.

The sight of a family style restaurant gave him a sense of returning home. The ample parking for bicycles and a large section of the parking lot converted for the use of the self-driving electric busses gave him a sense of coming to a place he had once only hoped for. A world where bikes were the vehicle of choice. The smell of grease from the vents hit his nose and his initial excitement about a restaurant meal wore off a bit, but a hint of cinnamon kept him moving to the building. With nothing in his way, he coasted toward the bike rack and swung one leg over the seat and down and out like a ballerina then skidded to a stop like a boy on his BMX motocross.

If he had been paying attention to the tiny rear-view mirror on his helmet, he would have noticed that he was not the only one moving like a dancer. Someone had decided to choreograph their moves with his. As he reached to unbuckle his helmet while still balancing the bike that was just settling into the loops for his wheel, he felt the breeze of another rider doing the same. He turned to see if he had caused this near collision. He was met with a bright smiling face and it winked at him. It was not at all what he expected.  More than anything, he was annoyed by the intrusion.  

Even slightly off balance she was two steps ahead of him as she strode with familiarity to the restaurant. As she grabbed the big door handle her head turned just enough to check if he had moved yet. Dave had made good use of the few seconds that her back was turned to brush himself off and tried to look normal, even though he knew trying to look normal would not look normal. For a second he thought about going back to eat his bag of granola alone.

When he made his way through the door, the music of John Cougar Mellencamp played on what passed for speakers. It mixed with the din of conversation along with the smells of bacon, burnt cheese, garlic, and fresh fruits. He recognized the tune;

There's a good life
Right across the green fields
And each generation
Stares at it from afar
But we keep no check
On our appetites
So the green fields turn to brown
Like paper in fire

The smells were a cacophony that was a little less pleasant than the symphony of the group meals he was used to. A server with a name tag that read “Mary” spun by him as he tried to find his way and take in all the signage of what seasonal fare was available, what the special was, and that he could seat himself.

His eyes darted around, and his feet moved in one direction while his body was ready to go in another. As he scanned the room, he saw the woman who had winked at him. She was greeting people at one of the booths which allowed her to make a sideways glance back at him. He continued his scans. She boldly retraced her steps and ducked a little to get her face into his line of sight then tugged on his sleeve, “Care to join me?”, she asked as she motioned down the aisle to an empty table.

In the one thousand thoughts about basic politeness, Marjo’s advice on meeting women, and the images of solitude he had for this trip, he could not find a reason to say “no”. Somewhere in that mix, he also thought that she was easy on the eyes, that maybe she should be part of this breakfast experience he desired.

As they reached the table, the server that had passed by Dave placed a chai tea on it. Dave figured this must be her usual breakfast place, maybe even her usual table. She greeted the server like an old friend, “Thanks Mar’. How are you this morning?”

Mary answered without words, measuring up Dave. She squinted at her friend as if to ask about him without talking as if he wasn’t there. The pursed smile that was returned said, “this is normal.” Dave could sense the exchange between them but had no idea how to fit in. He sat and familiarized himself with the condiments adorning the table and how the table was attached to the floor. When he realized Mary was now focused on him, he remembered he was being waited on and said, “Oh, um coffee. Please.”

Mary shook her head with a giggle and went to retrieve the beverage. With just the two of them now, someone needed to start a conversation. Dave was unprepared. She broke the ice, “Not used to the ‘big city’?”

Dave was relieved she did not make air quotes with her fingers, but he caught the sarcasm and returned it, “I tried to wash the pig stench off before I left the farm. Is it that obvious?”

“Not at all, I’m just enjoying having the advantage right now. And I thought ‘where are you from’ was trite.”

“I suppose so. And I noticed you are familiar with this place, but I thought ‘come here often’ was cliché.”

“I suppose so.”

“I was just happy you didn’t say, ‘you ain’t from around here, are you?’”, he put a strong Texas drawl on it. It didn’t get quite the laugh he wanted, but luckily he had found a menu to stare at it, pinned in with the sugar and silverware wrapped in napkins.

