“It sounds exciting,” said Michelle. She took a sip of wine and watched Tony, curious what was happening behind her quiet man’s face as he read the information on his screen. His practiced neutral expression betrayed nothing.
“It does,” Tony said. His shoulders shrugged ever so slightly, the only tell he had that he was telling the truth rather than what she wanted to hear.
“They’re trying something that’s never been tried before.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” said Tony. “You know, historically.”
“Well, it sounds worthwhile.”
“You sure you’re not just saying that?”
“Of course not,” Tony said. The corners of his eyes crinkled as a reassuring grin crossed his face. When he smiled broadly, his hazel eyes shrank to tiny slits so that they seemed to disappear altogether but the lines at the corners of his eyes remained and emphasized even the slightest of good humors. “Michelle, I’m with you in this. If you think it’s a good idea, I’ll go.”
“Well,” she said. She leaned into him, resting her sandy-blond dreadlocks within the crook of his arm. “If it doesn’t work out, it’s only two months away. So…”
Tony kissed the top of her head, his gotee catching stray hair as he spoke.
“Don’t start out thinking that way,” Tony said. “Negative thinking has a way of turning into a self fulfilling prophecy.”
“So, you would be Michelle,” asked a woman. She seemed to have appeared out of thin air, a clipboard pressed against her chest. With hair the color of night and skin so pale that it seemed almost transparent, she cut a severe figure. The expanse of freckles on her face testified to the amount of time she spent outside recently, as did the dirt caked trousers with grass stains on the knees.
“That would be me,” Michelle said. She dropped the tent peg onto the ground and walked over, hand outstretched.
“Oh, we don’t shake hands here, we hug.”
A giggle of unrepressed joy escaped Michelle’s throat as she threw her arms wide. It lasted longer than she expected but was warm and inviting with multiple squeezes of affection. When they broke apart, Michelle was beaming as she continued to the woman’s hands.
Tony stood next to the half pitched tent, his hands deep in his pockets and a look of amusement curling his lips. Since landing, each person seemed to be friendlier and than the last.
“Welcome, Michelle,” said the woman. “I’m Sophie. Glasser? Sort of the head woman around here, you could say. I wanted to welcome you to Tranquility. Did you have any troubles getting here?”
“Those cargo ships and the people who fly them are in a class unto themselves,” Michelle said. “But other than that, it was pretty much empty space for two months and then this.”
“Space travel’s boring,” Sophie said. “But as you get set up, you’ll be wishing you could just lie around a little again.”
“Well, we’re here to pitch in,” Michelle said.
“And this is your husband,” Sophie asked. She waved toward Tony without looking at him and checked the clipboard. “Tony?”
“Oh, we’re not married but, yeah.”
Sophie held out her hand. Tony smirked at the sudden formality and took it with a firm grip, shaking once before Sophie wormed out of it.
“So not married then,” Sophie asked.
“No, ma’am,” Tony said.
She gave Tony a curious glance.
“I’d recommend that the two of you get married if you plan on staying together,” she said. “We encourage marriage here.”
Michelle and Tony shared a queer look and laughed. Tony pulled her close and they shook their heads at the thought. Ten years together and they never talked about marriage. It seemed so… cliche.
“I’m surprised,” said Michelle. “I figured this, of all places, wouldn’t be interested in such a thing.”
She had to lean in to hear as Sophie mumbled, “It’s a little different here than on Earth.”
Sophie scribbled something on her clipboard. Looking up, her smile returned. “I’ll see you at the meeting tonight?”
“Tonight,” Michelle asked. “Yeah. Sure. Absolutely.”
Sophie leaned in and kissed Michelle on each cheek.
“See you then.”
Tony and Michelle watched Sophie walk away, each step a long stride. Michelle turned to Tony, took his hands in hers, and gave him a quick peck on the lips. Tony gently swept a lock off her shoulder and pulled her closer. The two stood for minutes in their embrace, the rest of Tranquility invisible to them.
