Harris smoothed his mustache, and then stuck two fingers in his mouth to whistle. On the third try, the everyone in the huge room was silent. “Right. May I have your attention please?” It wasn’t a useful question, as every eye was already on him, finally. He still paused another moment.
“Right. On behalf of the Ministry of Colonization, I welcome you. My name is Harris Cambridge. I’ll be your guide and leader on this journey.” He looked at the singles and groups before him, none of whom were mingling with anyone else. “Time will pass quicker than you think. Very soon we will be leaving for the unknown. Before you leave, Secretary Capobianco will give you a new checklist to help you make sure you’ve not forgotten anything. Please give him your paperwork that you should have with you, including your certificate of health and immunization from your doctor, your spousal release, and your financial paperwork.
“Do not put anything in your crate that you will need immediately. One of your carrying bags should include a blanket, a canteen, and food. And of course personal hygiene items. Oh. And might I suggest that you get to know at least a few of your traveling companions before we go? That’s the other reason for being here tonight. When we go into the next room, you’ll notice that each table is set for ten people. This will give you a chance to talk to others before we leave. Enjoy your meal! If I don’t get a chance to talk to you sooner, I’ll see you at the dock on Saturday morning.”
With that he made a little bow and headed toward the door at the far end of the room. The silence ended as people followed him to the next room to eat dinner.
Saturday morning was dawning grey as the people arrived on the Bay of Sorrows docks. Their crates were labeled and taken aboard ship as the people were checked off on clipboards for the last time. No news reporters nor photographers were here; this wasn’t a big deal any more. Groups left, no one heard from them again, and life went on. One could only hope they were living happily ever after somewhere.
Harris Cambridge stood guard as a ship’s captain would. The captain himself was having a stiff drink. He didn’t mind traveling around the world for months at a time, but he’d never heard a good thing about traveling across this Bay to the other side. Ships were lost or destroyed on the short trip. The distance would only seem to require a few hours to cross, but legend said it would take nearly a day, and it wouldn’t be a very happy day.
The legends were right, of course. Dense fog, choppy seas, some lightning and thunder for special effects, gusts of heavy rain and high winds – it was basically a nasty trip. No one died, though, and aside from strong damage to the sails, the ship survived the passage fairly well. Nevertheless, the colonists (and dogs) were delighted to reach land.
Apparently an earlier group had rigged a dock of sorts – out of what looked very much like the remains of their ship. That was actually the only sign of human life when they reached land. The ship was emptied of crates, people, wagons, pack animals, a few dogs and cats, and small firearms. The burly seamen loaded the crates onto the wagons and harnessed the animals. Then the ship left, and the people stood there a moment, looking around.
Harris was tempted to just have the people remain where they were, and build a town here at the port of entry. It could become a rich town as trade was begun with their nearby homeland and all future travelers passed through here.. and yet … the pull of exploring the unknown won out, as it had with the previous colonists apparently.
Looking to the south and southeast, the guide saw mountains in the distance. “Right. Well, let’s aim for those, then.” He pulled a paper out of his pocket and consulted it.
“I have a schedule here, a chart for guiding the animals, making the cooking fires, standing guard at night, and all that. This should keep it simple while we’re on the road.” He looked around. “Well, while we’re on the move then. Right. Let’s go.”
Soon everyone was sorted and the trek began. It took nearly half an hour for the novelty and excitement of being an explorer to wear off. Being a colonist sounded a whole lot better when one could envision the colony itself. The idea of traipsing across wild land with no amenities was quite a different story. It didn’t help that the mountains made no effort to appear closer, no matter how long the group traveled that day.
“What?” Daria switched Julio to her other hip and looked at her husband.
“I could really use a nice, cold beer right now.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” She looked over at Ricardo and shook her head. A nice bubble bath and a hot cup of tea, on the other hand, would be fabulous. Not only was indoor plumbing a distant memory that probably wouldn’t be repeated in her lifetime, but the luxury of a hot soak in the tub was usually reserved for the childless. She now had three children to take care of, and once the novelty of being away from the rest of their family wore off, they’d be as whiny as everyone else’s kids.
