Three Moons of Earth
by Thomas K. Carpenter
The hologram of Earth floated before Dali, hovering above her outstretched hand. Only one moon rotated around the lonely planet. She sighed and glanced regretfully at the two additional moons now hanging in the sky above her. They’d only arrived three months before, tugged into place by the Xan’s singularity drives.
Gregory’s paranoid words rose up in her mind, but she dismissed them as idle talk. He was a dreamer, a bit of tumbleweed blowing in stronger winds. He’d given up on the line when the waiting had gotten too mind-numbingly boring. But what did that make her?
Papaw noticed her maudlin mood and a smile creased his face. “Tell me what they look like, papushka.”
With a twitch and a squeeze of her hand, the hologram disappeared. She started to sigh again, but noticed Papaw watching. “I’ve already told you. Replay your memories and you can see them yourself.”
Papaw smirked and sucked on his teeth. “I can see one big familiar reddish splotch riding high above two smaller ones. One might be bluish and the other’s too fuzzy to tell. And moons be different depending on the day or the sky or the viewer. Tell me again.”
Dali could sense he was in a mood and probably couldn’t be dissuaded, but the moons only reminded her of her responsibilities and where she would be going. She wished her parents had picked her younger brother, or one of them had decided to go, but she was the oldest and…
Papaw cleared his throat.
She could feel him watching, waiting. She began slowly, “The moons can’t be different because of who sees them Papaw. They are what they are.”
“Shows what you know, papushka. Moons have always been storytellers and them up there are telling you a story. Just like they’re telling the Xan a different story—one of home and memory and commerce. Don’t be so difficult girl, tell me what they look like,” he said.
Dali paused, wanting to be difficult, but it wasn’t like she had anything else to do in line. She could practice her multi-dimensional transformations, but she had a headache already. And it would be years before she would have to take the Xan’s tests.
“Our moon is angry,” she said, smirking when Papaw’s face twitched. “Puffed up and red-faced at having to share space in the sky with these two intruders.”
“The sun is setting, Dali. Even a blind old man like myself can see that. I can even see the tent line snaking toward the Xan’s spaceport. A sparkling river of campfires and holograms flowing toward the high walls and the pale towers beyond.” Papaw tilted his quivering head toward the sky. “But tell me of the two new moons. The ones the Xan dragged here from the belt. Pity an old man and tell me about them.”
Dali sighed. She’d been with him for five years and she knew his moods like she knew her own. He would keep pestering her about them. “Ceres is a milky-blue,” she said finally. “It has a faint halo around it from its water evaporating. It looks like it’s half the size of our moon only because it’s nearer. Vesta is smaller. More of a jagged gray rock than a real moon.” She saw her grandfather smile wistfully, which deflated her anger, a little bit. “Well, it’s not all gray and quite beautiful, in a weird alien sort of way. Its smaller curvature picks up the sun’s light, but only on the sides of certain mountain ranges. So it looks like it has red stripes across its face.” He nodded in agreement as if he could see them clearly himself.
She narrowed her eyes. “Maybe our moon swiped Vesta with her claws. Just to remind that little hussy of who’s the boss.”
Dali thought he was going to chastise her again, but Papaw broke out into a deep and hearty laugh, one that made her forget about his shaking and moments of dementia. And she joined him in laughter, forgetting about the moons, the exercises she had to do for her studies, and the five years she’d spent waiting in line for a chance to travel to the Xan’s home planet and everything she’d leave behind when she did. She laughed until her stomach hurt…and then she went back to staring at the sky, thinking of what Gregory had said about the future of the line.
The trouble started when Gregory had visited a few days before. Dali had been wiping down her tent from the dust storm when she heard a playful bark and saw Gregory, arm hooked under Puddles belly like a suitcase, youthful good looks marred by dust and serious lines around his mouth.
An impenetrable gap stood between them until Gregory set the terrier down. The dog ran into Dali’s arms. She lifted it up and let it lick her face.
“I missed you,” she said.
“I missed you, too,” he replied.
“I meant the dog,” she said and turned her back on him. “I missed you, Puddles,” she cooed.
Gregory stood on the edge of the road. Years of waiting in line had codified certain rituals. He was waiting for her to give permission to enter her part of the road. She wasn’t going to until she noticed the distinct haze of a Xan solider in his light shield walking up the line.
She waved him on and he joined her by the ash-filled fire brazier. Papaw was still snoring in the tent. “What do you want?” she asked right away, hoping to get rid of him before the soldier arrived.
“I want you to come with me, like you promised,” he said.
“I never promised that. I said we’d stay together, but I assumed that meant us getting on the ship together,” she said, glancing down the road past the other tents. The soldier was patrolling slowly.
