Every Undertaker’s Friend
by Trek Journeyman © 2016
Chapter Seventeen Start at Chapter 1.1
The settlement was devoid of all sign of the residents. Why Nate didn’t notice this on landing, he couldn’t guess. It had slipped past him. First, there had been no welcome signal or welcome party. Also, there was a lack of vehicles moving about on the outskirts of the town itself. In town, he noticed doors left wide open. The buildings were in excellent shape, but piles of belongings looked out of place. A few pieces of trash floated about by on a light breeze. The settlement had been recently abandoned.
It would have been a nice settlement. The residents had designed a park and a green belt into the landscape. The buildings were aesthetically pleasing to look at too, as though a lot of thought had gone into the design. All the buildings had solar arrays and wind turbines. Items normally not found on such far-flung worlds. A typical colony used the transport ship’s power-plant as a central power source. Solar and turbine equipment were heavy and bulky, and there was other gear more important. Besides, those items would get printed up at a later time after resources were discovered.
Each of the visitors to the town called aloud as they popped their heads inside the buildings they passed by. The only answer was silence. The interiors of the buildings were lit up, powered by the uninterruptible renewable sources. Their boots clunked on plasti-fiber boardwalk as they entered the town center. Nate decided to check out the town’s security headquarters.
It too showed the same signs of hasty abandonment as the rest of the town. Nate made his way into what he thought was the office for the chief of security. A console was still powered up. He sat down in a float chair and attempted to sync his implants with the console. Moments later he was waving his hands to scroll through menus granting access to town topics. He found the icon for the mayor’s log, then waved a hand to access it. The log was organized in an easy to follow format, with the latest entry on top.
9 March 2198 00:23 Chief of security Tony C.
We beat back the pirates again, but this time we lost half the fighting men of the colony. The rest are concerned for their families and won’t resist the pirates any longer. Yesterday the town voted to abandon the settlement. There are enough transports for everyone who wishes to leave. A few will stay, but they live far enough from the settlement and believe they are safe. I can’t convince them of the folly of their thinking. God watch over them. This is my final entry unless we come back later. I plan on it anyways.
There was a chance they might come across a resident, but not very likely. Nate and his people would easily be mistaken for a pirate group, thus be avoided.
“Guys,” he said over his implant to the others still outside or checking out other buildings. “Be careful, there are still a few people around. They might not be friendly. They may think we’re pirates. That’s why they left. They lost a lot of people in some big fight, then ditched the colony.”
The four made their way about the town, never encountering anyone else. There was no need to stay around much longer. Maybe later he could send someone back to gather some supplies. Then he thought he shouldn’t do that. Rather, he would leave everything for those who remained behind, so they could scavenge what might be needed later. If anyone was watching, they should notice Nate’s people aren’t taking anything. Maybe they’ll realize Nate’s group aren’t pirates afterall and come talk with them. After a half hour of fruitless searching, they went back to their ships.
This was the first colony of any stature they had come across since leaving Andretti. It meant they had to be closer to more colonies. Nate and Joseph discussed the possibilities and decided to go back to the town the next morning. They would then download everything from the town database, especially navigation logs. With the logs, they would have information for the locations of other nearby colonies. He would also have them download the all the information from any computers they found in town. But before that they would rest. Nate needed a good night’s sleep outside.
Outside, he set up his bundle bag and made a fire. The wound in his side itched, even though it was fully healed. The itch should go away in time. If not, he would have to get to a more sophisticated autodoc to heal the nerve damage, or find a rehab hospital.
Nate made sure everybody was armed. However, he instructed them to keep the weapons out of sight in case any locals were watching them. He also gave the kidspermision to run around camp during daylight hours, but they had to be watched by someone standing up on the ships. Erica came and sat with him at his fire. She could tell how antsy he was. He saw that look on her face. The look she gave anytime he discussed weapons.
“Relax, we’re okay. Nobody’s going to come in blazing away at us,” she said.
“I’m not worried about any locals. Its Esparza I’m thinking of,” he replied.
“He’s way behind us. He can’t hurt us now.”
“Nah. He’s still around somewhere. I can feel it.” Nate frowned. “He won’t let us go so easily. We know too much about him and his friends. Men like him never let things go.”
Kenya was standing nearby listening. “Nate’s right Erica,” she said. “Some folks don’t know well enough to leave sleeping dogs lay.”
