30 A Last Look

John spent the next morning making calls, then went into town in the afternoon to see a lawyer. Zeke spent most of the day watching TV. The news made him feel out of place. He saw so much strife, so much bad news: Congress couldn't agree what to do about the immigration "problem"; the economy was improving, but many still couldn't find jobs. Fighting on every continent. He wondered if the world here had changed so much in a few months, or if he had.

He went in to play a few games on his computer, but somehow it just wasn't the same, so he unfolded the console the general had given him. He sent a message reporting the events of the last few days to the Alliance Council, the name the group had adopted. Watching the news had brought a perspective that the months on Anyar had changed. He knew they had problems, even there, but everything seemed to have a purpose and be part of a bigger plan. Earth, now, seemed like a chaotic mess.

His grandmother's sewing machine was in her corner of the basement, untouched, material still laying on a table beside it. He could still imagine her sitting there. The loss swept over him again. He'd been able to push it from his mind for a while, but it continued to creep back.

Grandpa John was back by mid-afternoon. He'd told the lawyer and the Millers that he was going on a long trip to Europe to visit some relatives. It had come up suddenly and he wasn't yet sure how soon he'd be back.

He only had a few cattle left on their small farm. Enough so he could keep the property taxes at the agricultural rate. The Millers would take the cattle to the auction; prices weren't great right now, but they'd been worse. They would rent the pasture for part of their own herd. Grandpa had made them a good deal, with the agreement they'd look after the place. His accountant would be able to write and deposit checks. He'd checked with Zeke to be sure that he would continue to have email, even though they might be delayed by a day.

In the dark winter evening, John suggested they drive to Topeka to eat. That should be far enough away that no one would recognize Zeke, and he eagerly agreed. For all the experiences he'd had these last months, this was still home.

They stopped at a simple steak buffet place on Wanamaker; it had the food and the kind of people they liked. Fried catfish, mashed potatoes, and a mixture of hard-working farmers and a few who didn't appear quite so hardworking.

Everything was familiar, but it was strangely different: the sound of the cars driving by on the street, the clink of glasses, even the whoosh of the soda machine filling his glass with Dr. Pepper.

"How is it to be out again?" his grandfather asked.

"Comfortable, familiar, and yet strange at the same time."

"After yesterday's events, I have a glimmer of what you mean. Kind of like returning from a trip on a jet?"

"Yeah, flying at thirty thousand feet, and a few hours later home, with my bed unmade, the way I left it," he answered and laughed.

Grandpa John smiled, too. "There are worse things than an unmade bed. Yes, I know I got on you about it, but not too much I hope."

"Oh, just about right, I think."

They were quiet for a moment, then Zeke's mood changed.

"Grandpa, I am glad to be here with you. Glad that we will be together. I know I was too embarrassed before to tell you how much I loved you... and Grandma. And I am sorry, really sorry."

Zeke's eyes became moist and John could feel the pain across the table.

"When you get this old, you realize that things happen. You make the best decisions you can; not all of them are good, not all of them turn out as you expect. If I'm any smarter than I used to be, it's because I've realized that spending too much time looking at the past will make you unhappy. Not that I want to forget your Grandma, but the pain you feel will get less. Maybe it will change someday to be more fond memories than pain. I sure hope so," he said, a little of his own pain in his voice.

They had time so they went out to a movie after. It was a space opera based on a book Zeke had read. The book had been good; the movie was, unfortunately, more special effects than story.

As they walked out, Zeke commented, "We seem to spend more time on making really good illusions than changing the real world."

"I'm glad someone besides me noticed. The advancement of science and technology seldom proceeds in a predictable way. A lot of the great things that have been discovered or invented came by accident, or because someone was doing research in some obscure area. Still, I have to wonder if better CGI will ever lead to something revolutionary."