“Suzanne”, she said by way of introduction and held her hand out firmly, over the menu.

Dave assessed the hand and lowered the menu slowly to check the sincerity of her expression. He had not had the experience of meeting someone in a while and hand shaking wasn’t really in style. For an instant he wondered if she was going to pull the hand away and say “psyche” like some prankster from High School. But that smile told him she was not the “psyche” type, “Dave”, he returned the hand and added a bit a bow of the head for good measure. He survived the greeting phase but didn’t know what came next. He raised the menu again.

“Are you going to eat that?”, asked Suzanne.

“Huh?”

“Eat the menu?”, she clarified.

Dave was now sure he heard the words correctly. He was still not clear about what she meant. He responded, “No. What?”

“Sorry, something my mother’s friends used to say. But really, you look like you are set to do some serious riding today. I assume you’d have this meal pretty well thought out. Carbs with just enough sugar to get you started. Caffeine was not what I expected either.”

“I miss restaurant coffee.”

“Mmm, the Sumatra is excellent here and it’s grown by farmers who are, you know, living in harmony with the land and stuff. Also, the pancake recipe was passed down to these cooks from their great grandparents in Denmark. It’s almost more of a crepe, but plenty hardy.”

Dave slowly lowered the menu that he wasn’t reading anyway. Mary was there on queue with a knowing smile to Suzanne and an employee to customer smile for Dave.

“The short stack of those Danish pancakes please. With whatever fruit is in season”,

“Perfect”, said Mary. Suzanne just nodded. Dave assumed she had a usual order.

Suzanne’s curiosity couldn’t be withheld, “So, okay, where ARE you from? I know borders don’t mean as much as they used to. You seem to be from this planet, probably not too far away, but come on, give me some clues. I’m just on my way to my regular job at the power plant, not a lot going on around here. Tell me some big adventure you’ve had or are about to have.”

“I’m going to an electronics store and visiting a friend along the way. Pretty exciting huh?”

“Well, we live in a world where electronics get delivered to us by flying robots, so I guess it’s a matter of perspective on how exciting this is. Where is this store?”

“Just shy of Chicago, near the spaceport.”

“But you’re biking instead of taking the shuttle?”

“Isn’t that what you’re doing? I assume you meant the solar farm? I took the tour once. I got there by shuttle. It’s a ways from here isn’t it?”

“12 miles, and I’ve done 3 to get here. It’s a good daily routine”, she slowed down a bit realizing she would not impress him “which… I… skip sometimes. I’ve done the Chicago trip twice now. That’s more adventurous than my daily commute. The new repair stations along the way are great and the flying cameras make me feel pretty safe. Not that I did the trip alone. But it’s a nice flat ride. And you get to meet aliens.”

The coffee cup had arrived, and his attention was on it, but he raised an eyebrow at the mention of aliens. “Hmm, aliens. I usually avoid them. I’ve been to their science center about the space travel and their journeys here, you know, all that. But, did you mean, you just sit and talk with them? “

“Of course, they love our questions. They made me feel special. They said my inquisitiveness, my openness to new experiences, and my joy for living are things they like to see. This thing they are doing, populating such large areas on their planets, is new to them and they don’t want a bunch of boring towns being built like their planet is just some retirement community. But, I don’t know, I felt they were trying to sell me something, making me feel good because really they wanted something from me.”

“Well, you aren’t the only one who is suspicious.”

“Yeah, and I noticed you’re still here on this planet too. I said I like asking them questions but I’m fine with not joining their space utopia or whatever it is they got going up there. I also noticed that when I ask you about yourself, you change the subject.”

“Funny. Marjo says I talk about myself too much.”

“Marjo?”, Suzanne quickly asked.

