Chapter 27 The gathering

Ben's eyes opened seeing red silk pajamas and then focusing on a smiling Celeste gently whispering, “Wake up Ben, your breakfast is ready. Take your shower, and I've laid out clothes for you.” Stepping out of the shower Ben first saw what looked like a tight-fitting pair of white pajama top and bottom. “Start with those Ben. They stiffen with any significant impact. They will stop a slug, but not its inertia so you will get pushed back if hit. It sure beats the alternative. I made you a formal dark blue ship's suit. And there is a good pair of walking shoes for you. You need to look authoritative and sharp today, we've already made our point with the drab clothes.” Ben dressed and stood in front of the mirror. “You are very handsome Ben,” said Celeste, “Come join me and have some breakfast.”
Ben leaned back, “That was a huge breakfast, Celeste.” “You'll need lots of carbs and protein today Ben. It's a healthy walk.” One of the small bots rolled up with a tray carrying a small knapsack, a coin, and a pendant that looked like the one Ben had seen Jacob Grimm wearing. “The coin is your personal locator. The knapsack has some energy foods, utility knife tool, stunner and some other odds and ends. You never know what you might need until it's not there.” “And the pendant?” asked Ben. “It's a body sensor. If I'm less than 10 feet from someone, it will provide some physical data about them. I use it to tell if they are lying to me or not. If asked you can tell the Gaian's it's a camera so I can watch, and it is along with being a locator.”

“They will be here in a couple of minutes Ben. It's Lyn the Chronicler accompanied by two men. You're a little nervous.” “Yes, a bit. Let's see, I'm on a new planet getting ready to wander off with strangers to someplace I've never been to watch some sort of mating ritual. It almost sounds kinky,” said Ben with a wry smile. “Don't worry, just be yourself. I know you will be brilliant. I'm deploying the ramp and I'll watch you from the hatch. Remember I'm always with you.” Celeste gave Ben a small kiss on the cheek and a warm smile, “Off you go now and I'll be waiting for your return.”

Ben walked down the ramp and waited patiently. Lyn walked up and gave Ben an appraising eye. “You look quite different this time, more powerful than I remember,” she said with a slight huskiness to her voice and looking down at her own clothes. “I'm feeling a bit plain.”  “I do not wish to offend Lyn. I can change my clothes to something else if it would be more appropriate for the occasion.” “No, that is not necessary Ben. You are not of us. However, your presence will create quite a stir at the gathering.” Ben looked at the two men. “I recognize you, you gave me the basket of the seed. It's nice to see you again. I'm Ben.” “You were hard to forget that day sir. I'm Jon, and this is Sul.” “It's nice to meet both of you,”  said Ben. Looking up at Celeste he waved and turned towards Lyn. “Are we ready?” Lyn nodded and was already several steps ahead of Ben as he hurried to catch up.

Celeste waved back as the small party started off and noted one of the watchers had disappeared. “I need to get ready for Ungar. He should show up around mid-morning. Now that Ben is gone I wonder if there will be additional company here before he arrives back. I think the probabilities are very high,” she thought to herself.

“What happens at gatherings, Lyn?” “It's an annual event, Ben. It occurs at the start of planting in towns and villages. Women who have come of age select a mate. A line is drawn in the square. Unpaired men are on one side, women are on the other. Lots are drawn to determine the order of the women choosing a man. When a woman crosses the line, she must choose. After she picks, he is then led by the hand to the tattoo artists who mark his wrist with her personal symbol. Afterward, there is music, food, and dancing.” “So men have no choice in the pairing?” “None Ben. The early Chronicles talk about this. The founding women designed the system to ensure genetic diversity and homogeneity. This is why the selection order is done by a random drawing. They knew men choose mates poorly.” “Do these pairings always work out?” “In time most, but sometimes there are problems that are resolved by the council. The rules are encoded and all must follow them. A woman at the gathering can select any unmarked man. This has always been the way of the Mother for a long time” “So tell me about the food,” asked Ben as he noticed scattered bungalows appearing off in the distance. Lyn launched into a dialog talking about their garden produce and the small animals they raise for protein as Ben studied the landscape ahead.

“The man left the ship with three Gaians,” gasped an exhausted trooper.  Marshal Bard looked up and barked, “Find me squad lead Helmer and tell him to see me immediately.” 

“You wish to speak with to me Marshal?” announced the pocked faced trooper. “Helmer pick your four best marksmen with long slug throwers and have them hide in the woods by the starship. The man has left the ship with the Gaians and if we can take the women out, the ship will belong to us. If any of them get a good shot, then take it. Ungar is going to trade for stunners, and she may go outside to greet him. Don't fail. If you kill the whore, you will get a two grade promotion.” “If my men can't kill a single unarmed whore we don't deserve to come back,” sneered Helmer as he departed.

As the density of bungalows increased, the roads went from hard packed earth to cobblestones. “The village is neat and clean and the people seem healthy. If they aren't happy, at least they don't seem to be unhappy,” mused Ben. As he got closer to the village center, the road became lined with onlookers politely whispering quietly to each other. Ben put on a friendly smile and nodded his head in greeting as he passed. “You're a real novelty, Ben. A visitor from the stars. They don't see this every day,” Lyn quietly said as she led him around the square to a large awning with lots of comfortable chairs.

