Ward Constant

Chapter One. The View From an Old Screen Door.

She turned off the creaky faucet and wrung the dishrag until it was dry, then carefully hung it on the chipped wire rack and wiped up the drippage. Her bare brown feet scuffed across the worn floor of the farmhouse kitchen to the screen door, but she did not go through. Robin Leslie stopped at the threshold, her soap-wet hand resting on the rusting iron door-spring, and watched Grandfather and Cousin Han working on the spaceships out in the pasture.

It was a cool fall night; Robin Leslie's honey hair tousled as the breeze from up north slipped sighing through the pine lot at the top of the pasture, past the three white cones of the Conestogas parked there, past where the two men were working on the nearest of them, and then passed through the frayed screen of the door and across her fair young face. Her green eyes were wide and shadowed, moving this way and that as she watched the wind blowing ripples of pasture grass around the spaceships that would in just two more days rip her and her family from this old farm and the only life she'd ever known. She looked tired, and sad. She felt like the world was ending, which for her it was. She was just turned thirteen.

"Robin Leslie!" Cousin Han's round, bearded face suddenly appeared around the edge of the number one Conestoga, his strong young man's voice carrying clearly on the wind. "Can you come down here a minute?"

The sound of her name being called woke her up. "Coming!" she yelled, pushing open the back door and running down the tall steps to the ground below. The door hit the frame with a bang. The lawn beneath her bare feet was cool and moist as she ran under the big sycamores of the side yard to the pasture gate. Holding on to the steel chain-link fence for balance, she slipped on the muddy L.L.. Bean duck boots she'd left there after chores. The sweet grass of the front and side lawns were all right for barefooting it in the summer, but the pasture was strictly for the shod; cowpats and the occasional snake were the least of what one's bare feet might run across there. Boots on, she put her slim hand to the security handle and let the gate sniff her skin, then clumped through as it slid aside.

The tall yellow grass slipped and swished against her bare legs as she ran through it. The three big Boeings sat in the field before her like enormous teepees, wan and dim in the buttery light of the rising crescent moon. She scowled as she regarded that moon, not wanting to think about what it represented. No grass on the moon, she thought, as the smell of the crushed hay beneath her racing feet perfumed the air. No air, no seasons, not even any stupid bugs! The cicadas calling rang through the air like a rasp, rising and falling to some occult bug rhythm, a rhythm she would never hear on the Moon; tears suddenly welled, but I'm not going to cry, not yet, and she smiled through the teardrops at her own sweet self pity. Crying over locusts! What would Jeff think? But she must not think of Jeff, or she would cry, so instead she tore her mind away and focused on her own running feet, on the pace and the sting of her own young muscles, losing herself to blind effort as she ran faster and faster through the whispering dead grass.

As Robin Leslie cut her stride and clumped breathlessly into the flattened circle where Conestoga Zero One sat heavily on its tripod feet, she could see Grandpa Andersen's barrel-chested shape silhouetted in the strip of light at the top of Leg Three's boarding stair. "Okay, Han, I'm all ready here," said Grandpa. "Let's keep the lateral emissions below zero-zero-two, though; I don't want to push power back through the other two 'Stogas at this distance."

"Robin Leslie," he said, spying her. "Honey, we're going to test the drive on this one now, so you go on back to the truck with Han. Han, take her with you."

"I got her, Grandpa," said Han, ruffling her hair as he walked by, a length of thick shielded cable dragging the grass behind him. "Gee, Bird, I didn't mean to make you run all the way out here," he said, as he turned to look at her. "I figured I'd be back down to the truck by the time you got to the gate. You must've hauled butt, kiddo." He smiled, and even though she was gasping for breath Robin Leslie smiled back. She loved all her cousins, but Johann Christian Andersen, her father's brother's oldest son, was the one she loved best. "Yeah, right, Han," she huffed, her breathing returning to normal. "You just wanted to make me run. Aunt Emmy's stupid Family Fitness Program, no doubt."

"You leave mom out of this," said Han with mock offense. "Just because she's the Flight Surgeon doesn't mean I'm her official FFP enforcer. Why, you should see the way she looks at me when I light up a pipe." Robin Leslie smiled; her aunt's doctorly hatred of tobacco ("That damned weed!") was well-known in the Andersen clan, the fact that her son smoked a pipe her greatest frustration. "Of course, that just makes me want to smoke it more, FFP or not. Come on, he's powering up."

