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Redemption on a Red Plain
by Greg Guerin
Red clay. Did the whole planet have to disintegrate into red clay when its young rocks were pulverised? Red clay permanently embossed in sticky clumps to the underside of stained leather boots. Red clay fouling up the works of the machinery. Some put forward the view that it beat dust, dust that whipped up in your face and clogged your airways, like there had been on Earth.
Hodge remembered Earth well enough, like they all did. It had only been a matter of years since they made the crossing and Hodge had a particularly keen memory of it. He didn't remember it as dust. But dust would have been better. Clay, fine as it came, was lumped across the surface of HolmeWorld in a commotion of plastic conglomerations, never making it into the thin air to be puffed to and fro, all glued to itself with electrostatic forces, getting in everywhere, no space too small for its particles, sticky as muck. Insidious stuff was the soil of HolmeWorld. Hodge had the stuff lodged in every pore of his body. No amount of scrubbing ever washed it from the dried-out cracks in his skin where it tinged his hands orangey and infused them with an earthy odour. No toothpick was sharp enough to get the stuff out from under his nails no matter how short he chewed them. It moved underneath them as if it was driven with animal instinct. He would never be rid of it, so long as he remained alive here.
Hodge's ears were ringing loudly, he noticed now that the engine of the cultivator had given out. He could even hear himself think now, something he generally preferred to do without when doing a mindless job that was nonetheless important and required full concentration. He preferred keeping busy to allowing worries to tickle his brain. Dang clay must have rolled up into balls inside the sifter and clogged it again, third time today. The last two times this had happened, the turbines had let out a bang before wheezing to a halt. He had cursed them at the top of his voice, his words made small as they were swallowed up by the openness of his vast surroundings. This time there had been an almighty bang and shudder as the motor conked out; no doubt a worse problem to fix and therefore a convenient point to pause. He had spotted the lights of a rover coming up from the settlement several minutes earlier through the dusky haze of the approaching evening but had put off holding up his work to see what the occupant wanted of him. Another half a kilometre and the plot would have been done, ready for sowing tomorrow. Now? Well it was probably too late to get the thing unblocked again anyway. He shut down the cultivator's operating system and used his compact mass to force open the hatch on one side.
He stood on the striated metal platform of the cabin in his red-brown clay-died overalls, surveying the scene. Habitually he checked the status of the gas pump clipped to his belt that delivered oxygen directly to his blood stream. The rover had stopped nearby, its lights still piercing the murky air. Beyond, HolmeWorld's Sun was setting behind a jagged range of bare rock bordering the North Side Plain where Hodge worked. Streaks of bronze light found their escape through the crevices of the raised landscape and fled across the pock-marked clay fields, finding safe refuge in the stunted growths of poorly adapted trees, the mass of an occasional boulder strewn between plots and the immense gaping shadows that outlined the frames of sheds that housed cultivators and harvesters. If there was going to be somewhere away from Earth that could be called home, for Hodge, this was certainly it. It had an elegance that grew on him as years went by. The paradise of Earth was a hard place to leave behind though. Higher in the sky there was a different burning, a hazy tail spreading to one side of a bright white mass, about as large as the Moon had looked from Earth. It was the latest comet that had been brought in from the outer edges of the system, pulled into orbit around the planet ready to be plunged onto its parched surface to make an instant lake.
From this distance it should have been impossible to make out the features of the driver of the rover, but looking down onto it from the top of the cultivator, Hodge knew who it was. Dail Clemmings' gravity defying wisps of smoky hair were silhouetted starkly in the cabin light as he stood half out of the door, apparently squinting up at Hodge. Hodge rolled his eyes but began clambering down the cultivator to meet him all the same, taking care to discern his path down that side of the huge machine. Its clay coated exterior parts glowered in equal tones of sunlight enhanced red no matter what its shape or orientation and made the descent a task worthy of full concentration; a fall from this height would almost certainly end in broken limbs- HolmeWorld's gravity was greater than Earth's.
Dail was an inherently unpleasant man to deal with, but as Head Councillor of the settlement a personal visit from him at such an unusual time could not be ignored. He was not one to socialise and so his presence signified important news. Considering this as he worked his way down the face of the cultivator, Hodge stole a glance up at the comet waiting ominously in the sky. The comets were a major topic of debate among the settlements, a key part of the struggle to survive away from Earth and the rest of humanity. Could Dail have news?
On the ground he slipped and plodded through the broken up clay, thoroughly wetted with water piped from one of the bigger lakes on the East Side of the planet, finally reaching Dail Clemmings as the light slipped further into obscurity. Dail's thin face regarded him from the doorway of the rover, the light accentuating the shadows around his dark eyes and giving him an artificially grave expression.
Hodge stopped by the rover, making no move to get in. "Ho. What is it?" he asked, suppressing a cough as his dry throat objected to producing the words.
Dail looked genuinely surprised. Hodge had no idea he was capable of that.
"Ho Hodge. Are you serious? After that bang? Don't tell me you didn't hear it?"
"You must have lost your marbles up there, that thing must have shaken them out of you. Comet drop two minutes ago. Rover just about shook its wheels off for crying out loud."
Comet drop? "Where?"
"South Side this time, to open up crop land in the well made by the ranges there. Clay's coming in next from East Side Plant to make the plots."
"Isn't that area volcanic?"