They drove home on the lonely, snowy roads, and talked about the weather, and how it had been a cold winter, colder than even John could remember. The cold had stayed on, as it sometimes did in February. It was late when they got home, nearly midnight, and after talking about the things they'd do tomorrow to prepare the house, they went directly to bed.

From his visit to the accountant, it didn't appear it would take as long to prepare to leave as he'd thought, so they would have even more free time before a shuttle came to pick them up.

"We have most of two weeks," John suggested. "It isn't the best time of year to travel, and I don't think we should fly, but maybe it is time to take the road trip we never seemed to have time for before."

"I don't have my license anymore, you'd have to drive."

"We won't be around here, and we won't be in any hurry. I'm normally a stickler for following the letter of the law, but things are going to change soon. I think it is time to relax a little. All things considered, you sharing the driving is the least of my concerns. Don't you think?"

Zeke smiled, "Maybe I get the stickler mentality from you. Where can we go in two weeks? I guess we don't really even have to return, Ran can bring the shuttle to pick us up in any remote area."

"Maybe, though I'm not sure we'll know the remote areas, it depends on where we go."

"Not north. Not through the Rockies. Maybe south to the Grand Canyon? Or east? Maybe just take off and see what we see? Not have a definite destination?"

Nodding his head, his grandfather replied, "I like it. I think it's time for a new perspective, no deadlines. For once, we'll just take things a day at a time."

So they cleaned out the refrigerator. A beef quarter was still in the large chest freezer, so John arranged for the Millers to take that if he wasn't back in a few months. That was the last arrangement he needed to make.

John was beginning to use the portion of the Net that was available through the probe. His messages were translated into English. In addition, he was starting to learn Anyari. Without the help of the devices Zeke had on the Redun, it would be slower, at least until they were on the shuttle heading back, but he'd have a lot of time to get a head start during their road trip.

A message arrived that the R'kind was preparing to leave to pick them up, but wouldn't arrive in system for almost two weeks.

The next day they loaded the Dodge Caravan. The temperature rose above freezing for the first time in weeks. They'd arrived on Tuesday and this was a bright Saturday morning.

"East or west?" his grandfather asked.

"It's a long drive before we'd see much if we headed southwest. We could drive through the Rockies, but I'm not sure about the weather. We'd see lots of small towns like Council Grove if we went east, I think."

"If we're not going to be back for a while, I think seeing the back roads of America is what I'd like, too. East it is," John agreed.

For a while they were on roads they knew, over on US 56 and then down to Ottawa on US 59. A state highway took them to Harrisonville, where they stopped for gas and an early lunch in a little diner.

They headed south to Joplin, then east, often off the main highways. They saw Mennonites and Amish, sometimes riding in their horse-drawn black buggies in increasingly warm, almost spring-like weather.

They passed through Missouri, Sikeston wasn't that far from Paducah and Zeke had never realized the Missouri shared a border with Kentucky. They spent the night in Paducah, just because they liked the name. After that they returned to the interstates to make better time, stopping occasionally. The weather was warm in Kentucky so they shifted northward, heading towards Lexington.

They found a small aviation museum, so they spent a few hours walking around and looking at the planes and exhibits. John had packed his camera and they recorded most of what they saw.

A full day of driving took them to Newport News. The accents changed as they went east. Thanks to Wikipedia they could put a name to the Tidewater accent of the coastal area.

They saw ships under construction along the docks, and traveled under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, up to Annapolis and back west into Washington DC where they stopped for the night late on Monday.

The weather stayed warm and people were out on the Mall. John had been to DC years ago and led Zeke onto the Metro. They spent the day in the Air and Space Museum. Zeke whispered occasionally to his grandfather about the things that he would soon see, but that did not diminish the awe at seeing moon rocks and the air and space craft that filled the huge building.

They stood at the exhibit that held the moon rock. Touching it now held a special meaning for them both--something beyond what it did for everyone else.

"I guess we never really touched the moon, did we?" John told his grandson with a smile. They stayed the day, and then a second.

