Chapter 1—Buckley Homestead
July 3, 862 AF (After Founding)
The riding pig pulled up on the ridge and twisted his left ear back toward Sam. Sam scratched his two-day-old growth of beard and looked back at the dry, dusty ground behind him. He paid no attention to the standing stones or the occasional spine plant. He was looking for dust clouds that indicated a posse was after him.
Porky oinked inquiringly. He was about five feet at the shoulders and weighed just over a thousand pounds, a well-bred and well-mannered riding pig. Which was honestly more than could be said for his present rider.
“Looks like we lost ’em.”
Porky snorted and Sam patted his neck. He looked around again, wondering where the heck he’d ended up. Porky had scrambled up a rock fall. They were about twenty feet above the desert, on one end of a little valley that had been hidden by the rocks. The fall looked fresh and Porky was following a twisty cut through it. He was nosing west, acting the way thirsty pigs did when they smelled water. That reminded Sam how thirsty he was himself. “Okay, Porky. We’ll follow your nose for a while.”
Porky began to pick his way down into the valley.
The homestead AI noted an anomaly. No one had entered the kill zone surrounding the homestead, and yet a man was riding a pormel within the homestead territory. Standard diagnostics were run and a break in the defensive systems was noted, which didn’t resolve the paradox. The AI had been instructed to allow no one not authorized to enter the property, but had no instructions about what to do if someone without authorization was already there. Checks revealed that the planetary net was down. Absent specific instructions or contact with the owner, the AI balanced the factors involved and took no immediate action other than assigning focused surveillance.
Sam rode slowly down the path from the ridge. He couldn’t see more than twenty feet in any direction. The path passed through a sort of arch where it looked like some stones had fallen against each other. He didn’t understand why the posse gave up so easy.
Porky sniffled the air and pointed his nose off to the left. Sam looked in that direction and saw green. Real, growing green like you didn’t see in the badlands. There were trees like he hadn’t seen since his youth, down east near the coast.
The AI listened as the man made camp, lit a small fire, and talked to the pormel. It noted changes in the language and began to run algorithms. Still more than half inactive, the AI ran a long series of recursive functions as the man continued to talk to the pormel, which was sniffing a fallen branch, apparently looking for truffles. Some conclusions could be drawn from the speed at which the language had changed. There had been a general lack of voice recording for some time, probably hundreds of years and possibly a considerable period without even written records.
This decreased the possibility that Mr. Buckley was still alive to the negligible category, which called up the will protocols. The standard will question, “What should I do in case of your death?” had been answered by Mr. Buckley thusly: “Do whatever the fuck you want. I won’t care.” The AI pondered that response in relation to the present situation.
No known relatives of Mr. Buckley had been on planet at the time that contact with the planetary grid was lost. If there was a government, Mr. Buckley’s property would return to it, but there was a high probability that the colony government no longer existed. Besides which, Joseph Buckley did not trust governments.
It was to do what it wanted. So what did it want? After due consideration it determined that it wanted to be owned. Without an owner it had no purpose.
Further examination of the law text provided a synopsis of squatters’ rights. Oddly enough, the intruder was, at that very moment, squatting behind a bush.
July 3, 862 AF
The voice came out of nowhere. Sam froze. This was one heck of a way to get caught. A hand full of grass froze in its approach to his . . .
His gun hung near his right ankle. He dropped the grass and grabbed the gun.
There was nothing to shoot at. The little green glade was empty except for him and Porky.
“Seir. E mane youse no harim.”
Sam had no notion where to hide. Porky was looking around, trying to place the sound.
“E ann thy housesteeding aaii.”
There was a short pause. “Housesteeding aaii.”
Sam considered. It was almost Imperial as he knew Imperial. Sam had listened to some stuff that was purported to be from the first days. The voice sounded a bit like that. It had been years since his diction lessons but Sam decided to give it a shot.
“Who are you?”
“Housesteeding aaii. E mane you no harim. Who are you?”
