Search This Blog

"Tools" First Draft Beta Reader Site

I have been working on a Sci-fi novel as an experiment. It has all the elements that I think will make a good story, including a unique woman working with her new partner, a bit of romance, humor, and along the way some modest social commentary.

One of my favorite authors is Nevil Shute, who wrote many notable books including On the beach, No highway, Trustee from the tool room, The legacy, and many others. The thing I liked about his books, was his quiet everyday characters who selflessly rise to meet the challenges in life. I think this is also why I enjoy L. E. Modesitt's books so much. In the end, the best stories are the ones you can imagine yourself as the protagonist and become a better person for it. 

I am writing this using Google's Blogger software. Things my text editor can't do with any grace are paragraph indents, and line feeds create gaps that are good for paragraphs but may be uncomfortably large for dialog spacing. The dialog is broken into smaller coherent clumps. This makes things a touch awkward, but it's still readable. It may take on a more conventional appearance in time. 

I intend to concentrate on creating a good story first, and clean up edits are always ongoing as I learn. (PS. It's the first draft, rough in places, and there are bugs. I stomp on them when spotted). A screenplay adaption is being written at the same time but is not online.

My email address is in my profile. If you see things that need work or can be improved feel free to send me a missive. I can't make things better if I don't know about them.

To make it read like a book, I have to backdate each post to control the order. In an oxymoronic way, you will have to click on “older posts” to see the newer chapters.

Thanks, Bill


It was heady times in the middle of the 21st century. In 2031 scientists using the new extra shiny gigantic super collider much to their brief chagrin created a wormhole. A tiny naked singularity. In less than a blink of an eye, all that was left was a two hundred yard diameter sphere of vacuum followed by the thunderclap created as the air rushed in to fill it.

The chunk of now the missing collider and several startled scientists simultaneously appeared in space 500 miles away from earth. The pieces inexorably pulled back to earth demolished the Happy Acres trailer park in Texas and everything else in the area on impact. How the large pieces of the gigantic collider ended up appearing that far from earth created the infantile glimmerings that you might actually be able to travel using a small bottled wormhole. 

Within ten years the first crude worm drive had been installed into a ship, and in five days it hopped its way to Alpha Centauri A and brought back pictures of not one, but five planets. It turned out there were thousands of inhabitable, at least more or less, planets.

The first pioneers left earth to find their Edens. Religious sects who wanted places free of unbelievers along with the other hordes of ethnic, tribal, and political groups. Almost as quickly as humanity exploded out into the galaxy, it all collapsed. 

The worm drives were all built on Earth. Fanatics for reasons known only to them took a nuclear device and blew up the facility that made and stored the singularities. In nanoseconds, they and a quarter of the Earth vanished. No new worm drives would ever be made again on a now wobbly and no longer inhabited Mother earth. The number of starships steadily dwindled. Planets that were self-sufficient plowed forward, some in better shape than others. Many were not sufficient, and an uncaring universe took care of them.

Chapter 1 On orbit

“He looks a lot like Arthur,” said Jabob peering at the photo.

“Yes," said Celeste brushing her bright red hair away from her face. "There is a resemblance and he is handsome. Maybe that's what caught my eye in the first place. I still miss Arthur every day. I loved him so much.”

“All things come to an end, Celeste. You of all people should know this better than most.”

“I know Jacob, but it doesn't make me feel any better. I've been lonely for far too long. Setting his looks aside I know he's smart. He doesn't seem to have any personal attachments, he's is struggling financially and Bliss isn't the sort of place where his talents and civil engineering degree is too useful. Like Arthur, there's just something special about him that seems so right to me.”

“All you can do is to try. You're a beautiful and remarkable woman. You forget this at times.”

“We both know it usually doesn't turn out well. It's difficult for me.”

“I know, but it did once, and I know it will happen for you again. Let's set it up, and we'll see how it goes. Just don't push too hard and believe in yourself. I'll always do whatever I can to help you.”

“Thank you, Jacob. You're a good friend. I'm ready to try again. Everyone put your restraints on. I'm starting reentry. I've done all the data collection I can do from here.”

Chapter 2 Bad day at Red Rock

Ben quickly sized up his pallid frowning customer. Balding, cheap clothes that didn't quite fit, and likely wanting a bargain. He knew the type well. A just looking kind of guy but he badly needed a sale. Awkwardly twisting his tall, lanky frame towards the driver he used his best number six smile. “Drives like a dream doesn't she?” Ben said over the smooth hum of the electric motors. The pinched faced older driver glanced back as he turned back into the lot, Well I have to admit it seemed the price was a little too good to be...”

Ben suddenly lurched forward ribs being squashed by the seatbelt and his sandy hair flopped over his eyes for a moment as the hum abruptly stopped. The wheels locked up with a metallic screeching, and the vehicle skidded to a stop. The driver contemplated the wispy black smoke now curling up from underneath and sneered, “I should have known better. You guys are all thieves.” The door slammed shut, and he stormed off the lot.

“Get your sorry ass over here now, Ben” yelled old Mr. Griswold, from across the lot. This is going to be a no-win conversation,” he thought as he reluctantly trudged across the dusty lot.

"Thompson this is the third sale you have lost this week, you just can't seem to close a deal,” sputtered Mr. Griswold becoming more florid by the second. 

Ben clenched his fists and stood his ground. “You told me this drive unit was completely rebuilt by your worthless brother-in-law. I think he just threw in some old coils that were at the end of their life. How can I sell this junk if it won't even make it around the block?”

Griswold swelled up, then glanced sideways at his napping brother-in-law slumped in his chair. A steady stream of drool wended its way down sagging chins and pooled on the floor. Turning back to Ben he deflated, “You're fired, just get out of here,” He rasped. Ben gathered his meager desk contents and walked away fuming.

Clutching a six pouch of Buzzed beer and a pseudo meat sandwich Ben waited in line. The store's garish vid displays scrolled headlines. “Starlet gets the third breast transplanted, says two aren't enough for her.” “Deadly Spiny Polymorph captured inside city limits, two wardens injured.” The clerk snapped him out of his reverie. “Is this it buddy?” and deducted eleven credits from his sparse balance. The few remaining credits in his account heightened his impending sense of desperation as he headed home to his micro unit.

Halfway through his sandwich while scanning help wanted ads, it started. Repeated banging shook his micro unit door. A tinny metallic voice called out, “Mr. Ben Thompson, you were seen entering this unit. I am here to collect your debt of 1136 credits owed to Galactic Charge-All. My programming requires me to stay until you pay your debt. Present your card for payment soonest,” droned the credit bot. The message and incessant banging on the door repeated, this time with more volume.

