the short story project


Return to Bethlehem

Noise from the cheering crowd beat against his senses, as unreal as the confetti of iridescent bubbles streaming off the roofs of the tall whitestone buildings along Galiléó’s main streets. The parade through Artelùne’s capital city finally turned the corner from Salvéaté Bulevard onto Simplicéus Wáe and made its way to the Hótel Héléósentrist. 

The absurd names Galiléó Galiléí had chosen for the characters in his most influential work had long since ceased to seem strange to Jacob, who had been to Galiléó several times since he left his family home in Bethlehem and entered the modern worlds. He found he appreciated its tree-lined streets and proud colonial nod to old-world architecture.

But that was before the Crash back on Earth, or the airlift flights he and the other pilots had made. The news services were calling them daring, the politicians were discussing medals, and their fellow colonists all wanted tickets to the reception that would soon be held at the Héléósentrist in honor of the pilots who made the daring flights of the Mims Airlift and Míc Kéavarel, the base commander who had managed to hold out for so long. Though Jacob was expected to be there as one of the honorees, all he wanted to do was get away from the noise, get away from the people. He’d had enough.

All he could see, every time he closed his eyes and sometimes when they were wide open, were the crowds outside Mims Base, desperate to get in. And those same crowds, once inside Mims Base, even more desperate – especially at the end – to get out on one of the ships to the LaGrange colonies.

The original walls, once hardly more than decorative, had been upgraded to provide real security for Mims Base. When the trouble started, workmen had quickly surrounded the base with layers of fences, both to protect LaGrange personnel living there and to funnel would-be emigrants to the locations outside the walls where they could be processed for evacuation.  

They’d started off just evacuating families whose older members could show that they would be productive members of colonial society, similarly-promising individuals and couples, and the handful of children who had arrived alone. Then, as the situation on Earth became more dangerous and the refugees who found their way to Mims seemed to become exponentially more numerous, more and more of the process of determining emigrant suitability was moved to the refugee camps in Prótótípe. The house of cards that the global economy had developed into had started to collapse, and nothing seemed capable of stopping or even slowing its fall. Banks all across Earth had gone under, and soon whole governments were following suit.  

LaGrange Systems and the Colonial Coalition had quickly withdrawn all their personnel offworld, all except the relatively small numbers of staff members involved in processing and evacuating emigrants. By the end, Jacob and the other pilots and intake personnel had all been volunteers, even though by then they knew that militias were coming who wouldn’t be friendly.

Jacob inhaled deeply, counted to ten and then to fifty, and exhaled slowly. 

As he passed through the grand double doors into the hotel’s best reception room, Jacob pasted on his most debonair heroic smile.

A passing waiter offered a champagne flute. Jacob took it, wishing he could down it in one shot. With luck, he’d be able to make his escape before it was gone. He’d never been particularly fond of crowds or politicians, but it was even worse to be a focus of their attention. It made the grand ballroom feel positively claustrophobic.

Nearly two hours later, Jacob was finally able to slip away from yet another crowd of well-wishers while LaGrange founder Dennis Blakely-Roberts spoke in honor of “the heroes of the Mims airlift.” Carefully avoiding anyone who might try to stop him, he maneuvered his way through the crowd and escaped out a side door, taking the back stairs up to his room on the fifth floor.

He changed out of his fancy duds into street clothes as quickly as he could and left the dirty clothes on the bed he’d barely been able to sleep in last night. The hotel staff would clean the outfit and send it back to his apartment in Cùper, though it would be a while before he got back there. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to return at all. 

He had someplace else to go.

Jacob grabbed his rucksack and left his room, heading for the same back staircase he’d come up minutes ago. Before leaving the privacy of his room, he pulled a University of Artelùne cap low on his head. Thanks to the continuous news coverage of the refugee airlift, his face and those of everyone else involved in it were rapidly becoming some of the most recognizable faces in the colonies. But he didn’t feel like being recognized right now.

The crowds had finally dissipated after the parade, most heading for various celebrations in locations all across the capital or in other cities in Artelùne. He passed few other travelers on his way to the nearest Underground station and didn’t even see more than a handful on the westbound Five-Below.

Something about the quiet or the barely-discernable motion of the passenger car allowed him to get the first peaceful sleep he’d had since before those last chaotic days at Mims.

