"Tools",The Online Novel Project

I have been working on a Sci-fi novel as an experiment and I'm writing it online here. It has all the elements that I think will make a good story, including a very aware 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 really liked about his books, was his quiet everyday characters who end up in difficult situations and selflessly rise to meet the challenges. I think this is also why I like L. E. Modesitt's books so much. In the end, the best stories are the ones you can imagine yourself as the principal characters and become a better person for it. 

Reader comments will not be enabled to keep the appearance consistent. My email address is in my profile and I welcome any comments and suggestions. I'm going to continue my work-related blog The Marine Installers Rant at the same time.

I am writing this using Google's Blogger software, and the one big thing my text editor can't easily do is paragraph indents. Instead line feeds will break subject related dialog into smaller coherent groups. This makes things a touch awkward but it still remains very readable. My intent is to concentrate on creating a good story first, then clean up any grammatical minutia (Psst, there is some but it's not tragic).

In order 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

Prologue

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 extremely brief chagrin created a black hole. 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 huge chunk of now the missing collider and several very surprised scientists simultaneously appeared in space about 500 miles away from earth. The pieces inexorably pulled back to earth by gravity and guided by the mysterious cosmic forces that seem to be attracted to mobile homes 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 through a small and manageable wormhole. 

Within ten years the first crude worm drive had been installed into a cobbled together ship, and in five days it hopped its way to Alpha Centauri A and brought back pictures of not one, but five planets. It didn't take long to discover that there were thousands of inhabitable, at least more or less, planets. The first pioneers left earth to find their Edens. These were a hugely varied lot. Religious sects that wanted planets free of unbelievers. Manufacturing, and mining companies that didn't want to worry about cleaning up after themselves. The rich who could own a planet as a vacation home, political groups, nudists, and endless other hordes of ethnic, tribal and special interest groups.  

Like rabbits on hormone's humanity had multiplied and now fled Mother Earth to live on thousands of newly found planets in the nearby stars. It didn't take long for the squabbles to start. Groups started to get territorial. Believers didn't want non-believers sharing even the same solar system. Systems banded together and started to bully their neighbors, such as they were and almost as quickly as humanity exploded out into the galaxy, it all collapsed.

All the worm drives were still built, on Earth, and an ultra-fanatical group for reasons known only to them took a small nuclear device and blew up the facility, that very carefully stored the singularities. In nanoseconds, they and 25 percent of Mother Earth disappeared. No new worm drives would ever be made again, on a now very wobbly planet.

Like all things made by man, the ships required maintenance. The computers that calculated to the umpteenth decimal point where to point the drive required skilled upkeep and there were now few left that could do this. Travel between the stars shortly ground nearly to a stop. The worm drive used a small loophole in Mr. Einstein's calculations, but radio waves or lasers could not, and sending a message between solar systems would take decades to reach the recipients, if it got there at all. Planets that were self-sufficient plowed forward, some in better shape than others. Many planets were not sufficient at all and in time Darwin took care of them.

We start our story on the planet Bliss. Ben Thompson is the son of a specialist in the repair of terraforming equipment, His father was reassigned to repair the oxygen making systems on a small but very mineral rich planet colonized by Luddites. Although Luddites espoused low technology, this belief ground to a quick halt at the planet's oxygen making systems, and they had more than enough gemstones and exotic minerals lying around to pay for the repairs. Ben opts to remain on Bliss and find his own way rather than go to such a backward place. It all works out for Ben. He gets a new job, meets a remarkable woman and goes off on an adventure. He just doesn't know it quite yet.

Chapter 1 Bad day at Red Rock

 “She handles like a dream doesn't she?,” Ben said as twists to look at the driver and dredges up his best number six smile. The pinched faced older driver glanced back and grudgingly said, “Well I have to admit it seemed the price was a little too good to be...” When as he turned into the used car lot a sharp whine was punctuated by a thump and noisy screech. The wheels locked and it jerks and comes to an abrupt stop. The driver contemplates the wispy black smoke now curling up from underneath sneers, “I should have known better. You guys are all liars and thieves.” He opens the door, gets out, and slams it shut. Muttering to himself he angrily storms off the lot.

Ben's chagrin was interrupted by hearing, “Ben Thompson, get your ass over here now.” Looking up Ben saw old Mr. Griswold wildly waving his arms at him while using somewhat odd and probably obscene hand gestures. Ben sighs, eases his lanky frame out of the no longer functioning vehicle, and slowly walks over to see what his florid-faced boss is going to say. His keen instincts are advising him that this was not going to be a joyous conversation. “Thompson that's the third customer you have lost this week, you can't seem to close a deal” sputters Mr. Griswold. Ben stands there for a few seconds trying to muster his thoughts and blurts out, “You told me that this drive unit had just been fully rebuilt by your worthless brother-in-law. I think he just threw in some old junk super magnet coils that were at the end of their life. How am I supposed to sell this crap if it won't even make it around the block?” Mr. Griswold swells up and then stares at his sleeping brother-in-law slumped over open-mouthed in a chair under the awning. A steady stream of gelatinous drool is winding its way down his sagging multiple chins. He stares back at Ben, suddenly deflates and rasps out  “You're fired Ben, just get out of here.”