Dave noticed some kind of concern in her voice but wasn’t quite sure what it was. He didn’t know what else to do but describe Marjo, “She keeps our farm running, in more ways than one. Cooks, makes great bread, knows when and what to plant and harvest. Mentors, if you want it or not. Kind of like a Guinan if you know Star Trek.”

“A, Guinan?”

“Yeah, remember Whoppi Goldberg? She had a part on Star Trek for a while.”

“Riight. I’ve forgotten about some of those big names that left on the early flights off earth. Some geeky guys at work talk about that. I think this Marjo might be giving you good advice,” she said with an encouraging smile.

“Well, maybe you can meet her someday and give her your report on my progress.”

“Wasn’t Whoppi an alien? Is Marjo, a-a-a-a...”

“From another planet, no. She’s quite grounded right here.”

“But you like to assign Trekkie names to your friends?”

“We prefer ‘Trekkor’.” He let that hang for a few seconds before smiling.

She returned the smile. He felt good about that but then he didn’t have another response. The arrival of the food was a perfect time to just move on to something new. He spoke, “So, this work thing you speak of. Do they ever let you out?”

“Yeah, farm boy, most jobs are 4 days a week now, and things run themselves anyway. We did our summer maintenance, cleared off all the dust and pollen and got 7% production back. We had one dead panel, the inverter connection was throwing a fault, just a little wiring problem…”

Dave had time to artistically adorn his pancakes with syrup, move his coffee cup as if it was a rook on a chessboard, and determine the perfect first bite while she finished talking about work, “uh huh, and talk Star Trek with those geeks, right?”

For the first time she looked down at the table while she talked, a little quieter this time, “I like my work”, she said.

Dave’s attempt at being playful had failed. He tried to recover, “Well. What I was thinking was. Umm. If you like bike riding. Maybe. You, me, some others” he swirled his fork around as a pointer to no one in particular, “could get together for a ride. The colors are beautiful down where I am, this time of year.”

This brought her right back to perky, “Why not right now?”

Dave was not used to perky. “Well, I, I know where I’m going. I was planning on 60 miles today. And you’re on your way to work, right?”

“It’s very cool. Today is the fourth day of my week and I can get a personal day with no notice. They gave us this calendar thing it’s right on this phone.” She pulled out a device slightly bigger than her hand. Dave had seen some of the earlier models but this one was sleeker than those, thinner, he could see from the icons on the display that it had a lot more to it. “Then I’ve got 3 days off. I can work out the rest while we’re on the road. There are a few folks who are going to be begging me to cover shifts for them when hunting season comes. Come on, life is short, you only live once, seize the day, Carpe the fucking Diem.”

Dave had now advanced from not being used to her perkiness to being stunned. Curiosity, and the need to stall, led him to ask, “I’ve heard about these phones.” She was already bringing up the system to request time off.

She typed as she spoke and Dave tried to keep up, “Sure, so, here’s the date. Down here is ‘make an appointment’, it knows it’s me, so I don’t have fill in all this other stuff, ‘type of appointment’ is personal day…” Her finger was moving faster than her words. Dave thought of Arthur C. Clarke, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. He could understand what she was saying but had lost track of whatever she was doing. He sat back and took a bite of the pancakes.

“Now, I’ll message some people to see if they’ll be around next week to cover the shifts…”, she continued with head down and her finger flying.

Dave was no longer in this conversation. He saw Mary with the coffee pot and motioned to her. She made her way over and stood there with her mouth agape, unacknowledged by Suzanne. Dave tried to pick up the conversation where they had left off, “I’d like to make it to the Wabash River tonight.”

Mary responded with a timid “oh”. Dave looked up at her. He hadn’t directed his words to her but realized she was having just as much trouble as he was, trying to figure out how to re-engage Suzanne. He could see Mary’s eyes. They beamed their attention to Suzanne. She took in a deep breath and brought a dainty fist up her lips. Dave anticipated a very theatrical clearing of the throat.

Suzanne looked up before she had the chance. She quickly read the body language around the table and registered embarrassment on her face. She rejoined the interaction with the people who were present. Looking at Mary she said, “I think I’m going for a bit of a biking vacation”.

