Marjoram 20

Marjoram
Chapter 20 Draft (03-17-12)

1st Sgt Leo Lotti was mildly amused, his mother had always said he’d end up a pirate and here he was. He was also one of two Cardoman military personal allowed the run of the ship, Shema Ben Judah being the other, and as such was in constant demand as a source of entertainment and gossip concerning what went on above while the rest of the recon team kept to their deck in the aft section as they completed the trip to Bringham.

“So what’s she really like Lotti?” was the constant question he was asked every time he returned to the deck held down by the Cardoman Seventh.

The object of interest was Sandy Shultz, a freelance videographer who had made her way to Cardoman to film an expose of the corruption inherent in a state at war. She was based on Union but her reports were being syndicated throughout the Confederation and Indie worlds, even though she was new enough to her trade that no one on board had even heard of her before. Quite a few of the Caliphate planets paid for the special mixture of political propaganda and sensationalism she was specializing in.

“Well first off she’s a lot better looking in person than in video, and not at all standoffish.”

“Do tell,” said Private Haversold, “Like she would even talk to someone like you, whose job is to make beds and clean rooms!”

“Really Haversold, if you had been around a little longer you would know that passengers make their own beds and clean their own compartments. The purpose of a steward is to police the common areas and then to be as helpful to the paying guests as time permits. And when Sandy needs help I always have time. She asks a lot of questions, but will answer them as well with the right approach. That’s how I found out what her next project is.”

“Let me guess, an expose’ of the sexual habits of ship’s stewards?”

“I believe she said she covered that last year. . . No, she is on her way to Bringham to search out the truth concerning extraterrestrial non-human intelligent alien life.”

“Get off it Lotti. If there were any we’d know about it. We’ve only been in space for eight hundred years and visited a half thousand planets. What could she possibly find that’s new?” Corporal Belladonna has heard enough of Lotti’s stories in just the last month that he could never be sure in advance when Lotti was pulling a fast one.

“Well Dano,” Lotti said after Cpl. Belladonna butted in, “you may have missed it but the science is settled. There is no longer any doubt that aliens were responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs back on Earth 60 million years ago.”

“Ok Lotti, I’ll bite, how did it happen?”

“Seems that one of their ships and did a kinetic strike at near light speed. The dinosaurs never stood a chance.”

“That’s old news, and besides it was a meteor or asteroid or something, not some kind of an alien spaceship.”

“I used to think that too, till Sandy filled me in on what the leading scientists are saying today. Top men, all of them. The proof for the original theory was that a very thin layer of some rare metal, osmium, iradium, indellium, something like that, was found all over the world in rocks all the same age. And the only way it could have gotten there was as a result of an explosion so big that the debris spread world wide.”

“So what needs changing, they know where the rock hit and all the numbers work, no need for aliens, keep it simple.”

“No future in academia for thinking like that Dano, No papers, no publications, and no advancement. No—a publicly funded scientist keeps looking till he finds what he’s after. After more investigation of that layer of metal—using state of the art equipment—they found traces of the real heavy metals, like the stuff we use in the drive bands on our ships. And sure enough, there are traces of heavy metal in some asteroids, but there is more to the story.”

Lotti took another rather large swallow of the beer in front of him, a bottle from the ships stores with an odd name, Blatz, one he’d not seen before and not his personal stash, then took another before continuing. Dano took a drink of his own, even if Lotti was fabricating the whole thing the beer was making it worthwhile. And it was getting interesting.

“What sealed the deal was the size of the explosion. The crater, now an ocean basin, shows that the explosion was about equal to 10 million megatons. You can check the math but that’s the amount of energy a rock with a 10 to 15 kilometer diameter hitting at 30 kps would deliver.”

“Okay, I’ll take your word that that’s the size of the rock, so the old theory still works, what’s new Lotti?”

“I was thinking just like you are Dano, but Sandy, she asked me to call her by her first name, is a lot smarter than she looks. She threw out the numbers just like she understood them. She looked at her notes and explained that thirty kps, the speed of an asteroid strike, is one 10 thousandth the speed of light. Square that and at kinetic lightspeed each kilo of mass would hit with 100 million times as much energy as that rock. So you can forget about megatons and just think about the relative masses. Follow me?”

“Sure I do,” Dano said after another long pull from his bottle. “Can you make it march Lotti? I’m due for some low G work in another hour and a half. Greenwood thinks he can teach a duck to quack.”

“Almost there now Cpl, it’s because an asteroid of the size suggested weighs in at 10 to the 13th tons, a G-2 type starship masses out at around 10 to the 5th tons, a number exactly 100 million times smaller. So a starship at light speed would hit with the same energy as an asteroid at orbital speed. Too much of a coincidence in anyone’s book. Throw in the heavy metal and it’s a lock.”

