A Mountie Astray Cpt. 4-7


IV. Naked But Under Cover

The shuttle taxied to a terminal and we stumbled down a narrow gangway. The terminal building was fairly large, apparently designed to cope with far more passengers than today’s load. Most of them did not raise their eyes, but I spent some time getting acquainted with my first encounter with a new world.
I felt good, seeing a horizon corresponding with my feelings and breathing the heavy air of a full-fledged oxygen – nitrogen atmosphere. Gravity was at 1.02 gee, air pressure a trifle higher than on Earth. The sun a bluish-white spot far away, much smaller than good old Sol looked from Earth.
When I came back to reality, I found myself alone in front of the terminal building.
“Hey, stranger!” a male voice addressed me from behind. “First trip?”
“Have a good one, tonight there’s Ceilidh in ‘Kerouac’s’. ‘An Erminig’ playing.”
“Thanks. Where’s Immigration Office?”
“The WHAT?”
“Immigration Office, Customs and the like...”
“Hehe, next immigration office is on Earth, and as long as we have to decide, it will remain there.” With these words, he placed himself in front of me and reached out with his hand. Maurice Lemercier, welcome to Baile Kemper!”
He was one tall man, at least 6’ 8”. Curly black hair and icy blue eyes.
“You’re the official greenhorn reception committee.”
“Def’nitely not, you ain’t gonna find anything official here.” He slapped the holster at his side. The first Desert Eagle I ever saw as a real piece.
“Betsy here and lots of her sisters will make sure everybody is a private person here. Had enough officials here recently, shoved them back and don’t want them replaced.”
“Where can I get a license for a firearm?”
“Har, that’s a good one – go to Lester’s, he’s got a fine collection of weapons, so many, he has to sell them.”
“Where can I find a job?”
“Wanna stay here? Congratulations! If you don’t insist on that ‘official’ crap, you’ll like it here.” He looked at his wristwatch. “Eight in the evening, days take thirty-six hours here, so nobody bothers to daytime. Too bloody late for tonight, but let’s go to Lester’s anyway, his place is much more than a gun shop.”
“By the way, my name is Ian Kermarec. Came from Canada, Earth.”
“‘Nuther Celtic finding home.”
“In a way...”
“Lots come, those who stay more than a year will stay forever. Most leave after the first week here. It’s not exactly easy here.”
“What’s the problem?”
“You’re on your own, bro’. Folks here are nice, friendly to strangers, easy-going. But most foreigners who come here are not used to living on their own. You for example have apparently no experience with freedom. You can drive drunk here, ride a bicycle with no helmet, push Heroin, coke or speed, drink yourself to oblivion, wank ten times a day. You’ll find nobody caring. As long as you’re the one who wakes up with a headache, ok. MYOB. However, as soon as you make a scratch with your bike into the paint of someone else’s car, you’re dipped in shit. Either you pay in cash, right on the spot, or you vamoose ncb.”
“Never come back. They mean it here. And they have the hardware to make sure.”
“Guns, knives, flame throwers, RPGs, whatever. Scratch a car, they’ll be at you to make you pay. Harm a person, they’ll shoot first and ask questions later.”
“Seems to be a wild country.”
“Def’nitely not. As peaceful as can be. We had our last shoot-out well before the invasion.”
With these words, we had reached a fairly big machine with a cabin on top and a flat skirt around the bottom.
“Hey, that looks like a hovercraft...”
“Smart, it looks that way because it is one. Climb up to the left door while I’ll take the driver’s seat.”
“How far is it to Lester’s place?”
“About ten minutes. You wouldn’t like to walk that distance. Part ain’t yet plastered.”
He started the engine, astonishingly silent. A dust cloud rose to mark the place where the vessel had been parked.
“What kind of engine do you use?”
“Just a normal electric engine, fed by a fuel cell which converts hydrogen and oxygen into water. Cheap, clean and silent.”
“Aren’t you scared with all that explosive stuff?”
“Not really. H2 isn’t that bad at all.”
“We on Earth prefer radionuclide batteries.”
“Sure, little power, lasts long and gives helluva lot of trouble when it’s used up. Not to be used in an atmosphere you wanna breathe afterwards.”
The ride followed the mainstem of Baile Kemper, mostly through a loose collection of properties, connected by broad “roads”, covered with the resistant and hard-leaved autochthon vegetation, kept trimmed by fast rotor blades, which in turn had to be sharp-edged sickles with extra hardened surfaces. The houses were fairly large, with park-like gardens and mostly no fences around them.
The road was, as promised, partly plastered, but I learnt to prefer the unplastered parts – less dust flying.
“Better not walk here, the leaves are as sharp as broken glass, rip through your trousers in no time. Not to mention your tender peach skin. Not exactly nice wounds, the edges aren’t straight, more like multi-bladed saws.”
“Not enough surgeons here?”
“Hell, do you like to be cut to pieces?”
“Not really.”
“We’ve got a couple of really good doctors here. But you would not like the scars. These plants have a kind of exo-skeleton, made of silicon dioxide, better known as quartz. Fine needles, embedded in fibers. Really good for making plants which can withstand the propwash of a few hundred hovers an hour, but not good for anything else. Won’t even burn right. Can stop bullets or cut them up. That’s what drove these stupid invaders mad. Our folks were firing at them and they could not do us any harm with that kind of cover.”
“Must have been a hell of a war, then.”
“In a way, it took us eight full standard days to drive them to hell. It helped a lot to blow our airport up and their only shuttle. Killed a few thousand of them with one blow – and flattened the city center as a collateral damage.”
“How that? Or is it a secret?”
“Not at all, you’ve seen the five silos in a quinconce on your approach?”