Dail chuckled, a harsh, mirthless cackle. "In case you'd forgotten, everywhere is volcanic. This is a young planet, still hot as hell. I forgot how ignorant you engineers can be."
Hodge let the deliberate insult pass. He had grown used to the Head Councillor having to put people in their place, below him. They had all learned it didn't pay to make enemies of any sort in such a small community, least of all the man with the most influence with the major settlements in the East.
"So that's what the bang was. Thought it was just a big lump of clay in the engine."
"You know what this means don't you?"
"No." The same went for the conversation.
Dail gestured towards the sky bound comet with a jerk of the head. "That one's next, that's what. Scheduled for one week after the last one. I just got word."
That didn't feel right. "Where's it going?"
Again a gesture, this time a sweep of the arm encompassing the plain around them. "Why North Side Plain of course."
Hodge felt the blood drain from his face as if until that moment he had been standing on his head. He took a moment to steady himself. "What?"
"You heard. Right here. The Water Committee reckons this is the ideal spot now that East Side is nearly fully developed. Can't risk another blow there but they need more water. The lakes have nearly dried out there over the summer. South Side's too desolate. It'll be planted in the depression here and the water pumped wherever."
"At least we won't have to bargain for water with those East Side snobs any more, they'll be negotiating a deal with us this time."
"But we'll be flooded." It was a statement with such concrete and disturbing ramifications that he could hardly bare to say it.
"Don't be daft, we'll be moved. Get in and we'll go back to the settlement. Special sitting of the North Side Plain Council. I'm inviting you to sit in."
"How come? I'm not a member."
"You'll find out when we get there."
Despite his loathing of the man's attitude toward this disastrous news for the community, Hodge moved around the rover and got in. He was in too much of a state of shock to do anything else. The rover circled around and slowly edged back towards the settlement, leaving the darkened shape of the cultivator to sit in the plot, like the ghost of a forgotten past.
As they came over a small rise, the flares of the settlement came into view. Here and there a stream of smoke rose from the housing block which marked in a ring the boundary of the village. There was no sign that anything unusual was happening. Perhaps no one else knew about what was planned for the area yet or perhaps, like him, they were too stunned to react to it. Dail slowed the rover to a halt and killed the engine as they rolled down the final part of the incline and entered the shed. The shed was a shabby piece of work really, made from pieces of rough cut rock, tin and other materials thrown together to make an open-sided shelter for the few vehicles the settlement owned. Hodge thought back to the day the whole bunch of them had worked in driving winds to put the thing together. In hindsight, perhaps the bonding of the community had probably been just as important as the bonding of the bits and pieces to make the shelter. Like the community, it remained standing in one piece, but only just; various keystone pieces threatened to be blown away in the next storm and leave the rest in danger of collapse. The components stuck together because they needed to, or perhaps only because the weathering needed more time to decay them.
Out of the car they trod silently down the dirt track to the buildings. It was perfectly dry here. There was next to no precipitation on HolmeWorld since there was so little surface water and the resources of the comet-water lakes were too precious to waste on anything but food and fuel crops. Consequently there were no ornamental gardens on the planet. The smell of frying and burning wood reached Hodge's nostrils, reminding him both that he was home and that he had an empty stomach. It looked like he'd have to wait until after the meeting to eat though. In the ring of buildings, all of far surer construction than the shed, light and shadow lay randomly across the inner square and the muffled sounds of voices breathed out of the housing block. The far side of the ring was mostly in darkness apart from the meeting hall, where a bright light burned. Approaching the hall Hodge felt a sense of fear pass over him, but fear was nothing unusual to those that had made the original crossing from Earth. It had goaded them every minute ever since. Survival had never been assured. It depended on the success of every decision the colonists made.
Settled at the table, Hodge immediately noticed that he was being given undue attention by the council members. There were nine of them present including Dail Clemmings, most of them middle-aged, all the men bearded with several years of growth. Metal razors were a luxury that couldn't be afforded, in fact all metal was owned, controlled and stockpiled by the state. The councillors regarded him shamelessly without words as he waited nervously for the proceedings to begin. Some of them had dealings with him on occasion and were even friendly towards him but despite his important work in the community he had never received their full respect. An obvious example of this had been his exclusion from the council to begin with. He had expected that though, being one of the few ex-prisoners among them. His participation in an act of war against his former country lent him an automatic distrust, even in those originating from other Earth nations. Luckily for him the new HolmeWorld generation would understand nothing of any of that and would accept him as he was. Unfortunately the oldest of the young were barely past the toddler stage as yet.
As Dail cleared his throat and introduced the meeting, Hodge returned his full attention to his immediate surroundings.
"Ho Councillors and Guest Hodge."
There was a united chorus around the table. "Ho."
"Let us bring this proceeding straight to the point." He paused to slowly scan each set of eyes before continuing. "You may all know that the word from East Side is they want to land the next comet right here to supply expansion adjacent to the major settlement areas. I propose that we move without delay to approve this proposal and get the project under way."
There was a general nodding of agreement from the members. Hodge couldn't comprehend their thinking, their ability to ignore the reality of what they were allowing. Whatever purpose they thought they had invited him here for, he wasn't going to listen to this without interposing his stance on the idea.
"That's ridiculous," he said, maintaining his focus on Clemmings alone so as not to lose his nerve under the pressure of attention. "This needs to be debated, and defeated."