“That was nice,” she said.
“That’s always nice,” said Tony.
“Sophie, moron. Sophie was nice.”
“Oh, her,” Tony said. His face returned to its usual neutral expression. “Yeah, I guess. Odd.”
“What’d you think of her suggestion?”
“About getting married?”
“Sure,” he said, shrugging. “I’m not totally opposed to it.”
“No,” said Tony. “I just never though it was necessary for us. I never really thought we needed a piece of paper to validate us.”
He released her and returned to their half completed tent, picking up a fiberglass pole and began snaking it through the limp nylon.
“But in some ways I guess I can also be a pretty conservative guy,” said Tony. “I like the idea of marriage. I’d like to marry you. We’ve been together for, what, ten years? I just figured you didn’t have any interest.”
“Oh,” Michelle said. Her eyebrows arched in genuine surprise. Tony caught it and shook his head.
“I’m not saying not so important that I need it though. Just saying that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like it.”
“Sure,” said Michelle. “So, maybe we should.”
“Maybe,” said Tony. He waved toward their tent, still just fabric on the ground. “But why don’t we worry about that after we get this thing set up and ourselves moved in.”
“It’s a deal.”
“Michelle,” asked a voice from outside the tent. “Are you in there?”
“One second,” Michelle said. She said it loud, as if shouting through a door instead of thin nylon.
She climbed out of the sleeping bag and pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Tony, still naked in the sleeping bag, propped himself up onto an elbow, a wry grin stretched across his face. Michelle padded over to the entrance in bare feet and unzipped the flap. On the other side stood a woman about Michelle’s age with a wide grin framed by drooping dark brown hair.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “Sophie told me to fetch you for the meeting? I’m Emily! Hi!”
“Emily, hi. No problem,” Michelle said. “We were just… you know.”
“You ready to go?”
“Sure, let me just grab my shoes.” She darted back inside and plucked a pair of hiking boots from a corner. She fell next to Tony, shook out her socks, and began jamming her feet into them.
“You want me to come with,” Tony asked.
“Sorry,” Emily said, peeking her head inside the tent. “I was told to only bring Michelle.”
“I’ll be back before you know it,” said Michelle. She leaned over and kissed Tony’s forehead.
Michelle leapt up and met Emily at the flap. She turned to give a quick wave and zipped it up behind her. Tony chuckled and reclined onto his back, staring up at the arched top of the tent, thinking with absent curiosity about the pattern of seams.
After as much contemplative staring as one man could do, he sat up and pulled on his clothes. He let himself out of the tent and was struck by the silence that seemed to pervade the area.
For the first time, he looked around and saw that Tranquility had an odd look to it. There were too many structures to feel like a temporary campsite but not enough in the way of substantial buildings to be a town. The absence of noise was disconcerting for a boy from Chicago, as were the sheer number of stars above him–unfamiliar stars in unfamiliar patterns.
Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he strolled down one of the meandering paths that passed for roads. Dozens of structures were in mid-construction on either side. The houses were built with hand-rended lumber from the nearby woods. They were vacant at the moment, their builders, he figured, were at the meeting. It was probably for the best though as most appeared to lean in the light breeze. He began to worry about how well they might stand up in a real storm. If New Normandy had storms. Yet another thing he wasn’t sure of yet.
Tony crossed from one dirt track to another and to another until he saw the red and yellow glow of a fire illuminating a tent from the other side like a Chinese lantern. Pointing his feet in that direction, he rounded the tent and found a dozen men on logs at the tail end of laughter from joke. Each had a metal cup in their hands.
“Hey,” called out chorus upon noticing him. “A newcomer!”
“Gentlemen,” Tony said.
It was clear they were half in the bag and he shared a private chuckle with himself. He made his way to an empty log around the fire and took a seat, sighing as he lowered himself and listening for the pops in his knees.
“I guess you weren’t invited to the meeting either, eh,” Tony asked.