“Sure, can’t overlook them.”
“They were filled with hydrogen and oxygen and blown up. Did the job for almost three quarters of the garrison.”
“Holy shit...”
“Yeah, quite a big hole afterwards.”
“And the rest?”
“Got rounded up and shot to smithereens, wasn’t much of a strategic masterpiece. They had lost most of their command structure and most of them were confused and could not think by themselves. So we could jam them into a camp and, in a final raid, clobber them. Not many survived. Next week, we’re going to inaugurate the Parc de la Liberté where their last stand used to be. Our folks aren’t good in public celebrations, but there will be a fair and a memorial.”
“You lost quite a few of your own soldiers?”
“Soldiers? Not one. Ain’t no soldiers here. Couple of folks were killed in our hospital when the power was cut off, some died in the cathedral. None of them in combat, though. We all are a militia, everyone defending his own life and property. We had a few minor injuries, mostly by own fault, but we lost only one man, the Catholic priest from our only church. He had disappeared, some say he has been taken prisoner by the invaders, but nobody knows for sure. So the Bishop will hold a public memorial on Jour de Libération. He does not exactly like it, but he’d better make a smiley-face if he does not want to lose his entire parish.”

V. Gals With Guns

We had arrived at the parking lot of a major property, much like a province capitol. Maurice cut off the engine, but when I expected to slide down to the ground, I was slightly disappointed.
“We’re on wheels. Have been most part of the trip, we can’t make speed enough to pull them up and fly. So you’d better mind your steps and use the rungs below your door.”
The gull-wing doors opened and I could see a few rungs protruding from the hull and the collar, which had not been there before.
Lester’s house was not what I would expect from a colonial house – it was far greater and somewhat luxurious. We were welcomed in a large showroom where guns and other weapons were displayed like vegetables. Swords and even a German Saufeder were represented as well as high capacity pistols, military rifles and wicked-looking shotguns. What impressed me most was a bull-pup rifle marked as a .50 BMG-Dardick – Fosberry system. I had no idea how that thing might work, but its weight of more than thirty pounds made it impressive enough.
Most weight came from two slide handles where they should be on a pump action. What I would not understand was why they were shielded with a tube made of stamped steel.
“Hell, you would not like to touch them when that gun goes of. They’re plain dead weight in order to slow down cycling. Can’t fire too fast with hat caliber anyway. Wanna try it?”
“N-no thanks...” I was confused, sure, less by that gun or the offer to shoot it but more by the girl who offered the weapon to me. Barely sixteen and of slender frame, she handled that gun as if she were used to it.
“Do you work here?” I managed to ask.
“Hell no, it’s my Daddy’s shop, I’m just lurking and sometimes gettin’ some fun with newbies. Like you are, for example. What’s your name?”
“I’m Ian Kermarec. Came with the last ferry from Earth.”
“No, Canada, but since the borders are open, it’s more or less the same.”
“You been shooting much there?”
“Not really, tried to avoid violence wherever possible.”
“A pretty good way to get into harm’s way, I think. We’re preparing for anyone attacking us before it happens. Worked out mighty fine the first time.”
“Found another innocent victim, Lucy?” A well-dressed, gorgeous-looking blonde lady in the late forties addressed her from behind. “Beware of that girl, she’s dangerous. Not kidding. She has a time scaring grown-up men away. She calls it ‘practice rounds’ for she had sworn to go for the first male being of her age she can’t scare away. To this very day, though, it looks as if she’s going to die as an untouched virgin.”
“MAAAA!” No further explanation required.
“You just lurkin’ around or can I help you? I’m Clarissa.”
“More or less lurking around, thank you anyway, I’m new to this world and I’m looking for practically everything.”
“So you might need some liberty hardware to get rid of that newbie status. I’ve got a few pricey items here, some of which you might even be familiar with.”
She ushered me to a showcase filled with mostly used, but apparently operational firearms. Some models I had never heard of, but I recognized the Berettas I had been using as a Government issue. Some even bore Canadian markings.
“You’re the boss here?”
“More or less, till my husband gets out of hospital. He’s in ICU right now but recovering. He’s gunsmith and storyteller and he’s the owner of this business.”
“What happened?”
“Well, that tells me you’re really new here. Last weekend, a moron asked him to help him with a gun he had inherited from the war. Before Lester could prevent him from being dipped in shit, that stupid moron pulled the trigger, as he was sure that gun was unloaded, but he found out the hard way that not only a round was chambered, but another bullet was stuck in the barrel as well. That blasted thing exploded, Lester got hit by a load of fragments and the poor idiot has to pay his medical bill, potential earnings and quite a lot of restitution. That’s going to bankrupt him. Tough luck.”
“You can do whatever you want, but you must bear the consequences...”
“No ‘but’, Mister, it’s ‘AND’. You can’t have one without another. Make something everybody and his grandpa want to buy, you’ll get rich. Make something stupid like this, you’ll get poor if you happen to survive.”
“This assembly looks quite like a party to me...”
“Only because it is one. Lucy is celebrating her fifteenth birthday tonight. Lester would not approve of her letting her head hang down only because he’s out of business for a week or two. He’s alive, he’s hugged and kissed his little jewel and he’s even present, at least virtually. This party is being webcasted.”
“To the ICU?”
“Hell, of course! Would you like to be hanging on hoses and cables and being cut off the world?”
She took a Beretta out of the showcase, pulled the magazine out and worked the action to make sure it was unloaded. She even peeked into the chamber.
I felt as uncomfortable as ever, when I saw civilians with firearms.
“Shy? Come on, it’s only a nine millimeter. I’ll send you with Lucy to the range and she’ll tell you what she considers a mediocre caliber. Ammo on the house!”