"This is a formal meeting Hodge," Clemmings announced with consternation. "Objections, not to mention dejections, have an appropriate time and place in the procedure. Incidentally, as a guest to the council you are not invited to debate issues, only to answer in response to the particular issue you were invited for."
"Let him speak Dail," a man named Danny Froid piped up from across the table. He appeared tense and the phrase had come out in a much higher tone than his usual voice. Hodge felt no great love for the man but he had always known him as a fair mediator and appreciated the support. Froid continued, "If he has something intelligent to say it can't hurt but to listen to it. There are no other matters to be discussed tonight."
Everyone watched Dail tentatively as he brooded over the suggestion. Finally he conceded, nodding and gesturing for Hodge to take the table as if he had himself demanded it. It was a great skill of his to always appear to be in control no matter what happened. "OK then," he said, "let's hear what Hodge has to say."
All eyes back on him, Hodge explained, "We can't allow East Side to implode a comet here. It's insane. The whole settlement will be destroyed, pulverised and flooded. All the work we've put in here will have gone to waste. How do you think the others are going to take this? The children will lose their homes."
"Don't be so melodramatic Hodge. Do you always have to play the fool?" Dail's voice was suddenly raised a notch in volume. "Think of the benefits. We will be the richest local settlement on the planet. The community here will be far better off than they are now. If they don't see it that way now, they'll soon realise. As for the children, their home is wherever the community is. The actual location is secondary, surely." He scanned the room for approval. "Besides, what makes you think we can actually stand in East Side Council's way? They have vast new plots ready and waiting for water. Our formal agreement is merely part of the red tape. We all know they have the financial and physical power to make the big decisions. If we don't want to be left out of the deal, we have to go along with this."
"But in a week?" Hodge's wrath was spurting buds as well. "Isn't that what you said? How are we going to move everyone out of the area and build new accommodation in that time? What about the plots? I've just about finished cultivating for this season's sowing. Even if you don't mind putting my labour to waste, we still need to eat."
Teressa Pom seemed to react to that. Her pale cheeks puffed out and grew rosy as she added nervously, "Yes Dail, what about that? It's not much time is it?"
Slen Peters, a close associate of Dail, answered for him. "No worry there Teressa. With the bargaining power Dail's going to manoeuvre for us out of this, we won't need to grow our own crops ever again. We'll just bargain with our water for the extra food that East Side can grow with it. Our children won't have to drive those monstrous trucks like we do, they'll be negotiators, financial advisers."
Another supporter added, "And we'll get lifted to East Side for a while if necessary. We shouldn't allow the practicalities of this blur our judgement of the broader issue at hand."
Hodge's heart was pumping faster now and his fear of the councillors had been replaced by indignation. "Why here?" He demanded of Dail. "Why not somewhere else on the North Side? And why can't it wait at least until the end of the cropping season? At least give it time to be properly planned."
The gathering could tell from Dail's expression that he was about to speak and be heard. No further interruptions would be tolerated. "Planned is exactly what this has been, meticulously if you need know it. Whilst some have had their heads stuck the mud in the name of hard work," he pointed a finger directly at Hodge, "others have been planning for our future. It has to be here because it is the perfect topographical and strategic position to store and supply water for East Side's development.
"As for the timing, East Side sees it as pertinent now and I agree. We haven't got the luxury to wait around for things to happen as you'd have us do. We must act quickly if we are to survive and make a go of this world. In case you've forgotten we are alone here with an adult population of under a thousand. Resources are scarce. We haven't got room for emotional thinking.
"Earth is well out of range now. Each of us knew when we agreed to jump from Earth to this planet as its Sun dragged it past the Solar System that there was no turning back. This is it for us. And the way I see it the only way to avoid imminent extinction is to explode the population. How do we accomplish that feat? We expand development wherever and however we can and make use of what we've got. Water is scarce yet vital. It is the key. HolmeWorld is hot and young and water burns off quickly. There has not yet been enough time for comets to impact the planet and build up oceans as they did long ago on Earth. But they are out there, enabling us to dramatically speed up the process. In time, much of the planet will be covered in lakes, and they will remain fresh for many generations of humans to come. But we do not yet have the resources for such drastic action. For now we have no choice but to use the comets individually, until we have the ability to shower the place with them."
To his surprise, Hodge had a reply. It was time for the overbearing Head Councillor to show some respect. "I suggest that the action has arrived on late notice so that it can be rushed through the council, so that the community can be raced off to safety quickly, before they've had a chance to realise they've been deceived and put a stop to it."
"And how could they do that exactly?"
"Easy. Sit in where they are. No councillor is ruthless enough, surely, to allow a comet drop knowing people will be killed by the direct impact."
"You disappoint me now Hodge," Dail said, obviously without conviction since everyone knew he had always felt that way. "You'd better not dare incite rebellion against the wishes of this or any other council. If council decisions are not followed to the letter, this planet will soon be dead once again. Insurrection, I'm sure you realise, cannot be maintained on a frontier such as this."
"So why did you invite me here? You must have known I'd object to this madness." He folded his arms in front of him, deliberately defensive.
"Ah, thank you for reminding me, I had almost forgotten. "An unpleasant, broken-tooth grin had appeared on his face. "You are required for a specific task."
Hodge returned the sardonic grin. "And what might that be?"
"A straight forward task for one of your skill. You have been called upon to carry out the comet drop."
