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Chapter 29 A nice start to the day

Ben felt like he had met a thousand villagers, and answered twice that many questions. The local food had been good as well as the music and drink. Noon was now well past and since it was a two-hour walk back to the ship he wanted their escorts to get back home before dark. Looking around for Lyn he spotted her having an animated conversation with the Keeper of the Lots. He waited patiently until noticed, and in a couple of minutes, she walked over to him. “Thanks for being patient Ben. Her name is Susi, and we were talking about Shella. Nona is still miffed about what happened so I will see you off. Shella has been ready for some time now, please follow me.” Ben kept close as Lyn quickly threaded her way through side streets to a small park. Lyn stopped short of the park and turned to Ben. “More than you would think was impressed by how gracefully you handled Shella. Your comments about dogmas being too rigid were not lost on me. The council will meet later today to discuss it. I will try to help Shella, but I can't guarantee results. We will send an escort tomorrow after the noon meal to bring Shella home. Be safe Ben, and you're always welcomed here.”

Ben walked into the park and found Shella wearing a faded blue dress, and clutching a cloth satchel. She was standing under a tree talking with Jon and Sul. “Nice to see you again Jon and Sul and you look nice Shella.” “My only good dress was water stained today. This is the nicest one I have that was clean,” “Please don't worry, neither Celeste nor I will care. It's a visit, not a formal affair. Jon and Sul, if would  please lead, Shella and I will follow.”

The cathedral meeting room was full of nervous-looking men, and several had to stand against the walls. “There is something wrong with the tractor fuel. There is some sort of mold growing in the main storage tank. This is plugging up the tractor's fuel systems,”  said the Transport Elder. Davin glared at him, “How did this happen?” “I have no idea, Senior Elder. Occasionally we see something similar to this with tractors if too much water condenses in their tanks. I have installed new piping from another tank for the tractors to use but..,” “But what?” interrupted Davin. “It takes time to clean the tractor fuel systems. Their tanks have been removed and scrubbed, and fuel lines flushed. The injection systems have to be disassembled and cleaned by hand with small metal picks.” 

Davin looked at the assembled group, “How long will it take to clean up this mess?” The Transport Elder paled, “About two weeks with the Oneness's blessing. We worked through the night to clean your tractor, and it's waiting for you outside.” Davin stood and started to leave but stopped. “One more question. Does Ungar's tractor have the same problem?” “Yes, it stopped a few hours ago in the square, we don't yet have a tractor available to haul it in.” “Work faster and harder,” were his parting words.

“I had better keep a closer watch out over Ungar,” thought Celeste after watching the meeting. “Marshal Banner's witch comment still seems stuck in Davin's head. In a week half the tractors will be running again. Maybe I should put the fungus in the new tractor fuel tank. I'll talk it over with Ben.”

As they approached the ship, Shella was awed and silent. Celeste cheerfully waved at the small party. Ben turned to his companions smiling, “Jon and Sul, thank you for the escort and the good company. Have a safe trip back, and I'm sure we will meet again.” Ben led Shella up the ramp. “You must be Shella, I'm Ben's partner Celeste. Welcome to our home.” “It's nice to meet you,” said Shella. “Ben if you would show Shella her cabin. I'll make some snacks and pour some wine.” Shella followed Ben into the main salon as her head swiveled every direction trying to take it all in. A few steps down the hallway Ben opened a door and walked in with Shella following. “This is your room,” said Ben. "And this is the bathing area.” He flushed the toilet to show her how it worked and turned the shower on and off. “It's so beautiful,” said Shella. “I just have a cot behind a curtain.” Ben grinned, “I know, you should have seen the last place I lived. This ship is like a palace. Let's have a snack and a glass of wine.” Shella followed Ben and sat on the couch. To her amazement, a small bot set three glasses of wine on the table along with an assortment of finger foods and scurried off. 

“I know you've had an eventful day Shella. Let's talk about something else. Tell me about the Chronicles,” asked Celeste. “They are the Gaian history starting with our arrival to Pastoral. Every day the chroniclers record what has happened. At the end of a year, they are printed and bound. We all have to study them.” “When did the gatherings start?” “After the time of the raids. The Eaulanders had no food, so they took it from us, and many lives were lost on both sides. This stopped when the Elders required worship of the Oneness and a peace treaty was signed. Many Eaulanders had fled to us, and we took them in. They were clannish and didn't fit in well. The Councilors created the gatherings. It forced mixing of the two groups, and the women made the choices. Over time, it worked, and remains today.” “Shella, how were partnerships made before the gatherings?” “If two people loved each other, then in a ceremony were joined.” she tearfully said. “Thank you Shella, that helps me understand some things. We should have some dinner, and we can watch a vid. I hope tomorrow will bring good things.”