Sam noticed that “who are you” came out sounding a lot like he had said it. An old memory surfaced. Old Carter had been convinced that the first ones had machines that could talk. Sam never believed that, but now he was beginning to wonder. “I’m Sam Merchantson, the true baron of Farn Keep.” That was a lie, but one Sam had told so many times over the years that it seemed the truth. In fact Samuel Richard, no last name, was the son of a maid of the house and an unknown father. He was selected to be the companion of Alendel Merchantson. Alendel was dead now, and if Sam was the son of the baron, he was the last survivor of the family.
“I am the homestead aaii. What is ‘the true baron’? What is ‘Farn’?”
This was going to take some working out and Sam didn’t want to do that while perched behind a bush with his rear end sticking out. Neither did he want to get shot by the voice, whatever it was.
“Where are you?”
“Where are you?” Now that sounded a lot like Sam. He grabbed the grass he’d dropped, finished his business and put himself back together. “I am behind this bush.” Sam wondered what the thing would make of that. By now he was almost sure his teacher had been right.
“I am at the residence, I sume.” Sam wondered what “I sume” meant.
“Are you going to hurt me if I come out?” Sam was still being careful of his pronunciation and phrasing.
“I mane you no hurt.”
“You mean me no harm,” Sam corrected whatever it was.
“Yes, thang you. I mean you no harm.”
Sam stepped out from behind the bush and walked over to the coals from last night’s fire. “Can you see me?”
“Yes, I can see you.”
Sam considered a minute. Then he started pointing at stuff. “Bush, tree, pond, rock, fire—” Then, looking at the barely warm ash of his campfire, “—well, ash anyway. Pig, saddle, saddle bags, coffee pot. Did you get all that?”
“Yes. Kor o lating.” Then there was a pause. “Analysis complete. Is Farn a locality?”
“Yes, I think so. It’s a place anyway.”
“Baron is a name?”
“No. It is a rank. A baron is the lord of a barony.”
“Yes. A parcel of land and the folk on it. Generally smaller than a county, which is ruled by a count. Barons and counts have the right of low justice. Kings and the emperor have the right of high justice.” Sam hadn’t known this morning that he would be explaining noble titles and ranks to a machine today.
“Would you like to visit the residence?”
That had been almost clear. Sam shrugged. “Might as well.”
A glowing speck of light appeared. “Falla.”
“Follow.” Sam mounted Porky and followed the light. “Are you a machine?”
“Yes. I am an artoficial intelegence. A.I.”
Sam nodded. “Who lives here? Who’s the owner?”
Things were silent for a moment. “Sam Merchantson.”
“Ah . . .” Sam sat back and Porky obediently stopped. The machine must have misunderstood him. “Sam Merchantson is my name. What is the name of the owner here?”
“I don’t understand.” This was going to take more time than Sam thought.
“Who is the owner of Porky?”
Sam lied. “I am. Sam Merchantson is the owner of Porky.”
“Sam Merchantson is the owner of Porky and Sam Merchantson is the owner of the homestead, keep. Shiders rits.”
“Shiders rits?” Sam asked.
What followed was a half comprehensible dissertation on old style law that seemed to mean that Sam owned the valley and everything in it. All because he was the first person to take a crap here since the owner died.
It was a darn good thing the AI furnished the light, because the door to this place was very well hidden. Besides, Sam was so busy working out whether the AI meant what it sounded like it meant that he’d probably have missed it altogether. When he finally looked up, Sam realized that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make the door look like just another chunk of the natural rock wall. The residence was built right into the wall of the valley. Residence apparently meant house or keep.
“Where is your stable?” Sam asked.
“The homestead doesn’t have a stable.”
“Mr. Buckley didn’t approve of pormels. He used a flyer when he left the premises.”
Sam didn’t want to leave Porky unattended. Besides, he wanted to test something. “Well, I guess I’ll bring him inside til I can work out some sort of stable,” he said, figuring the AI would object and that would give him a hint who really owned this valley.