There was a sudden silence in the room as all waited for Hodge's reaction. He had half suspected something like this was coming, but that didn't seem to reduce the anger he felt. "What is this, some kind of joke? Why me?"
"All the other regular operators are otherwise engaged at the present time and cannot be called away at such short notice. You came up on the duty catalogue as the next best choice. You know the landscape of the area well, very important in judging the drop. You are a trained engineer and pilot." He was counting the points of on the fingers of one hand. "You have shown yourself to be a utility, jack of all trades. Since you came here you've been registered as a mining operator, landscape surveyor and agri-tech. Very impressive resume."
"Everybody here does a number of jobs. There's not enough people to support individual professions yet. There must be a dozen other candidates you could have chosen."
"True, but none with your particular experience."
He knew this was coming also, another chance to rub it in, with added salt.
After a pause, Dail went on, "This job is much the same, wouldn't you say, as the job you did that got you passage here in the first place."
That was it. He would repeat the whole story again just to remind everybody, and use it as leverage to prod him along.
"Let me recall what happened back on Earth. After joining a group of rebel militants, you were trained as a pilot and assigned to the biggest attack the group had put together against their rightful government. The biggest act of war against one's own nation in history.
"You took off in a jet and flew over a key legitimate military installation located within the boundary of a large population centre. Whilst doing so you aimed and released a device that created a massive explosion on impact, devastating the city and the majority of its civilians."
Now Hodge looked away from the man. He still couldn't bare to face what he had done that day. If Dail had understood the pain it had caused him he would have also understood that nothing anyone said could make it worse. Even so, Hodge couldn't look him in the eye. But he said, not for the first time, "I didn't know. They told me to take out the installation. They switched the bomb for a nuke..."
Sounding as though he was enjoying Hodge's extreme discomfort, Dail remarked, "Yes, a most convenient story. Still, you agreed in principle with their motives. In a way you were lucky to remain alive. When the nation's armed forces took action against your rebel group, you were captured unharmed and identified as the culprit of this horrendous crime. Luckier still, rather than face state execution, as many called for, you were offered a place along with other selected illegals and legitimates in the colonisation program for HolmeWorld. Holme himself, the self-loving fool, suggested you. Perhaps it was an obtuse attempt at revenge.
"With such an unusual astronomical event, there was no time to plan anything properly. They simply shoved a bunch of people they felt were the most resourceful or callous on a ship with some basic materials to get across to the planet as its system passed within reach of Earth, flung towards the outer galaxy during the gravitational collapse of the T45N star cluster. A chance event creating the opportunity for humanity to expand into the heavens. Your kind were chosen to join the fold because of your elite skills in desperate situations, your ability to make rules for yourself or more importantly, because if the colonisation failed, as they ruefully expected it would, there would be no great loss to the population on Earth. Yes, HolmeWorld became a dumping ground for cunning scum, with proper people like the rest of us here to look after you.
"When you signed up, you pledged that you would follow mob rule and make available all your skills in making the project successful. Our judgment on the comet drop is infallible and is backed up by advice from experts on Earth with whom East Side has been in radio contact with. This project must go ahead and you are going to carry it out."
"Was forceful coercion on the mandate for the councils?" Hodge asked in a whisper, still looking down at his hands.
"I fully expect you to do this wilfully Hodge," Dail said, coming over all friendly as if he suddenly saw things from his point of view. "But of course, yes, there will be punishment for non-compliance with the duty roster. We must be brutal and consistent to maintain our society. All offenders are prosecuted."
Hodge knew well enough what that meant. He hadn't seen it happen in his own small community but there had been rumours that several detractors of projects or instigators of trouble on the East Side had been harshly dealt with. He didn't have the personal strength to face that in order to oppose Dail. He rose silently from his chair and left the meeting with no further word.
Foreseeing his part in destroying a second community, one he was this time closely attached to, Hodge trudged across the ground towards the housing block. It was a communal area but he was relieved to find that most of the residents had aggregated for the evening meal down the other end. He had lost his appetite now anyway. Not wanting to explain his mood to anyone he headed for a darkened doorway near a bend in the long building and ducked in, pausing only to stop the door from slapping shut against its frame on the rebound and attracting attention before finding his way down the corridor by feeling its direction with his callused hands on the rough walls. He found his bunk, undressed and slipped under the cover. His sudden mental exhaustion was growing and diffusing around his body. He lay slumped on the shabby foam mattress and dozed immediately despite the whirring thoughts in his head.
He awoke much later than usual the following day. Already the strong light of post-dawn had reached the window of the bunkhouse. All the others had gone out on chores for the day. Normally he'd have been out on the cultivator by this hour, working like the driven man he was. Funny that he'd slept in, funny that no one had roused him. He supposed word had leaked around after the meeting concerning the creation of a lake and his role in the process. It would have seemed pointless, then, to bother him to wake up for regular duties which would in days be obsolete. Scratching his wiry dark hair and beard and stretching at length, Hodge grabbed yesterdays' discarded work clothes and held them out in front of him reluctantly. The morning air was cool as was normal for the season, but he hesitated to cover his naked body and start the day. Dail's ballsing of him in front of the council had shaken him, moreover the ease with which he had broken him was of greatest concern. It was embarrassing to be known as a submissive who could been done-over so easily. Then again, he couldn't procrastinate forever or hope to avoid contact with the others for more than a few minutes. He might as well go out with confidence and take their reaction to his part in the destruction of the small community on the chin. After all, it wasn't his doing.
