As the afternoon wore on, the murderous heat of high noon relented a little, and the second half of the station's workday began. Alison took advantage of the opportunity to show them around the station.
Ross knelt in the sand to more closely examine a row of aloe plants. "Can't get used to blue leaves," he commented, grinning.
Ali laughed. "Jessa said the same thing about Earth -- she said it looked perfectly normal from space but when she got dirtside, everything was green. Healthy things are not supposed to be green!" She pronounced.
Shane got a call and excused herself to answer it. She could hear a motor running in the background. "Vansen."
"Shane, it's 'Phousse."
"How's the luau?"
"I haven't got there yet. We had a little trouble on the bus on the way out here, I thought I should let you know about it."
"What kind of trouble?"
McQueen glanced over at Vansen.
Damphousse replied, "Someone took a few potshots at the bus we were on. There weren't any serious injuries, the worst was a few nasty cuts from flying glass. None of us was hurt. But most of the people on this bus are employees of Agropoint. They think the In Vitros are trying to kill them all."
"It doesn't sound like your shooter was trying very hard."
"I think someone was just trying to scare people. No one's that bad a shot by accident."
The word "shooter" got everyone's attention. Vansen asked, "Do the locals have everything under control?"
"It looks like it."
"Then just keep your eyes open. And, 'Phousse?"
"Keep me informed if anything else interesting comes up."
Ross asked, "What was all that about?"
Shane repeated Damphousse' report. "What do you think, sir?"
Ross scowled. "I think I'm going to have the shore patrol check in with the local law, for one thing. Alison, what's going on?"
Alison pushed her hat back and shook out her short silver curls. "There have been a series of incidents here on Ganelon, Glen. First someone set a fire at the co-op's warehouse. There wasn't much damage, just a few empty crates, but it had been set. Right away, we were all suspicious of Agropoint. Then there was another fire at the company headquarters in Ganelon city. We aren't even sure that one was arson, but most of the company people believe we set it in revenge. In a way, I was hoping -- even if it was an accident! -- that the second fire would be the end of it. I hoped everyone would think we were even up and just let it go.
Then when the Navy ran a routine inspection of a shipment of aloe vera gel going out of the Downport, they found out it was contaminated. North Valley Co-op runs a good operation, Glen. Some of my people went up there to help them with their investigation. The Navy conducted their own independent check. I'm convinced the contamination had to happen at the Downport. We've all gone out of our way to increase safety and security measures, but the rumor going around now is that a company guy contaminated the shipment on purpose at the spaceport. I don't believe it, but it is believeable. We are underselling them with a quality product because we don't have to pay tribute to Big A. We can afford to let the market give us a fair price."
Glen gave a low whistle. "You've got a real mess. Do you think one of your people did it?"
"If you mean someone at Brown's Station, or any of the stations for that matter, I don't think so. We're law-abiding people. But if you mean, could some hothead have decided to express his opinions by shooting up a company bus --hell, yes. Especially since no one was hurt. I hope they catch whoever it was -- shooting at a bus full of people was a damn stupid thing to do, whether it was an In Vitro or some nat trying to make it look like one of us."
Glen and McQueen exchanged a look. "Ali, could Aerotech be stirring all this up?"
"Where would the profit be in that? Every acre we can plant and find warm bodies to work is covered with aloe plants right now. We're doing a better job of it than Agropoint, but there's no real competition right now because it's a seller's market. No one has gelskins sitting around unsold. As long as the war goes on, God help us, there's market enough for everyone and then some."
"I think so, Glen, but I can't prove it. The thing of it is, too many people on both sides would rather blame the devil they know.... You can't imagine how much a lot of my people hate Agropoint. And for the part of the company people, they're scared. They're in the minority here, and out here on the stations, we make the laws. A lot of people think we ought to stuff them in shipping containers and send them back to Earth. They aren't going to sit still for that! Whoever the saboteurs are, they won't have to work very hard to make the tensions that already exist here explode."
"So I see."
"Glen, isn't there something Naval Intelligence can do? Someone who isn't part of the situation might be able to come in and uncover the saboteurs before they start something that could end up destroying everything we've built here."
Ross nodded. "I know a few people. When I get back to the Sara tomorrow, I'll make a few calls and see what I can do."
When they got back to the station, preparations for a celebration were already under way. The night before the fair was a party night, something anticipated all year. People from smaller stations that were part of the co-op started to gather in to Brown's station. Some people had brought musical instruments with them, and before the cool of the evening had yet arrived, a band formed out by the barn, near the beer kegs.
