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    Original Essays | October 21, 2014

    Katha Pollitt: IMG My Bookstore Fantasy — No Customers Necessary



    "Let's open a bookstore," I say to my husband every now and then. "A used bookstore. With a few new books we really like." I'm picturing an... Continue »

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The Last Colony

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ISBN13: 9780765356185
ISBN10: 076535618x
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Excerpt

Chapter One

Let me tell you of the worlds I've left behind.

Earth you know; everyone knows it. It's the birth place of humanity, although at this point not many consider it our "home" planet—Phoenix has had that job since the Colonial Union was created and became the guiding force for expanding and protecting our race in the universe. But you never forget where you come from.

Being from Earth in this universe is like being a small-town kid who gets on the bus, goes to the big city and spends his entire afternoon gawking at all the tall buildings. Then he gets mugged for the crime of marveling at this strange new world, which has such things in it, because the things in it don't have much time or sympathy for the new kid in town, and they're happy to kill him for what he's got in his suitcase. The small-town kid learns this fast, because he can't go home again.

I spent seventy-five years on Earth, living mostly in the same small Ohio town and sharing most of that life with the same woman. She died and stayed behind. I lived and I left.

The next world is metaphorical. The Colonial Defense Forces took me off Earth and kept the parts of me they wanted: my consciousness, and some small part of my DNA. From the latter they built me a new body, which was young and quick and strong and beautiful and only partially human. They stuffed my consciousness inside of it, and gave me not nearly enough time to glory in my second youth. Then they took this beautiful body that was now me and spent the next several years actively trying to get it killed by throwing me at every hostile alien race they could.

There were a lot of those. The universe is vast, but the number of worlds suitable for human life is surprisingly small, and as it happens space is filled with numerous other intelligent species who want the same worlds we do. Very few of these species, it seems, are into the concept of sharing; we're certainly not. We all fight, and the worlds we can inhabit swap back and forth between us until one or another gets a grip on it so tight we can't be pried off. Over a couple of centuries, we humans have managed this trick on several dozen worlds, and failed this trick on dozens more. None of this has made us very many friends.

I spent six years in this world. I fought and I nearly died, more than once. I had friends, most of whom died but some of whom I saved. I met a woman who was achingly like the one I shared my life with on Earth, but who was nevertheless entirely her own person. I defended the Colonial Union, and in doing so I believed I was keeping humanity alive in the universe.

At the end of it the Colonial Defense Forces took the part of me that had always been me and stuffed it into a third and final body. This body was young, but not nearly as quick and strong. It was, after all, only human. But this body would not be asked to fight and die. I missed being as strong as a cartoon superhero. I didn't miss every alien creature I met trying very hard to kill me. It was a fair trade.

The next world is likely unknown to you. Stand again on Earth, our old home, where billions still live and dream of the stars. Look up in the sky, at the constellation Lynx, hard by Ursa Major. There's a star there, yellow like our sun, with six major planets. The third one, appropriately enough, is a counterfeit of Earth: 96 percent of its circumference, but with a slightly larger iron core, so it has 101 percent of its mass (you don't notice that 1 percent much). Two moons: one two-thirds the size of Earth's moon, but closer than Luna, so in the sky it takes up the same amount of real estate. The second moon, a captured asteroid, is much smaller and closer in. It's in an unstable orbit; eventually it will tumble and fall into the planet below. Best estimate is this will happen in about a quarter of a million years. The natives are not terribly concerned at the moment.

This world was found by humans nearly seventy-five years ago; the Ealan had a colony there but the Colonial Defense Forces corrected that. Then the Ealan, shall we say, checked the math on that equation and it was another couple of years before it was all sorted out. When it was, the Colonial Union opened the world to colonists from Earth, mostly from India. They arrived in waves; the first one after the planet was secured from the Ealan, and the second shortly after the Subcontinental War on Earth, when the Occupation-backed probationary government offered the most notable supporters of the Chowdhury regime the choice of colonization or imprisonment. Most went into exile, taking their families with them. These people didn't so much dream of the stars as had them forced upon them.

Given the people who live on the planet, you would think it would have a name that reflects their heritage. You would be wrong. The planet is called Huckleberry, named no doubt by some Twain-loving apparatchik of the Colonial Union. Huckleberry's large moon is Sawyer; the small one is Becky. Its three major continents are Samuel, Langhorne and Clemens; from Clemens there is a long, curling string of volcanic islands known as the Livy Archipelago, set in the Calaveras Ocean. Most of the prominent features were dubbed in various aspects Twainania before the first settlers arrived; they seem to have accepted this with good grace.

Stand on this planet with me now. Look up in the sky, in the direction of the constellation Lotus. In it there is a star, yellow like the one this planet circles, around which I was born, two other lives ago. From here it is so far away as to be invisible to the eye, which is often how I feel about the life I lived there.

My name is John Perry. I am eighty-eight years old. I have lived on this planet for nearly eight years now. It is my home, which I share with my wife and my adopted daughter. Welcome to Huckleberry. In this story, it's the next world I leave behind. But not the final one.

The story of how I left Huckleberry begins—as do all worthy stories—with a goat.