Lucy grinned with genuine pleasure and ran for the ammo shelf. Not until now I noticed the shoulder holster under her bolero. The grip under her armpits, the muzzle below her belt. That will be a unique experience, my inner voice whispered to me. Clarissa gave me the Canadian-marked Beretta and shoved me to one of the show room’s back doors. We found ourselves in a comfortable, perfectly-lit indoor range for all distances between one and two hundred meters. Lucy handed me a box of ammunition and grinned.
“Standard target at 25 meters?”
“Sure, why not?”
She fixed a silhouette target to a carrier and set it off. She did the same to the carrier of the next lane and set it going. This one stopped at the two hundred meter setting. She produced two pairs of shooting glasses and ear protectors and handed me one of each.
I filled five rounds into the magazine and started to examine the gun. All major parts had been worked over, the tolerances were as tight as I’ve ever seen them on German competition guns, but never on a combat workhorse. I inserted the magazine, cocked the hammer and tried the trigger. It broke crisply at what I guessed less than two lbs, and the gun was sighted in right on the spot. Even I could hit the target with all five rounds. To my own surprise, all were in the 10x zone, something I would never have achieved with a GI gun.
“Pa does that to every gun a newbie has to pawn here. He sells them with a premium, but these things really work when he finally lets them out of his garbage can. By the way, you’re shooting like a soldier.”
“Used to be a RCMP officer before I came here.”
“Mounted police? Left your horse behind, heh?”
“That’s our name, but we’ve been motorized for almost one hundred years now.”
“What a pity, I’ve hoped you might have brought your horse with you.”
“No horses around here?”
“No, can’t feed them – yet. No herbivore can digest the local plants, too many sharp silicon needles in the grass. The culture plants we’ve brought here are too expensive to feed them to horses.”
“That’s a real disadvantage. Every girl in your age should ride.”
“Sure, but there are compensations: lookitthis!”
She presented her gun, which consisted mostly of a long, heavy barrel with a big muzzle brake and a custom made wooden grip. I had barely glimpsed at the giant gun when a basketball-sized fireball lit up the scene, accompanied by a bang which was nothing short of deafening. I spoke a short prayer, thanking the heavens for the man who had invented this efficient hearing protection. I barely had recollected my breathing abilities when Lucy had already reloaded the gun, taken aim and fired another round. Recoil shook her entire body, but her arm was not blown up more than twenty degrees. She must have hands like vise grips, I thought.
Less than five seconds later, the third blow, within ten seconds each number four and five. She called in the target, reloaded the gun, holstered it and gave me another grin.
The holes didn’t cover substantially more space than mine. That girl was definitely dangerous.
“Wanna try? It’s a .45-70, trimmed down by a quarter of an inch. 200 grain bullet, so recoil isn’t that bad and accuracy is ok.”
She handed me the gun, butt ahead, with five cartridges. I saw no way to refuse without losing my face entirely, so I accepted. I found the lever to open the gun, stared with mixed feelings into the barrel – was there really an echo? Then I sent out my target to 50 meters, what seemed sensible to me and loaded the gun. I noticed he black ring on the primer, electric ignition. The trigger was just a blued lever which would not move.
“You’ll love that trigger. It’s piezo-electrical, faster than lightning and absolutely uniform. Tighten your finger and bang! It goes.”
Well, I should have known better. Later I learnt that the cartridge had about the same performance as the .30-06 from a rifle barrel. So it caught me with trousers down and elbows not quite lined out. I got a nice smack on my forehead and lots of respect for this slender girl. She used to shoot this howitzer single-handed while I had tried the so-called Weaver Stance, which, elbows stretched and locked, might even have worked.
To hear the bang from a distance is one thing, but to have this blast just in front of you is something entirely different. It does not bother to your ears but goes right through your guts.
I refrained from restoring my honor with a follow-up shot, but I was slightly consoled, that at least I had hit the target. Close to the lower left corner, a half-moon shaped piece of paper was missing. The bullet had been fast enough to cut the rifling into the paper.
Clarissa knew when to put a newbie out of his misery when she entered the range and asked if I would like a piece of home baked cake. Lucy didn’t object either and that was the end of the most depressing range lesson I had had up to now.
A couple of guests, invited or otherwise, had gathered in the shop. A few were younger than Lucy, though most were adults.
“Not many school friends here, Lucy,” I observed.
“No such thing as a public school here either.” She replied. “We’re all homeschooling here. Last time anyone asked, the standards on the Celtic worlds were much higher than anywhere else. At least when it comes to salaries, our folks are making much more money than folks from elsewhere, especially on the corporation worlds.”
“But are you sure you’re learning everything you’ll need for life at home?”
“The other week, I’ve passed the admission test for Berkeley College, California. Can’t be that bad, our standard.”
I could not give her an argument. Just then, another guest or customer relieved me of my answer.
“You a real newbie? Not many make it up to this place. Nice to see ya!”
“Thanks a lot!”
“Got yourself a particular place to go?”
“Not really, I’m still looking – for a place as well as for work.”
“Mind farm work?”
“Not at all.”
“Got any gear to pack?”
“Not really.”
“Do you mind me taking the Beretta back into the showcase or do you want to purchase it? If you do so, I’ll give you a box of ammo free.” Clarissa gently pried the pistol out of my hand and I blushed. I had forgotten the cake and was still holding the gun in my hand. Must be the bad influence.
“I’ll take it. How much is it?”
“It’s your lucky day, forty-five and one hundred rounds included. Want a holster? That’s twenty extra.”
She pointed towards a kydex holster made for the Beretta.
“Might feel lonesome without its gun. Let’s say sixty for the package.”
I got the money out before she could withdraw the offer and stuffed all things into my bag.