“Blue silk pajamas tonight? Is it a special occasion?” ogled Ben as Celeste climbed into bed. “You're a naughty boy Ben, one of the many reasons I like you so much. I got Shella settled in her cabin, and left a vid playing for her. She will not get much sleep tonight. What do you think will happen tomorrow?” “I'm hopeful. Lyn seemed touched by the injustice of it, and she will try hard to help. Inviting Shella here helped. She will be inundated with people wanting to know more about us.” “I made her a new dress she can wear back regardless of what happens. It's quite fetching, but I don't want her to see it until tomorrow. We both need some rest, goodnight Ben,” said Celeste as the lights dimmed.

A lone young man approached the ship with some trepidation at first light. “Ben, please wake up, it's important,” whispered Celeste. “Knock on Shella's door and have her come to the salon and hurry.” Shella burst into the salon. “Look at the vid, is that Brule?” “Yes,” she squealed with delight. A small bot rolled into the salon with a folded dress. “Put this on, I made it for you last night,” said Celeste, “And hurry back.” “Ben, I'm deploying the ramp, please go meet Brule and bring him aboard.” Ben walked down the ramp as the young man walked up. “You must be Burle, I'm Ben.” Burle handed Ben a sealed note. “Lyn asked me to give this to you, The council voided Lycia's choice, and Shella and I can be joined. I left at first light.” “I'm very pleased Brule, follow me. Shella is waiting.”

Burle walked into the salon, and Shella launched herself at him wearing a shimmering white dress and held him tight. Celeste waited for a moment. “Ben would you get a tablet for me, I have an idea. Burle and Shella, please have a seat.” Ben returned with the tablet. “Shella, take the tablet and draw your personal symbol on it. Burle, do you have one also?” He nodded. “You draw yours next.” Burle finished drawing his symbol and Ben took the tablet and showed it to Celeste. “Burle, would you like to have Lycia's mark removed?” He looked up in amazement, “Is this possible?” “Yes, let's all go back to the hold, please follow me. This will only take a couple of minutes, and it won't hurt.”  

Stopping in front of a counter Celeste said, “Place your arm on the pad mark up, and don't move.” Burle did as he was told. A back panel opened, and a robotic arm extended a probe over his wrist. A light started to dance over the mark. In a couple of minutes, the mark had evaporated leaving pink skin behind. Looking at Burle Celeste asked, “Do you want me to put Shella's mark on your wrist?” “Yes, I would be proud to wear her mark.” “Good, just keep your arm in place.” The robotic arm retracted and reappeared with a new probe. A mist sprayed the area, and the probe drew the symbol in shiny gold. “I thought it looked better than the black mark,” said Celeste.

Looking over at Shella Celeste said, “It's a long tradition stretching back through time that couples exchange something when joining. If you wish, I can put Burle's mark on your wrist. It will show all that you both are bound together as equals.” Shella shyly smiling nodded yes. “Place your wrist on the pad.” In a minute she now had Burle's gold mark on her wrist. “I pronounce you both joined. Let's all have a glass of wine to celebrate, and you can both be on your way.” 

Ben and Celeste watched the couple walking away holding hands. “Well, this was a nice morning Celeste. I didn't know you were such a softy We should take a look at Lyn's note,” said Ben heading back towards the salon. Breaking the seal, they both read. “Celeste and Ben, it was at times an acrimonious council meeting. In the end, all but Nona, and two others supported Lycia who was defiant to the end. Lycia's choice of Burle was made void, but there was to be no punishment for exercising her rights. Since Burle is marked with her symbol, she may make his and Shella's life miserable. I will try to moderate this as best I can. Your appearance here has caused many to question some aspects of our life. This is not all bad. Lyn.” 

Ben chuckled, “This young couple is going to raise some eyebrows, and the dress was beautiful Celeste. I don't think Lycia is going to be happy about any of this, and since Burle has Shella's mark, she won't have much ground to stand on.” “Lyn is somewhat enamored with you Ben,” said Celeste. “I gathered that,” but touching his forearm where his medical sensor is, “I'm already marked and pleased to be.”