Our Story Continues, and why fact makes poor fiction

In my last post I wrote that the central chapters of a story open with a multiplicity of possibilities. These must be pruned away as the story unfolds until the story’s path from beginning to end seems inevitable. The characters should change in ways that are unanticipated, but plausible given their evolving situation. Their actions may be, even should be, unforeseen by the by the reader, but not inconsistent with what the reader knows of their natures. The threads of the story should advance together to present the reader with a consistent picture. Of course, these things are seldom if ever perfectly accomplished, but that’s usually the objective.

One may protest that reality isn’t at all like that. That’s true at least of our perception of reality. In large part I believe that’s because information concerning almost every real circumstance is incomplete. A complete, consistent history of any event can usually be written only after the passage of time, and often by inferring things which may or may not have actually happened. History unvarnished and uninterpreted makes poor fiction. Reality lacks verisimilitude.

Chapter I was posted on 3-10-2013

Chapter II was posted on 3-15-2013

Chapter III was posted on 3-19-2013

Chapter IV

     The digestion and analysis of the bipeds was complete. The result left him full of dismay.

     What could the things be? They were like an infection. His first tastes had been too small to reveal the extent of their strangeness. Their flesh was somehow wanting. He was unsatisfied until he’d eaten of more familiar flesh as well. Even the mineral content was odd, rich as he’d thought in some things, but almost entirely lacking in silica and alumina. Most puzzling, he could perceive no trace of memory in them. They were meat, nothing more! What manner of primary could produce such units? Not only were they unsatisfactory food, they somehow damaged the units he’d sent to collect them and filled them with poisonous bits that further reduced what could be gotten from them. The memories of the collectors were damaged as well; full of impossible things.

     His failure to eradicate them had been a mistake. It had cost him in energy and materials he could ill afford, a result that worried and frightened him.

     The western half of the continent now contained himself, the two offspring he’d planted to his east, his northern neighbor, the one beyond him, the old one to the northwest, the old one’s two offspring on the coast, and the young one southeast of him. At least three would have to be eaten during the next millennium.The area could support no more than six in their full strength.

      Right now, the old one looked most vulnerable. It would not do to let that change, not at all. The kid southeast of him would be even weaker, but the kid’s parent east of the big river was strong, and would help him for another century or so.That problem could be addressed later.

       For now, the strange little bipeds must be dealt with. If they weren’t food, they were a waste of good grazing land. He’d need all the power he could muster for the struggles to come. 

     This time, he’d collect any of the odd creatures he could, but the object would be extermination. He’d best hurry. Just five or six winters, then he’d finish them.

*                    *                    *

     The council meeting did not end as scheduled. Argument from non-officer speakers, increasingly rancorous, continued for the rest of the day and the meeting adjourned without appointing a Captain. The First Officer, absent any directive from the council, stood ready to assume command.

Confronted with this situation, an emergency meeting was called and Nathan Quin was prevailed upon to accept a temporary appointment, assisted by the elderly third officer, a fair manager who could keep the office running.

To appease those who were intent on change, the council added two ‘tribunes’, nonvoting members who were non-officers, but who, together, could exercise veto over council directives. The first two were to be appointed by the acting captain, but subsequently they were to be elected every two years by vote of the ‘crew’, that is, the non-officers. This was less than the radicals wanted and more than most of the council wanted to allow, but eventually it was accepted as the best hope for avoiding civil discord. The appointment of the tribunes was to be announced within a week to let them prepare before the next scheduled council meeting a month hence.

Since the deaths of his parents and his brother Jon found he became depressed when idle, so he kept busy. Fortunately, there was plenty to do.  He was at last getting back to what he thought of as his real work. Before the attack on the settlement, he and his team had been in the midst of what they hoped would be a comprehensive species survey of the colony environs, the first undertaken for any region on Eden.

It was fascinating stuff. It was already clear that many ideas drawn from terrestrial life, if applicable at all, would need much modification when applied to Eden. Such taxonomic notions as species identity itself didn’t fit, or at least not in the same way.

The three of them had worked so well together; Mike’s solid, commonsense, practical point of view and Sharla’s quirky insights had complemented Jon’s own careful, perhaps overly detached approach to problems.