Gathering his meager possessions from his desk he walks out into the heat to head home. Wincing at the remaining 46 credits he had left, and with an impending sense of desperation goes across the street to the Swifty Nifty store to buy a six pouch of Buzzed beer and a pseudo meat sandwich to take home. The garish vid displays were scrolling headlines as Ben stands in line. “Starlet gets the third breast transplanted, says two breasts aren't enough for me.” “Remake of “Battle Field Earth” goes straight to download. Actors blame the director, who blames screenwriter, who blames Xenu.” The clerk snaps him out of his reverie mumbling “Is this all buddy?” and promptly deducts 11 credits from his balance.

Ben trudges into his micro-unit apartment building. Smelling the ever-present mustiness of the lobby he suspiciously eyed the rickety lift and opts to take the stairs. He had just walked into his tiny unit and plunked down when a banging started on his door. A tinny metallic voice loudly declares “Mr. Ben Thompson, you were seen entering this unit. I am here to collect your debt of 1136 credits owed to Galactic Charge all. This is being recorded for our legal purposes. I am programmed to stay here until you pay your debt. Present your reader for payment immediately,” drones the credit bot. The message and loud banging on the door starts again now even louder.

A vision suddenly flashes before Ben's eyes as he sees the frying pan with the remnants of his breakfast still sitting on the cooker. In a burst, he jumps up, grabs the pan, snatches the door open and hurls the pan at what he now realizes is a frantically retreating and extremely dented credit bot. Ben watches transfixed as the events unfold in slow motion. The rotating pan continues on its high-speed trajectory just missing the credit bot by inches. It impacts the hallway wall directly in front of ancient Mrs. Gold with an impressive thud splattering its contents everywhere. Mrs. Gold pales, gasps and promptly faints. Her “kick me” mutt starts yipping furiously at  Ben and the pan. The retreating credit bot squawks garbled noises that sound profane but staring at the mess Ben gives up on the idea of trying to throw the pan again as the credit bot whizzes at high speed around the corner.

Spinning into overdrive he scurries back into his unit, gathers cleaning supplies, and a pouch of what passes for spring water. Quickly reviving Mrs. Gold he helps her back on her feet and shoves the water pouch into her gnarled hands. Frantically sopping up the mess Ben hopes the only remaining evidence of this unfortunate incident will be Mrs. Gold's addled memory and the dent in the hallway wall. The constant yipping of the lap mutt draws the attention of the building super who comes upstairs to see what the racket is about. Looking at the still wobbling Mrs. Gold, the pan in Ben's hand, and the dent in the wall he hollers over the shrill barking, “Ben you're two months late on the rent already, and now this! Be out of here at the end of the month,” and stomps off shaking his head.

After cleaning the mess up, Ben collapses on his 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 does for me. What a crappy day. I had no idea those credit bots could move so damn fast.” He belatedly returns to scanning the help wanted ads. “Nope, not selling shoes. Repair credit bots? Nah, you mostly need to have experience in a body shop”, and dozens of others until he sees a small ad that simply says, “Salesman wanted, some experience desired, high pay, travel required, apply in person, 26 Blossom Street.” He rips open another Buzzed beer and reads it again.

Chapter 2 The interview

One of Ben's eyes cracks open hearing the insistent alarm beeping of the vid, and the strobing of the screen. Slowly sitting up and swinging his feet onto the floor, his toes immediately encountered a mostly drunk pouch of Buzz beer squeezing the balance of its contents onto the floor and soaking his foot. “Crap,” is his first utterance of the day. The remote stops the wake-up sequence on the vid, and a morning news channel appears. A cute, but vicious anchorwoman is berating a cowed politician who is frantically, and not very believably denying an affair with a transsexual hermaphrodite, “Whatever that might exactly be,” pondered Ben.

Ben rereads the help wanted ad again thinking, “What do I have to lose? It's not like my schedule is jammed up today.” Picking out his most sincere suit, he heads outside and waits at the autobus stop. Just as the automated vehicle pulls over he hears his name being faintly called out by a tinny voice and quickly jumps aboard.

Ben stares at the large gray featureless one-story building, with only the street number above a plain metal door. He hesitates for a moment, and mutters under his breath, “What the hell,” and enters into a sparsely furnished lobby painted with a pale vaguely yellowish color. A half-dozen people are sitting on hard metal chairs. A pleasant looking young women wearing a dark suit that almost smacks of a uniform is at the reception desk. Ambling over, he stands politely until she looks up, smiles and says, “Here is your application tablet. Please fill it out, and wait until your name is called.” Ben finds a chair and starts to fill in the blanks when an obviously very agitated middle-aged man hurriedly comes out of a side door and tosses the pad on the receptionist's desk. Making much haste he exits out the front door. The nonplussed receptionist pushes some buttons clearing his pad and primly places it on top of the others. Ben thought to himself, “That was a bit odd,” and hears the receptionist call out another name. She escorts the applicant to the side door where he is met by a young man who was also wearing the same style of clothes as the receptionist. 

About thirty minutes later, as more people showed up, and others left, Ben hears the receptionist call out, “Mr. Thompson, we are ready for you.” Ben stands and heads toward the side door, and the receptionist stays with him until the same young man appears. They both pass through the door, and the young man stops, and says, “My name is Jon, Mr. Thompson, I'm pleased to meet you. I will be escorting you to the interview stations, and the first one is here. I will come to get you when the first interview is completed.” Ben walks into the small room and sees the furniture consists of only a small table, with two metal chairs that are facing each other. He picks one and sits down.

