The flying saucer landed on our front yard and a little green man got out of it.
It was the flying saucer that got my attention. Green men aren't actually unheard of where I come from. All the Colonial Defense Forces were green; it's part of the genetic engineering they do on them to help them fight better. Chlorophyll in the skin gives them the extra energy they need for truly first-class alien stomping.
We didn't get many Colonial Defense Force soldiers on Huckleberry, the colony I lived on; it was an established colony and we hadn't been seriously attacked in a couple of decades. But the Colonial Union goes out of its way to let every colonist know all about the CDF, and I knew more about them than most.
But the flying saucer, well. That's novel. New Goa is a farming community. Tractors and harvesters and animal-drawn wagons, and wheeled public buses when we wanted to live life on the edge and visit the provincial capital. An actual flying transport was a rare thing indeed. Having one small enough for a single passenger land on our lawn was definitely not an everyday occurrence.
"Would you like Dickory and me to go out and meet him?" asked Hickory. We watched from inside the house as the green man pulled himself out of the transport.
I looked over at Hickory. "Do you think he's an actual threat? I think if he wanted to attack us, he could have just dropped a rock on the house while he was flying over it."
"I am always for prudence," Hickory said. The unsaid portion of that sentence was when you are involved. Hickory is very sweet, and paranoid.
"Let's try the first line of defense instead," I said, and walked over to the screen door. Babar the mutt was standing at it, his front paws up on the door, cursing the genetic fate that left him without opposable thumbs or the brains to pull the door instead of pushing on it. I opened the door for him; he took off like a furry heat-seeking slobber missile. To the green man's credit, he took a knee and greeted Babar like an old friend, and was generously coated in dog drool for his pains.
"Good thing he's not soluble," I said to Hickory.
"Babar is not a very good watchdog," Hickory said, as it watched the green man play with my dog.
"No, he's really not," I agreed. "But if you ever need something really moistened, he's got you covered."
"I will remember that for future reference," Hickory said, in that noncommittal way designed for dealing with my sarcasm.
"Do that," I said, and opened the door again. "And stay in here for now, please."
"As you say, Zoe," Hickory said.
"Thanks," I said, and walked out to the porch.
By this time the green man had gotten to the porch steps, Babar bouncing behind him. "I like your dog," he said to me.
"I see that," I said. "The dog's only so-so about you."
"How can you tell?" he asked.
"You're not completely bathed in saliva," I said.
He laughed. "I'll try harder next time," he said.
"Remember to bring a towel," I said.
The green man motioned to the house. "This is Major Perry's house?"
"I hope so," I said. "All his stuff is here."
This earned me about a two-second pause.
Yes, as it happens, I am a sarcastic little thing. Thanks for asking. It comes from living with my dad all these years. He considers himself quite the wit; I don't know how I feel about that one, personally, but I will say that it's made me pretty forward when it comes to comebacks and quips. Give me a soft lob, I'll be happy to spike it. I think it's endearing and charming; so does Dad. We may be in the minority with that opinion. If nothing else it's interesting to see how other people react to it. Some people think it's cute. Others not so much.
I think my green friend fell into the "not so much" camp, because his response was to change the subject. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't think I know who you are."
"I'm Zoe," I said. "Major Perry's daughter. Lieutenant Sagan's, too."
"Oh, right," he said. "I'm sorry. I pictured you as younger."
"I used to be," I said.
"I should have known you were his daughter," he said. "You look like him in the eyes."
Fight the urge, the polite part of my brain said. Fight it. Just let it go.
"Thank you," I said. "I'm adopted."
My green friend stood there for a minute, doing that thing people do when they've just stepped in it: freezing and putting a smile on their face while their brain strips its gears trying to figure how it's going to extract itself out of this faux pas. If I leaned in, I could probably hear his frontal lobes go click click click click, trying to reset.
See, now, that was just mean, said the polite part of my brain.
But come on. If the guy was calling Dad "Major Perry," then he probably knew when Dad was discharged from service, which was eight years ago. CDF soldiers can't make babies; that's part of their combat-effective genetic engineering, don't you know - no accidental kids - so his earliest opportunity to spawn would have been when they put him in a new, regular body at the end of his service term. And then there's the whole "nine months gestation" thing. I might have been a little small for my age when I was fifteen, but I assure you, I didn't look seven.
