In which Rigi learns of the past and struggles with the present.
Chapter 4: School and Summer Plans
“Out of my chair, teeny-tiny,” Pahl ordered. The smaller boy looked up at Pahl, Benin, and the others and slid out of the chair, then crept to a different table. So much for hoping that the boys would change during cool-season break, Rigi grumbled. She looked for the teacher and saw the man watching without doing anything. That wasn’t right! He was an adult, he was supposed to protect the smaller students.
Clara-Marie leaned over and whispered, “He had a meeting with Mr. Petrason. Now he’s scared of Benin.”
Rigi clenched her fists under the table. “That’s not right.”
“Right doesn’t matter, not to Mr. Petrason, or so my brother says.”
The teacher adjusted the room display, then cleared his throat. He looked as if he weighed less than Rigi did. Martinus could probably carry him around. “Ahem. We are starting with the history of the human interplanetary kingdom and the Outworld Trading Company Limited, or OWTCLTD. Today is an overview, and then we will go into more detail. Now then. We have to go back six hundred years, to the first development of near-light transportation.”
Rigi made a note on the file that had appeared on the top of the table. A map also appeared, showing Home and the closest three inhabited worlds, with a little tag stating that the image was not to scale. A loud voice whined, “Just start the holo already.”
The teacher took a deep breath and straightened up. He really was tall and thin. “There is no holo for this class, Mister Petrovich. I teach it, not the computer.” The students all looked at each other, then back at the teacher. No one taught low level students—everything was holo. Rigi decided that she’d better pay close attention, in case the class was not recorded for review.
“As I was saying, six hundred years, to the discovery of near-light and faster than light transportation. Because this is a history class and not technology, I will not bore you with the mathematics and second tier trans-light physics necessary to explain how FTL works. What you do need to know is that one, humans tried several slower ways to explore and settle before discovering FTL, two, the wormhole is a late discovery and three, that FTL communications have always been difficult. Much more difficult and expensive than shipping things or moving people.” He smiled. “The last fact is good if you want to be left alone. It is not so good if you are trying to give instructions or tell someone to stop.”
“That’s why they always sent the wierdos out first, like the neo-Trads,” Pahl whispered, loud enough for everyone to hear. Benin, Tarkio, and the others snickered, and a few of the girls and younger students did too. Rigi felt her face burning and had to remember that ladies did not throw their styluses at rude people.
“No, sir, in the case you specified, it was learned early on that people with strong belief systems and the ability to work together for a group goal without requiring governmental supervision were among the best early settlers. A large number of engineers, physicians, astrogation specialists, terra-forming, and other critical professions came from neoTraditionalist backgrounds. Your observation is correct, but your reasoning was in error.” The teacher made a note on his e-pad and pushed on the side of the pad. The map of systems on Rigi’s work surface grew by two. “The first five colony worlds were developed and settled before wormhole-use technology had been developed. Several techniques, ranging from generation ships to population banks, were tried. The truly amazing part of this feat of exploration and settlement was that only one of the five colonies failed completely. NovoTerra, the third world settled, proved to be the first failure.” He stopped.
The students waited. He stayed quiet. They started to rustle. Rigi glanced around to see if anyone was hearing something or writing something, and Clara-Marie and Theo looked back at her, both puzzled. Finally, someone asked, “Um, sir, what happened?”
“What do you think happened?”
He was supposed to answer questions, not ask them back! Rigi stared at her work surface, frowning. “Um, the settlement ships crashed?” a voice asked.
“That’s one possibility.”
“Someone got the terraforming wrong?”
“Another good possibility.”
“They sent the wrong kind of colonists?”
The thin man smiled a little. “You’re getting closer.”
“It was the wrong kind of planet?”
Benin snorted. “There is no wrong kind of planet, dummy.”
“Not correct, Mr. Petrason,” the teacher said. “Of the fifteen thousand planets located thus far that might be capable of supporting human life, twenty have proved potentially viable. Closer inspection found that four of those would not work, and NovoTerra was the first one we encountered. Imagine, if you will, stepping off of the colony ship to look at your new home. It has lush plants that resemble those of Earth, and breathable air. The water seems pure, and early tests did not find anything truly dangerous to human life, so long as the proper precautions were followed. Teasing the large animals has never been wise, no matter what planet one resides on.” He smiled and shook his head a little, as if at a joke. “You start farming, building shelters, exploring, and eating the native plants that have been tested and found edible.” His smile faded away.