Robin Leslie stood up and turned to look at the big cone-shaped spacecraft as the first low-throated hmmm from its power core thrummed through the air. Flashing yellow police spinners on the bottom of the ship lit up, throwing amber strobes of light around in quick circles and turning the stalks of grass around her into fast freeze-frame. With a few long-legged strides, she ran to catch up with Han as he walked quickly towards the big concrete pad at the edge of the pasture where the Control truck was parked.

Upon arrival, Han climbed into the back of the aging roadvan, fiddled with something, then came out and plugged the long cable he had been dragging into a receptacle on the side of the truck. Clapping a comm band onto his head, he adjusted its mouthpiece to hang correctly, then climbed back into the Control booth at the rear of the vehicle.

Robin Leslie ran her hand along the chipped and flaking flank of the old roadvan; beneath her slim fingers she could just make out the faded paint that spelled Andersen Exploration and Drilling Company - Coldwater, Oklahoma. According to Grandpa, this van was the very one he and his father, Johannes Andersen, Senior, had been riding in the day their crews had hit it big in the North Texas field. The ancient machine still smelled of oil, perhaps the very oil that had showered it that day; Robin Leslie could picture the two Andersen men jumping out to dance in the thick black spray. But that was thirty years ago, and the North Texas field was long since dry, and Great-Grandpa (whom Robin Leslie knew only from photos and stories) was buried in Andersen Hill three miles to the west. Only the van remained, and Grandpa, to bear witness to that day. And soon we'll be gone, too, though Robin Leslie. She walked around behind the van and climbed up into its warm, oily interior.

Shivering a bit, she walked bent-forward into the warmth of the Control Center proper, grateful to have her bare arms and denim shorts out of the cool fall air. Han was talking to Grandpa through the comm band, flipping the computer displays on the panels before him from one set of data to another as he and Grandpa went down the Conestoga's power-up checklist. "Okay, Andersen Zero One, I've got a good, solid base pulse coming through your main coil now," he said, absently patting sit here on the seat of the scuffed leather office chair next to his own as Robin Leslie walked up. "Ah, yeah, your MHD is looking nominal now. No sign of flutter on that." His brow wrinkled as Robin Leslie's arm pointed past him at a reading. "Um, okay," he said. "Grandpa, can you take a look at your directional? Robin Leslie just pointed out it's still in DETENT." His eyes arrowed up to her approvingly. "Is it set to NEG, over?"

"Alfa Control, from Alfa Zero One, roger that," said Grandpa, his voice tinny over the comm band's speaker. "It was in POS, all right. Switching grav directional to NEG, over." Robin Leslie and her cousin smiled as the displays changed. "Alfa Control from Alfa Zero One, my board shows green. And please don't call me 'Grandpa' on the air, son; this is serious business. Acknowledge."

"Control aye," replied Han smartly. "Green board. You are go for ramp-up to full coil power; energize when ready. And sorry 'bout the 'Grandpa', Alfa Zero One, won't happen again." He stared straight ahead, embarrassed. Robin Leslie didn't see what Grandpa had been so brisk about; between his miltary-style radio discipline and Aunt Emmy's boot camp exercise regimen, the Family Andersen was beginning to feel more like the army every day. She rolled her eyes as as she flopped tiredly into the chair next to her cousin.

"Alfa Zero One, aye," said Grandpa's voice. "Energizing coil. Ramp up to full coil power in" A huge, swelling throb ran through the air, the ground, the truck, and Robin Leslie, a subsonic boom that carried with it the merest hint of the enormous power that created it. Throb, throb - and the world became a huge, beating heart as the pulses from the ship's big Forward Coil spread through the fabric of space and time like ripples in a pond. The beating came faster, each wave stronger than the last, and Robin Leslie felt the first stirrings of panic as her bones and insides begin to pulse in sympathy. Oh my gosh, she thought, her fear rising like froth, the coil control must be burnt out, they've let it get away from them, but Han didn't look worried. "Nine sixty," he was saying calmly into the comm band's mike, his eyes flicking from one screen to the next. "Nine seventy. Reading you at nine eight zero steady, Alfa Zero One."

"Nine eight zero aye," said Grandpa, his electronic voice barely audible over the pounding. "Ramping up. Coil to one-zero-seven per cent." The throb turned into a pound. Somewhere a window broke. Robin Leslie curled into a ball, clutching at herself, want only for the pounding to stop, but it kept on, blomblomBLOMBLOM, then she heard Han say "Ten K! Reading ten thousand centimeters steady, Alfa Zero One! Set directional to neutral, power interconnects to standby. Power down on my mark, over," and suddenly it was over.