“How can you be so stupid and trusting. It’s just a form of intergalactic indentured servitude. You won’t even have full rights there,” he said.
Dali rubbed Puddles behind the ears. “Why did you come here if you’re just going to piss me off.” The soldier was getting nearer.
Gregory leaned close. “I came to warn you. Not everyone is just going to sign up for chains like you. We’re going to wake people up.”
“We? Wake people up?” she whispered. “That sounds suspiciously like crazy talk.”
Gregory was about to retort when Puddles jumped out of Dali’s lap and went running toward the soldier. Dali held her breath as the dog ran through the light shield. The general haze that indicated the soldier lowered itself to the ground. Dali imagined the soldier was picking up the dog.
“Do you think that’s the same one?” she whispered. Even after five years in line, she wasn’t comfortable around the Xan. It didn’t help they stayed hidden behind their shields and rituals.
“It could be,” he replied.
Every so often, when Puddles had been with Dali, he would run over to a passing soldier. Dali never knew if it was the same one or not. But it seemed like it should be. The two of them waited and watched. She could see the brown blotch of fur at middle height. The dog gave a playful bark once and Gregory flinched.
After a minute, the haze lowered and the dog came running back out, ears up and tail eagerly at attention. Puddles returned to Dali’s lap. The haze bent slightly, in imitation of a bow and then continued. They watched the soldier until he was two tents up before resuming their conversation.
The dog appeared content. Dali scratched its neck. Puddles acceptance of the Xan had been a deciding factor in her staying when Greg had left last year.
“You have to leave the line, Dali. Change is coming. You can’t stay here,” he pleaded.
“If I get out of line I’ll lose my place. I’ve been here too long to give up now,” she said. “Besides, my family needs the money badly. They never even visit any more because they can’t afford the gas.”
Gregory pointed to the line of tents snaking through the valley toward the spaceport. “Another two years of fools in front of you. There won’t be a line in another year,” he said, low and forceful, then quieter when she didn’t respond, “…or maybe sooner.”
She could see the pleading in his eyes. They’d been friends, lovers even, though awkward in their inexperience. It had only deepened the uncomfortableness.
“Gregory Paul. It sounds like you’re planning something stupid,” she said.
“I have information you don’t get in the tent lines, Dali,” he said in a hushed voice. “The Xan keep the official channels clear of the real truth. They’re not here for commerce and friendship as advertised. They didn’t bring those moons here because it makes them easier to mine. They wanted to make it like their own. Once they get what they want from us, they’re going to wipe us all out. They’re just taking the weak ones to their planet first to be slaves.”
Dali punched him in the arm. “I’m not weak. I’m waiting in this line so I can go to Xan. Learn what they have to offer and send back money so my family can live. I’ve been waiting for five years and I’ll wait five more years if I have to. That doesn’t make me weak.”
She hoped her argument sounded more convincing to him than it did to her. Gregory stared at the dirt. Puddles whined.
Dali thought they were going to continue the conversation, but Gregory got up and left without saying another word. She wanted to chase after him and ask questions, but she couldn’t. She was stuck in line, like she had been, for five years.
He left the dog with her. Puddles was hers anyway.
News of a line-swap wager blew past like a tsunami. Dali ran down the hill, purposely forgetting Papaw, because he would take too long to hobble there. She didn’t want to miss the action.
Waiting in the line for a chance to travel to Xan was full of long mind-numbing periods of boredom. Any chance to break up that monotony brought people from miles up and down the line and it was a chance to step off the highway without being kicked out of line. Early wagers had brought riots so the Xan made accommodations to the rules to alleviate the inevitable arguments.
Dali pushed through the crowd, avoiding the hazy barriers that made her skin itch when she got near. The ground was nothing more than packed sand and dirt, but it felt like a springy mattress compared to the unforgiving highway.
Being of small stature and attractive enough, Dali was able to weasel her way to the front. The close quarters brought sweat and body odor, but the excitement from the wager muted the discomfort.
“How much?” Dali asked the bearded biker-looking dude next to her.
“A three year wage,” he said. “Getting higher every time with the rumors about the ships.”
Dali shook her head. To put that much on the line seemed unfathomable. Sure, she dreamed about winning a wager and moving up to the front of the line, but to lose meant giving up years of work time to pay the bet off, effectively putting you back in line by that many years. Dali shuddered with the enormity of it.
“What would make someone put so much on the line?” she asked as much to her self than anyone, but the biker-dude responded: “Rumors about ships.”
Then he nudged Dali and pointed to the hovering bubbles of mirage-like space waiting outside the impromptu arena.