Savitri Guntupalli, my assistant, didn't even look up from her book as I came back from lunch. "There's a goat in your office," she said.

"Hmmmm," I said. "I thought we'd sprayed for those."

This got an upward glance, which counted as a victory as these things go. "It brought the Chengelpet brothers with it," she said.

"Crap," I said. The last pair of brothers who fought as much as the Chengelpet brothers were named Cain and Abel, and at least one of them finally took some direct action. "I thought I told you not to let those two in my office when I wasn't around."

"You said no such thing," Savitri said.

"Let's make it a standing order," I said.

"And even if you had," Savitri continued, setting down her book, "this assumes that either Chengelpet would listen to me, which neither would. Aftab stomped through first with the goat and Nissim followed right after. Neither of them so much as looked in my direction."

"I don't want to have to deal with the Chengelpets," I said. "I just ate."

Savitri reached over to the side of the desk, grabbed her wastebasket and placed it on top of her desk. "By all means, vomit first," she said.

I had met Savitri several years before while I was touring the colonies as a representative of the Colonial Defense Forces, talking it up to the various colonies I was sent to. At the stop in the village of New Goa in the Huckleberry colony, Savitri stood up and called me a tool of the imperial and totalitarian regime of the Colonial Union. I liked her immediately. When I mustered out of the CDF, I decided to settle in New Goa. I was offered the position of village ombudsman, which I took, and was surprised on the first day of work to find Savitri there, telling me that she was going to be my assistant whether I liked it or not.

"Remind me again why you took this job," I said to Savitri, over the wastebasket.

"Sheer perversity," Savitri said. "Are you going to vomit or not?"

"I think I'll keep it in," I said. She grabbed the wastebasket and set it in its former position, and then picked up her book to resume reading.

I had an idea. "Hey, Savitri," I said. "Want my job?"

"Sure," she said, opening her book. "I'll start right after you finish with the Chengelpets."

"Thanks," I said.

Savitri grunted. She had returned to her literary adventures. I steeled myself and walked through the door of my office.

The goat in the middle of the floor was cute. The Chengelpets, sitting in the chairs in front of my desk, were less so.

"Aftab," I said, nodding to the older brother. "Nissim," I said, nodding to the younger. "And friend," I said, nodding to the goat. I took a seat. "What can I do for you this afternoon?"

"You can give me permission to shoot my brother, Ombudsman Perry," Nissim said.

"I'm not sure that's in my job description," I said. "And anyway, it seems a little drastic. Why don't you tell me what's going on."

Nissim pointed to his brother. "This bastard has stolen my seed," he said.

"Pardon?" I said.

"My seed," Nissim said. "Ask him. He cannot deny it."

I blinked and turned toward Aftab. "Stealing your brother's seed, then, is it, Aftab?"

"You must forgive my brother," Aftab said. "He is prone to hysteria, as you know. What he means to say is that one of his goats wandered from his pasture into mine and impregnated this nanny here, and now he claims that I have stolen his goat's sperm."

"It wasn't just any goat," Nissim said. "It was Prabhat, my prizewinner. I stud him out for a very good price, and Aftab didn't want to pay the price. So he stole my seed."

"It's Prabhat's seed, you idiot," Aftab said. "And it's not my fault you take such poor care of your fence that your goat was able to get onto my land."

"Oh, that's rich," Nissim said. "Ombudsman Perry, I'll have you know that fence wire was cut. Prabhat was tempted onto his land."

"You're delusional," Aftab said. "And even if it were true, which it is not, so what? You have your precious Prabhat back."

"But now you have this pregnant goat," Nissim said. "A pregnancy that you did not pay for, and which I did not give permission for. It's theft, pure and simple. And more than that, you're trying to ruin me."

"What are you talking about?" Aftab said.

"You're trying to breed a new stud," Nissim said, and pointed at the goat, which was nibbling the back of Aftab's chair. "Don't deny it. This is your best nanny. By breeding it with Prabhat you'll have a buck you can stud out. You're trying to undercut my business. Ask him, Ombudsman Perry. Ask him what his goat is carrying."

I looked back to Aftab. "What is your goat carrying, Aftab?"

"By sheer coincidence, one of the fetuses is male," Aftab said.

"I want it aborted," Nissim said.

"It's not your goat," Aftab said.

"Then I'll take the kid when it's born," Nissim said. "As payment for the seed you stole."

"This again," Aftab said, and looked over to me. "You see what I am dealing with, Ombudsman Perry. He lets his goats run rampant across the countryside, impregnating at will, and then he demands payment for his own shoddy animal husbandry."

Nissim bellowed in outrage and began yelling and gesticulating wildly at his brother; Aftab followed suit. The goat came around the desk and eyed me curiously. I reached into my desk and fed the goat a candy I found there. "You and I don't actually need to be here for this," I said to the goat. The goat didn't respond, but I could tell she agreed with me.

As originally planned, the village ombudsman's job was supposed to be simple: Whenever the New Goa villagers had a problem with the local or district government, they would come to me, and I could help them run through the red tape and get things done. It was, in fact, just the sort of job you give a war hero who is otherwise useless to the daily life of a largely rural colony; he's got just enough notoriety with the higher-ups that when he shows up on the doorstep, they have to pay attention to him.