“How can he do anything now?” Erica looked over to the Grahat ship where the friendly aliens were enjoying their own campfire and singing. At least that’s what she assumed they were doing. They were oinking their songs, and that had been expected. It was an amusing sound, but the current topic prevented her from noticing the humor of pigs singing.
“He knows he’s in trouble the moment we tell others of his crimes. Especially since we set the Grahat on him. His actions toward you ladies and the kids will brand him for good here and back in any other Human space.” Nate sat up, no longer laying down as he talked. “He never wanted anyone to know he was even remotely associated with slavers. That’s gone when we make it out of here. And because he has friends here, he’ll use them to get us out of the picture. That’s what he can do.”
“He struck me as a careful thinker,” Erica said. “He had us all thought through, sure enough, but he didn’t count on you.”
They sat staring into the fire, occasionally looking up at the stars and moons. Six moons in various phases lit up the surrounding landscape. Snow packed mountains off in one direction, and rolling plains in the opposite. None of them had ever been under that many moons before, and it made for a most mesmerizing scene.
An evening breeze caused the fire to waver, and Nate noticed it shuffle Erica’s hair. Bugs chirped in the night all about them as a lone, strange sort of howl sounded from towards the mountains.
“I think now he knows you are alive, and he still will not do anything,” said Erica.
Nate didn’t argue the point. Looking up into the stars, the empty expanse felt as though it hid his adversary from sight. A man used to living as he did always listened to his sense of danger. Too many times it had kept him alive. He wouldn’t argue with her because he only had his gut telling him otherwise. That feeling wasn’t enough to justify any debate. Besides, she might be right, and so much for the better if she was. He hoped so anyway.
“Still, we’ll still play it safe and not let our guard down,” he finally answered. “I hope you’re right, you make a good point. With friends watching our backs,” he looked at the singing Grahat. Their long-winded snorts still carried on. “It might be even less likely. But Kenya’s right too.”
The fire was warm, though the night wasn’t exactly cold. They had blankets wrapped about themselves, layered over bedtime clothing. Nobody had eaten yet, but that was about to change. The Grahat were doing more than singing. They had offered to cook for the whole company and were now bringing the meal over. Kids from the circus crew and several men and women were carrying individual plates. Those who hadn’t been outside or near a campfire had been paged over their implants. Those without implants were having meals delivered to them too.
A quiet but relaxed meal ensued. Aattempts to have a conversation died quickly. Kenya was cheerfully interacting with the Grahat that had strayed nearby. However, she was the only human who kept up a cheery attitude. After his plate was clear, Nate got up to walk the perimeter of the landing field. Erica joined him. He caught himself repeatedly looking up at the stars, wondering how far it was to the nearest colony. There would be fighting ships there and that would give him an added peace.
Esparza would have that information because he had been through here before. He might not know everything about this region, but he’d know enough to find an advantage. He could pick his place to jump them.
Somehow sensing where his mind had wandered, Erica broke his thoughts. “Nate, when will the killing stop?”
“It won’t if it needs doing.”
“I won’t marry you if it doesn’t end now.”
He knew her feelings, they were always her feelings, and they always would be. He felt a spark of anger deep within himself. At her for her feelings, and at himself for opposing her feelings. It’s not like he sought out violence. It was everywhere, and he merely dealt with it.
“You’re wrong to take that attitude, Erica,” he said as he looked at her. “Neither of us can foresee what’s going to happen over the next couple of weeks. You seem to believe that I live to kill, that I want to. I don’t. I never did. But, I don’t want to die at the hands of some thug who thinks he can take something just because he has the urge to.”
“You can still avoid it.”
“Sometimes, yes. And I do try. You’ve never lived like this before. You’ve never tried to avoid gun fights. You have no basis of experience to judge me, or any man for that matter, who has lived out here all their lives.”
“But when you kill, you’re no different from him.”
“What about soldiers then?”
“Not the same.”
“Really? Because they carry some banner to stand behind makes it okay? For them to kill for a government sanctioned cause? The state is not always righteous. the state has always been the greatest source of Human misery and suffering.” They were standing still, far enough apart they couldn’t reach each other. Close enough for a conversation. “Well, we too are at war,” Nate continued. “Fighting for a cause of liberty and life. It’s a war over who gets to control the frontier. Thugs and criminals, or families and founders.”
“But killings wrong, Nate. It’s just wrong.”