Jon missed Mike badly. Sharla was often nearly catatonic, all her old enthusiasm and interest gone. She seemed to find in Jon solidity and reassurance, and became upset and fearful when they were separated, but she was of little use except for the most routine jobs. Jon was putting in long hours, trying to do what the three of them had been doing, and it wasn’t working out. Sharla needed help he didn’t know how to give. When more time had passed, he thought, when it all wasn’t so fresh in memory, she’d get better. At least he hoped so.

Three days after the end of the meeting of the council, Lydia showed up at Jon’s quarters. She hadn’t called ahead and she arrived just as he was finishing a hurried meal after sundown, his first since breakfast.

“Well! Come in,” he said, surprised. “Have a seat. If you put the books on the floor, that’s a decent chair. Want some coffee?”

“Sure, I guess so. No sugar, some milk, if you’ve got it.”

Jon used the moments spent in preparing the infusion of synthetically cultured, roasted herbs he called coffee to try to think what had brought Lydia here.They were no longer even particularly well acquainted. He drew a blank. He brought a tray with the pot, a cup, and a small glass of soy-milk to the table, and poured himself a cup, black. Lydia fixed hers, and sipped. She seemed hesitant to explain her presence. The pause began to be uncomfortable. At last, Jon spoke. “I assume there’s a reason for your visit?”

“Have you heard the upshot of the meeting?”

“The officer’s council? I guess. It isn’t really anything I’m interested in, and I’m busy with my own job.”

“You better get interested. You heard about the supernumerary members to be appointed? I’m one. You’re the other.”

“I’m what? That’s just crazy! I don’t know about that stuff, and I don’t really care! Why would I be picked for that job?”

“Call me cynical, but I think you just explained why.”

“Explain my explanation. I’m a little dense.”

“They had to put me on.Too many people would have rioted otherwise. So how can the people who have a monopoly of power best keep control?  Make the other new member someone who will go along with whatever they want. We have to agree, you know, to block anything. They couldn’t just pick some nonentity, it would have been too obvious what they were doing.  So they chose a man who is known to most people, well thought of, unassociated with any faction, and who couldn’t care less about things like justice and fairness, as long as he gets what he needs to play his own little games with the local wildlife. I hope they’ve miscalculated.”

“Stripped of a few pejorative terms and misconceptions, that’s not a bad assessment. Say, why are you bearing this news? I would have expected a more formal notification of any reassignment.”

“You’ll get one. It’s not official till tomorrow.”

“But, of course, you have your sources. What if I tell that you let the news out early?”

“I say it was a lucky guess. My source is untraceable and unguessable.  So, are you going to be their boy, or are you going to follow my lead?”

“I guess we’ll see.” He frowned. “If I have to waste my time with this nonsense, I’ll try to do the job. I’m not giving my vote to anybody.”

“The fact that I’ve thought about the problems of directing this settlement all my life and you’ve given them ten minutes of earnest reflection carries no weight with you?”

Jon gave a humorless chuckle. “Not fair, is it? If I don’t have an opinion of my own, I’ll listen to everybody, you included.That’s if they really do this silly thing. Your source may be wrong.”

“It isn’t wrong. I guess I better be going. But just ask yourself what kind of world you hope this will become in the future. A kingdom? An aristocracy?  I sure hope not.”

“I’d like it to have people in it. Right now, that isn’t the way it’s going.”

“What happened a few weeks ago was terrible for those who died or were hurt and for their families and friends, but it was not a serious threat to us.  In five years it’ll be a footnote. I’ll see you again before the next session.”  Jon didn’t bother to contradict her. She departed as abruptly as she’d arrived.

Surely Lydia, or her source, must be wrong, thought Jon. He really didn’t have the time, interest, or aptitude for such an assignment. Why take him from a job he thought he did well to place him in a job he felt he’d probably do poorly? That made little sense, surely.

Lydia wasn’t wrong. Next morning he was asked by phone to report to the council offices and given his new assignment. The fact that he wasn’t relieved of any duties to make time for it suggested to Jon that Lydia had been right again. He was not expected to take the role seriously.

The question she’d asked bothered him. What did he want the future to be like, assuming there was one? The outlines of political and economic theory included in the course on Earth’s history and cultures had seemed  completely irrelevant to anything he knew, and he’d forgotten the little he’d learned. He called up the few references available in the settlement library that seemed applicable, but found little enlightenment. On an impulse, he requested a search of the data banks on New Hope. Just the list of titles ran some fifty pages, and he didn’t know enough to be able to narrow the search. He requested that three with ‘beginning’ or ‘survey’ in their names be sent to his screen. Two hours later, he knew he’d only managed to begin to define the dimensions of his ignorance.