With a deliberate change in tact he now hurried to slip into the clothes, lace his boots, still clogged with the bulk of the clay from yesterday's outing to the plots, and straighten his hair with the bone comb he kept under his pillow. A blind eye was turned to individual possession of such small luxury items so long as the owner kept them discrete and out of sight. The bunk house echoed emptily with the sound of his steps as he strode over the loose floorboards to the door. After the dim corridor, the harsh exterior light made it hard to see until his eyes adjusted. It was always bright on HolmeWorld. Perhaps it was the brighter central star, perhaps the lack of atmospheric moisture or dust. Hodge didn't know. But the static and reliable weather patterns were one of the few sources of day to day stability he could count on.
The inner compound was deserted but immediately he heard the usual cries of children at play from beyond. Missing was the background droning of the various engines and vehicles that on an ordinary day would have been at work at this hour. Circling the housing block he skipped down a set of steps carved directly into the ground which took him down towards the plantation. The morning light cast a soft rusty tone over the land out to the distant horizon. It was always red here. Colours came only in the form of different tints, which Hodge now found easy enough to distinguish between. Where an elongated plot had been laid leading away from where Hodge stood, the imported clay soil stood out as a strip of more intense colour. This was the main fuel plantation that was managed to feed the fires and timber needs of the community, a primitive but essential method of survival for the pioneers. The lot rolled away over the undulating foreground in five long rows of misshapen, heavily lopped trees. Along with most of the other things the pioneers had put in place, the trees insufficiently filled the immense spaces of the North Side Plain. The plight of the trees represented aspects of the community members lives. They were dwarfed by the unfamiliar conditions of the planet yet the ones that had survived the initial arrival were hardy enough to struggle on. They had to sacrifice pieces of themselves on a regular basis in order to provide necessary resources. That's how Hodge felt anyway, as though he had been pruned back hard to live here, too hard to ever become luscious and green yet his roots had bored themselves far down into the rocks; his above-ground shoots could appear to have been completely destroyed but they would eventually be replaced by new growth.
As he strolled down the path a small boy appeared, panting from exertion. The boy slowed to walking pace and regarded Hodge bashfully. His makeshift play-clothes were splotched with red clay from where he'd apparently taken a tumble somewhere in the plantation. Hodge gave the boy a forced smile. It was Timmy, one of the four-year-olds. Hodge crouched to a squat as Timmy approached. He noticed now that the boy had a thin twig in his hands.
"Ho there Timmy," he said softly.
Timmy watched his feet, whacking the ground with his stick like a whip. Hodge had never managed to communicate with this particular boy or any of the younger ones if he admitted it. His perceived strangeness seemed to condescend mere knowledge of his past, perhaps because his remoteness from the adults transferred to his relations with the children. But Timmy was one of his own and that connection still meant something to him, even if all of his three genetic children had come about only through a stringently managed partnering roster that had been meticulously planned to limit inbreeding and maximise genetic diversity in the small population; without that program Hodge would have had the same distant relationships with the women and so he doubted that any of them would have offered themselves willingly as partners. Timmy's mother had been kind enough to him though, when the time had come.
"What's up Timmy? Where is everyone?"
The boy had stopped by him now, more, Hodge suspected, through fear of later reprisals for not showing an adult respect than out of any affection he may have felt towards his father. It was this want to do right by others that made Hodge feel sure he was destined to be a leader.
Timmy shrugged then pointed back the way he came. "Mummy's down there."
"Is she? Good boy. I'll go and see her then."
Taking that as a cue Timmy suddenly took flight and headed up the path at top speed. Hodge glanced after him with a resigned grin then stood and continued on his own way down the track into the plantation. Past the first few rows he saw a conglomeration of people a little way down the hill, working at the trees. A few more of the kids were there too, those who hadn't been assigned a chore running and chasing each other through the trees and giving off the shrill sound of laughter. Timmy's mother, a short, muscular woman with grey-brown hair, was standing uphill from the rest of the group and looked up at Hodge as he approached with a warm smile.
"Ho Lany," he called out flatly. Greetings were rarely more than a reflex among the community since everyone was in touch daily.
Lany's pick-axe dropped at her feet. "Ho there Hodge. Everybody's heard. That's some big plan Dail's got going there."
Hodge was staring past her. "Yeah. What's going on here?" There was already a stock pile of wood at the settlement but the workers were all madly chopping at a section of trees. Behind them, Hodge could see that they had chopped a whole series of them back to ground level. "They're taking too much, the trees won't grow back fast enough."
"It's not regular harvest Hodge," Lany explained morosely, "We're cropping the lot. No point putting all that fuel to waste- we're going to cut the lot down and truck it to higher ground before the water comes."
"Don't you think that's a bit premature?"
Lany looked mildly amused. "Premature? There'll be nothing but water here in a few days. It'll take us at least that long to collect everything we need and move."
"But it hasn't happened yet. Wouldn't you rather stay?"
"I suppose we all would and it's all a bit sudden. But what can I do about it? If the council's made a decision, we have to abide by it. This isn't a democracy you know."
"As far as I'm concerned, our home is worth fighting for. Why is everyone out here ruining the plantation on Dail Clemmings' word?"
