Terra Day 46
“Snurkles,” Creena puffed, struggling to heft a bale of hay onto the pickup’s tailgate. It was time to deal with the alfalfa Mr. Benson had mowed several days before, introducing her to yet another aspect of farm life. It was mid-afternoon and they were almost done, much to her relief.
“It sure would be nice if they’d at least give Aggie back.”
“Who’s Aggie?” Allen asked, glancing over from where he was stacking bales in the back of the truck.
“My ‘troid. She could do anything. I wonder where she is and what they did to her. Dumb snurks. . .”
She picked some dried alfalfa from her hair then scratched her back against the tailgate, stopping when she noticed he was smiling at her. Not a sneaky, snurky smile, like Dirck used to give her, but a real smile topped by a pair of wide, blue eyes and sun-streaked hair that shone like an aura of gold.
“I think it’s absolutely cool that you’ve traveled in outer space,” he said. “When I watched NASA send a rocket to the moon and men actually walk on it I knew that was what I wanted to do someday, no matter what it takes. At the very least I want to be an engineer and build stuff that goes into space, even if I can’t go myself.”
“Your planet certainly has a low technology rating,” she replied. “We didn’t see anything when we came in except a few satellites. No major space stations or intragalactic traffic to speak of at all.”
“Actually, we have a space station. It’s called Skylab. It has three astronauts onboard who conduct various experiments. Is that cool or what?”
“Oh! So that’s what that was,” Creena commented. “Right before Aggie and I landed we saw a small satellite with people in it. When did they send someone to your moon?”
Allen pursed his lips and looked pensive. “I’m pretty sure the first time was five years ago. I know it was summer because we were listening to it on a portable radio while we hauled hay, just like we’re doing now. They went a few more times then started building a new vehicle they’re calling the space shuttle which will let us go into space all the time. It won’t be done for a few more years, though. It should be up and running about the time I graduate from college. I can hardly wait.”
He held her gaze a moment, excitement evident in his eyes, then he jumped down from the truck and sauntered off for another bale while she crossed to the next row pondering how exciting he thought going into space would be. As far as she was concerned it was a monumental bore. But she’d grown up with it making it one more fact of life that didn’t impress her in the slightest. He probably wouldn’t believe how far behind Earth was technologically, even if she told him what was normal for her.
Yet, it seemed strange they were actually so backward given the fact she and Aggie had definitely seen a few intragalactic spacecraft in the vicinity. Clearly they were being watched or something, probably because they had such a nice planet. No telling.
She glanced up at the sky, still amazed at Allen’s enthusiasm. It was hot, several hours of daylight remaining though the sun was leaning toward the western horizon. Sweat dripped from her temples and down her back. Snurkles, did hauling hay itch. But the discomfort was purely physical, her reserve dropping like a barometer before a storm. The Bensons almost made work fun. They did most things together and simply accepted it had to be done. They seldom wasted time or energy on arguments or complaints.
Up ahead two-year-old Billy was hanging out of the truck window from his mother’s lap as she guided it slowly across the field rutted with irrigation channels. Creena waved and smiled, wondering how Deven was doing on Cyraria. Her little brother would fit in anywhere. He was always the model of compliance, yet there were certain directives within him that he’d follow whether they defied logic or not. He was the perfect blend of Miran and Esheronian, never noncompliant, but willing to follow his instincts when it wasn’t forbidden.
He hated it when she and Dirck argued. She wondered if he missed her, then instantaneously knew that he did, a lot. She almost felt his presence, in a warm but strange way, and wondered what he was doing on Cyraria. Everyone else, too, for that matter. Since it was primitive, maybe they were doing some of the same things.
“What’s it like to travel in space?”
Allen’s voice barely carried above the roar of the pickup as Mrs. Benson shifted into gear and moved forward several meters. Creena returned from her thoughts and stared deep into his questioning eyes. They were the color of the sky, so alive against his well-tanned face. He kicked at a broken bale then stooped over to pick up two pieces of twine and roll them into a ball.
“I’ll bet it’s neat,” he prodded, staring expectantly at her again. Creena met his wistful, so-blue eyes.
“I suppose,” she shrugged. “Actually, it’s really boring. Like being locked in your room for weeks and weeks with nothing to do.”
“I think it’s pretty boring here. I wish I could go with you when you leave.” He hopped into the back of the truck to stack the most recent additions, expression blocked by sun’s glare. When he jumped down the truck lurched forward again and Creena walked briskly for the next row of bales, Allen matching her stride.
“You mean you’d leave your family, just like that?” she asked.