The thing was that after a couple of months of this, the New Goa villagers started coming to me with their other problems. "Oh, we don't want to bother with the officials," I was told by one of the villagers, after I questioned why I was suddenly the go-to guy for everything from farm equipment advice to frontline marriage counseling. "It's easier and quicker to come to you." Rohit Kulkarni, New Goa's administrator, was delighted with this state of affairs, since I was now handling the problems that used to come to him first. It gave him more time to fish and play dominoes at the tea shop.

Most of the time this new and expanded definition of my ombudsman's duties was perfectly fine. It was nice to help people, and it was also nice that people listened to my advice. On the other hand any public servant is likely to tell you that just a few annoying people in their community will take up the vast majority of their time. In New Goa, those roles were occupied by the Chengelpet brothers.

No one knew why they hated each other so much. I thought it might be something with their parents, but Bhajan and Niral were lovely people who were just as mystified about it as anyone. Some people just don't get along with some other people, and unfortunately, these two people who did not get along happened to be brothers.

It wouldn't have been so bad if in fact they hadn't built farms right next to each other and thus were in each other's faces and business most of the time. At one point early in my tenure I suggested to Aftab, whom I regarded as the slightly more rational Chengelpet, that he might consider checking out a new plot of land that had just been cleared out on the other side of the village, because living away from Nissim might solve the majority of his problems with him. "Oh, he'd like that," Aftab said, in a perfectly reasonable tone of voice. After that I abandoned any hope of rational discourse on the matter and accepted that my karma required me to suffer through the occasional visit from the Outraged Chengelpet Brothers.

"All right," I said, quieting the brothers down from their fratriphobic rantings. "Here's what I think. I don't think it really matters how our lady friend the goat got knocked up, so let's not focus on that. But you both agree that it was Nissim's buck that did the deed."

Both the Chengelpets nodded; the goat stayed modestly quiet. "Fine. Then the two of you are in business together," I said. "Aftab, you can keep the kid after it's born and stud it out if you like. But the first six times you do, Nissim gets the full stud fee, and after that half of your stud fee goes to your brother."

"He'll just stud it out for free the first six times," Nissim said.

"Then let's make the stud fee after those first six times the average of those first six," I said. "So if he tries to screw you he'll end up screwing himself, too. And this is a small village, Nissim. People here won't stud with Aftab if they think the only reason he's hiring out his goat is to mess with your livelihood. There's a fine line between value and being a bad neighbor."

"And what if I don't want to be in business with him?" Aftab said.

"Then you can sell the kid to Nissim," I said. Nissim opened his mouth to protest. "Yes, sell," I said, before he could complain. "Take the kid to Murali and get an appraisal. That'll be the price. Murali doesn't like either of you very much so you'll get a fair estimate. Okay?"

The Chengelpets thought it over, which is to say they racked their brains to see if there was any way either one of them was more unhappy with this state of affairs than the other. Eventually they both seemed to come to the conclusion that they were equally displeased, which in this situation was the optimal result. They both nodded their assent.

"Good," I said. "Now get out of here before there's a mess on my rug."

"My goat wouldn't do that," Aftab said.

"It's not the goat I'm worried about," I said, shooing them out. They left; Savitri appeared in the door.

"You're in my seat," she said, nodding to my chair.

"Screw you," I said, propping up my feet on the desk. "If you're not going to handle the annoying cases, you're not ready for the big chair."

"In that case I will return to my humble role as your assistant and let you know that while you were entertaining the Chengelpets, the constable called," Savitri said.

"What about?" I asked.

"Didn't say," Savitri said. "Hung up. You know the constable. Very abrupt."

"Tough but fair, that's the motto," I said. "If it was really important there'd be a message, so I'll worry about that later. In the meantime I'll catch up with my paperwork."

"You don't have paperwork," Savitri said. "You give it all to me."

"Is it done?" I asked.

"As far as you know, yes," Savitri said.

"Then I think I'll relax and bask in my superior management skills," I said.

"I'm glad you didn't use the wastebasket to vomit earlier," Savitri said. "Because now there's a place for mine to go." She retreated back to her desk before I could think up a good retort.

We'd been like this since after the first month we'd worked together. It took her that first month to get used to the fact that even though I was former military I wasn't actually a colonialist tool, or at the very least if I was, I was one with common sense and a reasonable sense of humor. Having established I wasn't there to spread my hegemony over her village, she relaxed enough to start mocking me. It's been our relationship for seven years, and it's a good one.

With all the paperwork done and all the problems of the village solved, I did what anyone in my position would do: I took a nap. Welcome to the rough and tumble world of colonial village ombudsmanning. It's possible it's done differently elsewhere, but if it is, I don't want to know.

I woke up in time to see Savitiri closing up the office for the day. I waved good-bye to her and after a few more minutes of immobility hauled my own ass out of the chair and through the door, on the way home. Along the way I happened to see the constable coming toward me on the other side of the road. I crossed the road, walked up to the constable and kissed my local law enforcement official full on the lips.

"You know I don't like it when you do that," Jane said, after I was done.

"You don't like it when I kiss you?" I asked.

"Not when I'm on the job," Jane said. "It erodes my authority."