Lany's amusement had faded, her mouth now a tight line. "Us? You blame us? Look at yourself. We've been told it is you that has agreed to carry out the water drop. Is that what you call putting up a fight? I am making sure my children will have what they need in a week, not pretending this isn't going to happen."
Hodge met Lany's eyes with fortitude, clenching his fists in his pockets to control his anger. "Don't believe everything you hear," he said. "Just you wait. I'm going to make Dail see sense. He can't dictate the future of this community without consulting us first. I'll have him removed as Head Councillor if need be." Even as he made the promise, he knew it was severely inflated. Lany knew it too.
"Good one Hodge," she teased him, "I'm sure you'll get all the other councillors to vote against him, it's not as if he has any control over them is it? And I'm sure the rest of us will support you knowing Dail can get us arrested by the East Side thugs for insurrection if we fight him. Come on. Let's at least be realistic."
Hodge took one last look at the workers luting the fuel trees. He knew he was being emotive but his anger at the situation had risen beyond the point where he could have backed down and admitted defeat.
He took a hand out of his pocket and shoved an outstretched finger in Lany's face menacingly. "Just you wait and see," he snapped. "I'll sort Dail out. Just you tell them down there to stop harvesting."
Lany didn't look particularly convinced. She had folded her arms. "Don't try anything stupid Hodge."
Hodge turned away and steamed up the hill back to the settlement, breathing in and out heavily. Try anything stupid? What constituted stupidity any more? Apparently stupidity was the accepted norm all of a sudden, not to mention cowering away from standing up for one's self. But if Lany had thought he intended to use violence on Dail, she had nothing to worry about. He had instigated enough violence for one life-time already, an ultraviolence so vast that he wasn't really capable of comprehending it. Clemmings would never feel the sting of his fists, but he would heed his words. He would make Dail Clemmings listen.
The familiarity of his surroundings spurred him on to hold the determination that his small world would not be turned on its head. Shaky but pumped, he crossed the inner compound's quadrangle to the far side of the building ring. He knew Dail would be in the meeting room or more likely in the office adjacent to it, sniggering his little corrupt deals down the phone line or using up pieces of precious paper to scribble out a calculation of the profits he was about to earn. He was certainly never to be found out working the plots.
He shoved open the external door and entered the meeting room, still furnished with the faint acrid after smell of the previous night's gathering; a hint of stale tobacco, coffee... manure. Without hesitation he crossed the floor and invited himself through into the little office. As he had thought, Dail sat behind the desk, looking through a sheaf of papers. He looked up from his jumbled desk with surprise, his eyebrows immediately lowering as he dropped the papers in front of him and said, "What's this? Do you have no respect for the privacy of your Head Councillor?"
There was a rickety wooden chair on the near side of the desk but Hodge didn't take it. Instead he leaned over it and rested his knuckles on the desk, demanding Dail's attention.
"I can't see you now Hodge. Busy making final arrangements. If you want technical information on the drop, you'll be briefed when the transport arrives to take you to East Side tomorrow."
"There are no final arrangements to be made Dail. I've come to convince you to change your mind."
"Convince me, eh?" The idea had for some reason brought a ruddy smile to is face. "That's very social of you. But how do you intend to do that? Perhaps you'd have better success by dropping a bomb on me."
Ignoring the last remark, Hodge replied, "I intend to convince you with logic. I assume you are still capable of recognising the concept in some abstract manner. It's different than profiteering."
"Your use of sarcasm shows astounding intelligence. Unfortunately I don't have time for this. Go and locate some other imbecile to discuss your moronic view-point with." He looked back down at his papers as if to say: conversation over.
Today, Hodge was not going to be done over so easily. He moved a fraction closer to the councillor, unpleasantly close given the bony man's sharp body odour. "You can pretend I'm a moron if you like, but everyone else on North Side plan is thinking the same way as me. We don't want to move. This is our home, where we've built up a relationship with the land and traditions amongst ourselves. If we can't have that then this whole colonisation attempt is useless. The point of all this should ultimately be the lives of the people."
"I'm no psychologist," Dail rebuked sternly, "but I'd say that sounds remarkably like you are trying this on because you feel guilty about having destroyed the homes and lives of thousands of people in that bombing raid on Earth. I suppose it at least shows that you are actually human enough to own a sense of remorse, but don't expect me or any of the others to pity you. I only have pity for your countless victims."
Holding back a wave of nausea Hodge returned the argument. "This has nothing to do with my past. It is about building the right sort of future for our children. I'm asking you to listen to the community and call off the comet drop until a better plan can be made."
"There is no better plan my friend. If there was, we'd be employing it. I really don't understand where you concocted this notion that I am out to destroy."
"The notion is that you are out to fill your own pockets at the expense of the people's security. What else do we have to hold on to on this strange planet if we can't at least make a home?"
"This project will allow thousands of others to make their homes permanently on the East Side. We are nothing but an out-post, a back-water. You have to accept that. I'm prepared to ignore your implication that my decisions are anything but open and honest, but are you telling me you now refuse to cooperate?"
This was the ultimatum Hodge had known all along the argument would come down to. He had considered sacrificing himself in order to refuse and at least demonstrate that not everyone agreed with what was happening. But now he realised it would be futile. Someone else would be put in place to complete the drop and he would be finished.
"Well? Is that what you are saying?" the old man prodded.