Ross heard a lot of Latin influence in the music they were playing, but here and there were overtones of Celtic strings and African drums. There was one horn player who would not have been out of place in any river town jazz club back home.
But the synthesis was all of that and something more ... tunes that came from the mines and the foundries and the fields ... the only legacy of people who had lived two or three short years and left not even a name to be recalled by anyone left living today. Ross knew that music, knew it from when he had been a boy sitting on his grandfather's lap learning his first bar chords ... with fingers still too small to span the strings. That music sang suffering, yes, but never despair, never hopelessness. It was hope, when hope for anything better had been beyond all reason or common sense. Now, here, in this place and time, it was all the hope of those dark years brought to life.
Ross started as a hand dropped on his arm. "Glen, what were you thinking? The look on your face just now--"
He looked into Alison's eyes and said, "I'm a musician, Ali, and music is a language all its own. There's a hell of a lot of your people's story told in that music."
She nodded understanding, but she smiled. "History is the past, Glen, tonight is all about the future." The band finished warming up and the drummer set up a fast dance beat. "Don't stand around here looking back -- come dance with me!" Alison grabbed his hand and pulled him out onto the gravel lot. He had time for only one short protest before he was in the middle of a crowd of couples whirling and kicking up their heels. Alison quickly taught him the steps, then all he had to do was keep up with her!
By the time the tune ended, he was out of breath, and he knew why the dancers wanted to be near the refreshments! The beer turned out to be rich and dark and ice cold.
Jessa came over. Ross could see the wistful look she gave the dancers for a moment. "Ali, Brights are here."
"They made it? I'd better go see them!"
Ross asked, "Brights?"
"Jack Bright's station lost their whole crop to a sandstorm this season, and they'll have to rebuild their irrigation system before planting time. The co-op will get them back on their feet, but still, this is going to be a real hard year for them. I've got to go say hello to Jack, but I'll be back shortly."
Ross took his beer and sat down on the flatbed of a farm truck that was parked nearby, listening to the band tune up. Jessa sat down there too, with the air of someone taking a load off. She looked at him for a moment, that silent, appraising look he'd seen so often from McQueen.
"Ali was right about you," she pronounced. Then she asked by way of an explanation, "You do speak our language, don't you?"
"Huh. I better, otherwise I'd miss three quarters of what McQueen tells me," he replied.
"I'll say this once, and never again -- if you ever hurt her, I will find you. There will not be anywhere you can go that I won't be able to find you."
He raised his beer glass in a sort-of salute. "Good luck getting there ahead of her brother."
"Just so you understand me."
"Yes, ma'am. Ali does not give a damn that I'm natural-born. All I ask you to do is give me the chance to prove she's right."
Jessa nodded, slowly, after giving him a long thoughtful look. "All right, I'll do that."
McQueen had found a secluded corner and made himself comfortable. Alison had visited with him for a long time before she had gone off to find Ross, and Vansen had avoided intruding on their privacy. Now she joined McQueen and found a perch on a low stone wall. They could hear the music and the people celebrating down by the barn.
"Ty, do you want to join the party?"
"If you do. I'm not much of a dancer."
"I'll bet you'd be good at it if you tried," she said.
He shook his head. "Maybe next time."
Vansen studied him for a moment. "What's wrong, Ty?"
Shane guessed, "It isn't what you expected?"
"I don't know what I was expecting. But it wasn't ... to go back to living in a work group."
Vansen nodded. She knew that In Vitroes were usually decanted in a large group. They were trained together and, before the liberation act, they had been indentured together. She knew that McQueen had been one of thirty-six boys sent to Omicron Draconis together ... and that only six had survived the five years there. "It must bring back a lot of memories," she said.
"You can't exactly 'bring back' memories that never go away in the first place."
"This is true," Vansen replied.
McQueen looked up at her. "That was a stupid thing for me to say, Shane. Your parents -- I'm sorry."
"It wasn't stupid. It's okay. But you're right, I understand."
"I can't be a part of what Ali has here. Not yet. Maybe not ever."
"You know, there are a lot of communes back home around San Diego. They live a lot like this. I've spent time visiting friends who live in places like this, and I've always felt comfortable there. If you wanted to come here someday, I could be happy here."
"Shane, don't misunderstand me ... finding out about Ali and Heather was one of the best things that's ever happened to me. But I don't belong here. Not really -- not to live here and fit in."
She smiled. "About as well as I'd fit in if I moved in next door to Anne. We fit in the Corps, Ty. Hell, I was born a Marine brat!"
"I never really thought before about what I'd do after the Corps."
"Same thing everyone else does after they retire. Get a place in town, maybe start a business or something ..." She grinned. "Go down to the VFW and trade stories. You know. That's what people do."
