Chapter 3, 4: A Whole New World
“I don’t care what anyone says! Auntie Rosa is in trouble, and I’m going back to the bridge.” Dora actually crossed her arms and flashed her eyes when she said it.
“Yeah! Screw Dr. Cambridge. And her stupid summer school,” Bruce added.
“Seems like you’ve got mixed motives, there, Batboy. I thought a Super-Detective would be more subtle.” Charlotte said, but with a flash of a smile, because she could get behind screwing Dr. Cambridge, too. Or, no, wait. That was the wrong way to put it, she thought. Oh, well.
“It’s a red herring. You’re supposed to think that I don’t like her. Later, it’ll turn out to be the quiet one that did it. Rose. Also, I’m trying to be more like Nightwing, less like Batman, Junior.”
“Who’s Batman Junior?” Rose asked.
“Old Kanigher and Haney character, Hung out with Superman, Junior doing old-time generation gap stuff. . .”
“Less comic nerding, more getting-in-counsellor’s faces!” Dora said, impatiently, pointing at the door of the lounge, which had swung open as the low sirens continued.
“Never mind, children,” said Rosa’s voice, echoing in the air. “I can instance in any compartment.”
“What’s going on, Auntie Rosa? And don’t just smooth it over. We can hear the alarms.”
“From the top, then,” Rosa replied. “A moment ago, we came down from hyperspace jump to HD 133600, a solar-twin type star 171 light years from Earth. Two hundred light years is a solid jump for me, and at the outside limit for the ship we’re following. They’ve been here, and would know about navigational hazards, so I thought it was safe to come in close, and I came out of hyperspace at two AUs, only 1 AU out from an oxygen-atmosphere Earth-type planet.”
Rosa paused. “I miss having your Opa pilot me, Schatzie. I was wrong. There’s a weird hyperspace anomaly in the system, and I burned out my mid-range hyperspace regulators. It’s going to be a long trip home.”
“How long?” Charlotte asked.
“Eleven weeks at low range, a little less at high range, maybe a lot less, depending on our luck with zeroing-in hops. And two months same if I overhaul my engines here, which is what I recommend.”
“Because of the planet. It’s Earth-like.”
“Aren’t they always?” Bruce asked. “I mean, that’s how it is on Star Trek.”
“You have no idea how right you are, Bruce McNeely. Here’s a zoom image from my telescopic array.”
A picture appeared in the air, of a very-human like arm, clothed in a blue wool sleeve that terminated at a horribly cheap-looking watch. It was holding a newspaper hand under the fold to lift the headline into view, just like in the movies. It read, “Mayor Briefs Colonial: ‘Lands On Line.” Above, a little more comprehensible, the banner read, Landing Gazette, and in slightly smaller type, “Now Seven Days A Week,” and, again below and even smaller, “Final Edition.”
“Final edition? Like, they’re going broke? Gosh, it must be awful working for a newspaper, these days,” Rose said.
“Not that anyone cares. Who even reads them?” Dora asked.
“We do,” Rose answered.
“Because we come from superhero families,” Bruce said. “We all know crusading reporters. For anyone else under 50, that’s like knowing a full-time caveman.”
“No, that’s not what ‘Final Edition’ means,” Charlotte said. “You kids nowadays, no perspective. Also, get off my lawn!”
“Oh, share your time-travelled knowledge of ancient days, oh, wise elder,” Bruce answered.
Charlotte stuck her tongue out at him. “You’re just mad I called you ‘Batboy.’ ‘Final Edition’ is when a paper comes out more than once a day. This newspaper is doing fine. Except for it being in English on an alien planet 170 light years from Earth, I mean. What the heck?”
“Just what I was asking myself,” Rosa answered. “So I shot a query to the Star*Guard base on Titan. Turns out that someone on Earth has been dumping human clones on this planet for thirty years or so, and they’ve built themselves a little civilisation. Roughly speaking. As long as you see the front page of the Gazette instead of the Landing Sun.”
“Why? Does it have boobies on it?” Bruce asked.
“Bruce!” Rose and Charlotte said.
Bruce blushed. “I mean –I meant –It was supposed to be a joke!”
“More importantly, why hasn’t the Star*Guard arrested these guys?” Charlotte asked.
“The Star*Guard enforces the Old Malvan Law. In the Malvan Phazorate, it’s never illegal to create life. It’s just on you as a parent. The crime is being a bad parent. So, abuse children, that’s a crime. Use them as clone soldiers in your criminal empire, you bet that’s a crime. Transport them to some nice planet where they’re free to live as they choose? Not a crime, not even if you don’t let them travel back to Earth. The Star*Guard thinks that these clones were created by Teleios. Heck, it even thought that it had found his main base, the first time it detected a launch. Unfortunately, you have to prove it, and none of that has been proven. What the Star*Guard knows is that it has been hired to transport a few thousand new clones from Earth to this planet every year, and take a bit of cargo back.”
“So? Cargo?” Rose said. “Giant monsters? Superweapons? Illegal drugs?”