Hodge shook his head. "No, I am not refusing my duty. I have been an honourable citizen of HolmeWorld right from the start and have always carried out my duties with conviction. It is just a shame you are not able to open your mind to reason and question."
So that he could have the last word and not receive another of Dail's scathing insults, he turned abruptly and left the building, hiding an expression that must have conveyed his feeling of failure. The glaring sunlight stung his eyes now, making them water and blur so that the compound receded out of focus. His ears rang like he had just gone over a large plot with the cultivator so that he could no longer detect the calls of the children. It seemed to him as if the settlement had already faded away.
* * *
While he waited to be collected by the planetary engineering squad from East Side, Hodge had hidden himself from the other at all times. He felt his shame burning on him every minute like a rash. Somehow he even managed to avoid contact with Lany after making a gross failure to fulfil his words to her. Of course he should have been helping with the preparations to move but he didn't have the energy or the will to participate in any way. A sense of the inevitable had precipitated in his thoughts. He allowed events to move him, sitting silently and listening politely to the briefing once on the flight to East Side, waiting morosely in the accommodation provided for him in a central part of the main town on arrival. Even the chance to examine first hand the advances the main population had made wasn't enough to drag out his enthusiasm. He had felt a bit this way for some time after the disastrous bomb drop, in fact he'd hardly even reacted when he'd been placed under arrest after the raid on his hide-out.
The day had come upon him quicker than expected and he was driven out to the air field with a minimum of fuss; major projects such as this were everyday occurrences for the East Side engineers who were in charge of the mechanics of the civilisation on a planetary scale. The scenery was much the same as the North Side Plain, Hodge supposed, with its plains interspersed with ranges and agricultural plots, its subtle tonal contrasts of reds. Yet it felt entirely alien to him, almost as much so as it had the day he stepped foot off the rocket from Earth. He had no connection with anything in this place, not with the people or the land. Soon he would have no connection with any place.
The technicians had wheeled out one of the colony's precious maintenance fleet space vessels onto the tarmac for him to use in the comet drop. It had, so they explained, done most of the comet drops so far and had performed well in its role. Having grown used to the makeshift vehicles allocated to the North Side Plain community, this amazing contraption looked almost surreal with its rounded winged design and its hemispherical glass capsule mounted above. The thrusters seemed to make up half the bulk of the thing- it would pack a hell of a punch. Hopefully his skills would be sufficient to handle the controls with little time to practise; some delicate manoeuvres would be required by the day's end.
The technicians swarmed around as they secured him within the vehicle and made checks. When he was given the signal, the press of a button ignited the thrusters with a high-pitched whirr. The displays came up before him all green and he took a deep breath as he sent the machine into motion, making a short path across the compacted clay tarmac before hitting full throttle and blasting into the air so that he was pinned hard back against the seat.
It seemed like mere seconds before he was high enough to see across the vast landscape of HolmeWorld beneath him and marvel at the scale of its etched features in comparison to the pin-point of the East Side settlement. From here he could see several lakes, stained in sharply contrasting blue against the otherwise homogenously coloured background of distant ranges and steaming volcanoes. Another time, he might have enjoyed wheeling around for a while to take it all in. Today, he had other things on his mind. One of those things was an image of the smug, sarcastic face of Dail Clemmings, twisted into a grotesque pose of insult the last time he had faced him. Something about the man made his stomach quiver, something more than his certifiable politics. It brought him strain to be allowing Dail to win in this, to get away with deliberately humiliating him. He struggled to bring his thoughts back to the job at hand.
Now pulling out of the upper atmosphere, he pushed the craft forward at full acceleration towards the orbiting comet. It was easy enough to navigate that stage by sight as the comet grew in relative size. Soon he was close enough to discern surface features and he began the grappling procedure with rigorous attention to detail. The machinery did most of the work, using powerful electrostatic forces to bind and bring into tow the immense mass of dirty ice. The comet secured, Hodge arced around in a broad turn, slowing as the energy of the thrusters went into hauling the extra mass. As the craft and attached comet re-entered the atmosphere, Hodge further reduced his speed; the final collision would be a soft one, otherwise the blow would reek havoc, sending water and ejecta kilometres into the atmosphere and gouging out a huge hole in the crust of the planet. As for getting it to the desired location, it would be pointless to move it a full speed only to have it break up and burn off in the atmosphere before he could get it down to ground level.
Wait! That was it. Holy shmoly, that was it, the solution he had been waiting for, his means to show up Clemmings and restore his standing in the community. And what perfect timing to think of it. The collection had been timed for when the comet would be sailing virtually overhead of the North Side Plain. Hodge was heading towards ground level there right then. There was no prospect of sudden velocity changes with the load he was towing so he continued on as he would have, lowering in altitude until he could recognise the configuration of his home settlement, until he could see the building compound, individual plots, even a dark spot he thought might be the cultivator, resting peacefully where he had left it several nights earlier. The large machinery had originally been assembled on the spot and was all too slow moving and heavy to be moved in under a week. What a waste it would have been. Hodge allowed himself a small smile as he pulled the craft up and made a new heading.