The door opening caught Ben by surprise, but not as much as when he saw the man entering. “Yikes, what the...?” Extremely tall, cadaverous-looking, scowling, and ultra-intimidating was Ben's first thought. Somewhat startled Ben stands awkwardly, sticks out his hand, and says, “Hello, I'm Ben.” The tall man just ignores him, sits down, and stares at him. “What do I do now?” thinks Ben, and on impulse uses his best number four grin and said, “I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have.” The man just sits there with a dour expression and Ben noticed that he doesn't even seem to blink. Ben sat quietly for a minute and tries to engage the man again, “Should I be doing something here?” Ben tentatively said. But again zero reaction from the man. Ben studies him for a minute or two staring back at him. He is bald, wearing a white robe like thing and has a watch with a large digital face on his wrist, He's wearing some sort of pendant on a chain around his neck that looks likes it's 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 stands up, and leaves without saying a word, Ben just sat there thinking, “What's going on here? This is the weirdest interview setup I have ever encountered.”

The door swings open, Jon sticks his head in the door, and says, “Are you ready for the next interview?” “I think so” murmured Ben, “Who was that Jon?” Jon chuckles, “That's the boss, Jacob Grimm. I think you did okay. You would really have known if he wasn't happy with you. He's normally a fun guy when he isn't doing interviews.” Ben snorted, “I can't imagine, what's next?” Jon said, “Follow me.” Jon leads Ben down the hall to a much larger room with workstations equipped with a computer and headset. Jon said, “This is a type of open book aptitude test. 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, put on a headset, and looked at the first question. 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.” Ben said. “What type of iron?” The computer's pleasant voice responded, “Elemental iron, free of impurities.” “Okay,” said Ben, “Can you show me its physical properties?” Immediately 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 displays 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 very long. It's likely to quickly 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,” as he pushed himself away from the desk.

Jon came over, and said “Are you done?”, Ben ruefully smiled, and said, “I could keep on going, but I don't see the point.” Jon smiles, and said, “That's fine Ben, please follow me.” Ben got up, followed Jon out, and down the hallway to the first bare room he started in. Jon said, “Just 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, when the door opened and in strode in the cadaverous-looking Mr. Grimm, but smiling now, and not looking anywhere near as intimidating. This time Mr. Grimm extended his hand, and said, “You did well Ben, we would like to offer you a position.” Ben rose with a tentative smile 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 3 An offer, base plus commission

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

Ben scratched his head for a second, and said, “I'm not sure I understand. Am I supposed to sell a talking box?” Jacob responded with, “Celeste, would please introduce yourself to Ben.” “I would be pleased to Jacob. Hi Ben, I'm Celeste and it's a pleasure to meet you, although we already have. I gave you your test playing the part of the computer. I am very alive and never forget this. At my fingertips, I have the majority of information known to mankind and I 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 76,000 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 very talented at this sort of thing you know. 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 been endowed substantial sums through the years by very generous patrons. We saw the great collapse coming and had quietly moved off earth years before the Great Earth Singularity Explosion which proved to have been a good decision, as expensive as it seemed at the time. Even our skills could not have foreseen that calamitous event.”

“We still do what we have always done, and during our visit to Bliss we have been mining data, and have quietly concluded some information, and technology sales. Places like Bliss still have some infrastructure and technology, and most of the data mining could actually be done from orbit by tapping into wireless communication systems. But on all too many planets, the level of technology is now too low to allow effective data collection from afar, and we need to visit in person to collect information. 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 it does require some special skills to do this. We think you have these skills.” averred Jacob.

“But, I mean, how do I do this? You can't even get to some of these places,” said Ben. “Sure you can Ben, 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 implants to help you communicate better with Celeste, some training, and off you will 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 the 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 stunned Ben slowly stood, shook Jacob's hand and said, “Thank you both,” and a bit stunned walked out of the office.

“What do you think Celeste?” said Jacob. “I really like Ben. I think he's the one. I've been alone for a very long time. 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, and you only lied a little about the job this time. You're getting much better Jacob.” said Celeste.

Chapter 4 Alexandria bound

Ben's brain was spinning. “A year's worth of credits were in his account, and a job offer, as intriguing, or decidedly odd as the position seems. It must be a scam, or some sort of reality vid show is being made and I'm the brunt of the joke. And leaving Bliss on a ship? Twenty years of that income would barely buy a person a one-way ticket to any planet, and I would have one at my disposal?” Ben pulled out his credit reader and checked his balance. The display showed 76,000 credits. Ben shook his head as he contemplated the number, and got on the auto-bus to head back to his efficiency. Entering the lobby, Ben knocked on the door of the super's unit. When the super answered, Ben, grinned, transferred the credits needed to pay the rent in full, and added an extra 100 credits to fix the dent in the hallway wall. The super said, “Thank you, Ben, but I meant what I said, and I have already rented your unit. So be out at the end of the month.” Ben just smiled, and said “No problem,” thinking to himself, “I can afford something a lot better than this dive.”

Walking into his unit Ben grabbed the last pouch of Buzzed beer, tore it open and sat down. Checking his watch, Ben saw that he still had 2 hours and 15 minutes left to make a decision. Turning on the vid he again checked the help wanted ads and noted that the ad he responded to was no longer there. The remaining help wanted ads, if anything, seemed much worse than the jobs he had looked through before. “Miner's needed for heavy metal extraction”, “Pseudo meat extruder operator position available for third shift.” “Yeee,” thought Ben. “My credit balance will only last me for a year even if I'm careful, and then what would I do?” Staring around at his scruffy mini unit he noticed that the vid was now showing a travel log featuring an exotic resort planet with attractive women cavorting under a waterfall and one with short blond hair swimming in the pool at its base. It was all surrounded by a lush, and alien looking forest.