He sat on the nearest bale to catch his breath and scratch his neck. “Oh, I don’t know. I guess.”
“I thought you people liked each other.”
“We do. It’s just I get sick of it here. All summer we help Dad work the farm, then all winter we go to school. There’s always something I have to do. I’d love to get away from it all for a while.”
Creena tried to laugh but couldn’t. “I used to feel the same way.”
“But not any more?”
“Not really. I’d give anything to be back with my family right now, boring or not. I might even be able to stand my snurky brother, Dirck. Maybe.”
“You have a brother?” Allen asked, eyes wide.
“Two. Deven’s pretty cute. He’s about Jimmy’s age, maybe a little younger. But Dirck’s a total snurk.”
“How old is Dirck?”
“Your age,” she said quietly, stifling a smile.
“Is that so?” Allen laughed. “So what makes him a snurk?”
“Because he hates me. All he does is pick on me and tease me, make me look stupid and remind me I can’t do anything right.”
“Do you hate him, too?”
“Yes!” Creena snapped, but something inside her wrenched and she walked evasively toward the last block of hay. Allen’s voice was behind her a moment later.
“I’ll bet he doesn’t really hate you, Creena,” he said gently.
“Ha!” she argued, refusing to look at him as she tried to work her fingers beneath the scratchy twine. “Then why does he treat me like an asteroid fungus and act so mean all the time?”
Allen shooed her back so he could grab the bale himself. “Because—that’s—the—way—brothers—are,” he panted, moving toward the truck. “And I’ll bet he’s really sorry now. Really, really sorry.”
“Ha! How would you know?”
He dropped the bale and sat on it, expression different than any she’d seen before. “Because I used to be a snurk to Tammy all the time,” he said. “Just ask her! Then last winter she got real sick, and we had to take her to the hospital. Her appendix had ruptured and for a while we weren’t even sure if she’d make it. Thinking she might die made me realize how much I cared about her. I never cried or prayed so hard in all my life. And I promised God that if she got better I’d never be rotten to her again. And I’ll just bet that Dirck feels the same way about you.”
Something about his words rang true. Thinking she might die probably would make Dirck change his mind about her, especially since he had that thing about death. Maybe he did miss her. As much as she hated to admit it, she missed him. A lot. And the evidence was gathering that she may not ever see him again.
Much to her complete mortification, tears flooded her eyes. She whirled around to wipe them away, almost angry when Allen lifted her up from behind and boosted her into the back of the pickup. Still refusing to look at him, she leaned forward against the stack of bales behind the cab, gaze fixed straight ahead as she continued to battle her persistently leaking eyes. David scrambled in beside her and Mrs. Benson turned the truck around and accelerated for the dirt road leading to the hay barn.
“What’s the matter?” David asked.
Creena looked away, catching Allen’s shut up! gesture with the corner of her eye. The pickup bumped forward and she braced herself against the wheel-well, letting her mind bounce through Allen’s words like the truck through the fields. It felt so right her heart filled with hope she hadn’t felt in a long, long time.
Or maybe it was only because she wanted it so much to be true.
A few moments later the old pickup shuddered to a halt in front of the barn.
“Your dad and I are going into town to pick up a few things,” Mrs. Benson said as she got out of the cab, gathering Billy into her arms. “We need to run by the feed store and post office to mail a package to Terry. We’ll pick up Tammy at 4H and take her with us. Think you can handle things okay?”
“Sure, Mom,” Allen said, jumping lightly to the ground. “C’mon,” he said, turning to Creena. “It’s time to feed the cows.”
Creena followed him and David, who swung open the barn’s huge double door, and the three of them entered but Creena lingered near the entrance to the milking parlor, looking at a picture of a funny-looking, two-wheeled vehicle. Allen stopped beside her to gaze at it longingly while David went to the last stall to get started from the other end.
“You have them on Mira III?” he asked.
She shook her head. “The only thing on wheels is ‘troids. What is it, anyway?”
“A Honda 250 dirt bike,” he replied. “I’ve been saving for one for over two years. The stupid price goes up as fast as I can put it away. I’d give anything to get it this summer. All I need is another two hundred bucks.” Then he grabbed a bale in each hand, hauled them over to the feed bin and rummaged through his pockets until a rare scowl creased his forehead.
“Great,” he grumbled. “I must’ve lost my knife haulin’ hay.” He tried to pull the twine off the bale but it wouldn't budge, only scratched stubbornly at his knuckles.
“Great,” he mumbled again, sucking them angrily.
“Here, let me” Creena said, taking out her pocket laser. First she guided the material sensor near the twine then severed the cord, ragged ends smoking in the dim light.