“I guess it will be easier to mount the piece, or you’ll never get rid of the newbie marks.”
I blushed, took off my jacket and strapped the shoulder holster on. When I had loaded the magazines, I received another frown, because I would not chamber a round. The frown turned into slight appreciation when I holstered the gun without engaging the safety. Funny, Lester had taken the pain to remove the red dot from the “fire” position and put a new one on the “safe” position. Seems, an inactive gun is considered more of a danger here than a live one.
The other customer was still there.
“Now that you are no longer helpless and nekkid, what about a job, you said you were looking for work. I can offer you a start, as I’m needing some help to plow my new fields. Not exactly a nice office job, but I’ll pay a hundred for the first week plus accommodation. No tax, no mandatory insurance. I’m Jacques, for most folks just Jack.”
“I’m Ian.”
“OK, let’s go, my daughter is going to lay the table in an hour and who ain’t there won’t get fed. She’s got principles, sort of.”
“That seems to be quite common here...”
“Heh, don’t worry, folks here are quite nice, but you’d better not piss them off.”

VI. No Longer Naked, Still Under Cover

He ushered me through the door and we found ourselves at a parking lot. Ground must have been cheap, I guess the parking lot alone was about three or four acres. The garden was larger than I could overlook. Lots of exotic plants, some from Earth, the entire garden made the impression of planned coincidence, as if the gardener had been an old-fashioned Japanese.
What I saw then was the pick-up version of a hovercraft. As silent as the one before, but a lot larger and more powerful. The cabin was comfortable, though, from wooden panels to a well-assorted wet bar, even a TV screen.
“Got a head-up display for me so I won’t miss anything. You’d better keep one eye on the road – at least if there is any.”
With these words, he took a turn away from what I thought was a road and started flying across the, er, meadows. It was quite a bumpy ride, the terrain was still uncultivated.
“Most folks here just want to have their peace. They don’t mind good neighborhood, but they just want to live in peace. You won’t find much rental property here. You can claim your own land, no fees, no registration, build a place to live there and get happy. You can work on whatever you want to, if you find clients, well, if not, you’d better reconsider. Some folks here disappear into the jungle and won’t come back until they need something urgently. Some never return.”
“Isn’t that sad?”
“Well, mostly, it’s their own choice. If you want to live as a hermit, you’d better be in good health. If you want to do so in an unexplored wilderness, you’d better be prepared. Couple of times, I’ve been walking ‘bout in the jungle. I’ve met a few of them. One gave me a kilogram of pure gold for a box of penicillin, one traded even more for a bottle of whiskey. The last would have given me ten kilos, but I would not let my trousers down.”
“Ten kilos of gold?”
“Sure, lots of that stuff is buried close to the surface, and several rivers or creeks here around have washed out enough to make you rich. Just go out and dig.”
“Where’s the catch?”
“What catch?”
“Why don’t you go and dig gold?”
“What do you think I was going to do when I met the hermits.” He gave me a broad grin.
“Nobody tells you here you’ll have to swing the pan yourself. I’m not good at standing to the hip in icy water and shovel pebbles. So I’ve found better ways to get to the aim of my dreams.”
“Isn’t that immoral to charge a kilo of gold for a box of essentially necessary pharmaceuticals?”
“I would have gone for less, but that guy offered me a kilo, so why should I refuse? I’ve traded food for less, even a wireless set or a box of ammo is far cheaper. If anybody offers me a shitload of gold for something he values higher than the metal, why not? I did not ask him to. He saw the pills and asked me if I would give them to him for a kilo. I did not force the deal on him, he was not ill at that time.”
“I’m used to calling this price gouging.”
“I’ve heard that expression before. Pure statist crap. Look, you can sell whatever you want here, for any price. That guy had an operational hovercraft and fuel for two weeks of 24-7 flight. He could have flown to town and back in less than three hours. But he did not. When I approached his claim and called him via CB, he invited me, as long as I had something to trade. I did, we had a nice glass together and we were both smiling like chinese whores when I left. After I had visited six prospectors’ claims, I was out of goods and the stability of my old hover would have been in danger if I had loaded another kilo of gold. So I flew home.”
“Still do this?”
“No, with that gold, I bought some equipment and started cultivating my ground. Part of it will be cereals, as most other farmers here grow, part Cannabis and a part will be grassland. I’m going to be one of the first ranchers here on Kemper. That’s why I need you – to plow the weedland. That stuff is hard, tough and sharp, all properties which make life interesting for people and goods here. I don’t do that myself because I’ve got something else to do.”
“How much land do you want me to plow?”
“As much as you can. We’ve got no neighbor to the East and I’m going to do my best that the next property will have to be quite a few miles away.”
“How shall I do the job?”
“At first, you’re going to plow with a caterpillar, one share, nine feet deep. Couple of days later, you’re going to rototill what you’ve plowed and then we’ll let it dry. The authochthon vegetation does not like dry roots, so the plants will decay right fast. Then we’ll sow grass. The original weed won’t grow until next spring, so the grass has an advantage of about ten months. After the grass has grown that long, the original vegetation won’t recover. Then I can plow the new fields again and sow whatever I like, either cereals or cattle.”
“Does not sound too complicated.”
“Wait till you see it. Couple of square miles of weedland, nothing to stop you except the weeds. Don’t walk outside your caterpillar, that stuff will cut your trousers to shreds in a wink. I’d rather fight cheetahs or leppards.”
We bumped over a hill and fell into a ravine. Acceleration made the fan audible, but no shock followed. Instead, we followed a steep slope with tremendous groundspeed, accelerating partly by fan, partly by gravity. Ripping sounds from the fan and its protective skirt told me we weren’t really high over ground.