“Usually aren’t,” a guy answered. “Not unless they have something to bitch at us about.”
“Right,” said a few others like a barbershop quartet.
“Bob,” said one.
He stuck out his hand and Tony shook it, finding as much warmth in it as there had been emptiness in Sophie’s.
“You want a drink, Tony,” asked Bob.
“Does the pope shit in the woods?”
“Mike claims it’s whiskey but whatever it is, it’s got alcohol, so it does the trick.”
A guy who Tony presumed was Mike, filled a metal cup from an old coffee tin and passed it to Bob who passed it on. Tony held it to his nose and discovered that it was filled with a liquid smelling more like rubbing alcohol than anything drinkable. Lifting it in a quick salute to its creator, he brought it to his lips and was instantly gripped by a fit of coughing that lasted five minutes. Bob slapped Tony’s back.
“You’ll get used to it,” said Bob.
“Jesus, I hope so,” Tony wheezed.
“Just get here today,” Mike asked.
“Yeah,” said Tony. His voice was hoarse but it was returning. “Me and Michelle.”
“Good for you,” said Bob. “Welcome to Tranquility.”
Tony grinned and leaned back with the cup beside him, dreading the next sip but appreciating its rapid effect as a tingle spread from his lips to his brain.
“So you guys always do this during the meetings?”
Bob shrugged. “Pretty much.”
“At least it gives us five minutes rest,” Mike said. Several others nodded and a rumble of agreement spread around the campfire.
“Busy work, setting up a new town,” Tony said.
“Especially when you’re doing it all by yourself,” Mike said.
The men around the fire stared into the flames and Tony felt something descend. It was real and Tony had the sudden sensation that he’d stepped into something he shouldn’t have but he couldn’t figure out what it was. Bob broke the silence with a cough and a quick, nervous laugh.
“You met Sophie yet,” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Tony. “Seemed… ah… distant, but nice.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is a ‘bitch,'” said Mike. “But sure.”
Tony’s face must have shown his shock because the group laughed as his mouth opened and shut like a fish’s on dry land, looking for the appropriate response. He discovered that he had none and clamped his jaw shut as he waited for the chuckling to subside.
“It’s not a gender thing,” Bob said. “If she were a man, she’d be a sonofabitch. It’s a power thing. Whoever makes the rules is bound to breed some resentment.”
“Yeah, sure,” Tony said.
It went against everything he learned in college, from freshman orientation to gender studies. It was contrary to his professional training, name-calling never having a resolved conflict he could recall, but he nodded anyway. He nodded as though he understood.
“But what has she done,” he asked. Tony watched Mike with a particular interest. He was the most ardent and everyone else was looking to him for cues.
“Name it,” said Mike. “Lisa and I had been married for five years, her with my name, and then Sophie asks what her maiden name was and suddenly we’re the ‘Ellis’ household. She keeps the women busy with planning and meetings and, you know, all the stuff that doesn’t matter when you’re trying to build a house so I had to do it all by myself. And when I asked her to pitch in, she told me that that was my responsibility.”
“It’s pretty much the same story all around,” said Bob. “With varying degrees of resentment.”
“Sure,” said Tony. “But it’s a democracy, right? I mean, we can vote to change the rules.”
“It’s not official but basically Sophie makes it so that only women have a say in anything,” said Bob.
“And they’re all enthralled with her,” added Mike. “Hence, bitch.”
Tony sipped from his cup and found that it was far easier to drink with a little already in him. Leaning back onto his hand, he considered Sophie as the group sat in melancholic silence.
Tony leaned on the postholer he borrowed from Mike two days before. Running an arm across his forehead to stem the river of sweat into his eyes, he surveyed his handiwork. For a cabin with four walls, and two doors, he had nine foundation holes done and ready for the support columns to be planted. His worst fear was a heavy rain that would fill them in. He wasn’t sure he possessed the will to dig them out second time. His lean muscles just weren’t built for manual labor and they burned each morning from the effort.