“Hmmm, maybe. If this is all so certain and Ms. Shultz has the exclusive, why is she going to Bringham?”

“Local color. Seems the planetary religious sect has more info than their official book lets out. Ancient writings corroborating the starship strike and what came next.”

“One last time. What came next?”

“The aliens, the ones that didn’t hit the Earth, they’ve been watching us ever since, out of guilt or something. They left the story on some metal plates the Mormons found, explained what happened. Sandy is out get a look and some pictures of the originals. Course the program with the ending included is already finished, this is like I said just for some background shots. Could have been done with animation but Sandy’s a real pro.”

“Sound like it, yes it does.”

* * *
The Lying Bastard was ordered by the system guard to lay up for inspection as soon as she transitioned back into normal space at Bringham. In practical terms that meant a couple of days deceleration came first. They were a hundred and thirty million kilometers out from Bringham when the ships finally met. In a fight the decrepit picket ship now a few miles away, if lucky, might last exactly as long as it took for a missile to cover the distance. But the Bastard came in peace, looking to turn a small profit, and be on her way. Another inspection—by this time old hat—transit fees, a small bribe, and they were cleared for orbit.

The planet seen from geosynchronous was as drab as advertised, ninety percent or better covered by clouds. The openings between showing mostly brown and green with a hint of blue from small pockets of open water. The day was thirty standard hours long with an almost constant temperature, day and night made no difference. It averaged about the same temp as a man with a low grade fever.

Shemuel Ben Judah and Greenwood went down in the first group to leave, transported by a local lander and pilot; there was still a contract for services to negotiate. A score of the passengers went with them, Sandy Shultz amongst them. She was wearing her custom skin suit, not really needed for a pressurized journey, and with its knit thermal covering it left plenty for the imagination of the totally male workforce operating the lander and those working in the Bastard’s boat bay.

Lotti, who was helping out with her luggage, figured he could have smuggled the crew’s entire collection of contraband onto the boat twice over while attention was elsewhere. Sandy didn’t have much to say but she did mention that if she could finish up on the ground in a day or two she would still be back on board when the Bastard departed. If not it might be a month or more until another ship put in.

The mercenary company for hire, made up with a few exceptions from members of Cardoman Seventh Recon, had spent the weeks on ship getting acclimatized to local conditions, the internal temp and sleep cycle on their deck adjusted accordingly. So long as there was no need for physical exertion the heat was close to tolerable. Standard medications helped as did specialized garments worn under their unadorned utilitarian uniforms.

But chill-ware took power, and carrying a source with you added a weight penalty, so most chose to keep their own set packed, planning on going without unless that would lead directly to heat exhaustion. They were all eager to get off the ship and on with the mission though, three weeks spent on a single deck had by now lost any pretense of charm.

The voyage down was remarkably smooth; there was little temperature variation across the planet to cause winds nor much of an axial tilt or other reason for atmospheric turbulence. The final 15,000 meters was spent in a gray mist, not quite thick enough for fog, and not quite wet enough for rain. Except through instruments the ground was invisible until they were less than one hundred and fifty feet from touch down on the packed dirt landing field that was a stone’s throw away from a weed choked waterway. One without visible flow so you might call it a river.

Lotti had managed to smuggle himself onto the lander, his name, he thought, was somehow omitted from the official list. Ben Judah, and especially Sergeant Major Greenwood, definitely needed his help in looking after themselves. Captain Messmer could likely muddle through, he had a reputation.

Greenwood never talked about it but the badges on his old uniform made him out to be some kind of a special opps guy. But from where Lotti stood he seemed too much a tech type to fill that role, manner and a few war stories not withstanding.

Lotti was the first off the lander and saluted his betters as they disembarked, then watched the passengers exit the lander, roughly in order of net worth, until they all stood on the still warm pad. A man with a pen and clip board standing 5 meters away was scrutinizing them and furiously making check marks all the while.

Some distance from the pad, perhaps a quarter mile, a line of people, sixty or seventy, could be seen dredging muck from the waters edge and then putting it a basket at a time through a lever operated hand press, obviously to remove much of the water. Repackaged, a basket at each end of a yoke the then carried the dry dirt inland. State of the art for 2892—BC.

Looking inland there was a single story building, almost windowless, adjacent to the north side of the pad with a sign reading, ‘Customs and Immigration,’ at the roof line. A short man of amazing girth was standing next to an entrance wearing sandals, a poncho, and a rather large smile.