“But something does not quite work. The crops you plant in the soil grow far more slowly than they should, and they are weak. As your supplies begin to run out, you eat more of the local plants. They taste good, and have the nutrients you need. Even so, tasks become more difficult. It feels as if gravity has grown stronger, and the atmosphere is thinner. Heavy physical work soon becomes impossible to do on your own—you need several people to help, even with mechanical assistance. The women no longer give birth. Neither do the animals you brought, those few still alive. The people begin to die next, growing weaker and more listless, eventually fading away and dying.”
Rigi didn’t hear a sound. No styluses scratched or tapped, no one moved. What had happened?
“When the next ship arrived, they found only twenty of the initial group of thousands still alive.”
Rigi gasped and heard others starting to whisper. “That’s not possible!”
“It was possible. The survivors were brought into the newly-arrived ship and given full physical inspections and checks. As soon as they began to eat the rations brought on the ships, they improved.” He looked around the class. “It had long been theorized that somewhere, perhaps in our own universe or even galaxy, there might be a place where certain amino acids and other molecules developed in the reverse of on Earth. No one expected to find such a place, especially not so fast. The human, the Terran, body cannot use the chemicals of the plants and animals because we developed for the Earth version. The planet had not been truly terraformed, and no one thought to do a detailed molecular study of the world. Now we do. Those who had come to NovoTerra managed to lift off again and went to Domni.” One of the worlds on Rigi’s map disappeared.
“Until we found and settled Smoky’s Planet, communication could keep up with transportation, more or less, especially on the first three worlds. Transmission only lagged by a few minutes or hours. After Smoky’s Planet, we had reached the limit. Our ships and communications could go no farther without something new.”
Clara-Marie’s hand shot into the air. “Is this when worm-jumps were discovered?”
“Yes, it was. What are worm-jumps? Short version, please,” He smiled again.
She brushed her long hair back from her face. “Displaced mass and energy transfers.”
When Clara-Marie stopped, the teacher wagged his fingers as if pulling something. “A little more detail, please. Not all of us are engineers.”
She blushed. “Um, it goes back to a theory about the existence of little holes in space-time that might allow travel through time. They didn’t quite work like that, and we still don’t know precisely why not, or how they remain stable. But one at a time, a ship can boost itself to near-light, then FTL, and get through to emerge several tens of light-years away. Um, I think five have been found that we can use, and you have to zig-zag a little to get this far.”
“Excellent! A good, understandable summary.” He turned to the rest of the class. “As you can imagine, the first things sent through the wormholes were not people. When the objects, and then animals survived and came back undamaged aside from a few debris pits and the usual, humans went through. And we discovered the problem of worm-jumping. Or I should say, two problems.
“First, we do not know where wormholes go until something passes through and then returns. Second, it takes less energy to shift mass than signals. Again, we are not certain why this is so, but communications transmissions through wormholes require special boosting at both ends of the passage. Even small data-capsules containing recorded messages are terribly expensive compared to moving, oh, people, or cows, or lumber and textiles. Unless someone such as the Royal Government is willing to expend phenomenally large amounts of energy, to get a message from Home to Shikhari takes at least two Earth months, the same as any other cargo. Even energy boosted, it is two weeks, or was the last time someone experimented. Wormholes solve a great many problems. They did not solve all problems.”
The dismissal chime sounded. Rigi blinked, then shook a little. Was something wrong? They’d only just started class. She glanced down at her time keeper and stared. No, the class had finished when it should.
She found Tomás waiting outside when she left the building. He drooped a little. “Hi.”
She waited until they crossed the gates and were away from Benin and the others, then asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I saw some of the twelve-year class taking lunch from a nine-year. I told the monitor, and she says that the nine-year says he gave it to the twelve-years. He did, after they tipped his chair over with him in it. She told me that the supervising administrator had met with Mr. Petrason and to leave it alone because I’m a fourteen-year.” He balled his hands into fists and shook them. “That’s not fair.”
“No, it’s not. They were bothering Tai before class and the teacher didn’t say anything. Clara-Marie said that Mr. Petrason threatened the teacher and so he’s scared of Benin now.” She kicked at one of the puddles and sent water splashing ahead of her.
Mar clicked her claws when she saw them, and wagged one finger. “Miss Rigi, do not kick up water so.”
After they’d walked a way, Tomás looked around, lowered his voice, and asked, “Have you heard anything from Uncle Eb?”
“Not for several weeks. Father says good survey work takes time, and that new finds on old sites take less time to record than do completely new things.”
“Like when the army is trying out an improved version versus a new weapon.” Tomás nodded a little. “And Aunt Kay and Mrs. De Groet may have found things for them to do, too.”
