LOST COLONY CH. 04-4

Lost Colony: Chapter 04

***

“I’m telling you, less than fifteen minutes.”

“No one knows when exactly, Alain. You’re just guessing, making up stories. Like when you told me you were from Earth.”

Sparr, Silla, and Efreem were sitting on the temple roof, the night sky spread over them, sprinkled with unfamiliar stars. All three were wrapped in blankets to chase off the breeze slipping down from the surrounding hills.

“I’ll bet you,” Sparr said. He took a sip from the bottle of spirits and passed it back to Silla. “Less than fifteen.”

“Bet what?” Silla asked.

“The rest of the bottle,” Sparr said. “If I’m right, I get to finish it. If I’m wrong, I’ve taken my last sip.”

“You know this is my bottle, right?”

“Yeah, but we’ve been sharing it, so…” Sparr was smiling.

Silla eyed the bottle. “It’s more than half gone anyway,” she said, shaking her head. “Okay, here.” She handed the bottle to Efreem. “You can decide the winner. Just remember, I make your breakfast every morning.”

Efreem quietly took the bottle. His health had improved dramatically since Sparr had slipped him the antibiotic just one day earlier. His fever had subsided, and although he was still weakened, the dusky skinned man had been strong enough to climb the ladder to the roof. Like Sparr, he was happy for the respite from the temple’s gloomy chambers.

“How do you know when Cheddar will rise?” Efreem asked.

Sparr suppressed a chuckle. Kaybe had two moons, which had been nicknamed Feta and Cheddar, by the teams studying the exoplanet. The names had stuck with Sparr, and he had continued to use them in conversation. That Efreem had taken up the names made them even funnier.

“Let me guess,” Silla said. “The all-knowing cube told you.”

That was in fact true. Sparr’s communicator had been pre-loaded with a subset of mission data, including lunar cycles. Feta circled Kaybe swiftly, much like Earth’s moon. The pale, marbled satellite was close and bright. Cheddar, on the other hand, had an achingly slow journey around the planet. The distant, yellow globe was absent for weeks at a time, then upon returning, hung in the sky for weeks more. It was too distant to noticeably affect the tides, but was considered an omen. Only once Cheddar rose would the Origin make their pilgrimage.

“Why wait for Cheddar to rise?” asked Sparr. “The Origin teachings I’ve heard don’t make any reference to the moon or stars.”

Efreem spoke up. “Not the Origin. It’s older than that. From the Precipice.”

“The what? Precipice?”

“Yes. The Origin borrowed from the Precipice.”

“It’s an older religion,” Silla said. “Their teachings are radical, difficult. The Origin picked up on the importance of Cheddar, probably to gain early acceptance.”

“I guess it worked,” mused Sparr. “I’ve only ever heard of the Origin.”

Silla traded glances with Efreem, who merely shrugged. “Alain, honestly,” she said, “the list of things you have heard of is pretty short. Maybe you do come from Earth.”

Sparr just smiled in what he hoped was an affable expression. Silla, when Sparr first met her, had seemed prickly and confrontational, but gradually had warmed to him. He was short of friends on Kaybe, short on those he could trust. A friend who could help him decipher temple politics, and who could so expertly broil poultry, was one he didn’t want to lose. That she was more than passably attractive, was a bonus.

Poultry. Sparr’s idle train of thought took him once more to the diversity of species on the colony planet. The bird that had so satisfyingly filled his stomach the night before could never be mistaken for a chicken. Green plumage flecked with orange and black provided excellent camouflage among the local flora. Fat, powerful legs provided for a quick escape for the flightless animal. The creatures were fascinating to Sparr, perfect examples of evolutionary adaptation. And yet, it was impossible to look at them and not see an Earth bird, perhaps one which had thrived only fleetingly, without leaving a fossil record. Was it biological destiny that drove species on two such similar planets down similar paths? Gravity, water, sunlight, and the seasons were close enough. Was that all it took? Sparr yearned to study the planet’s species more closely, but cruelly had been separated from his gear.

“There!” Efreem’s call broke Sparr’s reverie. Just over the tip of the ridgeline the first, paper-thin, halo of Cheddar was breaking the horizon.

“You’re fucking kidding me!” Silla’s jaw hung open comically.

“I’ll take that bottle now,” Sparr said.

***

Sparr’s budding friendship with Silla had advantages beyond sharing the occasional drink. Knowing he itched to escape the confines of the temple, the chef did her best to find errands in Vonde. His size and strength provided an excellent justification.

