Let me tell you of the worlds I’ve left behind.
Earth you know; everyone knows it. It’s the birthplace of humanity, although at this point not many consider it our “home” planet—Phoenix has had that job since the Colonial Union was created and became the guiding force for expanding and protecting our race in the universe. But you never forget where you come from.
Being from Earth in this universe is like being a small-town kid who gets on the bus, goes to the big city and spends his entire afternoon gawking at all the tall buildings. Then he gets mugged for the crime of marveling at this strange new world, which has such things in it, because the things in it don’t have much time or sympathy for the new kid in town, and they’re happy to kill him for what he’s got in his suitcase. The small-town kid learns this fast, because he can’t go home again.
I spent seventy-five years on Earth, living mostly in the same small Ohio town and sharing most of that life with the same woman. She died and stayed behind. I lived and I left.
The next world is metaphorical. The Colonial Defense Forces took me off Earth and kept the parts of me they wanted: my consciousness, and some small part of my DNA. From the latter they built me a new body, which was young and quick and strong and beautiful and only partially human. They stuffed my consciousness inside of it, and gave me not nearly enough time to glory in my second youth. Then they took this beautiful body that was now me and spent the next several years actively trying to get it killed by throwing me at every hostile alien race it could.
There were a lot of those. The universe is vast, but the number of worlds suitable for human life is surprisingly small, and as it happens space is filled with numerous other intelligent species who want the same worlds we do. Very few of these species, it seems, are into the concept of sharing; we’re certainly not. We all fight, and the worlds we can inhabit swap back and forth between us until one or another gets a grip on it so tight we can’t be pried off. Over a couple of centuries, we humans have managed this trick on several dozen worlds, and failed this trick on dozens more. None of this has made us very many friends.
I spent six years in this world. I fought and I nearly died, more than once. I had friends, most of whom died but some of whom I saved. I met a woman who was achingly like the one I shared my life with on Earth, but who was nevertheless entirely her own person. I defended the Colonial Union, and in doing so I believed I was keeping humanity alive in the universe.
At the end of it the Colonial Defense Forces took the part of me that had always been me and stuffed it into a third and final body. This body was young, but not nearly as quick and strong. It was, after all, only human. But this body would not be asked to fight and die. I missed being as strong as a cartoon superhero. I didn’t miss every alien creature I met trying very hard to kill me. It was a fair trade.
The next world is likely unknown to you. Stand again on Earth, our old home, where billions still live and dream of the stars. Look up in the sky, at the constellation Lynx, hard by Ursa Major. There’s a star there, yellow like our sun, with six major planets. The third one, appropriately enough, is a counterfeit of Earth: 96 percent of its circumference, but with a slightly larger iron core, so it has 101 percent of its mass (you don’t notice that 1 percent much). Two moons: one two-thirds the size of Earth’s moon, but closer than Luna, so in the sky it takes up the same amount of real estate. The second moon, a captured asteroid, is much smaller and closer in. It’s in an unstable orbit; eventually it will tumble and fall into the planet below. Best estimate is this will happen in about a quarter of a million years. The natives are not terribly concerned at the moment.
This world was found by humans nearly seventy-five years ago; the Ealan had a colony there but the Colonial Defense Forces corrected that. Then the Ealan, shall we say, checked the math on that equation and it was another couple of years before it was all sorted out. When it was, the Colonial Union opened the world to colonists from Earth, mostly from India. They arrived in waves; the first one after the planet was secured from the Ealan, and the second shortly after the Subcontinental War on Earth, when the Occupation-backed probationary government offered the most notable supporters of the Chowdhury regime the choice of colonization or imprisonment. Most went into exile, taking their families with them. These people didn’t so much dream of the stars as had them forced upon them.
Given the people who live on the planet, you would think it would have a name that reflects their heritage. You would be wrong. The planet is called Huckleberry, named no doubt by some Twain-loving apparatchik of the Colonial Union. Huckleberry’s large moon is Sawyer; the small one is Becky. Its three major continents are Samuel, Langhorne and Clemens; from Clemens there is a long, curling string of volcanic islands known as the Livy Archipelago, set in the Calaveras Ocean. Most of the prominent features were dubbed in various aspects Twainania before the first settlers arrived; they seem to have accepted this with good grace.