Five Xan soldiers in their light shields watched the action. It was the most she’d ever seen in one place before. They seemed to enjoy the wagers just as much. It appealed to their sense of commerce and risk-taking, Dali assumed.
The two combatants stood in the middle of the dusty arena, formed by a wall of people. The scrawny middle-aged one smelled of desperation. His hair and shirt was already wet with sweat.
“He’s the challenger, I bet,” said Dali and the biker-dude nodded.
The other was an older woman with streaks of gray in her hair. She calmly watched her opponent from a couple of meters away. The match started without Dali catching a signal and the hologram field formed between the two. They would play a round of Ships and Asteroids, a Xan test question reprogrammed into a competitive game by some inventive humans.
The object of the game was to get as many spacecraft across a common playing field while the opponent placed obstacles in the way. Each turn one could either set a new spaceship on the field, change a current one’s course of direction, or put an obstacle in the way of the other person’s ships. Random asteroids and planets formed the neutral space between requiring the combatants to formulate a new strategy each game.
The match went surprisingly quick with the older woman winning a decisive victory, leading to a host of groans. The scrawny one had spent his moves placing asteroids in the way of the older woman, while she calmly moved her ships around them.
After the game was over, the man slumped into a heap and medical staff were called to his side. The crowd dispersed, their dissatisfaction made known by scowls and angry cat calls. Dali returned to the tent to find Papaw, eyes glazed with age, staring at the moons with Puddles in his lap.
The tests appeared once she had mastered a particular subject. Dali grinned when the marker popped up asking if she wanted to proceed to the examination on temporal-economic theory. She shrugged and swiped the blinking red arrow.
Puddles lay on Papaw’s empty chair and watched her hands dance through the air. No one had ever thought to give the eye-screen technology to a dog, its eyes followed incomprehensibly as Dali answered her questions.
Midway through the test she realized a young girl in blond pigtails was watching from behind the next tent over. Dali smiled and turned up the visibility so the girl could see what she was doing.
The glowing arm of a galaxy hung in the air. Dali had to determine routing for goods and services considering the time debts of intergalactic travel. Only fictional examples were allowed. Dali had never been able to get a hold of real data.
Determining the growth rates of the various civilizations within the example was the challenging part. Laws and physics controlled how fast civilization within the Xan empire grew. The scene flashed occasionally, acknowledging her correct answers. When the test was done, trumpets sounded in her ear. She’d scored well. Dali dismissed the holographic display and leaned back into her chair.
The girl was still staring at her from behind the other tent. Dali waved her over. She checked behind her before moving near. The girl was older than Dali first thought, maybe ten or eleven, which meant she’d been five when she got in line. How strange it would be to spend one’s whole life in line? Even if the girl’s family made it onto the ship, she would be twenty before she got there.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Dali asked her.
The girl shrugged passively.
“What’s your name? I’m Dali.”
The girl twisted back and forth and kept checking behind her. Dali could hear her neighbors chatting loudly with another couple. The girl seemed to realize that her parents were busy and smiled shyly.
“Why were you making those stars move around?” she asked.
“I was making sure the galaxy works like a finely tuned machine.”
Sara stared dumbly back.
“It’s why the Xan brought us two new moons. The upfront cost would pay off in reduced stellar conveyance.”
The girl’s expression didn’t change. Dali rubbed her hands together until she could think of a more relevant explanation.
“You know the pushcart vendors right?” The girl nodded. “And sometimes one doesn’t come along for a while and you’re low on food.” The girl nodded again. “Well, empires are like that too. Sometimes the pushcart vendor takes a long time to get to your tent, and sometimes by the time it gets there, the people have grown their own food and the pushcart is full of food that nobody wants.”
The girl’s face wrinkled in confusion. “No one grows food in line.”
“Well, yes, that’s true. But if they did, it would cause problems for the vendors.”
“Why are you studying it?”
“Because the Xan need people like me to fill those jobs and very few humans can do them. They say the Xan are an old race and have few children. And once I’ve spent a while on their planet, I’ll be able to come back and make Earth a better place.”
Dali thought the girl looked concerned.
“Don’t worry, Sara. You’ve got a leg up on me. If you start studying now, you’ll be able to do stuff that I’m doing, but at a younger age. Then you can have a good job on their planet when you arrive. It looks really hard but it’s not so bad if you work at it,” Dali said proudly.
They both heard Sara’s name being called. She gave a mumbled goodbye and then disappeared around the tents.
“Good luck, Sara!” Dali called.
After the girl had left, Dali leaned back in her chair and enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment. She wished she’d started when she was Sara’s age, but the Xan hadn’t arrived yet. But even with her late start, Dali knew she was destined for big things.