“That’s the part of my way home I like most – saves me half an hour of climbing that friggin’ hill the other way. You see the lights? That’s my farm.”
Far in the distance, I could see something that looked like lighted windows with the sharp light of a beacon above.
“Most farms or properties have these beacons on top, nobody likes a freighter in his attic. Freighter pilots are often out late for deliveries, and we don’t care for daytime anyway.”
“How large are these freighters?”
“Depends, some can carry up to a hundred metric tons, but we’ve got one or two really large ones as well.”
“Would make pizza of a house, no matter how strong....”
“Sure, and the pilot would have to eat it all by himself.”
The ride was smooth and fast now, I could see the farm buildings much clearer now.
“How fast is your hover?”
“On smooth terrain about two hundred miles per hour. With a little help from our friend, the ravine up to two hundred fifty. Better don’t do that when you see any obstacles...”
“I promise!”
With these words, we had reached the farmhouse. Quite an impressive building, by the way.
“How much did you pay for the land?”
“Why should I do that?”
“How else could you acquire the property?”
“Just go out and take it. What you’re going to plow is no man’s land. The first to work on it or hire men to work on it is the owner. No man ever has stepped on it. You’re going to be the first and as your employer, the land is mine. Want to nick me? Take your property right behind it, then I’m fenced in. Then, I’ll have to buy you out or scratch my ranch plans.
But when you’re sensible, you’ll walk a few miles, take another few square miles as your property and sell me the alfalfa I’m going to need. That would make us partners.”
“How come that you insist on property rights but claim real estate property just by taking it!”
“Ain’t no ‘real’ estate here. ‘Real’ as in ‘real estate’ is derived from ‘Royal’. That means all land belongs to the king and he borrows you the property rights – and can withdraw them without previous notice. What you’re doin’ is to convert no-man’s land into farmland. So you’re creating a value. This land had no previous owner, by working on it you made it your own.”
“I’ve never thought that way about the expression ‘real estate’.”
“Nor did most other people until some came here. But now let’s have dinner.”
The house itself was shaped like a giant horseshoe, the living quarters in the middle of two rows of barns and stables. One stable gate stood open and I could glimpse at a giant caterpillar with a smooth, glass dome on it.
“Like that one? That’s our plow horse. Air condition, air filters, stereo set and even TV.”
I gave him an apparently stupid look.
“OK, scratch TV, but the rest is on board, and a fridge is standard here as well. You’re going to be busy during the next few days, so I’d better keep you in good working condition.”
“Seems, your working class here isn’t too bad off...”
“Good joke, ain’t no school.”
“So why do you have to hire newbies from other worlds to do this job? Why don’t you folks here take a job like this?”
“We’ve got plenty of work, but one thing we’re terrifically short of: willing and qualified workers. It won’t take long and you’ll be a specialized contractor and you’ll be jumping from one job to the next. Work half a year for others, half a year for your own pet project, make this two or three years and then you’ll have your own farm. In addition, I’ll have to hire another few newbies for my own farm, only to see you competing with me.
You offer a lousy, dirty job, underpay and you’ll get no one to do it. But if we’re keeping on this discussions in front of the kitchen door, my daughter will quit her job and leave the cooking to me instead. That’s something I’ll better not risk, because I’m a lousy cook.”
With these words, he ushered me into the house. The room we’d entered was as comfortable as any kitchen I had seen before, except that it had a larger size than most of our rural homes. The walls were made of raw bricks, the furniture of good, massive wood, a luxury, which in Canada would have been unaffordable. The surfaces had been waxed, mostly for protection, but it looked really beautiful. The kitchen was equipped with a large fridge, an open fireplace, a wood-fired hearth and lots of tools I had never seen before.
A young woman had apparently just laid the table for two, but was adding another set of plate and cutlery when she realized there would be a guest. She was a pretty sight, not older than eighteen, sleek and slender, but what caught my eye was a large frame revolver at her side.
“Hi, Andrea,” her father greeted her, “I’ve got a helping hand for the new acreage. He’ll live with us for a couple of days.”
She gave me a look as if she knew where I had escaped from and grinned.
“New here?”
“Sort of, not even an entire day.”
“You’ll get used to my cooking. I do it all the time for Dad and me. Hope you don’t insist on some silly diet...”
“No, I’m sort of easy going. As long as the rations aren’t too slim...”
“In Canada, like in the USA, we got regulations how much a man needs per day and the shops are advised not to sell too large rations in order to keep us slim. Butter, whole milk, white flour, all those things are rationed. Most things are too expensive anyway, so most folks buy substitutes instead. Lo-carb food is being subsidized, so anyone can afford it.”
“You’re kidding.” Not meant as a question.
“Not in the least.”
“If a shopkeeper does not sell me what I want to buy, I’ll shop elsewhere.”
“Not so in Canada and the USA. You must present your shopping card everywhere, and your food purchases are registered on it. If you are working on a heavy duty job, it’s registered, too. No calory in excess can be sold to you.”
“Good reason to skip out.”
With these words she continued to lay the table, adding a basket with fresh, home baked bread, plates with real butter, some fish, cheese and sliced meat.
“Tough, luck, stranger, today’s kitchen is cold. But I hope you’ll like it anyway.”
“What’s all this jazz about calories for?” Her father asked.
“Well, our government has recognized that the average population gets fatter and fatter; and now they are trying to reverse this trend.”
“Any success?”
“No. Substitute products outsell hard-‘n’-heavy products ten to one, but the average weight still grows. Alcohol is practically banned, as well as tobacco, so they have no clue why folks get fatter and fatter. So a year or two ago, restrictions have been imposed to improve the people’s health. So far, not much of a success.”