Rigi nodded. Two bulk cargo transports rumbled past and she slowed down a little, watching them. “That’s strange.”
“I’ll say. Big things like that are not permitted in this district, Father says.”
Mar put her forefeet on their shoulders. She puffed concern/new/strange. “Let us hurry.” Rigi and Tomás sped up again, walking faster than usual. They didn’t slow down until they turned into the true residential district. Tomás waved and jogged off to his house in the military neighborhood. Rigi and Mar passed three houses belonging to government people, one with lots of flowering plants that made Rigi’s sister sneeze during the warm season, and the strange one that looked like a compressed dirt box that Rigi’s mother said was “neo-pueblo style” whatever that meant. They reached the gate and Rigi opened it, Mar not far behind.
“Wooeef! Wooeef!” Martinus stood on the front porch. Rigi hurried to pet him.
“Woof, woof, Martinus,” she corrected again.
“Wooeef, wooeef!” His tail wagged.
“Speaks m-dog, not dog-dog,” Mar said.
“But I want him to speak dog-dog, like the big guard m-dogs the army has.” Rigi petted his head and looked at the porch floor to see if he’d gotten his paws muddy. The sensor pads on his feet collected mud as badly as Rigi’s first pair of boots had. And Mar and Shona made Rigi clean up after Martinus. No prints appeared, and she relaxed.
“Have school work?”
Rigi looked over her shoulder at Mar. The Staré had one forefoot lifted, and stared at the road, her oval, hair-tufted ears pointing forward with dismay. Rigi gulped as a cargo transport crept past the house. “I think we go inside, Mar. Safer.”
“What? Yes.” Mar could no longer pick Rigi up and carry her into the house as easily as she once had, but reached for her anyway. Rigi ducked under her forelegs and ran around to the back of the house, Martinus close behind. Mar followed, and the three entered the back door almost together. Rigi hurried to take off her boots and left them and her rain coat in the first room on the left. She put on house shoes, checked the m-dog’s feet once more, and went up the steps to change out of her school clothes. Then she logged onto the general news to see if there was anything about transports in the wrong place.
No, but there was a note from Uncle Eb. Would she be free to travel this warm-season break with him and Aunt Kay? If so, he would ask her parents for permission for her to come visit. Rigi started to answer, then stopped and saved the message. She’d better ask first. Something cool and heavy pinned her arm to the arm-rest. “Down, Martinus.” She patted his head with her free hand. He made a little snorting sound, puffed air at her, and went to lie on his charging pad. She’d deep-cycled him last week, so he could pad-charge for two more weeks before he needed to deep-cycle again.
The downstairs door opened. Slam! Stomp, stomp, stomp-creak, stomp, stomp. Rigi logged out of the message account and back into the news feed as Lyria stormed into the room and tossed her school bag against the wall. “I am too an adult.”
Not when you act like that, Rigi thought, getting up and leaning a little over the safety rail to see if Mar were coming behind Lyria. She didn’t see Mar, Shona, or their mother, so she turned back around.
Lyria flopped into a chair and pulled off her shoes, tossed them at her bag, and crossed her arms. “I am an adult. It’s not fair and Mrs. Debenadetto needs to leave things alone.”
Rigi sat beside the charging mat, careful not to touch the edge. “I thought she had gone back to NovMerv. Or is the governor still at Keralita?”
Lyria leaned back and covered her eyes with her hands. “She did, now she’s back here, in Sogdia, and is talking to the school conduct auditors about boys and girls working together and how we might not mean anything but other people won’t understand and she wants me to help her with some project for some of the poor kids. Poor Staré, not humans, since we’re not poor.”
“Seventh and lower. Wants to help them learn more. Oh, and outStamm as well.” Lyria shook her head. “She knows nothing about the Staré. And that means I can’t walk with Oleg because he leaves before I do.” She lowered her hands and launched out of the chair. “And Mar wants to walk home with me. Why? I’m an adult.”
Rigi decided to change the topic. “Did you see any transports as you came home?”
“Huh?” She twirled around in her sock-feet, like a dancer. “No. Mrs. Debenadetto brought me home by flitter.” She finished spinning. “Why?”
“Two went by the school, and one passed by the house just after Mar and I got home. They’re not supposed to be here, and there’s nothing on the news feed.”
“Neither is that boy Benin, unless you asked him.”
A rock settled into Rigi’s stomach. “No,” she shook her head. “I didn’t ask him. He doesn’t like me. He thinks neoTraditionalists are crazy.”