Dali was practicing her transformations when Papaw cleared his throat and nodded down the line. A pushcart vendor was rolling their way. She checked their stores and the money her parents had dropped off last time. The roll was smaller each time.
“Get me some beers, papushka,” called Papaw. “They’ll wash away this infernal heat.”
He was staring at the road, humming to himself. Today was a good day for his shakes, only his hands trembled. She paged through the money. There wasn’t enough for beer unless she cut out a few essentials. Dali sighed.
Her neighbors huddled around the vendor parked on the highway. She made greetings and asked about their families.
They asked her the same. Their rituals made the place feel like home, as much as an old used highway packed full with tents could be.
Most of the talk was about the recent dust storms. Folks complaining about the lost chairs or clothes that got blown away when the storms rolled in. Dali counted herself lucky. The storms were much worst east where her parents lived. Some days they couldn’t go outside at all.
Then the word “spacecraft” tore through the assembled until everyone was crowded around middle-aged man in baggy clothes with gaunt eyes and too much extra skin around his neck. Dali pushed through the crowd to get near enough to hear.
“The word is the newest is arriving in a couple of weeks,” he said. “But it’ll only take up to two-forty-five.”
The group deflated at his news, angry sighs and curses flicking through them like bruised sparks. Mile marker two-hundred and forty five was at the bottom of the hill. A good half-mile from their location.
“And the next ship after that?” someone shouted from the back.
The gaunt man shrugged. “I heard four years, maybe more. They’re cutting back on arrivals. Trouble in the homelands, I hear.” The assembled neighbors shook their heads on the way back to their tents.
Four years, maybe more. The words haunted her as she waited for her turn with the vendor.
Maybe Gregory was right, about leaving the line, not the conspiracy crap he’d been hinting around. She didn’t take him seriously about that. He’d always been spouting nonsense about the government hoarding water or that the runaway deflation was a ploy of the rich to buy up everything the poor owned. Add an honest-to-god alien presence, even a relatively low key and occasionally helpful one like the Xan, and his imagination had gone into overdrive. And the we part did worry her.
Dali got her groceries from the pushcart vendor, including a special order she’d made last visit. She weighed the last of her funds between a package of chocolate and a twelve-pack of cheap beer. She didn’t decide until a woman grumbled about her being slow.
The brazier crackled with the fresh logs she put on the fire. The crisp snap of a beer top being ripped off punctuated the night air. Papaw handed her one and clinked it with his. Puddles glanced up briefly before returning to his nap.
“To new horizons,” he said and took a long drink.
“To new horizons,” she repeated, sipping the beer once before setting it between her legs.
“Thank you again, papushka, for the varenyky. They made me think of the Ukraine.”
The pair listened to the sounds of their neighbors as they drank their beers. Papaw opened a second before she’d drank half. Teenagers ran past the tents in groups of two or three, careful not to leave the boundaries of the road. Laughing, crying, singing, all the noises of humanity filtered to their little campfire. It sounded like the whole line was awake.
“Why do you think the Xan are afraid of the dark?” asked Dali.
The orangish-red coals cast their light against Papaw’s face. His wrinkles reminded her of the moon Vesta at sunset.
“Why do you say that?”
Dali indicated Ceres with her beer. The bluish moon filtered its ethereal light across the sands, making them appear to glow. “With three moons, the night is almost never dark.”
Papaw nodded. The other two were hidden on the other side of the Earth.
“I hear the Xan were spared a great tragedy in their distant past when a huge meteor hit their smaller moon. If it’d hit the planet it would have been the end of them,” he said.
“How did you cope?” she asked, after a time.
“With the meteor?” He laughed. “I wasn’t there.”
“No, Papaw.” She smiled. “When you left Ukraine as a boy.”
Her grandfather took a drink and she could see the slight tremor in his hand. “I was terrified. I had never flown.”
“After getting here. How was it then?”
Papaw gave an indifferent shrug. “I was a farm boy. It was all steel and glass and fast and loud. I adapted.”
“Did you miss your friends?”
“Why wouldn’t I? They were my friends.”
Dali paused and rolled the empty beer between her hands. “I don’t have any friends left.”
“Da. Maybe it is for the best,” he said and then tilted his head in memory. “What ever happened to that boy you always hung around? You two were a pair.”
Dali opened up another beer and took a long drink before she answered. “He stopped by last week.”
Papaw murmured, but she couldn’t tell what it meant.
“He wants me to leave the line. To not go to Xan.”
She expected his to be mad. To remind her of her duties as her parents did whenever they spoke. Instead, her grandfather just took a long drink and leaned close. “Go or stay. It is your choice. I will love my granddaughter either way.” He winked at her and leaned back in his chair.