Slowly the concept of taking the job coalesces into a great idea. In a burst of excitement, he grabbed his small suitcase and filled it with all the things he imagined he might need on an exotic planet, especially his bathing suit. Looking around at the rest of his stuff, he mutters to himself “The super can have this stuff” and he heads out to the street. Catching the first autobus he looks at his watch. He had an hour and a half left. Stepping off the bus at the interview offices, he walks in and the place was now bare. Ben's heart stops for a second and he starts to think maybe this was all a joke when Jacob came striding through the front door and said, “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.”

Outside was a four-seat rental with Jon inside holding Celeste in his lap, and the receptionist was seated in the back. Jacob opened the trunk and Ben tosses in his suitcase, then squeezes himself into the back seat next to the receptionist, who promptly smiled and said: “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 emanating 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 second, and said, “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 contritely said, “Well maybe Ben, I just wanted to make sure you accepted. I know you will be good at this. I'm sorry, I won't do those things to you again Ben.” Ben laughed, “Apology accepted Celeste, but I think I heard a small loophole in your apology didn't I?” “Only a tiny little one Ben”, said Celeste. “And it was for your own good you know. 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 it was 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, and it headed off to its rental lot. Ben followed the group up the ramp and walked into the ship.

The interior looked like the inside of a yacht. Ben surveyed the comfortable looking lounge he was standing in. He could see a short hall that seemed to have cabin doors off of it, and forward was a galley on one side, and a conference room on the other. Jon walked forward and secured Celeste into a cradle. “Thanks, Jon,” said a now very melodious Celeste. This is much better, I was feeling sensory deprived utilizing all of those primitive, and slow 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 feels a gentle surge and downward pressure. The vid on the wall showed the spaceport quickly shrinking, and in a couple of minutes, the arc of Bliss's surface appeared. Ben felt a brief moment of weightlessness, and then gravity returned to a normal feeling. “The first jump starts 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 if gravity was pulling 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 looking around saw that Jon had disappeared. Jacob and Rachel were now in the conference room. Ben tentatively asked aloud, “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 whenever you want.” “Thank you, Celeste.” “Goodnight Ben. Please don't forget to put on the restraint belts before you fall asleep, or I will have to wake you up to remind you.”

Chapter 5 The library

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

Rachel sat next to Ben and said, “I want 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 room. After that, we will go to medical, and you will get your implants.” “Whoa Rachel, what kind of implants? Am I going to become a cyborg?” “Hardly Ben.” laughed Rachel, “These are tiny implants that will let you talk, and listen to Celeste directly, as long as you are within about 100 miles of her. You will also get tiny cameras that are built into contact lenses, so she can see what you see and some medical monitoring sensors. We all have them. You just didn't notice that we don't talk out loud to her. After that dinner will in the cafeteria with Jacob, Rachel, and Celeste. They will give you a more detailed overview after you get the implants. This is also a good time to pack up 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 mountainous planet. As the ship arced down toward the surface, a valley with a large cluster of low buildings nestled into it came into view. The ship landed on what appeared to be a rather small pad with room for maybe at best three ships. With a small shudder, the ship started to descend into a cavernous bay that had dozens of ships lined up inside of it. With a lurch, 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 including the one they arrived in. Waving his arm out toward the ships, Jacob said proudly, “We have 42 of these vessels. We think at last count there are only 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 manufacturing them again. We also have substantial manufacturing abilities, but not nearly enough to build worm drives.”

The cart hummed its way down a long corridor and broke out into a large multi-floored atrium lit by a massive skylight with lots of people purposefully heading somewhere. Jacob and Jon carrying Celeste got out, and Jacob glancing at Rachel, said, “Would you please get Ben settled, and then take him over to medical for his implants.” “Grab your suitcase and let's go, Ben,” said Rachel. A dazed Ben clutching his suitcase scrambles 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 started to rise. Ben glanced at the buttons that hadn't been touched, and Rachel just smiled. “I told Jeeves, where we needed to go. The many alive Artificial Intelligence's here help us.” lectured Rachel. “You'll get used to this quickly.” The lift doors opened, and Rachel strode out and headed down a hallway. “Home sweet home Ben,” said Rachel smiling with a flourish, as she opened the door. Ben followed her into a comfortable looking suite. A large vid hung on the wall showing a view of the valley outside. There was a work area in the corner, a set of couches, and 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.”

Ben followed Rachel back to a lift that sank like a rock downward. “Medical is in the basement so to speak,” said Rachel in a matter of fact tone. The lift rapidly decelerated to a stop and the doors opened onto a brightly light reception area. Ben sniffed the antiseptic air, and thought “Yep, this is a hospital alright, and the walls are even those same green colors.” The receptionist looked up from her display, smiled, and in a perky way said, “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,” and chuckled as she left. 

