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The Long Way Home

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"Roj! Roj, it's time to wash up for dinner."

"Coming, Mama!"

The eight-year-old bounded from the kitchen garden in through the back door, his sparkling eyes and the toy blaster gripped in his grubby fingers giving him the appearance of a wicked cherub on a rampage. He aimed the blaster at his mother. "Pshoo! Pshoo!"

Jenna clutched her throat dramatically and collapsed by stages onto a nearby bench, her arm hanging down and her head twisted to the  side in what she hoped was a suitably gruesome manner.

Roj chortled and pranced around his mother in a victory dance. "Freedom!" he cried. She waited until he came too near her outstretched arm, then grabbed him and tipped him off-balance, rolled off the bench and used her other hand to capture his gun. She was careful to see that he didn't fall, but equally careful to see that he didn't notice it.

"Next time you forget to check whether the enemy's really dead," she admonished him, "you'll be scrubbing floors for a week. Not just ours, but Gan and Kara's, as well."

"I'll go live with Vila," he said. "He won't make me wash any nasty floors. He'd rather play."

"Which is why Vila's floors are so nasty." She dropped a kiss on his forehead. "Now, go and get cleaned up." He stomped off to the washroom, his thin-lipped pout an exact imitation of his father's.

At least he hasn't picked up the sneer yet, she thought. Heaven help us when he becomes a teenager.

She turned her attention back to the dinner preparations--an enormous iron pot of stew heating on top of the stove, loaves of fresh bread baking inside. She was digging in the pantry for a jar of preserved greenfruit when she heard soft footsteps strolling in the open door.

"Hello, hello. Anybody home?"

Jenna turned to see a Roj-shaped blur launching itself at the newcomer. "Vila!" he cried.

Grinning, Vila lifted the large parcel he carried up over his head and side-stepped the boy's assault. "Hang on," he said, "don't make me drop it!"

"Whatcha got?" asked Roj.

Vila winked and set the parcel on the counter in front of Jenna. "My contribution to the feast."

She pushed Roj's questing fingers away, then undid the string and peeked inside the wrapper carefully. "Marshberry pies! Still warm, too." She looked skeptically at Vila. "I know you didn't bake these."

"Got 'em from Hamish."

"You take advantage of him."

Vila looked miffed. "I do not. He's got you all fooled; he's not nearly as simple as he pretends to be. Anyway, I traded fair and square for those."

"Traded what?"

He grinned again. "The marshberries." He caught her look and changed the subject. "So, where are the twins?"

"They went with Papa to the forum," complained Roj. "I wanted to go, but they wouldn't let me."

"Did they now? Whatever for?"

Jenna shrugged. "He said there was some paperwork he had to finish today."

"Today? I think this Lord Mayor bit has gone to his head."

"If he hears you calling him that, it'll be your head you're worried about."

Vila spread his hands wide. "Look, if he wants to work on a holiday, fine by me. At least it means you're the one doing the cooking." He peered in the stewpot and took a sniff. "Ahhhh. You've really got a hand with the local spices. If you ask me--"

"Why should she ask you?" said a new voice. Jenna and Vila turned to see Gan filling out the doorway. "Everyone knows Jenna's the best cook in the settlement, after my Kara."

"You're just easy to please," said his wife from behind him. "Now move, and let the rest of us in."

Gan stepped aside, and Kara and their children spilled into the room. Fourteen-year-old Bram, already nearly as big as his father, carried a large, covered basket, which he presented to Jenna. "Veggies," he said cheerfully. "Where do you want 'em?" She pointed, and he set them on the counter.

The rest of the children--Efrem, Goddard, Anwyn, and Licia--made themselves at home. "Hey, Roj," said ten-year-old Goddard, reaching into his pocket, "look what I got." He pulled out one of the small reptiles they called mud lizards. "I caught it this morning."

"Can I hold it?" asked Roj. Goddard nodded, but as he passed the skittish lizard over, it leaped out of their hands and dashed for the other room. Anwyn and the boys ran after it, and the house was soon full of their laughter as they chased the lizard from one hiding place to the next.

Kara smiled ruefully at Jenna. "I'm sorry. I did tell him not to bring it."