Dali finished her beer, grabbed another and went walking up the highway. She didn’t go to bed until Ceres and her moon were both in the sky at the same time.
Four years, maybe more. The words filled in the spaces between drilling her lessons. Made her efforts seem futile, pointless.
Puddles growled. He was laying on her foot and she could feel the rumble deep in his belly.
A Xan soldier in his light shield was standing at the edge of the road. It appeared he was watching her. The latest transport problem still hung in the air as a hologram, unsolved. She needed to master the problems to be qualified to work in the Xan’s industries. She’d been stuck on it for the last hour. It didn’t seem there was a right answer. Just a series of wrong ones she had to choose from.
The Xan made a motion behind his light shield. It only appeared to be a fuzzy movement behind the haze. Dali shrugged and the Xan repeated it.
“I can’t tell what you want,” she said.
Dali nearly fell out of her chair when the Xan walked onto the road. They always stayed to the edge, never infringing. Dali glanced around looking for support. None of her neighbors were around and her grandfather was up the road at the privy. Dali considered screaming.
Puddles growl remained low, but the dog didn’t move from her foot. The Xan approached to only a length away. Her whole body itched slightly from the proximity of the shield. She could see the vague outline of its form through the haze. Rough sketches she’d seen made them appear to be a furry ant with four arms and a humanoid face.
Dali shook her head vigorously at the continued motions behind the haze. She couldn’t understand what the Xan wanted. Her pulse quickened. The soldier appeared to grow more impatient. His gestures grew more wild and exaggerated.
She thought about standing up but didn’t want to startle the Xan. They used their shields to keep away snipers and the curious, the Xan had learned quickly from the initial resistance years ago.
There were coals in the brazier. The light shield would stop an explosive projectile, but if she launched the brazier at him slow enough, they’d go right through.
When Puddles’ growl deepened, she thought the soldier was going to kill her. Then an object poked out from the light shield. It was the Xan’s appendage. It appeared to be a furry fist with black joints. The “hand” unfolded, though it was easily twice as limber as a human one and had eight fingers. The Xan pointed to her hologram and made a series of movements. It didn’t take her long to realize the soldier was explaining how to solve the problem.
The tension bound up in her despite her heavy sigh. Then she manipulated the problem until a trumpet sounded. The Xan gave her a crude thumbs-up and wandered back to the sands beyond the edge of the highway.
After it’d moved on, Dali released her hologram and curled up in a ball on the chair. It wasn’t the Xan’s nearness that had unnerved her so. It was that a simple soldier had solved the equation she’d been working on for hours.
For the past five years, she’d been working day and night learning the Xan’s lessons, thinking she was improving herself and climbing up to be an equal of the Xan. She’d been a top student in school, excelling at anything she tried. Very few humans could do the transformations or the other advanced lessons the aliens taught. Dali had been proud of her progress.
But the Xan soldier had just shown her that she would be doing menial jobs on their planet. Jobs even a simple soldier could perform. It was now abundantly clear what her place was going to be like in the Xan society.
Dali was playing a solo game of Ships and Asteroids when Gregory appeared. Puddles barely raised his head.
“What do you want?”
Gregory glanced around him. “Where’s your grandfather?”
“Using the p-annihilator.” She smiled up at him, but he didn’t laugh. The p-annihilator was their joke about the little blue pits the Xan installed that never had to be emptied no matter how many people used it. They had half-a-hundred other jokes about it, but Dali left them unsaid.
“Stay here tonight.”
“I can’t stay,” she said. “The new ship is arriving tonight. They’ll be sending shuttles up in the next few days. I was going to go up the hill and watch it settle into orbit while the moons weren’t up yet.”
“I don’t care if you go up hill, just don’t go up line.” He had a grim resignment on his face.
“What are you planning, Gregory Paul?” she said, hearing her mother’s tone in her voice.
Gregory glanced behind him. “I wasn’t supposed to tell you, Dali. I snuck away. I didn’t want to see you get hurt.”
Dali shook her head. “Don’t be an idiot, Gregory.”
He took a hesitant step backward. “Just stay here tonight.” Gregory looked like he wanted to say more, but then he turned and practically ran off the road, headed toward an off-road vehicle parked in the distance.
Unease settled on her after Gregory left. She was now dreading the sunset. When a Xan soldier wandered by, she considered warning him, but she didn’t know what Gregory’s friends were planning or even how to get her point across.
With sunset came a stomach ache. Dali kept glancing down the hill toward the wall and the towers. Papaw had come back but kept to his chair, facing the sky. She didn’t even realize what time it was when the murmurs crept up the hill.
The Xan transport was flaring its azure plasma drives to brake into orbit.