On the third day it turned cold and they bundled up as they left to tour Arlington. The soldiers seemed unaffected by the cold north wind as they paced the track in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The cold day kept most tourists away. The grounds were almost deserted, but they walked for hours, John telling stories of people and events.

Robert E. Lee's house, on the hill behind the Kennedy graves, looked out on all of Washington. Even exposed to the cold, they stood and looked eastward at the capital city. Zeke took pictures, but he knew the photos would not record all the important parts of the experience. Finally, the cold was too much for John, and they headed to the Metro station and back to the hotel.

They left the next morning. They briefly considered going to Florida. John had history there, and stories to tell, but they were starting to think of other new sights they might see, and so they headed back north, to Gettysburg. The weather was still cold, but they drove around the battlefield, stopping at landmarks, finally pulling up to the National Cemetery where Lincoln had given his famous speech.

"It's funny how famous places are just like any other places, but different," Zeke observed.

"Yes," his grandfather said with a smile, "if you didn't know what had happened here, and how much it is a part of history, it would just be another old cemetery."

They spent an hour, clad warmly in the cold afternoon, taking pictures and making their own guesses as to where the speaker's platform had been located. The sun was low in the sky as they headed west on I-76.

They continued back west, stopping at different towns, meeting different people in the diners, rest stops, and the occasional landmark.

It was on a Wednesday evening that they drove up the road to the farm. The snow had melted and the roads were still muddy. They slept late the next day, then cleaned up the last few things in the house and, finally, turned down the heat.

As darkness fell, they walked west across the pasture. They crossed the road to the grove were Ran was bringing the Harrier, reaching it in time to see the dark outline of the little shuttle as it descended once more to its hiding spot.

Even though expected, it was slightly eerie as the door opened to show the empty interior. Zeke was able to pack a few things this time. He was surprised to realize that he found few things he felt the need to take. John, too, had brought a few mementos, a few treasured books, and his laptop. He knew it would be antiquated, but it had much of the information that was important to him and was how he'd kept his journal for many years.

As they left the atmosphere, John asked Ran if she would show the receding Earth on his viewscreen. In spite of his eagerness for the adventure that lay before him, he watched it with a trace of regret.

"How sure are you that we'll be back?" he asked.

"Very sure, as sure as I can be. Surprising as it may be, even to me, I know the people who drive the decision. I assume it needs to be approved by the Grand Council, and I would assume by the full Assembly," Zeke answered.

"You are correct, I can provide a written explanation about the Assembly for you to read, sir. You can request information during our transit to the shuttle. What I don't have locally will be available once we reach the shuttle. I can configure the keyboard to what you're accustomed to, or you can just speak."

"I have grown accustomed to using a keyboard, so please do that, Ran," John requested.

The keyboard changed as he watched. The keys seemed to be rubbery and molded as a single panel, but after a little while he grew accustomed to it. He conversed with Ran through a text interface that became easier to use as Ran adapted to his preferences and he adapted to this alternate interface.

The Harrier's acceleration increased as they got farther from Earth. John was becoming familiar enough with the interface to show their flight parameters in a corner of his viewscreen. They were headed to an arbitrary point in space. Almost as far out as Mars, but ninety degrees ahead of the planet in its orbit.

In an hour, Ran reported receiving a message from the R'kind; it had jumped into the system and sent information to Ran to set a rendezvous point. Ran reported that they were two hours away.

The time passed quickly. Soon they were pulling into the aft bay of the shuttle. When the hatch opened, to Zeke's surprise, he found Dev, Sephen, and Danil waiting on the other side.

It had been months since he'd seen them, and he laughed and clasped each in turn. Quickly, though, he apologized and turned back to his grandfather to introduce him.

"Grandpa, this is Danil, the guy whom I, uhmm, rescued back on Earth. Dev and Sephen were in my training flight at the Academy. So much has happened that I haven't had a chance to tell much of that part of the story."