Ben followed Susan down the hall, and she directed him to a small room with a high tech looking bed. “The Doc will be with you in a minute Ben,” she said, as she spun around and left. Ben stared around at the gear in the room. Mostly he was staring at the large and spindly looking robotic arm next to the bed surrounded by ominous looking instruments in racks all of which were very sharp and pointy. The door opened, and a man in a white coat strode in. “I'm Doc Greene Ben, just lay on the bed, and we'll get started.” Ben laid down and 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. “Third arm?” he thought in a panic as his head snapped down to look. “Just kidding,” laughed Celeste. “Do you feel okay?” “Yes, mostly I think so, and that wasn't funny Celeste,” snapped Ben. “Sorry Ben,” said Celeste only a little contritely, “But if you could have seen the look on your face.” “Yeah Yeah,” grumped Ben, “When are they going to do this implant thing?” “You're done 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,” said a satisfied Celeste, “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 so I can see what you see.” “All the time Celeste?” asked Ben pensively. “Yes Ben, all the time, but I will give you privacy if you ask, I promise,” said Celeste seriously “Unless it's for your own good.” murmured Celeste softly. “It's getting close to dinner Ben, and we have another job we have to finish. I'll guide you.” 

Chapter 6 How do I look today dear?

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

The center of the room was lit by a single soft down spotlight illuminating a couch with a stunning and nearly naked women reclining on it. She's wearing a sheer almost transparent negligee with large breasts and very long legs. Her waist is impossibly narrow and her lips are red and full. A nonexistent breeze causes her long luxuriant blonde hair to gently sway around her. A nervous Ben was starting to sweat and becoming aware of a stirring starting in his groin stuttered, “Is that really you Celeste?” “Yes Ben, do you like me? I can look any way you want me to,” she purred. Ben struggled for words and finally asked, “You can really look any way I want?” Celeste grinned and coyly said, “That's right Ben” as her breasts seemed to swell even more.

Ben pondered for another moment aware of his now growing bulge and acute embarrassment quietly said, “Celeste, this won't work. You're very attractive, but at the same time, this is seriously way too distracting and not real. Can you look a little more, well normal?” In a millisecond a pleasant but rather plain looking young women is now standing in front of him smiling. “Okay Ben, this is my starting point. You're going to tell me how you really 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 here and watch me.” Ben stood and watched quietly as Celeste starts to change. Face, hips, breasts, hair, height, and clothes start to slowly morph and in about three minutes the changes come to a stop. A very attractive woman is now standing in front of him. She has short blonde-reddish hair, a cute nose with a few freckles and an alluring slight figure. Extraordinarily bright eyes look at him with an impish and knowing glance. “How's this working for you, Ben?” “You're stunning Celeste,” stammers Ben. “It's how I imagined you would really look. Why did you do this?”

“This was another small test. We're going to be spending a lot of time together. The ship has holo projectors and it will be easier for you to interact with me if I look like a real person, and don't you dare ever forget that I am. I also wanted to make sure you weren't a creep so to speak. Had you thought the first version of me you saw was how you imagined or wanted me to look I would have been very 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 Ben, I may even treat you to an occasional fantasy” she leered with a mischievous grin. It's time for dinner with Jacob now, Pick your dinner from the replicator and join us in the private dining room,” and then she disappeared from view. Ben shook his head and started towards the door quietly saying out loud 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.” Ben thought to himself, “I really like Celeste.”

Chapter 7 The last supper

Ben stepped out into the hallway, and Celeste's voice quietly told him to follow the projected yellow line on the floor that ended at an open elevator. Ben stepped in and descended to the atrium. A hungry Ben recognized where the cafeteria was and headed over to it. Selecting a pasta dinner and wine pouch Ben walks into the glass-enclosed private dining room, takes a seat across from Jacob and Rachel, and Celeste appeared in the chair next to him. Rachel grinned and said, “I see you and Celeste have made peace with her appearance. I bet it was an interesting experience. You should have seen what Jeeves did to me” she laughed. A flustered Ben just said, “It was enlightening to say the least.”

Jacob looked up at Ben and seriously said, “Ben, There are a few more things you need to know before we go any further. You were already on a very short list for this job that Celeste created while gathering data when 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. So first 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 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, mother earth was in bad shape. Despite huge efforts put into trying to minimize the birth rate, the population had grown to nearly thirty billion souls. This in turn was using up resources at a horrific rate. The climate temperatures were rapidly climbing rendering more and more land unusable for agriculture. The tipping point had been passed long ago and everything was breaking down at an exponential rate. Inventing the worm drive saved humanity, sort of. After the worm drive technology stabilized and planets were identified that could support life the barges were built. These could hold about 50,000 people or carry a lot of cargo. A worm drive ship could wrap its field around them and haul them to a new planet.

The barges weren't a comfortable way to travel, but the passengers typically didn't have to be on them for more than a few days. It worked well but only for those that were wealthy enough to afford the trip. Those that went on the barges were in like-minded groups. Religious, racial, nationally aligned, political and almost every other example of human tribalism. The poor of course were left behind. It was shortly after this we established Alexandria. 

Part two of the story is the worm drives have a very long life span, if they aren't being used. But with every trip they lose some fractional amount of power. One of the first things the library did when we moved here was to acquire a large stock pile of worm drives and ships. As I mentioned we have enough to last about another 50 years or so if we're careful. All the worm drives were built by one 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 mountainous planet, or the place to build them. To this end we have two goals. The first is to locate a planet that has a population large enough, willing to make some sacrifices to do this, and over time can be taught how to do it.

So the job has two aspects. One is to visit possible planets where this could occur, and if it's not ready at that time try to provide them with the tools needed so in time they might be suitable for this project. The job has some real tangible risks. Celeste although brilliant has limitations in other ways. She can deploy bots, appear as a holo near the ship and the ship is virtually indestructible and heavily armed. The one thing she can't do is easily and directly interact with the inhabitants, especially in lower technology locations and away from the ship. You are Celeste's human interface to the people on these worlds. Another thing you need to consider is that Celeste is in charge of these missions, and she chose you. Believe me, she is picky. One last thing Ben, there is no real pay for this. What we offer to you and all residents of Alexandria is room and board. No one here pays for anything, and there is no way to buy things here. You need something, and if can be provided you will get it. So there it is Ben, do you have some questions?”