“Any way to enforce this program?”
“Lots of. There is a special police force investigating food sales regularly. Business owners who get caught selling overdoses have to face criminal charges. Some of them are in prison.”
“Another good reason to get away from there.”
I tried the food and had to admit that for long years, I have never had such a good meal. The contrast was striking, to say the least.
As I said so, Andrea replied that’s no wonder, most food was home grown. No artificial fertilizers, no pesticides, no pollution.
“You don’t have much industry here, do you?”
“We certainly do. Mostly heavy stuff, machine construction, most of our hovercraft are being built here, it’s expanding into aircraft industries and will some day go into reusable space craft. We do some large scale mining here as well, but we don’t see ourselves obliged to repeat all the mistakes that happened on Earth.”
“Sure, if you can start from scratch, that might work. But back to food, don’t you have many overweight people?”
“I scarcely see any, and when, it’s most foreigners.”
“How come, with no food restrictions”
“You mean without the benevolent dictatorship of a feelgood-tyranny? Get good and healthy food and eat just what you need, that works.”
“But, if you can’t enforce reasonable use of food?”
“Did it work in Canada?”
“Not really, we’re helping as good as possible, even rationing doesn’t yield any real results.”
“That should tell you that your system in itself is wrong. Feeding all these substitutes does not give the body what it needs. So you’ll eat but you won’t get satisfied. You still feel hungry, so you’ll eat more. That’s what pilots call a graveyard spin.”
“Look at this bread. I’ve baked it myself, just a few hours ago. It contains all a bread should contain, but all ingredients are what you would call ‘hard and heavy’. How much can you eat?”
“Two slices, especially with that thick cheese, which is delicious, by the way.”
“That’s because your body says: I got what I need, let’s have a rest. I guarantee, within the next four hours, you won’t feel the urge to eat anything more. No drugs in it, I swear. But everything your body needs is in this meal. You don’t cheat on your metabolism and you won’t get fat that way.”
“I’ll see.”
“I bet you’re going to, but now it’s time to enjoy the things our work provides us with. Do you like the tea?”
“It’s the best I’ve tried for decades.”
“Produced on Kemper. Makes a shitload of money, that guy, who built up a tea plantation all by himself while working as a contractor to earn his living. He even contributed a lot to our defense. I wonder when that guy had had his last full night’s sleep in the past ten years.”
“Like a whiskey? Tea might not be the best way to get a night’s sleep.” Jack threw in. “You’re going to get up in total darkness. We’ve got a couple of moons here but they’re feeble substitutes for the big rock you’re used to. Most of our artificial satellites are shining brighter. No light pollution as well, nights are absolutely black round here.”
I accepted the glass he had filled. The amber liquid looked beautiful in the light. I sniffed, cautiously, but to my surprise the stuff did not smell like turpentine like the few samples I had tasted from illegal stills. I tried a sip and was hooked to the taste. I read the label, which was hand-written, just telling me ‘Mountain Dew – 110 proof, one liter.’
“I guess, this is home made as well...”
“You bet it is. Most folks though, refrain from fermenting malt, ’cause they get premium prices for wheat and barley, but there is always a bushel to spare or two, and some folks here have orchards and you’ll get big eyes when you see what they’re doing with apples here.”
“Did you import bees?”
“Yes, we’ve got a couple of populations, and we managed to get them without Varoa infestations.”
“When will you start to export them? They must be worth a fortune.”
“Don’t know. Do you want to start this business? Might be interesting.”
“I guess, I could not deliver to Earth, at least in Northern America, all import of living insects is controlled.”
“You mean illegal.”
“But who cares for Earth any more? There are many more worlds settled by large enough populations to sell to.”
“The largest populace is still there...”
“And the worst restrictions.”
I felt the whiskey do its job and I asked where I would sleep. Andrea showed me the way to a guest room and asked when I would like to be awakened in the morning.
“We’re still living on a twenty-four – hour day schedule, the planet rotates too slow for our purposes. Is seven a. m. right?”
“Fits well. Time for a shower?”
“Sure. Good night!”
I found myself alone in a nice, well-furnished room with a large screen at the wall, a desk with a keyboard in front of it and a large bed, which smiled invitingly at me. I found it warm and comfortable.
Next thing I noticed was that the screen was lit up and a snappy bagpipe tune was playing. I managed to find the loudness control and reduced the music to a level I could digest in the morning. The bathroom door was open, I could see a well - equipped bath with a tub and a shower stall with a glass front and a whirlpool. One wall was a mirror, a basin integrated so well that I hadn’t noticed it at first sight.
If this was their guest room, they must be quite wealthy, I thought. No plastic fronts, even the toilet seat was made of wood.
I almost burnt some precious parts of my anatomy when I found out that the hot water deserved its name. No restrictions here, either.
After I dressed, I joined the others in the kitchen.
Andrea was there, greeting me with a bright smile.
“Dad’s ahead with the caterpillar, that thing is too bloody slow to drive it all the way, so he got a hoverlifter. It’s all filled up for a week’s job. Fridge, fuel and water. You’ll find it quite comfortable there.”
The table was laid for three.
“Dad’s going to be here any minute. But let’s start as long as the toast is hot.”
Brown bread, still steaming. Delicious! Butter with a taste. It would be hard to leave this place when my job would be done.
As I said so, Andrea replied that you could buy the butter anywhere either on Tara or Kemper for a few cents a pound. The bread was not much of a special thing either. She’d write the recipe down for me.