Dali made up her mind once the painted colors of sunset faded to black. Everyone was so focused on the sky that she was able to sneak off the highway and into the desert. Every step felt like regret. If she was caught off the road, her place in line would be forfeit and her family would probably disown her.
But she couldn’t let Gregory be such a fool. Or let anyone get hurt. If she stayed in line and let it happen it would be just as bad as doing it herself. With her footfalls crunching on the hard packed sand, Dali wondered if it wouldn’t have been smarter to try the Xan soldiers. She even stopped once and considered going back, but decided she was too far away now to change her mind.
Dali ran for a while, headed in the direction of an outcropping of rocks that Gregory had told her about on one of his visits. She saw lights, dimmed and kept low, so not to draw attention. No one had lights on in line, since they were busy watching the ship coming in. Even the Xan had been facing the sky when she left.
Crouched behind a scrub bush, Dali watched the men gathering supplies in the circle of off-road vehicles. She saw automatic weapons on straps and boxes of fist-sized objects she assumed were explosives. Gregory had spoken many times of his admiration of the Romanians, who’d fought a successful guerilla war with the Xan when they first came to Earth.
Dali shook her head. They were idiots if they thought they were going to fight a guerilla war. There were no mountains or forests to hide in between attacks. Only wide open desert. Which meant, Dali realized, that they were not planning on a series of attacks. Just one. Gregory’s grim demeanor became clear to her now. He was planning to die.
A faint scuffing noise drew her out of her trance. It came from behind her. Dali’s neck and back itched slightly. She peered into the darkness behind her. She could only see the occasional tent light flickering on and off on the highway.
Dali saw Gregory in the group of men. They were busy patting each other on the shoulders. Then she saw Gregory step away from the group and wander past a vehicle. She could hear unzipping from her spot. Dali hustled to his location. She couldn’t let him go through with it.
She was going to reveal herself when an unbearable tingle overcame her. Dali dropped to her knees, clutching her face.
Her skin was alive.
The source of the itching was revealed when a hazy form moved past her spot. The light shield hummed with purpose. It stopped near her and extended a hand through the shield to point at her. Dali got the impression it was telling her to “stay” just as she did with Puddles. The agony from her skin was so great, she wasn’t sure how she would move from the spot if she wanted to.
The Xan continued past and she watched as Gregory crumpled to the ground, his pants still hitched down. Dali wanted to run to him but she dared not break from the spot. Shouts erupted in the camp. Gunfire rang overhead. Hazy forms descended on the camp. Minor explosions rocked the area, spitting sand and rocks all over her. Dali buried her face between her legs and tried to make herself as small as possible. The fight was over in less than a minute.
When the itching returned, it was more subdued. The Xan soldier appeared again and pointed back toward the highway. Dali got up, confused. Normally when they caught line violators they sent them to the back. Dali started jogging back to camp before the soldier changed his mind.
Dali returned as the last flares sparked the night sky. The new moon Ceres was on the rise, now peaking its blue head above the horizon. Their moon, the nameless one, was on its way up next. Vesta would arrive in an hour and pass them both during the evening.
“Maybe next time you’ll be watching your ship arrive,” said Papaw, not realizing she’d been gone for a few hours.
Dali made a quiet grunt, just to acknowledge his comment, but she was busy thinking about Gregory. It occurred to her around the time Vesta made its appearance that she had probably led the Xan soldier to Gregory and his militant friends.
Dali stood at the edge of the highway while the cloying heat of the afternoon sun thickened around her. If she stepped off the road now, no one would be surprised. News of Gregory hanging himself in the local jail had reached her section of the line the day before. Agreements with the Xan had kept him in the county jail, while the ring leaders had been taken to a Xan court.
Dali wished he’d been put with the others. She’d heard it wasn’t possible to hang oneself in their jails.
People had been stopping by and giving their condolences since they’d heard. It’d been over a year since they’d been together, but to her neighbors their relationship had only ended yesterday.
Gregory’s death wasn’t the reason she was considering leaving the line—the soldier easily finding the answer to her complicated problem was. But Gregory had triggered all sorts of feelings in her that had been buried amid the long wait.
Papaw shuffled up behind her. He cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry your friend died.”
Dali bit her lower lip. “Did you ever regret leaving the Ukraine?”
Even though she wasn’t looking at him, she could tell by his grunt that he was surprised by her question.
“Da. Many times, even after I left.”
“Memories are powerful things. They keep us seeing things long after the world has changed,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
Papaw smacked his lips in thought. “Even if I’d stayed, the Ukraine I’d grown up in was changing. If I didn’t leave it, it would have left me.”
Dali nodded. “Thank you, Papaw.”
“Thank you? For what?”
“I’ve made my decision.”