Ben sat silent for a few minutes playing with his pasta, and asked, “How dangerous can this be?” Jacob quietly stated, “On rare occasion, we have lost people. This was mostly due to their making poor decisions and ignoring their partners advice or instructions.” Celeste chimed in “Ben, I will guard you with all of my resources. Losing a partner is devastating. I know this personally and it took me a long time before I could do this again. You are the one I'm willing to do this again with if you will have me.”

Ben stirred his pasta around for a moment thinking about Bliss, then looked up and smiled at Celeste and said, “Sure, Celeste, I'm game for some adventures.” A soft voice whispered in his ear, “Thank you, Ben, it will be fun. I have some things to do and I will see you in the morning.

Chapter 8 Moving day

A chiming was slowing climbing in volume in Ben's head. 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 a bunch of vaccinations, and some goodies to boost your immune systems. 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, and she winked out.

A wet-haired Ben entered the dining area clutching a plate with 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 minute 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.” “Yes, Jacob. Pastoral is a moonless close to earth norm planet with one very large continent and a number of much smaller ones that were sparsely populated. It's fairly rich in basic elements with a modest amount of extractable heavy metals. The ocean is salty with a fairly high level of sulfur mixed in with it. The sea life is not edible The animal life is generally small of which many are edible. The day cycle is twenty-two hours long. It was settled by two groups. The first was Eauland Industries. They were a strict monotheist religious company that manufactured large-scale water purification systems used by terraforming companies.”

“The Gaian's were the other group and called themselves the One Earther's. They are an agrarian-based matriarchal society with a loosely organized pagan style worship of Mother Earth. Neither group apparently had much interaction with each other. The One Earther's apparently constantly complained about the Eaulander's mining and heavy construction facilities 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 and quietly said, “Are you ready to go?” A startled Ben quavered, “Right now? Don't I have to pack or do something to get ready.” “No Ben, the ship is ready, and I already packed for you. I don't ever really sleep, but I do have to rest on a regular basis. Your wardrobe isn't suitable for where we are going, 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 will 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, then let's go, I have a cart waiting outside the cafeteria for you.” Jacob looked at Celeste, and inquired, “Do have a projected timeline Celeste?” “The trip travel time is 2.1 days subjective Jacob. Maybe about 2 months for the survey if all goes well. If things are bad, it could be much quicker than that. It really depends on how far they have slid backward in technology or culture.” Celeste stood, and stated, “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 that Ben, let me know when you're through with Jacob,” whispered 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 was necessary for your safety. Celeste is very 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 very dry so keep that in mind too. She selected you and has been looking for a suitable partner for a long time. She's picky but pragmatic. You're entering into a relationship with her, and how it works out is up to both of you. She's remarkable, extremely powerful and very kind. That being said you don't ever want to be on her bad side. You're in good hands, and we need both of you to work together. Have a good trip Ben, and we will see you in a couple of months.” “Thanks, Jacob” said a more somber Ben, and he walked over to the cart and climbed in. “I'm done with Jacob,” said Ben, “Thanks Celeste.” “You're very welcome Ben, see you soon.

The cart whirred through the library complex and came to a stop in a cavernous room next to a ship that was much larger than the one he arrived on with one of its boarding ramps deployed. Ben pried his lanky frame out of the small cart and slowly 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 now waiting for him at the top of the ramp.

Ben stepped into a small circular room with hatches finished in dark wood and corridors heading off in several directions. Celeste said, “Watch this” and waved her hand. The wood disappeared and gray metallic walls appeared and then became dark wood again. “I have holo projectors 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 windows displays 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 very 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 on..,” “Yes Ben, 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,” she said smiling shyly.

“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 is your bedroom.” Ben walked in and noted a large bed in the spacious room with a bank of drawers built into the wall, a desk, and a wall vid. On the other side of the room through an open door, he saw a small bathroom and shower. Celeste interjected, “There are also 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 also virtually indestructible, and heavily armed which on occasion has been handy. Buckle up Ben, we are going to lift,” said Celeste

Ben sat on the salon couch, found the restraints under the cushions, and buckled up. A small lurch indicated the lift was in motion and a second bump told him they were on the surface. Ben winced briefly as he was pressed down in the cushions, and 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 feels himself turning inside out thinking, “What in the world have I got myself into?” 

Chapter 9 Learning things

Celeste now wearing her orange ship's jumpsuit walked into the salon and plunked down into the chair next to Ben and swiveled towards him. “Ben, I know you must have a million questions, and now is a good time to ask them,” she said somberly. “I'm not at all sure about how this is all going to work Celeste, can you tell me what is likely to happen?” Ben asked in a low tone. “Sure Ben, there are some elements that are common to all of these expeditions. We are going to slowly approach Pastoral and during this, I'm going to be listening for any wireless communications and looking for operational satellites. There were some planets that had space based weapon systems. If I find any they will be disabled from a distance by hacking their computers, and if that fails, I will use some brute force to make them safe. Once that's done we will go into orbit and spend some time using my sensors and analyzing the surface conditions. I'm looking for habitations, weapon systems, infrastructures such as factories and agricultural land use, electrical power grids and operational computer networks. Anything that has a wireless interface, I can get into and download what is there.” 