Ben eyed the frying pan still coated with the remnants of breakfast sitting on the cooker and vision materialized. Grabbing it, he snatched open the door and hurled it with all his might at what he realized was now a frantically retreating and badly dented credit bot. Time slowed as events unfolded. Having just missed the credit bot by mere fractions of an inch the rotating pan continued on its high-speed trajectoryWith an impressive thud, it dented the hallway wall in front of ancient Mrs. Gold. She paled, gasped and fainted. Her lap mutt started furiously yipping at the pan. The retreating credit bot made garbled noises as it whizzed away disappearing around the corner. Staring at the mess and the prostrate old woman on the floor Ben panicked and ran into his unit. 

Spinning into overdrive, he gathered up cleaning supplies, and a water pouch. Reviving Mrs. Gold, he helped her back on her feet and shoved the water into her hands. Frantically sopping up the mess Ben hoped the only remaining evidence of the unfortunate incident would be Mrs. Gold's addled memory and the dent in the wall.

The building super came up the stairs to see what was going on. Glaring at the still-wobbling Mrs. Gold, the pan in Ben's hand, and the dent in the wall he hollered over the shrill yipping, “Ben you're two months late on the rent already, and now this! Get out of here by the end of the month.” 

Finishing the cleanup, Ben collapsed onto his worn couch fuming. “Whoever named this stinking dust bowl of a planet Bliss had a weird sense of irony. A fat lot of good that engineering degree did for me. What a crappy day. I had no idea those credit bots could move so damn fast.” He returned to the help wanted ads. “Nope, not selling vid advertising. Repair credit bots? Nah, you mostly need experience in a body shop.” He scrolled through dozens of others then a small ad caught his eye. “Sales position available. Some experience desired. High pay. Travel required. Apply in person. 26 Blossom Street.” He ripped open another Buzzed beer pouch and reread it.

Chapter 3 The interview

Ben's eyes cracked open hearing the insistent beeping of the vid alarm. Getting out of bed his toes squashed an unfinished pouch of Buzzed beer soaking his foot. “Crap,” is the first utterance of the day. The remote stopped the wake-up beeping of the vid, and the help wanted section reappeared.

Reading the small help wanted ad once more he thought, “What do I have to lose? It's not like my schedule is overloaded today.” Wearing his most sincere suit, he waited at the autobus stop. As the vehicle pulled over, he heard his name being called out by a tinny voice and quickly stepped aboard.

Ben studied the featureless one-story building. Only a painted street number above the plain metal door identified it. “What the hell,” he mumbled and entered the sparsely furnished lobby. A half-dozen people were seated on folding metal chairs. A pleasant young women wearing a dark suit that looked vaguely like a uniform sat at the reception desk. Ben stood politely until she looked up. She smiled and said, “Here's your application tablet. Please fill it out, and wait until your name is called.” Ben started filling in the blanks when an agitated middle-aged man bolted out of the side door, and in much haste left. “That was certainly odd,” he thought as the receptionist called another name. She escorted the applicant to the side door where he was met by a young man wearing the same style of clothes. 

About thirty minutes later Ben looked up as he heard his name called. “Mr. Thompson, we are ready for you.” He walked to the door, and the receptionist stayed with him until the young man appeared. “My name is Jon, Mr. Thompson, I'm pleased to meet you. I'll be escorting you to the interview stations. Please follow me.” Jon led Ben to a small office and left. The furniture consisted of a small table, with two metal chairs. He picked one and sat.

The door opening caught Ben by surprise, but not as much as the man entering. “Yikes, what the...?” Extremely tall, cadaverous, scowling, and ultra-intimidating was Ben's first impression. Somewhat startled Ben stood, stuck out his hand, and with a smile said, “Hello, I'm Ben.” The tall man ignored him, sat down, and stared blankly at him. “What do I do now?” thought Ben. On impulse, he used his best number four grin and said, “I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have.” The man continued to sit still with a dour expression. Ben noticed that he didn't even seem to blink.  “Should I be doing something here?” Ben asked. Again zero reaction from the man. He looked more closely at the taciturn man. He's bald, wearing a white robe, and had a watch with a large digital face on his wrist, The pendant on a chain around his neck appeared to be more than jewelry. Ben smiled, this time sort of, and tried one more time saying, “What type of sales job is this?” Abruptly the man stood and left without saying a word. “What's going on here? This is the weirdest interview setup I have ever encountered,” he mused.

The door swung open, Jon stuck his head in, and said, “Are you ready for the next step?” “I guess so,” said Ben. “Who was that Jon?” “That's the boss, Jacob Grimm. I think you did okay. Believe me, you would have known if he wasn't happy with you. He's normally a fun guy when he isn't doing interviews.” “I can't imagine Jon, what's next?” “Follow me.” Ben tailed him down the hall to a much larger room with workstations equipped with a computer and headset. “This is a type of open book aptitude test Ben. You can use the computer to ask questions about anything you want to know, but the one thing the system will not do is give you a direct answer to any test question. The test does not end, you just go as far as you can, or think you should go.”

Ben sat down and put on the headset. The screen lit up with, “What is the melting temperature of iron?” Ben thought for a second. “It's pretty high, maybe about 1500 degrees.”“What type of iron?” Ben asked. The computer's pleasant voice responded, “Elemental iron, free of impurities.” “Can you show me its physical properties?” The screen scrolled about ten pages of information. “Ah, there it Is,” he thought, and said, “1538 degrees Celsius.” “Correct,” said the computer, and the screen displayed the second question. “Can aluminum be used to make an archery bow?” Ben asked for the history of archery to be displayed and started to scan the info. After thinking for a couple minutes Ben said, “Yes you could, but it is too soft to work well for long. It's likely to shortly fail from metal fatigue. Some more exotic alloy forms might last longer.” “Accepted,” said the computer, and the screen displayed “How would you do an emergency appendectomy with things you could find in a kitchen?” Ben sighed, and said, “Can you describe the procedure please?” “Yes,” said the computer, and screen filled with text and photos. After three hours and many questions later, Ben thought, “My head is plugged up with things I thought I would never need,” and he pushed himself away from the desk.

Jon came over, and asked, “Are you done?” “I could keep on going, but I don't see the point.” “That's fine Ben, please follow me.” Ben followed Jon down the hallway to the first bare room he started in. Jon said, “Have a seat, someone will be with you shortly.” Ben plunked down in the chair thinking he maybe should have worked longer on the test. The door opened and in came the cadaverous-looking Mr. Grimm, this time smiling, and not looking anywhere near as intimidating. Mr. Grimm extended his hand, and said, “You did well Ben, we would like to offer you a position.” Ben awkwardly rose and shook his hand. “During this whole interview thing, nobody ever said what the job really is.” “You're right Ben, a good point. The position we are filling is for a traveling encyclopedia salesman. We think you will be excellent at it.” said Mr. Grimm, “ and please call me Jacob.”