A quarter of the way around the planet on the East Side he detected the change in shading on the ground where the new extensive agricultural plots lay waiting for water. Gritting his teeth he jammed the throttle up to maximum and watched as the velocity dial flitted through numbers too fast to be read. The engines strained with effort as they strove to keep up with the demand. Hodge loosened his harness and twisted to look back behind him through the glass. The comet was heating up and evaporating, leaving a behind a dense stream of white. What a show that would give anyone watching from the ground. But the real show would come shortly after, a torrential down pour of water from the heavens, HolmeWorld's first ever real rainfall.
Hodge estimated the comet would hold enough water to thoroughly wet a number of square kilometres directly. The plots would get the water they needed and North Side Plain would remain dry. At least for now. If this could trigger the ultimate terraforming plan for HolmeWorld ahead of time, the colony would scramble together a vast contingent of comets and burn them in the atmosphere until it was saturated enough to create rain clouds that would form and reform themselves, bringing rain to all parts of the land. It would take more water than the lake system but it would save on the precious resources of metal and labour that were required to build lengthy irrigation pipelines across the planet. Ultimately, the clouds formed would build up to such an extent in the sky that incident light would be reflected away. HolmeWorld would become climatically more equitable and stable, with less heat at the surface to boil away the moisture. The problem of deep freeze in winter and at night time would be forgotten. Crops would thrive in the warm, moist air. Water would no longer be a non-renewable resource.
For the first time in years, Hodge felt elated as he headed back to the landing tarmac at speed. For once, he didn't care what the authorities might have to say. The logic of what he proposed to do with the world was undeniable in its simplicity.
* * *
Hodge looked down from his vantage point on the verge of a steep cliff onto the sprawling settlement of North Side Plain. As the misty wind buffeted him he squinted against its coldness and dug his walking stick into the ground harder to brace himself. His long white beard blew up around his neck, flitting in the breeze. The clouds had taken an odd appearance in the dusk light. They could have been egg white dipped in lemon, spreading from horizon to horizon in an unbroken band. The soft foamy peaks hung against gravity as if in suspended animation.
The settlement was many-fold the size it had once been, back in the early days, all meticulously constructed with gardens and extensive drainage systems. But it was not an expanded town but a replacement one. After the nearest volcano had spewed forth volumes of molten lava, the original settlement had been destroyed in a fiery moment. It might have seemed ironic after the lengths Hodge had taken to avoid flooding the area with a comet that it had been destroyed so peremptorily by the forces of nature. But Hodge still believed it was the spirit he had embodied that had inspired the community into rebuilding a new home on the clean basalt platform the volcano had left.
Hodge himself had never dwelt permanently within the new town, although he regularly trekked down from his hut on the hill to pick up supplies and interact with the people. He preferred the solitude of his lone camp and his broad view across the landscape. He was at home like he never had been in earlier times. Perhaps some of his comfort arose from the fact that all those who knew him from those first days were gone. He was the last surviving member on North Side Plain of the original pioneers and the new generation knew him only as the saviour of the settlement. Of course records were kept East Side about his Earth history, but nobody here hinted that they held any hidden loathing for him or his past deeds. In any case, the respect had begun before the elders had all gone. Hodge thought that had something to do with his ideas having effectively toppled Dail Clemmings from his position of power in the council. The councillors in charge of bigger areas had realised that Dail was not the dynamic force the planet needed. Hodge had refused politely when asked to head a combined planetary council based on East Side; it was simply too far from home. Besides, there was the not insignificant problem of people thinking that he was a great planetary engineer and planner when really all he'd done was make a hasty decision that turned out lucky. It was the people as a whole who had shown that they could achieve anything when they pulled together to make it happen.
Perceiving movement behind him, Hodge turned and recognised his son Timmy moving up the last few steps of the path. Timmy reached him and paused, panting in silent greeting, his bristly greying hair beaded with moisture.
"Ho Timmy," Hodge said softly.
Timmy looked troubled. "Ho. I have an important message."
Hodge's smiled washed away as he realised his son was distressed. Since Timmy was the Head Councillor of North Side Plain, that was something to worry about. "What is it?" he asked.
"You may know Earth scientists have been developing a craft fast enough to make the journey between the two planets.
"Without prior warning, one has been built and sent here. It arrived East Side just hours ago."
"They have officially recognised our sovereignty."
"That's good news isn't it?"
Timmy hesitated. "They say the trip was so expensive they will only be able to do it every few decades. To get to the point, they have chosen to offer you one of the places they have made available for the return trip of this flight."
"Do you mean what I think you mean?"
"Yes, you can go home."
Now Hodge realised the reason for Timmy's distress; he was concerned that he would lose his father and never see him again. By the time a second craft came along, Hodge would be dead. This was his only chance.
Hodge looked out across the plain. "But this is my home here now. Decades I've lived right here."
"It's home to me. But you are from a different world. I can't imagine what it would be like for me to leave HolmeWorld."
"Earth has become a bit of an abstraction for me. But I'd always assumed I'd never go back, both because there was no means and because I couldn't bare to face my past."
"Now you have the opportunity."
"I can't believe I'm going to say this after all these years, but I feel I've redeemed myself here. I can never make up for what happened on Earth, but I've done my piece here, done all I can. This colony is safely established now." He faced Timmy squarely. "I'm going to accept. Perhaps going full circle will allow me to make some sense out of my life."
Timmy met him half way in a warm embrace. It started to pelt with rain so they headed for the shelter of Hodge's hut.
Story © 2002 by Greg Guerin email@example.com
Illustration © 2002 by Matt Gaser firstname.lastname@example.org
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