“Well, he was at the gate. Mar wouldn’t let him in and he looked pretty angry. Where does he live, do you know? Would he want to talk to Mother?”
“I don’t, and I don’t know.” The stone got colder and heavier. Had Benin come to complain to her parents about her? Would he do that?
As she ate lunch the next day, someone jerked her chair up off the floor and tried to tip her out of it. She grabbed under the table with one hand, set down her fork, and clutched the seat of the chair with her other hand. They dropped her.
“Move it, neoBad,” Benin ordered. “Your kind don’t belong here.”
“Go away, Benin. You have the entire room to yourself.”
“You go away, pest. And take your ugly big-foot with you. She thinks she can order humans around.”
Rigi kept her eyes on her plate, in case one of the boys tried to grab it. “She’s fourth Stamm and house guardian. They can direct anyone not of the age of reason.”
“I heard you have a dangerous ‘bot at your house.”
Rigi started to answer but bit her tongue. They did not need to know about Martinus.
“Well, do you?”
She didn’t say anything. The chair moved again and she held on to the table. It didn’t move, but three of the chair legs left the floor and she wrapped her feet around the legs, trying to stay in the seat. They dropped it again and it landed with a loud thump-clank. A big hand reached for her plate and she let go of the table to hold it down.
“Ha, ha, you’re just a stink-shrew, that’s what you are!” The boys left and Rigi bolted the rest of her food, almost choking as she tried to gulp the last bites before they came back.
That afternoon, she was out in the front garden, tossing a ball to Martinus. He caught it in the air, brought it to her, and dropped it on her toe, tail wagging. “Good boy.” She patted his head.
A nasty voice called, “You do have a dangerous ‘bot! And it sounds as stupid as you do.” Benin and Tariko stood just outside the gate, pointing and laughing at her.
“He’s not dangerous.” But something about Benin and Tarkio’s faces and how they leaned over the fence bothered her. “Guard,” she whispered to Martinus, resting her hand on his back. His tail went still and the light in his optical orbs flickered, changing from ordinary brown to caution red. He made a funny sound, like gears grinding. More loudly she told the boys, “He just doesn’t like rude people.”
“You saying I’m rude, stink-shrew?” He put one hand on the gate, as if to open it. Rigi dug her fingers into the pad on Martinus’s back. If she let go, he’d do a threat charge to knock her attacker over. She didn’t want him hurting Benin. Or did she? It would stop the boys from bothering her. Martinus tipped back a little, moving his weight to his hand legs as he calculated the distance to the intruder. Benin undid the gate latch and Rigi started to lift her hand.
Whrr beep beep beep Benin and Tarkio hurried out of the way of the puff of dust and bits of things as a flitter landed in the road. The door opened and Lyria got out. “Thank you for the transportation, ma’am.”
“It’s no trouble at all, my dear. Tomorrow then.”
“At ease,” Rigi whispered, watching the boys walk away.
Lyria undid the gate, opened it, closed it again, and stopped when she saw Rigi and Martinus. “What’s wrong?”
The m-dog shifted his weight forward again and his eyes returned to brown. “Nothing. I was playing ball-catch with Martinus.”
“Really. Showing him off to the boys? You know father told you not to.”
“I was not showing him off.”
“I bet you were.”
“Was not. I was tossing the ball when they came to the gate. I didn’t know until they yelled at me.”
Lyria looked down her nose, sniffed, and walked around to the back of the house, nose still up in the air. “I was just playing, wasn’t I?”
She heard a quiet, “Wrooo.” Rigi picked up the ball and tossed it a few times. The fun was gone, and the third time Martinus brought it back, she petted his head and led him inside.
The rains fell less and less often, and the sun moved to the south. The warm season, the long dry, had started. Rigi and Martinus stayed behind the house when they played, and if she took him with her on walks, she and Mar avoided main routes. None of the other children dared sit near her at lunch any more, even Clara-Marie. Rigi felt a little sick all the time, as if her stomach never settled down, and she stopped eating as much. Mar took her temperature and decided that she had warm-season wibbles, an ailment of young Staré. Despite Rigi’s protests, her mother gave her approval and Mar dosed Rigi with an herbal tonic. She started acting more lively after that, just to keep from drinking any more of the nasty brew. Her marks in school remained acceptable, but she dreaded getting up and going in the mornings.
“It’s not right,” she told Martinus as she cleaned his cover and polished the metal of his joints. “Benin’s father talks to the other grown-ups and Benin gets to hurt people and scare the youngsters and even the head of the school won’t say anything. The teacher doesn’t, the lunch-room monitor won’t, and now he’s telling people that I’m such a coward that I have to have a dangerous ‘bot with me even to go out in the garden. And no one will accept my invitations or even talk to me anymore. It’s not fair.” She set down the cleaning pad and rested her head on his back. Tears began falling and her throat tightened. “It’s not fair.”