Danil stepped forward respectfully, his hand extended. In accented, but clear English he said, "Sir, I am pleased and honored to meet you. What Zeke says is correct, rescue is not an exaggeration. His actions have played an important, no, a critical role, in Anyar's defense. He is, also, as you would say on Earth, my best friend."

John shook his hand, "You are the son of the... king?"

"I am, sir, although that does not mean the same as it does on most monarchies on Earth."

"I understand," John replied and added with a smile, "as we say on Earth, any friend of Zeke's is a friend of mine."

Dev and Sephen stepped forward and exchanged handshakes and greetings, also in English.

"Can I ask now why you're here? Not that I am not happy to see you, but I'd have thought you had more important things to do," Zeke lapsed momentarily back to Anyari.

Dev answered, returning to English, "The deployment of the probes has been taken over by MI's on shuttles without crews. The Redun is undergoing a few modifications and the Remarran is nearing completion. We were offered the choice of coming to meet you or taking leave. Everyone else in the flight is on leave. When they return, they'll be informed of the plan and participate in the preparations for contacting Earth. Although in reality, the plan will be announced before we return and submitted to the Council and Assembly."

"That is how you came to be here, but why?"

Dev continued, "Our time with you gave us as much practical knowledge of Earth and its customs as anyone, except for Jonephs, and although he volunteered, another long trip in a shuttle seemed unreasonable. He has much to do from his last trip. Also, it gives us a chance to learn more about Earth and improve our English. To be back with you again, and get a head start on preparing for this mission is a win-win."

"Tael is here, too," Danil said to Zeke, and then to John, "to ask questions, and brief you. Elitte was recently recruited and has been studying English intensively. She is here to help your grandfather as he starts to learn Anyari, and to answer questions about Anyar, although that is a role we will all play. We will speak mostly English, sir, if you don't object. We think that it is more important for us to speak fluent English as soon as possible, than it is for you to speak Anyari. As Zeke has probably told you, we have equipment that will help you to gain a reasonable proficiency in Anyari relatively quickly."

"I understand," John replied. "Logical explanations appeal to me and your plan seems a good one."

In the excitement, they had remained in the lock hatch of the aft bay talking for quite a while. They went forward to meet Tael and Elitte.

"Who else is aboard?" Zeke asked. "Just the flight crew?"

"Nobody else, we're the flight crew! We have as much deep space experience as anyone, after all. If you're nice, we'll let you fly the shuttle once in a while, too!" Danil joked.

"You guys in charge?" Zeke feigned shock and fear. "Can we go back?"

John smiled to see his grandson's mood lighten. He could see the closeness and camaraderie that he shared with these young men, something he'd not seen before with his friends in Council Grove.

Everyone but he and Zeke were dressed in uniforms similar to what he'd seen on the R'tlin. Tael and Elitte, sitting at consoles, rose as he was brought forward for introductions. They were both slender and shorter than the other members of the crew. They were similar enough in facial features to be related, although John later learned that they were not. All the Anyari on board shared an almost identical complexion--slightly darker than his and Zeke's.

Tael was more businesslike, but not unfriendly. Elitte was warm and personable. She showed him to a small cabin that he would have to himself. The others, he found out, would share bunks. He protested, but she told him that he was a guest, and it would cause no inconvenience. Higher ranking officers would not share a bunk either, except in cases where it was unavoidable. He had the biggest job ahead of him, she told him, not that she wanted to overwhelm him.

Zeke came back in a few moments and told him that they would soon start accelerating to a point where they could jump out of the system without being detected. That would require them strapping into seats for a while, as they'd be experiencing extra gravity due to the acceleration. He also mentioned that one more treat was in store. They would pass near Jupiter on the way out. It would be barely visible as a disk through the cockpit viewport, but would be spectacular in the viewscreens.