The crowd formed an impenetrable wall of humanity. The Xan had made a desert arena three times bigger than had ever been seen before. Of course, no one had ever made so large a bet. Besides the massive crowd, a good thirty-five Xan hovered around, hiding behind their light shields.
Papaw had brought Puddles and was standing in the front row. The dog barked cheerfully. Pushcart vendors had descended on the crowd. Cries of “Hotdogs!” and “Fresh Melon!” could be heard above the steady buzzing.
Dali picked up a handful of sand and rubbed it between her hands to wash away the sweat. She wasn’t as nervous as she thought she’d be with so much on the line. The older woman with the salted gray hair watched her thoughtfully. She was the same one that had defeated the scrawny guy a few weeks before so easily. The woman would also be one of the first twenty people to go up in the ship. Dali had negotiated a match with the woman, offering up ten years of Earth wages should she lose. If Dali won, she would be on the first shuttle to the ship.
Dali had expected her grandfather to oppose the idea, but he said it was her life to give. She was the one making the sacrifice for the family. He promised not to tell her parents until it was over, win or lose.
When the crowds were sufficiently restless, the older woman, her opponent, nodded and Dali accepted with her own nod. The match started without fanfare.
While the goal of the match was to get ones ships across the field, the actual play wasn’t so simple. The game was really about time. Time was a resource that had to be carefully controlled to win the game and Dali had been practicing for weeks for this very moment.
Dali set out her ships cautiously, moving them efficiently and not wasting her moves. The gray-haired woman responded similarly, choosing to set her board rather than add asteroids to the field. When Dali moved a ship forward, the woman smiled. It was an acknowledgement that she had made a good move.
The woman countered by moving her own ship and suddenly the tone of the match changed as they were both streaking their ships across the field. Murmurs of disagreement erupted across the crowd. The watchers didn’t understand the game. Most people focused on setting out obstacles for their opponent rather than moving their ships forward. The scrawny guy that had lost to her opponent a few weeks before had set out asteroid after asteroid only to be defeated when she nimbly side-stepped them on her way across. He’d barely even placed his own ships on the field.
However, as comforting the acknowledgement was that she was playing well, she was losing. There were random elements to the game, forces beyond either players control that changed the board during play. A black hole formed in the middle of her fleet, forcing her to take the long way around. People were yelling for her to start placing asteroids, to block her opponent, to buy time.
Each turn, she wanted to listen to the advice of the crowd. She wanted to place the asteroid. The spinning rock hung in her interface, waiting to be used.
As the game progressed and she slowly realized that she was on her way to losing, the weight of her wager began to sag on her shoulders. Ten years was almost half life.
“Asteroids!” they yelled.
Dali calculated that she was sure to lose. She thought about giving in to the crowd, just to appease them. Even though she’d played better than the scrawny guy, they would remember her for not placing a single Asteroid.
“Asteroid! Asteroid! Asteroid!” The crowd chanted.
The holographic rock hung to her left. All she had to do was reach out and place the rock in the path of her opponent’s ships. It wouldn’t save her. She was destined to lose. The black hole had placed her too far behind to catch up. Her opponent was a better player than her, she realized as well. The efficiency of her moves made Dali cringe at her own.
She’d gotten too sloppy. It was a matter of age and experience.
Ten years. She would have to stay in line another ten years to pay off the debt. And she wouldn’t have a choice now. The Xan believed in rock solid contracts. They’d witnessed the debt.
Dali looked to the Xan soldiers between her moves. She wondered if the soldier that Puddles liked was watching. She thought she liked him too.
The chanting was deafening. It would be so easy to place the asteroid. She’d nearly decided to do it, holding her hand out above the graphic. It made no sense to place the asteroid, from the game point of view. It was a losing move. But she was already going to lose.
Ten years. She’d be in her thirties.
She’d practically decided to place the asteroid. Just to make them stop chanting. Just so they would shut up.
But then she remembered the problem the soldier had shown her how to solve. There wasn’t a right answer, nor was it the answer that closed the gap the most, instead it was the one that was the highest value for her and her alone.
She understood the Xan completely in that instance. And understood herself, too.
Dali moved a ship again and after the gray-haired woman moved her ship, she did the same again. The game ended soon after. The biker-dude that she’d stood with a few weeks earlier was in the front row again. He shook his head disbelieving and walked away.
Dali didn’t fall down into the fetal position like the scrawny loser did. In fact, despite her new debt, she didn’t feel bad at all. The gray-haired woman strolled across the field and shook her hand.
“You played brilliantly,” said the woman. “You would have won if it weren’t for the black hole.”
Dali shrugged. “Sometimes the only thing you can do it the best you can for yourself.”