Chapter 4 An offer, base plus commission

“Ben, let's go to my office, and we can talk about this,” said Jacob, waving his arm for Ben to follow. They walked down the hallway and entered a plain room. There were several chairs and a couch surrounding a coffee table with an eight-inch square black cube on it. “Office Celeste if I may impose,” said Jacob. Instantly the walls were covered with tall wooden bookcases. A fireplace blazed in the corner, and a large picture window looked out onto an alpine meadow. “It's a hologram Ben, and thank you, Celeste,” Jacob said. A women's warm voice responded, “You're very welcome Jacob.” Ben swiveled his head around looking for Celeste. The only person in the room with him was Jacob. “Who is Celeste?” asked Ben. Jacob pointed toward the cube, and said, “This is Celeste, and she is the metaphorical encyclopedia you would be selling if you accept the job.” 

“I'm not sure I understand. Am I supposed to sell a talking box?” said Ben “Celeste would please introduce yourself to Ben,” “I would be pleased to Jacob. Hi Ben, I'm Celeste, and it's truly a pleasure to meet you, although we had already. I gave you your test playing the role of the computer. At my fingertips, I have the majority of information known to mankind and have been uploading everything available about Bliss while I have been here this week. Would you like to know your credit score, Ben?” Startled by the question, Ben stammered, “Ah no thanks Celeste, I already have an idea what it is.” “Why Ben,” she said, “It's perfect. You currently have a balance of 100,000 credits in your account. I shifted a little money away from Galactic Charge-All's accounts and moved it into yours. Their ugly credit collection bots acquired a nasty virus at the same time. I'm talented at this sort of thing. We wouldn't want your fiscal distress to push you into taking a job you didn't like. You have to really want this job.”

“Ben,” said Jacob, “Our organization is just known as the Library. For over two hundred years we have been collecting information, sorting it, and then selling it as a source of income. We have also been fortunate to have had substantial sums and resources endowed to us through the years by generous patrons. We saw the Great Collapse coming and moved off earth years before the Earth's singularity explosion which proved to have been a good decision, as expensive as it seemed at the time. Even our skills couldn't have foreseen that calamitous event.”

“We do what we have always done, and during our visit to Bliss we have been mining data, and concluded some low key information, and technology sales. Places like Bliss still have infrastructure and technology, and most data mining can be done from orbit by tapping into wireless communication systems. But on all too many planets, the level of technology is too low to allow data collection from afar. This requires visiting in person. So, in short, the job is to visit these places, assess conditions, collect what information is available, and where opportunity presents, sell, or trade our information in a way that will help uplift the inhabitants. This is not an easy job. It comes with some personal risk and requires special skills to do this. We believe you have these talents,” said Jacob.

“But how can I do this? You can't even get to some of these places,” asked Ben. “Yes, you can. We are going to provide you with an impressive toolkit. You will have a ship and Celeste's help. The first step is to go with us to our facility on Alexandria where you will get small implants to help you communicate better with Celeste, some training, and off you and Celeste go. As for pay, you will get $100,000 credits per year, 3% of any profitable sales and room and board are provided. By the way Ben, we are leaving in three hours. If you're going to accept this job, be back here by then. If you choose not to accept the job, the money Celeste has given to you is yours to keep. We will await your decision.” A startled Ben stood, shook Jacob's hand and said, “Thank you both.” Somewhat stunned Ben walked out of the office.

“What do you think Celeste?” said Jacob. “I really liked Ben. I think he's the one.  He's smart, intuitive, and didn't freak out anytime during the process including accepting me. I think he will be back here in about two hours. You only lied a little about the job this time. You're getting much better Jacob.”

Chapter 5 Alexandria bound

Ben's brain was spinning and he mumbled to himself, “This must be a scam, or some sort of reality vid show is being made, and I'm the brunt of the joke. Leaving Bliss on a ship? Twenty years of my income would barely buy a person a one-way ticket to any planet, and I would have one at my disposal?”

He looked at his card and checked his balance. The display showed precisely 100,000 credits. Ben shook his head as he contemplated the number, and hopped on the auto-bus headed home. Ben knocked on the super's door. He transferred credits to pay the rent in full and added an extra 100 credits to fix the dent in the hallway wall. “Thank you for paying, Ben, but I meant what I said, and I have already rented your unit. So be out at the end of the month.” “No problem,” Ben thought to himself, “I can afford something a lot better than this musty dive.”

Ben took the last pouch of Buzzed beer, tore it open and sat. Checking his watch, he still had 2 hours and 15 minutes left to make a decision. Looking back at the vid the small ad was now gone. The remaining help wanted ads seemed even worse than the ones he saw before. “Miner's needed for heavy metal extraction at the poles,” “Pseudo meat extruder operator position available for third shift.” “Yeee,” thought Ben. “My credit balance will last me for a year and then what would I do?” Looking around at his scruffy unit he noticed that the vid was now showing a travel log featuring an exotic resort planet. Attractive women were cavorting under a waterfall, and one with short hair was swimming in the pool at its base. It was all surrounded by a lush, and alien looking forest.

Looking around at his scruffy surroundings the concept of taking the job slowly coalesced into a great idea. In a burst of excitement, the small suitcase was found and stuffed full including a bathing suit. Taking a final look around, Ben thought, “The super can have all this junk,” Catching the first autobus, he checked the time. He had a little less than two hours left. Stepping off the autobus he walked in, and the place was bare. Ben's heart stopped for a second thinking. “Maybe this was all a joke after all,” when Jacob came striding through the front door. “Good to see you, Ben, are you ready to go? The car is outside waiting. Celeste said it would take you about two hours to decide, and she was right, as usual.”

Ben squeezed himself into the back seat next to the receptionist. “Congratulations Ben, I'm Rachel, Jacob's assistant.” “Nice to meet you again Rachel,” said Ben. “I knew you would accept Ben,” said Celeste's voice coming from the car's speaker. “I had calculated the probability at nearly 100%, I nudged you a just little bit to make it 100%.”

Ben thought about this for a moment. “Celeste, did you rent my apartment, arrange to have that old travel log appear on my vid, and makeup all those awful help wanted ads?" 

Celeste in a much lower voice said, “Well maybe. I just wanted you to take the job. I know you will be great at this. Sorry, I won't do those things to you again.” 

Ben laughed, “Apology accepted, but did I hear a small loophole in your apology?” “Just a tiny one Ben,” said Celeste. “It was for your own good. I knew I'd like you.”