He awoke as the train pulled out of the last Cúrée station. A boy about ten was leaning over the seat in front of him, watching him with a mischievous curiosity.

Days ago, kids that age had stared at him with a very different look in their eyes, aware of their parents’ desperation even if they didn’t understand the reason for it. Even kids much younger than the boy watching him can tell something’s wrong when their families abandon everything that won’t fit in the car and go live in the rustic barracks set up outside the base for would-be evacuees. Kids that age knew enough to be scared.

“Are you Jacob Musser-Kauffmann, the pilot from the Airlift?” the boy asked as soon as he opened his eyes. He pronounced “Jacob” like an Englische, the way Jacob himself had pronounced his name ever since he left Bethlehem, the town at the north end of the cylinder where his Amish grandparents had settled when they moved to Artelùne Colony.

“Oh no, kid,” Jacob was careful not to let his soft German accent slip through. “Marc Yung. Have we reached Cópernicus yet?” He didn’t want anyone tracking him to Bethlehem until he was ready to deal with the nightmares he’d lived through over the past few days.

“Cópernicus?” The kid’s eyes went round. “You must’ve been tired, mister. You slept right through Cópernicus. We just left Cúrée.”

“No.” Jacob didn’t have to feign disappointment. “So much for getting to my meeting on time.”

“Must be an awfully important meeting,” the boy commented.

“Everyone else’s talking about the Mims Airlift.”

“It is,” Jacob flicked a small grin at the kid.

“You should ask someone to wake you, next time you need to nap on the train. Or even just put a sign on your hat, you know, ‘Wake me for Cópernicus.’”

“I’ll remember that next time,” Jacob grinned back at the boy. He might never be on a train ever again.

The train back to Cúrée was almost empty, so he took a chance and stayed on for the short ride past town to the Elevated. It was usually busier than the Four-Below that he’d been planning to take for the ride north, but the walk from there would do him some good. So would the open air.

He pulled his cap lower over his eyes and stared out the window at the passing countryside. Algae ponds and orchards alternated with fields in varied stages of ripeness. Heavy agricultural use of the lands surrounding all of Artelùne’s towns insured sufficient food and oxygen for the colony, but to Jacob the sight was nothing more than a comforting reminder of home.

By the time the elevated reached the Bethlehem-Bràn stop, it was almost empty. Janszùn and Mercator, the only towns north of Bethlehem, had only recently been completed and were still only lightly inhabited. Most of the passengers still aboard got off when he did, though they all headed for the Five-Below to Bràn.  

He watched them go before turning west and following his feet toward Bethlehem. Before he’d gone very far, the highway turned to the gravel that was kinder to horses’ hooves than smoothly-processed rock. On either side of him, fields of grain waved nearly at eye-level, slowly turning gold under Artelùne’s artificial sunlights.

While the other towns in Artelùne were relatively compact and urban, Bethlehem had only a small core of public buildings and a home for the most infirm. Most Bethlehemers lived in large multigenerational homes on their farms, rather than in town. It meant Jacob met almost nobody before he reached the road for the Musser-Kauffmann farm, and those few passed with a wave and little more than a glance, as if he were a regular part of the community. 

If there was one place in Artelùne where the news broadcasts about the airlift hadn’t reached yet, it was Bethlehem.

Whitening bamboo rail fences separated many of the fields from the road. After passing several of these fields, Jacob saw his brother Ezekiel in the one to his left, plowing a field that had most recently been used for green beans. Jacob dropped his rucksack on the side of the road and slipped through the railing, giving a quick wave as he waited for his brother and the horse at the edge of the field.

LaGrange Systems had offered to upgrade the horse-drawn ploughs the Bethlehemers traditionally used, but even with the improvements the Bethlehemers had accepted, the job was still a dirty, sweaty one. The biggest improvement to the whole process was that the terraformed hollow worlds like Artelùne and now Nu Canàn only had rocks where they were wanted, not spread throughout the fields making the job even harder. 

Ezekiel handed off the reins at the edge of the field and took the opportunity for a water break while Jacob took over ploughing the field. Taking turns at the plow, they finished shortly before evening, hardly speaking ten words the entire time. Together they wrestled the plow into its cart and hitched Old Toby to it, then walked in companionable silence back to the house.