John was shown the facilities and instructed briefly on how to strap into his acceleration couch. They were accelerating now at several gravities, much of that reduced by the on-board compensators. Moving around once they'd increased their acceleration, though, would be difficult. They'd be in their seats for an hour or so before they took a break when they got near Jupiter, then accelerate again for another half hour after.

Knowing what a new and exciting experience this was for him, he was given a seat up front in the control cabin, it was really too large to be called a cockpit. Sephen was in the pilot's seat, as this was his watch. Danil sat on the right. John sat between Zeke and Elitte in the three seats behind.

He strapped in, and Sephen pushed forward on a familiar looking slide control. He could see the velocity and acceleration, both on their screens and his own. His was converted to Metric and English units for his convenience. He was pressed back in his seat, and though he understood that the actual force was reduced, it was enough to give him a sensation of speed. When the force stopped increasing, he realized he was glad they had limited it to two gravities. It was all he'd want to experience for any length of time.

It would be almost an hour before they took a break. Elitte explained how to use the console, expanding on what he'd already learned. Controls in the arm of his seat allowed him to manipulate the display with a minimum of movement.

He asked how she came to be assigned to this mission.

"Studying language is somewhat uncommon since Anyari was standardized so long ago, but a few of us find it interesting, and I was probably assigned to this mission because of that experience and, I like to think, aptitude," she answered with a pleasant smile.

Though he had the coming week of their trip to fill, he was eager to start learning, and an outline of subjects that he could choose from was displayed on his console: history, culture, language, government, economics, and many more. But, before that, he could see that he had messages from Jonephs, General Yalt, and one from someone named Rolenil. He asked about the latter.

Elitte smiled, "He is the king, that is the nearest English word for his title. Danil, though, can tell you more."

Danil spoke without turning around. "The trip out gave us all time to read a lot about Earth. Our system of government is quite a bit different, though in the past it was, perhaps, not so very different as some of those on Earth."

"There are," Zeke added, "a system of checks and balances that are simple, clear, and sometimes severe. It is simple to remove the king, but several people must want it very much. The king is given a great deal of respect, and, therefore, has a great deal of influence. He is, and I hope someone will correct me if I misunderstand, a great unifying and persuasive force, and limiting that power is hard for Anyari to imagine. At the same time, the more subtle the king can be in his leadership, the more he is admired, and the more influential his views and suggestions are."

"I think he understands it well," Elitte confirmed.

"His?" John asked. "The king...err... rather the monarch is always male?"

Elitte answered, "Has always been, and I think Zeke will tell you we are a pretty pragmatic people. Sexes are different, but equal. Anyone can aspire to anything. Maybe having a male king is a tradition we find difficult to break. The method we use for choosing kings might seem strange to you. Wanting to be king is a sure way to be eliminated from consideration."

"So it seems that you have little cause for conflict," John noted. "Everyone always agrees?"

"My father wouldn't say that everyone agrees, but from what I've read of Earth, I guess it is relative. Compared to Earth, and to us centuries ago, the issues that cause different opinions and beliefs are usually relatively minor, though to us it didn't really seem so until we had Earth for comparison."

"Compared to Earth, " Zeke said, "everything does seem calm, but it wasn't that long ago that wasn't so true."

John had a lot to read, and not unlike the web browsing he was used to, he could expand on the areas of interest as he read about Anyari history, culture, and customs. The time until they approached Jupiter passed slowly. It was like being in a plane for the first time, slightly surreal.

Even at the speed they were traveling, almost a million kilometers per hour, Jupiter remained a tiny dot for most of the trip. In the viewscreens, John could see the equatorial bands and the Galilean moons. At just about the time that it became possible to see the planet as something more than a point of light, Sephen eased back on the throttles and the heaviness on his head and arms disappeared.

"I supposed this is all commonplace to you," he commented as Sephen zoomed the view on the main viewscreen to magnify the Great Red Spot, which was just coming into view on the western edge of the disk.