Maybe Lydia was right. He sure didn’t know anything about running a government; not even a micro government like that of the settlement. Well, he’d learn what he could, and for the rest trust in what good sense he had.  He’d be nobody’s follower. If the acting Captain didn’t like that, he could be reassigned again.

*                    *                    *

     Lydia was a splendid debater. She was completely informed, both as to the principles and the historical experience pertinent to every issue that came up, but she approached everything from an ideological position. That which, in her opinion, helped continue the status quo was to be opposed, that which weakened the hold of the Captain and council on the life of the settlement was to be supported. This bias sometimes led her to oppose beneficial measures, or to support ones that were pernicious. Jon soon learned to ignore any argument not based in the facts of the particular case under discussion. His purely pragmatic approach drove Lydia wild, to the delight of the rest of the council, till they found Jon was equally intransigent when he opposed them.

Their position was odd, his and Lydia’s. They could only act to kill measures they both disapproved of. Since Lydia’s opinion was often predictable, Jon found himself the swing vote in many situations.

There were a few good things that came out of his experience on the council. First, he became fast friends with Jacob Chan and Baldwin Quin, sons of high officers, and persuaded them of the importance of setting up more settlements, and of better defensive equipment. The council mandated attack drills once a month, and reinstated training in the use of weapons. More ammunition was made for both the rifles and the launchers, and these were again dispersed through the town for ready access if needed. He thought they should have a  heavy weapon with longer range than the rocket launchers, and got four light artillery pieces fabricated, and a number of young men trained to use them. Lydia noticed that all the trainees had been chosen from among the officer’s families, and Jon was able to get a second, more inclusive group trained as well. He included himself among them.

The watch was well kept, but that would have happened in any case. Jon wasn’t the only one who feared a return of the monsters. He asked the ship for suggestions for improving their warning system and was informed that among the potential domesticates stored on board as fertilized ova were a number of examples of a medium-sized vertebrate called dog. It had been bred on Earth for this task, among others. Ninety-one were still viable.

After immune adjustment and gestation on the ship, the pups were delivered to the families who had volunteered to keep them. They would need a specially formulated diet, but could use the flesh of the local animals for more of their nutrition than people could.

Children and pups took to one another as if made to go together. Twenty months later the first Eden-born pups made their appearance.

Jon thought Lydia underestimated the risk the monsters posed, but the failure of the human presence to extend itself on Eden seemed to him at least equally dangerous. Now, studying social science, he began to see possible reasons for that failure. No one wanted to permanently leave a situation of relative ease, security, and comfort for hardship, insecurity, and relative discomfort with no prospect of eventual profit. It was as simple as that. While everything but personal property was considered Ship’s Goods, assignable by Captain and council at will, incentive to form new settlements was hard to foster. Expansion of the human presence wasn’t Lydia’s focus, but she was right.The system of government had to change. How to do that without engendering antagonisms they couldn’t afford was not at all clear.

The evening before the last of the sessions Jon would be attending as a member, he and Lydia met at her quarters to talk over the matters expected to come before them.They turned out to be in substantial agreement, and their business was quickly concluded. She poured a little wine. They visited a while, about the past at first, but then more generally.

“Why are you always talking about spreading us out and increasing our numbers?” she asked. That just makes everything harder.”

“What do you mean?”

“We have a chance to create a truly just society here. Maybe the first that ever existed anywhere. A society without property, without class, without gender limitations; a small society living simply, not needing to expand, at peace with its world and itself. If we get spread into separate settlements competition’s bound to spring up, and commerce.Then inequality and discord, and we’ll repeat all the mistakes that littered Earth with death and blood. Why do we have to do that?”

“Because the alternative you describe makes life too boring to tolerate?”

She sat in silence a moment. “Why is every noble ideal scornful to you? Do you really want people endlessly at war with one another? Winners and losers, instead of friends?”

“Most nobility is selfless,” Jon said. “We have selves. We are selves. No society can alter that fact, and to try breeds evils worse than those it hopes to cure. I think as much harm has been done by people with high ideals trying to make mankind into something it’s not in humanity’s nature to be as by all history’s greed and selfishness.”