Nobody at home asked about the airlift or what it was like to be a “hero.” Nobody asked him anything at all, as if he’d been there all along and there was nothing to catch up on. Instead, the children and other men of the family cleaned up for dinner, while his sisters and sisters-in-law helped Mamé fill the long table to capacity with all the food they had cooked to feed the family. It groaned under the weight of all the dishes of roast pork, buttered egg noodles, slow-cooked beets, thick dill pickles, long loaves of fresh yeasty bread with homemade butter, and several other hearty dishes, all simple food meant to satisfy hungry farmers.

Upon seeing the familiar family table loaded with the home cooking he’d grown up on, Jacob suddenly realized he was starving. He slid into his old childhood seat and helped himself to some of everything as soon as prayers were over. He finished with several helpings of Judith’s shuflí pie, which had always been his favorite. 

It felt so normal to watch his sister stifle a smile as she saw him eat half a pie, just like what always happened back when they were growing up. Watching the molasses filling ooze slowly over the edge of his slice while around him Papé and the rest of the family talked about everyday farm matters, Jacob could almost believe he’d never left. The few times he had to say something, he was unsurprised to hear the same soft German accents he’d so carefully eliminated from his speech patterns when he’d decided to become a normal Englische. 

Jacob slept in his old room and rose at five the next morning to help with the chores, though he’d forgotten how backbreakingly intense the work was. He was still sore from plowing with Ezekiel yesterday evening, though a long shower before bed and some old-fashioned liniment had helped.

The mild climate that the colonists had chosen for the hollow worlds made it possible to grow crops year-round, and hardworking Bethlehemers like the Musser-Kauffmanns took full advantage of it. They always had crops to plant, harvest, or otherwise tend. It was God’s work, they believed, and the least they could do to help feed themselves and their fellow LaGrange colonists. Jacob quickly worked up a good old-fashioned sweat, putting himself so deep into the work that he couldn’t think of anything else but cutting the hay.

A little after noon, Jacob’s married sisters and sisters-in-law drove the small wagon out to the fields where the men were working, bringing their men the hearty lunch they would need to make it through the rest of the day’s work. Within minutes, they had a portable table set up in the shade of some larger trees on the side of the field the men had already cleared. They spread a simple but extensive buffet as the men washed their faces and hands under a nearby spigot.

Once cleaned up, they gathered to pray and fill their plates. As the other men sat in the shade with their wives, Jacob found himself sitting alone with his father in the back of the wagon. He worked his way through most of his lunch before Papé spoke.

“We heard about the airlift, son.”

Jacob stared at his father, feeling the blood suddenly rush from his face.

“That’s why you’re back now, no?”

“Yes, Papé. I –”

“You saw horrors, and now you can’t stop thinking about them. You don’t think you did the right thing.”

“They… I… how…”

Papé locked eyes with Jacob. “I know you never held to our religion,” he said slowly and firmly, “but we believe there’s a reason for everything.” 

“Not that. We’ll never understand what the reason for that was. But there was a reason you were there.”

“Me? Why?”

“How many people would you say you saved down there?”

“Not enough. It went south so quickly…. One minute we were processing evacuees, the next we got word that some rogue militias were headed toward Mims. We couldn’t get nearly everyone out.”

“That’s not what I asked, and you know it. How many did you save?”

“I don’t know. A few hundred, I guess.”

“And all the ones you got out before it went bad. They’d all have been killed if they’d still been there when the militias arrived.”

“Yes, I guess.”

“Do you think you were there for a reason?”

“Sure. I volunteered.”

“And everyone else with you also volunteered. You were willing to lay down your lives to get those people to safety.”

“That’s not –”

“I’m not saying this to make you prideful. You were willing to sacrifice yourself for complete strangers. You were there because you wanted to make a difference.”

“So did everyone else there.”

“Because you are all people who go where you’re needed.”

“We knew we had the support to carry out our mission, as much support as LaGrange could muster in the time we had. But we still didn’t do enough.”