“Wah,” she began crying, face flat on his back. It wasn’t fair! Even Tomás stayed away from her now. “I wish Benin would just go away. I hate him! I hate him I hate him I hate him it’s not fair!”
A warm human hand touched her back.
“Go away.” She sniffed and kept her face on Martinus. She felt his tail moving.
“What’s the matter, little bit?” Her father pulled her off the m-dog.
“No one at school will talk to me and the boys keep trying to take my lunch and they say Martinus is dangerous and call me a stink shrew and even Tomás doesn’t want to be with me and the teachers can’t stop them and it’s not fair! I hate it. I don’t want to go back to school. Please, sir, let me do home-study, please?” She sobbed into his shoulder. “I’ll be good, and I’ll do more to help Mother and Mar and Shona, and I won’t cause any fuss, please, sir?”
He held and rocked her like he had when she was very little. “I’m sorry, little bit. It’s too late in the year to start home study for you.” He patted her head. “Is it the Petrason boy?”
She sniffed and nodded.
“I wondered, when your sister and Mar said he was hanging around the house. I’ll have a word with his father.”
“Won’t help. His father told everyone to let Benin do what he wants and everyone’s scared of him.”
“Hmm. Well, I am not everyone. And supper is growing cold, and your mother says if you are sick, she’ll have Mar give you more tonic.”
Rigi shook her head as hard as she could. Anything but that!
As she finished her second slice of bread, her father caught her eye. “Rigi, is there something you need to ask me about? Something to do with warm-season break?”
She blinked, then remembered. “Oh, yes. I’m sorry. Sir, Ma’am, Uncle Eb asked if I could go traveling with him and Aunt Kay and Tomás for a little while during warm-season break.”
“Do you want to go, Auriga?”
“Yes, ma’am, I do.”
Her father nodded. Her mother set her eating sticks down and tipped her head to the side a little, as if she were thinking. “Will this conflict with any major holy feasts?”
He pursed his lips and looked up for a moment, then shook his head. “None that I can think of, dear. Prime comes just before your end of term examinations, does it not, Rigi?”
She counted weeks on her fingers. “Yes, sir, it does.” Oh dear, that would not be fun. The all night vigils and fasts made her cranky in school.
“It does?” Her mother blinked and counted as well. “Oh dear. Hmm. I think we’d best speak to the Matron and Guide about an exemption for you, and for Lyria. I believe major career endeavors come under the exemptions.”
“They do, dear, especially for the young. Technically, children are exempt until the age of reason, so Rigi should not have to fast unless she wants to.”
Her mother exhaled a little half-sigh and picked up her eating sticks again. “That’s right. I’ll ask about the exemption even so in case someone decides to fuss.”
Lyria had been chewing on her lip and looking more and more worried. “Ah, Mother, Father, is that safe? For Rigi to go with Uncle Eb and Tomás without you?”
“She’ll have Martinus, and Aunt Kay won’t let them stray too far.” Her father smiled. “You know how little nonsense Kay will tolerate.”
“Um, that’s not what, er,” she started to turn red, and stared at her plate. “That is, um, Mrs. Debenadetto says it’s not safe for children to go places without a blood-relative with them. That only blood-kin can be trusted around children.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Rigi protested. “It was Piri’s mother’s sister who got them into the wreck, and Tadly’s older brother who thought they could cut through the marsh when the bull-cats were—”
“Ahem!” Her mother interrupted. Her face had gone pale, while Rigi’s father seemed to be as red as his waistcoat. “That is not exactly what Mrs. Debenadetto means, Auriga, although you are close. And Lyria, if she in particular voices concerns, point out that Ebenezer is a relative. How we are related is not her concern, but we are related. Kay is related to Tomás on his mother’s side. Absolutely nothing will happen on the trip.”
“Unless Eb tries to cook, you mean,” her father said, winking at her mother.
“I would prefer not to be reminded of that, ahem, unfortunate incident.” She sniffed and returned to her food. Rigi and Lyria looked at each other, eyebrows raised. Rigi gave a little head shake. Don’t ask now, but later, when their mother was not around. Maybe Lexi would know. He knew everything, or almost as much everything as Uncle Eb did.
Things started to look a little brighter in Rigi’s world. And she’d avoided a dose of Mar’s tonic.
(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved