It was late afternoon when they arrived at Bleiden's dwelling, the fragrant aroma of herbs and spices drifting through the windows made their stomachs growl. The door was open, they peered in, but, because it was dimly lit, could see nothing at first. He was sitting alone at a wooden table partially covered with bowls and jars, contents unknown, eating. They filled the doorway, blocking the sunlight; he looked up. He squinted against the glare for a moment or two, then smiled and waved them in. Nalina and Ramajadi sat on either side of him. Before they could speak, he got up to get them a plate of fish and rice and a mug of his special wine. Utensils were stuffed in a large jar on the table, they helped themselves.
Famished, the two ate in silence. Bleiden hadn't seen them for three months and was intensely curious. They had stories to tell and he longed to hear them. However, leaning back in his chair sipping wine, he let them be, for now. They'd been on an expedition into the interior, collecting data; drawing pictures of animals, wildflowers, and landscapes; sampling water chemistry; cataloguing different trees and fruits; researching. In spite of its scope, the survey was low profile; they didn't want to attract too much attention from the locals.
Their bundles lay by the doorway. Bleiden went to them and, after closing the door, carried them to a back room, drawing the curtain between rooms to block prying eyes from the street. The air was warm and it was still light out, so it would look suspicious if he closed the two large windows facing it. He dumped the contents of their bundles on a table. Mixed in with their clothing were paper notebooks, memory sticks, and two-inch callasium cubes with a device for reading and recording. He chose a cube labeled Sector 19-B and placed it in the socket at the center of the mechanism. At once, the back room vanished and in its place, surrounding him in all directions, appeared a broad vista of tall, brownish-gold grasses with a few skinny trees dotting the landscape; he could almost smell it. He tried another labeled Steppes. The room transformed to a view of graduated, grass-covered plateaus that changed with elevation to ones with trees and on to high, snow-capped mountains. He thumbed through a notebook. There were detailed drawings of maps and streams, trees and bushes. Fruit that had never been seen before as well as a variety of birds, animals, and insects.
Nalina and Ramajadi finished their meal and, goblets of wine in hand, joined him. Well into dusk, they spoke excitedly of their exploits and discoveries, incidents with tribal peoples, and the occasional near miss with the savanna predators. They climbed as high as they could and camped out for days at a time recording scenes and sketching the unusual. They left their camping gear and heavy outer garmets at a nearby village and took what food they thought would last the journey here. It didn't, a slight miscalculation.
Bleiden, the leader of the survey, was very pleased, not only with their work but also with their company and stories. When darkness came, Bleiden covered the windows and locked the door. They drank into the night, Bleiden recounting what he'd learned and experienced over their absence; he, too, had stories to tell. Finally, as though a plug had been pulled, the long hike in the hot sun caught up to the travelers, the wine and full bellies helped. Surrendering to exhaustion, they dragged themselves off to their familiar cots in a room adjoining. Bleiden drew the thick curtain across the opening for privacy and quiet; they were asleep as soon as their head hit the pillow.
He sat out the night examining the rest of the cubes, listening to the files on the sticks, and skimming the notebooks, then wrote his summary report, adding his own observations concerning community life. After putting the cubes in a soft pouch, he placed it, the memory sticks, the notebooks, and his assessment into a radiation-proof metal box which he secured with a magnetic identity lock. When decoded, it would show planet and area of survey. The era of the planet's development was already known and served as context--a prescribed given; the period of civilization could be inferred; although, that too had been an integral part of the study's design.
Although exhausted himself, he had one more task before bed. He carried the metal box to the rear wall. Shelves, lining it from ceiling to floor, were crowded with hand-tools interspersed with jars and bowls containing an assortment of building paraphernalia. Near the rear wall, covered by a blanket, was a narrow doorway that led to one of the rooms he added when he first moved in, used mainly for the storage and curing of materials and as a workshop. He slid the blanket aside.
To the right of the doorway, about chest high, a barely perceivable two-inch square was recessed into the hard mud. He pressed it, the interior of the room and its contents lost all sense of depth, appearing to be surface only, then abruptly retracted to a tiny black dot at its center and was gone, to be replaced by a completely different setting. He crossed the threshold into a spherical chamber lined with a seamless silvery-gray sheathing of callasium. In the middle stood a raised platform and on it a podium mounted by buttons and screens displaying multicolored geometric objects. He placed the box on a small glass table behind the control panel. The screens conveyed his daily correspondence, he read them first.
They consisted of appraisals on his work so far, summary updates from other similar expeditions, and suggestions as to future projects. He dreaded the prospect of moving to another part of the planet, he would have to start all over again, but so far, he'd been given no such instructions. Because other teams were spread around the globe at various locales having different features and challenges, he didn't think it was necessary, and apparently, neither did headquarters. Their studies would be analyzed, synthesized, and catalogued; HQ, if anything, was thorough. They'd construct a global picture from the many local accounts, paying attention to the anomalous and strategically advantageous. What had been unknown and unfamiliar would resolve into perceivable patterns; at least, as far as second-hand knowledge went.