"Don't worry," Jenna said. "I'm sure they'll catch it eventually. At least it keeps them out from underfoot."

Four-year-old Licia clutched her rag doll tightly and watched from the safety of a corner chair while Gan, Vila, and Bram pushed two tables together to make one large one. Then the men arranged the chairs and set the table while Kara and Jenna unpacked the food Kara had brought--fresh, cold butter for the bread, a jar of pickled summer vegetables, and a casserole of mixed pease, which they put on the stove to reheat.

"Now, this isn't for today," said Kara, handing over a small earthen pot. "I've brought you some fresh cheese."

Jenna was thrilled. Milk, butter, and cheese were still rare on Cygnus, unless you happened to be married to the only dairyman. Friendship with Gan and Kara had definite advantages. "Thanks!"

"Eh," said Vila, coming over for a look, "you don't want to eat that. Have you seen how she makes it?"

"I don't care how she makes it," said Jenna. "It's delicious."

"Suit yourself," Vila said. "But I hate to see it in one of my best pots."

Jenna and Kara looked at each other and laughed.

***

Blake led them from the holding cell. "So this is Cygnus Alpha," he said. "Let's see what there is to see."

They chose a direction and trudged along in silence. "I don't like it," said Jenna. "Where is everybody?"

"There's a building over there," said Arco. "Crazy-looking thing."

"Let's hope the inhabitants aren't crazy," said Blake, and started in that direction.

They hadn't gone far before they were met by several figures in hooded robes. The leader threw back her hood and surveyed them sternly. Her eyes rested coldly on Jenna for a moment, before sweeping over the rest of the group. "Welcome to Cygnus," she said. "My name is Kara. I am the servant of your God."

Blake looked at her; he looked at her companions; he looked at their weapons. His jaw set in a hard line. "No," he said, shaking his head. "I really don't believe you are."

***

"So, I'm last to the feast, am I?" said Avon, hanging his cloak on the wall peg. He brushed a wrinkle out of his meticulously tailored homespun shirt. "My apologies. There were a few things I had to take care of."

Vila looked up from the game of Cat's Cradle he was playing with Anwyn. "No problem. We weren't waiting for you. We were waiting for the twins," he said, nodding a greeting to Newton and Mara.

"You're not late," Jenna said, as she pulled the bread from the oven. "Supper's just now ready. Pay no attention to Vila."

"I never do," said Avon cheerfully.

Jenna smiled back at him. "Will you get a couple of bottles of wine from the cold cellar?"

"Certainly." He headed out the door, then hesitated and looked back. "On second thought," he said, "Vila's here. I believe I'd better get three."

"Make it four," said Vila. "I'll come and help you carry them, shall I?" He followed Avon out the door.

Newton and Mara greeted Bram with enthusiasm. "Guess what we . . ." said Newton.

". . . discovered today," finished Mara.

Bram shook his head. "No guesses. What?"

Mara grinned. "If we add a little cobalt to the glass formula . . ."

". . . the glass turns out blue!"

"Good, good." Bram nodded, but he was frowning. "What good does that do?"

Newton looked at Mara with a puzzled expression. "What good . . ."

". . . does that do?"

They turned back to Bram. "All knowledge is valuable," they chorused.

"Stop teasing Bram," laughed Jenna, "and go wash for supper."

"We're not teasing," said Mara.

"Not in the mean way," said Newton. "But we should do as Mama says," he told his sister.

"Yes, let's," she agreed, and they left for the washroom.

Kara looked at Jenna. "How do you stand it?" she asked.

Jenna grinned. "What, three Avons in one house? Oh, I manage."

A few minutes later, they were all settled around the table, enjoying what was to them a sumptuous banquet. There was plenty of hot, delicious food for everyone, even though Vila had three servings of stew. Jenna realized ruefully that if the bounty continued, she was going to have to start watching her weight.

Still, it would be a difficulty she was prepared to embrace with enthusiasm. Like most of the others present, she could remember a time when the population of Cygnus Alpha didn't have nearly enough to eat.