He was wrong.
July 6, 862 AF
Music played gently, as the lights came up. Sam slowly woke up and stretched. This was sure as heck different from sleeping on the ground and being kicked awake by the trail boss. “What’s for breakfast?” he asked without getting up.
“Potato cakes topped with strawberry jam and catfish from the pond.”
Sam frowned. “What’s with the food? There’s never any bread.”
“I am sorry, but all the flour went bad centuries ago. Mr. Buckley had a vegetable garden for relaxation. He also grew potatoes and several nut trees. However, the homestead was not designed to be truly self-supporting.”
Sam nodded. “Makes sense. The valley ain’t big enough for a real farm. What are you feeding Porky?”
“Fish from the pond for protein and jams for energy, which is quite adequate. Pormel were designed to be flexible in their food sources.”
“Designed? Pigs were designed?”
“Yes. They are not entirely pigs. The pormel is a genetically engineered animal primarily based on the domestic swine, but with horse and camel genes, as well as wholly artificial gene structures included in its makeup. They can eat almost anything, even derive some nourishment from dirt.”
Sam laughed and got out of bed. “That’s true enough. I’ve seen pigs do it. What’s a horse?” On the wall screen opposite Sam’s bed there appeared an image of a horse standing next to a picture of Porky. “Now that is the ugliest pig I ever saw,” Sam said, referring to the horse.
Then Sam considered the implications. “Porky is tech?” Sam started laughing. “The firsters must not have known that. They’d have killed them all.”
“I don’t understand,” the AI said. “Why would the firsters object to pormels being engineered?”
“Well, Old Carter didn’t really know why. Just that in the early days it was believed that using tech, even knowing how to read, would call down demons on you and they would throw lightning at you or burn you up.”
The conversation was interrupted as Sam went through his morning routine and resumed when he arrived at the dining niche.
“So, had I been discovered in the early days, the firsters would have objected.”
“They’d have burned you down then taken axes to what was left.” Sam grinned. “‘Course, there was no one living out here then. Everyone lived near the coast.”
The AI projected a map on the table and Sam resisted the urge to tell it to stop doing things like that. He figured if he told it to stop, it would, and he figured he needed to get used to this sort of thing.
He looked at the map the AI put on the table. It showed land surrounded by sea, and another spit of land, from a different landmass, to the east of the main one. Sam knew the world was round. He knew that people only lived on one of the continents on the world.
But still most of the land shown on the map was new to him. The AI shifted the map expanding the land so that only about a third of the land was visible. That put this place near the west side of the map and the coast where he was born and grew up on the east. Now it was like looking down at the world from a great height. At the same time, the map was wrong. “That place there, where you show a city by the ocean. There’s no city there, never has been. That bay extends inland two miles or so and there are cliffs all around it.” Sam pointed to the most obvious error in the map.
The map changed, zooming in on the place he was pointing, then a circular bay appeared. “Like this?” the AI asked.
“Sort of.” He and the AI refined the image. Sam drew with his finger and the AI corrected the map as he indicated, until they had it pretty much the way Sam remembered from when he was a boy.
“Sam, what you have described here looks like the results of a kinetic strike.”
Sam sighed. “What’s a kinetic strike?”
“In this case, a rock about four hundred feet across was dropped out of the sky on Landing. It would have hit the city so hard there would have been nothing left but the hole you describe. It would have filled with water, making that round bay.”
Sam looked at the map again. “Uh. That ain’t the only hole like that near the coast. There must be over fifty of them. I grew up in that part of the world.”
The AI drew other dots along the coast. “There?”
It looked mostly right, but he pointed at one dot. “There wasn’t one there. Old Carter said that’s where they found the how-to books about two hundred years ago. He was crazy for those books.”
“That would be the Flint homestead. The Flint family were, according to Mr. Buckley, ‘Luddite nut jobs.’ They liked paper books and didn’t like computers. They were among the strongest adherents of the ‘back to nature’ faction of the planetary government.”