I smiled at the thought of some malfeasant thinking Jane, a former Special Forces soldier, was soft because she kissed her husband. The ass-kicking that would ensue would be terrible in its magnitude. However, I didn't say that. "Sorry," I said. "I'll try not to erode your authority anymore."

"Thank you," Jane said. "I was coming to see you, anyway, since you didn't return my call."

"I was incredibly busy today," I said.

"Savitri briefed me on just how busy you were when I called back," Jane said.

"Oops," I said.

"Oops," Jane agreed. We started walking in the direction of our home. "What I was going to tell you is that you could expect Gopal Boparai to come by tomorrow to find out what his community service would be. He was drunk and disorderly again. He was yelling at a cow."

"Bad karma," I said.

"The cow thought so, too," Jane said. "It butted him in the chest and sent him through a shop window."

"Is Go okay?" I asked.

"Scratches," Jane said. "The pane popped out. Plastic. Didn't break."

"This is the third time this year," I said. "He should be up in front of the actual magistrate, not me."

"That's what I told him, too," Jane said. "But he'd be up for a mandatory forty days in the district gaol and Shashi is due in a couple of weeks. She needs him around more than he needs gaol."

"All right," I said. "I'll figure out something for him."

"How was your day?" Jane asked. "Besides the nap, I mean."

"I had a Chengelpet day," I said. "This time with a goat."

Jane and I chatted about our day on our walk home, like we do every day on our walk home, to the small farm we keep just outside the village proper. As we turned onto our road we ran into our daughter Zoë, walking Babar the mutt, who was typically deliriously happy to see us.

"He knew you were coming," Zoë said, slightly out of breath. "Took off halfway down the road. Had to run to keep up."

"Nice to know we were missed," I said. Jane petted Babar, who wagged up a storm. I gave Zoë a peck on the cheek.

"You two have a visitor," Zoë said. "He showed up at the house about an hour ago. In a floater."

No one in town had a floater; they were ostentatious and impractical for a farming community. I glanced over to Jane, who shrugged, as if to say, I'm not expecting anyone. "Who did he say he was?" I asked.

"He didn't," Zoë said. "All he said was that he was an old friend of yours, John. I told him I could call you and he said he was happy to wait."

"Well, what does he look like, at least?" I asked.

"Young," Zoë said. "Kinda cute."

"I don't think I know any cute guys," I said. "That's more your department, teenage daughter."

Zoë crossed her eyes and gave a mock sneer. "Thanks, ninety-year-old dad. If you had let me finish speaking, you would have heard the clue that tells me you might actually know him. Which is that he's also green."

This got another shared glance between me and Jane. CDF members had green skin, a result of modified chlorophyll that gave them extra energy for combat. Both Jane and I had had green skin once; I was back to my original hue and Jane was allowed to choose a more standard skin tone when she changed bodies.

"He didn't say what he wanted?" Jane asked Zoë.

"Nope," Zoë said. "And I didn't ask. I just figured I'd come find you and give you advance warning. I left him on the front porch."

"Probably sneaking around the house by now," I said.

"Doubtful," Zoë said. "I left Hickory and Dickory to watch him."

I grinned. "That should keep him in one place," I said.

"My thought exactly," Zoë said.

"You are wise beyond your years, teenage daughter," I said.

"Makes up for you, ninety-year-old dad," she said. She jogged back to the house, Babar padding behind.

"Such attitude," I said to Jane. "She gets it from your side."

"She's adopted," Jane said. "And I'm not the smartass in the family."

"These are details," I said, and took her hand. "Come on. I want to see just how scared shitless our guest is."

We found our guest on the porch swing, watched intently and silently by our two Obin. I recognized him immediately.

"General Rybicki," I said. "This is a surprise."

"Hello, Major," Rybicki said, referring to my former rank. He pointed to the Obin. "You've made some interesting friends since the last time I saw you."

"Hickory and Dickory," I said. "They're my daughter's companions. Perfectly nice, unless they think you're a threat to her."

"And then what happens?" Rybicki asked.

"It varies," I said. "But it's usually quick."

"Wonderful," Rybicki said. I excused the Obin; they went off to find Zoë.

"Thank you," Rybicki said. "Obin make me nervous."

"That's the point," Jane said.

"I realize that," Rybicki said. "If you don't mind me asking, why does your daughter have Obin bodyguards?"

"They're not bodyguards, they're companions," Jane said. "Zoë is our adopted daughter. Her biological father is Charles Boutin." This got a raised eyebrow from Rybicki; he was of sufficiently advanced rank to know about Boutin. "The Obin revere Boutin, but he's dead. They have a desire to know his daughter, so they sent these two to be with her."

"And this doesn't bother her," Rybicki said.

"She grew up with Obin as nannies and protectors," Jane said. "She's comfortable with them."

"And it doesn't bother you," Rybicki said.

"They watch and protect Zoë," I said. "They help out around here. And their presence with us is a part of the treaty the Colonial Union has with the Obin. Having them here seems like a small price to pay for having them on our side."

"That's true enough," Rybicki said, and stood up. "Listen, Major. I have a proposition for you." He nodded to Jane. "For both of you, actually."

"What is it?" I asked.