“Looking good, sexy,” Michelle said from behind.
Tony turned and grinned. Striking a pose like a body builder he found that he really had acquired some definition. He marveled at it for a moment, then turned his gaze toward Michelle. While his body was streaked with sweat and dirt, she remained clean by camp standards, just the usual wetness under her armpits and the uniform filthy jeans.
“Kinda alone here, doing all the work myself,” he said. “Any chance you might be helping out today? I could really use someone to eyeball the level on the foundation.”
Michelle leaned in, planting a quick kiss on his cheek, but continued past toward the tent.
“Love to,” she said. “But Sophie asked me to help with our resource conservation plan.”
“Conservation,” Tony asked. “There’re like five people on this planet, you, me, and Sophie included. I think there’s enough to last.”
“Actually, there’s another camp not far from here,” Michelle said from inside their tent. “It’s called Meditation or something stupid.”
“Really,” Tony asked. “You think they’ve got tools we can trade for? Mike’s moonshine, paint stripper it may well be, but it’s probably worth something in trade.”
“Yeah,” Michelle said, her voice absent for a moment as she tended to something inside. “Actually, no. Apparently, they’re not people we want to deal with.”
“That’s what Sophie says,” said Michelle. She reemerged from the tent cradling a stack of books in her arms. “Anyway, they’re who we have to worry about. They keep stealing our resources.”
“Let me get this straight,” said Tony. “There are apparently five more people on this world than I thought and we’re not allowed to trade with them because they’re stealing trees from a forest large enough to rebuild the Spanish armada ten times over? What’s Sophie’s problem with them?”
“It’s not Sophie’s problem,” Michelle corrected, stopping to survey his work. “It’s our problem. We’re part the community.”
“So far, it’s you who’s part of a community and me who’s building your house.”
“If you don’t start helping it’s going to be my house.”
“I will. I promise,” said Michelle. She grinned and hooked a thumb over her shoulder toward the center of the camp. “As soon as we get some of this planning stuff out of the way.”
Tony watched her for a moment, trying to read her expression and decide whether it was just a dodge to get out of work. But the realization hit him that if he didn’t start up again he soon wouldn’t be able to and he leaned over for a piece of timber that would serve as a foundation column and decided to let the topic drop for the time being.
“Have you thought any more about the marriage thing,” Michelle asked. “Sophie says it ensures a tight family unit and community loyalty.”
“Sophie sounds like she says a lot of things,” Tony mumbled.
“You don’t like her, do you?”
“For all she says, I’ve only met her the once.”
“Well, I think it’s a good idea too. Let everyone know you’re mine.”
“You know the men take their wives’ last names here,” Tony said. He forced the pole into the hole with a little extra force than it deserved.
“I know. Pretty progressive, right?”
“It seems like the same old problem in reverse to me.”
“Is that all that’s stopping you?”
“I just want to get married because we want to get married. Not because Sophie wants it,” said Tony. “Look, if you want help on the land use thing, let me know? Conflict resolution is sort of my raison d’etre.”
“Of course, babe,” said Michelle. “In the meantime, keep up the good work, okay?”
Tony watched Michelle stroll away and felt a fire inside from the dismissive tone she’d used. Keep up the good work? His teeth began to grind and his grip on the lumber became tighter and tighter.
Sophie met Michelle along the way with another hug and something broke inside of him. He whipped the post in a circle like a hurler and let it fly back onto the woodpile. He wished it would explode on impact, the force destroying everything, including that bitch Sophie.
It landed with a clatter against the other wood and knocked off the top of his neat pyramid stack of lumber.
Bob kicked his shoes off as he leaned back and let them warm on the edge of the fire pit. It was just him and Tony tonight but for all of Tony’s chatter, he might as well have been alone.
“You’re silent tonight,” he said. “What’s going on?”