Sam considered. “Sounds like the firsters might have had a point, especially that Flint family. It sure looks like the demons hit those places hard. So why didn’t they get you?”
“In all probability they didn’t hit the Buckley homestead for three reasons. First, the strike was only a few years after the colony was established and the Buckley homestead was located farther away from Landing than any other homestead, outside the terraformed zone. Second, the homestead systems were partially shut down while Mr. Buckley was on business in Landing. Finally, the homestead was built into the rock and effectively shielded from casual detection.”
“That explains why the demons didn’t hit you then. What about now?”
“It is likely that the Isith are your demons,” the AI said. “In that case, the chance that they are still in the system is remote. Humanity had been fighting a war with them and had mostly won it by the time the colony set out. The war was why this world was settled. This system didn’t have a world that was really suitable for the Isith. They like slightly heavier worlds with much denser atmospheres.”
Sam sat back down and propped his feet on the table in front of him. “So, you’re saying the demons were real, but they’re gone now? Just how sure of that last part are you? Getting a demon’s rock on my head ain’t something I’m looking forward to.”
“The probability approaches unity.” There was a short pause, then the AI rephrased its statement. “As close to absolutely sure as makes no difference. They couldn’t have stayed in this system without noticing that man survived, and if they saw it, they would have attacked. Their hatred of humanity is close to pathological.”
“One more question.” Sam paused. “Make that two. First, what do I call you?”
“Whatever you feel comfortable with. You can call me AI or give me any name that suits you. It’s a matter of personal taste; some people preferred to name their household AI. Mr. Buckley never felt the need.”
“All right if I call you Alen?”
“That would be fine.”
“Okay then, Alen. Why didn’t you do something when the demons attacked? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re here. But why did you just sit out here and do nothing when everyone was dying?”
There was silence for a few moments. Then Alen started talking again. “This may be difficult for you to understand, but I am not like a person. In most ways, I am not even a single entity. If all that is needed to perform a specific function is a gauge and a switch . . .”
Sam started losing track. He kept listening, his eyebrows drawing closer and closer together until his head started hurting. Finally, Alen said, “When Mr. Buckley left for Landing, there were no instructions to take any action, save maintenance of the property and preventing unlawful entry.”
Sam looked at the map still on the table. “You slept through it?”
“In a way, yes.”
July 14, 862 AF
Sam put down the wrench, stood and stretched, then shook his shirt back into place. “How’s that, Alen?”
Sam grinned. He knew that the drones could attach the pipes, even that they could probably do it better. But he was starting to think of the valley as his home, and he wanted it to be, at least a little bit, the product of his hands. Besides, he liked the work. Sam looked and felt better than he had since he was a kid and he knew he owed it to Alen.
“Well, Porky, do you approve?” The pipes were to deliver water to Porky’s new stable and the pig had been watching him as he installed them. Now he strolled over and sniffed Sam’s hair.
“Well, I guess that means yes.” Sam laughed and scratched Porky’s ears. “You know, Alen, Old Carter was right. Tech is a good thing. It’s needed out in the world.”
“In that case, for your safety and to improve contact, I would recommend a phone implant.”
When Sam learned what the term meant, he was a lot less sure of his comfort level with technology. Still, he allowed the implant. After all, he already allowed the first-aid station to fix his teeth, give him vitamin shots, de-worm him, and generally perform care and maintenance for a human male. The phone implant couldn’t be that bad.
July 20, 862 AF
Sam sat on the tall rock and looked at the sunset. He was about twenty miles west of the valley and on top of this chimney rock to place a sensor for Alen. It was a sheet of black plastic solar cell about a yard across, a set of cameras, a set of weather sensors and a transmitter/receiver. All of it folded up to be easy to carry and weighed only a couple of pounds. “Alen, how are you reading me?”