Honestly, I think there's a limit to how bad I should feel in a situation like that. Grown men should be able to handle a little basic math.
Still, there's only so long you can leave someone on the hook. "You called Dad 'Major Perry,'" I said. "Did you know him from the service?"
"I did," he said, and seemed happy that the conversation was moving forward again. "It's been a while, though. I wonder if I'll recognize him."
"I imagine he looks the same," I said. "Maybe a different skin tone."
He chuckled at that. "I suppose that's true," he said. "Being green would make it a little more difficult to blend in."
"I don't think he would ever quite blend in here," I said, and then immediately realized all the very many ways that statement could be misinterpreted.
And of course, my visitor wasted no time doing just that. "Does he not blend?" he asked, and then bent down to pat Babar.
"That's not what I meant," I said. "Most of the people here at Huckleberry are from India, back on Earth, or were born here from people who came from India. It's a different culture than the one he grew up in, that's all."
"I understand," the green man said. "And I'm sure he gets along very well with the people here. Major Perry is like that. I'm sure that's why he has the job he has here." My dad's job was as an ombudsman, someone who helps people cut through government bureaucracy. "I guess I'm just curious if he likes it here."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I was just wondering how he's been enjoying his retirement from the universe, is all," he said, and looked back up at me.
In the back of my brain something went ping. I was suddenly aware that our nice and casual conversation had somehow become something less casual. Our green visitor wasn't just here for a social call.
"I think he likes it fine," I said, and kept from saying anything else. "Why?"
"Just curious," he said, petting Babar again. I fought off the urge to call my dog over. "Not everyone makes the jump from military life to civilian life perfectly." He looked around. "This looks like a pretty sedate life. It's a pretty big switch."
"I think he likes it just fine," I repeated, putting enough emphasis on the words that unless my green visitor was an absolute toad, he'd know to move on.
"Good," he said. "What about you? How do you like it here?"
I opened my mouth to respond, and then shut it just as quickly. Because, well. There was a question.
The idea of living on a human colony is more exciting than the reality. Some folks new to the concept think that people out in the colonies go from planet to planet all the time, maybe living on one planet, working on another and then having vacations on a third: the pleasure planet of Vacationaria, maybe. The reality is, sadly, far more boring. Most colonists live their whole lives on their home planet, and never get out to see the rest of the universe.
It's not impossible to go from planet to planet, but there's usually a reason for it: You're a member of the crew on a trade ship, hauling fruit and wicker baskets between the stars, or you get a job with the Colonial Union itself and start a glorious career as an interstellar bureaucrat. If you're an athlete, there's the Colonial Olympiad every four years. And occasionally a famous musician or actor will do a grand tour of the colonies.
But mostly, you're born on a planet, you live on a planet, you die on a planet, and your ghost hangs around and annoys your descendants on that planet. I don't suppose there's really anything bad about that - I mean, most people don't actually go more than a couple dozen kilometers from their homes most of the time in day-to-day life, do they? And people hardly see most of their own planet when they do decide to wander off. If you've never seen the sights on your own planet, I don't know how much you can really complain about not seeing a whole other planet.
But it helps to be on an interesting planet.
In case this ever gets back to Huckleberry: I love Huckleberry, really I do. And I love New Goa, the little town where we lived. When you're a kid, a rural, agriculturally-based colony town is a lot of fun to grow up in. It's life on a farm, with goats and chickens and fields of wheat and sorghum, harvest celebrations and winter festivals. There's not an eight- or nine-year-old kid who's been invented who doesn't find all of that unspeakably fun. But then you become a teenager and you start thinking about everything you might possibly want to do with your life, and you look at the options available to you. And then all farms, goats and chickens - and all the same people you've known all your life and will know all your life - begin to look a little less than optimal for a total life experience. It's all still the same, of course. That's the point. It's you who's changed.
I know this bit of teenage angst wouldn't make me any different than any other small-town teenager who has ever existed throughout the history of the known universe. But when even the "big city" of a colony - the district capital of Missouri City - holds all the mystery and romance of watching compost, it's not unreasonable to hope for something else.