Sr. Damian trudged along with Sisters Matthias and Gregory. They’d been well trained to never complain, but hiking in a full habit just wasn’t the least bit comfortable. On the plus side, she’d be warmer at night than those dressed in ordinary clothes. Somehow it never occurred to her that there would be no road here, at all. Not even a decent path. The terrain simply looked as her own country must have at some point. It was really weird to imagine that what she was doing wasn’t all that different from what the original settlers to this planet did. Only the original colonists had been the cream of their home planet, in theory. Now the group she was with were simply those people who were willing to make the trip and could afford the fee.
Each had their own reasons for making the journey, of course. Sr. Gregory was loud and clear in her proclamations that she was going to spread the Gospel, making sure no area of this new world was without her religion. Sr. Matthias was young and needed adventure, still — especially since most of the other sisters were older women. As for Sr. Damian, the trip gave her a purpose, even if it was a minor one. She wasn’t sure she wanted to continue living the way she had been, but the rules for leaving had been written when everyone in the Order lived on Earth. She couldn’t exactly send a letter back to that planet to get a dispensation from her vows from a pope. There wasn’t even any way of knowing if the position of Pope still existed! It was easier in the end to just travel to a knew place and hope for the best. Maybe the change of scenery, and the novelty of being actually needed, would help invigorate her. If not, she could always take off for another colony. How big could this place be, after all? It shouldn’t be too hard to find another group, and to join them as a regular person.
The colonists ate on the move, pushing forward until it was nearly too dark to see. Then the fire patrol made cooking fires and people cooked up whatever they’d brought with them that was perishable.
“Mr. Cambridge,” January addressed the leader, “I’m curious about something.” As most people were still strangers to each other and weren’t talking much yet, they turned their attention to the young-ish woman.
“Well, it’s pretty clear that the groups before us just pushed ahead until the found some place, but we’re nowhere near any of those places, right? I mean, there’s no sign of civilization anywhere — no lights, fires, cooking smells, sounds — nothing to show people are here.”
“Right. They may have followed the coastline, or aimed for the mountains as we’re doing.”
“Well then,” January continued, “why isn’t this grassy stuff taller?”
“I beg your pardon? I don’t think I understand.”
“The grass. Why isn’t it taller? Isn’t this wild, untamed territory? No one here to cut the grass, plant gardens, make a sidewalk, etc. It’s been a year since the last group arrived. The grass should be pretty tall by then, after a year, shouldn’t it?”
The guide stared at her, his expression showing dawning comprehension.
“Really, this stuff is pretty short. We’ve had no problems walking through it.”
“Maybe there’s goats here, and they eat the grass,” piped up Raúl now-Blake. It seemed like a fairly logical conclusion to him.
“That’d take an awful lot of goats, to be eating all the grass from the Bay to here!” Amy squeezed the hand of the man sitting beside her. She didn’t really want to imagine what was actually eating the grass, but she was definitely glad that the man with her wasn’t Mitch. He would’ve been useless in danger, not to mention really boring to travel with. With Zeke she had a greater sense of being on an adventure together, and yet being protected.
“Well, if it’s animals eating this grass, we’d better keep an eye out for them! I’m surprised them dogs haven’t said anything!” Zeke squeezed Amy’s hand back.
“Still, that means an awful lot of grazing animals, and we haven’t seen any animals besides what we brought with us!” January didn’t want to be the only nervous person tonight. She really didn’t think they’d be safe tonight, but she was also hoping to hook up still with a man who was traveling alone, preferably one who had that protection instinct. “Surely, the food chain being what it is, that many grazing animals would mean predatory animals as well, wouldn’t it?”
“Unless the predatory ones already ate the grazers.” Jeff Wdowicki figured this would be a good time to enter the conversation. He’d been wondering what to talk to January about; now he had a handy topic. “But, of course, if the grazers were all already eaten, that’d leave hungry predators.”
Harris Cambridge was suddenly a lot more interested in the dogs, Debit and Credit. Perhaps they’d come in handy after all. He’d have to double the night watch, though, especially since his own fate was so intricately tied in with everyone else’s at the moment.
The night watch set itself up. “Mr. Cambridge?” Zeke was on the first shift, and looked at the weapon in his hands. “If we see some animal, are we expected to shoot it? Or wake everyone up? Or what?”
Harris sighed, but Arthur Bradford jumped into the conversation. “Do we have enough bullets? What if we use them all up tonight, or by tomorrow night? How will we survive after that?”
“One day at a time. Really. If something comes up, try to handle it. We have a long time ahead of us. And we need everyone to take their shifts, so they need enough sleep to be alert.”