Mary responded with “oh”, again. This one was a bit cheerier than before but with uncertainty about what was happening. Suzanne’s eyes widened and she stuck her neck forward.  Dave tried to read her face, something like, “just go with it Mar’”.

Suzanne returned to focus on Dave, “Look, my house is on the way, and I always have stuff packed. You never know when you will want or need to hit the road. I started that habit back in the Reagan years, when we were all worried that the world was going be blown up or the infrastructure was going to collapse, or the Illuminati were going to reinstate the gold standard then tell us they had all the gold.”

“I don’t remember being worried about that. The fear of nuclear weapons stuff sure, but,” He paused to exaggerate a squint as much as he could and draw out his words, “what are you reading?”

Mary’s cheek dimpled as she half smiled, “Yeah, I sometimes ask her ‘whatcha readin for?’”, really hammering that last word, “for”. The two women laughed together. Not just at the same time, but the same staccato ha-ha-ha while cocking their heads a bit and making forced smiles then stopping abruptly together. Dave noticed a couple heads in the next booth turn slightly and one of them might have rolled their eyes. The regulars here had heard this inside joke before.

Dave knew the joke too but there were only two characters in the bit so he didn’t have a way to play along with it. He had already messed up the comment about ‘geeks’ and he didn’t want to get a joke wrong again. He turned his focus back to the last few bites of his Danish pancakes.

The coffee had been poured, but Mary couldn’t do much more to get the conversation flowing. She moved on to the next table.

Dave stayed focused on his meal but turned his head enough to see Suzanne was attempting to return to their conversation. With his mouth full of pancakes, he couldn’t help. She stammered, “So, I’m trying to sound normal. Like a travelling companion you would be willing to make this trip with. I think about a lot of stuff, international politics, conspiracy theories, you name it. Let’s leave something to talk about while we’re riding.”

“Sounds like you’ve already made up your mind. It’s a free world. I guess I can’t stop you. Not sure how much talking there will be today though, at the pace we’ll be going.” Dave sipped his coffee. He made solid eye contact to be sure they were really making a deal. He noticed they were brown, as was her hair. There was no discernible part and her bangs flowed neatly above her eyes. He followed that line toward her neck noticing some definition to her trapezius muscle, and as he did that, she cocked her head in the direction his eyes were going.

Whatever he had just been thinking, he was not interested in talking about it. Instead, he asked her a few questions about her bike. It was easy conversation and a way to avoid any uncomfortable silence. And he wanted to know just how serious of a rider she was. He didn’t need to have her to recite all of her gear ratios but she should at least know what type of brakes she had. He kept that going as they paid and made their way outside.

Day 2 Hitting the Road

He had not noticed the bike at all when he came in, but he knew it was parked next to his. As they walked out, he looked it up and down. He was half expecting it to be the latest alloys derived from that asteroid the NASA/Orion project had mined. He was pleased to see a 2009 model and the frame had a few scratches on it. Also, cables had been recently replaced. She was not someone who had simply bought a fancy bike and posed as a serious rider.

They hopped on their bikes without a word and headed north to her house. Dave was relieved that it was the direction he wanted to go since he had already lost some time with the breakfast detour. Suzanne darted and weaved as she rode ahead. She knew every bump in the sidewalks and where the bike friendly streets were. Dave followed at a steadier pace, lagging behind a few bike lengths. She headed down a dead end then jumped a curb, made a ninety degree turn and she was gone. Dave took the curb and turn slowly and followed what he could see was an open path to an adjoining street. Suzanne was a couple blocks ahead on a wide and clean boulevard complete with manicured trees down the middle.

Dave was unimpressed. Playing cat and mouse was no way to start a long-distance ride. He knew he would be well out in front of her once they were a few miles down the road. He figured she would turn around and head back home later that afternoon. He started to formulate a plan to get the number of that phone thing she had.