“No,” Rosa said. “Mostly gold bricks. They mine a lot of gold. So the people down there can shop out of the Sears Catalogue.”
“The what?” Dora had a blank look.
“Sort of Amazon on paper, back before the Internet,” Charlotte explained.
Bruce crouched over like an old person and pretended to tap the ground with a nonexistent cane. “Eh? Eh?” Charlotte gently slapped him, letting her fingers brush through his thick, auburn hair.
“Okay, that makes sense,” Rose said. “You scoop up a bunch of typical Teleios soldier clones, dump them on a nice planet with, like, chainsaws and cows and stuff, and they mine some gold and use it to buy Timex watches that ship out on the next boat, and next thing you know they have a nice city with two newspapers and stuff.”
“Not that nice a city,” Rosa said. “You should see the smog down there. It’s almost as bad as Beijing.”
“Hey, hey, it’s a growing country,” Charlotte said, defensively. “And most of it is natural, anyway, from loess soil blowing down from Mongolia.”
“Yeah, right, blame the Mongolianarians,” Bruce said. “No, it doesn’t make sense. This isn’t Star Trek. You can’t just drop a bunch of people on some alien planet, even if it does look like Earth from space. I mean, what if the native plant life has, like, left-curling DNA or whatever? Like that fat substitute they did a few years back? The one you couldn’t digest?”
“Actually, biochemistry doesn’t work that way,” Rose began.
Dora interrupted. “Anal leakage. Hee,” and Rosa interrupted even more loudly.
“Stranger than you know, Bruce.” A new image appeared on the screen, of what looked like a river flowing down a valley, taken from a mile up or so. A black river, one that broke up into weird little rivulets at the edge. The viewpoint began to zoom down, until Charlotte could make out individual specks. They were buffalo. Millions of them. Big buffalo.
“This is a view of a major game trail, about two thousand miles southeast of Landing, and this is what a herd of Bison antiquus looks like, migrating.”
Rose put her downloading face on. “So this planet has animals that were extinct ten thousand years ago on Earth?”
Bruce put his hands up in a surrender gesture. “Okay, so this is exactly like Star Trek. Or space opera whatchamacallit. Landing was terraformed by the Ancients. It’s called Landing?”
“Yes,” Rosa said, “It’s called Landing. And the biggest city is Landing Town. Two hundred thousand people under all that smog. Half the neighbourhoods don’t even have indoor plumbing yet.”
“Yuck,” Dora said.
“Wait. Ancient geneticists, been up to their schemes for ten thousand years, linked to Teleios, maybe captured Mr. Suzuki? This sounds like Fang,” Charlotte said.
“Yes, it does,” said Rosa. She continued, her voice suspiciously bright, “You know what we need now?”
“Wait again,” Charlotte interrupted. “Why are we talking about this? Rosa, you said you’d prefer to stay here and repair your middle gear—“
“Range,” Rosa corrected.
“—Range. Instead of trying to jump back to Earth on high or low range. What does that mean to us?”
“Well, I’d have to open the ship up to hard vacuum,” Rosa began.
Charlotte could feel tears pushing up. “You’re going to make us spend the whole summer on this backwater planet?”
“Come on, Char Char,” Bruce said. “It’ll be fun.”
Now Charlotte really was crying. “I wanted to spend the summer with my cousins!”
Dora sounded upset, too. “I haven’t seen my sister since Christmas!”
“You hate your sister,” Rose pointed out. “You think she’s a big goof.”
“I thought I did, but. .
“Look, guys,” Rose continued, “We get to spend the summer exploring a strange planet, foiling Fang’s latest scheme, and hanging out together. Charlotte, you were just going to hang around your uncle’s place doing nothing.”
With an effort, Charlotte straightened her face. “Nah. That was just a fakeout. A day, two days, and Auntie Ma goes Tiger Mom. She had me signed up for piano lessons!” Charlotte didn’t quite know what to make about that. She wanted to learn to play the piano, but she also wanted to do nothing all summer. The ‘wanting to learn piano’ had been winning the war in her mind, she had to admit, but, at the same time, she felt a certain relief.
“What about the prisoners?” Bruce asked.
“That’s why I want to do it this way,” Rosa explained. “I’m worried about trying to hold them aboard for two whole months.”
“So what are you going to do with them if you can’t keep them aboard?”
The viewscreen in mid-air changed, showing a Lost-y island from above. “There’s plenty of remote tropical islands on the planet. I’ll drop them on one of them with a life support module and some Mandaarian surveillance tech to make sure they don’t get up to anything. Any trouble, and they blow their ride back to Earth.”
“And us?” Bruce asked.