Stand on this planet with me now. Look up in the sky, in the direction of the constellation Lotus. In it there is a star, yellow like the one this planet circles, around which I was born, two other lives ago. From here it is so far away as to be invisible to the eye, which is often how I feel about the life I lived there.
My name is John Perry. I am eighty-eight years old. I have lived on this planet for nearly eight years now. It is my home, which I share with my wife and my adopted daughter. Welcome to Huckleberry. In this story, it’s the next world I leave behind. But not the final one.
The story of how I left Huckleberry begins—as do all worthy stories—with a goat.
Savitri Guntupalli, my assistant, didn’t even look up from her book as I came back from lunch. “There’s a goat in your office,” she said.
“Hmmmm,” I said. “I thought we’d sprayed for those.”
This got an upward glance, which counted as a victory as these things go. “It brought the Chengelpet brothers with it,” she said.
“Crap,” I said. The last pair of brothers who fought as much as the Chengelpet brothers were named Cain and Abel, and at least one of them finally took some direct action. “I thought I told you not to let those two in my office when I wasn’t around.”
“You said no such thing,” Savitri said.
“Let’s make it a standing order,” I said.
“And even if you had,” Savitri continued, setting down her book, “this assumes that either Chengelpet would listen to me, which neither would. Aftab stomped through first with the goat and Nissim followed right after. Neither of them so much as looked in my direction.”
“I don’t want to have to deal with the Chengelpets,” I said. “I just ate.”
Savitri reached over to the side of the desk, grabbed her wastebasket and placed it on top of her desk. “By all means, vomit first,” she said.
I had met Savitri several years before while I was touring the colonies as a representative of the Colonial Defense Forces, talking it up to the various colonies I was sent to. At the stop in the village of New Goa in the Huckleberry colony, Savitri stood up and called me a tool of the imperial and totalitarian regime of the Colonial Union. I liked her immediately. When I mustered out of the CDF, I decided to settle in New Goa. I was offered the position of village ombudsman, which I took, and was surprised on the first day of work to find Savitri there, telling me that she was going to be my assistant whether I liked it or not.
“Remind me again why you took this job,” I said to Savitri, over the wastebasket.
“Sheer perversity,” Savitri said. “Are you going to vomit or not?”
“I think I’ll keep it in,” I said. She grabbed the wastebasket and set it in its former position, and then picked up her book to resume reading.
I had an idea. “Hey, Savitri,” I said. “Want my job?”
“Sure,” she said, opening her book. “I’ll start right after you finish with the Chengelpets.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Savitri grunted. She had returned to her literary adventures. I steeled myself and walked through the door of my office.
The goat in the middle of the floor was cute. The Chengelpets, sitting in the chairs in front of my desk, were less so.
“Aftab,” I said, nodding to the older brother. “Nissim,” I said, nodding to the younger. “And friend,” I said, nodding to the goat. I took a seat. “What can I do for you this afternoon?”
“You can give me permission to shoot my brother, Ombudsman Perry,” Nissim said.
“I’m not sure that’s in my job description,” I said. “And anyway, it seems a little drastic. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on.”
Nissim pointed to his brother. “This bastard has stolen my seed,” he said.
“Pardon?” I said.
“My seed,” Nissim said. “Ask him. He cannot deny it.”
I blinked and turned toward Aftab. “Stealing your brother’s seed, then, is it, Aftab?”
“You must forgive my brother,” Aftab said. “He is prone to hysteria, as you know. What he means to say is that one of his goats wandered from his pasture into mine and impregnated this nanny here, and now he claims that I have stolen his goat’s sperm.”
“It wasn’t just any goat,” Nissim said. “It was Prabhat, my prizewinner. I stud him out for a very good price, and Aftab didn’t want to pay the price. So he stole my seed.”
“It’s Prabhat’s seed, you idiot,” Aftab said. “And it’s not my fault you take such poor care of your fence that your goat was able to get onto my land.”
“Oh, that’s rich,” Nissim said. “Ombudsman Perry, I’ll have you know that fence wire was cut. Prabhat was tempted onto his land.”
“You’re delusional,” Aftab said. “And even if it were true, which it is not, so what? You have your precious Prabhat back.”