He would be sure to get the number for that phone that stuck out of her back pocket though. [He could see it, bobbing around as she pedaled. He wondered if it was going to hold there. For the first time he started to notice the shape of the body that was inside those pants and business casual attire. Maybe she could handle this ride. She had decent tone in the legs and a strong back, more muscle to help absorb the metabolites.

I do this again with yoga, this one might be cut.

She turned up a driveway with a garage door that was already opening. She rode in with her head ducked down just as the door had opened enough for her. Before he got there, she was already making her way to the front door. He leaned his bike against the outside wall and did his best imitation of a casual stroll in her direction. The screen door slammed itself shut but the house was open. He stood looking in as she grabbed the bag she said she had packed from her closet and started to inventory the contents.

She looked up at Dave and smiled. Dave knew something was funny because he felt funny standing there at the door with his helmet in his hand but he didn’t know what else to do. She asked, “You aren’t a vampire, are you?”

“um no”

“’cuz if you are, you can’t come in unless I invite you.”

Dave took a second to call up his knowledge of vampires, “Well, maybe I am. Maybe I have already charmed you enough so you will invite me in anyway.”

“Just. Come in. Mrs. Kravitz from across the street is going to start wondering what you’re doing.”

He entered cautiously. The name she said brought back memories of TV characters from his father’s era, “So, are you a good witch or a bad witch?”

“Okay, now you’re mixing up your mythological characters. Really, there is a woman who lives across the street who keeps an eye on me. Also, on the entire neighborhood. It’s sweet really,” she turned and headed for the kitchen to stock up on food supplies and spoke softly towards the floor, “Since my mother has been gone.”

Dave wasn’t sure he heard that right and wasn’t sure if she meant it to be heard or if he should follow up with a clarifying question to show he was listening or let it go to show respect. This was why he liked to travel alone.

He was distracted from that dilemma by a high energy food bar arcing toward him, tossed from Suzanne, aimed so he just had to hold his hand against his chest and let it land. Two more followed quickly, just as accurate but now he had to balance them. He didn’t have a free hand to hold up, so he turned his shoulder instead and said, “That should be good. We’ll get fed tomorrow and once or twice when we get to Chicago. Breakfasts will be up to us and I have some extra since I splurged today.”

Suzanne now had her head in her refrigerator, “I have this vegetable lasagna leftover, frozen. We could make that dinner tonight?”

“Yeah. Yeah great. Looks good.”

The rest of the planning and packing went well according to Dave standards. He enjoyed the quick tour of her power systems and how she could put them on minimal energy consumption while she was away. He relaxed a bit about his concerns for ability to make the ride, having seen she could focus on the tasks.

When they got back on the bikes, there was some cool left in the morning as they made their way past houses, under multi-lane highways, and out from being surrounded by pavement onto a county road. It still had the old signs, from the days when more signs were needed, but this one was designated for non-motorized traffic only, back in 2010. There was room for them to ride side by side but Dave had been looking forward to this stretch for weeks. He settled into pedaling at 80 rpm.

https://www.bicycling.com/health-nutrition/a27454779/cycling-cadence-ideal/

Day 2 Lunch

Dave occasionally slowed down and rode alongside Suzanne but there weren’t many points of interest to discuss. Suzanne spent most of the morning looking at Dave’s back hunched over his handlebars. As they approached a small park in the little town of Tipton he coasted to let her get a little closer.  It also gave him a chance to stretch his back in the opposite direction it had been most of the day. With one finger on the handlebars, he looked back to Suzanne, “Buy you lunch?”

“Yeah,” she caught her breath, “great.”

Dave was in his element and not too concerned about his riding partner. He leaned the bike and aimed for the rack and set the front wheel before putting his feet down. He unclipped the part of his pannier that he used for mid-day stops then nodded in the direction of an empty picnic table. A few of them were occupied and it appeared they were parents, keeping an eye on a group of children playing some sort of tag or territory capturing game. The kids were using other tables and some of the exercise equipment as props. Dave wondered if those kids would ever know the adult versions of war or would all of those be over by the time they were old enough?