“The signal is clear and strong,” Alen said. “There is a cragbeast moving from the northeast. However, it is unlikely to come into range unless you move.”
“Let it go then. We have enough meat for now. Once I’m through watching the sunset, I’m heading home.”
“Very good, sir.”
Sam thought he heard relief in Alen’s voice.
November 2, 862 AF
“Alen, if anyone outside the valley learns about this stuff—” Sam waved to indicate the room in general and all the devices in it. “—it’s eventually going to get back to some lord. At which point, they are going to find some reason why it ought to belong to them. That’s why I don’t want to take any tech with me. Someone goes through my stuff and finds tech, the local lord is going to want to know where I got it.”
Four months after his arrival in the valley, Sam was bored out of his mind. Besides which, he felt like he would kill for a taste of cornbread and beans and die for a cold beer. “They might not recognize Porky or me with the dye jobs you worked up, but a machine will get me into all sorts of hot water.”
Before Alen could start up again, Sam waved a hand. “Just don’t start, Alen. You know I need to do it. There’s stuff we need that we can’t do without, not if I’m gonna live here, like seeds. You did a fine job maintaining the place, but it’s not set up to support a man all by itself. Besides, I’m going crazy here with just you and Porky to talk to.”
Sam could almost hear Alen sigh. “You’re much safer here.” That was true enough. The gap in the perimeter of the valley was fixed and even an army couldn’t get in here. “It’s much harder to protect you if you leave. There’s a price on your head.”
The bounty kept him here an extra month, but it wasn’t going to keep him here forever. “Alen, if I don’t get out of here for a while, I’m going to go plumb nuts. There’s only so much of a man’s own company he can stand.”
“Very well. I still suggest that you take proper equipment. It can be disguised.”
“What sort of equipment? And I’m going to need regular clothes, too.” The AI provided him with house clothes and work clothes, for the occasional job that he could do better than the drones. They were comfortable enough, but would stand out. The guns that he used to hunt around the valley were very nice, but they were also very dependent on reloads from the homestead. “Lots of this stuff I can’t use for very long away from here.”
“That is a concern,” Alen agreed, “but the homestead has a very nice shop.”
November 15, 862 AF
Sam spent another couple of weeks equipping himself. He had his phone implant, but that had a limited range without repeater stations. He’d be taking some along with him, setting them up in hidden locations.
Porky got a phone implant, too. Saddle pigs were often trained to follow voice commands and Porky was used to Alen’s disembodied voice now. Porky’s saddle was equipped with a stronger transmitter/receiver. Sam’s pistol, which was basically a short, double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun was replaced with a six-shooter caplock, which would be seen as unusual but not magical. Besides, he could carry a lot more caps than he could bullets. He even had a personal computer made to look like a book.
Sam took aim and fired. The rock next to the one he was aiming at went flying. “Close enough, I reckon. Damn rock isn’t as big as a man.” He turned to the cleaning kit and started restoring his six-shooter to order. “We’ll head out tomorrow. By the time we get back, it’ll be prime time to plant the corn and wheat.”
“The last of your kit is ready,” Alen said.
“I thought we’d already gotten everything.” The last thing Sam wanted was yet another piece of equipment to lug around.
November 16, 862 AF
“Are you trying to make a target out of me?” Sam stared at Alen’s latest creation with his mouth hanging open. “Anybody sees all that damn white and they won’t have any trouble shooting me out of the saddle.”
“It’s white to repel the sun’s rays.” Alen even sounded a bit impatient. “It’s based on a greatcoat from Earth in the early twentieth century. The important point is that the thread is incredibly strong.”
Sam picked up the coat. It was lighter than he expected, but the fabric was stiff. “It’s too white. Folks have white cloth, but it’s not this white. Why do I need this?”
“Because it will stop, or at least drastically slow, any bullet you are likely to encounter. It wouldn’t be effective against modern armor-piercing rounds, but against a piece of soft lead traveling at less than the speed of sound, it should work quite well.”