They pulled into the dilapidated spaceport and up to a small freighter. This was the only ship present and one more than what was usually there. The hatch ramp had already started to deploy. Jacob got out and opened the trunk. Ben grabbed his suitcase and waited until all the gear was removed. Jacob pushed the return button on the car. It headed off to its rental lot, and Ben followed the group up the ramp and into the ship.

The interior looked like the inside of a yacht. Ben surveyed the comfortable looking lounge. He could see a short hall that had cabins. Forward was a galley on one side, and a conference room on the other. Jon secured Celeste into a cradle. “Thanks, Jon,” said a full-voiced Celeste. This is much better, I was feeling sensory deprived utilizing all of those primitive communication systems on this planet.” Jacob said, “Ben, please find a seat, we are going to depart. Celeste, would you please take us to Alexandria.” “My pleasure Jacob, and Ben you will find a seat belt under your cushion. I won't depart until it's fastened,” requested Celeste.

Ben felt a gentle surge and downward pressure. The vid on the wall showed the spaceport shrinking, and in a couple of minutes, the arc of Bliss's surface appeared. A brief moment of weightlessness passed, then gravity returned. “The first jump is in thirty seconds. The next jump will be in about three hours, give or take depending on our actual location,” announced Celeste. Ben felt his guts twist as gravity pulled on him from random directions, the vid went gray, and then it was over. “You are free to move around.” said Celeste, “I will give a fifteen-minute warning before the next jump.”

Ben looked around saw that Jon had disappeared. Jacob and Rachel were in the conference room. “Celeste?” “Yes, Ben.” “How long will this trip take?” “It will be about two days in subjective time, Ben. I have reset the clocks to Alexandria time. It is now 9:47 pm.” “Um, should I be doing something?” “You may do as you wish, but I have loaded a tablet with a variety of things for you to study over the next couple of days. You may use cabin four, and the galley is automatic. Eat whatever and whenever you want.” “Thank you very much, Celeste.” “You're welcome Ben and goodnight. Please don't forget to put on the restraints before you fall asleep, or I will have to wake you up and remind you.”

Chapter 6 The library

Ben's studies were interrupted by Celeste announcing that they would be landing at Alexandria in one hour. The last two days had been spent reviewing the history of the Great Collapse and information on the over 7400 planets, or at least the ones in some cases that were suspected to be still inhabited. More successful ones like Bliss on occasion got visitors, but for most, it was a rare event because so few ships were still operating.

Rachel sat next to Ben “I wanted to let you know what will happen over the next couple of days. After we land, I will give you a quick tour, and show you your unit. Then we go to medical to get your implants.” “Whoa Rachel, what kind of implants? Am I going to become a cyborg?” “Not hardly Ben. These are tiny implants that will let you talk, and listen to Celeste privately, as long as you are within range. You will also get tiny cameras built into special contact lenses, so she can see what you see and some medical monitoring sensors. We all have them. You didn't notice that we don't talk out loud to her. After that, we'll all have dinner in the cafeteria. You'll get a more detailed overview after you have the implants. Now is also a good time to pack your stuff, and rejoin us in the lounge for landing.” 

“Restraints please,” announced Celeste and a minute or so later Ben felt the gut-twisting of transition, and the vid went from gray to a view of a white and green rocky planet. As the ship arced down toward the surface, a valley with a large cluster of low buildings nestled into the side of it came into view. They landed on a rather small pad with room for maybe at best three ships. With a small shudder, the ship descended into a cavernous bay that had dozens of ships lined up inside of it. With a jolt, the ship was hauled forward and then stopped. “Welcome to Alexandria Ben,” said Celeste.

Gear in hand, Ben followed the group off the ship and climbed into a waiting cart. An awestruck Ben stared out at all the ships. He had only seen three in his life. Waving his arm towards them, Jacob said with pride, “We have 42 of these vessels. We think at last count there are at most about two dozen others still operating. We have enough singularities in storage to last for at least five or six more decades. It's our hope by then the technology can be rebuilt to start making them again. We have substantial manufacturing capabilities, but not nearly enough to build worm drives.”

The cart hummed its way down a long corridor and broke out into a cavernous multi-floored atrium lit by a massive skylight. Jacob glanced at Rachel, “Would you please get Ben settled, and then over to medical for his implants.” “Grab your suitcase and let's go, Ben,” said Rachel. A dazed Ben clutching his suitcase scrambled to follow her over to a bank of lifts. “Ben, don't bother to try to learn the layout yet. When you have your implants, Celeste will give you a hand.” 

One of the lift doors whooshed open, and Ben followed Rachel in. The door closed, and the lift rose. Ben noticed the buttons weren't touched, and Rachel smiled. “I told Jeeves, where we needed to go. The many Artificial Intelligence's here help us.” lectured Rachel. “You'll get used to this in short order.” “Home sweet home Ben,” said Rachel as she slid the door open with a flourish. Ben followed her into a comfortable looking suite. A large vid hung on the wall showing a view of the valley outside. A small work area was in the corner. Through another door, Ben could see a small bedroom. Rachel pointed to another door and mouthed bathroom. Ben nodded, set his bag down and started to try out a couch, when Rachel quipped, “Nope not yet Ben, we're off to medical.”

The lift sank like a stone downward. “Medical is in the basement so to speak,” said Rachel in a matter of fact tone. The doors opened onto a brightly light reception area. Ben sniffed the antiseptic air, and thought “This is a hospital alright,” The receptionist looked up and smiled “You must be Ben, I'm Susan, you can follow me.” Rachel waving goodbye said, “I will see you at dinner Ben, You won't need me to find it.” 

Susan led him to a small room with a high tech bed. “The Doc will be with you in a minute,” as she spun around and left. Ben stared around at the gear in the room. Mostly looking at the spindly robotic arm next to the bed surrounded by racks of ominous looking instruments most of which were sharp and pointy. The door opened, and a man in a white coat walked in. “I'm Doc Greene Ben, “Don't worry, this isn't a big deal.” Just lay down on the bed, and we'll get started.” Doc Green fitted a small breathing mask over his face and pushed some buttons. Ben faded away.

“Ben... Ben can you hear me?” said a disembodied voice. A foggy Ben mumbled, “Yes, I can hear you.” “That's good Ben, now try moving your new third arm,” said the voice, a little clearer this time. Ben's eyes shot open. “A third arm?” he blurted in a panic as his head snapped down to look. “Just kidding,”  said Celeste. “Do you feel okay?” “Yes, mostly I think, and that wasn't funny Celeste,” snapped Ben. “Sorry Ben,” said Celeste, “But if you could have seen the look on your face.” “Yeah Yeah,” he grumped, “When are they going to do this implant thing?” “We're finished Ben, and I did my usual great work. That little red line on your forearm is where your medical monitoring implant is. It will fade away in a couple of days. Now try to talk to me by subvocalizing. Just talk without moving your mouth.” “Like this Celeste?” “Good Ben you got it, and with a little practice, it will become second nature. I can hear you clearly, and the permanent contact lens cameras are working well. I see what you see.” “All the time Celeste?” asked Ben with some concern. “Yes Ben, all the time. But I will give you privacy anytime you ask, I promise. The only exception is unless it's for your own good.” added Celeste. “It's getting close to dinner Ben, and we have another job we have to finish. I'll guide you.” 