Dave positioned himself across from Suzanne and smiled wryly as he slowly pulled out a small glass container with a bamboo lid and two sandwiches individually wrapped in beeswax coated fabric. The glass was the light but strong variety that had become available recently. The container held some arugula, a spread that looked like mayonnaise with something added, and a 3-day ice pack that was starting to soften in its second day.

“Marjo?”, Suzanne asked.

“Yes. Well, the bread. I can assemble a meal.”

“Didn’t say you couldn’t.” She was a bit tired for conversation but not for eating. Her eyes followed his hands during this food preparation ceremony.

“Chicken is okay I hope.”

“Yep. Did you know this chicken?”

“Not well. A friend of a friend.”

Dave pressed down the wax fabric making it into a plate in front of Suzanne and laid the sandwich on it. There was nothing French about the meal, but he made a voilà hand gesture to let her know she should try it. She bit down and her eyes went wide. The reaction he had hoped for. Marjo’s bread performed it’s magic.

With mouth still full, and eyes closed, she leaned back and pretended to need to hold the table to keep from fainting, then fell back forward and popped eyes open, “Oh my god, this is amazing. I must know this Marjo and learn her ways.”

The way she waved her hands, shoulders, and head back and forth, he thought she might be mocking his Star Trek obsession, but he let it go for the sake of this otherwise pleasant moment. “She would like that”, he said and bit into this sandwich with a smile.

As the meal helped to take away some of the pain of the ride, Suzanne surveyed the items strewn about the picnic table. She spotted a paperback book sticking out of the top of Dave’s pannier pack. She snatched it just as Dave was taking a bite. Dave’s hand shot out to stop her before he had time to think about it. His hand batted down on the pannier that now had no book in it. He relaxed his arm as if it had casually been sitting like that all along and he quickly wiped all emotion from his face.

“Soooo,” Suzanne began as if she had discovered a dark secret, “what are you reading? Some Star Trek fan fiction, ‘Imzadi’? Nobody reads these.”

“I needed something for a rainy day, since I thought I’d be alone.” He said that with a little too much emphasis on ‘thought’. He worried it might imply he wanted to be alone. He wasn’t sure if he wanted that or not, but he didn’t want her to think it.

“Yeah, so, I don’t remember any rain yesterday and your bookmark is on page 133.”

“I’m actually on my second time through it, okay? So I like Star Trek. I think I mentioned that. This is a book. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? I read, there I said it, I feel better.”

The people at the nearby table were just barely tuned in to their conversation but at that statement they glanced furtively as it seemed it might get heated. They went back to minding their own business when Suzanne let out a big laugh.

“Ha. So you do know Bill Hicks! You didn’t react this morning.”

“Oh, I got the little skit you two were doing. ‘Whatcha readin for’, that could only be a Hicks’ comedy routine. And your friend is an actual ‘waffle waitress’. Cute. Actually, that was when I figured we might be able to get along on a ride like this. It’s harder and harder to find people who have stuff from the 90’s memorized and not many knew of Bill Hicks even then.”

“Huh,” was all Suzanne could muster up for words. Dave could tell he was reassessing her opinion of him. Her lips moved a bit and she looked around the table as if she was looking for some words laying around. “So. Glad you got the reference to Bill. Now. Back to this”, she held the book up as if it was exhibit A, “What are you reading this particular book for?”

Dave shook off the feeling of being on trial, “It’s light reading. I already know the characters before I even started it. Do you know the word in the title?”

“Refresh my memory.”

“It’s an affectionate name Riker uses for Troi. It also has a deeper meaning from her home planet, where everyone can sense your thoughts.”

“Okay, slow down. Troi, she’s the one in the mini skirt, right? The one who can read minds?”

“Well, we’ve got time to cover that. But I don’t want to be the guy who recounts Star Trek episodes and explains costume choices or the difference between mind reading and empathic abilities.”

