[If you liked the previous posting, here’s another from that novel, now renamed The Keeper Jones ]

 

The fact of the matter was, he did not like people. Simple as that. They were generally mean, smelly, short sighted, lazy, dull, boring and boorish creatures who were always wanting someone else to do something for them and unwilling to take responsibility for whatever they did themselves. Not much different than most other creatures, perhaps, but HE was one of them. That was, in and of itself, the most irritating part of it. There was no cause for him to impose himself on anyone else so long as he could take refuge here. He had stated this fact over and again. How many times. He was always receiving a proposal from one lonely lady or another. Especially since his brother had posted Keeper’s vitals on some bulletin board someplace as a joke and that was now spread from Titan to Venus Prime. One of his friends had even sent him a parody of the thing that appeared on a vid and had its own legs. Now, he was a joke. His quest for quiet and contemplative life was a punchline. All he wanted to do was be left alone and this simple fact had been turned into hash.

The worry of this, renewed once again this morning by another rash of proposals complete with the usual pictures and vids that he had opened over breakfast, was unsettling. Everyone alive must know about the ‘hermit lighthouse keeper’ at this point. How could there really be yet another place—these particular inquiries were all out of the Hildas—that hadn’t heard. His brother should rot in hell, or at least roast. Half-brothers, they had never gotten along. After all, Keeper was not really ‘of’ the family. He was not really a Jones. His father had adopted Keeper as a baby when he married their mother. And this was a fact Aldous never failed to mention as often as he could. That Keeper’s actual father was not known to anyone but their mother was not often mentioned out of respect for her, but given the date she had first arrived on Mars, Keeper’s actual father was almost certainly not one of the twelve families.

Petty concerns were finally buried by Keeper’s greater worry about the warning received the day before. The alarm triggers were not set merely to catch a plume of iron dust. He had only found that by looking for it when other possibilities were eliminated. Something else was amiss and it was not an unmarried female. What could be the cause? It would have been an errant movement, certainly. Some mass of size had altered direction without leaving a trace afterward. The minor impact on the gamma lanthorn was not the matter he should be concerned about.

He had spoken out-loud to some of his friends on a clear channel as he considered the possibilities.

There were seven thousand six hundred and thirty-seven objects of size—of size sufficient to measure and endanger a ship’s passage, within his patch. Every single one of them was fully charted. He knew where they had been and where they were going to be at any moment. Variation was the problem. And the alerts had been multiple. Independently confirmed. It was not a ghost effect. But now it was gone.

His report had been filed immediately with the various commands. Their responses indicated that nothing of the sort had been detected in any other sector. This was all his.

From Keeper’s old posting at the Demos watch, Walter got back to him again, as Keeper fished around in the plumbing at his kitchen sink to find whatever it was that was slowing the drain.

“Keeper, what’s with that old tag ship you were interested in? I haven’t heard a word out of you about that in months. I see it’s getting close.”

The delay in reception made any urgency to his response pointless so he pushed the stiff wire he was using down as far at he could without losing a grip on it and turned it round and round. Whatever had gotten lodged down there was soft. He thought a moment.

“Oatmeal!”

“What? It sounded like you said ‘Oatmeal.’ I’m talking about that old pirate ship that Mars Command left for salvage.”

“I dumped a pot of burned oatmeal out in the sink yesterday. It didn’t make it through the drain.”

“See! You’re brother’s right! You need a wife! You need someone to take care of you. Best thing I ever did. I haven’t eaten a decent meal since she left me.”

“You’re the perfect troglodyte, Walter. If you couldn’t get it to work, how’s a primitive like me supposed to make it.”

“ I am told on good authority that it’s a matter of compatible faults. She has to have the right faults for you and the same visa versy. The mistake we all make is looking for the right virtues. We really ALL want the same virtues and there’s just not many of us that have them.”

“You want me to look for the right faults? Is that it? Really? Like what?”

“Now, see, I’ve got that all worked out now. You want a woman who’s jealous. Wants you all to herself. Now, normally that would be a bad thing. A guy has to stretch his legs now and again. But here—out here, with us, there’s no problem. Where are we going to find another girl to even look at? A perfect situation, I’d say.”

“Walter, the problem with that is if there is not a whole lot to you in the first place, there won’t be much for the lady to be jealous of. You know what I mean?”

There was longer silence after this. Keeper already knew that Walter was five foot two and skinny as well. But suddenly another voice—Joan’s voice, from Phobos watch—came in to the conversation. The clear channel he had used was open to all subscribers, which in this case was possibly several hundred. Keeper could tell that she was running, or doing something else that was strenuous as she spoke. He assumed it was nothing more than the bike she liked to use on her tread.

“Kelly was not the woman for you, Walter. You need a girl who can stand a guy who burps at the dinner table.”

About a million miles closer to Joan, Walter answered quickly, “That’s not fair, Joan. That was your fault. Your cooking is too damn good.”