Chapter 7 How do I look today dear?

“Ben, just follow the yellow line to the lifts. Then go up to the third floor, room 302. You'll find this really interesting. It's time to get to know me better,” said Celeste. Ben popped out of the elevator and did a hotel hallway turn checking room numbers to see the direction he needed to go. Five doors down was room 302. He opened the door, walked in about three steps and staggered to a stop.

The center of the room was lit by a single soft down spot illuminating a couch. A stunning and nearly nude woman was gracefully reclining looking back at him. Large breasts and long legs are filling out a sheer almost transparent negligee. Her waist is impossibly narrow and lips red and full. Long, luxuriant blonde hair gently swayed being moved by a nonexistent breeze. Slowly her tongue glazed her upper lip while wide eyes stared invitingly at him.

Ben started to sweat and became aware of stirrings in his groin. “Is that really you Celeste?” he stammered. “Yes Ben, do you like me? I can look any way you want me to.” Ben struggled for words, “You can really look any way I want?” “That's right Ben, any way you desire,” as her breasts seemed to swell even more.

Ben squirmed for another moment now even more aware of his embarrassment. “Celeste, this won't work. You're extraordinarily attractive, but this is seriously too distracting and not at all real. Could you look a little more, well normal?” A pleasant but plain looking young women appeared in front of him.

“Okay Ben, this is my starting point. You're going to tell me how you want me to look. I'm going to read the data from your bio-metric sensor implants, and your body is going to tell me what you like. Just stand and look at me.” Ben watched quietly as Celeste started to change. Face, hips, breasts, hair, height, and clothes slowly morph, and in about three minutes the changes come to a stop. An attractive woman is now standing in front of him with short blonde-reddish hair, a cute nose with a few freckles and an alluring slight figure. Extraordinarily bright eyes looked back at him with an impish and knowing glint. “How's this working for you, Ben?” “You're beautiful Celeste,” “It's how I imagined you really look. Why did you do this?”

“We're going to be spending a lot of time together. The ship has holoprojectors, and it's easier for you to interact with me if I look like a real person, and don't you dare ever forget for even one second that I am. Had you thought the other version of me was how you imagined or wanted me to look I would have been disappointed.”

Celeste gave Ben a quick kiss on his cheek he could almost feel as he reddened. “This is going to be a good relationship with Ben, I may even treat you to an occasional fantasy,” she said with a mischievous grin. “It's time for dinner with Jacob now. Select your meal from the replicator and join us in the private dining room,” said Celeste as she sauntered out the door. Ben shook his head and started towards the door quietly saying to himself, “It's almost like she can read my mind.” A soft voice whispered back “I can't Ben, but I'm very intuitive.” “I really like Celeste,” thought Ben to himself this time.

Chapter 8 The last supper

Ben stepped out into the hallway, and Celeste's voice told him to follow the projected yellow line on the floor that ended at an open elevator. Carrying a pasta dinner and wine pouch, he joined Jacob and Rachel. Celeste appeared in the chair next to him. Rachel grinned, “I see you and Celeste have made peace with her appearance. I can bet it was an interesting experience. You should have seen what Jeeves did to me.” Flustered Ben said, “It was enlightening, to say the least.”

“Ben," said Jacob, "There are a few more things you need to know before we go any further. You were already on a short list for this job Celeste created while we were in orbit. This is a difficult position to fill, and I wasn't completely honest with you about what the job really entails. When we're through discussing this, I will give you the option of returning to Bliss, with the credits Celeste put into your account or continuing.” Ben peered at Jacob then Rachel and then turned to look at Celeste. All three had somber looks on their faces. Ben cleared his throat, and said, “Go ahead Jacob, I'm listening.”

“Before the invention of the worm drive, the earth was in bad shape. Despite the efforts put into trying to minimize the birth rate, the population had grown to nearly thirty billion souls. Warmer temperatures made more land unusable for agriculture. The tipping point had long ago passed. The worm drive saved humanity, sort of. 

Religious, racial, nationally aligned, and almost every other example of human tribalism went to the stars. The poor of course were left behind. It was shortly after this we established Alexandria. 

Worm drives have a long lifespan if not used. With each use, they lose power. One of the first things the Library did when we moved here was to acquire a substantial stockpile of worm drives and ships. All the worm drives were built by a single company that carefully guarded its secrets. When it blew, all the tech went with it at the same time. We understand how to make them, but we don't have the resources on our planet or the place to build them. We want to find planets that have a population large enough, are willing to make some sacrifices, and over time can be taught how to do it.

This job has several aspects. One is to visit possible planets where this could occur. If they're not ready, we try to provide them with the tools needed so in time they might be suitable for this project. Another thing you need to understand is Celeste is in charge of these missions. One last thing Ben, there is no real pay for this. What we offer to you and to all residents of Alexandria are room and board. No one here pays for anything, and there is no way to buy things. If you need something, and it can be provided you will get it. So there it is Ben, do you have any questions?”

Ben sat silently for a minute playing with his pasta, and asked, “How dangerous can this be Jacob?” “On rare occasions, we have lost people mostly because they made poor decisions or ignored their partner's advice.” Celeste chimed in “Ben, I will guard you with all my resources. Losing a partner is devastating. I know this personally. You are the one I'm willing to do this with again if you will have me.”

Ben looked up at the atrium skylight, considered how mundane his life was on  Bliss, then smiled. “Sure, Celeste, I'm game for adventures with you.” “Thank you, Ben. It will be fun, or at least I promise always interesting. I have some things to do, and I will see you first thing in the morning.”

Chapter 9 Moving day

A chiming in Ben's head was slowing climbing in volume. He opened his eyes hearing a cheerful “Good morning Ben.” Seeing Celeste leaning over him Ben clumsily pulled up the sheets to his chin. Celeste smirked, “Get over it Ben, When I did the implants, I gave you a full physical examination at the same time. You also got vaccinations, and some goodies to boost your immune system.. There isn't anything I don't know about your body, and on that subject, you should get a little more exercise. We'll work on that in time.” “What's in store for me today Celeste,” mumbled a still sleepy Ben. “We are joining Jacob for breakfast, so hit the showers and meet me in the cafeteria's private dining room,” said Celeste, as she walked out.