Rybicki motioned with his head toward the house, in the direction Hickory and Dickory just went. "I'd rather not talk about it where those two might hear, if it's all the same. Is there some place we can talk privately?"

I glanced over at Jane. She smiled thinly. "I know a place," she said.

"We're stopping here?" General Rybicki asked as we pulled up short, halfway across the field.

"You asked if we had someplace where we could talk privately," I said. "You've now got at least five acres of grain between us and the next set of ears, human or Obin. Welcome to privacy, colonial style."

"What kind of grain is this?" General Rybicki asked, pulling at a stalk.

"It's sorghum," Jane said, standing next to me. Babar sat next to Jane and scratched his ear.

"It sounds familiar," Rybicki said, "but I don't think I've ever actually seen it before."

"It's a staple crop here," I said. "It's a good crop because it's heat and drought tolerant, and it can get pretty hot around here in our summer months. People here use it for a bread called bhakri and for other things."

"Bhakri," Rybicki said, and motioned toward town. "These folks are mostly from India, then."

"Some of them," I said. "Most of them were born here. This particular village is sixty years old. Most of the active colonization here on Huckleberry is on the Clemens continent now. They opened it up around the same time we arrived."

"So there's no tension about the Subcontinental War," Rybicki said. "With you being American and them being Indian."

"It doesn't come up," I said. "People here are like immigrants everywhere. They think of themselves as Huckleberries first and Indians second. In another generation none of it will matter. And Jane's not American, anyway. If we're seen as anything, we're seen as former soldiers. We were a curiosity when we arrived, but now we're just John and Jane, with the farm down the road."

Rybicki looked at the field again. "I'm surprised you farm at all," he said. "The two of you have real jobs."

"Farming is a real job," Jane said. "Most of our neighbors do it. It's good for us to do it too so we can understand them and what they need from us."

"I meant no offense," Rybicki said.

"None taken," I said, interjecting myself back into the conversation. I motioned to the field. "We've got about forty acres here. It's not a lot—and not enough to take money away from the other farmers—but it's enough to make the point that the concerns of New Goa are our concerns, too. We've worked hard to become New Goans and Huckleberries ourselves."

General Rybicki nodded and looked at his sorghum stalk. As Zoë had noted, he was green, good-looking and young. Or at least gave the appearance of youth, thanks to the CDF body he still had. He'd look twenty-three years old for as long as he had it, even though his real age was some number over one hundred by now. He looked younger than me, and I was his junior by fifteen years or more. But then, when I left the service, I traded my CDF body for a new, unmodified body based on my original DNA. I looked at least thirty by now. I could live with that.

At the time I had left the CDF, Rybicki had been my superior officer, but he and I went back before that. I met him on my first day of combat, back when he was a lieutenant colonel and I had been a private. He'd offhandedly called me son, as a reference to my youth. I was seventy-five at the time.

This was one of the problems with the Colonial Defense Forces: all that body engineering they do really messes with your age sense. I was in my nineties; Jane, born an adult as part of the CDF Special Forces, was sixteen or so. It can hurt your head if you think about it.

"It's time you tell us why you're here, General," Jane said. Seven years of living with naturally occurring humans had not blunted her Special Forces-bred way of ramming through social courtesies and getting right to the point.

Rybicki grinned wryly, and tossed his sorghum to the ground. "All right," he said. "After you left the service, Perry, I got a promotion and a transfer. I'm with the Department of Colonization now; the folks who have the job of seeding and supporting new colonies."

"You're still CDF," I said. "It's the green skin that gives you away. I thought the Colonial Union kept its civilian and military wings separate."

"I'm the liaison," Rybicki said. "I get to keep things coordinated between the both of them. This is about as fun as you might think it is."

"You have my sympathy," I said.

"Thank you, Major," Rybicki said. It'd been years since anyone referred to me by my rank. "I do appreciate it. The reason I'm here is because I was wondering if you—the two of you—would do a job for me."

"What kind of job?" Jane asked.

Rybicki looked over to Jane. "Lead a new colony," he said.

Jane glanced over to me. I could tell she didn't like this idea already. "Isn't that what the Department of Colonization is for?" I asked. "It should be filled with all sorts of people whose job it is to lead colonies."

"Not this time," Rybicki said. "This colony is different."

"How?" Jane said.

"The Colonial Union gets colonists from Earth," Rybicki said. "But over the last few years the colonies—the established colonies, like Phoenix and Elysium and Kyoto—have been pushing the CU to let their people form new colonies. Folks from those places have made the attempt before with wildcat colonies, but you know how those go."

I nodded. Wildcat colonies were illegal and unauthorized. The CU turned a blind eye to wildcatters; the rationale was that the people who were in them would otherwise be causing trouble at home, so it was just as well to let them go. But a wildcat colony was well and truly on its own; unless one of your colonists was the kid of someone high up in the government, the CDF wouldn't be coming when you called for help. The survival statistics for wildcat colonies were impressively grim. Most didn't last six months. Other colonizing species generally did them in. It wasn't a forgiving universe.

Rybicki caught my acknowledgment and went on. "The CU would prefer the colonies keep to their own knitting, but it's become a political issue and the CU can't brush it off anymore. So the DoC suggested that we open up one planet for second-generation colonists. You can guess what happened then."