I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with Missouri City (there's nothing wrong with compost, either; you actually need it). Maybe it's better to say it's the sort of place you come back to, once you've gone out and had your time in the big city, or the big bad universe. One of the things I know about Mom is that she loved it on Huckleberry. But before she was here, she was a Special Forces soldier. She doesn't talk too much about all the things she's seen and done, but from personal experience I know a little bit about it. I can't imagine a whole life of it. I think she'd say that she'd seen enough of the universe.
I've seen some of the universe, too, before we came to Huckleberry. But unlike Jane - unlike Mom - I don't think I'm ready to say Huckleberry's all I want out of a life.
But I wasn't sure I wanted to say any of that to this green guy, who I had become suddenly rather suspicious of. Green men falling from the sky, asking after the psychological states of various family members including oneself, are enough to make a girl paranoid about what's going on. Especially when, as I suddenly realized, I didn't actually get the guy's name. He'd gotten this far into my family life without actually saying who he was.
Maybe this was just something he'd innocently managed to overlook - this wasn't a formal interview, after all - but enough bells were ringing in my head that I decided that my green friend had had enough free information for one day.
Green man was looking at me intently, waiting for me to respond. I gave him my best noncommittal shrug. I was fifteen years old. It's a quality age for shrugging.
He backed off a bit. "I don't suppose your dad is home," he said.
"Not yet," I said. I checked my PDA and showed it to him. "His workday finished up a few minutes ago. He and Mom are probably walking home."
"Okay. And your mom is constable here, right?"
"Right," I said. Jane Sagan, frontier law woman. Minus the frontier. It fit her. "Did you know Mom, too?" I asked. Special Forces was an entirely different thing from regular infantry.
"Just by reputation," he said, and again there was that studied casual thing.
Folks, a little tip: Nothing is more transparent than you try for casual and miss. My green friend was missing it by a klick, and I got tired of feeling lightly groped for information.
"I think I'll go for a walk," I said. "Mom and Dad are probably right down the road. I'll let them know you're here."
"I'll go with you," Green man offered.
"That's all right," I said, and motioned him onto the porch, and to our porch swing. "You've been traveling. Have a seat and relax."
"All right," he said. "If you're comfortable having me here while you're gone." I think that was meant as a joke.
I smiled at him. "I think it'll be fine," I said. "You'll have company."
"You're leaving me the dog," he said. He sat.
"Even better," I said. "I'm leaving you two of my friends." This is when I called into the house for Hickory and Dickory, and then stood away from the door and watched my visitor, so I wouldn't miss his expression when the two of them came out.
He didn't quite wet his pants.
Which was an accomplishment, all things considered. Obin - which is what Hickory and Dickory are - don't look exactly like a cross between a spider and a giraffe, but they're close enough to make some part of the human brain fire up the drop ballast alert. You get used to them after a bit. But the point is it takes a while.
"This is Hickory," I said, pointing to the one at the left of me, and then pointed to the one at my right. "And this is Dickory. They're Obin."
"Yes, I know," my visitor said, with the sort of tone you'd expect from a very small animal trying to pretend that being cornered by a pair of very large predators was not that big of a deal. "Uh. So. These are your friends."
"Best friends," I said, with what I felt was just the right amount of brainless gush. "And they love to entertain visitors. They'll be happy to keep you company while I go look for my parents. Isn't that right?" I said to Hickory and Dickory.
"Yes," they said, together. Hickory and Dickory are fairly monotone to begin with; having them be monotone in stereo offers an additional - and delightful! - creepy effect.
"Please say hello to our guest," I said.
"Hello," they said, again in stereo.
"Uh," said Green man. "Hi."
"Great, everybody's friends," I said, and stepped off the porch. Babar left our green friend to follow me. "I'm off, then."
"You sure you don't want me to come along?" Green man said. "I don't mind."
"No, please," I said. "I don't want you to feel like you have to get up for anything." My eyes sort of casually flicked over at Hickory and Dickory, as if to imply it would be a shame if they had to make steaks out of him.
"Great," he said, and settled onto the swing. I think he got the hint. See, that's how you do studied casual.
"Great," I said. Babar and I headed off down the road to find my folks.