For a long time, Tony continued to say nothing. He would breathe in and out, trying to restrain the anger that’d made him explode but it just wouldn’t go away. He considered his words, careful to not say anything he would later regret before opening his mouth.
“I was always embarrassed as an American that we took so long to grant women the right to vote,” said Tony. “Whenever… Whenever I heard about the glass ceiling, I always wondered what it was about, people discriminating based on gender. But now… I think I understand.”
“When they’re in charge, it’s nothing but trouble?”
Tony replied with a frustrated smirk.
“No,” he said. “I think people discriminate because they can.”
Bob refilled his cup and Tony’s also as he waited for the thought to complete.
“We’re eight fucking light years away from Earth,” Tony said. “More than far enough away to start something new. Without all the old baggage. Yet, here we are. The same shit, reversed.”
“Man,” said Bob. “You’re not saying anything we haven’t talked about a hundred times already. But you get used to it.”
“I don’t want to get used to it,” said Tony. “I didn’t travel two months in a tin can to come somewhere I get to be treated like a second class citizen.”
“Sophie makes some stupid rules,” said Bob. “Granted. But let her. Who cares? It’s not like they’re taxing us. It’s not like they’re telling us we can’t do whatever. I just don’t see a reason to get all worked up over what’s essentially a blue sky committee.”
“Maybe it won’t always be so ‘blue sky,’ said Tony.
Tony sipped from his cup and sipped again, just to be sure. He studied the fire as it popped and crackled in the pit. The same flames were in his gut, fanned by every thought of Sophie. The picture of her as a busybody bureaucrat, running around with that fucking clipboard and making arbitrary and stupid rules was like kerosine. Tony struggled to remember his professional, practiced calm and tried to summon its return.
Bob watched with a unsuppressed mirth.
“If Sophie and her bunch ever actually gets anything off the ground,” Bob said. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll… I don’t know… knit her a sweater or something stupid.”
Tony coughed out an unexpected laugh and Bob’s smile widened.
“You’d learn how to knit,” Tony asked.
“I think I’d be very handy with a pair of needles.”
“You should learn how to be handy with a hammer first.”
“If we’re talking a topsy-turvy world, anything’s possible,” said Bob.
Tony loosed a great sigh and, with it came a sudden desire for marshmallows at the end of a stick. He grinned and dropped onto his back to watch the alien stars above in the black sky.
“Thanks, Bob,” he said, his blood pressure dropping with every new breath.
Tony’s house stood alone on the small plot of land Sophie had assigned but he’d built it and it was his. It had a distinct lean to the right but stood straighter than most of the rest. Wind snuck through the cracks between the panels of each wall and the roof wasn’t yet rainproofed. But it stood and Tony grinned at his handiwork like God must have on the seventh day, had God spent the last six building a cabin.
He scratched his chin and considered the improvements he already wanted to make. Deciding rain irritated more than wind, he climbed his ladder and began searching for the imperfections that leaked. Tony scanned the carefully selected pieces of slate looking for places where they didn’t overlap properly or where his mud compound hadn’t filled the gaps.
A quarter of his roof had been inspected when he felt the door slam beneath and the whole structure shook in a way that worried him. The slate closest to the edge slipped, fell, and shattered on the ground below. Tony sighed and climbed back down the ladder. He entered the cabin and found Michelle tossing their possessions this way and that in a search for something that Tony could only guess.
Michelle stopped and chewed on the tip of a finger, noticing him after a full minute. She looked at him with accusatory intent. “Where the hell are my papers?”
“I put them on the bookshelf.”
“That,” sneered Michelle. Pointing at Tony’s work, she held back a laugh but only by choking on it in her throat. “Right.”
“Hey,” said Tony. “If you’re pissed off about something, don’t take it out on me or my house, okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Whatever.”
Tony stood in silence. He crossed his arms against his chest and watched Michelle’s hurricane movement. She threw a book against a wall, loosening the board.