"Not as much as you would think. Although we've had space travel for most of two hundred years. For the last hundred years, though, it has been pretty rare. Dev and I had never been in space until a few months ago. Danil and Zeke have had more time in deep space than anyone else. Our own military craft seldom went beyond low orbit and never out of the Anyari system, at least not for almost a hundred years."

"Hmm. I would not have expected that."

"It seems odd now, but until recently, no one ever questioned it. Is that how people on Earth behave, too?"

"I would have to say yes," John answered. "We rationalize our behavior to fit what makes us comfortable."

The disk grew steadily until they passed close enough to see the larger moons directly. In the viewscreen, they could see the faint rings and many more of the moons. Soon after, it was time to resume their acceleration. After another half hour in their padded seats, Sephen backed off the acceleration again.

"Time for our first jump," he announced. John felt a slight sense of disorientation as the star field in front of them changed slightly.

"No more acceleration, so we won't need to be in the couches for the rest of the trip, except for when we jump," Danil explained.

They went back to a small galley, where they all shared a meal. A number of items were available. Zeke suggested a few that were similar to American Earth cuisine. Anyari food had a tendency to liberally use spices.

Danil, Dev, and Sephen studied material on Earth. Zeke and John spent much of their time talking with Elitte and Tael.

When he wasn't explaining Earth to the others, he reviewed the latest proposals for contacting Earth. A wide variety of actions had been considered, from trying to enlist the aid of individuals to unifying the planet and allying with it as an equal.

Based upon General Yalt's conversations with Zeke's grandfather, displaying the Anyari military capabilities was now under serious consideration. Furthermore, the conditions under which force might be used were being considered. Zeke watched videos from the meetings that had been held in his absence. In addition, he had the notes that each participant kept. It was clear that they all feared the appearance of the Anyari might cause widespread violence and that the king would need to act.

They soon fell into a routine: after each jump they spent two days charging the jump engines for the next jump. They spoke English for most of the day, except at the evening meal, so John had some chances to speak Anyari. By the time they'd made it halfway back, his grandfather was able to speak Anyari almost exclusively when necessary.

Zeke took a moment to ask Dev about how being the flight leader was going.

"It was a good time to be promoted," he answered. "We already had a routine, and not a lot happening. Sephen and Helf made it pretty easy. I guess if something major had happened and I'd have needed to act quickly, I think I could have handled it."

"Never had any doubt," Zeke replied.

Danil and Sephen came over to sit by him. Dev brought up another difficult subject, "How are you? We've heard about your grandmother. We are all sorry. I wish there were something we could do."

Danil nodded and remained silent. Their faces were somber.

"Ahh," Zeke said. "Sometimes it doesn't seem real and sometimes it's hard to get out of my mind. This is the first time I've lost someone close. My mother died when I was little so I don't remember much about her."

"Your loss is our loss," Danil stated. "We are brothers. None of us have brothers... or had until now. We can't take away your grief, but we will be with you, now and forever."

He said it in such a simple, matter-of-fact way that it was not a trite, immature promise. It was an acknowledgment of what they already knew.

They resumed their studies, In spite of all the material to read and watch, it was a cramped space to spend weeks. For the others it had been twice as long. On the night before the last jump, they held a party.

Some Anyari delicacies were in the ship's stores, and John became acquainted with them. He'd gradually tried a wider variety of the Anyari food. There was plenty of food not much different than what he was accustomed to. A variety of beverages, some mildly alcoholic, contributed to a festive atmosphere.

The party over, John went to his small cabin. He looked forward to the next day with excitement and apprehension. Zeke was clearly comfortable now, and John could see that he had grown mature and confident. Anna's death had not been mentioned again. With all the changes they'd both been through, it was hard to read him and understand how it was affecting him.

He closed his eyes, imagining what this new world would be like. Except for these moments alone, the last few weeks had been almost dreamlike--too fantastic to be believed. Here in his cabin alone with his thoughts, the reality of where he was and where he was headed dominated his thoughts.

Tomorrow would be an interesting day.