Ben Judah, with an inquiring glance looked at Lotti for a moment but didn’t question him about what he thought he was doing here, that would probably come later, and waited for all to get off the boat before proceeding towards the building.

“That’s Prophet Smith,” Sandy Shultz said, pointing at the man in front, recognizing him by his unmistakable figure, “He must think a lot of my work to meet me here like this.”

“This way Ma’am,” said the man with the clip board pointing first at her and then at another door. “You go with the rest of the tourists. The Prophet Smith is here for the military gentlemen”

“Well I never!” she exclaimed while trying to move forwards.
“You do now,” he replied standing his ground.

“Lotti, carry my bags won’t you?” she said rising above the insult and moving with the others.

“Fraid not Ma’am, I have to go with the Colonel, later I’ll help you move the stuff to your digs if I get the time.”

Taking this in stride as well, Sandy had no trouble recruiting several male passengers unburdened and only down for some sightseeing to pick up the slack and ease her passage.

“Friends,” said the Prophet Smith, as they neared. “I welcome you in the name of our God, and hope we can work out a deal in record time.”

“Doesn’t mince words, does he?” Lotti spoke in a near whisper to Sgt Greenwood.
“You wouldn’t either in his position,” Greenwood replied.

The Prophet Smith walked them through one side of the building and out the other. Waiting was a six wheeled ground vehicle with balloon tires and a cab in front of an open sided bed to which benches for six had been bolted underneath a gray canvas cover. The driver seemed to be missing but that didn’t bother Smith in the least. He opened the cab door and took the wheel inviting Ben Judah to take the other seat. Lotti, Greenwood, and Captain Messmer hoisted themselves onto the bed and took positions on the hard almost wooden (they were evidently made of resin reinforced plant fibers) benches.

Sliding the cab’s rear window open Smith said cheerfully, “It’s only about a five minute drive boys. So hold on tight.” Then with at first a hissing as the engine leaked what looked like steam, and then a roar, they were off.

The oversized, under-inflated tires, were the vehicles only suspension and even though the ‘road,’ a single lane dirt track, they traveled on was worn in and smooth, the three in back found themselves clutching the front edge of the bench to keep from bouncing as they proceeded onwards at a pace slightly better than a fast walk, gradually picking up speed until it was almost a trot.

At first the road was bordered by a thicket of tall cane like growths. Then the land cleared and they could see terraced slopes. Workers here and there stooping over short green sprouts, the early stages of rice cultivation. The eternal mist was light enough in places that they could see for almost a mile to either side before all was hidden once more from the naked eye. The road gained elevation at rate equal to the rise of the ground around them—very slowly.

Smith kept the cab’s rear window open and gave a running commentary as they neared the capital city, for now just a smudge on the horizon.

“We built these fields, every terrace every acre, hauled the dirt by hand just as you saw when you landed. At first, right after we got here, it was everyone’s job, sunup to sundown. . . Not that even in daylight we see the sun that often,” he chuckled enjoying his own joke. “Around Tabernacle, that’s what we call the Capital, it’s just a tithing now, ten percent of ones day. Good to keep one’s hand in doing God’s work while the large scale land reclamation effort goes on these days well to the east.

“We use machinery for that, and bring the fill here by barge. Your can’t keep taking from the edge to adding to the center without running afoul of the law of diminishing returns. In another hundred years we are going to be self sufficient in all of our basic food stuffs, even meats other than chicken and rabbit, though in a pinch rice can still feed us all. But of course you already know that . . . it’s why you’re here. We’ve only a few more minutes until we reach the Temple, so let’s enjoy the view”

In a voice close to a shout, but still inaudible to those in the cab over the roar of the, steam? . . . Could this really be a steam engine? The puffing white smoke belching from an upright exhaust pipe said that it was . . . Lotti said, “Not my idea of paradise, stoop farm labor, I left home to get away from all of that.”

“Build’s character,” Greenwood said.
“I’ve seen worse,” Messmer opined.
Lotti clammed up, seems he was outvoted.

In order to reach the temple, after the cultivated area ended at the cities edge, they drove through a city of perhaps three thousand. Homes were distinguished by covered porches and commercial buildings with signs atop, some of the structures were half buried in the ground, none were more than a single story tall. Few adults in view but many children, mostly girls under the age of ten, some playing but most clearing weeds before stopping to stare at the Prophets chariot.

“Some of the oldest homes have basements going down three levels. As we build up the land all around it’s like adding layers to a cake from the top down, we have to rebuild on the surface or everything would be underground.” Smith said getting on with his commentary.