"The colonies started clawing each other's eyes out to be the one whose people got to colonize," I said.

"Give the man a cigar," Rybicki said. "So the DoC tried to play Solomon by saying that each of the agitants could contribute a limited number of colonists to the first wave colony. So now we have a seed colony of about twenty-five hundred people, with two hundred and fifty from ten different colonies. But now we don't have anyone to lead them. None of the colonies want the other colonies' people in charge."

"There are more than ten colonies," I said. "You could recruit your colony leaders from one of those."

"Theoretically that would work," Rybicki said. "In the real universe, however, the other colonies are pissed off that they didn't get their people on the colony roster. We've promised that if this colony works out we'll entertain the idea of opening other worlds. But for now it's a mess and no one else is inclined to play along."

"Who was the idiot who suggested this plan in the first place?" Jane asked.

"As it happens, that idiot was me," Rybicki said.

"Well done," Jane said. I reflected on the fact it was a good thing she wasn't still in the military.

"Thank you, Constable Sagan," General Rybicki said. "I appreciate the candor. Clearly there were aspects of this plan I didn't expect. But then, that's why I'm here."

"The flaw with this plan of yours—aside from the fact that neither Jane nor I have the slightest idea how to run a seed colony—is that we're colonists now, too," I said. "We've been here for nearly eight years."

"But you said it yourself: you're former soldiers," Rybicki said. "Former soldiers are a category all their own. You're not really from Huckleberry. You're from Earth, and she's former Special Forces, which means she's not from anywhere. No offense," he said to Jane.

"That still leaves the problem of neither of us having any experience running a seed colony," I said. "When I was doing my public relations tour of the colonies way back when, I went to a seed colony on Orton. Those people never stopped working. You don't just throw people into that situation without training."

"You have training," Rybicki said. "Both of you were officers. Christ, Perry, you were a major. You commanded a regiment of three thousand soldiers across a battle group. That's larger than a seed colony."

"A colony isn't a military regiment," I said.

"No it's not," Rybicki agreed. "But the same skills are required. And since you've been discharged, both of you have worked in colony administration. You're an ombudsman—you know how a colony government works and how to get things done. Your wife is the constable here and is responsible for maintaining order. Between the two of you, you have pretty much all the skills you'll need. I didn't just pull your names out of a hat, Major. These are the reasons I thought of you. You're about eighty-five percent ready to go as it is, and we'll get you the rest of the way there before the colonists head for Roanoke. That's the name we've chosen for the colony," he added.

"We have a life here," Jane said. "We have jobs and responsibilities, and we have a daughter who has her own life here as well. You're casually asking us to uproot ourselves to solve your little political crisis."

"Well, I apologize about the casual part," Rybicki said. "Normally you would have gotten this request by Colonial diplomatic courier, along with a full load of documents. But as it happened, I was on Huckleberry for entirely different reasons and thought I would kill two birds with one stone. I honestly didn't expect I'd be pitching you this idea standing in the middle of a field of sorghum."

"All right," Jane said.

"And as for it being a little political crisis, you're wrong about that," Rybicki said. "It's a medium-sized political crisis, on its way to becoming a large one. This has become more than just another human colony. The local planetary governments and press have built this up as the biggest colonization event since humans first left Earth. It's not—trust me on that—but that fact doesn't really matter at this point. It's become a media circus and a political headache, and it's put the DoC on the defensive. This colony is getting away from us because so many others have a vested interest in it. We need to get on top of it again."

"So it's all about politics," I said.

"No," Rybicki said. "You misunderstand me. The DoC doesn't need to get back on top of this because we're counting political coup. We need to get back on top of this because this is a human colony. You both know what it's like out there. Colonies live or die—colonists live or die—based on how well we prepare and defend them.

The DoC's job is to get the colonists as prepared as we can get them before they colonize. The CDF's job is to keep them safe until they get a foothold. If either side of that equation breaks down, that colony is screwed.

"Right now, the department's side of the equation isn't working because we haven't provided the leadership, and everyone else is trying to keep anyone else from filling the vacuum. We're running out of time to make it work. Roanoke is going to happen. The question is whether we manage to do it right. If we don't—if Roanoke dies— there's going to be hell to pay. So it's better that we do it right."

"If this is such a political hot potato, I don't see why throwing us into the mix is going to help things," I said. "There's no guarantee anyone will be happy with us."

"Like I said, I didn't just pull your names out of a hat," Rybicki said. "Over at the department we ran a slate of potential candidates that would work for us and would work for the CDF. We figured if the two of us could sign off on someone, we could make the colony governments accept them. You two were on the list."

"Where on the list?" Jane asked.

"About halfway down," Rybicki said. "Sorry. The other candidates didn't work out."

"Well, it's an honor just to be nominated," I said.

Rybicki grinned. "I never did like your sarcasm, Perry," he said. "I understand I'm dropping a lot on you at once. I don't expect you to give me an answer now. I have all the documents here," he tapped his temple, signifying he'd stored the information in his BrainPal, "so if you have a PDA I can send them to, you can take a look at them at your leisure. As long as your leisure is no longer than a standard week."