“Anyway, you don’t have to bake it yourself, you can buy food everywhere here, all you need is telecom access, that’s a sort of internet on steroids. You’re going to need it anyway, if you are planning to stay here. You’ll be away for several days, and you’ll have a chance to use the telecom in the caterpillar. That’s one of our typical machines: almost a house on caterpillars, because it would not pay to take you home for the nights. You can live there for a week, hold your personal schedule and work as long as you like it. I guess, father will pay you flat for the first week and if you decide to go on – and if he appreciates your way of working – you’ll be paid by acreage. He likes to do that to newbies, and he has not yet been disappointed.
“That caterpillar has a small apartment inside, complete with a bed, telecom, shower stall and a cooking-nook. If you are not completely claustrophobic, you maybe even like it there. It is working most of the time on full auto, so you’ll have plenty time to try out the telecom and our infrastructure. Entertainment isn’t too bad either, you won’t have to listen to authochthon music all the time. But I think, Celtic music isn’t that bad.”
With these words, I heard her father enter.

VII. The Merry Ploughboy

“Good to meet you that early, so we won’t have to hurry up. Lame joke, I know, you’ll see that we’re not the urging kind in any part of business here. You’ll have a swell job to do, though. Ready for the slaughter? Or would you rather keep on flirting with Andrea?”
I blushed, sort of. She was a nice girl, but she could have been my daughter, at least telling by her age.
I packed my few things and followed Jacques to his hovercraft. We mounted and he steered the vehicle with no delay to the place where he had set up the giant caterpillar the night before.
Without the barn around it the machine looked even larger than before. Jacques gave me a brief lecture about the properties of the giant, then he left me to cope with it on my own, not without having recommended that I might stay inside the big machine for the entire time. The dust I would produce was something to write home about. The caterpillar had efficient air filters and would not let in as much as a grain of dust.
My task was to dig a trench, as straight as possible, for several miles, then to plow furrows parallel to the ditch with a single share plow. Sounded rather simple, but if there is a devil, it is hidden in the details. It took me quite a while to discover the autonavigator, which would keep the machine driving a straight line no matter how inexperienced the driver might be. A dredge would dig a trench of two feet width and four feet depth as long as I wished. It was not that difficult to handle this chunk at all, things were just not the way I was used to, mostly they were much easier and more comfortable.
Soon I found myself enjoying a cup of strong tea while I was watching the machine doing my work. Jacques had warned me about some larger rocks I might find on my way, but there was nothing this machine could not handle.
As long as I dug the trench, the dust was not more than a slight cloud in the easy wind. When, after several hours of digging, I switched to the plowshares, the dust was something different: The share dug some five and a half feet into the ground and tore it up like a giant razor blade. When I started to drag the plow through the second furrow, the surface of the first was dry enough to yield large amounts of apparently very fine dust, which blurred my vision like a thick polar fog. Infrared vision helped a little, but not really much. Jacques had warned me, this was finest quartz dust, left behind by centuries of decomposing vegetation, and the wind would eventually take care of this, but it was not a good idea to expose my lungs to theses thick clouds.
When finally the planetary day began, things would get worse: now the sun heated the dirt, and the dust would leave a cloud that would take hours to settle. One hour after sunrise, a slight breeze came to my rescue and started to dissipate the dust. The entire caterpillar was covered with a thin layer of that fine stuff, and I thought it might be a good idea to get rid of it, especially from the large glass cupola, which covered the cabin. I found a switch, reading “Dust-off” and pressed it. At first, nothing happened except for a low humming noise. The, all of a sudden, the dust on the caterpillar was blown off in an electrostatic discharge.
They seemed to have a solution for every problem. I managed to keep the machine working for quite a while, slowly getting used to it. I did not notice how far I worked myself away from the point I started until I felt mother nature’s urge. The telecom screen in that little restroom gave me a panoramic view which was really impressing. Later I learnt that the picture was taken from a small camera on top of the vessel.
The telecom could even tell me that I had plowed more than two square miles. A look at my watch told me that it had taken less than six hours to do that. This big chunk of a machine was so comfortable to drive that I had neither noticed the time span nor the acreage.
I was busily chewing miles again, when Jacques gave me a call.
“Haven’t heard from you for quite a while, Things goin’ good? Any trouble?”
“No, things are all right here. It’s almost fun to ride this big chunk.”
“No problem, we don’t tax fun or pleasure here. Anything missing?”
“No, really it’s quite comfortable here, much better than anything I have been expecting.”
“Good, if anything happens, give us a ring. Just type in ‘Call Jack’. Honestly, I wondered if you might miss anything or if you like that kind of job at all.”
“No problem, not at all. To be honest, I did not expect to find work so soon and that easy.”
“That’s the funny thing here, all folks are easy-going as long as you let them.”
“Sounds good.”
“I’ll let you alone now, see ya!”
“See ya!” but he was already off.
Not much later, I got a call from Andrea.
“Hi Ian, sorry to disturb you, but we got a bad weather warning. You’d better stop for a while and put the caterpillar in ‘grounded’ mode. That will put a Faraday cage over the cupola and ground the vessel with some thick pole until the weather gets better. I’m coming out to take you home, I think it’s not much of a fun to get stuck out there with nothing to do. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing really serious, just our version of a thunderstorm with maybe a tornado or two. This big chunk of a machine is not likely to be blown away, but it’s not too comfortable in there during a storm. Just put the control stick to ‘park’ and switch to ‘grounded mode’. I can see you right now, I’m going to land”
I did as she had told me and watched a net of thick chain links being drawn across the cupola. Thick copper wires were interwoven and I could see how they were connected to the machine’s massive hull. The sky was still clear and bright blue, though.
Right besides the caterpillar, I could see Andrea landing in a thick cloud of fine dust. She waited some time before she opened her door, apparently she did not want to get more dust into the cabin than necessary. I climbed out of my rolling fortress and joined her. She did not waste any time to formalities and turned in her tracks.