“Twenty cases of wine,” Silla said. “The vendor will meet you at the auction, but you’ll have to load them onto the wagon yourself. Actually, I take that back. One of the cases is spirits. Be sure to check it!”

“Nineteen cases of wine, one of spirits,” Sparr repeated. His implant would store the information.

“Ten sacks of root vegetables, twenty of coarse-ground grain.”

Again, Sparr repeated for the benefit of his implant.

“Do you want my notes?”

“Notes?” Sparr had observed Silla with a scrap of parchment, but hadn’t made out the script. “Okay.”

The chef handed him the parchment. Sparr peered at it. Instead of script, Silla had documented the shipment by drawing tiny pictures. She had drawn a bottle of wine accompanied by nineteen hash marks. The root vegetables were denoted by an exaggerated carrot, and ten hash marks. With a shock, Sparr realized that Silla was illiterate.

It slowly dawned on Sparr that since landing on Kaybe he had seen no written language at all. The signs on shops were elaborately drawn images of carpet, wine, pottery, or tools. There had been no books in evidence at the gladiator compound, and none at the temple. Symbols had been etched on the ridiculous wheel used at temple ceremonies, but they gave no evidence of being part of an alphabet. Sparr cursed himself for not seeing it earlier. Reading and writing had been lost on Kaybe.

“Uh… okay, thanks.” Sparr stumbled over his words. Silla raised her eyebrows at him, but turned back to her work. “Oh,” she said “and don’t forget to meet Liette to escort the talent back from the auction.”

Sparr headed to the outer courtyard in a daze. What had happened here? Not for the first time, he considered how completely society had fallen apart on Kaybe. Slavery, combat to the death, thinly-veiled prostitution, and illiteracy. The popular religion was a sham. Whatever had transpired had thrown the colonists back a thousand years.

“You coming?” The guard glared at him from the waiting wagon. Sparr wanted to punch the man, punch anyone who helped make Kaybe what it was.

“Just drive, you slug!” Sparr said, hopping in back.

The guard turned, incredulous. He moved to say something, but perhaps seeing the anger in Sparr’s eyes, thought better of it. He muttered a soft curse but flicked the whip at the draybeast. The card rumbled forward.

Not twenty minutes later, the wine vendor also received a taste of Sparr’s wrath. Fawning and bowing, the man gestured at the stack of wine crates. Sparr checked each as he loaded them. “Where are the spirits?” he demanded.

The man was younger than most of the other merchants, and in good shape, possibly from a life lugging crates. Still, like the guard, he shrank back from Sparr. “It’s all there, ah… twenty cases!” he sputtered.

“One was to be spirits!” shouted Sparr. “Do you think to cheat the temple?”

Gasping, the man fled toward his own wagon. Before Sparr could pursue him, the merchant reappeared, hoisting a new crate. “Here, here!” the man said, loading the crate himself. “A simple mistake, I promise!” Again he fled, forgetting to take back one of the wine crates.

“Keep watch,” Sparr grunted toward the guard. “I need to find Liette.” He received no objection.

The auction was still in progress. Sparr had gathered from Silla’s ‘talent’ comment that Liette had gone to acquire more slaves for the temple. As much as it revolted him, he had little choice but to endure the local custom for a bit longer. Sparr swore that once he had made the pilgrimage he would choose his own path.

After working his way around to the side of the square, Sparr found a place from which to observe. Unlike the auction at which he, Kess, and Efreem had been sold, no platform had been set up. Instead, young men and women had been herded into a pen taking up almost the entire square. Each stood alone, separated from their neighbor by at least a meter. None looked about them, but rather cast their eyes to the ground, despondently. Through this pitiful assembly, prospective buyers walked, examining the wares.

Sparr spotted the Governor first. Scowling and dour, the man stalked through the ranks of captives, displeasure plain on his face. Few seemed to his liking. Once or twice he stopped before a stout youth. With a few quick jabs at the man’s muscles, and what appeared to be harshly worded questions, he would perform a brief interrogation. As Sparr watched him, the Governor seemed to find only one prospect.

Liette, on the other hand, must have stumbled into bounty. Already, Kess and Lell were watching over a cluster of six young women and one man. More soon joined them. Liette inspected a round woman with short, brown hair. She groped the woman, carefully assessing her flesh, and even opened her robe, nodding with approval at the woman’s heavy breasts. Before the sale wound down, two more women and one youth were called forward. Liette negotiated imperiously, her head raised high and proud. Sparr was sure the priestess had bargained shrewdly. He hustled over.