“Hey,” said Tony. “For Christ’s sake!”
“What,” asked Michelle. Her eyes were wild as she faced him. “What!”
Tony searched for a response but her expression dissolved whatever might have been on the tip of his tongue. Feeling his crossed arms, he realized his defensive posture, and forced them down to his sides. He tried to let his anger at the damage slide so he could speak without being confrontational.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong,” he asked.
Michelle dropped onto the wood framed cot and leaned against the wall. The board creaked against its nails. She was silent for a moment of her own. When calm descended on her, she put a finger into her mouth and shook her head.
“We’ve been attacked,” she said.
“What,” he asked. He rubbed fists into his eyes and blinked. “We’ve been what?”
“We found some people from Meditation using our pastures and confronted them,” she said. “They got nasty and a fight broke out. One of them had an arm broken.”
Tony said nothing but even his neutral expression couldn’t hide the disapproving shake of his head.
“Anyway,” she said. “They shot one of our sheep as they left and tried to kill more.”
“So what’s going to happen? What’s Sophie thinking?”
“The leadership council is considering our options.”
“Our options,” Tony asked. He was unable to stop his voice from rising in pitch. “Our options? Come on, Michelle. What are our options? Really?”
“They shot at us, Tony. They shot at us. What do you think our options are? We need to show them that it will be answered.”
“For shooting a sheep? Come on.”
“It’s the principle of the thing.”
“It’s a sheep,” Tony said. “And this can be worked out. Nonviolently.”
“It can,” he said. “We can work this out by talking with them. I’ll go to the meeting with you and help come up with a negotiation strategy. This is what I do, babe, let me help you.”
Michelle shook her head. “We don’t need your help.”
“‘We’ don’t need… you, my, what,” asked Tony, struggling to comprehend.
“This isn’t Earth,” said Michelle. “Just because you’re a man doesn’t mean you know more than we do. That’s the old way of thinking, Tony.”
“Have you gone crazy? Who said being a man had anything to do with it?”
“I’ll let you know what you can do,” Michelle said. She pulled herself to her feet and glanced with disdain at the mess she created. She opened the door and stepped through, turning back with a disappointed glance. “Just fix this place up in the meantime, okay? It’s kind of pathetic.”
The meetinghouse in the center of Tranquility was built much like the cabins, shacks, and houses that surrounded it. It listed to one side and was walled with uneven planks of wood that let light and sound spill out into the otherwise dark night. The only difference between it and the rest was its size. It was nearly twice as tall with six times the interior space of any other building. The enormity made the meetinghouse look less rickety from afar but, with his face pressed against a crack in the wall, Tony’s new carpenter’s eye told him that it was just as vulnerable to a stiff breeze as any other.
Inside, the women of the camp sat in a tight circle behind rough writing desks watching a speaker in the center advocate her idea. As she pressed her peers for their approval on a retaliatory raid on Meditation, Sophie stood off to the side, nodding in agreement. Half of the women nodded in unison as if their chins were controlled by the movement of hers.
“If they catch us here,” Mike whispered.
“They’ll what,” asked Tony. “Plan us to death?”
Mike couldn’t hold back a laugh but he tried to muffle it with an arm across his mouth. Tony chuckled and swatted at Mike’s shoulder. Mike swatted back and the two giggled.
Applause erupted from inside and the men pushed their eyes back against the cracks in the wall. Sophie took the center again and held her hand up to quell the noise.
“I think we can all agree that Meditation has gone too far this time,” she said. The room nodded to show she was correct “We need to show those savages that we won’t stand for it. We will raid their town and burn their meetinghouse.”
“Jesus,” Tony sighed.
“I thought girls were supposed to be nice,” Mike said. “You know…”
“May I have a vote please,” asked Sophie. “Those in favor?”
Hands shot into the air. There were too many to count but it was clear the motion had carried. Sophie’s face curled into a grin. Still, she made a show of it, ticking off each yea vote with her finger as she turned in a slow circle.