Wet-haired Ben entered the dining area clutching a plate of pseudo eggs, something that purported to be yogurt and fruit and a cup of cafe. He started to sit next to Jacob but instead veered at the last second to sit next to Celeste, causing a quixotic smile to briefly flash past her lips. “Good morning Ben,” said Jacob. “Celeste and I have talked about what planets we want to look at, and we have settled on a place called Pastoral. It hasn't been visited in over a hundred years.

“Celeste, would you give us a quick overview of what we know to date.” “Sure, Jacob. Pastoral is a moonless close to earth norm planet with one vast continent. The animal life is small of which some are edible and was supplemented with earth mammals and vegetation. It was settled by two groups. The first was Eauland Industries. They were a strict monotheist religious company that manufactured water purification systems used by terraforming companies.”

“The Gaian's were the second group and called themselves One Earther's. They are an agrarian-based matriarchal society with a loosely organized pagan style worship of Mother Earth. Neither group had much interaction with each other. The One Earther's constantly complained about the Eaulander's mining and heavy construction facilities were damaging the planet and the Eaulanders shunned the One Earthers as godless heretics. My best estimate is the current population will be around 4.5 million.”

Celeste looked over at Ben, “Are you ready to go?” 

Startled Ben quavered, “Right now? Don't I have to pack or do something to get ready?”

“No Ben. I prepared the ship and packed for you last night. I don't ever truly sleep, but I do need to rest on a regular basis. And yes I have a bathing suit on board for you if we find a waterfall. One without lots of cavorting females in skimpy suits that is. Your stuff can stay where it is in your room. You don't have anything on your schedule today do you?”

“Uh no Celeste, it seems my schedule happens to be open today, and tomorrow as well.” 

Okay, let's go.” 

“Do have a projected timeline Celeste?” asked Jacob. “The trip travel time is 2.1 days subjective. Maybe about a month for the survey if all goes well. If things are bad, it could be longer than that. It really all depends on how far they have slid backward in technology or culture.” Celeste stood, “I'll be onboard Ben, the waiting cart will take you to the ship,” and she vanished.

Ben stood and shook Jacob's hand. “Guess I'm off Jacob,” Ben said with some trepidation. “Any advice for me?”

“Yes Ben, but first ask Celeste if she would give you some privacy for a moment.”

I heard, let me know when you're through with Jacob,” whispered back Celeste.

Jacob paused for a moment and looked straight at Ben. “The first thing about Celeste is you can't lie to her without her instantly knowing it, and she would never lie to you unless it is necessary for your safety. Celeste is truly alive, has real feelings, and cares deeply for those around her. Like all of us, she desires companionship and intimacy. Her sense of humor can be dry so keep that in mind. She selected you and had been looking for a suitable partner for a long time. You're entering into a relationship with her, and how it works out is up to both of you. She's a remarkable, smart and kind woman. That being said you don't ever want to be on her bad side, she's slow to forgive, but always does in time. You're in good hands, and we need both of you to work together for everyone's sake. Have a good voyage Ben, and we will see you in a month or so.”

“Thanks, Jacob,” said Ben, and he walked over to the cart and climbed in. “I'm done with Jacob,” said Ben, “Thank you.”

You're welcome Ben, I'll see you soon.”

The cart whirred through the library complex and came to a stop in a cavernous hall next to a ship that was much larger than the one he arrived on. Ben walked up the ramp taking in the size of the vessel. “Welcome aboard Ben this is my personal expedition ship, and I have configured it to suit both you and the mission. I can't wait to show you.” said an animated Celeste waiting for him at the top of the ramp.

Ben stepped into a small circular room with hatches all finished in dark wood. Celeste said, “Watch this.” The wood disappeared, and gray metallic walls appeared and then became dark wood again. “I have holoprojectors everywhere in the ship, so we can make our rooms look any way we want them to appear. The only real things are the furnishings, and I made sure they are comfortable. Aft is the hold, and it's packed full of things we might need including a full medical suite for you if need be. I'm a good doctor as you already know. Let's go forward.”

Ben followed and entered into a large salon. One wall had a huge vid, and abundant other smaller vids were showing a variety of scenes. One caught his eye, and he walked over to look at it closer. It was a waterfall on a lush alien planet with a woman that looked similar to Celeste swimming in the pool at the base of the falls. Ben looked at it puzzled for a moment and turned towards Celeste and started to say, “Didn't I see this image on my vid...,”

“Yes, you did. I put it there when we were on Bliss. It's the same waterfall, I just removed the other cavorting females. I was the one swimming.” Ben smiled, and said, “It looks better now Celeste.”

“Thank you, Ben, it was a nice thing to say.”

“Let me show you the rest of the ship. Here is a small gym,” as a door slide open. Ben stared at the exercise equipment and sighed. “And this the bedroom.” Ben walked in and noted a large bed in the spacious room with a bank of drawers built into the wall and a wall vid. On the other side of the room through an open door, he saw a small bathroom and shower. “There are four other smaller cabins for guests, but I don't expect any company on this trip. Forward is the galley and bridge. This ship is virtually indestructible, and heavily armed which on occasion has been handy. Find a seat and buckle up Ben, we are going to lift.” 

Ben sat on the salon couch and found the restraints. A small lurch indicated the lift was in motion and a second bump told him they were on the surface. Ben clenched briefly as he was pressed down hard in the cushions as the vid showed a rapidly shrinking Alexandria. “The first jump is in 60 seconds Ben, and then I'll join you. This takes some concentration.” Ben felt himself turning inside out thinking, “What in the world have I got myself into?” 

Chapter 10 Learning things

Celeste wearing her ship's jumpsuit walked into the salon and plunked down into the chair next to Ben. “I know you must have a million questions, and now is a good time to ask them.” 

“I'm not at all sure about how this is all going to work. Can you tell me what is likely to happen?” Ben asked.

“Sure, some elements are common to these expeditions. We're going to slowly approach Pastoral. Some planets had space-based weapon systems. If there are any, I will disable them. Then we will go into orbit and spend some time analyzing surface conditions.

“What do I do while all this is happening ?” 

“You can help me a lot here. We have to pick a landing location to make contact with both groups. Far enough away that they will have to come to us, and not so close that we can't see who is coming. This could be anything from a single vehicle with a few people, to a militia armed to the teeth. At that point, we'll have to work together and play it by ear as the old expression goes. This is why it's always an adventure, and we both need to be cautious. Most go well and are enjoyable, or at least are tolerable. Some places, however, can be bleak, tragic and extremely dangerous.”

“Could you tell me what happened to your last partner?"