***

Blake threw down the crude digging tool in disgust and rubbed at his shoulder. "How do they expect us to work under these conditions? No proper tools, scant food and water, inadequate rest breaks; it's not reasonable."

Avon kept his eyes on the row of plants he was weeding. "I suspect that our new . . . leaders . . . are not overly concerned with being reasonable. And I suggest that you get back to work before you attract any unwelcome attention."

Blake looked mutinous. "My back needs stretching," he said, and stood straight to do it.

"Hey, there!" called the overseer from across the field. "Get back to work, you!"

Keeping a surreptitious eye on the overseer, Blake stretched and rolled his shoulders, taking as much time as he dared. When the overseer began to stir, Blake bent down, picked up his digging tool, and went back to working his row.

As he attacked the taproot of a particularly stubborn weed, he coughed.

"Yes?" said Avon softly. "I'm listening."

"This, this slavery, can't go on. It is completely unacceptable."

Avon exhaled sharply. "Really. What do you propose to do about it?"

"I'd have thought it was obvious," said Blake. "We have to overthrow Vargas."

"I was afraid you were going to say that," Avon replied.

***

Vila chased the last bite of marshberry pie around his plate, though he didn't seem to be trying very hard to catch it. "I'm stuffed," he said with satisfaction.

"As tempting as that opening is," said Avon, refilling the wine glasses, "there's something else I'd like to discuss." He paused for a long moment, as if reluctant to begin, now he'd brought up whatever it was.

"Yes?" prompted Gan. "Go on."

Avon took a swallow of wine, then sighed. "All right," he said. "Today I signed the petition to have Cygnus's status changed from that of a prison colony to an open colony. If all goes well, we might be able to expect real settlers and open trade within two years--eighteen months, if we're lucky. Full Federation membership, maybe five years after that."

"W-what?" Vila stuttered, nearly spitting out his wine. "Joining the Federation? Are you mad? Fevered?" He looked frantically round the table. "Jenna, do something. Tell him he can't!"

Gan laid a calming hand on Vila's arm. "Now, Vila. Let's wait and hear the rest." He looked at Avon. "You're sure about this?"

"We've been over this hundreds of times," Avon replied. "I thought we were agreed. We need resources--machinery, supplies, people. The only way to get them is to open up the planet--notwithstanding the exception they made in allowing your uncle to send us seeds and livestock, the Federation is not going to waste its resources on a prison colony."

Gan nodded. "Yes, we're agreed. But it's still a terrible risk. Look what happened on Gauda Prime when it went open."

Avon stared into his wine. "That needn't happen here. On Gauda Prime the valuable minerals were under the arable land, and the farmers had no way to defend themselves. Our situation here is different."

"Not that different," said Jenna.

Avon raised an eyebrow. "Et tu?"

She shook her head. "It's just--sudden, that's all." She glanced at the children. "Roj, why don't you take your friends in the other room to play?"

Roj's face screwed up in thought. He clearly knew that something was going on that he didn't understand; something important. But his eight-year-old brain couldn't sustain the level of concentration required to puzzle his way to a solution, and after a moment he gave up. "Okay, Mama," he said happily. "Come on, you guys!"

In moments, the younger children were engaged in mock-battle in the other room, except for Licia, who drowsed in Kara's arms. Only Bram and the twins remained. Jenna turned a worried eye on them.

"It's okay, Mama."

"We know what's going on."

"If we're going to overthrow the Federation . . ."

". . . then defending Cygnus from marauders is just the first step. We know what we have to do . . ."

". . . and we're ready to do it."

Bram just stared glumly at his plate and nodded his agreement.

With an aching heart, Jenna looked at her husband. He was right; they'd been planning this together for years. However worried she might be, she couldn't let him think that he was the only one with the will to go forward.

"I'm on your side, you know that," she told him. "But don't ask us to pretend that we're not concerned about the danger to ourselves and our children."

"Your children," he said sharply, "have cavities. On a Federation world, that would be a matter of no concern. Here, it's only a matter of time until their choices narrow down to extraction without anesthesia or infection without antibiotics."