“But you could.”

” I could”, he said as if he had glasses on and was looking over them. “It also involves a time portal, which is fun. It’s a chance to show what could have been if things were different, alternate timeline kind of thing.”

“So, do you believe in alternate universes?”

“That’s a leap. No. I don’t believe much. I’m just trying to get by like everyone else. It doesn’t matter anymore now anyway, does it? They tell us we were getting close to figuring it out for ourselves, you know, that the multi-verse theory was the right one. What I believe is not going to change that.”

One of the boys playing ran up to a man sitting nearby. Without words, just a heavy sigh and a lean on his leg, the man knew the boy needed a drink, which he provided. Dave’s voice had trailed off and he was focused on the scene at the table next to them, not on Suzanne.

She followed his gaze. She could have asked where his thoughts had just gone, but she returned to the book, “So, it’s just a love story then?”

“Oh no, people get hurt, people have to be saved from evil aliens. But yes, there’s some boy meets girl in it.”

“Well, okay. Are there juicy parts?”

“You mean like full frontal nudity?”

“Exactly.”

“Actually that’s just before the bookmark. On Betazed, Troi’s planet, when you have a wedding, everyone gets naked.”

“That’s an orgy.”

“Not that kind of ‘get naked’, more like nudist colony naked. It symbolizes there is nothing to hide. They can all sense each other’s thoughts anyway. That’s where Riker and Troi met.”

“That must have been awkward.”

“You’re still focusing on the nude part and forgetting the empath part. But yes, it was awkward because he spots her and starts checking her out. She could sense him and so could most of the people in the room. She is completely uninterested and keeps her distance the whole evening, because...”, Dave held out an open hand.

“she knows what he’s thinking”, Suzanne took the queue. “My mother has a story like this like, well, a different ending.” Now it was Suzanne who was gazing off in the distance.

The subject of nudity had stirred a hormone or two in Dave but Suzanne’s questions were annoying him and the image of her old naked mother put the hormones back into hibernation. What still stirred in him was his need to make his closing argument in defense of his literary choice, “What I like about this story is that they don’t just fall in love at first sight. They spar, they challenge each other. Riker says Troi can’t let go and just go with her feelings and Troi says that’s all Riker does.”

“I would have thought that would be the other way around.”

“That’s what’s interesting. Sometimes it is. Riker says he could handle any situation using his training or reading the right manual. Troi tries to teach him that sometimes problems aren’t solvable, sometimes you just need to listen to what others are saying.”

Dave was satisfied he had made his point. It didn’t occur to him that making points was not the point. He checked the time, checked the clouds, and offered to refill the water bottles.

“Yeah, thanks,” was all Suzanne had to say in response.

“We’re making good time. We should slow the pace down a bit, especially after that meal, but keep moving, don’t let your muscles tighten up. A little stretch break here will do us some good.”

The one-sided curl of Suzanne’s smile said, ‘Thank you Dr. Science’. Out loud she said, “Yeah, okay.”, as Dave made his way to the water fountain.

She made her way over to a level stretch of grass and planted her feet at shoulder width. She let go of any tension in her shoulders and straightened her spine all the way up her neck. As she breathed in, her arms spread back like wings then circled up over her head. With the exhale she bent at the waist and folded forward until her fingers contacted the grass.

Dave had missed this while he was doing his water duties. When he turned to see her again, she was bringing her hands up to her knees. He stopped everything, even his own breath. Seeing his riding partner doubled over wasn’t something he was ready to handle. When she let out her breath in rhythm with her bending down to her toes and then back in slowly as she raised up, he realized it is was just yoga.

His lungs filled again but his feet were still not going anywhere. He watched her graceful movements until it started to feel like he was peeping into a bedroom window. He glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. He tried not to disturb her while he packed up lunch. He stretched randomly, not sure if he should join her. Suzanne continued her yoga with eyes closed.