The temple was the sole exception to the cities drab architecture; it stood three stories tall, towering over its surroundings. It was also the only building with large windowed walls, at least in front and the one side they had seen. The outer surface sheathed almost entirely in glass or a reasonable approximation. It looked modern, opulent, and out of place, most especially when compared to everything else in this ‘City’. On most planets people would strain to call something this size a town, a small one at that.

On the buildings flat roof, rising into the mist were supports for communications antenna, some directed into space and others beaming at relays on the ground. Line of sight was not going to be a problem on Bringham, a fortunate circumstance because the planet had no ionosphere to bounce signals to distant locations.

The road ended at the Temple entrance which included glass doors flanked by columns reaching to an overhang jutting out from the second floor. Smith parked the truck in one of two spots marked for official use and ushered them inside. The only notice of their arrival was by a man with video camera filming the event, such as it was.

In the center of the Temple’s entrance area, reaching all the way to the roof three stories above stood a large figure of a man with a stylized starship in one hand and an opened book in the other. “The first Prophet Smith on Bringham,” the resident Prophet said. “The rest of us take his name as a mater of custom and respect, though all of us are related to him in some fashion, even going back as far as the first back on Earth.”

Surrounding the statue in four incomplete circles, each having a break wide enough for two people to pass into the next circle, were curved waist high black stone slabs. Each of these three feet wide and supported by regularly spaced central uprights. The slabs were inscribed in small lettering with what had to be tens of millions of names, each one of those a person true to the faith and raised to glory.

“We add more every year with the date in bold and the names in alphabetical order, otherwise no one could find where their ancestors stood. Quite a spectacle to see the faithful tracing their family’s history on days of worship when thousands are about. I am sure you would like a tour of the rest of the Temple, but first let us complete our arrangement.”

“Certainly, Mr. Smith, but would you answer one question first?” One thing had been bothering Shema ever since they landed, in fact ever since they opened communications after transition and seemed to be talking to the same person whenever a message was sent or received, time making no defense.

“Ask, and we shall see,” he said jovially.

“Where are all the people? We saw a few doing their tithing, and I know, or at least have read, that Bringham’s population is only about twenty-five million, but this is your Capital, and it looks to have a population of what, three. . .four thousand at the outside?”

“Come with me to my office and I will explain.”

The Prophet Smith walked over to an unmarked featureless door on one side of the chamber and said “Open,” then touching a recessed biometric pad where a handle would normally have been, paused a moment and the door slid sideways to reveal an elevator not dissimilar to what one would find on a ship in space. The four entered, the door slid shut, and Smith said, “My Office.”

“This goes down to all the sub-levels, but I have my office on top, better to keep an eye on everything.”

The car went up two levels and the door opened once more. This time revealing an office area that would have fit in seamlessly on any of the wealthiest planets in the Confederation or Indie worlds. And finally they saw a large group of adults working at something other than subsistence level farming.

Under a high ceiling were a dozen work stations, each with a small writing area and large comp screen, all but two with women seated in front. And here, at odds with out-world expectation, instead ‘dressing for success’, the women all dressed plainly and all alike, wearing, for want of a better term, ‘bag’ like garments that revealed nothing about the sex or shape of the person inside. If not for hair length or on close examination bone structure, one would have difficulty determining their sex at all. The men, including the man evidently in charge, wore clothing not much fancier, robes of a coarsely woven cloth.

None of those present seemed to take notice of their arrival. They continued on with whatever they had been doing. Smith nodded to the supervisor and led them between the ranked consoles to his own office and work area. At last a sign of Smiths status was evident, Lotti was impressed, and he suspected Ben Judah and Greenwood as well.

Located at one of the Temple’s corners, two glass walls met and looked out on the city and surrounding area, a third wall, also glass, looked into the building itself, down to large above ground central chamber where services were held. They could see a large alter in front and pews (looking just like the benches on the truck) enough for thousands.

In Smiths office the carpet underfoot was thick, the furniture, including desk and conference table, of a polished dark colored wood. Whatever it was it was not native to Bringham.

Inside the room it was a good thirty degrees cooler than the temperature outside, the humidity as well.

“Be seated Gentlemen,” Smith said, taking his place in a plush leather seat before a natural fireplace crackling and burning a scented wood of again of an off-world type. In just this portion of the room was enough furniture for three times their number, lamps and low tables to match.

Once they were seated a woman, who might have been twenty, wearing no makeup or jewelry, and dressed like those outside, entered through another entrance carrying a tray with food and drink.

“My newest wife Alysha,” Smith said smiling by way of introduction. His newest wife said nothing, keeping her eyes downcast all the while, and leaving as soon as her task accomplished.