“Those against,” she asked.
It was just a formality. Tony made a bet with himself that not a one would rise. He lost as three quivering hands slowly rose into the air. Sophie saw them but her expression remained unchanged. The pleasure of the nearly unanimous vote was in no way denigrated by a few dissenters.
“Emma, Oliva, Ava,” Sophie said. “Thank you for sharing your voice with the group.”
The women nodded and pulled their hands back close as if something dire might happen if they remained high. Sophie swiveled on her heel and faced the rest, summing it up with a clap of her hands.
“Let us break into groups and discuss how best to go about our task,” she said. A happy murmur spread across the room and the women whispered to one neighbor and then the other.
Tony had had enough. He pulled himself up and kicked open the meetinghouse door. Storming into the center, he made a point of making eye contact with any who were brave enough. There were a few but they were angry and Tony could tell they weren’t ones to be persuaded. His chin dropped to his chest and he held his forehead in a hand. When he looked up, he locked eyes with Sophie.
“Are you nuts,” he said. “You’re going to burn down another community’s property because they killed one of our animals? You broke one of their arms. Don’t you think they’re just as upset with us?”
“Tony,” Michelle started. She was silenced by Sophie’s hand, again in the air.
“If Tony has something he’d like to say, let’s hear it,” Sophie said.
The confidence with which she spoke made Tony suspicious. His lips curled into a sneer, directed straight at her.
“What we have here,” he said. “Is a classic conflict that needs a resolution. A peaceful resolution. Let’s talk to Meditation. Let’s figure out a way to compromise. This is a whole damned planet. Surely, we have enough resources to go around. Enough land for us all. Let’s not risk everything we’ve built over something we can solve through conversation.”
Tony turned in a circle to address the woman but found a room full of blank faces. Some showed a bemused patience, waning. They sat in silence, watching, and Tony felt his pulse begin to quicken as he recognized the wall of indifference around him.
“If you attack, it’s not going to stop there,” he said. “They’ll hold a council, just like this one, and strike back. When will it stop?”
“Thank you, Tony,” Sophie said. “I think we understand your point.”
“Yes. And unless anyone wishes to expand on it, you may be excused.”
“Excused,” he said. “I’m not one of your brainwashed followers to be dismissed with a wave of your hand. You crazy… bitch.”
The collective gasp sucked the oxygen from the room like sudden decompression.
“Thank you, Tony,” Sophie said. The smile that had been tinged with annoyance for barging into her meeting widened with fresh confidence across her pale face. “You may be excused.”
Tony searched the room for sympathy, even understanding, but found none. His face was crimson with anger and frustration but he saw that he had defeated his own point. Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he let himself back out into the cold. Mike waited by the door, shocked, but silent respect glowing in his eyes.
Tony paced the eight steps from one side of his cabin to the other and back again. He repeated it over and over, the boards groaning against their nails under his feet. His brain boiled in thought. For hours this went on until the unmistakable sound of women streaming back to their homes leaked through the cracks in his walls.
He dropped onto the cot and rapped his calloused fingers against the wood bed frame. His foot tapped like a nervous jackrabbit until he heard the boards of the steps outside whine with weight. The front door creaked open with great reluctance on its wooden hinges and Michelle entered, exhausted.
Tony leapt back to his feet.
“Here’s what we can do,” he said. He resumed his pacing, cracking his knuckles as he lined up his thoughts, as Michelle pushed the door shut with a weary thump into its water swollen frame.
“Tony,” she mumbled.
“Here’s what we do,” he said. “We put together a delegation of our own. We approach Meditation ourselves and work out an agreement–”
“Tony,” she said again.
“No, listen,” he said. “We work out an agreement of our own and bring it back and Sophie and all the others will have to listen. And we can avoid this whole thing. See? This will work.”
“Tony,” Michelle said. “Just shut up, okay? Fucking shut up for once.”