“The girls will go first,” Liette said. The priestess gave no sign that just a few days earlier she had been wriggling helplessly beneath him, wet with desire. “You will follow with the wine and the men.”

Sparr showed the newcomers to the wagon. As the little convoy turned back to the temple, he had an opportunity to assess the young men. Were they future princes, or did Liette’s recent buying spree have something to do with the pilgrimage? He hardly cared. The more he learned about life on Kaybe the more depressed and angry he became. Every day, it seemed, he was reminded how desperate life on the planet had become. And more often than he cared to admit, Sparr saw in himself some sign that the planet was absorbing him, eroding his being and replacing it with something harder and angrier. Was it a necessary adaptation, or had Kaybe simply exposed his true character? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

***

“You’re about to tell me how fascinated you are by rocks.”

Sparr had only just sat down at Calista’s table. The briefing room opened onto a dining area which was just large enough to host the mission personnel. Predictable sandwiches, nutrition shakes, Froot™ snacks, hot drinks, and chopped salads were available to feed the crew. As it stood, after almost a week of briefings and classes, Alliance crew and mission specialists had grown tired enough of the plain fare to venture off site for meals. There were several open tables, but Sparr hadn’t felt like dining on his own today.

“Is that right?” Sparr hadn’t even had time to open his drink, something fizzy called Antioxidant Avalanche. He did so now, as the blonde fixed him with a bored gaze.

“Yes,” she said. “You’re going to attempt to engage me in small talk on a topic you have no grasp of. Then later, you’ll casually mention that your quarters have a particularly enchanting view of the launch platforms.”

“My chambers do, in fact, have a view of the launch platforms,” Sparr agreed. “It takes so much thrust to get into orbit.” He pumped his fist with an exaggerated motion. “Sometimes I can’t tear my eyes away.”

“See?” Calista said. “I’ve saved you all that time. I’m afraid that you’re going to have to uh, get into orbit on your own.”

“Probably,” Sparr said. “But no, I didn’t drop by to talk about minerals. I wanted to let you know that you sat on someone’s half-eaten energy treat.”

“What?” Calista twisted in her seat. “Dammit!” The mission specialist reached down, and with an expression of disgust, peeled away the wrapper and its sticky contents from her trousers.

“My chambers have a nice view of the laundry facility,” Sparr said.

“Shut up,” Calista said, but the corner of her mouth twitched in what might be the beginning of a smile. The blonde pressed the remains of the gooey treat into a napkin and tucked it into the corner of her tray.

“I’m Alain.”

“I know.” Calista was still fussing at the stain left by the snack, trying to scrape away as much as she could with her fingernail. “K2 Genetics,” she said absently.

“Is that the most interesting thing you know about me? Who I work for?”

“Alain Sparr,” Calista said, looking up, and squaring herself to him. “Georgetown University, where you studied biology and played varsity basketball. Lowest scoring average for a starter in your junior and senior year.”

“I was known for my defense,” Sparr said.

Calista continued. “Masters at Johns Hopkins. Hired out of school by Genetics Holdings.” This was the parent company for K2 Genetics. It was common to spin-off a subsidiary for each destination. “This is your second mission. The first resulted in a notable find, a carbon-absorbing mold which is showing promise in air treatment systems.” The blonde was enjoying showing off her knowledge, locking her pale eyes directly on Sparr. “They said you spent five months exploring caves on V4 finding just the right subspecies.”

“I enjoy tight spaces,” Sparr said.

Calista rolled her eyes. “You found a mold, Alain. A mold.”

“I like that we’re on a first-name basis, Calista.”

“We’re not… oh never mind.” She sat back. “But yes, of all that, I’d say who you work for is the most interesting thing.” Calista was proud of herself. “And now, of course, this is where you show that you have studied me just as thoroughly.” She rested her chin on one hand, eyeing Sparr cooly.

“Nope,” said Sparr.

“What?” Calista was visibly surprised.

“Calista Brandt, K2 Mineral. That’s it. So yes, your employer is certainly of interest, but I don’t know where you went to school, if you had a scholarship, what sport you played, or if you have a cat.”