Again, the viewscreen changed, this time sweeping across the globe like Google Earth. “Here’s Landing Town,” Rosa said. A sprawling town at the forks of a river appeared. “It’s in a big rift like the California Central Valley on the west coast of the planet’s second-largest continent, in the southern hemisphere. Mountains along the coast, mountains inland, lots of snow, not a lot of rain down at city level. Fertile soil, long growing season. The camera swept up north, then zoomed in on an enormous waterfall. “Except that the valley is broken by transverse elevations from a carboniferous orogeny. Long story short: it’s like the Sacramento River went over Niagara Falls two hundred miles north of town.” The camera swept south, following a railroad that wound south from Landing Town, over some low mountains, through a smoke-belching factory town, and down to the river again at another large city. “The river curls around another orogeny, then enters another part of the Central Valley. Think of this as the Imperial Valley.” The river continued to the coast, and another big town. More smog. “And the LA equivalent. So that’s where most of the people and the industry and the smog and the sewers-trying-to-stay-ahead-of-population-growth is found. I’m not dropping you there. Your parents would kill me.”
The camera went back past the valley town to the curl of the river, where it narrowed between the old, coal-rich mountains and the New Sierra Nevada mountains. Another big river met it at the bend. This one cut its way through the New Sierra Nevada, then broadened out into a wide, blue lake. Midway up it, across the water from a road that cut up over the first ridge of the mountains and down the other side, was a little town. “Meet Geithner’s Strike, capital of the Long Lake Valley. I’ve tapped into the planetary telegraph network and reserved three places at Paradise Valley Camp, on an island in Long Lake eight miles north of town, and one at Walkabout Adventure Camp, on the mainland another five miles north of that.”
“Because. . .” Charlotte prompted.
“Girl camp, boy camp,” Bruce said. “I suppose the girls will get horseback riding lessons and go to dances in town with all the richest boys from Landing Town, and there’ll be a beauty contest at the Summer Festival? Meanwhile, I get to do wilderness treks and shoot cave bears?”
“Peach Festival,” Rosa said, sounding a little glum, like Bruce had given away some big secret.
“Great. We’ve hyperjumped 170 light years to get to the 1950s with cave bears,” Bruce said.
“You’re disappointed?” Rosa said.
“No! Cave bears are awesome,” Bruce answered.
“And no-one said we had to care about being Peach Festival Queen,” Charlotte said. Although, as with the piano lessons, some part of her . . . But, no. That was for stuck-up, conceited girls with nothing else going on for them.
“Yeah,” Dora said. She didn’t sound convinced.
“Okay,” Rose said, “I’m going to need to know a few things. Like, what are the best prep schools on the planet, how do the universities rank, where can I get a copy of Who’s Who?”
“Seriously?” Rosa asked.
“Of course not,” Rose snorted.
An awful thought struck Charlotte. “What are we going to wear?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got that covered,” said Rosa.
“I like buying clothes online. For presents. For the godchildren . . . .” Rosa began, then trailed off, sounding as embarrassed as an AI could be.
“The Internet doesn’t know that you’re a dog,” Bruce said. “Or, in this case, an AI.”
“We get it, Bruce,” Charlotte said. “How does that help anyone but Dora?”
“. . . .To start with . . .,” Rosa trailed in again. The viewscreen changed again. Instead of satellite photo maps, it showed a room crammed with Amazon boxes and FedEx and UPS and couriers that Charlotte had never heard of before. Some were ripped open. Fashionable clothes, some in Dora’s or Jamie’s preferred colours. There were jean vests and boots in Emily’s diesel style that she wore when she was out of the house and wouldn’t run into her Dad, Goth stuff that ‘Nita would like. And there was stuff that she couldn’t imagine any of the Guzman or Neilsen girls wearing. A shell in a tone a lot brighter than you could call mustard seemed to leap out of the clutter, saying, “Charlotte, wear me.”
“Underwear? Is that underwear that I see?”
“It was a good deal,” Rosa began, sounding defensive.
“Rosa,” Rose said, “I think you might have a problem.”
“I get bored,” Rosa said, defensively. “It’s fun. Anyway, it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”
“I guess,” Charlotte said.
It took literally a day for the girls to go through Rosa’s swag room and pick out wardrobes for themselves. But, in the end, they were strapped into the cabin of Rosa’s shuttle, on the way to an isolated clear cut just outside Forty Mile Ridge Station, on the shore of the river, where Rosa had hired a buckboard to carry over the forty mile mountain road that led over the first rise of the New Sierra Nevadas into Long Lake Valley. Which reminded Charlotte that she needed to deposit the butt-ton of gold they were carrying from Rosa’s emergency stores to cover all the telegraph cheques she’d faked.
As Charlotte cinched the seatbelt tight over her new, bright yellow windbreaker shell, in her seat between Bruce and Rose, behind Dora at the jumper seat, the door to the shuttle opened. Dr. Cambridge came in, stooping under the door sill. “Hello, campers,” she said. “Meet your new camp counsellor!”
“What?” Dora exploded.
“You didn’t think that I would just abandon my responsibilities? Fortunately, Paradise Valley Camp is hiring.”
“But not very well,” Charlotte muttered under her breath. This whole thing had just got approximately a thousand percent less fun.