A soft, warm smile rose to the woman’s face. “I almost wish you would have beaten me,” she said. “I still have enough credit to get on the ship, even if I’d have lost. I would have enjoyed traveling with such a wise young woman like yourself.”
Dali didn’t feel wise, but she didn’t want to take the compliment badly, so she just said, “Thank you.”
They hugged and the woman, whose name she learned was Marion, promised to send her holos of Xan and new lessons to help her prepare when the time came to go.
Papaw came up soon after and Puddles leapt out of his arms to run across the dirt. He barked and she lifted him up.
Papaw nodded toward the line of Xan soldiers still waiting outside the arena. “What’s with them?”
Dali shrugged. “Maybe they’re making sure the crowd disperses peacefully.”
“True,” he said. “Still on high alert after breaking up that terrorist group.” Then he grimaced slightly, clearly remembering Gregory’s involvement.
Dali nodded. She didn’t feel sad for some reason. Guessed she’d moved on, or something.
“I’ll have to tell them,” said Papaw. There was no avoiding it. Her parents had to know. It would delay the funds they were expecting to receive. Change plans about her younger sister going to college. Not that college was any use now.
Dali stared wistfully at the spaceport beyond the wall. She would have to wait four more years to get on the next ship and once she did, it would take another seven to get to Xan. Adding in her ten years of debt, it would take twenty-one years before she would be free and clear. Indentured servitude. Gregory hadn’t been too far off.
But he’d been wrong about the meaning of it. Sure, she was in debt for a good chunk of her lifetime, but her children would be better for it. Just like Papaw had made his family better by leaving the Ukraine.
Dali was about to give her grandfather a hug when he cleared his throat. She knew a Xan soldier approached by the itching on her neck. Dali glanced at Puddles to see his reaction. His ears were alert and his tail at attention.
The other Xan watched the exchange. The heat of the day made her light-headed. When the modulated voice came out of the shield, she reached out and took Puddles from her grandfather.
“Even losing can be profitable.”
The test had been a breeze compared to what she’d been working on. Dali had been surprised how more advanced she was than the other travelers. Those years of practice had paid off.
But really, Dali decided, it wasn’t just the practice. It was that her understanding of the Xan that had improved. She had impressed the Xan soldiers by not placing an asteroid and even though she had lost the game, later analysis had shown she could not have won it. By focusing her time on advancing the ships across the board, thus furthering commerce in the Xan’s eyes rather than being punitive, she won over her alien observers. They also approved of her ten year Earth wage bet.
Puddles gave an excited bark from his travel container. Dali leaned over to quiet him.
“Is he as excited to be here as you are?” asked Marion. Her silver-gray hair had been brushed back into a flowing ponytail. Living at the port and preparing for departure had done wonders for their hair.
Dali pushed herself back into the plush seat, lips brimming with a grin.
“You know,” said Marion, relaxing comfortably in her seat across the aisle, “just because some Xan commerce baron decided to sponsor you a place on this ship doesn’t mean you don’t still owe me ten years of wages.”
Marion had a sly smile plastered on her face that made her seem decades younger.
“Ten years of Earth wages,” said Dali.
“Yes, Earth, not Xan. I should have been clearer on that point. Still, you were lucky to get sponsorship.”
“It didn’t matter,” said Dali. “I would have found someone else to play until I won a spot on the ship and by the time we get to Xan, inflation will have made paying off any debt in Earth years trivial.”
The knowing smile they shared was confirmation enough that Marion wasn’t mad about being tricked.
“Will you miss your family?” Marion asked.
“I already do.”
Marion paused and she got that amused twinkle in her eye that reminded her of Papaw when he was about to say something clever. “Then why’d you come?” she finally asked.
“Because nothing ever stays the same.” Dali paused. “Not even our night sky.”
Marion seemed satisfied by the answer and sunk back into her chair. Dali wished she believed herself, but for the moment it didn’t matter, her life was now pointed in the direction of Xan.
The transport ship soon departed. Dali watched out her window as their ascent accelerated the moon rise. By the time she reached the interstellar spacecraft, the three moons would be resplendent in the night sky. Dali watched them the whole way up, knowing Papaw would be doing the same.
Thomas K. Carpenter resides near St. Louis with his wife Rachel and their two children. When he’s not busy writing his next book, he’s playing soccer in the yard with his kids or getting beat by his wife at cards. His latest series, the Dashkova Memoirs, is about a young Ben Franklin and a secret Russian princess solving supernatural crimes during colonial times. The seventh book in the series, Dragons of Siberia, is out now at all major online retailers. He keeps a regular at thomaskcarpenter.com and can be found on twitter under @thomaskcarpente.