“What do I do while all this is happening Celeste?” asked Ben. “You can help me a lot here Ben. We have to pick a couple of locations to make contact with both groups. Far enough away that they will have to hopefully come to us, and not so close that we can't see who is coming. This can be anything from a single vehicle with a few people, to a militia armed to the teeth. At that point Ben we'll have to work together and play it by ear as the archaic expression goes,” stated Celeste with some finality. “This is why it's always an adventure, and we both need to be very cautious. Most go well and are enjoyable, or at least tolerable, but some places can be bleak, tragic and very dangerous.”

Ben sat quietly for a couple of minutes and asked Celeste, “Can you tell me what happened to your last partner? Celeste gazed at one of the vid display screens for a moment, and then abruptly looked right at Ben and slowly said, “Yes. It's hard for me to select a partner to work with. For starters, I need to personally like my partner, and the flip side is they need to have the capabilities to do what I can't. This is a difficult thing to quantify since every situation is very different. So they need 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 slowly over time, he started to order me around. It was about little things at first, and then it got worse. He started to disregard my advice and was starting 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 very 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 the base, they asked him how many people were on the ship, and he stupidly said there was no one on the ship but a computer. When they reached the base, they went to a small room. One of the officers asked him how to get into the ship. He said the computer has to grant him access, only he could get in, and it was now time to talk business. The senior officer said we know a lot about computers, and we want your ship. Then 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, grimaced and looked away. Ben  hesitantly asked in almost a whisper, “What did you do?” Celeste looked back straight at Ben and slowly said, “That entire base doesn't exist anymore.”

Ben sat stunned for a few seconds and clumsily stuttered. “Celeste, I'm very sorry, I don't know what to say other than to promise you I would never treat you that way.” “Thanks, Ben,” she said with a small smile. “I trust you.” “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 sleeping when he sensed something. He rolled over in a sleepy haze and noticed Celeste lying in bed on her side next to him wearing pajamas with her eyes closed. He instinctively drew himself a little closer to her and drifted back off to sleep. 

Chapter 10 Pastoral inbound

“Ben, we are going to transition shortly. Would you please put your restraints on including your shoulder straps and snug them up, please. I may have to do some abrupt maneuvering as we approach Pastoral.” Ben pensively strapped in, and said, “I'm good to go.” “Don't be nervous Ben, we are going to be a good distance away from Pastoral when we pop out into normal space. Thirty seconds Ben” Celeste stated, and then Ben felt his guts twisting, and a moment of weightlessness passed. Vids went from gray to showing a view of Pastoral below them. Mechanically Celeste went into a dialog for Ben. “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 uplink, and still operational. No apparent communications traffic. Downloading its memory. You never know what you will find. Revising its 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 in her orange work jumpsuit and sat down next to Ben and said, “You can take off the restraints Ben, can I show off a bit?” “Sure,” Ben said, “Show me what you can do.” A large sphere appeared in the cabin slowly rotating in front of them with swaths of photographic like maps appearing on its surface. “I'm mapping the surface and this will take a bit of time to complete. The maps are layered. There are camera images, microwave surface radar, infrared, electromagnetic sources and many others. Watch this Ben.” Ben gawked as the surface changed to a high resolution topographic map in gray with lots of blue colors mixed in. “Everything in blue is an artificial structure. I'll change the image a bit. These are subsurface cavities. The orange ones are artificial, all the green ones are natural like caves and sinkholes. I'm locating all the natural resources at the same time. There is a lot of both 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 and inquired. “Do you have any geopolitical mapping data, Celeste?” “Yes I do, but bear in mind it's well over a hundred years old.” as the overlay appeared. A map of the continent showed the two lands and their primary cities. The Eaulander side was bordered on one side by a mountain chain with one large city near the border that was its capital and dozens of smaller ones in the outlying areas. A few tiny ones were in the mountain valleys. A low rock wall in places appeared to defined parts of the border. The Gaian side was mostly plains with occasional hilly areas with one medium-sized city that was their capital near the border along with what looked like about 100 small villages scattered across the country. “Another thing of note here Ben, my best estimate of the population before we left was about 4.5 million. I think the real number is less than half of that. Something must have happened.”

“This is interesting Ben, I'm overlaying what power sources I can find. On the Gaian side, they have some power in each of the villages, but there is no grid that connects them together. The same thing with communications. They may be using solar power. There is some wireless communications traffic that I can barely detect and can't decipher yet but none powerful enough to reach more than maybe seventy-five miles at the maximum. On the Eauland side, they have a modest power grid and it appears there is one large 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. Unlike the Gaians, they have some powerful transmitters that carry vid like transmissions but using fairly low tech. They have limited low power wireless communications and computer network transmissions.”

“What do you usually do now Celeste,” asked Ben. “Typically If it appears safe, and it does, I move to an orbit about 100 klicks out. From there 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 can also improve the mapping data, and we will be close enough to get decent imagery. I will be able to resolve individual people in the open, and I can do a current population estimate.”

