Volk Fyodorovich was obsessed with the Eldest. There was no other way for Pak to explain his behavior. The stranger from space mostly ignored Elder Nobari’s explanation of the fisher’s systems and how they allowed the colony perfect recycling and manufacturing abilities by breaking down and reassembling things on the atomic level, although from comments made by the archivist – or as they called her the journalist – in the group it sounded like the fisher tanks were something they understood already. Instead, Volk plied Naomi with questions.
Was she married? Children? He was astonished to hear she had two. What were the responsibilities of the Eldest? If they were mostly ceremonial, why had the Elders chosen her to lead the day’s discussions with him? And on and on.
By the time the tour of the fisher’s plant ended they were practically three groups. Volk and Naomi were pumping each other for information on their respective cultures, with Volk seeming very interested in Naomi in particular.
Harriet and Elder Nobari talked extensively about the fishers and how their work supported the colony. She took particular note of how the fishers on duty that day were in the middle of breaking down and rebuilding an old set of conduits from the Sun Bottle. That was pretty much the only time Naomi abandoned her deep discussion with Volk to move the group along. Pak had been expecting her to stop and talk about the conduits or the Bottle itself, since that was her field of expertise, but instead she just whisked them on to the refineries where the fisher’s pools were kept pure and functional.
As for Pak and the small, quiet woman named Shen, they walked behind the other four and said very little. Shen was quiet and frankly a bit off-putting, still hiding behind her helmet and wrapped in Silence. She didn’t carry the antenna box on this outing but Pak almost wished she did, since it would give him something, anything to talk about.
As it happened, she found something to ask first. “Why isn’t the Head Watcher a position for an Elder?”
The question came out of nowhere, without her even bothering to turn her head and look at him, but Pak had been so busy eavesdropping on Elder Nobari discussing the programming at work in the fisher’s research room that he almost missed it. In fact, for a moment he wasn’t sure Shen was the one who’d spoken until he looked at her and she spread her hands in a questioning fashion. “It is, technically speaking.”
“Bottletown needs a lot of things to keep in going, doctors, farmers, weathermen, bottlekeepers, fishers, watchers, petitioners, the list goes on.” He shrugged. “And there are some jobs, like programmers, who can only be filled by Elders. There’s only so many of them to go around. And there’s not really a lot for watchers to do from day to day, at least until the past couple of days. So a lot of the time no one stays in the Watchtower until they’re an Elder, and so we don’t have any Elder to oversee us and we have to make do. It happens sometimes in other parts of the colony. Farmers and petitioners have gone without before, although not for as long a time as the watchers.”
“I would think the town guard would be a group that would require at least one Elder to lead it.”
“We’re not guards, we’re watchers.” Pak gestured vaguely in the direction of the old settlement outside. “A long time ago Thulcandra subdued the people of Borealis. We don’t know how or why, but it happened. When that was done Thulcandrans came and took all the Borealins away. We didn’t have the knowledge or power to fight back so Bottletown was established to let us hide. But we couldn’t stay in there forever, we needed the aboveground farms and stuff like that. So watchers were put in the Watchtower to see if anything ever came out of the Silence.”
“And when you see something coming you all hide in Bottletown.” Shen’s helmet hid her face from view so Pak wasn’t sure what she thought of it but her voice sounded distant and pensive.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sure.” A slight change in tone of voice and barely visible change in posture combined to somehow suggest Shen was paying more attention than a moment ago. “What do you want to know?”
“Why did you come back when it was clear that Earth had gone Silent?” Pak tried to keep the frustration from his voice but it was one thing that had bothered him since the day he understood what had happened to Borealis. “Why care about people who cut you off totally?”
“Listen, kid…” Pak bristled at that but stopped himself from cutting her off. “I know you’ve never left this dome and that’s not your fault. But you need to understand that space is a big place. A really big place. Even moving at superluminal speeds it can take months to move from one inhabited planet to another and, as far as we can tell so far, we’re the only ones out there. It’s lonely enough without cutting people off arbitrarily. And we never knew why Earth never contacted us. There are thousands of issues that could have kept couriers from getting through. They may not even have known there was anyone to talk to. Did you?”
Pak started. “What?”
“I mean, why did Bottletown go silent? Why did they never talk to us?”
“Oh.” The clarity that question brought was unsettling, both in what it said about Malacandra and what it implied might have happened on Thulcandra. “We never did because we didn’t know.”
“One of the Great Man’s first lessons, kid. Don’t assume motives.”
He didn’t know who the Great Man was but the lesson was well taken, none the less.
By the end of the grand tour Volk was certain of two things. The first was that Naomi hadn’t lied to him. At barely twenty years old she was, in fact, the oldest person in Bottletown. They hadn’t met anyone that could conceivably be older. The other was that the Malacandrans thought this was a normal state of affairs.