Calista took a moment to regain her composure. After several days of getting hit on by half of the single men on the mission team, no doubt she had begun to expect it. Sparr’s overt show of disinterest was a jolt to her pride. “Well,” she said, “that’s good, because-“

“What I do know is, you’re tall, around five-foot nine. Natural blonde, no sign of dyes or DNA modifications. Very blue eyes. Natural to you, but probably one of your parents had an in-vitro mod which bled into your generation. You’re fit. Low resting pulse rate, minimal body fat, and strength in your major muscle groups. This is probably from one endurance sport and one racquet or ball sport. As a child, you had a bad fracture of your left arm which required surgery, probably to plant screws. You were attractive from an early age, enough so that you had to master the art of putting men off.”

Calista had just begun to open her mouth. Sparr’s last sentence closed it.

“Oh, and you’re bringing something heavy onboard the Odysseus.” It was Sparr’s turn to lean back. “And that is the most interesting thing about you.”

***

There was a final, sham ceremony to reveal who would be invited along on the pilgrimage.

Sparr stood at the back of the hall as the room filled with more townsfolk than he could remember seeing at any of the ceremonies. Elites crowded the front of the room, men and women adorned in one of the tri-color schemes he had witnessed upon first arriving in Vonde. They were, for the most part, older, overly-costumed, proud, and vain. These were the shopkeepers, traders, land-owners, and others that owned the commercial interests of the city. Sparr didn’t know how often the pilgrimage was taken, but it must be infrequently enough that the selection was a milestone for the town.

There were as many matriarchs among the crowd as men. Sparr was forced to admit that for all of Kaybe’s failings, sexual inequality didn’t appear to be among them. Liette and the Governor seemed to share power, although uneasily. Syreet was, by far, the most popular gladiator in the arena, and among the townsfolk there were as many prominent women as men. A stiff, but smiling woman strode by, accompanied by her companion, a man young and handsome enough to be a prince in the temple. Perhaps he had been.

“What’s that?” Sparr prodded Lell, who stood with him as the hall filled. He pointed to an elaborate medallion which one of the traders hung from his belt.

“Mmmm? Oh.” Lell was greeting supplicants as they arrived, but found time to answer Sparr. “It’s a pilgrimage seal. They’re different every year, a sign that the bearer attended that year’s pilgrimage. To carry one seal is an honor. To carry more than one says you are someone of considerable influence.”

Of course, thought Sparr. The temple didn’t merely deal in sex and drugs, they dealt in influence as well. Wealthy donors were granted one of the limited slots on a pilgrimage, and given a seal to demonstrate their faith, a veneer of respectability which allowed him or her to carry on with whatever questionable practices had earned them wealth in the first place. That the pilgrimage itself was likely little more than a rolling party was a bonus.

“Those who would seek the enlightenment of the pilgrimage, speak now!” Liette called order to the hall. As with other ceremonies Sparr had observed, the elites jostled for attention, raising their hands with enough enthusiasm to be noticed, but less than would appear unseemly.

“Come forth.” Liette called forward a garishly bedecked couple. They turned to face the room, as the man spoke.

“I, and the Lady Varn, seek the enlightenment of the pilgrimage.” The man spoke confidently. “Varn Ceramics provides quality, but affordable, urns, amphorae, jars, and other stoneware. You can trust your wines to Varn!”

What a perplexing declaration, thought Sparr. It was more sales pitch than earnest entreaty for enlightenment. The couple approached the wheel and gave it a mighty spin. After several ponderous turns, the wheel landed on a glyph that Sparr had hadn’t previously noticed.

“Pilgrimage!” shouted Liette, happily. The couple grinned and embraced. Several maidens stepped forward, chattering with delight. They escorted the pair away.

Another supplicant was selected. Sparr had seen him before, a stout man, plainly dressed, but with an impressively long and well-kept beard and moustache. “I seek the enlightenment of the pilgrimage,” he called out. “Secure Hauling and Wagons protects your shipments through all of the Vonde valley,” he said proudly. “I am pleased to donate my services to the pilgrimage at no cost!” He spun the wheel.

“Yes, pilgrimage,” Liette called out. Puffing with pride, the man allowed himself to be led away by a fawning maiden.

The rest of the ceremony followed a similar pattern. Men, women, or couples would request enlightenment, declare their commercial interests, then spin the wheel. The first handful of supplicants were all rewarded with the pilgrimage. After that, success became less certain. Those that were not chosen were sometimes relegated to something known as ‘The Departure’, for which Sparr was given no explanation. After twenty-two participants had been granted the pilgrimage, much of the crowd emptied out of the back. The show was over.

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