McQueen reached for her hand. "Settle down? I guess we'll finally do that some day, won't we?"
Vansen nodded. "I guess so. It doesn't sound so bad, you know ... some day. Not for a long time yet. Neither one of us is anywhere near having our thirty in."
"No, not any time soon," he agreed quickly. They shared a grin in the darkness. They belonged right where they were ... that was a good feeling. McQueen got up and drew Shane to her feet. "Now, about this dancing thing...."
Ross hadn't realized the party had been going on so long, until he happened to look at his watch and it was 0300. As the dance broke up, people wandered off to find places to camp. He joined Ali on her usual nighttime walk around the station, as she checked all the buildings and made sure everything was secure for the night. They ended up checking the vehicle shed at the far end of the row of buildings. Beyond that, there were only the dark fields, and beyond that, the wilderness that was still most of Ganelon.
Ali said, "It's almost five hundred kilometers to Morganville, a little mining settlement in the foothills. There's nothing between here and there but desert."
"You said you brought Heather out here and lived in the back of your truck...." Ross shook his head. "Hearing that story back on the Sara was one thing. But standing out here in the middle of it --!"
Alison said, "I'll never forget that first night, after I turned out all the lights. I'd never been anywhere that was quiet before. No traffic noises, no equipment running, nothing. The station is a lot more civilized now. I didn't realize how much I appreciate hot water and indoor plumbing until I did without things like that for the season. Some nights, though ... I still drive out into the desert, just to listen to the silence." She paused a moment, then swiped her keycard in the door of a pickup truck. She slid over to the driver's side and Glen climbed in beside her.
They pulled out of the vehicle shed with the lights on low-beam and Ali turned onto a narrow dirt road between two fields. Glen knew long rows of aloe plants stretched out on either side of them, but it was too dark to see. There was only cloudless sky, and stars almost as clear as from the bridge of the Sara. The road gave out at the edge of the fields and Alison headed out across the desert. It wasn't long until the station was just a few lights a mile behind them in the middle of the dark landscape. Glen wasn't sure why she stopped where she did, one patch of desert looked the same to him as any other. She reached under the seat and pulled out her rifle and -- he grinned -- a jug.
"Planning to shoot something?"
"I hope not. But it's dangerous out here at night."
He raised an eyebrow and teased, "'At night?' As in, only at night?"
Alison laughed. She handled the rifle with a confident familiarity, Glen noticed. "Well, not exactly, but things that might have you for supper tend to run around at night. Anything with a lick of sense stays in during the daytime."
They climbed up in the back of the truck. Alison rummaged in a tool box, found an old jacket and a piece of canvas. "I don't make a habit of taking guys out parking in my truck," she grinned, a little embarrassed.
Glen rolled up the canvas, it made a fairly decent pillow. "It has been a lot of years since I went parking," he laughed. "I seem to remember one hell of a lot of mosquito bites."
"What's a mosquito?"
"A little flying bug we have back on Earth," he explained. "The bites itch like crazy."
Alison laughed. "There's a reason why we're in the truck instead of lying in the sand! We have these little pinching things called sand devils. Once they get hold of you, you have to hold a match to them to get them to let go. If you just pull them off, they'll take a piece of skin the size of your fingernail with them."
"Is that why we were told not to go barefoot, even on the beach?"
Alison shook her head. "No, that would be spinies. They're little hardshelled animals that have a row of really sharp poisonous spines down their backs. They bury in the beach with just the ends of these spines sticking out. Things come along and get paralyzed. Then when the water comes up, the spinies dig out and swim around eating whatever they caught. The poison won't paralyze a person, or even really hurt you, but it will make your whole foot go numb. Scares the hell out of offworlders, though, they don't know what it is and they think they're going to drop over dead. Then they panic and bother the lifeguards.
The thing is, there are big things swimming around out there in that water that can swallow you in one gulp. We call them krakens. I guess there used to be some prehistoric animal like that back on Earth in the dinosaur days. They have shells and lots of long tentacles hanging out. The beach at New Waikiki is okay because the water is too shallow for anything really big to come near shore. But they have a huge kraken shell on the beach that washed up in a storm, and someone built a snack stand inside the shell."
"I'll bet you just love to point that out to the tourists. 'Sea monsters!'"
"Sure we do," she admitted. She settled in beside him and rested her head on his shoulder. "But those 'sea monsters' might even be intelligent.... we know they mate for life and family ties stay strong even after the young leave their parents. Sometimes you see whole families of them together, from the big old grandparents to the tiny little baby ones. The marine biologists say their language is more complicated than whales and dolphins on Earth. That's why one of the first things we did after the emancipation act was to pass a law against bothering them, unless it's self-defense."