“But now you have this pregnant goat,” Nissim said. “A pregnancy that you did not pay for, and which I did not give permission for. It’s theft, pure and simple. And more than that, you’re trying to ruin me.”
“What are you talking about?” Aftab said.
“You’re trying to breed a new stud,” Nissim said to me, and pointed at the goat, which was nibbling the back of Aftab’s chair. “Don’t deny it. This is your best nanny. By breeding it with Prabhat you’ll have a buck you can stud out. You’re trying to undercut my business. Ask him, Ombudsman Perry. Ask him what his goat is carrying.”
I looked back to Aftab. “What is your goat carrying, Aftab?”
“By sheer coincidence, one of the fetuses is male,” Aftab said.
“I want it aborted,” Nissim said.
“It’s not your goat,” Aftab said.
“Then I’ll take the kid when it’s born,” Nissim said. “As payment for the seed you stole.”
“This again,” Aftab said, and looked over to me. “You see what I am dealing with, Ombudsman Perry. He lets his goats run rampant across the countryside, impregnating at will, and then he demands payment for his own shoddy animal husbandry.”
Nissim bellowed in outrage and began yelling and gesticulating wildly at his brother; Aftab followed suit. The goat came around the desk and eyed me curiously. I reached into my desk and fed the goat a candy I found there. “You and I don’t actually need to be here for this,” I said to the goat. The goat didn’t respond, but I could tell she agreed with me.
As originally planned, the village ombudsman’s job was supposed to be simple: Whenever the New Goa villagers had a problem with the local or district government, they would come to me, and I could help them run through the red tape and get things done. It was, in fact, just the sort of job you give a war hero who is otherwise useless to the daily life of a largely rural colony; he’s got just enough notoriety with the higher-ups that when he shows up on the doorstep, they have to pay attention to him.
The thing was that after a couple of months of this, the New Goa villagers started coming to me with their other problems. “Oh, we don’t want to bother with the officials,” I was told by one of the villagers, after I questioned why I was suddenly the go-to guy for everything from farm equipment advice to frontline marriage counseling. “It’s easier and quicker to come to you.” Rohit Kulkarni, New Goa’s administrator, was delighted with this state of affairs, since I was now handling the problems that used to come to him first. It gave him more time to fish and play dominoes at the tea shop.
Most of the time this new and expanded definition of my ombudsman’s duties was perfectly fine. It was nice to help people, and it was also nice that people listened to my advice. On the other hand any public servant is likely to tell you that just a few annoying people in their community will take up the vast majority of their time. In New Goa, those roles were occupied by the Chengelpet brothers.
No one knew why they hated each other so much. I thought it might be something with their parents, but Bhajan and Niral were lovely people who were just as mystified about it as anyone. Some people just don’t get along with some other people, and unfortunately, these two people who did not get along happened to be brothers.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if in fact they hadn’t built farms right next to each other and thus were in each other’s faces and business most of the time. At one point early in my tenure I suggested to Aftab, whom I regarded as the slightly more rational Chengelpet, that he might consider checking out a new plot of land that had just been cleared out on the other side of the village, because living away from Nissim might solve the majority of his problems with him. “Oh, he’d like that,” Aftab said, in a perfectly reasonable tone of voice. After that I abandoned any hope of rational discourse on the matter and accepted that my karma required me to suffer through the occasional visit from the Outraged Chengelpet Brothers.
“All right,” I said, quieting the brothers down from their fratriphobic rantings. “Here’s what I think. I don’t think it really matters how our lady friend the goat got knocked up, so let’s not focus on that. But you both agree that it was Nissim’s buck that did the deed.”
Both the Chengelpets nodded; the goat stayed modestly quiet. “Fine. Then the two of you are in business together,” I said. “Aftab, you can keep the kid after it’s born and stud it out if you like. But the first six times you do, Nissim gets the full stud fee, and after that half of your stud fee goes to your brother.”
“He’ll just stud it out for free the first six times,” Nissim said.
“Then let’s make the stud fee after those first six times the average of those first six,” I said. “So if he tries to screw you he’ll end up screwing himself, too. And this is a small village, Nissim. People here won’t stud with Aftab if they think the only reason he’s hiring out his goat is to mess with your livelihood. There’s a fine line between value and being a bad neighbor.”