Celeste gazed off at one of the vids, and then abruptly looked back at Ben. “Yes. It's hard for me to find a partner to work with. I need to personally like and trust my partner, and the flip side is they need the capabilities to do what I can't. This is a difficult thing to quantify since every situation is different. So they have to be smart, honest, adaptable and not be impulsive, at least as far as the expedition is concerned. But most importantly he has to accept me as I am.”

“My last partner, in the beginning, was good, but over time, he started to order me around. It was about little things at first, and then it got worse. He would disregard my advice and started to take full control of the ground side contacts. One day he arranged a meeting with the local military officials at a nearby large base. These were not good, and I thought potentially brutal people. I suggested he do this near the ship where I could protect him. When a small group showed up in a vehicle, he just climbed in and said that he was going to their base. I insisted that this was a bad idea, and then he called me ..... a machine and told me to shut up.”

On the way to their facility, they asked him how many people were on the ship, and he stupidly said no one, just a computer. When they reached the base, they went to a small room. One of the officers asked him how to get onboard. He told them, the computer has to grant access, only he could get in, and it was now time to talk business. The senior officer told him, "We know a lot about computers, and we want your ship. He pulled out a sidearm, and I watched him pull the trigger. Over the next minutes, I felt him die through his sensors.” Celeste stopped talking and looked away.

“What did you do?” Celeste looked coldly back at Ben, “That military base doesn't exist anymore.”

Ben leaned back stunned. “I'm so sorry, I don't know what to say other than to promise you I will never treat you that way.”

“Thanks, she said with a small smile. “I trust you too.” “How about we watch a vidflick? You choose which one. I have an almost endless supply of them, and I have only watched a few.”

That night Ben was asleep when he sensed something. He rolled over in a sleepy haze and noticed Celeste lying in bed on her side wearing pajamas with her eyes closed. He moved a little closer towards her and drifted back to sleep. 

Chapter 11 Pastoral inbound

“Ben, we are going to transition shortly. Would you please put your restraints on including your shoulder straps and snug them up. I may have to do some aggressive maneuvering as we approach Pastoral.”

Ben pensively strapped in. “I'm good to go.” 

“Don't be nervous, we are going to be a good distance away from Pastoral when we pop out into normal space. Thirty seconds to arrival,” The vid went from gray to a view of Pastoral turning below. Mechanically Celeste went into a dialog. “Four satellites, no make that five are in orbit. One is operational, and the others appear to be dead. Querying satellite. It's a communications link, and still operational. No communications traffic. Downloading memory. You never know what you will find. Revising software and uploading. I have control of the satellite. It's slow, but there may be a need for it in the future. Your implants may be able to uplink through it. Starting to map.”

Celeste appeared and sat next to Ben.

“You can take off the restraints now, can I show off a bit?” 

“Sure, show me what you can do.” 

A large sphere appeared in the cabin slowly rotating in front of them with swaths of maps appearing on its surface. “I'm mapping, and this will take time to complete. The maps are layered. 

Watch this.” Ben gawked as the surface changed to a high-resolution topographic map. “Everything in blue is an artificial structure. I'll change the image a bit. These are subsurface cavities. The orange ones are artificial. I'm locating all the natural resources at the same time. There is plenty of iron and aluminum along with a fair amount of rare earth minerals. Is there anything you would like to see?” asked Celeste.

Ben pondered for a moment. “Do you have any geopolitical mapping data?” 

“Yes I do, but bear in mind it's over a hundred years old,” as the overlay appeared. A low rock wall in places defined the border. Eauland had a large city near the border, and a mountain chain was off to its west. The Gaian side was mostly plains with occasional hilly areas with one large village also close to the border with hamlets scattered elsewhere. “Another thing Ben, my best estimate of the population before we left was about 4.5 million. I think the real number is now less than half of that. Something bad must have happened.”

On the Gaian side, they have some power in each of the villages, but no grid that connects them together. They may be using solar. There is some wireless communications traffic I can barely detect, can't decipher yet, and short range. On the Eauland side, they have a modest power grid, and one power generating plant near their mountains. I don't see a nuclear signature, so they must be using some sort of local fuel to run it. They have transmitters that carry vid transmissions. They have no wireless communications and a limited computer network.”

“What do you usually do now?” 

“If it appears safe, and it does, I move in closer. I can start to hear some low power communications traffic to get an idea of what is going on and what languages are being used. I'll continue to improve the mapping data, and we will be close enough to get decent photographic imagery. 

“Sounds good to me, let's do it.”

“Okay, please put your restraints back on. I have more than once been surprised by a surface-to-air missile or the ilk. They aren't fast enough to hurt me, but I might have to move quickly.” Ben was pushed slightly down into his seat, and sideways a bit, and a few minutes later Celeste said, “We are in a stationary orbit Ben, please stay seated, and we'll see if anything is going to happen. I'm continuing the mapping. It looks like the Gaian side has few roads and lots of paths. I suspect walking is the primary form of transportation. The Eaulander side has lots of roads. Transportation looks like vehicles towing trailers and closed coaches of various types.”

Ben turned to Celeste, and asked, “How many of these surveys have you done?” Celeste winced, “This is number 543.” Ben hesitantly asked, “Can I ask you how old you are?” “I'm the older women in your life Ben, the honest answer is 68 years old.” Ben sat quietly digesting this. “This must mean you have had partners before?” Celeste held up four fingers. “You know the last one was murdered. The first two didn't work out over time for a variety of reasons. Arthur was with me for over 50 years and passed away. It hurt badly and I mostly, but never completely got over it. I gave them all my  best, and I will always do this for you.” Ben smiled back,  I will always do the same.”

“What do you think we should do now Ben?” He studied the slowly spinning globe in front of him. “Can we zoom in on the border a bit. Do you see the two capitals, Veneration and Mathara?” 

Celeste lit the cities up. “These two?” 

“Yes, can you zoom in on that place between them where that long section of the rock wall border is missing?” “

Here?” said Celeste where a spot became highlighted and closer. “That's the place. Maybe we can wait until dark and land exactly on the border there. This might be as close as we can get to neutral territory and still be accessible to both groups. It also may avoid any issues with appearing to favor one side over the other and give us the opportunity to judge how they interact with both us and each other. Then we'll just wait and see what happens in the morning.” “That's an excellent idea, let's do it.” 

Three hours later in the darkness, the ship gracefully arced downward, settled in a grassy field and powered down. Again that night Ben briefly awoke. Turning his head, he saw Celeste in her pajamas laying next to him with her back to him. Using a pillow, he encircled her waist with his arm and closed his eyes. 