Ross thought it would turn a few ideas back on earth upside down if people realized that the fledgling society here had made protecting their planet one of the first concerns of their new government.
Ali followed his gaze to the heavens. "Can you see the Saratoga from here?"
"Nope. Not unless you happen to be looking when we leave orbit -- you'd see the flare when the sublight drive kicked in. If you had a good telescope, you could see the wormhole open when she built up enough velocity to raise anchor."
She shook her head. "I know how to find north from the stars, but that's about it!" She admitted.
"You have your feet on the ground. Nothing wrong with that, for a farmer. And we would not get very far without the food and medicines that you grow!" He replied.
She said, "I like knowing that ... things I've grown go with you out there. It's like a part of me is always beside you, no matter where you go."
Glen said, "Don't ever doubt it, Ali. You're with me."
"The war is getting worse now, isn't it? No, I don't want you to tell me things you shouldn't ... I don't want to know. But I spend a lot of time at the Downport, and I've seen people from every carrier in the Earth Forces fleet there. Everyone's taking R&R. And there's this .... look in the officers' eyes .... they know it's the last time for a while. You and TC have that look now. And I'm afraid, like I've never been afraid of anything in my life. I just found you two. I don't want anything to happen to you. I don't want to lose you now. I don't know what's going to happen in a few years, if we can really make a go of this -- Jessa thinks I'm crazy. But I want us to have the chance to find out for ourselves, Glen!"
He rolled over and held her close, and they kissed until they were both out of breath. "I want that, too, Ali. More than anything."
"Farming isn't an easy life. You're at the mercy of the market on one hand and Mother Nature on the other. If a crop fails you live hard until the next season... real hard sometimes."
"It isn't easy making a life with a sailor, either. I'd be gone most of the time, until I retire -- long enough for you to get used to it. Then I'd be here all the time, in your way."
Ali reached up to stroke his face. "I could get used to having you in my way really fast, Glen."
"Never expected to fall in love at my age."
"Having a shipboard fling and falling head over heels for a sailor I'd never met before -- now there's a classic InVitro thing to do. Crazy, headstrong, impulsive -- boy, do all the stereotypes fit! But it feels like the smartest move I've ever made in my life.... except maybe for keeping Heather when everyone said I'd be smarter to give her up for adoption." She kissed him again, and whispered against his lips, "Come back to me."
"God willing, you could not keep me away," he replied. "But, Ali, if I go down in battle, it will be to keep the enemy away from you and Heather. I have a lot of other reasons that I've had all my adult life. Patriotism, duty, honor.... those things are all very real to me. But in the last moment of my life, I will be thinking of the two of you, and I will not be afraid."
Ali blinked away tears. "Then I won't be afraid either," she promised.
"Wait for me, Ali. When the war is over, I will come home to you. We have to have faith in that, just as so many other people do."
"I'll be right here. Just like this morning, you'll come up the road one day and there I'll be...."
"That big old hat and all... and that pretty blouse you were wearing... I don't need a picture, honey, all I'll have to do is close my eyes to remember how good you looked."
"I remember when you played the guitar for me," Ali said. "That music chip you sent me.... I play it every night before I go to sleep, and I think about you. I close my eyes and I can see you, and it's almost like I can reach out and touch you."
They kissed again. Ross felt his face go hot as he realized he'd forgot something very important. "Ali -- uh, I don't want to land in port just long enough to get you pregnant."
"After that first night, I got Dr. Walker to give me a birth control shot, but then I was ... umm ... too embarrassed to just come out and tell you I did it. It's still good for two more months. I'd like to have more children ... but I want you to be able to be here when they're born. I don't want you to be cheated out of that because you have to be halfway across the galaxy." She smiled. "But we don't have to worry about that tonight."
Glen realized there was nothing they had to worry about tonight. All of it could wait until morning, and morning was still several hours away. They weren't being foolish to take a chance on love. They'd be idiots to walk away because it might not work -- that was the only way to guarantee that it wouldn't.
Ali was right, there was no silence like that desert at night. He could hear every little breeze whisper over the sand, as it brushed her soft hair across his face.
A little while later, something came rolling out of the darkness to land up against the side of the truck, startling Ali into grabbing for her rifle and sending him scrambling to fish his sidearm out of his pants. They lay back, laughing like a couple of kids, when his flashlight revealed that it was just something similar to a tumbleweed. It didn't distract them long from more important pursuits.
|Fanfic||Part One||Part Two||Part Three||Part Four||Part Five||Part Six|