“And what if I don’t want to be in business with him?” Aftab said.
“Then you can sell the kid to Nissim,” I said. Nissim opened his mouth to protest. “Yes, sell,” I said, before he could complain. “Take the kid to Murali and get an appraisal. That’ll be the price. Murali doesn’t like either of you very much so you’ll get a fair estimate. Okay?”
The Chengelpets thought it over, which is to say they racked their brains to see if there was any way either one of them was more unhappy with this state of affairs than the other. Eventually they both seemed to come to the conclusion that they were equally displeased, which in this situation was the optimal result. They both nodded their assent.
“Good,” I said. “Now get out of here before there’s a mess on my rug.”
“My goat wouldn’t do that,” Aftab said.
“It’s not the goat I’m worried about,” I said, shooing them out. They left; Savitri appeared in the door.
“You’re in my seat,” she said, nodding to my chair.
“Screw you,” I said, propping up my feet on the desk. “If you’re not going to handle the annoying cases, you’re not ready for the big chair.”
“In that case I will return to my humble role as your assistant and let you know that while you were entertaining the Chengelpets, the constable called,” Savitri said.
“What about?” I asked.
“Didn’t say,” Savitri said. “Hung up. You know the constable. Very abrupt.”
“Tough but fair, that’s the motto,” I said. “If it was really important there’d be a message, so I’ll worry about that later. In the meantime I’ll catch up with my paperwork.”
“You don’t have paperwork,” Savitri said. “You give it all to me.”
“Is it done?” I asked.
“As far as you know, yes,” Savitri said.
“Then I think I’ll relax and bask in my superior management skills,” I said.
“I’m glad you didn’t use the wastebasket to vomit earlier,” Savitri said. “Because now there’s a place for mine to go.” She retreated back to her desk before I could think up a good retort.
We’d been like this since after the first month we’d worked together. It took her that first month to get used to the fact that even though I was former military I wasn’t actually a colonialist tool, or at the very least if I was, I was one with common sense and a reasonable sense of humor. Having established I wasn’t there to spread my hegemony over her village, she relaxed enough to start mocking me. It’s been our relationship for seven years, and it’s a good one.
With all the paperwork done and all the problems of the village solved, I did what anyone in my position would do: I took a nap. Welcome to the rough and tumble world of colonial village ombudsmanning. It’s possible it’s done differently elsewhere, but if it is, I don’t want to know.
I woke up in time to see Savitiri closing up the office for the day. I waved good-bye to her and after a few more minutes of immobility hauled my own ass out of the chair and through the door, on the way home. Along the way I happened to see the constable coming toward me on the other side of the road. I crossed the road, walked up to the constable and kissed my local law enforcement official full on the lips.
“You know I don’t like it when you do that,” Jane said, after I was done.
“You don’t like it when I kiss you?” I asked.
“Not when I’m on the job,” Jane said. “It erodes my authority.”
I smiled at the thought of some malfeasant thinking Jane, a former Special Forces soldier, was soft because she kissed her husband. The ass-kicking that would ensue would be terrible in its magnitude. However, I didn’t say that. “Sorry,” I said. “I’ll try not to erode your authority anymore.”
“Thank you,” Jane said. “I was coming to see you, anyway, since you didn’t return my call.”
“I was incredibly busy today,” I said.
“Savitri briefed me on just how busy you were when I called back,” Jane said.
“Oops,” I said.
“Oops,” Jane agreed. We started walking in the direction of our home. “What I was going to tell you is that you could expect Gopal Boparai to come by tomorrow to find out what his community
service would be. He was drunk and disorderly again. He was yelling at a cow.”
“Bad karma,” I said.
“The cow thought so, too,” Jane said. “It butted him in the chest and sent him through a shop window.”
“Is Go okay?” I asked.
“Scratches,” Jane said. “The pane popped out. Plastic. Didn’t break.”
“This is the third time this year,” I said. “He should be up in front of the actual magistrate, not me.”
“That’s what I told him, too,” Jane said. “But he’d be up for a mandatory forty days in the district gaol and Shashi is due in a couple of weeks. She needs him around more than he needs gaol.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll figure out something for him.”
“How was your day?” Jane asked. “Besides the nap, I mean.”
“I had a Chengelpet day,” I said. “This time with a goat.”