“Sounds good to me Celeste, let's do it,” said Ben. Celeste glanced at Ben and said “Okay Ben, and 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 going to continue the mapping. It looks like the Gaian side has very 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 twitched slightly and said, “This is number 943.” Ben hesitantly asked, “Celeste can I ask you how old you are?” Celeste paused for a few seconds and said, “I'm the older women in your life Ben, the honest answer is 62 years old.” Ben sat quietly digesting this. “This must mean you have had many partners before” he murmured. Celeste looked back at Ben and held up three fingers. “You know the last one was murdered. The first didn't work out over time for a variety of reasons, and one was with me for over 40 years and passed away. It really hurt badly and it took a long time for me to mostly, but never quite get over it. I gave them my very best, and I will do the same for you.” Ben smiled back at Celeste and simply said, “I will do the same for you.”

“What do you think we should do now Ben?” asked Celeste. Ben studied the slowly spinning globe in front of him. “Celeste 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 Ben?” inquired Celeste. “Yes,” said Ben. “Can you zoom in on that place between them where that big section of the rock wall border is missing?” “Here?” said Celeste where a spot became highlighted and closer. “That's the place, Celeste. Maybe we can wait until dark and land exactly on the border there. It 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 Ben, let's do it,” said Celeste.


Three hours later in the night the ship gracefully curved downward, settled in a grassy field and powered down. Again that night Ben briefly awoke. Turning his head he saw Celeste wearing pajamas laying next to him with her back to him. Taking a pillow he gently set it next to him. He put his arm around both her and the pillow and thought maybe he heard a small sigh as drifted back to sleep. 

Chapter 11 In the middle

“Ben, wake up we have company. Join me in the salon,” said Celeste with some urgency. Ben scrambled out of bed, grabbed a robe and awkwardly wobbled in a daze into the main salon and looking at Celeste with a quick crooked grin said, “You're still in your pajamas.” Celeste wryly snapped back “You're not exactly over dressed either. I just wanted to make you feel more comfortable.” The vids were showing a very early morning collection of views outside the ship. On the Eaulander side in the distance, something that looked like an ancient tractor belching prodigious quantities of black smoke was pulling a fancy black carriage accompanied by several long-haired men dressed in black double timing it on foot behind. 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, sat down next to Celeste and asked, “What do you think is going on?” Celeste gave Ben a mirthless look and flatly said. “This is the most difficult part of these visits. Frankly, Ben, I don't know yet, every time is very different. 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 very 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 outside audio on, and we can review last night's recordings of the local voice and vid traffic later.”

“What were they all saying,” said Ben curiously. “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 only 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 laid out blankets, what was obviously food and jugs with some sort of liquids. They then stepped back and sat down quietly in the grass. All but one of the women sat on the blankets. An older tall woman remained standing with raised arms looking at the ship.

The Eaulander carriage jolted to a stop near the ship on the other side. Several old men in black robes stepped out and were immediately protectively flanked by the men who had been trotting behind the carriage. They walked towards the ship and 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.”

On the other side of the ship, the one standing women immediately stepped forward after glaring at her Eaulander counterpart said even louder. “Welcome to Gaia visitors. I am Nona the head Councilor of Gaia, 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 Eaulander puffed up and almost snarling said, “Deal not with the godless sinning Gaians. Without us, they couldn't exist.” The Gaian woman pointed at the Eaulander elder and spat out, “Without our seed 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 Ben.” Ben grinned back. “It's a bit unorthodox but how about we partially lower 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 good choice for this. I have a huge closet full of clothes for you in the hold. Pick out something you think is suitable, and maybe something that looks drab brown like their men. I'll dress in black just like the Eaulander elders.” 

Ben quickly headed aft and after a couple of minutes found and put on a long sleeved brown shirt and a coarsely woven pair of pants. Barefooted he hurriedly 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,” said Ben. Celeste with a just touch of humor, “I don't need to remind you what I can look like do I, Ben?” Ben gave her a quick knowing grin and stammered, “I vividly remember Celeste.” 

“I'll deploy the ramps out a short distance and open the hatches. Be very careful Ben and I'm watching both groups carefully. I set up the audio feed so you can hear from my side as well. Are you ready?” “As ready as I can be Celeste. Let's go for it.” The hatches opened, and Ben stepped out and looked down at the Gaians who were staring back at him open-mouthed, especially the men. He waved and quickly stepped back into the ship.

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

Ben went to the salon and joined Celeste on the couch. Resignedly Celeste said, “I'll replay what happened for you.” The large 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 quietly and watched the scenes replay in a loop. “The Eaulander's don't seem to be a friendly bunch and I really 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 notable message Ben, watch this.” Ben stared at the vid. Suddenly a laser lanced out etching a burning line in the grass just short of the toes of the man who fired the weapon. A large low power red laser spot immediately appeared on the man's tunic. He stared at the spot on his warming chest, looked down at the still smoldering scar in the earth below and promptly fainted dropping his weapon. The sidearm discharged when it hit the ground punching a sizable hole in the fancy carriage. A red spot appeared on the next armed man's chest, who quickly set his weapon down, and the red spot went away. All the other armed men hastily set their weapons down in the grass and nervously looked at the Elders who were now frantically trying to see who could get into their carriage soonest. Surrounded by a cloud of black oily smoke the whole entourage turned around and retreated at speed.

Celeste smugly commented, “Well at least they aren't completely stupid. Was that a clear enough message Ben?” “I see you have a subtle but very effective touch, Celeste. What do you think we should do with the Gaians?” chuckled Ben watching the women now 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 tomorrow with some of their seed, and we will trade it for something we have.” “What kind of gift do you have in mind Celeste?” “I'm thinking a carefully edited and special encyclopedia might be a good place to start. Isn't selling encyclopedias in your job description, Ben? Let's trade this tablet for some seed so we can see what it is.”

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