“Welcome to our gathering Ben,” loudly announced Nona as the crowd grew silent. “It is not every day we have a visitor from the stars, and we are all honored you have joined us today.”  Lyn whispered to Ben, “We have a seat for you,” pointing to a chair in the middle of a long row already quickly filling. “I have to do some announcements.” Ben sat and Nona joined next to him. Men were shifting to one side of the line and women to the other. An older serious looking women with a sheet of paper stood stiffly on the line facing the women.

Lyn moved forward. “Are the women of age present?” The crowd yelled “Yes.” “Are the unmarked men present?” The crowd again hollered assent. “We celebrate the Mother's blessing and wisdom today. Does the Keeper of the Lots say they were fairly drawn?” The women in the center of the square held the paper above her head nodding while slowly turning in a full circle letting the crowd see. “May the Mother bless you for all time,” said Lyn who returned to her seat next to Ben.

Ben watched fascinated as the first name was called out. “Morla.” A slender woman with long blond hair excitedly crossed the line and walked straight towards a short bearded man who looked very pleased. She took his hand, led him to a table and patiently waited with him as he was tattooed. “Okay,” thought Ben, “This doesn't seem so bad. Maybe there is a method to their madness.” Jonal's name was next. Ben noted that this time the man seemed resigned but compliantly went off to be marked. Next Lycia was called. She directly headed to a man who was off to the side and slightly back in the group. She took his hand and pulled but was momentarily met with some resistance. He looked very unhappy. A slight attractive woman in the line at the same time suddenly screamed, “No, it's not fair,” and started to sob. With a jerk, Lycia pulled hard on the man's and led him to the marking table. The Keeper of the Lots walked over and loudly admonished the sobbing woman, and then returned to the line.

Ben leaned over towards Lyn and whispered, “What just happened?” Lyn grimaced. In even a lower voice she said, “Her name is Shella. She and Burle have cared for each other since childhood. He would have been her first and only choice.” Ben sadly shook his head and continued to watch. “This is a mixed bag,” thought Ben. “Happiness shouldn't be determined by luck listening as the names were slowly called out.” His ears perked up as he heard the name “Shella.” The woman stepped forward defiantly and stopped. She turned towards the awning, crossed the line and walked directly to Ben. She took his hand and gently pulled. Ben stood and looked directly at Nona and Lyn.

Nona harshly barked, “Shella, this is not allowed.” She angrily responded, “I have honored the laws today as badly as they hurt me. I know them well. Any man who is unmarked can be chosen, and I just did.” “He is not of us, it can not be,” Nona fired back. Never dropping Ben's hand Shella turned to Lyn, “The Chronicles tell of Eaulander men joining us in the beginning, and they were not of us. They could and were chosen as I am doing. He is in the square. He is unmarked. These are the laws. You must honor them as I have.” 

Ben was pulled into the square, and in the center, Ben whispered, “Shella, please stop for a moment, I would like to talk with you.” There was absolute silence and all eyes were on them. Shella stopped and tears welled sliding down her face. “Lycia knew I loved him. She used the laws to hurt us.” Ben kindly said, “I think you were very brave today and it wasn't fair. I'm already marked, you just can't see it and I think we both know this won't turn out well as it is. I have an idea that has a small chance of working if you would like to hear it.” Shella nodded tears still dripping. “If you go back across the line to the women's side what will happen?” “I don't know, my name was already called, so I  think nothing.” “Would you like to go back to our starship and meet my partner Celeste? You could spend the night and maybe we can find a way to make this right.” Shella's eyes brightened. “Cross back over the line and say nothing. I will find you later in the day, and pack a change of clothes,” whispered Ben. Shaking his head he watched until Shella was safely back across the line, and he headed back to the awning towards his seat.

Nona, followed by Lyn intercepted him. “What did you say to her,” demanded Nona. Ben ignored the question and asked, “Why did Lycia choose that particular man?” Nona angrily retorted, “The reason makes no difference. It was her right as a woman to choose anyone. It is the Mother's law.” Lyn looking at Nona in a flat voice answered Ben, “Yes it was Lycia's right, but she did it to hurt Shella.” Ben pondered for a moment. “My partner Celeste would likely say when dogma becomes so rigid and slavishly adhered to that people get hurt, they are destined to fail. I just witnessed an example of this. I have invited Shella to spend the night with Celeste and me on the ship. It would be nice if you would send someone to escort her back sometime after the noon meal tomorrow.” “She is free to do as she pleases”. Nona snorted as she walked away. Lyn gave Ben a close look with a just a touch of a leer in her smile. “You're intriguing, and at the same time a very dangerous man Ben. I'll make sure she has an escort back home, and I will see if this can be undone.” 

Celeste watched as the five men crept to the edges of the woods and took positions. Catching glimpses of several long barrels poking out of the bushes she mused, “Snipers and not very smart ones,” The robotic platform's addition of a small speaker was complete, and the stunners were loaded on it. With a sigh, she noted Ungar's imminent arrival and sent the platform out into the field to meet the tractor. Ungar climbed out of the tractor with the first of the gold bars. Celeste spoke very quietly through the speaker, “Ungar don't look around just listen and keep loading the bars of gold and taking the stunners. Then depart immediately. I will leave a message with your daughter for you in two days time.” Ungar finished the task and the driver turned the tractor back towards the city.

Celeste changed her hair to long and blonde, stepped on the lift, and it rapidly descended to the ground to recover the robot platform. It started to roll onto it when she stumbled and fell at the same time a shot rang out. Five red laser lances silently struck the snipers milliseconds later. Celeste stood up and made a show of brushing off her knees for the remaining watcher's benefit. Seconds later he was disappearing with haste into the woods. “Such a waste,” she thought.