"Safeties on," said Grandpa into the sudden quiet. "Cell master bus to standby, power core master switch to REGEN. Directional to DETENT, Coil Master switch to OFF." The absence of the pounding was like an auditory implosion; sound seemed to rush to fill in the gap left by the now-quiet gravity coil. From the east pasture, she could hear the bellows and stomps of the cows and bison running for the safety of the river bottoms; chickens burbled and squawked from the henhouse, and Han's doves burst from their cote with a noise like thunder. Then all was quiet, except for a few tinkles of falling broken glass and Robin Leslie's quiet sobbing.

"Alfa Zero One from Alfa Control, secure from Grav Stations," said Han quietly. "I'll be out there to help you in just a second, Grandpa. Control out." He took off and folded the comm band, then turned to face Robin Leslie.

"Securing, aye," replied Grandpa. "Y'all okay over there, son?"

"Fine, Grandpa," said Han into the mike. "Robin Leslie's just a little upset. I'll be right over." He put the comm band on the console and patted his cousin on the shoulder. "Sorry, Bird," he said. "I didn't think. You were off at school today when we tested the other two. You're gonna be okay."

"It's so strong!" Robin Leslie sniffed. "It's scary, Han! I don't want to ride in that thing! What if it...what if it," but she couldn't finish. And she'd promised herself not to cry tonight! Tears leaked out anyway, onto her cheeks; Han paused a moment, then leaned back to grab a tissue from a box on the console. "Here," he said, handing it to her. "Stop crying, Bird. Now blow." So she blew, and felt better, and sat quietly afterwards while Han and Grandpa latched and locked and secured the big ships for the evening.

"Where you goin'?" said Han, his voice mild with concern. "We're almost done here." He was bent nearly double as he faked a big power cable into a neat coil atop the Control truck. "We're headed back into town in a minute, and Grandpa's planning on a stop at Igg Lou's for an ice cream on the way in."

"No thanks, Han," said Robin Leslie, hopping lightly onto the springy ground behind the truck. "I don't want - I don't want ice cream tonight. Still full of dinner, I guess." Igg Lou's meant going into town, and Jeff might be there, and I just couldn't."I have to go get TOTO ready for tomorrow." She broke into a trot and jogged around the corner into the dark front yard, duck boots clomping as she ran. Han stared quizzically after her, then looked down as Grandpa Andersen stuck his head out from under the truck where he'd been pulling the ground cables. The two men raised eyebrows at each other, but said nothing.

Mustn't cry. Mustn't think about Jeff, thought Robin Leslie, but of course trying not to think about someone was the surest way to think about nothing else. Feeling the tears well again, Robin Leslie tore her mind away from the pain. The secret is to think about nothing at all. She trotted disconsolately to a stop in front of the farmhouse's front porch, staring at the gray wooden steps and trying to think of nothing without much success.

"Robin Leslie," said a strong alto voice. "I didn't know you were out here." With a start, Robin Leslie looked up. On the top step sat a short, solidly-built woman with bright red hair. "Oh, Aunt Sharon," said Robin Leslie, recognizing her mother's younger sister with a start. "I - I came out here with Han this morning. He said he needed help with the coil tests." Robin Leslie's eyes stayed fixed on the ground as she spoke.

"He was yanking your chain, sweetheart," replied Aunt Sharon kindly. "The day Johann Andersen needs help with a grav coil is the day pigs fly. More likely he just wanted to get you out of the hotel - prob'ly tired of watching you mope in front of the edec."

"I hate stupid edec," she said crossly. "The stuff they netcast these days is for idiots, and who has time to search through mountains of crud to find anything worth interacting with?" Her father had given her a new portable electronic/digital entertainment console for Christmas last year, but she'd hardly been able to even look at the palm-sized black slab in the ten months since; between school, sports, and preparations for the Trip, she'd barely had time to sleep. When she did use the little edec she mostly kept it pointed at SOUND ONLY sites - classical music, nature noises, and the Shakespeare Channel. You didn't need to see the actors to see the plays, not the way Shakespeare wrote them, and the Bard was a good aural backdrop on those long nights when she had to stay up and help Aunt Carol with stores inventory or calibrate TOTO's servo system. "Anyway," she went on, "I wanted to cook one more meal in Grandma's kitchen, before...before we went."

"Robin Leslie," said Aunt Sharon ruefully. "Come here to me." Dutifully, Robin Leslie sat by her aunt and allowed herself to be hugged.

"Now, there ain't any use in being all upset over this trip," the woman said gently, slipping into the soft Southern accent the Andersens used at home. "This old house was a good home to four generations, girl, but it's time we moved on. The family's outgrown this place, and your Grandpa knows it."