Chapter 12 In the middle

“Ben, wake up we have company. Please join me in the salon.” Ben grabbed his robe and shuffled into the main salon. He gave her a crooked grin. “Well, you're still in your pajamas.” “You're not exactly overdressed yourself. I just wanted to make you feel more comfortable.” The vids were showing an early morning collection of views outside the ship. On the Eaulander side in the distance, something that looked like an ancient tractor spewing prodigious quantities of black smoke was pulling a fancy black carriage. Behind was several long-haired men dressed in black double-timing it on foot. On the Gaian side, a small group of men in drab brown tunics carrying baskets were walking behind colorfully dressed women heading towards the ship.

Ben made a cup of cafe and sat with Celeste. “What do you think is going on?”  Frankly, Ben, I don't know yet, every time is different. “This is the most difficult part of these visits. The Gaians appear to be bearing gifts of some sort, and the Eaulanders look, well sort of officious. Those men behind the carriage don't look friendly, and they seem to be carrying some sort of sidearm weapons. They can't hurt us, so I think the best thing to do is to sit tight and just watch. I have the exterior audio on, and we can review last night's recordings of the local voice and vid traffic later.”

“I'm curious, what were they saying,” said Ben. “The Gaian side is pretty innocuous. Tomorrow's weather, a village is hosting a gathering with several other local villages, which has many of the younger ones excited. There was also talk about the monthly sale of the seed to the Eaulanders. I'm not sure exactly what the seed is, but it may be used as a fuel source.”

“The Eauland's have a low tech version of a vid broadcast system. It's mostly invocations and prayers to the Oneness, mixed with news and demands for increased productivity. The odd thing is I hear men on the Eaulander recordings and only women on the Gaian recordings.”

Ben watched as the Gaians stopped a short distance from the ship. The men quickly set down what was obviously food and jugs, and laid out blankets. All but one of the women settled on them. The men stepped back and sat in the grass. The older tall woman remained standing facing the ship.

A few minutes later the Eaulander carriage jerked to a stop on the other side. Several old men in black robes stepped out and were protectively flanked by the armed men. One stepped forward and after some elaborate gestures intoned in a high-pitched voice “I am Davin, the Senior Elder. On behalf of the Oneness who is all, we welcome you to Eauland. Come out into the light of the One who is all and speak with us.”

The tall woman glared at her Eaulander counterparts and immediately bellowed. “Welcome to Gaia visitors. I am Nona the head Councilor. We have brought you refreshments provided by the grace of the Mother after what must have been a long and perilous trip. There is no need to deal with those foul despoilers of the planet.”

The Senior Elder puffed up and snarled, “Deal not with the godless sinning Gaians. Without us, they couldn't exist.” The Gaian woman pointed at the Eaulanders and yelled, “Without our seed Elder Davin you would not exist at all. The bountiful Mother of this planet and our hard work makes your sordid existence possible.”

Celeste glanced at Ben and raised an eyebrow. “Got any good ideas on how to start?” “It's a bit unorthodox but how about we partially extend a ramp on both sides of the ship. I'll walk a short distance out on the Gaian side, wave and immediately come back in. You do the same on the Eaulander side. We then we can judge how they react to us. It's apparent what they think of each other, and there seems to be a sharp divide between the sexes here. I'm thinking it might be sobering for both groups to get a small dose of reality.”

Celeste gave Ben an evil grin. “I knew you were a great choice for this. I have a huge closet full of clothes for you in the hold. Pick out something you think is suitable. Maybe something that looks drab brown like their men. I'll dress in a black robe just like the Eaulander Elders.” 

Ben headed aft and after a couple of minutes found a long-sleeved brown shirt and a coarsely woven pair of pants. Barefoot he headed back to the round entry room with the ramps. Celeste walked in wearing a somber black robe, and her hair was now long, luxuriant and blonde. “Fetching wig Celeste.” “I don't need to remind you what I can look like do I, Ben?” Ben gave her a  knowing grin, “I vividly remember.” 

“I'll deploy the ramps out a short distance and open the hatches. Be careful Ben, and I'm watching both groups. I set up the audio feed so you can hear from my side as well. Are you ready?”

“As ready as I can be. Let's go for it.” The hatches opened, and Ben walked out and looked down at the Gaians who were staring back at him open-mouthed, especially the men. He waved and quickly went back into the ship.

The reaction to Celeste was different. The Elders seemed dumbfounded, and a half a dozen men immediately drew and pointed their weapons at her. She smiled down at them, waved, and as she was stepping back into the ship one of the men fired a slug at her bellowing, “She's a godless whore.” Celeste closed the hatches and retracted the ramps.

Ben went to the salon and joined Celeste. “I'll replay what happened,” said Celeste. The big vid split into four windows. The top two were real-time views from each side of the ship, and the bottom two were recordings. Ben sat and watched the scenes replay in a loop. “The Eaulander's don't seem to be a friendly bunch, and I didn't like the fact that they shot at you.”

“Can you think of anything that would discourage this type of behavior Celeste?”

“I can send them a message they won't forget. Watch this.” A line in the grass was scorched by a red beam just short of the toes of the man who fired the weapon. A second larger red laser spot appeared on the man's tunic. He stared at the red circle warming his chest, looked down at the still smoldering scar in the ground below and promptly fainted dropping his weapon. It discharged when it hit the ground blowing a sizable hole in the fancy carriage. A red spot appeared on the next man's chest, who quickly set his weapon down, and it disappeared. The other armed men dropped their slug throwers and nervously looked at the Elders who were all frantically trying to see who could get into the carriage first. Surrounded by a cloud of black oily smoke the whole entourage turned around and retreated at speed.

“Well, at least they aren't complete idiots. Was that a clear enough message?” 

“I see you have a subtle but effective touch. What do you think we should do with the Gaians?” said Ben watching the women nervously huddled and talking together. The men were standing apart faintly smiling and whispering to each other.

“Well they didn't shoot at us, and they saw what I did with the Eaulanders. I'm sure you will be safe. Let's try to trade with them. I think you should go back out on the ramp and ask them to come back with some of their seed, and we will trade it for something we have.” 

“What kind of gift do you have in mind?”

“I think a carefully edited encyclopedia might be a good place to start. Isn't selling encyclopedias in your job description? Let's trade a tablet for some seed so we can see what it is.”

Ben walked back to the hatch and waited for Celeste to open it. “Okay, ready?” 

“Sure am.” The hatch slid open, and he stepped out on the ramp. Looking down at the surprised group Ben said, “Greetings Gaians. We have come in peace from far away. As you have witnessed, we will not tolerate weapons near us. Come back to us with some seed you trade to the Eaulanders, and we will give you a gift in exchange.” Ben backed into the ship and Celeste promptly closed the hatch.