“Wow!” Allen exclaimed. “Can I see that a minute?”
She handed it over, then kicked the bale apart as she’d seen him do and proceeded to throw the flakes over the railing while cows crowded the feed trough in a black and white press.
“What’s in there?” he asked, pointing to a small door on the handle.
Creena's eyes met his questioning stare, squinting at her against an incoming ray of late afternoon sun.
“Just a compass,” she replied. “It should indicate the four cardinal directions.”
He handed it back and watched her flip it open. The digital readout read a steady zero when she pointed it north and progressed appropriately through the other directions as well. It worked perfectly.
“That’s weird. It wouldn’t work on Verdaris at all,” she said. “I thought maybe it was broken, but I guess not.” Then again, Aggie had said this planet had a good magnetic field.
She put it back in her pocket and headed for the barley scoop, stopping when Allen leaned against the railing and sighed, one foot on a salt block next to the trough.
“You know what really bugs me, Creena?” he asked. “You keep telling me all this super-neat stuff and I can't even tell anybody. And when you're gone, no one will ever believe me.” He grabbed another flake and tossed it in the feed bin, scowling.
Creena smiled. “Maybe some day I'll come back, with my family.” She scattered barley on the hay with a flourish, pondering the possibility. Dirck would simply love hauling hay.
“Tell me about what it’s like on your planet,” Allen said. “I want to know everything about it.”
“Everything. What’s a normal day like. Did you go to school?”
“Unfortunately. It was called the Academy. We had different levels which were color-coded. I was Code Orange.”
“Ah, like your uniform, right?”
“Yes. We had to all dress alike within our own Code. And people above you always looked down on you and made you miserable any way they could.”
Allen laughed. “That happens here a lot, too.”
“Yeah, well, if they got caught they’d get an NCR.”
“What were they?”
“Noncompliance Reports,” she replied grimly, remembering all too well. “And when you got one they’d put it up on the Board so everyone could see.”
“That must have been embarrassing,” Allen said, turning momentarily to grab another bale. Creena smiled and handed him the pocket laser. He smiled back, looking at it in surprise.
“Here, let me show you,” she said, demonstrating how the material sensor did most of the work.
“That is so cool!” Allen replied, admiring his work. “Tell me more about the Academy. Did you have books?”
“No, everything was in my e-log.”
“An electronic tablet that had all the information you needed stored inside. You’d attach it to the terminal in class which would show you were there and then download the information for the day. The next day it would make sure you did the assignment correctly and record it. If you made too many mistakes you’d get an NCR.”
“And it would go on the Board?” he asked.
“Yes. I got a lot of them,” she admitted. “Actually, I did well on assignments but I got them for other stuff. And it would really embarrass Dirck.”
“He didn’t get any?” Allen asked, kicking the bale apart.
“Yeah, he did, but only academic ones.”
“There were different kinds?”
“Yes. You got them for behavior, too. Like if you asked too many questions the system couldn’t answer.” Creena sighed and rolled her eyes. “I sure don’t miss any of that.”
“What about your friends,” Allen prompted. “How did you communicate with them? Did you have telephones like we do?”
“Not exactly. Everyone had personal communication devices or PCDs. We could use them to talk to anyone we wanted from anywhere or send them notes or look something up we needed to know. You could play games on them, too, but if you did that at the Academy and got caught…”
“You got an NCR,” Allen finished for her.
She laughed. “Exactly.”
“So someone was watching all the time and you had to follow all the rules or you got in trouble,” he concluded.
“That’s it,” she answered. “I don’t miss it at all.”
“I can see why,” he agreed. “The technology sounds really cool but not if you’re watched all the time. Even if you don’t do anything wrong that doesn’t seem right. Could they read your thoughts?”
“Not really but they could come pretty close. They could kind of figure it out by what you were doing on your PCD. If you complained too much or played too many games you could get labeled as a problem and they’d watch your every move.”
“Wow,” Allen replied. “That’s scary.”
“I suppose. It was how they kept order.”
“That sounds like a pretty high price for order,” he said.
“Hey, look. Someone’s coming.”
She looked up with a start at the sound of David’s voice, almost forgetting he was there. Sure enough, a tell-tale cloud of dust was just visible some distance beyond the house. The Benson’s couldn’t possibly be back already. The three of them gathered at the corner of the barn, the car’s billowing dust backlit by the lowering sun.
“Who’s that?” David asked. Allen shrugged; Creena, however, was frozen with fear.
Allen touched her arm. “What’s wrong?”
“That’s him!” she gasped.
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