"But Grandma," said Robin Leslie quietly. "Grandma loved it here. I loved it here. We all did. Why do we all have to go?" She couldn't bear to think of Grandma Andersen buried up the Hill, all alone, her home deserted and her family gone. "Who's going to look after Grandma's grave, and Andersen Hill, and this old house when we're all gone? Who's going to take care of the cows, and the bison, and Han's doves?" She turned her eyes up to her aunt in supplication. "Can't we stay, Aunt Sharon? Can't some of us stay?"

"Little Bird," said the older woman, brushing back a lock of her niece's hair. "Don't you think I wanted that, too? Your Uncle Henry and I offered to take this place ourselves, more than a year ago, and even said we'd forfeit our shares in the Family for it." She moistened her lips and continued. "But you know your Grandpa. 'We're going, daughter-in-law,' he told me. 'All of us. The entire Andersen clan. There's no place left on Earth for our kind anymore.'"

Her eyes looked out, far away over the fields. "Well, there's no arguing with him, Robin Leslie. Nothing to do but go along. And I'm glad I did, now. You know good and well Chief Charlie will take care of the cattle and doves - he loves this place as much as we do." It was true: Chief Charles LaBoeuf was the head of the local Tribal Council and Secretary-General of the United Indian Nations - and an old family friend of the Andersens. Robin Leslie had known him all her life, and he and his ten children had spent every Thanksgiving around Grandma's old oak table as long as she'd been alive. The thought of Chief Charlie looking after Andersen Homestead eased her sorrow a bit. But he's not an Andersen, she thought. There should always be an Andersen at Andersen Homestead...

It got quiet. Robin Leslie looked at her boots and said nothing.

"Your Grandpa's right, you know, Robin Leslie," Aunt Sharon said, not unkindly. "This world's getting crowded. We Andersens aren't built for city life, and the city's here, or will be soon. Look over there." Her short arm pointed to the southeast, where the sky was lit up with artificial intensity. "See those lights? Those are construction crews, Bird, twenty miles away, building a megaway from Tulsa to here. They're working around the clock, and do you know why?" Robin Leslie shook her head.

"Because the land around here is already sold, Birdie. Subdivisions - homes - little fake brick houses, are about to pop up all around here. They'll be thicker than mushrooms on cow flop within nine months, and that megaway is going to be their main street."

She sighed. "In 1867, Johannes Andersen and his ex-slaves and moved out here to get away from the big city. And do you know what 'big city' he was running from?" She laughed. "New Bern, North Carolina! A few thousand people in a town with dirt streets!"

She chuckled again, and went on. "We Andersens don't like the city. We don't need the so-called conveniences of a city - the noise, the crowds, the crime. That way of life is fine for some, but," she laughed, "Not for your Great-Grandpa, or your Grandpa - or for your Pa, for that matter." She frowned kindly at her niece. "Have you talked to your own father about this?"

"No, ma'am," admitted Robin Leslie softly. "He wouldn't understand." How could he, Robin Leslie wondered. I never told him about Jeff.

"I think you're wrong," said Aunt Sharon, rising to her feet. "I think he might understand better that you think. I think that in time you'll come to see that this trip is the right thing for all of us. Casper, Orion!" she yelled. "Come 'ere! Come 'ere, you two."

From out of the purple twilight of the front yard came the soft gallop of paws. Robin Leslie stood up as Grandpa's two big Labrador Retrievers came galumphing across the front yard and up the steps. Fending off a shower of dog-kisses, Robin Leslie felt suddenly apprehensive and turned beseechingly to her aunt. "You're not leaving, are you?" she asked. "I could make a fire in the fireplace, and-"

"No. There's no more point, Bird," said Aunt Sharon gently, putting her hand on Robin Leslie's head. "I lived here for eighteen years, and I wanted to sit on this porch once more and watch the sun set. I did that. Now I'm going back to the hotel and get some sleep. You ought to do the same - tomorrow is going to be a busy day." She stood, hands on hips, waiting for her niece to react.

You don't understand either, thought Robin Leslie. I can't spend my last night on Earth in a stupid hotel room! The dogs pawed and whined and worried the hem of her shorts, so she sat down again, a dog in each arm-crook. Contentedly, the two hounds lay their heads between their paws and panted away the heat from their run.

"No, I can't," she finally said. "TOTO still needs some final things. I'll ride back in with Hannie later."

"Good night then, Bird," said Aunt Sharon with a sad smile on her lips. "See you tomorrow." She fluffed her niece's hair as she walked into the darkness of the front yard. A few seconds later Robin Leslie heard the whrrr of her car as it lifted off; a few seconds after that, and the car's red and green nav lights were lost in the Oklahoma sky.


©2000 Bruce Lewis. All Rights Reserved.