“That’s not what I heard. What more do you think you could have done?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t even have a full two dozen ships down there when we got word that the militias were heading our way. Some were unloading emigrants at Prótótípe or had rendezvoused with ships that couldn’t handle an Earth landing but could get the emigrants the rest of the way, and others were en route one direction or the other. But with the distances involved, there were only a few ships that could get there in time to help get the refugees out.”

“Doesn’t sound like you could’ve done anything to change that.”

“But… we tried to keep everything calm and organized, instead of fast. If we’d started sooner…” Jacob realized he was crying.

“And did you know it was going to get bad like that? Did anyone?”

“No… I guess not. Not in time.”

“You thought things were as bad down there as they could get, just like everyone else. Because you and the rest of the base staff stayed organized, you kept people from panicking, probably kept them alive. And you were fast and professional when the situation got worse.”

“I guess so.”

“I know so, son. I read the reports. We’re not as distant from your modern life as you may think. Your Commander told us what you’d be dealing with.” 

Jacob’s world spun. He’d just been through hell and Papé knew all about it?

“You think we’d stop worrying about you just because you left us? What kind of family is that, I ask you? We pray for you and look out for you till you come home – then we really pray for you! Constance still waits for you; did you know that? Lives up to her name, does that one!”

Constance would never speak to him again if she knew how many people he’d left behind in Mims. Neither would anyone else.

“But how? Commander Hollis-Wùd’s been stuck in Galiléó since we got back.”

“And we don’t keep a screen around for information and communication? Just because we don’t walk around with films glued to our temples, you think we don’t know how to get in touch with people when it’s important?”

“I – I never knew that, Papé.”

“Well, now you do. No telling your brothers and sisters, though. Have to keep some surprises till they’re older.”

Try as he might, Jacob couldn’t imagine Papé walking around with a communicator film attached to his temple. He could hardly imagine a small screen stashed in one of the cupboards.

“One thing I don’t need is your protection, son. So tell me what happened.” 

The events of the past few days beat against his brain, demanding release. Papé couldn’t know what he asked, but the words came anyway. He couldn’t stop them, just like he hadn’t been able to stop the militias that attacked Mims. Stuck in the pilot capsule, he hadn’t been able to fight them at all, just delay his takeoff as long as possible.

“There were so many, Papé! So many people came to Mims when the Crash happened, trying to get here. We took all the ones we could, as quickly as we could, but then –”

“We don’t even know who the militias reported to, just that they weren’t locals or even from one area. They’d been separate till they reached Jacksonville, and then they rushed us so quickly! Papé, they blew through the emigrant camps and the fences like they were nothing. Did Commander Hollis-Wùd tell you that?” 

Papé said nothing, just sat on the wagon bed and stared off across the fields. A male cardinal landed on a sapling near the fence line. 

“We tracked their approach, from when they started moving our direction from D.C., Atlanta, and all those other places. Longer, though before then we hoped they might ignore us for a while. We kept calling for ships to help get everyone out or someone who had the firepower to stop them, but so few ships were close enough! 

“And then when they joined up, we knew we only had a couple hours. We couldn’t do anything anymore but rip out anything that wasn’t necessary so we could fit a few more people in the ships. And then we saw the fireball as they torched Daytona. Commander Hollis-Wùd ordered us to lift, but we were still ripping things out to squeeze more people aboard.

“We knew we couldn’t get everyone aboard, but only a trickle of people were willing to give up and get out while they could find safety somewhere else. We were still loading people when they blasted the gates and crossed the perimeter. 

“The Commander ordered us up again, but nobody was willing to leave all those people to die. I know we kept loading well past the weight limit. The ships closer to the north perimeter had to take off first, which slowed our attackers down and gave people a few more seconds to reach ships like mine that were further south. And then –

“I could still see people running toward my ship, but I couldn’t wait any longer. The enemy was right behind them. 

“We were so heavily loaded I didn’t think we’d make it to orbit. Ordinance of some kind were flying at us as we lifted off, and down on the ground –”

Papé knew better than to interrupt his quiet sobs. He waited till they stilled on their own.

“Did you make a difference down there?”

“I… I…” Deep breath. “Yes, Papé. I know I did.”

“Stay here as long as you need, son. And we’ll still be here next time you come home. Maybe even Constance, if that’s God’s plan. For now, let’s see what we can do about getting this hay in.”

For the first time in what felt like years, Jacob smiled. A real one.

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