“And the farting.”

“Hell. That’s mother nature’s fault.”

“And the snoring?”

“I sleep very soundly.”

Keeper broke into this patter.

“Walter, you’re right. You have to find someone that likes you’re faults. In the mean time, you’ll have to eat you’re own cooking.”

There was a lengthy silence.

Joan spoke first again, as if out of breath. “Keeper, what the hell do you want with another ship? You have enough to look after now. You need help as it is.”

“Wildflowers. I want to experiment with some more trees. They’re doing well with the Live Oaks at Pelos. I’d like to try those out here.”

“You intend to live long enough to see one get much taller than you?”

“Maybe.”

“Are you using the bike I sent you?”

“No.”

“Then you won’t be around long enough.”

“I climb a lot.”

“It’s not the same.”

“Yes, m’am.”

“I’ll come out there and show you how it’s done if you want.”

“Yeah. I’m afraid you might. . . . I’ll get to it. I need a straighter track around the tread. That means I’d have to move a lot of material.”

“Too many wildflowers, Keeper.”

“You can never have too many wildflowers, Joan. I have the best honey in the outlands. I probably have the best honey anywhere outside of Earth.”

“I do like you’re honey, Keeper.”

She was a persistent woman. He had found that much out already.

“I’ll work at it. You’re right, I need the exercise.”

“Let us know if you get any thoughts about the anomaly.”

“Yes, ma’m.”

 

In fact, he had avoided thinking about the other ship. It was another responsibility, after all. Something he would have to follow through on if he made the decision to finally take it. He took a walk instead.

Behind the cottage he kept the trail rough with maple and encroaching scrub and random rock for almost a hundred yards—just enough to kept the feel of something untended and unintentional. The deception of creating hillocks for the larger trees and reducing the ground space between, nearly to the steel of the tread, was something he was particularly proud of. From the back porch of the cottage this ‘forest’ looked even more enlarged by the curve of the tread. But this was his own joke—as if it were a wilderness trail and not something he wandered over at least once a day. The birch trees at the edges grew quickly and filled the air with a yellow-green light. At eye level, his library could not be seen until he was practically there. But he had no one to show it to.

The shape of his library had not been determined so much by him. Unlike the trim look of his cottage, this was a ‘cabin,’ and relatively authentic in appearance if the old pictures were true. The heavy logs overlapped at every corner in a statement of mad extravagance. Imagine a time when wood was so cheap that it could be used in such a way! The roof was pitched over thick rafters, far more steep than the gentle rains here would ever need, and these were then covered in a roofing green ‘tin,’ which was actually a galvanized metal coated with a plastic. Had he simply chosen to sell off the pine logs themselves he could have made a tidy profit from some outfit that would have turn it all into a veneer, but the thought never crossed his mind until the thing was built. He had no idea why the particular lengths of wood were originally chosen, but he had enjoyed the puzzle of trying to make the best use of what he had. The finished lumber was already cut to size on earth and shipped out on a supply vessel that was abandoned when the ship was raided by pirates. Once written off by the insurance companies, it had taken Keeper several months in the Wallowa just to move the broken ship close enough to retrieve the remaining contents before dismantling the structure of the ship itself. To date, this was still his largest salvage outside of the three tred ships he had kept. But he was a younger man then. Was he up to doing all of that again?

He knew that this was all just a game, but that was part of the trick, wasn’t it. To pretend. To make his small pocket-world as much like the place he imagined in his head as he might. Ultimately, it was all borrowed, taken out of the books. He had never been to Earth. He had never seen such things with his own eyes. But this was easy enough to do. And the increase of usable space that another abandoned vessel offered could not be ignored by his imagination. It was the physical labor that was the real matter. He had too little help. Robbie and Wilson were merely extensions of his own ignorance.

The Chatham. That was its name, after all—its original name before it had been remade into a slave ship. He’d like to keep that much simply because he liked the sound of it. There was something whimsical to that. It had later been tagged with the number 4816 but that was only for insurance purposes and was no longer valid. P-4 was at least descriptive of its orbit. He already knew that Chatham was a town on Earth. Or had been. He had looked this up. It was once perched on the very edge of an ocean. But there was no record of why the original owners of the ship had chosen the name some forty years before. That would have been between wars and plagues and likely just a detail lost in time. The vessel had been constructed at Armstrong, on the Earth’s moon and pirates had taken the ship on it’s very first voyage. Likely that was a matter of inexperience on the part of the original crew, or some skullduggery never proved. It was at least as large as his own home ship, the Persuasion. At least the width of the hoop was. But Persuasion had been a navel vessel from the first, meant for war, and it was a deal heavier.