Jane and I chatted about our day on our walk home, like we do every day on our walk home, to the small farm we keep just outside the village proper. As we turned onto our road we ran into our daughter Zoë, walking Babar the mutt, who was typically deliriously happy to see us.
“He knew you were coming,” Zoë said, slightly out of breath. “Took off halfway down the road. Had to run to keep up.”
“Nice to know we were missed,” I said. Jane petted Babar, who wagged up a storm. I gave Zoë a peck on the cheek.
“You two have a visitor,” Zoë said. “He showed up at the house about an hour ago. In a floater.”
No one in town had a floater; they were ostentatious and impractical for a farming community. I glanced over to Jane, who shrugged, as if to say, I’m not expecting anyone. “Who did he say he was?” I asked.
“He didn’t,” Zoë said. “All he said was that he was an old friend of yours, John. I told him I could call you and he said he was happy to wait.”
“Well, what does he look like, at least?” I asked.
“Young,” Zoë said. “Kinda cute.”
“I don’t think I know any cute guys,” I said. “That’s more your department, teenage daughter.”
Zoë crossed her eyes and gave a mock sneer. “Thanks, ninety-year-old dad. If you had let me finish speaking, you would have heard the clue that tells me you might actually know him. Which is that he’s also green.”
This got another shared glance between me and Jane. CDF members had green skin, a result of modified chlorophyll that gave them extra energy for combat. Both Jane and I had had green skin once; I was back to my original hue and Jane was allowed to choose a more standard skin tone when she changed bodies.
“He didn’t say what he wanted?” Jane asked Zoë.
“Nope,” Zoë said. “And I didn’t ask. I just figured I’d come find you and give you advance warning. I left him on the front porch.”
“Probably sneaking around the house by now,” I said.
“Doubtful,” Zoë said. “I left Hickory and Dickory to watch him.”
I grinned. “That should keep him in one place,” I said.
“My thought exactly,” Zoë said.
“You are wise beyond your years, teenage daughter,” I said.
“Makes up for you, ninety-year-old dad,” she said. She jogged back to the house, Babar padding behind.
“Such attitude,” I said to Jane. “She gets it from your side.”
“She’s adopted,” Jane said. “And I’m not the smart-ass in the family.”
“These are details,” I said, and took her hand. “Come on. I want to see just how scared shitless our guest is.”
We found our guest on the porch swing, watched intently and silently by our two Obin. I recognized him immediately.
“General Rybicki,” I said. “This is a surprise.”
“Hello, Major,” Rybicki said, referring to my former rank. He pointed to the Obin. “You’ve made some interesting friends since the last time I saw you.”
“Hickory and Dickory,” I said. “They’re my daughter’s companions. Perfectly nice, unless they think you’re a threat to her.”
“And then what happens?” Rybicki asked.
“It varies,” I said. “But it’s usually quick.”
“Wonderful,” Rybicki said. I excused the Obin; they went off to find Zoë.
“Thank you,” Rybicki said. “Obin make me nervous.”
“That’s the point,” Jane said.
“I realize that,” Rybicki said. “If you don’t mind me asking, why does your daughter have Obin bodyguards?”
“They’re not bodyguards, they’re companions,” Jane said. “Zoë is our adopted daughter. Her biological father is Charles Boutin.” This got a raised eyebrow from Rybicki; he was of sufficiently advanced rank to know about Boutin. “The Obin revere Boutin, but he’s dead. They have a desire to know his daughter, so they sent these two to be with her.”
“And this doesn’t bother her,” Rybicki said.
“She grew up with Obin as nannies and protectors,” Jane said. “She’s comfortable with them.”
“And it doesn’t bother you,” Rybicki said.
“They watch and protect Zoë,” I said. “They help out around here. And their presence with us is a part of the treaty the Colonial Union has with the Obin. Having them here seems like a small price to pay for having them on our side.”
“That’s true enough,” Rybicki said, and stood up. “Listen, Major. I have a proposition for you.” He nodded to Jane. “For both of you, actuaut it where those two might hear, if it’s all the same. Is there some place we can talk privately?”
I glanced over at Jane. She smiled thinly. “I know a place,” she said.
Copyright © 2007 by John Scalzi. All rights reserved.