After first sealing the doorway with a layer of the exotic mineral, he sent a message indicating a package was on its way, then pressed a few buttons and pulled a lever. The metal box wavered in and out of materiality briefly, then vanished altogether. He shut down the controls and, after reconstituting the storage room, gratefully retired to his bunk.
Lying there, he reflected on their year-long project with pleasure; the work they were doing was deeply rewarding and certainly valuable. And even though it was a long time to be away from home, their success would assure that on their return, he would be given his choice of available assignments. Nalina and Ramajadi had proven to be exceptional field workers. As well as being abundantly competent in all aspects of the job--from technical to artistic--they had a keen instinct for differentiating what was important and relevant from what were merely insignificant details. He would take them with him wherever he went.
The warm night air filtered passed the loose window coverings. He loved this period and place; the people were simple and easy to get along with. A wave of sadness and nostalgia at the thought of his eventual departure deepened his tiredness. He'd miss the planet they called Earth, with its seasons and wondrous creatures and diverse topography. He would be sent to other planets and would probably never see it again.
He'd made many friends, an unavoidable and irrepressible downside. How to deal with that contingency went unmentioned in the operations manual. Although not as unsettling as it might be in ordinary circumstances, it was difficult not to shed a tear knowing that when his people moved in, they, along with the rest of the indigenous population, would have to be eliminated. That was the problematic part of this job, he thought: you formed bonds--relationships--that you knew from the beginning would be short-lived. One learned to compartmentalize such feelings, however, for the good of the mission. Pity, he supposed, but that's the way it is and has to be.
Fortunately, he had nothing to do with the invasion proper, his role was advance reconnaissance only, no blood ever soiled his hands.
He heard singing off in the distance and, recognizing the drunken voice, laughed. He knew all his neighbors by voice and gait, and their laughs were quite distinct. He recalled the day he first moved into town and this house. Its resident and builder had passed away, it sat empty for a long season. Ownership fell to the man's sister and her husband. Bleiden tracked them down and purchased it. In need of much repair, no one was surprised when he added a couple of rooms. A workman needs space. A first-class builder--a necessary feature of his skill set--he learned to use available materials in the local tradition, like rock walls covered by mud mixed with straw and rough-hewn planks for door and window jambs.
Word got around and he found work, enough to live on. He became part of the community, a fishing town with a snug, natural harbor, the great blue-green sea lying beyond. This was the busy time of year, boats and visitors coming and going. Nalina and Ramajdi would not stand out as they had on other occasions. People talk, make up excuses to stop over, walk by slowly, wondering. He was a builder, nothing more; that was his cover and all they needed to know. Posing as family members, his young team arrived shortly after he'd settled in.
Over the year, he attended festivals and weddings and commemorated historical and religious events. They were open to strangers who took up residence and had skills to offer, were hard-working and responsible. He was all of that. His narrative and exposition of community life were the gist of his reports. Observations, he called them. His approach was purely academic, details were expressed in terms of relationship. He, too, was thorough. An understanding of how humans behaved, what they valued, what their likely responses might be to any specific set of circumstances was perhaps, as far as he was concerned, more valuable than knowing the various terrains and their ecologies. Besides acquiring information concerning their military and technological capabilities and limitations, HQ focused on an appreciation for the overlapping relationships--what happens at the boundaries--between different ecological systems, as well as how they scale, their hierarchical arrangement. They found that such complex organization is generally mirrored in the sentient inhabitants.
What he discovered, however, was that humans appear to have their own, self-centered agendas that oftentimes run counter to the natural order. In novel situations of extreme duress, for example, any given human might find himself acting in ways beyond what prior knowledge of that person would indicate, as though another self had taken over. Additionally, their tenacity and perseverance in the face of overwheliming odds seem strangely perverse. Dangerous pursuits are seen as challenges to be overcome.
Perplexing and inexplicable, such behavior demanded inquiry. For it to be overlooked or trivialized could be a fatal mistake. That is to say, the human propensity for doing the unexpected, to act in a manner and with a purpose for which his people have not prepared, if treated as improbable, could have dire consequences. The unpredictable was part of human nature. His job, along with his counterparts stationed at strategic points around the planet, was to reduce that possibility to close to zero. He believed his information, insights, and interpretations were extremely helpful in that regard.
He blew out the candle on the side table. Breathing deeply the sweet night air, listening to the raucous voices off in the distance, he felt satisfied with the work they'd done thusfar. As he drifted off to sleep, he dreamed of home and family and of the joyous welcome on his return.