He picked up his wine glass, turning it to catch the light in its dozens of tiny imperfections. "This glass, flawed as it is, represents the pinnacle of my investigations into glassmaking. On Cygnus Alpha, it's a treasure; anywhere else, it would be rubbish. In another two years, or twenty, I might be able to make a good enough lens to correct Mara's myopia. A Federation surgeon could cure it permanently in five minutes.

"If Bram breaks his leg, do you really want him to spend eight weeks in plaster and very likely the rest of his life with a limp? If Roj needs an emergency appendectomy, are you going to be the one to perform it with homemade wine and a paring knife? Would you even know appendicitis when you saw it? Because I'm not sure I would."

The impetus of his frustration ran down and left a kind of tired resignation in its wake. "I'm neither a doctor nor a miracle worker. I can't reproduce centuries of medical and technological advances in one short lifetime. There are myriad sorts of danger in the galaxy, and plenty of them are right here on Cygnus already. Frankly, I think we have more to fear from continued isolation than from opening up the planet."

A chastened silence stretched out among them. Finally, Kara spoke. "It would be nice to have a real doctor," she said.

"It would," said Gan. "But our plan was to spread rebellion, not to improve life on Cygnus."

"Of course," said Avon. "Fortunately for us, the two are not incompatible. We'll import medicine, science texts, computers; and with our produce and crafts, we'll export rebellion." He picked up the bottle of wine and topped off their glasses. "Which is why I thought it appropriate to sign the paperwork on Founders' Day, when we remember those who gave their lives to bring the first measure of freedom to Cygnus Alpha." He raised his glass in a toast. "To the Founders."

But Vila had a different idea. "To Roj Blake," he said.

"To Roj Blake!" they all echoed.

***

A ground battle should be noisier, she thought. There should be cannon, and blaster fire, and thunder and lightning and pelting rain. There should be Wagner playing somewhere in the background. It shouldn't be like this, with sunlight filtering into a dusty courtyard where the cries of men wielding sticks and farming implements sounded more like a sporting event than a mortal struggle.

Death should have more gravitas.

"Jenna."

She looked down at the man whose head she cradled in her arms, and did her best to ignore the obvious. "Shh. Don't talk. The battle will be over soon, and we'll get you some help." She tried to inject some enthusiasm into her voice. "We're winning."

"No time . . . must talk . . . Avon."

She tried to swallow, but her mouth was too dry. She nodded.

It seemed an eternity before Avon managed to safely disengage and join them. The dust of the battle had blended with his own sweat to leave him caked in mud, and blood dripped from wounds on his arms and forehead, but there was a look of grim satisfaction about him that said his hurts were only superficial.

All too quickly, that changed. He knelt beside them, and Jenna watched the color drain from his face as he looked at Blake's wounds and came to the same conclusion she had.

Blake coughed. "Avon."

"No, don't talk. Just listen. Vargas is dead, Blake. It's over; we've won."

Blake shook his head slowly. "Only beginning. Cygnus must have . . . leadership."

Avon and Jenna exchanged anxious glances. "We'll hold elections," Avon said. "Real ones, not like on Earth; every vote will count."

"Not enough."

"What, then?"

"You. It has to be . . . one of you."

Avon frowned. "What? I don't--"

"Listen," said Blake. He reached out a gore-encrusted hand and grabbed Avon's shirt, trying to pull himself up. Avon and Jenna both reached out to steady him, but the effort was too much for Blake and they lowered him gently down again. He lay for a moment, eyes closed, his breath rasping in and out like sandpaper on raw flesh.

After a while, his breathing eased and he opened his eyes again. But his sight seemed focused somewhere beyond them, on something only he could see. With great effort, he inhaled deeply. "Listen. Cygnus will never be free . . . not while the . . . Federation remains. You must .  . . destroy . . . Federation. No one else . . . strong enough. Promise  . . . "

The urgency in his voice alarmed Jenna, and she sought to calm him. "We promise," she said. She looked pointedly at Avon, who stared back at her with a  stricken expression. 'Promise him,' she mouthed. She didn't care if Avon kept the promise, so long as he eased Blake's passing. But even as she told herself it didn't matter, some tiny part of her whispered that if Avon gave his word, he would keep it, no matter what it cost him. And no matter what it cost her.