“You have read the report we sent detailing our problems with one of our former—shall I say partners—landing on Bringham, setting up a camp, call it a base, and refusing to leave. Before we settle on payment terms, I must ask, small as your numbers are; I was lead to believe there would be more of you; well how do you intend to make them go away?”

“Before we get into that, Mr. Smith,” Colonel Ben Judah asked, “remember my question earlier? Talking about numbers, where are all of your people?”

“I hoped to avoid this subject, it is rather sensitive, and I must insist that anything said stays in this room. If you can agree, and I mean all of you, including your two sergeants, then I will provide an explanation.”

“I speak for my men, and agree that if anything you tell us becomes public it will not be of our doing.”

A nice turn of phrase, thought Lotti, Ben Judah could relate the information to anyone he pleased, provided he trusted that person and swore him to secrecy first.

“Do you know what the population of Bringham is?” Smith asked.
“Standard references claim twenty-five million, give or take.”

“They’re estimates. Based on historical data and modeled fertility rates. The real number is less than half as much. The G-1 we purchased to take us from Earth made two three trips before the Caliphates stopped all emigration. Our population here at start was 31,000. And yes, due to our religious beliefs, our fertility rate was high and remains so, much higher than most planets elsewhere.

Bringham holds no natural pathogens so once we learned how to deal with the animal life, and we got our, land reclamation and rice farming project going we multiplied rapidly.”

“Plural marriages and a ban on contraception will lead to that I have heard,” Ben Judah said with a hint of irony in his voice.

“So people think,” Smith said without showing resentment. “And this was true, early on, but not for five or six generations now. We are a polygamous society, as God commands, and make no apologies for it. But we do not, at least religiously, or governmentally, and to us they are the same thing, select for more female than male children. A small number, call it fifteen percent of the faithful, do attempt to aid God in his works but this is not Church policy and no genetic modification of any type is used in the selection.”

“Are you denying an imbalance, male to female, on the planet?”

“Not at all. I am just saying the reason is not the one so many use to demonize us. Our Church was never one that felt poverty a virtue. If remaining true to our faith must lead to that, then so be it. If we had not become prosperous on Earth we could never have afforded to but the ship that got us here. And once banned from the Caliphate we continued to use that ship for commercial purposes. But more importantly because we owned the Moroni we could use her in our missionary work. Generations of our young men went out to spread our doctrine and convert as many others to our way of life as they could manage.”

“So you are saying they failed?”

“New converts were few, partly because so many bought the Caliphate lie that we were using genetic means to adjust our male female rate. No, the problem was, and is, that far too many of our young men never finish their mission to return home again. Instead, corrupted by what the see once beyond our sheltering shores, they leave the faith and take up a life without meaning. So you see, we send our best and brightest young men out, but despite religious training, ties of family and friends, only slightly more than half ever return. Polygamy for us is more than a religious requirement; it is a necessity without which half of our women would never know the comfort of marriage and children. God does indeed work in mysterious ways.”

“And each missionary who fails to return is also an economic loss—correct?”

“You might say that, though we do not look at things from that perspective, we view them as a loss to the Lord, something entirely more serious. It also is the roundabout reason we wish to hire you. We do not train for war, but now it is thrust upon us. One of those we hired to police our system has decided to set up shop on Bringham herself. We would first pay a price in gold rather than lives to evict them.”

“You mean a price in your gold and our lives,” Ben Judah said.

“That is your choice sir, one which you have already made. What remains is to determine what else you require.”

The next several hours were spent in the Temple’s deepest sub-basement, surrounded by extremely modern computing, record keeping, and communications gear. Those in charge down here were elders of the Church, their subordinates; men recently returned from their mission and well up on the latest technology. Average age not much different from the troops under Ben Judah’s command. They continued to keep their guise as a mercenary company dissatisfied with life on Cardoman.

They were shielded from getting any of their own comm signals up to the Bastard without interception, so using the Temples equipment Shema advised Capt. Petrocelli he would be retuning to the ship later that day to see to the off loading of the rest of his men. Prior to that departure Ben Judah had one more meeting with Prophet Smith.

“Mr. Smith,” Shema would not call him Prophet or Elder, “We can return your people and territory to you. But we can only keep the death count down so long as the opposition cooperates. What I need from you is will cost, but either to hire for a short period, or come up with some other way to keep Captain Petrocelli’s ship on hand till we finish. If we cede the high ground we can still retake the territory but more than likely the hostages all die. That means I have to tell Petrocelli something about our mission and you will need to spend more of your gold.”

“How much do you expect this to cost Colonel?”

Ben Judah gave him a number and Smith gave the okay. Then, while Greenwood and Lotti stayed below Ben Judah rode the lander back up to the ship.

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