"You're asking us to walk away from everything here," Jane said again.

"Yes," Rybicki said. "I am. And I'm appealing to your sense of duty, too, since I know you have one. The Colonial Union needs smart, capable and experienced people to help us get this colony going. You two fit the bill. And what I'm asking of you is more important than what you're doing here. Your jobs here can be handled by others. You'll leave and someone else will come in and take your place. Maybe they won't be as good, but they'll be good enough. What I'm asking of you two for this colony isn't something that just anyone else could do."

"You said we were in the middle of your list," I said.

"It was a short list," Rybicki said to me. "And there's a steep drop-off after you two." He turned back to Jane. "Look, Sagan, I can see this is a tough sell for you. I'll make you a deal. This is going to be a seed colony. That means that the first wave gets in and spends two or three years preparing the place for the next wave. After the second wave comes in, things will probably be settled enough that if you want, you and Perry and your daughter can come back here. The DoC can make sure your house and jobs will be waiting for you. Hell, we'll even send someone to get in your crop."

"Don't patronize me, General," Jane said.

"I'm not," Rybicki said. "The offer is genuine, Sagan. Your life here, every part of it, will be waiting for you. You won't lose any of it. But I need the two of you now. The DoC will make it worth your while. You'll get this life back. And you'll be making sure Roanoke colony survives. Think about it. Just decide soon."

I woke up and Jane wasn't beside me; I found her standing in the road in front of our house, staring up at the stars.

"You're going to get hit, standing in the road like that," I said, coming up behind her, and placing my hands on her shoulders.

"There's nothing to get hit by," Jane said, taking my left hand in hers. "There's hardly anything to get hit by during the day. Look at them." She pointed to the stars with her right hand, and began tracing out constellations. "Look. The crane. The lotus. The pearl."

"I have a hard time with the Huckleberry constellations," I said. "I keep looking for the ones I was born with. I look up and some part of me still expects to see the Big Dipper or Orion."

"I never looked at stars before we came here," Jane said. "I mean, I saw them, but they didn't mean anything to me. They were just stars. Then we came here and I spent all that time learning these constellations."

"I remember," I said. And I did remember; Vikram Banerje, who had been an astronomer back on Earth, had been a frequent visitor to our house in our first years in New Goa, patiently tracing out the patterns in the sky for Jane. He died not too long after he finally taught her all the Huckleberry constellations.

"I didn't see them at first," Jane said.

"The constellations?" I asked.

Jane nodded. "Vikram would point them out to me, and I'd just see a clump of stars," she said. "He'd show me a map and I'd see how the stars were supposed to connect together, and then I'd look up at the sky and just see... stars. And it was like that for a long time. And then one night, I remember walking home from work and looking up and saying to myself 'there's the crane,' and seeing it. Seeing the crane. Seeing the constellations. That's when I knew this place was my home. That's when I knew I had come here to stay. That this place was my place."

I slid my arms down Jane's body and held her around the waist.

"But this place isn't your place, is it?" Jane asked.

"My place is where you are," I said.

"You know what I mean," Jane said.

"I know what you mean," I said. "I like it here, Jane. I like the people. I like our life."

"But," Jane said.

I shrugged.

Jane felt it. "That's what I thought," she said.

"I'm not unhappy," I said.

"I didn't say you were," Jane said. "And I know you're not unhappy with me or Zoë. If General Rybicki hadn't shown up, I don't think you would have noticed that you're ready to move on."

I nodded and kissed the back of her head. She was right about that.

"I talked to Zoë about it," Jane said.

"What did she have to say about it?" I asked.

"She's like you," Jane said. "She likes it here, but this isn't her home. She likes the idea of going to a colony that's just starting out."

"It appeals to her sense of adventure," I said.

"Maybe," Jane said. "There's not a lot of adventure here. That's one thing I like about it."

"That's funny coming from a Special Forces soldier," I said.

"I say it because I am Special Forces," Jane said. "I had nine years of nonstop adventure. I was born into it and if it wasn't for you and Zoë I would have died in it, and not had anything else. Adventure is overrated."

"But you're thinking of having some more anyway," I said.

"Because you are," Jane said.

"We haven't decided anything," I said. "We could say no. This is your place."

"'My place is where you are,' " Jane said, echoing me.

"This is my place. But maybe somewhere else could be, too. I've only had this one place. Maybe I'm just frightened of leaving it."

"I don't think you're frightened by much," I said.

"I'm frightened by different things than you are," Jane said. "You don't notice because sometimes you're not too observant."

"Thanks," I said. We stood there in the road, entwined.

"We can always come back," Jane said, eventually.

"Yes," I said. "If you want."

"We'll see," Jane said. She leaned back to kiss my cheek, untangled herself from my grasp and began to walk down the road. I turned back toward the house.

"Stay with me," Jane said.

"All right," I said. "I'm sorry. I thought you wanted to be by yourself."

"No," Jane said. "Walk with me. Let me show you my constellations. We have time enough for that."

Excerpted from The Last Colony by John Scalzi
Copyright © 2007 by John Scalzi
Published in May 2007 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Ian King, December 19, 2008 (view all comments by Ian King)
It's been a long time since I've enjoyed fiction this much. A really, really long time. Maybe since RAH left us.