The conversation revealed a core difference on life between them. So far they were keeping the conversation civil and respectful. Both had the fortitude to resist arguing dirty for their particular vantage point. This was a conflict with the purpose of understanding each other, not to sway the other to accept one view-point. Neither sought to win the argument up till now. Nate again found himself looking to the sky. How could he tell her in a way she would get? If one hasn’t lived it, they would never get it. One can’t judge the wildness of space by the standards of picket-fence civilization. Then he thought about the boars.
“The Boars? Why not let them kill us?”
“So? They aren’t Human enough for your sensibilities? They were only following their culture, following what they thought was good. They fight for their good, we fight for ours.”
She didn’t respond. Nate knew she still hadn’t gotten it. He understood her dislike of the guns hanging on his waist. He felt the same. He acknowledged she hated the idea of him having used them to take lives, he did also. But he knew how much it tormented her to know what he might yet have to do with them. Again, he felt the same. She may never comprehend that about him. The dichotomy was too much for her life experiences to grasp.
On Terra, men accused of murder were imprisoned. They were secluded into rather comfortable quarters. Eventually they undergo psychoanalysis and are told they had a bad rap in their youth. Civilized society could no longer accept the truth of humanity having a propensity to lean toward evil. Evil, they taught, was caused by poverty and childhood abuse. It was never their fault they couldn’t overcome hardship. Never their fault they didn’t learn self-control and empathy for others.
Erica equated people like that with him. To her there was no difference between him and the man who wanted them enslaved, and that wasn’t a moral equivalency. But Nate could be graceful towards her naive misunderstanding. After all, it would be nice to be able to live in her idealized world. It could be done on Terra. How he wished he could, but Terra had no appeal to him. He determined he would find some place after this was over. Where he could strive as a husband to provide her with the closest approximation as he could. She deserved it. Everyone deserved safety, but it comes at a cost. Only if she would marry him.
But no matter his thoughts, he could read her face. The stiff attitude towards him was returning. She had been forward, showing him who she was, and now vulnerable to rejection. It was a risk, every man and woman took when seeking companionship. She took hers. It was time for him to take his. His mind ran feverishly to find a response that would reverse the chasm growing between them. He took her hand.
“Commit to putting your guns away, for good. Now,” she said.
Nate released her hand and stepped back. “It would be foolish to do so before we make it to a safe place. Afterwards is another matter.” He stared at her. He saw her lips tighten. She was holding her breath. “The frontier is too wild for one to become a pacifist. Such people get rolled over. On Terra I would do as you ask, but not out here. I’m willing to lay down my guns, but I could never go anywhere beyond whatever home I find. Maybe not even then, people will learn who I am and come calling, looking to make a name for themselves.”
He saw the change in her eyes. She blurted in anger, “I knew they were right! You like it! Like killing!” She started to turn away, then stopped to look back at him. “You don’t really love me. If you did, you would do anything I ask you!”
“No I wouldn’t.” He spoke in a whisper. “To do so would be the opposite. Like spoiling a child. I live as life happens, by my conscience.”
“What?” she fired back. “You don’t have a conscience! Not at the rate by which you kill.” With that, she stormed away back to her father’s ship and went aboard. Now alone, Nate walked back to his ship and stood on the main ramp. The darkness surrounded him, enveloping him despite nearby campfires and surrounding voices. He should have made the promise, just to keep the peace. It would eventually show itself to be a lie, but at least he would still be holding her hand. They may never cross paths with Esparza again, so it would have been worth the risk. Still it would have been a lie, even if he never drew a blaster again. He sincerely hoped he would never have to use one again. But, if it came down to defending himself and anyone else in need, he wouldn’t hesitate.
He remained on the ramp for another couple of hours, leaning against the hatch. His fellow travelers were settling down for the night as the fires were dying. Soon a soft quiet settled over the camp. He continued leaning against the hatch, looking up at the stars and the moons. Now only four moons were visible. He was restless from the argument, not angry, but too alert to sleep. A breeze brushed his face and hair as the bugs of this world sounded their calls. Another howl-like sound came from his right, towards the mountains. The sound echoed off nearby cliffs. The atmosphere was rather dense, causing the echo to carry longer than he was used to hearing. Finally he stepped down from the ramp and circled his ship, stepping softly to not awaken those asleep beside their fires. After one circuit, he returned to his ramp, which was within ten feet of his now dead campfire.
“Oh Erica,” he whispered. The surrounding silence didn’t give him an answer. Only the howl sounded as a wind strolled toward the mountains standing tall in the waning moonlight.
To be continued… in Chapter Seventeen.