“Seems funny to take these measures just because of a thunderstorm, but the ones here on Kemper are something to write home about. All this silica piles up static electricity better than amber, and sometimes charges strive to be compensated. The tornadoes are tame compared to the tornado alley in the good old USA, but the lightning is something different. We even convert some of the static electricity to power in the summer. Now it’s not that stable, so we’re on fusion most time.”
“I’ve seen photovoltaic cells on most roofs, don’t they pay here?”
“They most certainly do, but it’s just not enough. And you want to watch comcast at night as well, don’t you?”
“Sure, if I watch at all.”
“And nights are somewhat longer than on Earth as well.”
“Is every building here protected against lightning strike?”
“You can bet it is. Those which aren’t have burnt down long ago. Maybe that’s another reason why this stupid invasion last year has failed. Our energy system is not centralized by any means and most our facilities are EMP-protected. They could take out some of our larger installments, especially several factories and our hospital, but even that only temporarily. Tough luck for the patients, though. Couple of them died, one or two on the OP table.
“But we’ve learned from that disaster. The next aggressor will see that EMP strikes now will be even less efficient than they used to be.”
“You think there will be one?”
“To be honest, I have no idea, but the possibility still exists, and it paid last time to be prepared and it will do the same next time. Nobody likes to be bush-whacked.”
As she steered into her farm’s yard, the sky was almost completely covered with yellowish-brownish tinted clouds. A gusty breeze came up and dust devils were already dancing their ballet across the plastered part of the yard.
She steered the hovercraft into a hangar, closed the large doors and shoved me to the door, which connected house and hangar.
Apparently, they had a few visitors, and I thought I might intrude their privacy, but Andrea dissipated my concerns.
One of their guests was wearing several bandages, the other I knew already. Clarissa and her nice daughter greeted me like friends and introduced me to Lester.
He looked quite interesting with a bandage here and a plaster there, but a die-hard smile in his face. That smile got much brighter when he noticed the gun I was carrying in the kydex holster.
“Got used to it in no time as I see. I hope you like it!”
“What did you do with it, it’s the most accurate gun I have ever shot!”
“Changed tolerances, made a new barrel bushing and a minor trigger job, all could have been done easier and cheaper in the factory, but for some reason they’ll never do it. Instead they are manufacturing guns which are no use for the soldiers whose lives depend on them.”
“Disposable weapons for disposable soldiers.”
“Ain’t that a trifle to cynical for an ex-soldier like you?”
“Mountie. But you are right, a couple of weeks ago, I would not have said this.”
“Blame it all on our bad influence. And get used to it, it’s contagious.”
“By the way, how is it possible that you were in ICU the other day and now you’re busy again?”
“Well, we’re frontier people here, not hillbillies. We’ve got a couple of devices here and methods, your FDA would never approve of, but these things help us a lot. Wound healing is accelerated by special vitamin cocktails, which are deposited in the wound cavity and our surgery techniques are as sophisticated as possible. And this possibly goes a lot further than on Earth. The device that helped me most of all, however was my own construction.”
“How that?”
“I am a gunsmith by trade, that means I am used to work with very small mechanical things, and that’s why sometimes a surgeon who has to do some tricky surgery comes to me and asks me to build tools with which he can fulfill his task without doing too much damage. One year ago, a month or so before the war, I have built a special set of pliers for a surgeon. He had a client, a little girl, who had been injured with a nailgun. She and her brother had been building a cabin, and her brother had hit a stone hard piece of wood under the wrong angle. The nail had fragmented and a short but very sharp piece hat penetrated her skull and settled exactly between two of the thin membranes which cover the brain. The surgeon was too scared to open the skull too much and do more damage than the original injury, but he would not allow the fragment to remain inside the skull either. So I built a pair of thin and flexible robot pliers, he cut a .25” hole into her skull and pulled the fragment out of its delicate position. No blood vessels injured, no damage done. The insurance paid me a premium, because I had prevented much higher damage from happening.
“When that bloody amateur blew up his rifle in my face, a few fragments of the barrel hit my skull, most were deflected, but one was settling exactly at the same place where the girl had had its nail. So the surgeon pulled the same stunt again and got the steel out of my skull. He was as cautious as hell, and that’s why I had to spend a week in ICU, instead of just two days. I guess, the insurance won’t pay me twice for my pair of pliers, but I’m happy anyway.”
“I see, but that’s one generous insurance company.”
“Hell, no, that’s an contradiction in terms, if I ever have seen one. They are as thrifty as I want them to be. They are somewhat intelligent, though. When they notice that someone has done all he could to limit the damage, they reward him. They would have had to pay a fortune for the girl if she would have been paralyzed let’s say for five or six decades. So they made sure we would do anything to reduce the damage. Good for me, even better for the little girl, good for the insurance company, good for their clients, because the rates would not skyrocket.”
“Can’t that be abused?”
“Sure, but the incentive not to abuse is greater than the profits of one stunt you can pull before the insurance cancels the contract. If you get caught cheating one company or person here, most others will shun you and never again do any business with you. Some folks who have made themselves enemies to everyone here make to the mountains, where they dig gold or something else, but most of them leave for another planet and never come back.”
“Good riddance.”
“There is an even better way. Most folks never get their money back, once they have been defrauded. Some of them have tendencies towards a bad temper when cheated and they blow the fraudster to pieces. If they can prove the damage done to them, it’s ok. Makes life interesting for an immoral person here and saves us from raising a class of professional criminals.”
As if there was someone out there who would disagree, a long thunder followed a blinding bolt of lightning outside. I could feel the house vibrating in resonance. The lights did not flicker, though.

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