No one had come out and said so. In fact, Volk wouldn’t have found that very convincing. But he’d seen so many weird and warped ideas about human growth and aging taken for granted in the past two hours that it made his head spin. And served as stronger proof that the colony saw twenty as old – or even ancient – than any lecture on cultural norms could.
He’d been introduced to two thirteen year olds as newlyweds, to his barely concealed horror. Thacker had clearly wanted to ask dozens of questions about that but for once Volk opted to explicitly break with his orders and quashed that line of questioning. Beyond that he’d found people in their late teens leading every work detail and twelve year olds digging through the guts of industrial equipment. By the time Naomi brought them into the fusion plant proper and led them into a cafeteria for lunch Volk had entirely lost his appetite.
He tried to distract himself from his discomfort by gawking around at the building. The core of a fusion reactor is not big, in and of itself. If he was suicidal he could have fit one into his quarters on the Stewart. It was the containment fields, passive radiation shielding, coolant pumps and other components that took up most of the space. That, and all the hallways, offices and watch rooms for the people that kept it running.
Bottletown took things a step further. A massive balcony ran around the top of the power plant in a kind of open air promenade except with a roof. The balcony itself was about twenty feet wide and covered about a third of the open space over the oval shaped reactor two or three hundred feet below, practically resting on the Martian bedrock. There were green spaces and seating areas. About eight small kitchens opening off of the promenade were serving food. It really felt like a town square and Volk could kind of understand why they’d named their reformed colony after their reactor.
Volk drew Naomi’s attention to two sets of double doors, one on either end of the long oval. “What’s through those?”
Naomi pointed to the closer door, off to their left. “That’s the office for the Eldest although, since we’re largely a ceremonial thing, it doesn’t see a whole lot of use. We really only open it up about twice a cent.”
“Any chance we’d be able to see what happens there?”
“Depends how long you stay. The next major even is in…” She paused for a moment, counting days in her head. “Three weeks?”
“Shouldn’t you know?” Volk was amused. “Aren’t you officiating?”
“And the other door,” Naomi said with the smoothness of someone ducking responsibility, “is Ransom’s Office.”
“Ransom?” Volk’s eyebrows shot up. There was an interesting choice of words, one the sociologists were probably going to have a field day with. “Who’s Ransom?”
“Our…” Another pause as she considered. “Founder, I suppose you would say. A very important figure in the creation of Bottletown, certainly. We preserve his office for posterity, along with some of our most important records. And before you ask, it’s not something we can share with outsiders, that’s one of the things that’s very clear.”
“How does one go about not being an outsider, if I might ask?” Thacker sounded more like she wanted to know for completion’s sake, rather than asking out of a desire to join the colony.
Naomi gave a half shrug, looking uncomfortable for the first time since they’d met. “Ransom’s notes don’t really address that. We’re not supposed to share them with outsiders, but he was supposed to go to Earth and try and find allies for the cause – opponents for Thulcandra. When they came – if they came – they would identify him by name.”
That was when things clicked in Volk’s head. “Was his name Elwin? Elwin Ransom?”
Which explained at least one thing about his first meeting with Pak. At least that was one thing the people shipside could stop trying to figure out. “How was he going about gathering allies?”
“He said he was going to write a book with a friend he knew on Thulcandra.” She spread her hands helplessly. “Unfortunately Ransom never mentioned his friend’s name. All we really have are copies of the notes his book was to be based on.”
Volk frowned. It really wasn’t much to go on but it was a place to start. The shipboard archives might have something. Thacker took his pause as an invitation to jump in again. “What if we never saw this book Mr. Ransom was supposed to publish?”
“Well, that’s why we sent a petitioner to you on your first day. Dorian is well educated on Ransom’s notes, as most petitioners are, and can teach the concepts in them directly or through questions. He evaluated how well you seemed to align with them, and we decided to take you in for a trial period.”
“Well I guess that covers all your bases,” Volk mused. “I hope we can still earn your trust, even if we haven’t met this Ransom guy or read his book. In a gesture of good faith, would you like to bring a party up to our starship tomorrow?”
Naomi lit up like a wayfinder beacon at night. “Could I?”
Volk tried his best not to feel like he was luring a child into a dark alley. She was older than he’d been when he’d joined the Navy. “We’d love to have you aboard and there’s no need to commit to understanding Gene Rodenberry’s work beforehand. Although we’d also be happy to share that with you, too.”
“How many people could we bring?” Nobari asked.
And they fell to hammering out the details, another thing Volk was getting used to with frightening speed. A part of him worried that he was practically turning into a desk jockey. That was the part he paid the most attention to. It distracted him from the part growing increasingly concerned at what he was seeing in Bottletown. A city run by children. An insular religious system waiting for the return of a departed prophet who was supposed to have evangelized the solar system. And still not a single damned clue what had happened to the Homeworld. They’d staggered to Mars hoping for some insight, they were getting even more mysteries.
Still, for his own part Volk was confident they’d come out all right. But for Naomi, Pak and the others in Bottletown? He wasn’t so sure…