“So we just accept that we’re all cannibals at heart? I don’t think I care to do that.”

“Fine. I even applaud your ideals. Just don’t forget, though. We’re neither beast nor angel.To try to make us either is to embrace failure. I think it’s better to try for an attainable improvement than an unattainable perfection. And we’re too vulnerable, clumped up this way.”

When his term on the council ended he was surprised that everyone, Lydia included, pressed him to run for the position. He thought he’d used his status as the council’s swing voter rather shamelessly to advance those activities that seemed important to him, but somehow his reputation for integrity had survived.

Lydia continued to rebuke his ‘complete class blindness,’ but conceded his honesty and openness. “I hate to say it, but you’re probably the best we can hope for. It’s important! Why won’t you do it? You’d surely win.”

He declined, saying others should have the opportunity. Lydia felt otherwise. She almost lost her seat anyway, but kept it by a small margin when two candidates split the group opposed to her. One of these got the second largest vote and took the seat vacated by Jon.

Other events occurred during these years. Each was more important to Jon than anything the governing body did.

He and Sharla paired.They thought if they were to have children, the time had arrived.

He identified a little reproductive bract, he hesitated to call it a fruit, that was actually edible. It contained no vitamins and little protein, but it was free of glass inclusions, allergens, at least for most people, and loaded with fructose.The plant on which it was found grew abundantly a little south of them, and seemed to do well in sheltered plots in the town. He named them Candytips. Best of all, it grew in soil unsuitable for their Earth-derived crops.

On the bank of a stream five kilometers from town he found a coneflower.  Some Earth plants were slowly making their way into the new environment.  It was inevitable, but would have to be watched for environmentally disruptive effects. He wished he had more people.

Gordon Tsai chose biology as a specialization. Upon graduation he was assigned to work with Jon. He was very bright and seemed to have perfect recall of learned material, but he was a little scatterbrained and easily distracted. Jon suspected he lacked originality and that his value as a researcher would never match Mike’s, though Mike had had no formal training. Still, he occasionally showed the same sort of off the wall flashes of insight Sharla used to. It was good to have him in the group.

Sharla herself gradually got better. She did her work competently and thoroughly, but without enthusiasm. Her vivacity was gone, and she was subject to somber moods Thinking she might prefer to be assigned elsewhere, Jon asked her what she wished she could do.

“Go away,” she answered.

“Go where? To some other job?”

“Oh no! No job’s better. And no one could have a better boss. Or mate. But I dream of going.”

“Where?”

“To Earth. Anywhere. Anywhere but here. Anywhere but Eden.”

Three years after what was becoming known as the Monster Night, a reminder that all might not yet be well arrived.The winged life around the settlement site included a variety of types. Some fed on insect equivalents, some were shoot and sprout eaters, and some ate whatever was  available. A few large soaring types seemed to compete with the small scavengers for what carrion was available. Among these was a kind that was almost never seen except at a high altitude, but Jon noticed that one of them was almost always around, circling and riding the thermals over the valley, but when his study trips took him away from home he seldom saw them.

One summer afternoon a sudden storm came up, with hail and strong down burst winds. In the evening a group of children found one dead in a sandy spot on the edge of town, and recalled the man who exchanged candied fruit for odd animals.

Again Jon was looking at an apparent impossibility. The thing lacked any vestige of an alimentary canal at all! No mouth, no esophagus, no stomach, no intestine, no anything. Its eyes were huge, especially the forward facing pair, and the lung filled the body cavity, except for a big, well vascularised fat body. Like the larger herbivores and the monsters, it had nothing Jon recognized as reproductive organs.

Another oddity; like the big herbivores and the monsters that he’d dissected, but unlike other avian forms or the smaller animals, this thing had a dense network of nerves just beneath the skin of the back, right behind the shoulders, above and just to the rear of the major ganglion at the base of the neck that seemed equivalent to the brain in Earth’s vertebrates. These didn’t have any obvious purpose, but they were found too often not to have one. Another mystery.

This had to be a spy, the biological equivalent of a flying camera, though how its information was transmitted was unknown. To Jon, it was more evidence that the monsters, and probably the herbivores too, were artifacts of some hidden intelligence. Here was another, designed for observation. The implications of that were very frightening.

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