His tug, the Wallowa would be able to move the Chatham wherever he wanted it. It was just a matter of whether he wanted it enough to spend the next three or four years of his life converting it to usable space or, worse, if that proved impossible, dismantling it for scrap. He could be fifty years old by the time the task was done. It was a considerable commitment. Would he really be able to make good use of the space once he had it? The challenge was waiting there. He should at least go out and look it over first—before he made up his mind. But he was familiar with that solution, however. He too often made up what mind he had before he knew the facts. And he wanted this ship.

He sat at the monitor on his reading table in the library and researched the Chatham again. What was really known? Little enough. It was operated successfully as a slaver for many years before the authorities on Mars realized it was not just shipping grain to the outlands. That was thirty-two years ago—in 2285. Its last run was stopped by the Martian AF midway in the astroid belt while traveling the Magellan channels. They had evidently stalked it for several weeks previously. There was a mercifully short confrontation during which several slavers and some of the human cargo had been killed. The remaining slaves had been taken away to safe houses on Mars and since that time had resettled there. The dozen or so slavers who survived the initial confrontation were tried, convicted, and executed, all excepting those three who had testified against the others who were imprisoned for life.

According to the record, there was little content remaining aboard, most of that having been removed for auction to pay for the expense of the military operation and the trial. This meant he would have to wear a suit, not only for air but to avoid any disease that may have festered or survived there since its abandonment. And he would have to bring his tools, then. And a meter. Maybe, two so he could set one in place and carry the other with him. The fusion device would likely have been stolen or stripped long ago. Though, it was an early model and that was good, because it would be easier to rehabilitate if it was merely damaged.

Four-hundred! He came across the actual number well into the report, as if it were being hidden. Four-hundred slaves had been carried in a containment that would be difficult for forty. For how long? Three months. Four? It had left an area of the Hildas six months prior to its capture. Was it possible that all of those unfortunates were from there? Or, had those slavers been on a tour picking up and selling off any human bounty they had found along the way.

These were Vikings. These were marauders. Pirates. But of the worst kind.

Keeper scrolled through testimony by the three who had spoken against the others, each of them low in the ad hoc hierarchy of command. He was surprised to find that facts were few concerning the slaves themselves. Most of it was redacted. What legal reason would there be for that? A clue might be that two of the slavers who had testified were born on Mars. Were some of these unfortunate people, stolen from their previous lives, actually Martian citizens? It would at least account for some of the redaction. The privacy of the victims was always considered first.

Four hundred human beings turned into chattel! Human history repeating itself once again.

More importantly for him now was the immediate consideration: did he really need this particular vessel? The answer to that was no. He could get along very well with what he had. Joan was right about that. And that was enough to push him on.

His relationship with Joan had been brief and was now almost ten years behind him. Her need to direct him in every detail of his life was more than he could stand. Why did he want all of those filthy books? He could read it all on his tech. What is a vacuum tube? Why would they use something so cumbersome. Radio waves are fine for machines, but why would you use them for music. That was silly? He could clearly hear the word now again, ‘Silly,’ with just the inflection she often used several times a day. She had already expressed herself more than adequately concerning his collection of old ships. She thought he was more than slightly mad. And he had to agree with her about that.

She was not a bad woman. Better than most, certainly. But she should have had children instead of taking her mothering out on the men in her life. Keeper imagined the situation more recently between Joan and Walter. At least that made him smile.

The thing of it was, as much as the empty space of another vessel might feed his dreams, what he really wanted at the moment was more books. In the twelve shelving units behind him there in his library he had just over three thousand volumes. But only by having them there, set out to see at a glance, did he realize that he had almost nothing. There was more. He did not care about the money the Chatham might be worth. Whole or in parts. He could convert it one way or the other. Likely after costs it would net him ten or twelve thousand credits. But Martians had been hoarding books for almost two hundred years now. He could double his library there with one shot.

He had excused keeping the books at first, storing them where he could, stumbling on the boxes in narrow quarters, considering them as a sort of savings account. They were worth a high price if sold at Mars, because the great majority of older books had been lost in the Elide. But he knew now that he would never sell them. His collection of the last thirty years, the first of them bought at the holiday bazaar in Truax, and the later ones found in abandoned ships or traded for, had become an extension of his very life. He had lived in them. And they begged him for more.

What was reprinted now was good enough, perhaps, for most people. But you could never be sure it was the same content as the original. In fact, he knew it probably wasn’t. His copy of Huckleberry Finn, as just one example, had thousands of more words than a new one ordered from Bastiat. And one particular author had his fancy at the moment: Rudyard Kipling. Keeper had two original collections of stories and a novel, each of them bound in dark green cloth and decorated with gold and black stamping. He had read them each more than once. But on an inside page of each was a list of others. He wanted them all! There were over thirty more! How could one author write so much? More, if Keeper’s random sample were indicative, how could one author write so much so well?

Of course, there were quite a few of these that he might read on any vid. If he cared to. But he didn’t. He wanted the actual book in hand. He wanted to smell it. Like the wild flowers. And no book smelled exactly the same to him. And better yet, the honey from each was different.