Right now she didn't care about that, either.

"Avon . . ."

"Yes. I'm here." Avon shook himself and reached for Blake's hand. "I promise, Blake. The Federation--we'll destroy it."

But Blake was beyond hearing. He whispered "Promise," one last time, and then he was gone.

***

The house was quiet, the guests departed, the children in bed. Jenna nestled in Avon's arms on the sofa as they shared the last glass of wine. It was as much contentment as life on Cygnus ever afforded, little snatches of peace made all the more precious by the way they had to be wrested from days of unceasing labor.

Avon had been unusually quiet for several minutes, and Jenna might have thought he was asleep, save for the absence of the soft middle-aged snore that, according to him, he didn't have. But, given the date, it didn't take a psycho-strategist to know that he was thinking about the same thing--the same person--that she was. He was always with them--in perhaps too literal a sense. Her eyes flicked to the carved wooden box in the corner: Blake's ashes, waiting to fulfill his vow to return to Earth.

She sighed. "Blake wouldn't approve of our plan."

"No." There was a hint of wry amusement in Avon's voice. "He never was very patient. Nevertheless," Avon said, "he wanted to raise an army. We're just raising ours in a rather more literal sense."

"So few."

"Geometric progression. They'll each find and train two others, and the cycle will repeat until the Federation topples like a tower of blocks."

"Do you think he'd forgive us, taking the long way like this?"

Avon shrugged. "If we win."

She hesitated before asking the next question. "Do you think they will?"

He sipped at his wine. "All parents make decisions that affect their children's futures. It can't be avoided. Did you forgive yours?"

"Eventually."

"And ours will forgive us. When they see the Federation, what it does to people's lives--they'll make the choice for themselves. The ones who don't want to fight, won't have to.

"Which reminds me," he continued. "Our little army will need a great many things once trade is established--it's hard to learn to pick a computer lock when you've never seen one, among other things. But what would you like the first trade ship to bring for you?"

"Chiles. Oregano. Cinnamon. Bolts and bolts of soft, brightly colored cloth." She considered for a moment. "Most of all, though, I'd like an automatic water heater. One that doesn't require stoking up the oven just to take a hot bath or wash a few dishes. Speaking of which . . ."

She groaned and started to get up, but Avon's grip tightened. He buried his face in her hair and inhaled its scent. "Stay," he said. "I'll do them in the morning."

"There aren't enough clean bowls to serve breakfast."

"Then I shall do them before breakfast."

"Voluntarily? Who are you, and what did you do with my husband?" She turned and lifted a hand to the grey at his temples, and familiar lips descended gently on hers. She forgot about the dishes entirely.

"Mama," Roj's voice cut through her thoughts, or more precisely, her lack of them. "Papa."

She disentangled herself from Avon's embrace and arranged a smile on her face. "What is it, sweetheart? Did you have a bad dream?"

The little imp nodded and rubbed at sleepy eyes. "Can I have a drink?"

"No," she said. "It's too late for a drink. Would you like someone to tuck you in again?"

Roj nodded. "I'll do it," said Avon. He took Roj by the hand and started to lead him back to bed, then paused and looked back. "Come to bed?" he asked.

Jenna smiled. "In a minute."

She took the wineglass and the bottle through to the kitchen. Then she stacked up the plates and bowls: if Avon was going to do the dishes, at least she'd have them ready for him. Lastly, she wiped down the counters, amused by her own domesticity.

If someone had told young Jenna Stannis that she'd go from smuggling contraband to raising children and poultry on a backwater planet, and that she'd enjoy it, she'd have thought they were mad. Sometimes, she still found it hard to believe.

But if occasionally she missed the thrill of running a planetary blockade; if occasionally she missed the excitement of new places, new faces, unfamiliar cultures; if sometimes she feared that the Federation would somehow divine their plans, and rip her new family apart as they'd ripped apart her birth family; if all these things were true--and they were--it still didn't diminish the power of what they'd built on Cygnus, with blood and sinew and raw determination. Whatever the future brought them, in this moment there was room for peace, and hope, and love.

For Jenna, it was enough.

She headed out through the other room, turning out lamps as she went.

-End-