I'm writing this hours after finishing "The Last Colony," the last in the trilogy started with "Old Man's War." I've recommended these books to dozens of people now.

Why? There are two fundamental reasons. For one, Scalzi is an incredibly good writer. His prose moves forward and inexorably draws you with it. His writing style helps you conveniently forget the fact that you just spent an hour, or two or three or more hours living in the world he creates.

And what a world! The story is involved but not confusing - Scalzi knows just how many balls to keep in the air at once. Each book can stand on its own but, for the reader who will begin at the beginning, there are gems others will miss. One of those in this final book, a small but very meaningful reference, brought tears to my eyes. This is a very human story, that does not lose its humanity in its rich portrayal of a complex society and its enabling technology.

Scalzi creates a universe where big social and political issues are front and center, but never steps up on a soapbox. That is incredibly refreshing. This is science fiction for the thinking AND feeling reader.

In case I haven't made my point, I really liked this book - and the two that came before it. I'm looking forward to seeing what else Mr. Scalzi offers us.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780765356185
Author:
Scalzi, John
Publisher:
Tor Books
Subject:
Science / General
Subject:
Science Fiction - General
Subject:
Space warfare
Subject:
Space colonies
Subject:
Science fiction
Subject:
Science Fiction and Fantasy-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Mass market paperback
Series:
Old Man's War
Publication Date:
July 29, 2008
Binding:
MASS MARKET
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
6.75 x 4.19 in

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The Last Colony Used Mass Market
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Product details 336 pages Tor Books - English 9780765356185 Reviews:
"Review" by , "[A] page-turner stuffed with futuristic gunfights, political intrigue and snappy banter....It's an admirable and exciting book, the work of an author worth taking seriously."
"Review" by , "The Last Colony will kick your butt across the galaxy and make you care."
"Review" by , "A less-action-laden story line ratchets the excitement down from that of the previous books, but Scalzi's captivating blend of off-world adventure and political intrigue remains consistently engaging."
"Synopsis" by , This highly anticipated conclusion to the science fiction trilogy that includes Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades "combines taut military action with keen insight" (Library Journal), as Perry and Sagan are back in the thick of interstellar politics, betrayal, and war.
"Synopsis" by ,
The highly-anticipated conclusion to the science fiction trilogy begun with Old Mans War and The Ghost Brigades.
"Synopsis" by ,
Retired from his fighting days, John Perry is now village ombudsman for a human colony on distant Huckleberry. With his wife, former Special Forces warrior Jane Sagan, he farms several acres, adjudicates local disputes, and enjoys watching his adopted daughter grow up.

That is, until his and Jane's past reaches out to bring them back into the game — as leaders of a new human colony, to be peopled by settlers from all the major human worlds, for a deep political purpose that will put Perry and Sagan back in the thick of interstellar politics, betrayal, and war.

John Scalzis debut novel Old Mans War was a finalist for science fictions Hugo Award.  His other novels include The Ghost Brigades and The Androids Dream. He lives in southern Ohio with his wife and daughter.

Retired from his fighting days, John Perry is now village ombudsman for a human colony on distant Huckleberry. With his wife, former Special Forces warrior Jane Sagan, he farms several acres, adjudicates local disputes, and enjoys watching his adopted daughter grow up.

Until his and Jane's past reaches out to bring them back into the game—as leaders of a new human colony, to be peopled by settlers from all the major human worlds, for a deep political purpose that will put Perry and Sagan back in the thick of interstellar politics, betrayal, and war.

"Scalzi's Hugo finalist,Old Man's War first spawned the equally entertaining Ghost Brigades. And now, a third volume reprises the story of John Perry, former planet-hopping soldier who has now traded his genetically enhanced second body for a commonplace one and a peaceful retirement. Free from the stresses of battle, he's enjoying domestic bliss with his wife and adopted daughter on a remote Colonial Union world. Then a former commanding general drops by with a tempting proposal. Perry and his wife are apparently the perfect candidates to lead a promising new colony populated by citizens from 10 worlds. They accept, but then the CU deceitfully strands them and their charges on an unknown world. Perry discovers they are pawns in a deadly game calculated to destroy an alien coalition whose purposes include blocking further human colonization . . . Scalzi's captivating blend of off-world adventure and political intrigue remains consistently engaging."—Carl Hays, Booklist

“Full of whodunit twists and explosive action, Scalzi's third SF novel [is] entertaining storytelling on a very human scale. Several years after the events of The Ghost Brigades (2006), John Perry, the hero of Old Man's War (2005), and Jane Sagan are leading a normal life as administrator and constable on the colonial planet Huckleberry with their adopted daughter, Zoë, when they get conscripted to run a new colony, ominously named Roanoke. When the colonists are dropped onto a different planet than the one they expected, they find themselves caught in a confrontation between the human Colonial Union and the alien confederation called the Conclave. Hugo-finalist Scalzi avoids political allegory, promoting individual compassion and honesty and downplaying patriotic loyalty—except in the case of the inscrutable Obin, hive-mind aliens whose devotion to Zoë will remind fans of the benevolent role Captain Nemo plays in Verne's Mysterious Island.”—Publishers Weekly

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