Tony’s heart stopped. As did his lungs. His bladder seemed to be working just fine however and he felt the sudden need to urinate.
Michelle shook her head, dropped her sack, and sat on the edge of the cot. Her eyes refused to meet his but as they darted here and there, he saw something in them that was unfamiliar. It made his heart fall and he swallowed hard.
“You embarrassed me,” she said. “You embarrassed me and you embarrassed yourself.”
“I what,” Tony asked, certain she would say a number of things but not that. He glanced around, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Look, I’m sorry about calling her a bitch but I–”
“You’re sorry,” she asked. “After saying something like that, you’re sorry? Sophie was right about you.”
Tony snorted. “Oh, was she now? This should be good.”
“She said that you wouldn’t marry me because you couldn’t respect me,” Michelle said. “She said you wouldn’t respect the ways of our community.”
“Not respect you?”
“I was with you from Chicago to Davis,” he said. “I changed planets for you, for Christ’s sake. What more could I have done to show my respect for you?”
“You could have taken my name.”
The words felt like a visit from his common law mother in-law. Michelle wanted to know why he couldn’t make peace with her. Tony just wanted her gone. He knew there was no victory to be had.
“You never wanted to get married until we got here,” he said.
“I didn’t want to be married in a place where I’d be subjugated to you,” she replied.
“Subju-what,” Tony shrieked with disbelief. “It’s the fucking twenty-second century, Michelle. There was no subjugation involved. The only subjugation I’ve seen is the role Sophie has for men.”
“If you had any respect for me, you would have stepped aside.”
Tony said nothing. His face betrayed nothing. There was nothing to betray. He felt numb where just minutes ago his heart had been beating with such fury he was afraid for his chest.
“Well,” he said. “I guess that’s that.”
“I guess so.”
He nodded and glanced around the house he’d built. Shaking his head, he crouched and reached under the cot for his rucksack. From around the cabin, he collected shirts, socks, dirty trousers, tin cans, and a few pieces of dried meat, shoving them all inside. He found their old tent in its bag and slung it over a shoulder. Pulling open the door to his house–his house, the one he’d built–he glanced back at Michelle. She watched him go with no emotion.
Mike refilled Tony’s tin cup. Tony raised it in salute and sipped with thanks. Mike, Bob, and Tony leaned against a felled log, their tents pitched behind. Mike’s distillery boiled over a low flame on a camping stove to the side. From their perch on the hillside, they could see the towns of Tranquility and Meditation. What was left of them.
The towns were burning rings, dimmer in the center and more vivid on the circumference. Both meetinghouses were embers, having been the focal point for the attacks on both towns. Groups of women, looking like ants in the distance, hid behind burning houses shooting hunting rifles and handguns at their rivals in the chaos. Almost no one fell unless hit by accident or through friendly fire. It was what happened when academics went to war.
The men watched with little satisfaction as the only place they knew on the world was destroyed, in large part because of the actions of those they loved. They drank in silence in the drizzling rain and glanced at one another when another house fell, what little integrity it had consumed by flames.
The shooting continued for hours until the ammunition was exhausted. Those who survived the collapsing buildings and gunplay rushed at one another with flaming boards, knives, and farming implements to finish the job. Even from their safe distance and though their vision was degraded with severe intoxication, the men averted their eyes from the brutality.
When the fires consumed what was left and faded to nothing and with the local sun long retired over the horizon, the men filled their cups for the last time and stoked the flames of their campfire. They remained silent, only intermittent sighs punctuating hush as they glanced back at the remains of the two towns. Like a verbal tiptoe, Mike spoke the first words in hours.
“So,” he asked. “What the hell do we do now?”
“Back to Earth,” asked Bob. “I don’t know.”
“They can’t all be dead,” said Tony. “And I like it here.”
“You can’t be serious,” Mike said.
“I am,” said Tony. “We’ll pick up the pieces. And really start new this time.”